We took the train to Hampi, which was in itself an experience. All the seats were actually sleeping bunks, as it was an overnight train. This is only train ride in my experience traveling I’ve seen people climb as agilely across bunks as a monkey might. It was incredible to witness the convolutions the lanky men would take to move around people without so much as a toe touching the floor.
The class we were traveling in did not have a formal food car, but chai wallahs and snack sellers came through on a relatively regular basis. To this day whenever I get a chai (tea, latte, iced) after this trip, I hear echoed in my head the nasal, booming uptalk call of the chai wallahs announcing you could buy tea from them.
Once we arrived in Hampi we settled into a guesthouse of a woman of one of the local castes.
The caste system, if you aren’t familiar with it, can be quite puzzling, especially knowing India is a democracy. The concept of caste is tied to the concept of reincarnation and karma – that is, the family, and caste, you’re born into you’re born into because it reflects the deeds (or misdeeds) of your previous lives, and thus, you are where you are supposed to be in this life.
Regardless of how you feel about the caste system, it exists, quite persistently, alongside the Democratic India. Actually it wasn’t until I read Luce’s ‘In Spite of the Gods’ that I realised India was a democracy – effectively, the largest democracy in the world. I didn’t know what India’s government looked like, it was one of the few things about India which really never crossed my mind.
But back to Hampi. Caste or not, democracy or not, our Indian warrior-caste hostess was a lovely and welcoming host. Her food was amazing. I was always amused when Jack Johnson’s ‘Blueberry Pancakes’ came on in her music. I liked to think some blonde, gorgeous Australian surfer dude left it with her on his way to Goa. Who really knows, though.
Hampi is interesting because it’s build in and around such an extensive temple structure of one of the old kings of the region. Which was why were were there. A lot of very well preserved temples, with some stunningly unique architecture.
Additionally, the entire town, save for one restaurant who charged you an exorbitant amount to go outside with a machete and chop the head off a chicken, is completely vegetarian. Most places in India simply won’t slaughter beef; Hampi was completely meat free.
The landscape in Hampi is stunning; for India it’s rather unheard of. A rocky coastline, with lots of smooth, large, boulders, like they were placed there just so. This was the kind of landscape I could stare out at and number the stars.
We were on our way to one temple or another and had to cross a river – basically in large woven baskets in the shape of woks – driven skillfully through currents by locals. It took a while for the previous crossing to come back so we had a chance to explore. I took that as my cue to walk in a random direction and see what I found.
What I came across was a little gated temple with stunning views across wide vistas of barren rock. And then an Indian family came by, and their son – probably a little older than me at the time, mid-twenties – asked for his picture with me. It was awkward, but I accepted. I wasn’t yet sick of the practice, found it’s novelty intriguing and tended to indulge it.
The temple I wrote about for my seminar thesis was in Hampi. It was big, and old. There were lots of carvings, and if I remember correctly, it was a Shiavite temple dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey king. It was a dead temple, though there were still some live temples in Hampi which we went to receive darshan.
Darshan, translated simply, means something along the lines of ‘seeing’. You are seeing the God in front of you, witnessing them. This direct connection to the deity through their idol is one of the strongest religious experiences I’ve had, an intensely personal connection amplified by sounds and smells and colour. So different and yet so similar to the Catholicism I grew up with.
I collect tattoos for the places I’ve been to which have made an impact on me. I have a lotus on the back of my neck for India, to remind me of the experience, of the way I learned to look at life through a different lens, appreciate colour and laughter more and recognise silence and grow comfortable with the contemplation it affords.