Friday, September 15, 2006

Just four hours from Bangalore are two amazing temples from the 12th century when the Hoysala empire was thriving. Belur and Halebid, boast incredible friezes and sculptures with so much detail that the mythical creatures, deities, and epic battle scenes seem to jump straight off the walls.

In Belur the Chennakesava Temple stands out for its extreme intricacy of carvings and innumerable variety of varying pillars. Built in Dravidian style over a period of 100 years, it has a magnificent gateway tower and enchanting celestial dancer carvings.

Neighboring Halebid, once the flourishing capital of the Hoysala dynasty, was attacked twice throughout history leaving it in virtual ruins. While Chennakeshava Temple is dedicated to Lord Krishna, Halebid's main temple, Hoysaleshwara is a Shiva temple. Twice the size of Chennakeshava Temple, it plays host to gigantic figures of Nandi or sacred bulls.

Sravanabelagola is a small quaint town and one of the most popular Jain pilgrimage centers in South India. Made famous by the large statue of Gomateshvara, the 57 foot-high monolithic sculpture is set atop 614 steps carved from the rocks upon which it sits. The steps must be ascended without shoes. If you do not bring socks (to prevent from the immense heat of the rocks midday) , have no worry, there will be plenty of vendors there to sell you a pair.

The climb is one that takes a bit of strength, especially in the heat of the day. Try to plan to get there either in the early morning or late day to avoid becoming overheated. It is a sight to behold and well worth the stop either on your way or return trip from Belur-Halebid.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Hampi

One of my first weekend excursions during a six-month stint working in the tech megapolis of Bangalore was to northern Karnataka's Hampi. Dubbed as the "City of Ruins," the village's bustling network of temples carved from stone can just as easily be called "city of rocks," as the city seems to be constructed soley of giant boulders.

A rich history as both a holy place and a center for art and architecture, along with its easy accesibility from all over south India, it makes great weekend excursion.

One overnight bus ride from Bangalore's city center later, and my co-worker and I arrived in the neighboring city Hospet in the early morning hours shortly after dawn had broken. We quickly secured a rickshaw ride for the 13 km ride to the city's entrance, and began to catch sight of the expansive ruins from the bumpy open-air backseat.

With settlements dating back to 1 BC, the city formed one of the cores of the Vijayanagara empire from 1336 to 1565. With up to a half of a million residents at its peak, the city was recognized for re-establishing Indian culture with its support for music, art, and literature, and much of this can be seen still today in the ruins which cover 9 square miles of the city.

The kingdom's strength peaked after Krishnadevaraya's rule (1509-1530), during which time the empire experienced its golden age and stretched over three states - Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra. Like all great empires, it came to an end when in 1565 five Deccan Sultans, who had long threatened the civilazation from the north, invaded and plundered the city to the ruins that stand today.

We started our day with a quick trip to the Karnataka State Tourism Development Corporation office in the Hampi Bazaar area. We located a tour guide to show us around the ruins and agreed to pay the set price arranged by the office. Normally I am not big on guided tours, but with the limited time we had and so much to see, we were convinced by the sales pitch to hire a state-endorsed guide. And that is how we came to spend the day with Chandru.

A local to the city, Chandru was an excellent guide and well exceeded any expectations I had for his services with his in-depth knowledge and interesting bits of information. He first guided us through the old city and wanted to make a quick stop at the edge of the village. A crowd of about 75 had gathered at the small house sitting back off the dirt road and everyone was just standing around in silence. Chandru explained that a popular boy of 20 had died that morning of an apparent heart attack in his house. He wanted to stop by to offer his condolences to the family and asked us if it would be ok if we waited. Of course, we said yes and patiently waited for him.

When he emerged from the sea of onlookers a bit later, we set off down a trail into lush greenery surrounded by massive rocks and carvings. He led us to the banks of the Tungabhadra River where we spent much of the morning exploring temples and enjoying the natural beauty.

Giant temples carved from stone loomed above the devout bathing in the river in droves, while signs warning of the dangers of crocodiles were etched in the rocks all along the banks. The day had heated up to extreme tempertures and Chandru got us off our feet and into a small egg-shaped coracle boat for a relaxing journey down the river. We ended near the ruins of the Vijayavittala Temple complex, enjoyed a cool beverage on its outskirts, and continued to explore.

Now declared a World Heritage Site, the massive temple complex took the better part of five decades to complete. One of the most amazing elements of the complex was the dancing room and musical pillars. Consisting of 56 pillars that were tapped to produce musical sounds, one cannot help but wonder what kind of incredible parties the king had in mind when he commisioned such a hall. To preserve the monument, visitors are not allowed to "play" the pillars, but there was a man working there that demonstrated the different tonal qualities of the pillars for us as he played intricate rhythyms for us.

Possibly the most photographed work of art in Hampi, the Stone Chariot, also housed inside the temple complex, is actually a miniature temple itself. It is an interesting piece and not to be missed in your tour of the temple area.

We stopped for lunch and parted with Chandru for the afternoon. The tour was well worth our money, as it provided us with much more information and insight than we could have ever retrieved from a guidebook. We spent the remaining part of the afternoon wandering around the old city area. Everyone was preparing for a festival the next day, and the shops and street vendors were bustling to get ready.

We headed out of town along the banks of the river to the west to enjoy a serene dinner at the Mango Tree Restaurant, located behind an expansive banana plantation. The outdoor restaurant sits on the banks of the river in kind of a stadium seating format. The quaint ambience and veg cuisine is truly enchanting and a great value.

The sun was beginning to dim by this time and Chandru had gone above and beyond his duties and had arranged us a trip to a pictureaque scene to watch the sun set. We took a rickshaw up a windy road outside of the city's borders and to the top of a gigantic rock formation and sat on the sun-heated rocks as the sun descended over the city. It was a great end to a great day.

We spent the evening at a restaurant on the outskirts of town and had a few drinks before heading to bed. We left the city the next morning amidst the beginning of the festival. The women were dressed in their most vibrant colors, elephants were being painted, and the men were preparing to pull the chariots. The holy city was alive with energy and the people were ecstatic. We wanted badly to stay, but our bus was leaving, and we had to be back to work the next morning.

Some things to remember when visiting Hampi:

The city is a holy place and alcohol is not allowed within its limits. However, one can go across the river in a coracle boat to the other side and have a drink if interested.
Hampi is a strictly veg city. Those wishing for non-veg cuisine can also travel across the river.
Smoking is also not permitted within any holy area.
There are numerous accomodations within the city and it is not necessary to book in advance outside of the high season.