I peered over the edge of the Queens Bath, an immaculate, now-empty pool where the ladies of one of Indias great empires once used to bathe. Then my guide, Kumar, pointed outside. Thats the moat, he said, motioning toward a deep trench ringing the building we were in. The king filled it with crocodiles so that no one could watch the queen in her bath. Bad luck for any would-be peeping Toms.
The bath was just one of many amazing buildings that I saw during my visit to Hampi, a small town in the southwestern Indian state of Karnataka. The town, with only a fraction of the population that once inhabited it, is quiet and sleepy now, but centuries ago, it was the site of the city of Vijayanagar, the capital of the once great Vijayanagara Empire that stretched across a vast swath of southern India from the 1300s to the 1500s. The Kingdom of Victory, as it was known, reached from the western port of Goa to Indias eastern shores and as far as its southern tip, Cape Comorin. Now, only its ruins remain.
I first came across a mention of Hampi in a guidebook while visiting Nepal, where Id gone to attend the wedding of a friend from college. Dubious at first (Id heard of the Golden Temple, the Taj Mahal, and the glitter and hubbub of Mumbai, but what was this hidden kingdom of the south?), I asked travelers I met in Nepal for advice. I was persuaded to visit after listening to rave reviews from travelers I met while trekking in Nepal. Hampi? Go! was the just about universal consensus.
On my first day in Hampi, I wandered over to the police station to register my passport and camera (a requirement for foreign visitors) and then to some of the small temples nearby. They were squat, square affairs, supported by simple rectangular pillars of granite, tiny compared with some of Hampis other structures and statues. Later in my visit I discovered a statue of the Hindu god Ganesh, made from a single 18-foot-tall piece of rock. It was still perfectly intact but for the trunk and belly, which had been smashed off by the angry invaders who laid waste to the city in the 1500s.
But I barely noticed these statues at first, because I couldnt stop staring at the landscape, which looked as if it had been plucked from Mars. It was littered with magnificent red and ochre boulders that formed small hills or beautiful natural statues, a cross between deliquescing ice cubes and weirdly eroded blocks from a Salvador Dali painting.
Hampi, according to the Hindu epic Ramayana, was the birthplace of the monkey-god Hanuman. These behemoth red and brown granite stones looked like the remnants of his lost collection of marbles, deserted after his last toss. They were hemmed in by green canals and a blue river wending its way around and through the landscape.
I spent the day wandering through the blistering heat, trying to take in as much of this visual feast as I could, dodging spiky cacti and monster millipedes. At one derelict temple, little more than a pocket-size hole sandwiched between larger boulders, a tiny woman dressed in a green sari beckoned me over. Her skin was deep brown and wrinkled from long hours in the sun. A small flame flickered inside the temple, in front of a vaguely feline predator drawn on the back wall. She motioned me inside and spoke a few incomprehensible words, then dabbed some red paste onto my forehead, before thrusting her hand out for a tip and shooing me on my way.