At Hampi, the Karnataka government showed how not to hold a cultural festival
A controversial foreign jaunt of a bunch of Karnataka legislators, a so-called study tour to Latin America, was recently cancelled after a public uproar. By then, another group of legislators was already halfway through a similar excursion and living it up in the tourist hotspots of Australia. This wasn’t the first time the government has funded Karnataka ministers’ and legislators’ trips to exotic foreign tourist hotspots. However, none of this has translated into even an iota of learning on developing tourism in the backyard, if the slapdash organising of an annual festival in the historic Hampi was anything to go by.
When Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah arrived last week to inaugurate the government-sponsored Hampi Utsav cultural festival at the ancient site in northern Karnataka, he was well on time. The festival however took off two-and-a-half hours behind schedule because of an unusual, embarrassing hitch: there was no audience for the inauguration. The so-called platinum and gold stands at the festival were so empty that the district administration, prime movers of the festival, was forced to herd people randomly into the chairs.
Listening to a grandiose speech by a politician, even a chief minister, on a dais packed with an assortment of politicians is nobody’s idea of a cultural festival. The locale was perfect, though. The three-day fete was set against the dreamy, enchanting backdrop of Hampi’s majestic, centuries-old ruins, amid giant boulders and lush banana plantations.
Hampi, 360 kilometres from Bangalore, offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the famed Vijayanagara kings who reigned over the prosperous kingdom between the 14th and 16th centuries. The entire city is relatively well preserved, despite being ravaged by time and the plundering rulers of the Deccan Sultanate. Before its decline, Hampi was the epitome of wealthy living in a rich kingdom where merchants traded in gold and precious gems in open bazaars.
For over 25 years now, the Karnataka government has clumsily tried to boost tourism to the beautiful location by spending crores to hold the Hampi Utsav. The efforts have been desultory and ham-handed for one primary reason — the festival organiser has been the government itself. The “annual” festival has been held sporadically and when held, on different dates each year.
This year’s low point came even before the Hampi Utsav was formally opened. Festival preparations by the local government have irrevocably damaged several priceless structures within the heritage site. An earthmover was brought in to dig a trench near the protected Queen’s Bath monument to prevent rainwater from entering the soak pit of the toilet. Local newspapers printed photos of the dug-up earth on the sides of the trench with clearly visible pieces of broken earthenware dating back centuries.
Considerable harm had already been done by the time officials of the Archaeological Survey of India intervened and stopped the digging. At another spot, a stone mantap in the 15th century structure called Krishna Bazaar had been hit and damaged by a truck carrying materials to construct a pavilion for the festival. Festival organisers had installed decorative lights at the monuments without permission.
A festival at a Unesco heritage site should have been appropriately grand, but this year’s festival was an affair catering to the local crowd. The organisers brought in Bollywood singers, comedians and pop dance groups from Bangalore. The three-day festival attracted a mere couple of lakh visitors.
In another country and culture, a heritage site such as Hampi would have become a focal point for archaeological conservation and tourism. The sights would have been thoughtfully promoted to history aficionados. An annual festival such as the Hampi Utsav would have been planned well in advance to attract a national and international audience, and scheduled on particular dates each year.
Even small fringe music festivals and carnivals in Europe and the Americas attract visitors by the millions and serve to boost their local economies through the millions of dollars ploughed back into conserving and enhancing the location. By that yardstick, Hampi Utsav is a monumental annual disaster.
The organisers could not even pull off a borrowed idea. A 15-minute helicopter ride “Hampi by Sky”, which was to offer tourists a panoramic view of the magnificent ruins, was a marred by bad planning. Hundreds of visitors stood in line for the Rs 2,000 ride, which was serviced by a single helicopter.
Like other eminent Indian tourist sites, Hampi suffers from the lack of good connectivity from its nearest city, Bangalore. The roads leading to Hampi are rutted paths that have been roughed-up by the numerous iron ore-laden trucks passing through (it is, after all, in Bellary, where the mining mafia ruled for years). Hampi is deficient in basic infrastructure such as budget hotels and organised tours. The Hampi Bazaar, the Virupaksha Temple, the village of Anegundi on the banks of the river Tungabhadra and other attractions are mesmerising enough for visitors to want to linger. But the spare facilities end up driving away the most ardent of history devotees.