Asia | India | Karnataka | Hampi (Vijayanagar) – Clapping Flamenco with Dolphin and Gypsy – part 1
Everything about Hampi is amazing. It is a bunch of amazing temples and tanks and buildings filled with amazing sculpture, set in an amazing valley piled with rocks the shape and color of enormous russet potatoes. It is also filled with amazing people: amazingly interesting, amazingly kind, also a few of the amazingly bizarre or amazingly annoying strain too.
The amazingly annoying is understandable: Hampi’s been a New Age pilgrimage site for decades now, and anywhere there are that many foreigners there will be a few unbelievably persistent kids asking for things:
“No. No pen.”
“No. I don’t have.”
“NO. No pen.”
“NO! Go away.”
This can last for up to three minutes. I checked my watch. Maybe it’s my teaching background, but stuff like that coming from kids, behavior that I *know* they’d never get away with in front of an Indian adult, really unravels me. On a couple of occasions, after telling some kid “No.” 15 or 20 times in a row, in three or four different languages, I’ve grabbed him (it’s usually a boy) by the wrist, hauled him right up close, crouched down and glared at him in the face and said “BAS!” (“enough!”) in my best Authoritative Teacher Voice. Usually works, but doesn’t endear me too much with any Tao-obsessed hippies in the vicinity.
I’ve polled a couple of Indians on the One Pen Phenomenon and discovered a few interesting things. First, it never, ever happens to Indians, no matter how wealthy they appear. Second, school pens cost two rupees, equivalent to about four cents US or the cost of a cup of tea, so it’s very rarely a case a “if you don’t give me a pen I can’t go to school.”
The whole thing can be traced back, in most cases, to European package tourists deciding they will save the world by purchasing Bic pens in bulk and distributing them among school kids in touristed areas, who will then show them off to their school mates as a sort of trophy of foreign contact. From the kids’ point of view, it makes sense to just keep asking any foreigner in sight over and over for anything that comes to mind, as many of them will give in out of sheer exhaustion, and none of them ever scold them in an understandable language or smack them. Both of which, I have been assured, any Indian being so assailed wouldn’t hesitate to do.
The amazingly bizarre people are a different story. On the bus from Hospet to Hampi my attention fell quickly onto the only other foreigners on the bus…not so much because they were foreigners, but because she was dressed head to toe in traditional Rajasthani garb (the kind with little mirrors sewn onto it) and he was shirtless, clapping, and singing in Spanish.
From an Indian point of view, they were sort of a distillation of the hippie tourist stereotype: noisy, uninhibited, odd, and apparently clueless. Also having a great time by all appearances. I subconsciously blessed them for drawing attention away from me and my comment-attracting backpack and beard (“I think you are Muslim! Ha ha!” “Like Osama bin Laden! Ha ha!” — How frightfully clever, I’ve never heard that one before.) but also rolled my eyes a bit, as I always do when people match stereotypes too closely.
In any case, I didn’t have any real desire to associate myselves with them, being a little too wrapped up in my culturally sensitive self-image, my long trousers, my short-sleeved button up dress shirt that could’ve appeared on the back of any of a thousand other young Indian men. Contrary to life back in New York, anonymity has always been my highest goal while abroad. One of my most ecstatic travel memories is of standing on a street in Hama, in Syria, watching a political demonstration roar past and realizing that the particular combination of clothing and locally bought sandals I’d worn that day served as near-perfect Syrian camouflage. No one stared at me or even gave a second glance that day, and one man even shot me an elated greeting in Arabic in the heat of the parade. I felt something like I’d finally lifted my head above water after swimming for the surface for ages, looking around and seeing a completely different sort of light, everything sharper and clearer: “I’m not an observer…I’m *in* this!” It’s something I’ve ached for on every trip since, and something that’s been completely impossible in India, beard or no.
The two Spaniards represented the exact opposite of all of that, and I wanted nothing to do with it. They were fun to watch though, I have to admit, and if the drive weren’t so gorgeous, I might’ve spent the rest of the bumping trip watching there every move, as the rest of the bus passengers were.
The road wove through all those enormous potatoes I’d mentioned, skirting alongside honey-colored temples and Indo-Saracenic forts, giving glimpses of hilltop shrines in the distance and occasionally slipping right through a 500 year old arch way, the only passage through a wall that still sealed off the ancient city of Vijayanagar after all these years.
That first day was a glorious combination of rock scrambling, temple gawking and history lessons, as I picked my way through formations and into bas relief studded courtyards with the aid of a guidebook written by an architecture-obsessed Briton in 1911. It’s called “Guide to the Ruins of Hampi” and contains such stodgy Raj-era gems as: “The sculpture within the temple is unremarkable and calls for no remarks…”
The second day I hired a bike from my guesthouse and rode further afield. I strolled atop ancient stone aqueducts, pokied into a half submerged temple for as long as I could hold my breath against the overwhelming scent of bat guano, and rode out to the most remote temples I could find on the map, baking in the hot sun and blasting the Asian Dub Foundation tape I’d picked up at a music shop in Bangalore.
The best part about Hampi, though, is it’s density. There is something to look at about every two meters, and it stretches for four or five kilometers along the river, and another four or five south from there. It’s a place where you pause in the shade of a tree and look at the rock next to you and find a lingam carved into it, or glance up toward the setting sun and see two different hills topped with visored pagodas, perfect in proportion and unearthly in silhouette.