Sunday, December 08, 2013

Hampi - A Sort of Travelogue: In TNIE today

A journey of a few months ago with very good friend AB, an old story of a beloved place was published in the beloved The New Indian Express today. Read it here or see the edited version below along with some photos from the trip.

Mangyamma, the Lambani woman I befriended. And a close up of her gorgeous hair accessory.



No Longer

Until about two years ago, Hampi was packaged keeping Indian tourists, who came to its ruins, in mind. Pilgrims who visited the ancient decript capital of the historic Vijayanagar empire with urns of deceased family members were not there to see the boulders, or visit the hippie stores by the roadside. For them, Hampi was a small-town comfort zone, with the right mix of convenience restaurants, souvenir shops and some vestigal ruins that spoke of past imperial glory. There were candysellers, sellers of tender coconuts, irreverent monkeys. Visitors in sun hats explored the periphery of Ganesha statues and pillared temples. For years, this World Heritage Site was a place where cheap clothes in psychedelic colours were available to credulous vistors at eccentric prices and fake silver jewellery. A frail old man, with multiple piercings all over his body, sold Bob Marley T-shirts. If you and your friends were urban chic, he would also offer weed/grass/pot at “good price”. There were more like him, who operated out of street corners. Not any more. Even the shops have been pulled down.

Hampi was seen as a quieter cousin of the bygone hippie haven, Goa, without its beaches. Monsoon is the best to visit Hampi—the scorching waves that emanate from the rocks become mildly bearable at sundown. Also, the rates for hotels and food comes down by three quarters. At the resort on the other side of the Tunga river, you get the hammock to yourself, though the dinner menu is just two dishes and a half. In a this-versus-that argument, the hammock and rain won. I was back in a familiar, loved place after three years.

Hampi ruins are in ruins today. The shops, all admittedly illegal, were razed to the ground by authorities in 2011. The debris still lies strewn about along the sides of the once famous Bazaar Street. Crudely put up railings direct visitors through the village to the riverside. All through off-season, room rates are as low as `200 a day. The front rooms of many homes now double as souvenir shops for brass, leather, silver wares and travel books.

It is the other Goa, so say the backpackers from the westward countries. Save for the beaches, everything else in Goa is available in Hampi—the weed, cheap accommodation, lazy lunches on makeshift rooftop restaurants that serve indistinguishable cuisine and the best feature, cheap shopping. Locals refer to every foreign visitor as ‘English’, pronounced with the Kannada lilt that adds a ‘u’ to every word. So you have the Englishu who come in the night busu and walk around the many hotelu around the village. Mangyamma likes them. She charges them nearly twice what she is willing to sell me her Lambani jewellery and clothes and bags for, because she says the Englishu can afford it. She sits me down by the blanket upon which she has spread her wares, just beyond a pathway that leads to the village, or at least what is left of it. She wants to tell me her story.

Mangyamma, an old Lambani woman who still dons the traditional embroidered clothes of her community, is from a village a few miles away. It takes a whole day to make even a thin cloth bracelet, many more for bags that “will live even after I am gone”. Of the 10 women in her household, she is the only one who goes out to work, taking the local bus both ways, eating her packed lunch and calling out in broken phrases of English when she sees the Englishu. In a conspiratory tone she tells me that there are seven languages in English, that “the rich and poor among them speak differently”, that “there are also poor people among them”. That doesn’t stop her from overpricing her products. I nod sagely.

Smart businesswoman that she is, she sells me her story along with several of her wares. Her grandson, a software engineer in the big city, sends her a thousand rupees every month. She makes a few hundred rupees every day in Hampi, and more during tourist season, especially from the Englishu. At her indeterminable age, she might want to retire from these days in rain and merciless sun, I suggest. “This is kuladakasubu, our family profession, which I can’t give up,” she says. The backpackers, the new age hippies, make it worthwhile, she insists and ties a little present, a bracelet, around my wrist.

Giriraj, the boat driver from Anegundi across the river, stops to chat every time I am crossing the river. Sharks of all sizes in the real estate business and tourism industry and politics have taken over his beloved Hampi, he tells me.

Monsoon is when the restaurant owners repair their roofs and hand you a slimmer, sparser menu card. Like in the other hipster Mecca, time slows down, the doors close early and when they call out to you to come look at their stalls, they do so halfheartedly. In that land of ruins, they keep fake smiles for the visitors. There isn’t much else to do to make a living. Where earlier, the bazaar bustled with the clamour of commerce, perhaps like in the days of the empire when rubies and diamonds were sold by the kilo, today haalu Hampi, or ruined Hampi, cradles a different meaning. People hurry about, their numbers reduced. Perhaps because it is off-season. Or perhaps the ruins drown their colours out.

Hampi’s World Heritage Site status and the guidelines under the Hampi World Heritage Area Management Authority has santitised Hampi’s colourful chaos: the shacks and shirt shops had to be demolished and the hotels relegated to back streets. According to the master plan, the bazaar was to be relocated, but no signs of that happening, not anytime soon are visible. The illegal structures are gone and that is perhaps a good thing. But you could also say that without the continuity of life, there isn’t much point preserving something under glass boxes. The jury is still out on that one. Meanwhile Hampi, under a grey sky, looks fully ruined now.

(While Hampi was declared part of the UNESCO world heritage list first in 1986, an authority called Hampi World Heritage Area Management Authority was set up in 2005. They are under the district administration and are responsible for suggesting master plans for design solutions and guidelines for local development.) Time used to wander like an invisible tourist among the ruins and streets of Hampi, collecting memories, splashes of colour, the voices of hawkers and the haggling over cheap heavy metal tees. Now it waits among the ruins, sterilised by the doctrine of preservation.

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