Monday, March 20, 2017

Hampi, the New Hippie Haven: In The Hindu Business Line

I could go to Hampi every year and still never get enough of that place. There is something mesmerising about the rocks there. We went biking to Hampi a few weeks ago and camped and watched the sun set behind rocks from near a temple and lay down on our backs and talked and had a wonderful time.

I came back and wrote an essay on how Hampi is the new hippie haven and the next Goa, of sorts. It was published on March 17, 2017 in The Hindu Business Line's wonderful supplement BLInk.

Read it here or see below. 


Thanks to the wannabe hippie atmosphere that Hampi actively promotes, it is now the unofficial heir to rave capital Goa

Haalu Hampi (or ruined Hampi), as we call it in Kannada, has always made me feel like a voyeuristic member of an audience watching the high drama of the empire’s life and thereafter existence being performed in a loop. I feel like I am inspecting the ruins to judge, to take surreptitious notes in my notebook and make many half-hearted photos from the same angles as everyone before and after me. I feel as if I am there in the theatre vaguely wondering if I have got my money’s worth yet. I cannot explain why this land makes me feel like I am interrupting something. The surrealistic expanse of it and the possibilities the rocks are known to hold are its magic perhaps. Returning from the new Goa of the south, I have always felt slightly ashamed and utterly mesmerised. Love can sometimes be like that.

From the excesses that wash up on the shores of Goa, it is a straight line inland to reach Hampi. The parties, the backpacks, the dreads, the harem pants and the odd-sized doobies oscillate between the two hippie havens seamlessly. One has no beaches, the other has no ancient ruins or Russian mafia lords. Not yet. Not yet discernibly, rather.

This most recent time I am there with a bike, a tent, a partner in tow and with an intention to camp somewhere. The only safe place is within a guest-house surrounded by cottages, we discover. The tent opens to paddy fields and there is a dog that barks through most of the night. There is nothing more to the camping story here, except that it was lovely and that I will now want to camp only in places with a view.

Not so lovely are the causes and effects of Virupapara Gaddi (spelled variously across different websites), on the other side of the river from Hampi the village, where nirvana-seekers bay at the full moon from underneath boulders, clutching what they can of the sweet release that is promised to them by event managers and other mercenaries. Much later I will discover that nearly every single structure on the Gaddi is illegal, but well-greased machineries keep them going and thriving year after year.

Hampi, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is the village that draws mostly two kinds of visitors — one the pilgrims, mostly from surrounding districts who revere Virupaksha, the god who presides, and two, tourists who come from big cities for a few days, find it too hot (it is always too hot in Hampi), hire mopeds to get around, buy psychedelic printed bohemian things, ‘chill’ and leave. The weekend hippies. The third kind will eventually cross the Tungabhadra river, smarting from the gross commercialisation of Hampi, to merge into the unpoliced boulders at night. A majority will be from overseas, travelling through gap years and finding that yoga-music-peace-salvation is pocket-friendly and readily packaged here by reluctant but enterprising locals.

The guest-house where we have pitched our tent is old and famous. Possibly listed in Lonely Planet too. There is a new bridge from Hampi that goes through a few villages and many fields. It had been for long a contentious project, given that the site of the former majestic Vijayanagara Empire is a protected area and most constructions are banned.

A few years ago, the shacks and shops that lined the road to the main temple were razed to the ground, famous restaurants on the banks of the river were instructed to shut shop, in the same way that they were known to shoo, albeit politely, Indian tourists after sundown. Foreigners were preferred. This was an old personal experience. Indians were unwelcome, a sentiment that continues to be vehemently denied, but is expressed in not so subtle ways.

The new road, which drastically shortens the distance between this side and that side of the river, runs along some deeply disturbing quarries, but expansive vistas that are green and happy still dominate, for now. An old man in saffron and dreadlocks calls out — ‘bhaiyya’ — and directs us to where we need to go, before we even ask. We find it highly amusing. All roads clearly lead to one place. The faster way is to take a boat or a coracle across the river from Hampi. In summer, it isn’t difficult to hop over stones and walk across either. While the boatman waits for more passengers to fill the boat, some climb onto a rock and light up a joint. It is so common a sight and scent that no one looks their way. That rave parties are a common feature at certain locations is not news. Everywhere, there are police-issued warnings against smoking what the locals call ‘masala’ cigarettes. The smell of this masala hangs in the air, everywhere.

The first rave-related story we hear is early one morning when we wait for the cooks to make us tea. A tall guy — from Delhi, he soon tells us — walks in with a bunch of bananas, a chocolate bar, a rolled-up mat and a big backpack. We recall he was at the café attached to the guest-house with a few friends until closing time last evening. An argument between him and the manager starts to heat up and we soon find ourselves in the middle of it, owing to language issues, trying to soothe things over. All before a dose of morning caffeine, sigh. A month or so ago, a large rave event, with some 300-400 people, opened somewhere among the rocks — the address for these things is always vague — and was raided by the police after a few days.

The manager tells us that no one knows where all the people went. They just merged into the rocks, he says. In the first few days, they would wake up to find that people had spent the night on hammocks that most guest-houses have outside their cottages for their guests. These people, the manager stereotypes them, spend the days hanging around in different cafés, hoping to catch the fancy of rich, single travellers who might take care of their expenses. At night they retreat under the rocks. The Delhi fella, who claims to be from an illustrious family, is trying to do the same, we are told. He does not exactly deny it.

The manager is from a neighbouring village, dresses hip and speaks English with an accent. A heavy accent, sometimes with a lilt, peppered with endearments and slang, is consistent among the staff at all cafés. It creates an English that is its own new language.

The local boys are all dudes, deriving a new language and a new image for themselves. A lot of them get close to foreigners — it is another ticket out of the village. Many of the travellers hang around for months, making bits and bobs of macramé dreamcatchers and jewellery or teaching yoga in exchange for a meal or a cheap room. One evening when we walk along the shops at Virupapara Gaddi, we spy a priest conducting what we assume is a service before Sabbath for the Jew travellers. The signboards are in Hebrew, the gathering doesn’t look like it would welcome us. Someone passes us by, talking into a phone in Hindi that he is tired of smoking up. We continue to be amused. The shopkeepers ignore us because we won’t pay in dollars, euros or pounds.

Mercenary is a hard tonic to swallow. The locals like the money that tourism of a certain kind brings, but it doesn’t go down easy that the social system has changed beyond recognition because of it. Techno and lounge music floats from cafés that serve ravioli and pasta, all spelled wrong.

Money is flowing fast and loose, as much from tourism as from the parties and the things that are supplied. Money comes with its own cause and effects.

It isn’t hard to understand why Hampi is the new Goa. It is extremely hard to police the region, for there are more than enough places to merge into. The rocks are of sizes that climbers come every year to practise on. The locals both detest the hippies and need the money they spend.

It happens to be a full moon night during our stay. The café is nearly empty, save for a family and an old couple engrossed in books. The father in the family orders one beer for himself and chicken things for the whole family. You can see that it is an occasional treat for him, the beer. At another party somewhere on top of a hill, the others must be howling at the moon, faces upturned.

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