A question that kept popping up in my head all through my stay in Hampi is ‘how on earth are these boulders balancing themselves and not rolling down and squashing tourists on their way down’. Hampi looks like the magnum opus of an illusionist. How else can you explain the precariously perched boulders that are sprinkled all over Hampi? The lush green paddy fields, meandering Tungabhadra river and historical ruins add to the enchantment.
This temple town beckoned me for the second time this year. And while my first visit was all about the monuments (there are over 500 of them and a staggering number still being excavated) I managed to dig deeper this time. Here’s my selection of the best things to do in Hampi that goes over and beyond the temples and palaces of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Hampi marks the flamboyant past of the Vijayanagara Empire of the 7th century. This extremely prosperous kingdom was plundered by Muslim invasion in the 1560s. What remains now are ruins that are reminiscent of exquisite craftsmanship, making Hampi the world's largest open-air museum. The humungous Vijaya Vittala temple is a great way to start the exploration. Reserve a few hours to admire the extraordinary stone chariot, the musical pillars in the temple halls and intricate sculptures. Further down is the Virupaksha temple with an exquisite gateway and stone carvings depicting scenes from the Mahabharat. In the same complex is the Hampi Bazaar a series of open arcades which used to be a booming market in the Vijayanagara rule. This was where merchants traded horses, precious stones, jewellery, silk clothes, etc. The Narasimha statue carved from one single stone and the Hanuman temple on top of a hill are the other attractions here.
Note: Temple fatigue does hit after the first few. The best thing to do is limit the temple visits to 3-4 a day and mix it up with a few sunsets and river rides.
Hike up The Matanga Hill
This is something I missed on my first visit but managed to squeeze in my second. After a visit to the Hampi Bazaar my guide suggested I hike up the Matanga hill for a bird’s eye view of the historic town. The 30-minute trek up is moderately difficult (barring some tricky patches) and is littered with abandoned shrines that I checked out while pausing to catch my breath. The view from the top is spellbinding - at one corner is the Turthu canal winding its way through banana plantations, on the other end the Tungabhadra snaking through the town and in the distance stands the Virupaksha Temple. The abandoned bazaar and Hampi’s rock-studded landscape makes for a picturesque backdrop. Early morning is the best time to hike and catch the sunrise. I did it in the evening and was rewarded with an equally stunning sunset.
Note: Get dressed in your most comfortable pair of sneakers and carry a torch if you go in the morning.
Spend time at the Lotus Mahal
This gorgeous palace is among the few structures in Hampi that has survived both Mughal assaults and the ravages of time. Shaped like lotus petals it was used by the royal women of Vijayanagara to simply chill. Something like a wellness spa! There is a huge elephant stable here and a beautiful tree to sit under with a freshly cut tender coconut.
Relish a thali at Green Restaurant
Nestled in a banana plantation the Green restaurant serves the freshest of meals. Choose the stone seating under the shade of trees or settle indoor under thatched roof. The food is cooked by villagers and served home style with roughly chopped salad and a banana from the field. The cashew and vegetable curry is the highlight as also the peppery rasam, jowar rotis and bhajias (fritters) that accompany every meal. The buttermilk helps to cool down the slightly fiery meal. They also do pizzas and pasta for their international guests. The coffee is good too.
Glide in a coracle
The perfect way to wrap up a hectic day in Hampi is a lazy float across the Tungabhadra. While I have relished quite a few scenic boat rides in India, this one’s different. To begin with the vessel is a lightweight circular boat made of bamboo. Anxious at first I tiptoed into the boat and sat cross-legged on the floor. But my fears were laid to rest as soon as the boat took off. Drifting across the gently flowing river flanked by mammoth boulders on both sides puts you in a trance. The boat passes some temple and fort ruins. At one point I was asked to duck down to navigate a small gap between two boulders! The ride concluded with some crazy spinning which felt like being in one of those teacup rides at Imagica. Fun nonetheless!
Bouldering among the ruins
For many many years Hampi was a closely guarded secret among boulderers. Not anymore, especially after the 2003 sensational climbing video of Chris Sharma. Bouldering is a lot like rock climbing, but is done without any ropes, harnesses or equipment. You don’t climb as high, but it can be just as challenging. Hanumanahalli near Laxmi Golden Beach Resort is where all the bouldering action is. The boulders here have has interesting names – Banana Baba, Egg Boulder, Hot Slapper and Sunset View. Shoes, crash mat and chalk are available for hire.
A word of caution: Bouldering is a risky sport. If you are a beginner try it only under proper guidance.
Say hello to cute sloth bears
This hidden gem in Hampi is worth a visit if you are looking to take a break from the maze of heritage buildings. Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary is Asia's first sloth bear sanctuary and also home to a blooming forest of wild fruit trees (to attract bears) and edible fruit orchards. The wild shrubs and gigantic rocks are a perfect haunt for these cute bears. The other guests include leopards, jackals, hyenas, foxes, pangolins and porcupines. There is a watchtower within the sanctuary that makes for a great vantage point to view the bears descending from the adjacent hill in the evening.
The nearest train station is at Hospet, which is 13km from the ruins of Hampi. There are overnight trains from Bangalore to Hospet. The nearest airport is Hubli Airport, which is about 166km away.
The best way to get around Hampi is to rent a scooter or bicycle. There are rickshaws too.
Beer is banned in Hampi but available across the river which is called the hippie side of Hampi. Be prepared to shell out double the MRP.
Best time to visit Hampi is from October to February. Make a note of the Hampi festival in January.