Sites laden with tourists and tourist services are often cheesy, kitschy … awful. In the U.S., we avoid minigolf, Jimmy Buffet bars, and drunken spring breakers. But here in Hampi, Karnataka, India, the reason for tourists is a 14th century imperial capital that looks like a Dungeons and Dragons fantasy set come to vivid life.
As the Muslim generals of what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan swept down into India, few could resist their cavalry and small mobile artillery. However, in 1336, two Hindu brothers not only halted the conquest, they even took back territory lost and built a large empire in south India. Far from an isolated kingdom, the empire hosted diplomats from Thailand, traders from China and Arabia, and engineers from Portugal. A massive protective army of Hindus, Muslims and Jains lived side by side, with cavalries of Arabian horses and over 1,000 war elephants. But all good things come to an end, and the city was overrun and destroyed by a new confederation of Muslims a few hundred years after its founding.
Enough history lesson. Susie, Simon and I have wandered around the capital city of this ancient kingdom and have had a fabulous time. Hampi’s complex may not be the Taj Mahal, but it also has 1/1000th of the tourists of that more famous Indian structure. The fact that most of the architecture still lies in semi-ruin still makes me anticipate vengeful forgotten deities and evil monsters to spring out from the shadows. Scott Bur, my fellow fan of fantasy fiction, would LOVE it here. And yes, I have been humming the Indiana Jones theme tune the ENTIRE time that I have been here.
We have met some of our fellow tourists, and have gotten used to not being the only non-Indian. Two Australian college students, a Swedish GIS specialist and a Scottish teacher to Chinese students have shared meals with us. We have met pilgrims from this state and from far away, and while everybody still wants pictures with Simon, it is difficult to draw them into real conversation. Perhaps we have lost “street cred” as rough travelers of the “real India,” but I don’t care. Most everyone has been quite nice, whether from Glasgow or Chennai. And most importantly, they don’t seem to mind Simon’s rambunctiousness.
So, yes, by our hotel in the tiny, kitschy hamlet of Hampi, there are locals trying to beg and borrow (but not steal, so far as we have seen) every rupee from the hippies on holiday. Just like home, hotels mark up the room price to two or three times the non-holiday rate (at one place, we were charged an exorbitant rate of 1500 rupees per night…nearly $25!!!). Euro-pop plays over scratchy speakers during dinner while twenty-somethings in rasta braids and Marley t-shirts try to look as if their pocket electronics aren’t worth more than the monthly salary of their waiters. But these are small annoyances compared to the grandeur of sprawling ruins that once held over half a million people, and the living sacred shrines that still inspire the faithful.