The Wrecking Ball Continues to Swing in Hampi


Hampi has emerged as a tourist destination over the past 30 years. The man living in one of the first houses built in the bazaar tells us how his father acted as a guide for the first group of western tourists who came in 1970. The tourists were so impressed by the monuments and ruins, they told him, “More tourists will come and you should provide some services for them.” So his father opened a chai stall and sure enough the tourists came. Now the family runs a German bakery and restaurant. (German bakeries are everywhere in India where western tourists are. They all provide the same breads, cakes and pies. Apparently some German tourists gave the Indians the recipes – and now identical baked goods appear across the country.) Now the tightly packed bazaar where we are staying is part residential part commercial; but everybody services the tourists.gee

Our room sits above a small private home; a wonderful room with windows on three sides – one facing the sunrise, and another looking on to the banana grove bordering the river. The houses are so closely packed that we hear all the noises of neighborhood. Early in the morning our meditation is accompanied by the sounds of a community waking up – women sweeping, water running, babies crying. It’s not disruptive but rather inclusive – we’re part of a living monument.

temp sunset

wide st

But over the next few days things went from bad to worse. The first day the police ordered all roof restaurants to be removed, leaving only a scant few. The official argument is that the third floor roof restaurants are too high and spoil the view of the temple. The next day, a bulldozer came in and started widening one of the narrow streets in the bazaar, which accommodated nothing wider than auto rickshaws, ostensibly to allow safety equipment to enter. But we think demolition equipment is more likely. One side of the street is now a pile of rubble and the locals expect it to stay this way for some time. The government too often starts one project and then moves on to another without finishing the first one. Many shops now have a huge mound of rubble in front of them discouraging customers. So much for the easy access for ambulances etc. now that a rickshaw cannot even pass through!


Up the river a renowned outdoor restaurant, Mango Tree, has disappeared. It sat among the palm grove – a series of terraces stretching toward the river. After 25 years in existence over 30 families who supported the restaurant are now out of work – and possibly homeless.

On the third day, we heard bulldozers before dawn, across the river where 80 guesthouses, restaurants and shops are located connected via a small boat to Hampi. The destruction is continuing – all but 10 of the larger concrete buildings are going. (Those remaining have cases in the Karnataka law courts pending. But given the government’s initiative, their future does not look good.) There seems no reason to destroy this community removed across the river from the monuments.

figureThe government plan is to remove all commercial activity from the site of the monuments. Today, the locals are told purely residential buildings can remain. Many people have lived here for two or three generations and there is little compensation. Everyone’s being encouraged to relocate to a new town 4 km away which is being created for commerce. 150 plots (18 by 32 feet) will be offered for lease or purchase for about $2,500. But then they will still have building costs etc. and it will take time to attract tourists – who may or may not come. Today’s tourists like us are not attracted to the idea of staying 4 km away and visiting a government-run site that will demand a sizeable entrance fee. Now only a few of the largest, best-preserved monuments require a fee; you can roam around freely and discover the others beside the river, or among the banana groves.

the riverside temple

the riverside temple

We didn’t fully appreciate Hampi before – the uniqueness of being able to stay in aliving community while surrounded by ancient monuments; to be able to get up in the morning and wander freely around them. For example, we found a wonderful little temple hidden down by the river that we had never seen before even though we’ve made that walk many times.


Watching the sunset on top of Hemakuta Hill amongst temple ruins and monkeys (I never knew monkeys also appreciate a good sunset!)is a wonderful way to end the day. The strict veg/no alcohol policy of this religious site is an added bonus!

monkey sunset

The crisis has brought us into contact with the locals in a way that might not have happened otherwise. The shopkeepers tell their story, groups of men stand around waving their hands in the air, while the women quietly continue to wash clothes, cook the food and gather firewood. What to believe? The government says one thing and then does something else. Shocking that any government could say one thing and do another! These people feel powerless; they are not happy but they dare not protest.

We’re glad to finally leave, it is painful to be here and each day watch a new scene of heartbreak unfold. But I will continue to worry and wonder about these sweet people whose lives have been thrown into turmoil with no clear resolution in sight.

It was not, however, all doom and gloom. It was our good fortune to meet some fascinating tourists here. The first day a familiar face appeared in the restaurant. Micke is a cook living in France and comes to Agonda every year and always stays at our guesthouse. This is what I love about traveling – these chance meetings! This year he’s traveling later than usual and we thought we had missed him! And over the next three days, we met Canadians, Italians and fellow Brits – all extending invitations to visit not only Quebec, but also Devon and Sienna!

The Hampi Community Continues to Vanish

1  train mt

2  water fall

Taking the train during the day from Goa to Hampi, we decided to ride sleeper class non A/C. Windows open, able to view the lush countryside, passing the water  cascading out of the mountain top at DusagharFalls that we passed last year also.

Most of our train travel is overnight in 2nd class AC – quieter and more comfortable for sleeping, but for shorter day trips sleeper class is fun because there’s plenty of activity.  Food vendors continually passing through, cripples on their hands and knees sweeping the floor beneath your feet looking for a hand out, transvestites begging, a woman with a beautiful voice, singing her way down the carriage, holding her baby. All this diversion helps to make the journey pass quicker.

And then, as though out of nowhere, a little old man with bright twinkling eyes behind thick lens spectacles appeared. Sitting down beside Gerard in our train compartment, he didn’t stop to ask where we were going before launching into his own expedition. He was traveling alone to a place of pilgrimage in Andhra Pradesh. Pulling out a map of India he described the possibility of two routes, one by train one by bus, not yet decided which to take. Hearing we were from USA he launched into the story of Vivekananda, the successor of Ramakrishna, traveling to Chicago for the World Congress of Religions in 1894. When he heard that we knew who Vivekananda was he grew more animated and louder (obviously suffering from hearing loss) and handed me a wallet sized picture of the holy man. Then he told us about his own Master, a simple uneducated disciple of Vivekananda’s teachings that he’d discovered living in a remote village in Goa. For the first 25 years of his life, this teacher practiced brahmcharya, in accordance with the ways of old, and for the second half he wandered throughout India in search of higher knowledge. “What is his name?” we asked, “Where does he live?” Oh, he died four years ago…If we were looking for a spiritual teacher, this would have been disappointing. Then nearing our destination, with folded hands, the old man said, “Take rest before reaching Hampi” – and disappeared. What this sweet old man said reminded us of a dear Friend, also departed from this world.


The ruined (city of victory) Vijayanagar, better known as Hampi, once a thriving Hindu capital was devastated by a Muslim siege in the 16th Century. Now only stone, brick and stucco structures survive – the 500 year old ruins look much older than they are due to damage done by the Muslim invaders. The monuments are spread over a 64 km area, though most are near the main temple and a small crowded bazaar, now mostly taken over by the tourist trade.

Arriving for the second time was a huge shock – the main street leading to the temple has been obliterated!  Three years ago, shops and squatters occupied about half of the old arcade. Unlike in US where at the drop of the hat an old building is torn down and a concrete monstrosity is put up in its place – it was nice to see these old structures recycled. Now shops, restaurants, bookstore, bank no longer exist – everything is partially demolished leaving the old structure exposed. Below see the main street three years ago and today:3  mainstreet

4  main st

The local shopkeepers told us that they had 12 hours notice to evacuate before the demolition started. There was no previous warning. The jewelry store owner explained, “I was given notice in the evening. At nine am the next morning the destruction began. It was a nightmare – and then it began raining! I only had time to grab my stock leaving behind all the fixtures.” Now she has had to set up her shop in the front room of her nearby house. Others had no alternative except to move 4 km away.

4a  demo (1)

We thought the government’s plan was to only move all commercial activity away from the main street. This in itself was disturbing, but at least the little bazaar where we are staying would remain. Then we woke up this morning to find our hole in the wall restaurant closed. The owner told us that his building and the two other adjoining were slated for destruction – that would eventually include the whole bazaar! The government wants to remove all business from Hampi and establish a small tourist area in a town 4 km away. All the buildings in the bazaar are on government-owned land so they have no recourse. Gerard overheard the operator of a cyber café say he was being compensated the equivalent of $100 to relocate. Big deal! But someone else said no one’s received the money and there is a scam going on to sell off the lots promised to people before they get them. It seems to be a mess.

Note squatters home before and after:

5  squatters

6  squatter 2 (1)

We had no idea when we arrived that we were going to witness the destruction of a community.

8  river walk

7  boulders

To distract ourselves we took a walk out along the river – a peaceful scene where gigantic golden brown granite boulders are piled on top each other in gravity defying configurations. Just how this landscape is created is a complete mystery. Banana plantations are scattered among the boulders and ruins of what was once a vital city and lush rice paddies border the river. This makes it one of India’s most exotic destinations.

9  riverside

But it was a big shock, to come back from the walk and find the riverside cafe that we liked so well and drank tea at just yesterday, (see left) a big pile of rubble. (below) Beside their destroyed home, mother, daughter and grandmother were sitting in a daze.

10  river cafe

There’s a heavy vibe in town with most tourists wondering if their hotel will be left standing. Several are already in the process of having their third floor removed and most restaurants and internet cafes are closed.  It’s depressing and sad to witness. The atmosphere is a bit like the morning-after an all night party when there are a few laggards still hanging on, wandering around not knowing what to do. And we still have three more days here…we’ll see what happens.

After successfully removing squatters, a new group moves in:

11  new squatters

Anyone who wants to read more about what’s happened, and is now continuing to happen, to the 4,000 families in Hampi can access this link for a detailed report from Equitable Tourism

Carnival, grass widows and antique dealers

agonda sunset

I time my morning routine around the arrival of the brown bread and apple pastry man at Fatima’s convenience store. Thinning grey hair and bespectacled, wearing white shirt and grey saxonytrousers, you’d think he’s on his way to the office – clutching his wares in a striped canvas carryall as if it is his briefcase. Via the beach, I generally arrive at the same time this stout little man is scurrying along the side of the road toward the store. Sometimes I’m too early – Shall I wait? Behind the counter, Fatima’s son, Stevie, responds with a shrug, “Maybe he’ll come…” Nothing is certain. But the flat rounds of whole grain bread scattered with sesame seed and the flaky apple pastries are worth the wait. Rather than handing them to Stevie he finds a little space in the crowded store, and lays out the goods with care. He’s the sole supplier to the village, and supplies nothing else.


Walking back from the store, I watch as the villagers crowd into the church – three days of continuous carnival drum beating has finally given way to the sobriety of Lent. In many ways, Goa is hard to recognize as being part of India, especially along the coast which has been given over to tourism. So I’m grateful to see the continuation of village life that has little or nothing to do with us.


The more we return to Agonda the easier our relationship with the merchants grows, but it’s still one of tourist and shopkeeper. Lakshmi bemoans to us her lack of business this year. Watching her call “Hello” to every potential customer passing by her shop, I understand a little about the difficulty and unpredictability of building a commercial business here, and that these vendors are living on the edge. It is critical for them to make enough money during the brief 4-5 month tourist season that the family can live on for the rest of the year. Competing with many others, she is trying to sell virtually the same selection of cheap tourist clothing and knick-knacks. With a cynical humor, she tells us if tourists don’t return her hello, but look the other way, she’ll continue to call out – “Come and look at my rubbish! Don’t you want to buy some of my rubbish?” Sunk in depression, she tells us she has to borrow to pay the rent on the shop. To make matters worse, her 15-year-old daughter sold a rug worth 2K rupees last week for only 1K. Lakshmi is still obsessed with her daughter’s mistake and the loss that she has to bear – $20 is a lot for her to lose. Her husband makes a little money as a construction worker, but she appears to be the main bread-winner.

As we had observed in Morocco, it’s common for husbands to go abroad to work. The local opportunities are few and far between. Next door, Elvira runs an internet café and handles plane and train bookings for tourists. She has a wonderfully calm sunny disposition and treats every customer as if they are special. Her husband works on oil tankers – 14 months away at a time. She is one of the many “grass widows” who live alone for most of the year. With two young children she says, “We cannot get ahead otherwise.

P1060415Meanwhile, our small guesthouse is a conglomeration of nationalities: French, Russian, Italian, Jamaican, German, Moroccan Berber, Israeli – and even Indian guests! It opens up the opportunity to meet and try to understand people completely outside our sphere of daily contact. Russians! Oh, what sinister impressions the word still conjures up – cold wars, spies, KGB. Gulag – all laced with a lot of vodka. But this Russian couple (see left) is studying Vedanta and Ayurvedic medicine, actively searching for a spiritual path. The Italian woman has been coming alone for years to study yoga, and now has virtually given up her architectural practice in Milan to teach yoga in the summer. An elderly German couple (a retired actor and school teacher) come repeatedly to revive and restore themselves in sun and surf. It can be a diverse group of people. There’s moments when on one side the Russians are reading out loud the Autobiography of a Yogi, on the other side the Italian lady is playing Osho (Shree Rajneesh), while we’re listening to Satsang tapes. Meanwhile, the French group is downstairs in the loggia smoking hash and playing Boules.



We’ve become much closer to an English couple who have also been coming here for the past four years. They’re antique dealers, which is obviously close to Gerard’s heart. He’s a great story-teller pulling chapter and verse from his multifaceted life, but the yarns about buying and selling antiques are the ones we can really relate to. I also love to hear him talk about his Cornish background and the tin mines where his family worked (my mother’s inheritance came from tin mines). Sparked by conversations with his wife, my childhood comes into focus and memories rush in. For a moment, I’m back in England. Thank God, it’s not England – but somewhere we can be assured the sun will shine today and we don’t need a raincoat to sit on the beach!  Rather than stay in a guesthouse, they rent the upstairs floor of a private home up in the jungle and as the end of our stay in Agonda draws close, we visit them for the last time on their balcony.


Monkeying Around at the Beach

The last couple of days we’ve had wind and high surf.  It’s hard to swim but we have fun catching the waves.ImageTwo weeks before we go, I’m enjoying every minute we have.

ImageAgonda’s a great place to try so spot exotic birds. Without effort we can hear their beautiful songs. But actually seeing them is much more difficult.


ImageMore visible are the black-faced lemursthat sit in the trees eating leaves.visible are the black-faced monkeys that sit in the trees eating leaves.



Georges, a serious birdwatcher has been coming here from Brittany every winter for 18 years. He shares his photographs and knowledge with anyone who shows the slightest bit of interest.

ImageOnce a week we ride the crowded rickety bus to Chowdy, for the local market. Fresh vegetables and spices abound. 


Devanshu puts in a little more meditation in the early morning before leaving Agonda. There’s achance that our paths may cross again in Darjeeling in March.


Three Women

On a blistering hot afternoon five years ago, we stumbled into Fatima’s guesthouse – she embraced me (after we’d negotiated the room price) and we happily laid down our bags. Returning the following year, we got to know this large motherly Goan and her extended family who live on the first floor of the guesthouse, together with a larger than life portrait of suffering Jesus Christ filling the entire wall of the entry way. As well as the guesthouse, Fatima and her husband “Uncle” (no one can remember his real name), own Fatima’s mini mart, Fatima’s general store which serves the cheapest and best thali’s in town, and undoubtedly other properties we don’t know about. Given her large size, personality and generosity, Fatima is aptly known as the “Queen of Agonda.” Most of the returning “regulars” initially started out at Fatima’s and even though, like us, have moved on to other accommodation, she remembers and welcomes back each year. So it’s no surprise that Fatima’s birthday is a huge extravaganza to which everyone is invited. And this year, her 59th, excelled other years – there were fireworks, hot air balloons, a lavish buffet and an entertainment program. Young Goan girls dressed in saris, flowers in their hair and bracelets on their ankles danced to Bollywood tunes; then a dark skinned muscular man leapt into the arena, brandishing poles of fire and performed an amazingly daring dance. (Supposedly an Iranian, he lives in Sweden and has been coming to Agonda for many years.) As color, fire and music illuminated the dark courtyard, we felt as if we had happened upon the courtly entertainment of a Rajput palace many centuries ago. Then everyone feasted and danced until long after we had retired. How can they top this for next year, Fatima’s 60th? We shall see!



Although we don’t buy many clothes, we’ve befriended some of the shopkeepers selling their wares to the tourists along the edge of the road we walk back and forth on daily. Girija is a beautiful young Hindu girl who at the age of 25, has already been married twice, lost both husbands and now lives alone with her sweet six year old daughter. Girija’s first husband left her three months after she gave birth. HE DID NOT WANT A DAUGHTER. Although things are changing, having a daughter is still a liability in many parts of India.


Last year she had remarried. Handsome and charming, Manju was from Badami in Karnataka. He had another wife and child there but that’s not unusual in the Hindu community. And everyone seemed happy with the arrangement. Everyday he and Girija sat outside the stall, greeting the passing tourists, and were obviously in love. This year we returned and Girija sat alone – she was different, uncharacteristically subdued. Her effervescence missing. “Aap kasie hain?” I greeted her. (How are you?) “We are only two now, not three.” she responded flatly. I imagined her child had been stricken by some fatal childhood disease. But no, it was Manju! Even though in the beginning the wife in Badami was quite happy with the arrangement, her parents were not and they continued to poison her mind against Girija. And on one fatal trip back home to Badami, Manju was met with incredible hostility resulting in his murder by the in-laws.

Alone and heartbroken, but with the help of friends and family Girija’s trying to move on. Despite her charm and beauty she’s not only divorced but also widowed – two counts against her. In Hindu society’s eyes she’s now damaged goods. At only 25, she laments. “Is this what the rest of my life is going to be like? Is this my fate?” She is still young and beautiful – many local young men will find her an excellent wife.” Meanwhile, she continues to get up early each morning, open her shop and string flimsy cotton dresses and balloon pants across the entry way to entice shoppers. The rhythm carries on, but she’s alone.

Lakshmi owns and manages her boutique along with her two eldest children helping some of the time. Always dressed in a beautiful sari, she came to Agonda when very young from further up the Goan coast.


 Coming from a tribal community, her mother still wears the traditional colorful costume. Tribal people make up half the population of India and unlike Hindus and Moslems the women have equal social status with men which explains a lot about Lakshmi’s demeanor. One afternoon she tells us about her childhood: “My father died of alcohol abuse still in his mid twenties when 1 was seven years old 15 days later my mother gave birth to another child, her third daughter. We had no money and because I was the eldest I had to help. I used to sew, decorating little hats, bags and miniskirts with mirrors and embroidery, much like the tribal costumes. One day, my uncle slapped me in the face and ordered “Go sell to the tourists!” “But how can I? I don’t speak English.” Nevertheless, she went to the beach daily, sewing her garments and eventually tourists approached her. They would ask, “How much is this”…etc? They taught her English, and as she learned she also taught her siblings.

Like her mother who was married at eleven, Lakshmi’s marriage was arranged when she was thirteen – and soon after she had a child. At twenty, she was mother to four children, and decided to have a hysterectomy. She had heard of the pill but opted for surgery. Her husband seems a good man genuinely fond of his wife. Today, at thirty-five, Lakshmi sits outside her shop, with the air of a woman who has worked hard and now deserves to move more slowly, calling upon her children to help her in the shop. Gerard told her, “I’ve never seen anyone sit so comfortably in a plastic chair!” She sat serenely as if on a throne of feather cushions, her sari draped gracefully over her legs, her arms folded. She replied, “I’ve had many years practice!” The eldest daughter, stunningly beautiful stands sullenly beside her mother in the store. She wants to be part of the modern world and doesn’t seem to appreciate her mother’s forward thinking in not imposing marriage on her yet. The difference between the generations is reflected in the women’s dress: her mother still dresses in tribal, Lakshmi in her saris, and her daughter in contemporary western clothes when she can.