Monkey see, monkey do.

Trip Start Jul 19, 2012
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of India  , Karnataka,
Friday, August 17, 2012

Hampi-18th August.

We had just travelled a large distance (again) in the past week. Travelling down from the cooler climes of Ooty, down the nerve-wracking winding roads with sheer drops into rocky valleys, through the national park where our flat tire had to replaced, amidst warnings of tigers and elephants, and into the warmer clime of Mysore with the elegant palace amidst the cacophonic chaos that one has come to expect as standard. A brief pit stop is what to be in the city of sandalwood as our impromptu plan took us on to the bigger city of Bangalore, the beating heart of India's thriving IT sector. The bus station we arrived into was busy, dirty and hectic. People were coming, people were going. Rubbish and diesel fumes. An auto ride through the major congestion and we arrived into MG road, a far different side to both Bangalore and the India we had travelled. Here in this relatively small area smart dressed Indians roamed the streets talking on i-phones, Locals sat drinking expensive lattes as they checked their emails. Coffeehouse chains, McDonalds and KFC, Pizza huts and Taco Bells lined the streets. Air conditioned shopping malls housed high street shops from other continents. It was strange. It was not what we were used to. It didn’t seem like India, it was a relief. In a small way you feel as though you are in part cheating yourself and India by enjoying the small comfort to be had starting the day drinking a perfect coffee, abusing free Wi-Fi, and later watching the latest Batman movie in executive seats. But what the hell, it was our holiday and enjoy it we did. But it was a brief stay and so our journey continued on.

Our sleeper bus was booked to Hampi in the evening, that itself was a mission and soon removed the feelings of comfort that had begun to settle into our travel weary bodies. The late bus, the confusion of which bus, our bus denying that they stopped where we had booked, our bed inhabited by other Indians, the hot and very bumpy ride and then being dropped off in the cover of darkness on a busy highway, next to a building site, 17 km away from where we wanted to be at 5am was not a pleasurable way to commence our day. After some time we commandeered an auto rickshaw, with the help of a foreman on the building site, and commenced towards our destination. Now it is one of those strange aspects of life that often the situations that start off bad turn into a interesting experience, and although only a small experience in itself, that being the auto ride, it turned out to be the most pleasurable journey for myself. The streets were still dark as the auto took us into the first city of Hospet. The distant skyline was just beginning to lighten as we drove through the dusty streets which began to awaken as the light began to announce a new day. Dogs began to play in the streets and herds cows began to rise up from their slumber. People began to rouse, opening shops, providing offerings and prayers at numerous temples. School children dressed in their uniforms began their long journey to distant schools, women in bright saris collected water at the well and people haggled at a morning market amidst mountains of cucumbers, tomato and mint. As we left the city, before the inevitable daily chaos of Indian cities had taken its hold, we passed through the countryside as the sun had begun to illuminate the unfolding scenery. Lush, green paddy fields, mountains looming up out of the palm fringed horizon. We passed rickety wooden carts pulled by horned white cows, past small rest stops where just woken men awaited their morning cup of chai, past brightly painted temples adorned with a menagerie of gods, past women walking barefooted carrying giant bundles upon their heads. It was as though India itself was providing a procession for us as we passed on our journey. And so, after the journey we arrived into Hampi, the outskirts obvious from the boulder strewn landscape. Hampi, many, many years ago was the centre of an empire. Its temples outnumbered every other place in India, you couldn’t move for temples. A temple for this god, a temple for that god. The locals loved it and Indians travelled from all over to get blessed at one of the many places. Then some 400 years or so ago some other powerful (and jealous) Indian Maharaja decided he didn’t like all the attention the place was getting and razed it all to the ground. And so the legacy of Hampi as a religious centre was finished. Now Hampi itself is a small town, just a handful of guesthouses and restaurants line the back streets, the landscape itself is a boulder strewn one with ruined temples everywhere. The past glory of the temples has long gone, vanished into the realms of history but instead it has been replaced with the sense of the ancient, the ghosts of time still whisper the tales of what this place once was. The main temple in the town dominates the skyline with its impressive tower of carved deities but everywhere you roam you come across another temple, usually inhabited by groups of squabbling monkeys. It is an impressive place, it emanates an air of history, and an India Jones esque feeling passes over you as you clamber over boulders and discover another ruined temple amidst giant boulders and palm trees. The river runs through the town, winding past majestic rock formations and past lush green fields. Green lizards bathe on the rocks, bright blue kingfishers watch the fast flowing river from branches, mongoose dart from rock to rock. And monkeys are everywhere, in the temples, by the river, in the trees and up on the roofs. Some cheekily try and steal things from the restaurants, some gang up on tourists carrying fruits and other edible delights and effectively mug them. It is a monkey gangland here. But there is never a dull moment when monkeys are involved. I was first here about ten years ago, the same landscape and temples were here, and I got mugged by monkeys then, yet back then the main road was a bustling centre of activity with guesthouses, restaurants and shops selling various souvenirs. The majority of this has all gone now. In a completely opposite reaction to tourism compared to the rest of India, in which every popular place has exploded in an expansion of tourist facilities, Hampi itself has stepped back, a positive step back. Instead of allowing the continued growth in pursuit of tourist’s coin, the government decided that this special place needs to be preserved. Over half of the places which existed here ten years ago have been demolished now, apparently many were built on top of ancient temple sites and now that is being reclaimed. On one side of the coin it does mean that many people have lost business(although all have apparently been compensated) but on the other hand it ensures that Hampi retains its attraction rather than becoming just another tourist attraction bursting at the seams with garishly painted guesthouses and restaurants selling pizzas and burgers. Even the few guesthouses and restaurants that still remain here do not know if they will still be here in a few more years, everything hangs in the balance. Of course a new place will spring up for where we tourists will congregate to drink our lime sodas, several of the smaller towns outside of here will benefit from the relocation of the tourist scene. Hampi may just be one of the few places that will manage to escape what seems to be an almost inevitable expansion in every other place we have visited. Even if the locals do not see the immediate benefit of this move, one group that I am sure will be happy for this decision will be that of the sapiens. The monkeys are going to have a field day. A whole town of temples devoid of humans will be left just for them.
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