Transported from the real to the unreal: Hampi

“It’s around 4pm, we’ve been travelling by train for nine hours and we finally see a sign for Hospet Junction, the train stop for Hampi. As the horn blares indicating that the train is quickly stopping, we grab our over-sized backpacks and shuffle off the packed train, to be immediately greeted by 40-degree Indian heat. We make our way through the station, cliché as it is, it is a complete sensory overload; tea sellers offering us chai, school girls wearing brightly coloured saris and the smell of Indian street food wafting through the station. We get to the entrance where a man is waiting for us from Evolve Back Hampi – our home for the next three days. We hop into the branded jeep and he offers us both a glass bottle of water, informing us that Evolve Back is a strictly no plastic hotel, something I find increasingly important when making a decision on what accommodation to book.

As we drive through, I begin to see parts of Hampi, and I realise why it is so commonly known for its mythical landscape. There are temples everywhere, and in the distance I see the scattered, surreal boulder landscape. Commonly referred to as Hampi, the site of the imperial Vijayanagra is located on the Tungabhadra River in central Karnataka, India. Like many, we decided to visit Hampi because of its historical prestige and ruins. We are ten minutes into our journey in Hampi and I am already entranced. As we pull into the hotel which is just three miles from the UNESCO site of Hampi, the gates slowly open to the sound of a gong, and petals are scattered over the car – this definitely surpasses any normal welcome I have ever had and is a stark contrast to the usual welcomes at the hostels and beach huts we’ve been staying at.

We pull in and what stands before us is the most majestic and architecturally stunning hotel I have ever seen. Before even stepping out of the jeep, there is an air of calm and tranquillity that begins to wash over us. We are welcomed by two ladies: ‘Namaskara’ they bowed, and we repeat it back to them. The only sounds we can hear are the trickling fountain behind us and occasionally the tweeting of birds. It is clear we have entered a peaceful oasis, away from the hustle and bustle of Hospet Junction. We are ushered through the giant arches of the entrance of the palace, and a minimalistic interior that welcomes the natural light. We are told that one of the ladies, Swathi, will be looking after us during our time at the hotel and she gently decorates our foreheads with a colourful bindi each. As we sit down, a plate of chocolate covered dates is placed in front of us, and naturally, we dig in. We are then informed that we will have our own historian during our stay and are promptly introduced to a gentleman named Santosh. Head to toe in white and with a hat on his head, he unrolls an old-fashioned looking map, explaining to us that over the three days, he will be showcasing Hampi – the must-see spots as well as some of Santosh’s off the beaten track secrets.

Within 30 minutes of stepping into our very own palace, the staff at Evolve Back quickly helped us forget that we were backpackers, and we began to feel like complete and utter royalty. We are then guided to a beautiful row of villas, all based on the architecture of the Lotus Mahal (a meeting space for ladies in the 15th century), and are told that we have been given one of the exclusive pool villas for our time at the hotel. Swathi tells us that all the architecture in this hotel is based on the designs of the 300 different temples in Hampi. We wander around our villa (mini palace) for the next three days and can’t quite believe how beautiful it is. Everything is so well thought out – from the coffee sourced from local plantations nearby, to a small, intricately illustrated card of the Stone Chariot in Hampi, made by a local artist especially for us. Everything in the hotel is locally produced and for the first time in my travels in India, it finally felt like this hotel was giving something back to the local community.

Later that evening, we are treated to a traditional full-body Ayurvedic massage with oils, overlooking a pond of blossoming lilies. Following our treatments, we are washed down and enter a complete state of relaxation. We then make our way to one of the two restaurants. As we wander through the hotel, hues of red, pink and orange decorate the sky. Whilst incense burns, the beautiful sounds of a bansuri (traditional flute) drift through the reception area, and we quickly realise that in the courtyard by the fountain, a man is sitting cross-legged playing. We are told that he is a local, self taught musician. Everything about this hotel is so special. That night, we enjoy some traditional local Indian delicacies – starting with crunchy pakoras and ending with a creamy paneer curry.

The following day, it is an early start and Santosh greets us in reception: ‘Are you ready to see the mysteries of Hampi?’ he asks, and we nod like little children, still half asleep. We jump in the jeep and Santosh begins to explain the myths and legends of Hampi. On the roadside, girls and boys are jumping into the rivers that surround us, music is being played and cows are obliviously wandering the roads. Ten minutes later, we are surrounded by boulders. ‘Two and a half billion years old, this landscape is’, Santosh remarks. I look around and feel like I’ve just stepped into a scene from The Flintstones, it is completely and utterly breath-taking. It doesn’t seem real; in fact, it feels otherworldly. Some of these boulders are the size of small houses. I close my eyes and I can almost imagine a group of pterodactyls flying overhead.

Santosh leads us to what is known as ‘the jewel of Hampi’ – the Stone Chariot. He tells us that the chariot is actually a shrine dedicated to Garuda, built inside the Vittala Temple Complex. The massive sculpture of Garuda, Lord Vishnu’s escort, was once seated on the chariot. Again, closing my eyes, I am transported back hundreds of years and see the area filled with people, and huge elephants guarding the stone floors. Santosh tells us stories, and his eyes light up as he regales us. Santosh isn’t just a guide; he is like a wizard. He transports us back hundreds of years, and then brings us back to present with a hilarious anecdote.

Santosh then tells us that it is time to head back to the hotel and suddenly I am brought back to reality. I want this adventure to continue, so I ask Santosh what he is doing for the rest of the day, at these he smiles and says ‘I am so glad you have asked, let me show you ‘my Hampi’’. He asks us how long we both have and we respond excitedly, telling him we have all day. Santosh now seems like a child, and enthusiastically starts listing off all the things that we could do today.

‘I’m going to take you bouldering’ Santosh tells us. So up we go, clambering on to the boiling stones as we pull ourselves up. Santosh is on a mission and clearly has an idea. He leads us up quite some way, and we finally get to an area of boulders with intricately carved designs on them – some with illustrations of men fighting and some with elephants. ‘You see everywhere in Hampi; each boulder has a story,’ Santosh says. I feel lucky that we’ve met Santosh, for he is not just a hotel historian, he really is like an ethereal being who has lived in Hampi for hundreds and hundreds of years, absorbing the knowledge to inspire and educate the future. Our next adventure is boating on to the other side of Hampi, by coracle or ‘coconut boat’ as it’s locally known. We begin paddling along, and Santosh tells me to lie back and listen to the sounds. I follow his instructions and in this moment in time, nothing else matters.

It is now around 12pm, and the temperatures has hit the mid 40s. Santosh asks us if we want some shade, and we politely tell him we are fine. ‘No, no, I know you want some shade,’ Santosh tells us smiling. With this said, he starts paddling towards a boulder and I begin to wonder what an earth is going on. He quickly tells us to duck and before we know it we are soothed by the coolness of the shade, created by the huge boulder perched above us. Santosh smiles at us again, and I realise that this man has grown up here, been a boy here. He knows everything to do here – like he said, he can show us all the secrets of Hampi.

Next thing we know, Santosh makes a call and quickly asks us if we can ride motorbikes. Again, we nod excitedly and off we go. We whizz through banana and rice paddies, the landscape changing from rugged shades of brown to luscious green. We are on the bikes for around 25 minutes before we reach a beautiful lake. Earlier I had told Santosh that I wanted to swim, and like a genie, my wish was granted. We run down to a secluded lake and dive in. This place is crazy. I can completely understand why people come here and never leave, particularly when they’ve made friends like Santosh. After our swim, I lie on a giant boulder and all I can hear is a man chanting a song as he herds his goats. I’ve been transported back thousands of years and never want to leave. Soon after, we’re buzzing along on our bikes towards Hippy Island, where we enjoy a well deserved lunch. We sit and do nothing for a couple of hours and then decide we fancy another dip, so head to the riverside of Tungabhadra.

Our day is coming to an end, and I just want it to last forever. However, I realise, we do have tomorrow with Santosh as well. Dusk is coming and the smell of wood fire wafts through the air. Santosh tells us he wants to take us to a special place that he has never been to with anyone else before. He leads us to a magical viewing point where we watch the sun go down over the prehistoric landscape and over the famous Virupaksha Temple. As monkeys run between our legs, I realise that this is what travelling is about – being transported from the real to the unreal. Santosh took us to the place where time started. He made Hampi become what it once was: a magical Hindu metropolis where anything was possible.”

Prices for a deluxe suite start from £210 per couple, per night on a bed and breakfast basis. For more information, please visit: https://www.evolveback.com/hampi/

Hampi can be reached by train from Margao, Goa to Hospet Junction, Hampi. Flights are available between Bangalore to Hampi.

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