Tour of Hampi – Homeward Bound

The week had passed by surprisingly fast. We were on the last (or second-last) day of our trip. There was still uncertainty around whether we wanted or would be able to ride the 500 kilometres to Pune in a single day. All rides so far had been in the range of 200-300 kilometres, although road quality had played a big factor in those decisions. Other than the 150 odd kilometres of state highways between Badami and Belgaum, we were looking at excellent surface quality on NH4.

We left at 6:30 am, as soon as daylight was firmly established. Most of the delay was caused due to waiting for the petrol bunk outside Badami to start operations for the day. It probably would have taken longer, given that most of the employees were still dozing. But some persistent honking by a truck and a tempo roused these guys much sooner.

Bike fueled up, we set off. Part of both of us wished to find a restaurant or even a roadside shack to grab a bite at. But the roads were featureless, and pretty empty too at that hour. The only respite were the infrequent hamlets that we periodically encountered. However, the early hour and mild climate helped ease any discomfort. The countryside was beautiful, and though we did not stop frequently, the sights were soothing nevertheless.

The first major halt we made was at Ramdurg, 50 kilometres out of Badami. Poor road surfaces for half the way accounted for most of the hour and a half taken to arrive here. But all was forgotten as we tucked into warm idlis and coffee at an Udipi restaurant.

After breakfast, we headed off again to pass by Torgal a few kilometres away. While historical significance of the fort at Torgal evades me today, some pre-tour research had indicated that it was a relatively well-preserved stone-built fort. Protected with two layers of walled bastions, it would have made a daunting fortification in its time. Within the bastions lie several buildings and Torgal village itself. Among the buildings of note are the Bhoothnath Temple and a mosque. The ASI is actively working on restoration and maintenance of this structure.

On any other day, we would have had time to stop and admire this structure. But being pressed for time, and my strong desire to return to Pune by day end meant we had to give it a pass.

The Belgaum-Bagalkot road after Yaragatti again was an excellent surface to ride upon, although scattered patches of heavy vehicles and a ghat in between still ate into a significant amount of time. All said and done, we were in Belgaum only at around 12:00 noon. Meeting Anvith again made taking the longer route completely worthwhile. We chatted over lunch and more ice creams before finally bidding goodbye to him and Belgaum on this trip.

NH4 was a welcome sight after the morning session on narrow state highways. A bunch of other motorcyclists passing in the opposite direction were the only eventful incident that occurred until Nippani, where we stopped for our first breather. Our seats were getting uncomfortable now and the sun was stinging. We soldiered on after a bit of stretching, and managed to get up to Kolhapur without any pauses.

The short shadows from the time of leaving Belgaum had elongated a bit by now. Hunger and thirst forced us to stop here, and the cool environs of a local cafe kept us comfortable for an hour or so. Their soft sofa cushions were a welcome relief from an entire day astride the motorcycle saddle. At 4 pm, we reluctantly left the cafe and began the rest of the ride.

Beleaguered by the relatively bad road quality in Maharashtra and fatigue from riding all day, progress was very slow, although our averages were still quite great due to excellent riding in the morning and afternoon sessions. We reached Surur at 5:00 pm and stopped for food and water. Ami was close to passing out from the sun by now. Rest and food helped restore some sanity, but she remained quiet for the time that we were stopped.

We left from Surur at 5:40 pm, with about 45 minutes of daylight left. I intended to make the most of this time by covering the distance up to Shirwal at the least. We were a little ahead at Kapurhol when the sun finally sank behind the hills over the horizon. We continued to make good time for the remaining half an hour of natural light, managing to cross the toll booth near Khed-Shivapur.

From here onward we took it easy as darkness had set. It was 7:30 pm when we finally got off the highway at Sinhagadh Road. We stopped for dinner along the way within the city, before reaching home exhausted but happy at well past 10 in the night.

It had been a long day.

Tour of Hampi – The Badami Chronicles

We left at 7:00 am from the hotel after a disappointing breakfast of upma and sheera. The bright light and clear air lifted our spirits along the way. A particularly beautiful stretch of shady gulmohars caught our attention and begged for a photo session. After idling away for twenty minutes or so under the trees, we moved on further to Pattadakal.

Pattadakal is a tiny village, about 20 kilometres from Badami, situated on the banks of the Malaprabha river. Its primary attraction are its historic temples from approximately the 7th and 8th centuries, most of which are located inside a UNESCO World Heritage site complex. A solitary Jain temple is located some kilometres away, but built in what looked like similar style. Pattadakal has the unique distinction of being the only spot where temples were built in both, Dravidian and Nagara styles of architecture. After the Chalukya capital was moved here from Badami, royal coronations of the kings were held at the Virupaksha Temple at this site. The road from Badami to Pattadakal is prime back-country. You’ll probably see more goats than humans en route.

By the time we reached here, tt was later in the day than I might have liked. But irrespective of that, the light was still tender and the place not crowded. We took our time to idly browse through the exquisitely carved monuments.

Close to three hours later, when we were finally packing up, the crowds began to flow in. Being holiday season in India, most visitors were families, although we did see some of what looked like college or senior school class groups. The heat had begun to sting by then. We were both unwilling to suffer our way to Aihole in this weather. And by now, I was pretty sick of seeing stone temples. Concrete is where it is.

We turned back towards Badami, calling an end to our sightseeing activities on this trip.

The evening was spent with a leisurely walk through the Badami bazar, ending with idlis and dosas at Geeta Darshini restaurant. This place is not exactly the epitome of hygeine and quality, but the food was surprisingly much better than what we had at any of the star-rated resorts at Badami. Travel continues to surprise me. An early lights out ended the day by 8:00 pm.

Tour of Hampi – Hospet to Badami

The KSTDC website mentioned Badami as the capital in the early days of the Chalukya dynasty. It was founded in the 6th century and remained as the seat of power up to the 8th. Its primary attractions are the cave temples, which are excavated out of solid rock. But the nearby sites of Pattadakal and Aihole are also popular tourist spots.

We left the hotel room at Hospet at 7:00 am and stopped at a darshini along the way for breakfast. Hot idlis, washed down with excellent filter coffee primed the mood for the day’s riding. At 150 kilometres away, we were confident of reaching Badami by lunchtime. But first we would have to tackle 20 kilometres of bad roads through Hospet town itself and the rest through the highways outside municipality limits. We managed to tackle this in good time due to the early hour and light traffic, and were soon staring at a signboard pointing towards NH 13 and Kushtagi.

Repair work on NH 13 is nearing completion, but it has its share of detours and rough patches yet. Road work ends at around Budugumpa, where we had to take the bike from below the support scaffolding of an under-construction flyover. It’s all smooth sailing afterwards. However, the bare, featureless landscape made for some really boring riding. We had to fall back upon the all time favourite – antakshari – to keep ourselves awake and interested. Singing on a motorcycle is a surefire way to run your voice hoarse. Sudden gusts on strong westerly crosswinds helped break the boredom once in a while. In all, while my original estimate to reach Kushtagi from Hospet had been one hour, it was closer to two hours later that we finally reached the town.

After Kushtagi, the going became much simpler. The state highway was narrower, but had thick tree cover or other wind-breakers. Whatever was left of the wind would come as headwinds, which did not affect handling much. Clear weather and decent road quality helped make good time all the way to Badami.

At Badami, the hotel was a non-descript guesthouse converted out of an old stone bungalow. Being run by the state tourism department, the facilities were predictably average. The air-conditioner worked, but gaps in the vintage door and window frames ensured the room did not turn too cold. The television worked, serving up every possible Kannada language channel being broadcast, with a smattering of Hindi and English thrown in between. Tossing out a couple of lizards added some excitement to an otherwise boring afternoon. The dal fry and rice we had for lunch at the hotel restaurant was palatable.

We rode out to the Badami Caves late in the afternoon. As far as distances go, Badami isn’t much. And well positioned signs guide the tourist to all places of interest without trouble. Side roads are rubble, littered with flowing garbage, and infested with pigs who dart across with surprising agility. Be careful around them. The caves were nice as far as monuments went, but were completely littered with all varieties of smart alecs out to fleece visitors. One group of stags, obviously smelling of alcohol, tried to make a strong bid at ‘fraanship’ with us. They would continue to follow us out of the caves complex and cause a slight change in plans later in the evening.

The caves themselves obviously impressive, but it is obvious that artistic skill and architectural technology had increased substantially in later years, as is evident at Lakkundi and Hampi. The carvings are not quite as finely made or interestingly laid out. Nevertheless, the breathtaking views of Badami, Bhoothnath Temple and Agastya Lake from that altitude made the trip worthwhile.

As we left the parking lot, I noticed a white car following us in undue hurry. I slowed down under the pretext of navigating around a pig and saw that it was the same guys that were trying to get friendly at the caves. We were now on the road towards Banashankari Temples over SH 57, backtracing the same road we had followed yesterday. Not wanting to be harassed by these guys any more, I let them pass ahead once we reached the parking lot, then continued ahead instead of stopping. It would have been nice to sit at the banks of the tank, but that was not to be.

We turned left at the next junction on the road to the back country roads nearby. It was 6:00 in the evening and the weather was pleasant. The landscape was very rustic, with mud-built houses along the way, shepherds taking their flocks home and the evening calls of birds rending in the air. We stopped for a bit at a bridge to take in the sights of flowing waters before heading back to Badami. Unknown to us, the route we took rounded off back to the Banashankari Temple parking lot. But by the time we reached there, the car following us was nowhere to be seen.

Dinner at the Heritage Resort had a wider range of options than the lunch at Mayura Chalukya. We made short work of it before heading back to the hotel. There’s little to do in Badami in the evenings. If you’re planning to visit, either get a large group together or carry plenty of board games with you.

Tour of Hampi – Second Day at Hampi

Kalyana Mantapa, or the wedding hall, at the Vittala Temple complex

Having spent the first day getting familiar with the site, I was a lot more confident now of being able to do some justice to the royal enclosure without the aid of a guide. We had to spend time waiting for Mango Tree, the restaurant from the evening before, to open up for breakfast before we could go ahead. The food there was so nice that we were now unwilling to take risks elsewhere. After pancakes and grilled sandwiches, all washed down with hot chocolate, we were ready for the day’s adventures.

At the Krishna Temple
Stucco sculptures on the temple gate depict the victory of Krishnadevaraya in his campaign against the kingdom of Utkala.

Unlike at the religious centre, vehicles can be driven into the royal enclosure. In fact, this is the recommended way of exploring here, simply because of the distances between different sites. They usually lie at least 2-3 kilometres away from each other. Add up the walking required within their premises and possibly going back and forth for meals, and you’re looking at an ungodly figure which causes a lot of wasted time by the end of the day. Even a bicycle is better than walking.

This circuit covers the Krishna Temple, Ugra Narsimha idol, underground Shiva Temple, Hazara Rama Temple, the zenana complex, elephant stables and several other sites. The ASI museum also falls on this same route, although we did not have time to visit.

The Morning Session

We started off with the Krishna Temple, which takes at least an hour for a casual look around. While the complex is not all that large as such, it has several structures and some well-preserved relief sculptures which immediately catch the eye. For those with an eye for detail and the time to spare, this site itself can consume several hours.

Dasha Avatar reliefs at the temple gates

Krishnadevaraya commissioned construction in the 16th century to celebrate his victory over the kingdom of Utkala in present-day Orissa. The original idol of Balakrishna has been relocated to the state museum in Chennai. The main structure as well as accompanying shrines and pillared halls are all beautifully carved, partly due to the temples relatively recent vintage. Some things to note are the figures of Yalis on the pillars of the main structure, and the reliefs of the 10 avatars of Vishnu at the main gate.

The underground Shiva Temple, up next in the route map, was a bit of a downer due to lack of maintenance and the resultant flooding of the interiors. Architecturally too, this place is nothing particularly substantial to speak of. It is a convenient location to waste away hot afternoons due to its cooler temperatures and surrounding gardens. Bring a food basket and a mat to make a picnic out of it.

Tourists strike a pose inside the mukhmantapa at the Hazara Rama Temple

Another location great for hiding out from the sun and heat is the mosque, just a short distance away from the underground Shiva Temple. This is actually a large complex with several structures including a watch tower, a band tower and a mosque. We sat under the shade in the mosque for a while to catch some relief from the heat before moving on to the Hazara Rama Temple.

This is easily one of the nicest and best-preserved sites here, on par with the Krishna Temple. This temple is popular for the carved reliefs of the Ramayana on its walls. While this site is not as large as any of the other temple complexes in Hampi, its importance is greatly elevated due to its central location in the royal enclosure. Historians believe that this temple was used as a private shrine for the king and the royal family.

At the Hazara Rama Temple

A small open-air museum and merchandise store lies at the ASI office nearby. The artifacts and idols here are worth looking at, in spite of the apparent lack of visitors. Also of note is the photo museum where you can see prints of original works by Alexandar Greenlaw and John Gollings. Greenlaw was a member of the British army with an interest in surveying and documenting the regions of the empire. He was part of the earliest efforts of the British to establish an archeological survey department in India. His photographs, lost for many years, were discovered in 1980 in a private collection. His waxed paper negatives provide an insight into the earliest records of discovery and excavation at Hampi. Replicating his photographs with modern technology is a popular activity for many visitors today.

The main hall of the Vittala Temple, reknowned for its musical pillars

We covered them up to the elephant stables before returning back to Mango Tree for lunch (yes, it was that good). After whiling away the worst of the afternoon under its shady interiors, we rode back to the Vittala Temple to do better justice to it in the soft evening light.

Vittala Temple is a lot more easily accessible from the royal enclosure side. You can park your vehicle at the parking lot and either walk the 2 kilometres to the temple, or take an electric car which charges Rs. 20 for a to-and-fro ticket. Walking gives you the option of stopping at Pushkarni, a stepped tank which lies close to the Vittala Temple. We chose to take the car because of the crazy heat. The weather only began to get more tolerable after 5:30 pm while we were in the temple premises.

The day ended with an early ride back to the hotel, mediocre but convenient hotel room service dinner and an early lights-out in preparation for the ride to Badami the next day.

Riding through the dusty roads between sites

Final Impressions

While we did visit Hampi in this trip, I cannot rightly say that we have done it justice. Two days is barely enough to get familiar with the layout. I could spend a week here before beginning to get bored. If you are a history buff, you could probably spend even more time. Adventure seekers too come here frequently to climb the unending expanses of rocky boulders and hills. And there’s something for all levels of difficulty – from straight out steps cut into the rock, to flat-faced ledges that require strength and skill to scale. The third interesting activity is to ride out into the countryside and just soak in the sights. Natural surroundings and a variety of avian population can guarantee a fun ride. The nearby bear sanctuary also sounds promising, although we didn’t have the time to visit.

The stone chariot, a shrine to Garuda, at the Vittala Temple

Either my expectations were set to high for the food and accommodation arrangements, or the place really does suck. While Hotel Karthik, where we were put up, had decent reviews online, the actual experience was not quite up to the mark. Especially on the food front, I found the hotel restaurant, Nalpak (promptly rechristened Nalayak by me), to be lacking in quality and variety. Their North Indian fare was boring. And who the hell wants to eat North Indian food while in Southern India? Mango Tree and its cuisine of rich, spicy and aromatic curries and South Indian thalis was evidence that there is more to this cuisine than just idlis and dosas. But most service outlets are unwilling to experiment. There’s a reason that Mango Tree gets great reviews and frequently returning visitors.

Tour of Hampi – First Day at Hampi

Tours begin under the auspices of Sasivelaku Ganesh

At Belgaum, Anvith had mentioned of people having made several visits to Hampi and still discovering something new and interesting to see. The ruins of the old Vijayanagara capital are spread over such a large expanse, that it is impossible to see everything and do it justice in a two-day trip. With settlements dating back to 2000 years ago being found here, this is not surprising at all. The Ramayana too has mentions of Kishkindha, the mythological capital of the monkey kings Vali and Sugriva, and Matanga Hill, both of which are located here. Anjanagiri Hill nearby is supposed to have been the birthplace of Hanuman.

View of the Krishna Temple and Ganesh Temple from the top of Hemakuta Hill

Being on our first trip here, we decided to not expect much by way of sense or structure, and just take things as they come. We hired a guide near the Sasivekalu Ganesh Temple for Rs. 600 for half a day. In hindsight, this was very, very steep, especially considering that April to September is the off season. You’re better off going all the way up to the tourist information office near the Virupaksha Temple ahead and hiring a guide from there. Do carry a map with you, else buy a cheap guide book (Rs. 20) from the local vendors. They also sell a more expensive (Rs. 100) guide book, purportedly published by the ASI, with much better print quality and colour photographs. But this book has no local map of the ruins themselves. I found this rather pointless since all monuments already have detailed write-ups put up on the sign boards outside. It is recommended to either carry your own map with the points of interest marked, or to buy the cheaper book with the map.

With the Virupaksha Temple in the distance

The guides break up the place into two major sections – the religious sites and the royal monuments. Religious sites consist of the Hemakuta Hill, Virupaksha Temple, Hampi Bazar, Matanga Hill, Kodanda Rama Temple, Achyutraya Temple and several other smaller sites, culminating at the Vittala Temple. If you’re up for a boat ride, a coracle can take you across the Tungabhadra River to see the Hanuman Temple on Anjanagiri Hill. I declined because of my general dislike for travelling on any surface other than solid ground. Quotes began at Rs. 150 per person, and can go substantially lower depending on your bargaining skills. Make brazen and shameless counter offers.

Living it off on the banks of the Tungabhadra. The Anjanagiri Mountain can be seen in the distance.

The royal enclosure falls on the other side of the main approach road to Hampi. This consists of the Krishna Temple, the underground Shiva Temple, Hazara Rama Temple, the Zenana, elephant stables and several other smaller sites. This route also ends at the Vittala Temple, which is pretty much the best preserved of the entire lot of monuments in Hampi. We visited the religious centre on our first day here, covering the entire portion up to the Vittala Temple by foot with the guide.

The convenience of having your own vehicle, especially a small fuel-powered moped or motorcycle, is unmatched. We saw seweral foreign tourists on rental mopeds. Indian visitors generally have their own vehicles or rent autorickshaws. Some walk. I did not see any obviously touristy-looking Indians on rental mopeds, although they are very common with the locals. Cars are fine, but they cannot go into narrow tracks which are common in the religious centre. If you don’t mind riding in the heat, you can rent a bicycle. We only saw one tourist on a rental bicycle in Hampi for this reason. Autorickshaws are also available if you prefer, but they are expensive. In any case, expect to do a lot of walking. Even with a motor vehicle to travel between different sites, most of the palaces and temple complexes are very large from within. On our first day, we walked from Hemakuta Hill all the way up to the Vittala Temple, back to Hampi Bazar for lunch in the afternoon, and then back again to Vittala Temple to take photographs in the mellow evening light. Then we walked back to the parking lot near Sasivekalu Ganesh Temple, which added up to at least 8-10 kilometres in all.

Whiling away the hot afternoon at the Purandara Dasa Mandapa

Under the Mango Tree

Food was a big problem the evening before at Hospet. Even at Hampi, lunch was average at best. The evening meal suddenly became much better, due to the chance mention of our guide of a restaurant called Mango Tree. Situated off the main access road, you can see a sign board to the restaurant at a junction half a kilometre from the Sasivekalu Ganesh Temple parking lot. Watch out for a large arch on the right hand side as you ride on your way back. Turn right here and pass through a small village until you reach the end of the road. A downhill slope on the right over paved stones takes you to what seemed like a gated private estate or farm. Cars must be parked outside the gate, but a smaller gate at the side lets bikes inside. Park near the gate and walk a short distance through banana plantations to the restaurant. Built on the banks of the river, the stepped terraces make for a very pleasant and private seating area. While they do serve continental food, their spicy local delicacies are to die for. Especially high on the list are the coconut curry and a variety of ‘parotas’ – a house speciality pie with different types of stuffing such as potatoes, cheese or fruit.

Everything tastes better with a Diet Coke

The ride back to Hospet was uneventful. The convenience of having a motorcycle was especially evident again, as we rode through the dark night. Had we been in an autorickshaw or hampered by bus schedules, the evening would have been on a much tighter leash.