Rickshaw drivers and relatives waited expectantly as passengers exited into Hospet’s no longer cool morning air. The young boy who’d appeared timidly to offer me some of his morning snack took the last opportunity to stare before being pulled down into the busy bus lot. I stood up from my seat and got down from the bus. I was the last person off, and became immediately conscious of the rickshaw drivers’ eyes following me as I turned right and tried to walk with purpose towards the bus platforms (as though that would be enough to dissuade those guys). My pretence at confidence was met by two setbacks: the rusting and rattling buses lurching by, undeterred by my efforts to cross their paths, and the fact that I had no idea where I was actually supposed to go to catch the next bus to Hampi.
I’d made it to the bus platform when I realized I’d been followed. While I pointedly looked away (pointlessly), a determined driver unfolded his well-worn tourist map and began his spiel. I hadn’t planned on hiring a driver for the day and told him so, though when I saw no uniformed transit employees around to ask for directions I began to change my mind. We settled on an arrangement where he would drive me the 14km to Hampi and then we’d reconvene. Along the meandering drive, Aleek (the driver) proved to be a talkative and informative host.
Hampi Bazaar sits on the edge of the Tungabadhra River which separates it from the hippified hangout village of Virupapur Gadde. The towns are situated within the boundaries of the now-ruined capital city of the renaissance-era Vijayanagar Empire. According to the accounts of Portuguese merchants, in its heyday the city rivalled the opulence and size of Rome (though it’s uncertain whether Italians would have agreed). Other, less academic estimates place the city’s population at around 500,000, or about three times the size of Paris at the time. Regardless, the city was very big, very wealthy, and very powerful. This changed, when in the 17th century the city was reduced to its current ruined state by the successful invasion efforts of the Moghul Empire. Its ruins dot a 35km2 piece of the Eastern Karnatakan countryside, complementing the impressive and unique natural boulder formations. In 1986 it received its UNESCO World Heritage Site designation as ‘Group of Monuments at Hampi.’
We arrived around 11:45AM. Aleek and I had, by that point, developed a mutual appreciation for each other. He due to my reportedly hard bargaining, and me due to his impressive ability with languages (so far he has taught himself four, and is currently adding French to the list) and his worldly viewpoints on the effects of tourism on the local area. I gave in and decided to hire him to show me around for the day, diverting the rupees I’d planned to use on some of the more famous but busy tourist attractions and instructing him to take me on an itinerary of the less busy sights wherever possible. Aleek-1, Liam-0, I suppose.
I spent the first hours wandering around temples and then down along the riverside. Aleek took me to see famous statues of Ganesh and the Temple of Krishna. The temples were beautiful, but pretty quickly lunch time came around and I got hungry. At Aleek’s insistence he took me to a town 10km away (“the food in Hampi is no good”). After the ride, I hurried out of the rickshaw, washed my hands and sat down at a table in a tranquil forest grove. Within 10 minutes I was enjoying a delicious vegetarian thali. This was interrupted by the sudden appearance of Aleek, concerned and out of breath. I stared at him blankly, unsure what was going on. After a moment I looked down and saw he was holding my camera. In my rush to get to lunch I’d left it on the back seat of his rickshaw.
“Oh my god, Aleek…” I struggled to express my thanks and surprise that he’d brought it back.
“I couldn’t believe you’d left this.”
“Yeah, neither can I…”
Aleek-2++, Liam-0. Thank you Aleek.
After lunch we sat around, enjoying the laid back atmosphere, Aleek telling me about the life of a rickshaw driver.
Later that afternoon, we were heading back to Hampi when Aleek identified a taxi from Bangalore peeling off after leaving a confused and now lost French couple plainly no where near their hotel in Virupapur Gadde. Without hesitating he slowed down, confirming, as we pulled up, that it was ok with me that he help them. It took 10 minutes of coercing and cajoling his understandably mistrusting and disbelieving audience that they were still 10km and one boat ride away from their destination. While I was now convinced he was some sort of golden soul, it took my profuse support for them to accept his free ride to the river.
I spent the rest of the afternoon looking around the most famous temples and the ruins of the royal palace. The highlight was definitely the palace’s geometrically-perfect step well. Not-so-hot was seeing an elephant shackled, tears dripping down its face as it sucked up 10 and 20 rupee notes with its trunk and placed them in the hand of its attendant.
My day in Hampi finished on a high note, watching the sun set on the aptly named Sunset Hill. Aleek took me back to Hospet, and after a cramped and slightly delayed but otherwise uneventful bus ride I arrived in Hubli close to midnight.
Memories of the precariously stacked boulders, the grand ruins set in-between; scenery gliding by as the bus bumped up and slammed down along the highway arrhythmically – all accompany the imprinted significance of having met Aleek. Travelers we arrive, weary and sore off the bus; dropped off impromptu on the side of unknown streets. We arrive, separated from people and place by the double-glazing of fatigue and hesitation borne of uncertainty. And thus our visit is tainted, unless by necessity or by the persistent well-meaning of others, we listen.
Thank you to Margret Orme and Andre and Genevieve Smith for sponsoring this weekend adventure.
Leave a comment if you’re going to be exploring Hampi and are interested in hiring Aleek; it can be arranged.
For comprehensive travel information about Hampi: https://www.thrillophilia.com/hampi-history
For information about the world heritage site: http://asi.nic.in/asi_monu_whs_hampi.asp