Monday, October 18, 2010

Happy (Birthday) in Hampi

For my birthday this year, I wanted to do something as far from my routine as possible.

I ended up not just on vacation, but on vacation from being on vacation. Turning one year older in a place so old, you'd probably need a cake wider than its expanse to fit all its birthday candles.


Speaking of birthday cakes, here's mine. The most delicious birthday cake I've had in a year! Dark chocolate with hints of orange, held together with bananas -- not butter -- studded with nutty chocolate. Cut on a hill at sunrise, in the company of strangers. Absolutely gorgeous.

Like Hampi itself. As the capital, Hampi is built on the amassed wealth of the Vijaynagar empire, which stretched over a major part of the South Indian peninsula. Established over many, many years, the capital consisted of several religious centres, each surrounded by its own residential enclave. Hakka and Bukka, the original rulers and designers, must've been pretty chuffed at how it turned out.

The sheer scale of the whole thing is amazing. Six hundred square kilometres of temples, columns, boulders, and water channels. Never mind that the whole thing was knocked down by armies five hundred years ago. What remains is stunning. Grand, but not imposing. Ornate, but not ostentatious. Spaces so vast and so stark in their simplicity that they reduce you to open-mouthed atoms. An album to see what I mean?


Part of the other-worldy feeling was perhaps induced by our journey to Hampi, which was too ordinarily Indian for me to believe where it had brought us. We went there in the most exciting section of an Indian train: the sleeper class, so called because it has eight bunks, and not much else to do but sit, eat and sleep!

To me, there can be no more fun way than sitting with a bunch of strangers, your arm on the open window grill, your hair whipped by the wind and your ears and nose wafting in all the morning tea snack-sellers yelling "vada-vada-vada-idli-idli-idli-idli" and their wares; delicious fried onions held together with spiced gram flour, steaming broken-rice cakes that are so good you're glad you asked for more than one, and shots of tea with amounts of sugar you can't imagine fully dissolving.

Travelling cattle class is also about really seeing India, smelling India, covering your ears so they don't hurt from the noise and just accepting India for what it is. You don't get to choose how warm or rainy the weather is that day, or to not see the fields being used as toilets. You don't get to smell only fresh, clean air, or live in a bubble of quietude. Being in sleeper class means you take it all in, both unending chatter and the babbling gush of giant waterfalls. Both the sweat of a million Indians and the eucalyptus trees in the distance. And all kinds of people. Skinny, verbose, tobacco-stained, curious. This is India. Everything, all at once.

And then some more.

India both allures and annoys you. It makes you covet it, and then challenges you until you come back smiling, though you don't know it, saying, "I'm in India." It makes you change game plans a dozen times a day, until you learn that the easiest way to be here is to just be.

You could fall in love with it, but it's not easy.

But I'm going off on a tangent here. Travelling for eight hours with what seemed like every single person in India did no good in preparing me for the remoteness of Hampi. Here, it's so quiet, you can feel the souls of the departed Vijaynagaris hovering over their boulders, guarding them from wayward tourists. So quiet, you forget you're in India. So quiet, you can hear yourself think.

And when those thoughts resonate in all that empty quietspace, Hampi takes a step back, opens itself out even wider, and consumes you. Completely.

Like seeing the sun set in Hampi, over a sea of boulders and Canons. I wish I could give you more than a glimpse, but try to imagine the panorama below in three sixty degrees. A giant sunset egg, with you in the center.

And now, I rather hastily bid you good morrow, because my legs keep falling asleep, and I should follow.

Gah, first days back.


  1. definitely the best one yet =)

  2. I totally missed this one... It's true traveling by Indian Railways is 'the' way to see India mainly because of its vastness. Do try other general classes as well... The seats near the lavatories are the most interesting. The gushing wind carries the smell of urea and when u take a whiff of it, you either want to puke or jump down the moving train. Then u see the people surrounding you sitting at ease which makes you feel ashamed of your rather luxurious upbringing.
    i am still in touch with some of the friends I made in trains. Talking to absolute strangers about burning topics is one of my favorite pastimes in trains... :)
    Hope to see more...

  3. I want to go to India so badly now.


    (And what a lovely birthday!! :O And cake!!)
    (You write so well)