In Hampi the boulders have eyes and at night the frogs croak up a storm.
Standing in the middle of a paddy field in the last dark hour before sunrise I can feel my insides reverberating with their guttural serenades. I look at the sky, getting lost in the sheer depth of it, enjoying the last moments of sleepy sluggishness. I follow the slow progress of a satellite across the night sky. Soon, too soon, my Garmin locates it as well and it is time to get moving. The frogs laugh as I trot down the narrow path between the paddies with my hands stretched out in a dainty attempt at keeping my balance. The silly things that people get up to!
Leaving behind the amphibian orchestra my feet land on the road and for a while all I can hear is my breathing and the sound of crunching gravel. In a couple of hours the main and only road through the tongue-twisting village of Virupapuragadda will be full of scruffy backpackers and recreational hippies, but for now I have the road all to myself and even the dogs can’t muster more than a cursory glance in my direction. The bleary moon is getting ready to retire for the day, making way for a brightening eastern horizon and I continue down to the edge of the village, oblivious to anything but the tunnel of light afforded by my torch.
One foot in front of the other, left right left. And don’t forget to breathe.
My mind quiets down, completely preoccupied with this monumental task. I lengthen my stride on the slight downhill, knowing that I will pay for it on the way up. Across the river, turn right. I’m on a paved road now, and in the distance high above me I can see a light – my destination. An old man on a scooter overtakes me and then stops, looking back in confusion.
Are you going to the Hanuman temple? Do you want a lift? No no… I’m doing this on purpose. He shrugs and drives off.
A couple of streetlamps illuminate the road so I turn off my headlamp. My tunnel vision suddenly expands, taking in the little houses, the sleeping rice fields, the looming silhouette of Hampi’s famous boulders in the background. The village is stirring with first morning light – the shutters open, thresholds are being swept clean, a woman is shooing a cow out of her shop. That light on the top of the mountain doesn’t seem to be getting any closer, but the skies ahead of me are growing brighter by the second so I speed up, racing against the sunrise.
And suddenly there it is, those five hundred and seventy whitewashed steps. My last hurdle and a cruel opponent.
One foot in front of the other, left right left. And don’t forget to breathe.
Monkeys leap from rock to branch to treetop with infuriating ease, mocking my losing battle against gravity, or else still enjoying their banana dreams, huddled in piles of fur and warmth.
Crawling up the last couple of steps I wonder, not for the first time but with a renewed sense of urgency, why the hell I am doing this. Reaching the top I kick off my shoes and step on a modest white platform surrounding a small white temple. I walk around the to the eastern side and to the edge of the platform. Ah, yes. This why I do it.
I am sitting on top of the world, with shimmering rice paddies, lazy rivers and undulating trails unfurling themselves into the distance.
Looking to the south I bid good morning to the golden brown boulders of Rishimukh Hill teetering improbably on top of each other, flung there by the monkey brothers Vali and Sugreeva as they fought for the throne to the kingdom. Behind them, on the other side of the Tungabhadra River, the ancient ghats rise up the riverbank and beyond them the mighty ruins of Vijayanagar are scattered haphazardly across a rocky landscape.
For a couple of centuries the City of Victory was the mightiest Hindu kingdom in the Deccan. But what are a couple of centuries to these boulders? Men came, they built temples, worshipped their gods, and called themselves Hindu. A blink of an eye later here are the invading Muslim armies, the kingdom crumbles and the temples with it. The boulders shrug their sun-warmed shoulders and never take sides.
In Hanuman’s temple we are the apologetic guests of his simian descendants. Luckily their boulder-throwing zeal has dampened since the days of the Ramayana, but as they decide to survey their kingdom perched on the top of my head I have no choice but to oblige. Tiny fingers, unnervingly human, tugging my earlobe, a tail brushing against my elbow, soft brown fur tickling my neck as I try not to think about those rabies shots I never got.
It’s a quiet and ancient world down there, bathed in twilight in the last moments of silence. A boy comes from the temple, offering chai to those of us who have made it up here, and we warm our hands on the steaming cups, watching the skies grow brighter until the sun finally makes a reluctant appearance, slowly peeling itself away from the horizon.
Time to head down. With breakfast on my mind I race down the stairs, now so benign and unprepossessing in the frail morning light, and aim for the pile of boulders to the south. The mist is slowly lifting from the fields, leaving the white birds to dry their dewy feathers in the morning sun, the paddies exploding in a bright, venomous green.
With the sun climbing steadily behind my back I hop down some rocks, cross a stream and squeeze myself through a hole in the fence. The climbers are already heading up to the plateau, dark-grey crash pads with spindly legs scrambling up the granite slope, looking forward to a morning of screaming muscles and bleeding fingers. To that well-deserved afternoon nap, sprawled across a crash pad in the shade of the palm trees, their hands still white with chalk powder. To the afternoon session, attacking new problems or puzzling over new ones.
For us these boulders are the heartbeat of Hampi, though I prefer to admire them with my feet firmly planted on the ground, left right left. And don’t forget to breathe.
The ancient temples are a mere afterthought in this timeless playground of many secrets, endless nooks and crannies where everyone can find a place under the sun. In the evening the plateau glows warm and red in the setting sun, and we flock to it like so many dreadlocked, tattooed, ragged moths.
Shanti will have finished school by now and gone home to brew some milk tea. Every evening at five o’clock she hauls the large thermos up to the plateau and wanders from boulder to boulder, selling cups of her sweet chai. She is not impressed by the gravity-defying antics of the climbers, observing them with the bemused smile of someone who has actual work to do.
We sit on a sun-warmed ledge, and the morning’s run feels a lifetime away as I’m chatting away over a beer. We all know each other, and none of us do – it’s the quick and painless comradery of being young and far from home, of being broke and adventurous by Western standards and rich and feckless by anyone else’s. Most of us are staying at Goan’s Corner just below the boulders, where a hundred and twenty rupees get you a mattress and a mosquito net on a rooftop and the atmosphere is that of a never-ending slumber party.
On the ledge climbers are polishing their much-abused fingertips with sandpaper, wistfully bemoaning the rough granite as though it were an irresistibly abusive boyfriend. The Goan beach bums, all beads and harem pants, look slightly lost away from their sandy Mecca, like washed-up amphibians who are still learning to walk. New friendships are struck over exchanged lighters and borrowed filters and the gentle hum of conversation slowly dies down as we solemnly witness the plump red sun tentatively touching the hilltops and dipping behind them with a yawn.
The boulders heave a sigh of relief and close their eyes, just as the frogs begin warming up for the night’s entertainment.