After a mesmerising train journey from Margao, that took us over mountains and hills reminiscent of the stories of Kipling, and past dreamy hilltop towns that seem stuck in timeless mystery, we arrived in Hampi.
The first thing you notice about the place is the dreamlike landscape.
Giant, rusty-brown boulders lie strewn across the land for miles. It looks as if, in some distant age, giants rumbled over the terrain, casting giant rocks here and there, looking for the car keys. Great stones are piled upon stones, in impossible formations, dotted between exquisite, rich, green paddy fields and banana plantations. Troops of monkeys roam about everywhere; it is the land of Hanuman, the monkey god, and the monkeys thrive here.
The Hampi Market is dominated by the Virupaksha Temple, and the main gopuram, or tower, rises about 50 metres into the air. It is home to a friendly temple elephant, Lakshmi, who can regularly be seen taking a morning bath in the lovely river not far away. This place is very different from the lively seaside towns we left behind in Goa, where music and parties go on all the time. In Hampi there is not much alcohol, no meat, no drugs and no parties. It is a place of healing, and serenity.
The atmosphere in this place is enchanted. From around 1336 to 1565AD this was the sight of a sprawling kingdom, perhaps half a million people strong, but it was suddenly destroyed, and today only the ruins remain. Some customs have survived, though. Each morning we’re intrigued to watch the local women draw Kolams (mandala like chalk charms) in front of their doorsteps. They feel that it invites health and prosperity into their homes, and wards off negative vibes.
We often ate at the Mango Tree – a little open-air restaurant with a view over the river, and some of the best food we found in India. The place is completely tranquil, cosy and clean (a very relative word in this country when you’re on a tight budget). The aloo paratha was mouth-watering. In this place a paratha / parantha is more like a pie than a flatbread, and served on freshly cut banana leaves. Made from potatoes (aloo) and topped with delicious cottage-cheese-like paneer, we simply couldn’t get enough.
Each morning I start the day with a Rs5 cup of sweet chai, and then head off to a secluded spot in the temple ruins to meditate, and practise a little yoga and Tai chi. Monkeys and squirrels, and sometimes even fellow students join me, or sometimes I’m simply alone. There is an ancient, other-worldly aura everywhere, and no shortage of perfect little spots where you can switch off time for a while.
I find myself very aware of my inner state; a deep peacefulness fills me all the time. My thoughts are drawn to abstract themes, (more than usual), and my doodles in my notebook are somewhere between intertwining circles and bits of strange, proto-language flowing into rocks and roots and landscape. In my mind I trace the spiral of the planets around the sun, as the sun moves relative to the centre of the Milky Way, they create meandering whirls, tunnels and tubes, calling me away – “across the Universe”…
“At the cavity of the heart
There is a thousand-petalled lotus flower
One of them leads to the centre of the crown,
And become free.