…sat on a wall and had a great fall. And all the King’s horses, and all the king’s men couldn’t put Hampi together again! Nishiraj A. Baruah reports from the surreal ruinscape of the Vijaynagar kingdom.
A shabby man walks into a BMW showroom and requests for a test drive. The sales manager takes one look at his Hawaii sandals and stained kurta and turns down the request. At which, the unkempt man proceeds to take out bundles of notes from his pockets and says, “Look, I’ve money. I can buy.” I have no information as to the reaction of the manager, but local folklore has it that the man goes on to buy not one, not two, but eighteen BMWs in one go. A first in BMW history, the chief of the auto major himself flew in from Germany to hand over the keys. Tales like these are dime-a-dozen in this dusty town where farmhouse have choppers parked in front and garages boasts of Hummers and Bugatis. It’s a place of excess where, I’m told, people’s capacity for booze is legendary, so much so that whenever there is a party by the swimming pool of a hotel, a make-shift fence is erected around the pool. You see, there have been numerous instances when guests, happy and high, have collapsed on the pool drunk.
That’s Hosepet, home to miner millionaires (sorry billionaires), who literally struck gold when they dug up the area to discover iron ore. A fortune built on China’s insatiable appetite for iron to develop its infrastructure. Now home to steel giants like JSW Steel, Kalyani Steels, Kirloskar Ferrous Industries, BMM Ispat and Karnataka Strips, among others, this town, some km 325 from Bangalore, is in the Bellary District of northern Karnataka. Yet till some time ago, this name (which I must confess I have never heard of) sounded more like a place associated with death and disease. For one it sounded like hospice – a place where the terminally ill go to die! And when I try telling a friend calling from Delhi that I’m in Hosepet, he sounds concerned: “What? You’re in hospital!?”
Iron ore exports are banned now, but as you make your way from Bangalore, the trucks, you will see, still sport red tyres, the red coming from the red earth of the mines where they go to load. Other fascinating sights greet us on the truck-heavy highway. Fuselage of airplane (or are they wings of a plane?) in massive trailers; mining queries, and later on the route, giant windmills, hundreds of them, gently spinning atop the many mountains. Now we know: Airplane fuselage they are not, nor wings, but the blades of windmills. “Wow, never thought these are so big!” exclaims a fellow journo. A journey of discovery for sure until we stop by a toll bridge and get a jolt: A truck surreptitiously comes from behind and grazes into our old Honda City.
The rear view mirror cracks loose and the bonnet on the driver’s side is smashed. No one is hurt, but all of us become quiet, and then the blame game: An altercation follows over the damage, but thankfully, our car, apart from letting out some tortured sounds, is able to move on. Our driver James, who insists his surname is not Bond, is upset though: After all, this is the beloved first car of Keshav Baljee, owner of the Royal Orchid Group of hotels, on whose invitation we are here to check out the brand new property he has recently opened in Hosepet.
At the hotel finally after a six hour drive, we are received by a man who we think for a moment is Vijay Mallya. Sharing an uncanny resemblance to the beer baron, the gentleman happens to be the hotel’s GM. The hotel is designed by Bobby Mukherjee, former hubby of has-been actress and now tennis ace Leander Paes’ wife, Mahima Chaudhury. Chic, contemporary with a touch of bling, curious locals have a habit of sauntering into the premises for a deko and one of the Manager’s major headaches is how to keep them away: “Who are these people? I don’t think they are hotel guests. Tell them to go out,” he instructs his junior pointing to a duo who seem to be taking a joyride on the capsule glass elevator.
“Wow, look at the moon. It’s so bloody big,” says Anjana, the public relations person of the hotel. It has to be, for we are perched 49 meters up from Ground Zero, strolling as we are atop the Tungbhadra dam, some 10 km from Hosepet. It’s not easy getting there – normal tourists are not allowed to, but then we have Janardhana Reddy on our side. The name works like a magic word that opens doors, gates, and allows access to all restricted areas of the dam. All our driver (who looks like a Congress broker in white safari suit) has to do is to utter ‘Janardhana Reddy’ and whips out his phone to speak to someone (presumably important). He then passes the phone to the police manning the gates. This act is followed by a very nervous policeman, standing erect in attention, and whining “Yes sir, yes sir, no problem, sir’ and rushes to open the gates. With a very privileged view of the dam water that spreads far out like a sea, we cannot but be thankful to this Mr Reddy who, incidentally, happens to be political heavyweight in Karnataka politics.
It’s Amitabh Bachchan’s bad luck that his trip to Hosepet and consequently his stay at the presidential suite has been cancelled. I take a look at the sprawling space complete with state-of-the-art design and luxurious amenities: Servant’s room, bodyguard’s corner, four bathrooms, kids’s room, office space and balconies with fabulous green views. Sitting by a poolside table laid specially for us, candle lights flickering, illuminated windows at the far end, General Manager Kamath says the hotel’s greatest advantage is that it is just 12 km away from the spectacular ruins of World Heritage site, Hampi.
A Kingdom Lost
‘If dreams were made out of stone, it would be Hampi’ so goes the saying. But what I see is a nightmare. Defaced idols, headless elephants, fallen pillars, shapeless blocks of stones, cracked walls, abandoned temples, shaking walls, hidden chambers, buried secrets and a ruinscapes so unreal that it’s surreal. This is destruction in scales unimaginable. A city ruined, history tells us, amid scenes of savage massacre and horrors.
As we regard the ruins that dot the 26 sq km that make Hampi, you cannot but be astonished at the fury with which marauding Moghul invaders came and destroyed this splendid capital of the 14th century Vijaynagar Kingdom. The tempestuous river Tungabhadra in the north and rocky granite ridges on the other three sides could do nothing to protect the empire that stretched physically covering Karnataka, Andhra and Maharashtra. The devastation is sudden, shocking and absolute.
And then comes our guide @ Rs 800 a day and renders us a service for which we cannot afford to pay for: He brings the city, declared a World Heritage Centre in 2002, to life. Indeed, never underestimate the power of a tour guide. He points out to the art and the science of it all, with little stories behind each crack on the walls, beneath every rocky surface on the ground. He also points out to stone pillars that double up as musical instruments, elephant stables that remind me of airport hangers; and summer palaces of queens that are air cooled with water running through hollow pillars. This is a place where once lotus fountains sprouted perfumed waters; pleasure pools where princess swam; doors made of stone so that it blends with the walls to confuse enemy. He also tells us about the harems, hijdas and the buzzing Hampi Bazaar; fabulous riches where kings were weighed against gold which was then distributed to the poor; giant statues of Lord Ganesha carved out of a single block of rock; an empire built with techniques not just eco friendly but efficient as well. That explains the flat faces of the boulders — so flat you would think these were sliced with a sharp knife. Far from it, they pushed dry wooden pegs into the rocks through drilled holes and poured water continuously on the wood so that the soaked wood expands to split the boulders to the size. Indeed, the splendid remains of the broken city tell a tale of men’s infinite talent and power of creativity together with his capacity for senseless destruction.
No wonder, people from all across the world come to visit Hampi. In fact, foreign tourists easily outnumber Indian travellers. I meet an interior designer from France, a lone German woman who said she got to know about Hampi through a book; Israelis gorging on peta bread in the many restaurants; and a few Ukrainian young women who tell me they live in Goa. “So what do you do for a living? I ask them. One of them smiles, gets up, does an impromptu jig and says, “We dance for a living.”
While high-end tourists stay in luxury hotels like Royal Orchid, backpackers often hire a lodge and stay for months. Plenty of guest houses have come up for them on a place called Virupapur Gadde on the other side of the river. You have to take a boat to reach there. Accordingly, you will find cuisines for all races. Not surprisingly, locals have dubbed this place a Second Goa. Our guide tells us that most locals resent them: They have a habit of walking into temples in bare minimum.
No Graffiti, Please
The other nuisance is the graffiti writers who proclaim their undying love by scribbling poetic masterpieces such as ‘Sonu loves Pinki’ and ‘Bunty loves Sabnam’ on the sacred walls. To keep them away, access to many places have been banned now. Indeed, every effort has been made to preserve this open-air museum which is well documented and well presented. Excavations are still on: The main palace is yet to be found and who knows what else lies buried underneath. A kingdom crushed by the weight if its own magnificence, the museum narrates the fairy tale gone horribly wrong.
Even now the tale doesn’t seem to have a happy ending. What follows unnerves me. Somewhere around the Vithala Temple complex, a man in a moped screeches to a halt to ask with some urgency if we have seen someone heading towards the rocks. Yes, some say, and rush towards the rocks only to find the ‘someone’ smashed till the bone, blood everywhere. Just a moment ago, he has jumped from a gigantic rock. Apparently, the deceased, depressed after a fight with his family was running away from home, with his elder brother following suit.
At another point, as we make our way back to the hotel, I tell our driver to stop the car. A tiny pair of feet – that of a sleeping baby – catches my eye. The feet dangles from a saree tied like a hammock from a tree branch. As I click a picture, I suddenly notice a large group of people standing outside the hut. I also hear hysterical wails and cries. “What happened?” I ask one of them. The answer shakes me: The baby’s father has just died.
(The writer is the Managing Editor of Air India’s in flight magazine Shubh Yatra. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)