By Roopa Pai
(Just make sure you take them between November and February or they’ll hate you for the rest of their lives!)
A hodge-podge of hulking grey boulders shaped by water and wind into doughnuts, obelisks, almost-spheres and pancakes casually sit around the Hampi landscape in the thousands, gathered into mini-hills, stacked into towers, or proudly solitary, looking for all the world like the discarded playing blocks of a bunch of giant (and rowdy) children. A river — the mighty Tungabhadra — runs through it, nourishing the emerald-green paddies and darker-green banana plantations on both its banks, and beyond. Pack a picnic lunch and find a high spot-with-a-view by the river or the Pampa Sarovar lake (or the reservoir of the Tungabhadra Dam) to savour the landscape properly. Oh, and enthusiastic birders will find plenty of wonderful avian life to engage them for hours.
The medieval southern city of Vijayanagara, City of Victory, capital of the rich and eponymous empire that ruled south India from coast to coast and included, at its prime, parts of Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Orissa, was the second-largest in the 15th-century world, its size rivalled only by the urban sprawl of Beijing. Even today, four and a half centuries after it was sacked in the Battle of Talikota and summarily abandoned, its 41.5 sq km spread – punctuated with temples (including one in which the stone pillars sing in all the 12 notes of the Carnatic scale), bazaar streets (where, it is said, rubies and emeralds the size of pigeons’ eggs were retailed like peanuts), palaces, elephant stables, the Queen’s Bath, giant monolithic sculptures of Ganesha and Narasimha, and the mammoth Mahanavami Dibba, a stepped platform from which the great Vijayanagara monarch Krishna Deva Raya watched the 10-day long Dasara celebrations that he first instituted unfold (the tradition lives on to this day, in the Mysore Dasara celebrations) – boggles the imagination.
South Indian history is not very well covered in either the middle-grade or high-school syllabi, so visiting Hampi is a great way to introduce the kids to one of the greatest southern empires. Make sure to do some pre-trip reading up as a family so that the kids are equally excited.
…and sunsets! And places to watch them from! Get an early start on one of the days you’re there, and climb the 700 steps that will take you to the top of the Anjanadri Hill – believed to be the birthplace of Anjana’s son, Anjaneya, otherwise known as Hanuman – before dawn. Watch in silence as the sun’s first rays burnish the granite hills around you in shades of copper and bronze and turn the dark, twisty ribbon of the Tungabhadra into liquid gold. Don’t miss the show in reverse, from the ‘sunset point’ on Matanga Hill. Rest assured that even the kids will hush up for this spectacle – they will be exhausted from a day’s worth of wandering among the rocks, sure, but there is also something about a Hampi sunset that calms the most restless mind and fills the heart with gladness.
Hampi is believed to be the ancient site of Kishkinda, the fabled kingdom of the Vanaras mentioned in the Ramayana. If your children are into mythology, you can design an entire Ramayana tour for them here (starting with the Anjanadri Hill mentioned earlier). Here it was, by the Pampa Sarovara, that Rama found Shabari waiting for him, with an offering of the most delicious fruits from the forest (she had tasted dozens to find the best ones!); here is Rishyamukha, where Rama and Lakshmana met Hanuman for the first time; here Matanga, the one place in Kishkinda where Sugriva was safe – a curse kept his impulsive, hot-headed brother Vali from ever setting foot there; here Malyavanta, where the princes of Ayodhya lived while Hanuman went to look for Sita… But it isn’t just Rama-lore in Hampi. There is also the Hemakuta Hill, where Parvati is believed to have performed years of rigorous penance to attract Shiva’s attention – she finally succeeded, turning the hermit Shiva into the householder Shankara; the Virupaksha Temple at the base of the hill celebrates their marriage.
Then there are the other stories, like the one about the founding of the empire, the one in which the brothers Hakka and Bukka, haunted by the sight of a hare chasing their hounds on a hunting trip to these parts, begged their guru, the sage Vidyaranya, to guide them, and, on his advice, founded what would eventually become the Vijayanagara Empire.
Yup, there are many, many stories waiting to be told in Hampi; make sure you engage a good guide!
Probably the most fun part of the Hampi experience for kids. Of course you can drive everywhere, but don’t miss the opportunity to cross the river a couple of times by coracle; either at the Virupaksha Temple jetty, where boats take you across to Virupapura Gaddi and its cool, hippy-vibe restaurants and cafes, or at the Anegundi jetty, from where a coracle can take you to the Vitthala temple in a jiffy. (Anegundi is a great town to visit too – there are a couple of great heritage places to stay at, local homes where they will cook you a simple, authentic Karnataka lunch if you give them enough notice, and an NGO that makes some beautiful products – baskets, sling bags, hats – out of banana fibre.)
(Roopa Pai, a computer engineer turned author, has several children’s books to her credit, including fantasy series Taranauts, Krishna Deva Raya: King of Kings, The Gita for Children and most recently, the Vedas and Upanishads for Children. She also runs Bangalore Walks, through which she conducts guided historical tours.)