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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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!
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!