A solo bike ride to Hampi when it wasn't mainstream. I didn’t know that I was going to a place that would become a part of me forever.
Date – Somewhere in July.
Time – 5:30pm.
Weather – Rainy, cloudy.
A solo bike ride to Hampi – at a time when the place wasn’t all over social media, and not many knew about it. Instagram didn't have influencers back then either. I had not seen any photographs or videos, nor met anybody who had visited the place. I didn’t know I was going to a place which would become a part of me forever.
There isn't much information on Google about the route, so XBHP to the rescue. The shortest, and what would be the fastest route once it’s completed, is Bangalore-Chitradurga- Hospet. However, it seems to be under construction ever since the Vijaynagar Empire and is a literal pain in the ass on two wheels. Hence the Bangalore-Tumkur-Hiriyur-Challakere route which though longer, is better than massive potholes swallowing your bike.
Pack basic shit in a small backpack, fill fuel, check the weather for the next day and sleep.
Day 1 - The stranger.
“That was the scariest ride of my 75 years”, uncle frowns blowing into his tea, “But I loved it”, he pauses to do a classic Bollywood villain laugh.."
I give the bike a final check and have chai. There are chances of rain, which I am prepared for, but not really looking forward to.
Time to go. If you live in Bangalore, you know that there isn't a better time to be out on the roads than early mornings, in fact it is the only good time. Getting out of the city is a breeze and then the ride slides into sixth gear with lovely straight highways till Tumkur to kick the sleep out with 140+ kmph speeds, sweeping corners to grind and beautiful highway side villages waking up to their usual routines. Slight drizzle welcomes me to Hiriyur, the heavy clouds though scary, make for great visuals. After Hiriyur the surroundings change and it's exclusively a countryside ride. The traffic is rare and I am almost riding alone. Google Maps estimated time was six odd hours from Bangalore, I shall be there in under 5. Them google timings are taking an ass whooping.
About 35 kilometres from Hampi an old uncle asks for a lift. Ummm, okay.
In the final few kilometers before you enter Hampi, you can feel the surroundings transforming. The highway gives way to narrower roads, paddy fields, huge peculiar boulders, temples, ruins and more boulders. Come down the final slope, turn left, and the mighty Virupaksha temple tells you that you have arrived.
Uncle asks me to go a little further down from the temple and turn right towards the Tungabhadra river. As we approach a couple of tea shops he directs me to park the bike near the stairs to the river. He asks the woman at the shop for two chais without even checking with me first. I never say no to chai.
It is beautiful, it really is. The drizzle, the beautiful Tungabhadra river with an Elephant bathing in the middle of it, bamboo shacks on the other side and the chai.
“That was the scariest ride of my 75 years”, uncle frowns blowing into his tea, “But I loved it!” He pauses to do a classic Bollywood villain laugh after which he tells me that I have to take the bike down the ramp to the river and put it on a boat to cross the river. “Wait, there is no bridge?” I ask. “40 kilometers around through Hospet”, he says as he nonchalantly sips his tea. I, however, think that this is when he should have done the villain laugh.
So, ten minutes later after bidding him goodbye, here I am - sitting on my bike on a small boat to keep it balanced. The boat is clearly overfilled and it is the most scared I have ever been on a bike. This has been quite a start.
Enter the Hampi Island
I take the bike off the boat on an ailing jugaad wooden plank and make a mental note that I was never doing this again. I am told that people do this daily. After safely getting the bike and myself away on shore, I ask the locals for directions to the place where I am supposed to stay, Laughing Buddha. It is a little farther down than the rest of the shacks and the market; I find my way, park the bike near the gate and walk towards the café area.
Damn! “This has to be the best view from a café in Hampi” are my first thoughts on entering the cafe, and as it turned out later, I wasn’t wrong. One guy who works there, Keshu helps me dismount my bags from the bike and leads me to the huts. There are two young dogs that have turned the whole place into their playground and want everyone to join them. I try petting them but they have too much energy to stay at one place. “Simba and Coffee”, Keshu gives me their introduction.
The accommodation is a cozy little bamboo hut with a small window letting in the sun. I leave my bags there and go to the restaurant and have the day's first beer with their set breakfast. The view from the cafe is something that I can't seem to get over, it is spell bounding. Years and several trips later, the feeling hasn’t changed. Vikky and Jeevan, from Nepal, who also work there, are rather excited to hear that I rode all the way here. They laugh and look at each other, “5 ghante se kam mein pahuch gaye”. I ask them about things to do and boy do they deliver. "Sunset point, Sanapur Lake, Hanuman Temple, Small Hanuman Temple, riverside; there are great views everywhere in Hampi. Take the bike, and just go explore. Sunsets aur sunrises miss mat karna." They would become close friends over time.
I take a nap to be ready for the evening. Sunset miss mat karna.
I get up and have a chai with some French toast. A lot of chai I know, but pahadi habits, can’t help. Their food is delicious - not your classic recipes, but they make them well.
The first evening’s choice of place is easy, sunset point, it’s the closest and Vikki tells me that there is a local musician who organizes a jam session where everyone is welcome. It is a nice walk through the market which is lined with handicraft and souvenir shops, guest houses and cafes. There are paddy fields on the other side. I also see the music shop on the way, doors open and no one inside; there are quite a few instruments kept there - didgeridoos, flutes, guitars, harmonicas and djembes. I ask for the owner in the neighboring shops, they tell me that he must be at the sunset point already. The door is always left open, I gather.
It’s a small hilltop, like several others, but I realize why it’s THE sunset point. It’s close to the main area, has a large plateau halfway up for the people who want to jam, and many boulders further up for those who just want to listen to the jam and watch the sunset. I go up, jump over a few crevices and make my way to the last lone spot which is a 3-4 feet jump between two rocks with a deep fall. If you want to make the jump, don’t look down. Once at the top, it’s not just any 360 degree view – you are actually spoilt for choice.
You could be looking in any direction and it would be the right view. The landscape is something straight out of ancient mythologies or comic books or movies - whichever you prefer. Paddy fields filled with water, reflecting the evening sun, followed by the never-ending layers of rocky hills and evening lights just starting to turn on far away in the town of Hospet. Then there is the Sun.
The jam session starts with around 7-8 people on different instruments, some seasoned, a few amateurs. Live music with beautiful sunset - I could get used to this. I spot the local musician; he is hard to miss in his all-white clothes.
The sun goes down behind the hills far away, lighting up the sky orange, hills and paddy fields slowly start fading to sleep. I set up my tripod to take a few photographs – the winds are fierce, I manage by hanging my bag to the tripod hook for support. The jam continues, no one wants to leave.
It’s gotten dark now, there is just enough moonlight to light up the way, so going back down wouldn’t be very difficult. I prefer not using a torch unless it is too dark. In a rocky terrain, the torch casts harsh shadows which might trick the eyes into mistaking a crevice for solid ground. I don’t like to fall.
I wander around for a bit in the market lane, the shacks are now lit and buzzing. I reach Laughing Buddha and order beer. The local musician is at the cafe with a few people jamming by a round table (this table would later become our permanent table). I take my beer and join them, his name is Gaali (meaning wind in kannada).He hands me an instrument which seems to be a smaller version of a hang drum, Hapi. I take it apprehensively, as I have never seen one before. “It’s impossible to make it sound bad”, Gaali says. I give it a go and he is right. The place transforms at night – the white stones in the river are glowing, as it reflects the moon. A single light shines on top of the Virupaksha temple. The beer, music and conversations continue late into the night.
Day 2 - Deepak sir and the secret lake.
05:00 “Sunset aur sunrise miss mat karna”
I love the mornings, it's just the getting up part that sucks. I take the bike and go to the hill where the climb to the small Hanuman temple begins. All the Hanuman temples are also somehow monkey hotspots. Monkeys are up early, they don’t want to miss the sunrise as well, I assume. Once on top, the view is mesmerizing. Here is the thing - in Hampi, every boulder is a view-point, no matter which direction you look in or where you climb.
You would have seen mountains, deserts, beaches and cities in person, through photographs or videos; but the possibility of your having seen a landscape as different and bizarre as Hampi is rare. I sit there with the monkeys for some time, we watch the Sunrise together, share a few moments, I guess, and then say goodbye.
It’s still pretty early so I decide to take a detour and head to Sanapur lake. If you like riding, either a motorcycle or a cycle, the inner roads of Hampi are a treat. Sweeping past the paddy fields on either side on the curvy roads bring back memories of Road Rash's Navada stage. You can see the walls of the lake from a distance, but only on coming real close do you realize that the water is right up to the brim, and almost spilling out onto the main road. Is there anything that’s usual around here? I find a spot, step in and take a quick swim. The lake is deep, so unless one can really swim, it’s advised not to enter.
On my way back down, I stop at a house cum shop for breakfast. This is near the ‘broken bridge’, which is literally that - a broken bridge. It still functions though, as the only connection between the Hampi Island and the other villages. At the shop, the family is serving homemade idlis and dosas and they smell tempting. I have 4 idlis, 2 dosas and one filter coffee for 100 rupees, thank them and head back to Laughing Buddha.
The cafe is buzzing and most people have already had their breakfast. The island wakes up early. I discuss my morning with Keshu and have some chai. I notice a man in his forties, salt ‘n’ pepper hair, lighting incense and praying towards the Virupaksha temple. I ask Keshu about him. "Deepak Sir. Yahan ke owner hain.”
Deepak Sir goes into his office - a small room next to the cafe and plays morning chants on the speakers. This is his everyday routine, Keshu tells me. I see him again later, planting seeds in a small area in front of the huts. It already has a few plants, but is far from being called a garden. I go up to talk to him.We discuss this hobby of his. “In 3-4 years, this area will transform completely. There will be herbs, papaya and banana trees in a year or so, and we can eat their fruits. They will also provide shade, which is if these guys don't destroy them", he points at Coffee and Simba laughing.
Later in the day as I spend time in the cafe, he calls me into his office for a smoke. We talk for hours; he does most of the talking. I can tell right away that he is a storyteller, and I like good stories. He tells me how he first came to Hampi around 15 years ago with his friends, and spent time wandering and not knowing what he wanted from life. He talks about how the island and its people ensured that he never leaves. "Magic hai yahan" he says several times during the conversation. "If it's meant for you, it will keep calling you back." He tells me about a secret lake that I could visit. “A very few people know about it or go there; it’ll be like your private space”. He tells me the name of a cafe and that the owner is his old friend, “Once you meet him, take my name, he will tell you the way. Just come back before its dark, sometimes wild animals come there to drink water,” he says casually.
I learn from him that when there’s heavy rainfall (which only happens once in a few years and hasn't happened in the recent past) the dam gates are opened, letting the excess water into the river. The small river that we see now at a distance hulks up, reaching the huts, submerging the grasslands as well as the rocks. I find it hard to comprehend, given that I’m sitting in lovely sunshine, looking at a river that is hundreds of meters away, barely 15-feet wide. He further explains that it also floods the broken bridge and the only way out then, in any direction, is on a boat. That is when this side truly becomes an island, hence the name.
In that moment, it sounds like one of those exaggerated rural tales. A few days later, I would be on one such boat
I spend the afternoon waiting for the evening, drinking beer and talking to Vikki and Keshu. Sunshine has now given way to moderate rain.
The rain has stopped now; I ride to the cafe which is around 25 minutes away. I meet the owner there and introduce myself. “Deepak’s friend is my friend. Have chai and then go.” I talk to him for a bit and he shows me the way to the ‘secret’ lake, “keep walking on this trail and it will take you to a large grassland, cross it from the left side and you will see the trail continue, pass the boulders and when you reach the top, walk a little further and you can see the lake.” His fingers drew imaginary lines on an imaginary map.
“Also, carry a stick with you since you are alone, there are animals at times.” Alright then.
I walk up the trail for about 15 minutes and realize that it’s blocked with branches and bushes – usually an indication that not a lot of people use this path. The trail keeps getting narrower as I walk up and then suddenly opens into a massive pasture ground, which has a sort of cricket pitch in the middle of it. My first thought is “what a place to play”, followed immediately by, “who the fuck would come all the way here to play?”
I can’t see anyone, just some cattle. I break a dry tree branch that will function as my stick. I take a left, as told, and the trail reappears and goes upwards. I try my best to follow, till it disappears amidst the rocks. After another 30 minutes of climbing and clearing bushes out of my way with the stick, I reach the top of the hill. The lake finally shows up.
There isn’t a human soul around, a lot of birds, a couple of dogs chilling, boulders in the backdrop and the sun preparing to set behind them – the scene is laid out. It is pretty much your private lake as promised.
Finding a new place or being at a beautiful unknown place alone is a strange feeling. There is that sense of accomplishment, (oh look what I found and it’s all mine to relish), but there is also this lingering wish of having someone with you to share the moment, if for nothing else, just so that years later when you are telling that story at a bonfire, you have someone who experienced what you did in that moment, or may be their own take on it.
I sit there on the rocks, listen to some music, pet the two dogs and then decide to walk down to the lake. The dogs come with me, they generally do. It’s quaint, one of the quietest sunsets I have witnessed. Three of us sit near the water and watch the evening pass. The sky and the lake turn yellow, orange, crimson and eventually go dark. It’s easy to lose track of the time at such moments.
I prepare to leave, but just then one of the dogs starts to bark and growl at the rocks above, I look up but don’t see anything. “Relax, there is no one there,” I tell the dog. The other dog too, as if on cue, starts barking into the same direction. I turn again to look, really hoping to not see anything, not a pair of bright eyes definitely. Just then, I hear something shuffle not so far away, once, and again, and then nothing.
To be continued...