Sunday, December 29, 2013

"There isn't a train I wouldn't take" (from Selected Poetry)

If you like appreciating life’s leisurely pace, are not in a mad hurry to reach somewhere and follow the adage that the journey is more important than the destination then trains, according to me, are your best bet when it comes to mode of travel.

Train to sunset (Image : Google)
 I have often wondered what makes train journeys so fascinating.

Large windows (I am talking AC class here) that offers unlimited stretch of sky looking down indulgently at you while you sway to the gentle jhik-jhik rhythm? The memories of childhood when the entire family took vacations together which cannot be recreated again? The new friends one made over the long, unhurried journey - co passengers with whom one shared biscuits, bhujia and other savouries and opened those parts of their life which otherwise is suitably masked? The lazy afternoons when the sound of wheels touching the fish plate acted as the perfect lullaby gently rocking a compartment full of restless humans to doze off peacefully? The smiles one exchanged with co passengers on spotting a chaiwala at some ‘junction’ halt right at a time when there was a nip in the air and the soul craved some warm liquid? Or was it the childlike enthusiasm with which everyone asked each other ‘which station’ as the train stopped unscheduled at some lonely one horse town middle of the night? 

Photograh courtesy : Sudipto Chakraborty

For me train journeys by default mean new books; the wheeler company’s stall has acted as a pilgrimage site prior to the start of all journeys. Yashwantpur Railway Station (Bangalore) somewhat disappoints me; it houses Gita Press ONLY in the platform that I frequent. In spite of my spiritual inclinations, I prefer reading different genres while on train. Once upon a time my regular quota was 2 fictions – 1 crime thriller + 1 Mills&Boon and 1 mindless film gossip magazine. Crime thriller has stood test of time; I still devour them with gusto while the landscapes change outside my window.

Photograph courtesy: Soumyajit Chakraborty

Each time I travel by train I feel much at peace and alive simultaneously idly munching on chocolates, finger loosely placed on the page when the murderer is still at large while soaking in rural India at its picturesque best – soothing endless green fields, cows meditating in groups, crows accompanying  me in my journey, slightly unkempt but very happy looking kids returning from school (how different they look from the activity class laden city kids), women cleaning clothes perched on the  steps of the village pond,  gently rolling hills at a distance – everything and everyone looks so unhurried and rooted.

Image : Google
I believe that train journeys have the capability to take us to places otherwise unreachable - places that can only be appreciated from the door or window of a train. 

There is GOD and he is looking out for me. 
Out of the blue we got upgraded to 1st class as we were to board the YPR – HWH Duronto for our impending Calcutta (yes, yes I will always address it so; name change be damned) visit one clear blue skied morning 1st week of December. 
Ah the blinding colours!
 "Duronto" means "restless" in Bengali.These trains do not have any ticketing stops between the origin and the destination though they have technical halts for change of crew and catering.  Now, while I love train journeys and undertake them on and off I have never traveled first class. 

There is something rather old world exotic about it. The moment you perch yourself in those wide berths inside a coupe you feel as if you are wearing a vintage lace gown, your maid waiting diligently with your vanity case somewhere close by and you badly want to start commanding in a soft, ladylike voice. Okay, I admit. I have read far too many Victorian novels. 

Cut to present tense. It was sheer luxury. As soon as the train started an IRCTC representative introduced himself and handed me some nice smelling tissues.

And then the super efficient catering service guys took over. They were polite, helpful, made us feel really well looked after and served freshly cooked, delicious meals!  Tea, soup, dinner, breakfast and lunch before you roll out are served with alacrity, courtesy and yes, a smile; the mismatched crockery did not matter. I had the best roast chicken, spaghetti and cheese balls of my life; if I had the money I would have hired the cook. And for the quintessential Bengali who ordered Indian Thali, they even served crispy aloo bhaja with dal.  Heaven on earth I tell you J
FYI: Jhur-jhure aloo bhaja * with dal is like fresh oxygen, get the drift?
Jhur jhure aloo bhaja (Image : Google)

I secretly wished for a murder or at least a romance that one can witness wistfully (remember Murder at the Orient Express and Before Sunrise and our very own Ray’s Nayak?) but alas all that did not happen.

Nayak starring Sharmila Tagore and Uttam Kumar.
There were of course the regular culprits – cute kids, one of them even offered me his plastic animal kingdom to play with and two fidgety, severely black hair dyed aunties who complained about floors not being spic and span. This, in spite of floors being cleaned at regular intervals with a nice smelling liquid! My curiosity was met with “Madam lizol ke saath ek phenyl jo bas Mumbai mein milta hain usko milane se yeh khusboo aata hain”. What TV and print ads and my maid’s incessant nagging could not do, this confident statement did. I am now a Lizol convert. Very soon I will source that Mumbaiwala phenyl too.

Inside a coupe (Image : Google)

I interacted with the guys who made the journey so memorable. Some slog out the long hours because they need the money to marry off unmarried sisters, some because their old parents need financial assistance and some because train and travel seems to be their calling. Next time you are on a train kindly do not take them for granted. As part of an outsourced team, it is a tough job with hardly any job security, very few sanctioned leaves, not a high pay and less hours of sleep. 
High handed passenger behavioural stories include one passenger who asked (not requested) for tea at 3.30 am in spite of being aware that these guys go to sleep only at around 11.30 – 12 in the night! Reason given: I have tea at that time in my house. Someone needs to realize trains are not what you call your own house.

Lush landscape as train chugs along (Image : Google)
Biswajit Chakraborty, from Konnanagr, is someone I will look out for when I take the Duronto again. 
A perpetual smiling face and concern for his colleagues and the passengers who he is duty bound to look after makes him stand out among others.  I saw him fetch medicine for a middle aged lady who was slightly skeptical getting down on her own when the train stopped suddenly at some station around 11.30 in the night. 
Having studied till 12th standard he managed a pan, cigarette shop for a few years. While at it he also sculpted religious figurines.  He took up a half security-half admin kind of post in an insurance company where he felt rather exploited as he was asked to do things which were not ‘honest’ according to him. He joined this job five years back and the sensitive artist in him is hurt with all the politics that is played around him. During the cyclone Phailin ** he and his team worked non-stop for nearly a week; they were stuck in Chilka for 25 hours while the passengers were ferried off in another train to their destination. His middle elder brother’s (whom we traditionally refer as Mejda in Bengali) wedding was upcoming and I did ask him to enjoy himself in the much deserved 5 days leave. One hopes the dreamer in him stays alive, always.

To do list in coming years: A leisurely journey in the Konkan Railways, Royal Rajasthan on Wheels and the Trans-Siberian Express 

Inside Palace on Wheels (Image : Google)


* Recipe for Jhuri aloobhaja  that can serve 2 -3 hungry souls :
 Ingredients: Potato (Big) – 2, Salt - As per taste, Turmeric powder – 1 tbsp, Vegetable / Mustard Oil  for deep frying
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Method: Peel the potatoes and grate them in juliens. Put them in a sieve and wash thoroughly under running cold water.
Once water drains put of the sieve, take a paper towel and soak all the water of the potato.
Place them in a bowl and add 1 tsp turmeric powder, salt (tastewise) and mix well.
Heat mustard oil in full flame. Lower flame and fry the grated potatoes in batches .Do not add too much at one go otherwise they will stick together.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Visit to the Vineyard

Let me start this blog with a confession.
Around eight years back, an old classmate had posted pictures of her visit to Napa Valley on Orkut. Yes, am referring to those prehistoric daysJ
That was around the same time in life when I was initiated to wine. Cannot say about others, but it took me a while to like, savour and celebrate wine. But the pictures, ah they had made me fall instantly in love with vineyards. The photographs captured the tranquility and simple beauty of the land; there was this particular photograph of the picturesque rolling hills planted with vineyards meeting the azure sky in the horizon - THAT vision had stayed with me since then.
Hence, when our plan for a day trip to Grover Vineyards got finalized, I was more than excited. I was ecstatic. Nah, I wasn’t expecting Napa Valley, but given that it is a bona fide vineyard was good enough to rouse my interest.  
Distance calculator:
Grover Vineyard is located at the foot of Nandi hills in a place called Dodaballapura, 40 kms towards north of Bangalore (so their site says). Trick question is 40 km north from which part of the city? From where I stay the vineyard is at a distance of approximately 63 kms. MG Road, considered city centre in Bangalore is approximately 6 kms from my place, so roughly it is located 58 kms from the city centre.

A bright blue, sunny mid-January Saturday morning, is when we four started the joy ride.
We were asked to reach there by 10.45 am by the person who did our bookings; we miscalculated the distance (we were under the impression that it is 40 km from MG road) and hence reached there at around 11.30ish. The drive through the concrete jungle, dust and traffic was boring; music and inane conversations kept our spirits high till we took a left from NH 7, towards Dodaballapura. 
Urban Jungle

Ah, such relief to the eyes! Once we hit the narrow road on our left, off the Highway, the scenery changed; the dull gray dust, huge smoke belching trucks and unfinished construction of something or the other gave way to a winding tar road flanked on both sides by tall, slender eucalyptus and few other not-familiar-with-their-names large tress. In certain stretches their branches met to form a canopy; the fresh air, soothing greenery and misty Nandi Hills at a distance created a relaxed atmosphere thus adding to the happiness quotient that I associate with travel.
On the way to Grover Vineyards

Note: One can book a personalized tour by calling up the winery or sending a mail to:
Charges are Rs 500 per head (on a weekday) and Rs 750 per head (on a weekend) that includes a visit to the vineyard and winery and also includes wine tasting (any four variants except La Réserve).  Food is available (fixed menu) at an additional cost of Rs 350 per person.

On reaching the winery, we were welcomed with a VIP badge and wrist bandJ
Child like enthusiasm took over me; seriously, I have never been in the VIP category! I immediately stuck the bright orange badge on my arm as a tattoo much to the amusement of others in the group.
THE VIP badge

We were led to the reception area where someone mistook us for a group of 30 photographers! I mean for God’s sake there were just four of us, but never mind that. We (especially me) sulked slightly; I was so looking forward to peace and quiet while lazily exploring the vineyard.  Luckily, our tour guide for the day Kavita, promptly pacified me that the big group was due only at 2 pm!
FYI: Kavita, a Grover employee is currently involved in the production side and is an informative, chilled out and helpful guide.

Since the vineyard is located around ¾ of a km from the winery, Kavita advised that we take the car instead of walking in the heat.
The entrance was non descriptive, except the bright bougainvillea which caught my eyes and the stray who impressed me with his polite behaviour and welcomed us. 

As we took a few steps inside, we came to a sudden halt, taking in the sight around us. The narrow uneven stretch of a road on which we stood, had vineyards all around us, as far as eyes could see.
Kavita explained that on our left side the grapes were being cultivated based on the ‘cordon trellis method’ whilst grapes cultivated on the right side was based on the ‘canopy method’. FYI - Indian farmers traditionally have been exposed to the ‘canopy method’ of cultivation only.

Li’l Gyan: Quoting Dr. Richard Smart, an expert on wine grape growing, “wine is a product of sunlight.” Wine is essentially a product of Photosynthesis; hence to get the best wine the winegrower must make the best use of sunlight. Trellising is the method in which the grape vine is trained to grow on wires or posts to expose its leaves and fruit to the sun and it is a key tool in wine growing.

We strolled around, posed quite a lot and soaked in the bright sun while Kavita patiently explained to me the number of labourers required during pruning, number of crops grown in a year and also shared a brief history on how Grover Vineyards came into being. We also discussed Michel Rolland, a little. As one walks ten-fifteen minutes from the entrance towards the interiors of the vineyard, there is a small Pump house. If you manage to climb the high steps, you reach the terrace which gives you a breathtaking view of the slopes all around flourishing with Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. 
Vista from the terrace

It is the kind of spot where you want to sit and have a lavish brunch, accompanied by wine, soulful music and great conversations.

We spent nearly 45 minutes in the vineyard and then headed back to the winery.

Kavita diligently showed us the various stages of production; we visited the storage plant, crushing unit, bottling and labeling departments. The technical knowledge imparted while visiting these departments went a little above my head. However two key take away for me:
a) This winery has 70 tanks (capacity 25,000l each) for storage and
b)  The bottling unit can produce 80 cases in an hour (I am not sure if that is impressive)

The barrel room is located a level below and that’s where the tasting session took place.
Barrel Room

The room was filled with warm yellow lights with opera playing in the background, a rather nice setting for tasting. It was a fairly big room, with barrels lined up on one side, sitting arrangement for tasting on the other side; one entire wall was filled with the bottled products. Few slices of cheese and some biscuits were kept ready on a plate to go with the wine.
Ready for tasting

Info: Grover Vineyard tour allows you to taste four varieties of their products. To taste La Réserve, there is an additional cost involved.

We selected Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Shiraz Rosé, and Cabarnet Shiraz.
Light banter accompanied (at some point the owner’s daughter had joined in too) the tasting, while the two men in the group kept themselves busy positioning tripods for their respective photo shoot.
Must mention, that while I have always preferred the white variant amongst wines, post the tasting, am sold on Rosé. Oh and the Viognier is a hit with me tooJ

We discussed wine tourism and they were open to ideas and even encouraged us to go for a picnic in the vineyard. However organizing a grape crushing festival and vineyard tour with lodging etc may require more time to finally happen.

Sharing some more gyan:
a)      A corked wine bottle (where the stopper is made of natural corkwood) is still a preferred option for special wines that need to be stored, over a long period of time. Since the cork is able to expand to fully fill the neck of the bottle, it keeps the bottle airtight thus preventing the wine from becoming undrinkable.
I personally feel that there is something very happy about the sound of opening a corked wine bottle.
b)      Once opened, the bottle should be kept horizontally so that the wine constantly touches the cork and keeps it moist.
However, the debate on whether corks or caps are better is a serious one. In fact, I think will read up George Taber’s “To cork or not to cork” for a deeper knowledge!

c) Also learned about ‘dropstop’ – an important accessory for anyone in charge of pouring wine. (Please read details at:
Photo shoot ;)

By the time we finished (tasting wine and clicking some more photographs), we were famished. The buffet lunch was spread out in the garden area, next to which was a cute little pond. There was a mid sized cage next to the pond that housed two brown rabbits. Few well fed white ducks roamed around, looking trifle disgusted with us humans while we hungry souls remained focused on the biryani and wine. 
Out for a leisurely stroll
a)      They do not accept plastic money.
Given that the company is interacting with consumers directly through these tours there is a high chance of converting them to loyalists. There should be an option of purchasing a bottle or two, once the customer is impressed enough (mostly post tasting). Most of us do not roam around with extra cash these days and we though we wanted to purchase a bottle each, we left without doing so.

b)      Lunch was what you call a ‘slight disaster’.
The big group of 30 photographers (all the way from  UK) had also joined us for lunch and given that all of us had paid for it in advance, it did turn us off when we realized that food was scarce. Since there was only one main dish – biryani, we all were left with no options but to remain half fed!  

As I headed back towards Bangalore, lulled by the sun, satiated with wine and endowed with additional knowledge, I had a smile of contentment. I will in all possibility go back.

Napa valley, someday we will meet. Someday, I will watch a sunset with you. But till then, the not-yet-sexily-named valley at the foothills of Nandi Hill will do for meJ

Monday, December 12, 2011

Ruins of Hampi - Stones CAN and DO speak!!

Hundreds of years ago, in a kingdom far, far away, ruled a king who was known for his bravery and kindness. People talked about his magnificent kingdom in far away lands; the mighty king had two queens; the younger one was incredibly beautiful and an acclaimed dancer. 
Sounds familiar? Ah yes! Thus started the fairy tales, spinning their magical web, about kingdoms where the sun didn’t set, where trees were laden with fruits all year round, flowers bloomed irrespective of seasons and the people were satisfied and happy with life.
Well, one outgrows bedtime stories and then school happens to you and the very boring history curriculum spoils all the fun. You have to mug up so much without ever visiting the real place that you feel totally disconnected and as a result - hate the kings, their queens, every man who was ever a part of their kingdom and obviously the poor history teacher!
My interest in historical places started much later in life; somewhere in my mid twenties when I first took a stroll around Shahjanabad or Old DelhiJ And since then the love has grown manifold. The ‘ruins of Hampi’ has been on my must visit list for nearly a decade.

Till I set foot there, I had no idea that long forgotten tales from childhood - that of kings who were brave and wise and far sighted can still hold me captive. You need to inhale the fresh, unpolluted air of Hampi, close your eyes and listen. Listen to the clouds that float over the ruins, the sun that swathes the land with its golden rays from time to time and the colossal boulders strewn hills that stand solemnly all around you; you can hear their faint whisper narrating the tale - the tale of erstwhile Vijaynagara empire.  

Just to revive your memory!
Hampi (Humpi or Hampe), a UNESCO world heritage site is situated on the banks of river Tungabhadra and formed one of the core areas of the capital of Hindu empire Vijaynagara (The city of victory) from 1336 to 1565.  The kingdom was established by two brothers - Harihara and Bukka and reached its zenith under the rule of King Krishnadevaraya. The empire was finally overthrown by the Deccan sultanate who post capturing and killing Rama Raya (Krishnadevaraya’s son-in-law and considered very powerful) in the battle of Talikota, plundered Hampi and its surroundings for months, reducing it to a ruinous state in which it remains. It was never re-occupied.
The ‘ruins of Hampi’ is more of an open museum showcasing history, architecture and spirituality – one can take their pick!

Bangalore - Hampi:
Now that we own a SLR, Hampi started blinking bright on ‘No.1 place to visit’ before the year ended. The trip was planned with 4 of us keen on unraveling history. AR backed out last moment and rest of us started one bright sunny morning from Bangalore.
Hampi or rather Hospet (the nearest town 12 kms away) is well connected with rail and roads. We prefer undertaking road trips and honestly it is nice to have your own car to move around in Hampi.  
The journey was quite uneventful. The distance between B and H is 350 kms which we managed in 6.30 hours with 2 breaks. Getting out of Bangalore is always a pain until and unless you diligently leave home sharp at 5 am, but on most of our road trips we get delayed.
Bangalore to Tumkur as usual consisted of nonsensical traffic. The stretch between Tumkur and Chitradurga was awesome; it is a four lane highway, part of Golden Quadrilateral project and reminds you of Hollywood road flicks. Yes, there are also sunflower fields and windmills dotting the horizon to complete the effect!

There is Kamat Upachar and 2-3 more such joints on the way, where you can stop for a South Indian breakfast and strong filter coffee, but I do miss the North Indian dhabas; nothing like paratha, bhurji and pickles to cheer you upJ
Once you hit Chitradurga and take right on NH 13, the person who is driving stops having fun. There are loads of trucks plying, the so-called National Highway is actually a narrow stretch of road with two way traffic and one needs to be rather alert. We kept our spirits high by listening to random (read: Emran Hasmi type) Bollywood numbers and cracking mindless jokes till we suddenly came across something that looked like a sea. It was out of the blue and we were so NOT expecting it, that we were dumbstruck.
Breathtaking! That is the only word to describe the Mighty Tungabhadra reservoir. It is so vast that you seriously cannot see the bank on the other side. Few clicks happened (what is the use of having a good camera if you don’t capture every other scene that catches your fancy?) and we headed towards Hospet.

Hospet is like any other regular tier 2/3 town in India - lots of two wheelers plying on the narrow roads, a wide variety of medium sized shops, all kinds of ATM’s and a standard Gandhi Chowk with Gandhiji’s bust adorning it. Two points need mention:
a)      We got a little lost; too many people gave us too many directions (there were hardly any signs informing us which way to go). Some kind soul even said, “Hampi is beyond Hotel Mallige”, as if we knew all about Hotel M’s location!!
b)      People were actually speaking fluent Hindi. Yes, it does feel strange; we have relocated to Bangalore 4 years back and the junta here gets pretty stressed if you try conversing in the NATIONAL languageJ (On few occasions I had to actually spell out in B’lore “No Sir, I am not from North India; but yes, we Indians do need a common language!)

Places to stay in Hampi:
a)      Lots of people prefer staying in Hospet. It does give you a choice of hotels to suit every budget, but ideally not the best option. You will miss out on the charms of quaint little Hampi; not to mention the magnificent sunrise and sunset.
b)      KSTDC Hotel Bhubaneshwari in Kamalpura (we chose this option; its 3.5 kms from the ruins and has modestly clean rooms and a lovely garden. Also had 3 cats and 1 kitten that was damn cute. The rates for semi deluxe A/C room start at 1500/- night, which is quite affordable. They serve terrible chilli chicken and awesome masala peanuts for snacks)
c)      Guest houses/ home stays in and around Hampi Bazaar and across Tungabhadra. One needs to of course take a coracle ride to reach the other side of the bank. I am petrified of drowning, so this option was out for us.
You also have fancy resorts – Kiskinda Heritage and Hampi Boulders to choose from.

Day 1: Stones can and do speak!
We were to meet our KSTDC approved guide Lokesh at the hotel foyer at 8.30 am.  Post a good sleep and filling breakfast (the bread was fresh, omlette was so-so) we were geared up for the tour; our internal batteries fully charged. I had my printout ready and we had already discussed with Lokesh that we needed to tick all that was on my listJ
We drove approximately 3 kms on a lovely winding road with lush green fields on both sides; there was a slight breeze and one could spot the boulder strewn landscapes at a distance. As the car took another turn, we suddenly came face-to-face with two lovely ancient temples and mammoth boulders strewn all across us. There was a collective hiss from all of us. We were so not expecting to come face-to-face with something so beautiful and vast and gorgeous- all rolled into one!

The Kadalekalu  Ganapati Temple

My one line definition of Hampi (since then) is: Hampi catches you totally unaware; you take a turn and suddenly an invisible curtain lifts and transports you back to another time, hundreds of years ago!

 FYI: There is a parking just before entering the Hemakuta hill region, where no parking fees are required for your vehicle; whereas if you park closer to the Sasivekalu Ganesha, they charge you Rs 40. There are boys who sell pamphlets and booklets on Hampi for a rather cheap sum, and I bought myself a set.

Quick info: The Vijaynagara Empire had four main villages (according to our Guide) namely, Hampi, Kamalpura, Krishnapura and Vittalnagara. The architecture a combination of the Chalukyan, Hoysalan, Pandyan and Cholan flamboyant styles is made mostly of the locally available hard granite.

Hemakuta Hills:
We started our ‘walk back to past’ with Hemakuta (Hemakoota) Hills. There are two huge monolithic Ganesha images – Kadalekalu (gram seed) and Sasivekalu (mustard seed). I felt like a tiny tot standing in front of Kadalekalu Ganapati. The gigantic grey stone statue is 4.5 m high and is housed with open mantapa in front.

The mantapa is singularly classical in its architectural proportions and has tall, slender pillars with ornate carvings. On whole, it is a striking work of art; unfortunately the damn invaders have broken Ganapati’s round, cute belly!
This is how tiny we were in front of the huge monolith
A huge crowd comprising of schoolchildren landed up chattering incessantly and I was got a tad little sad that I will be distracted with their constant high pitched banter when all I wanted to do was cut out every other human voice and soak in the atmosphere, but to my relief they went in another direction and we started our stroll towards Virupeksha temple.

Approx 100 mts before entering the temple, there is a derelict stone façade on the left. Thinking it must be just-another-stone-ruin, we entered it casually.
When we saw, what we saw, we just stood dumbfounded for a minute. All around us were vast stretches of rocky sheets that had pre Vijaynagar era temples scattered all around. The horizon was dotted with some small sized raised platform kind of structures and our Guide informed that those were used as stages where one performed or sang praise of the King.
Hemakuta Hills
Rocky sheets
I have never, ever seen something like this. (I know I have already said this when I started, but that’s what Hampi does to you). 
We ran around like excited kids who have been left in their favourite playground. Innumerable pictures were taken; I even decided to roam the entire area barefoot. It was my way of feeling one with the people who have walked the same stretches barefoot seven hundred years back. 

On the top of the hill, there is a three tier, flat roof temple from where you get a bird’s eye view of the ruins. Lokesh,  our Guide was thoroughly hassled with us and on his insistence, we finally started making our way to the Virupeksha Temple.

FYI: Since Lokesh (our Guide) had worked out an 8 hour package with us, he was keen to show us all the important landmarks before sunset when the ruins are closed for visit for the day.

Virupaksha Temple:
The magnificent nine storeys east facing Gopuram of the temple, visible from quite a distance is one of the most prominent landmarks of Hampi. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, it is believed to be one of the oldest functioning temple of India (uninterrupted since 7th century AD). It also has sanctums dedicated to Pampavati and Bhuvaneshwari, Lord Shiva or Virupaksha’s consorts. Entry fee is pretty cheap (Rs 5/person) while fees for carrying camera is hefty. 
Royal Emblem
On entering you get to see Vijaynagar’s emblem carved on stone on your right and as you take few more steps ahead, you meet Lakshmi. She is the in-house pet elephant, gentle and well mannered and in exchange of bananas and coins, he blesses you with her trunk.  
Gopuram - as seen between two boulders

The temple is huge and needs at least more than an hour for detailed viewing. It was also quite untidy (I have no idea why Hindu temples do not stress on cleanliness) and since we landed just after celebration pertaining to Lord Kartikeya, the floor was slippery as hell (Prakash explained it was a result of milk bath of deities).
Intricate work on Gopuram

The mural panel on the central hall and the pinhole camera effect that one gets to see behind the main sanctum caught my interest. There is a dark chamber with a slit in the hall and when the sun rays pass, one can see the inverted shadow of the main Gopuram on the stone wall. Local belief is that ‘If you touch the tip and pray, you are most likely to go to heaven on your death’.
Detail on this temple can be read at:

Once you step out of the temple, you come face-to-face with the crowded Hampi Bazaar. History says Hampi was well known for its bazaars; merchants from far away places gathered here to show off their wares. Besides gold, diamonds, horses and cows which formed the main trade materials, the markets boasted of a variety which impressed even visitors from foreign shores! They were well laid out in neat rows, paved with stones, and also included residence for the merchants and stables for their horses.
Peddling wares
 Few of the stone chambers still exists full of cluttering 21st century shops. They sell turkish pants, brightly coloured kurtas, semi-tacky looking gypsy bags, toys, hand made musical instruments, mineral water and small artifacts’ made of plaster-of-paris which somehow has a stone look. There are innumerable ‘3-rickety-wooden-benches’ kind of eateries, claiming to have a mention in Lonely Planet. They did not look hygienic, we gave them a pass and walked on.
The bazaar
If you keep walking straight, you hit the police station (a rather cute affair) and the handicraft bazaar which is a dimly lit, long room which has rows of bedsheets, handkerchiefs, gypsy bag (yet again), few products made of hand made paper and other sundry items. Not much to choose from, but I did manage a stone chariot replicaJ
There is a winding lane on the left once you step out of the Virupaksha Temple; it takes you to the banks of Tungabhadra for a lovely trek-cum-walk which we missed and plan to take up next time!

Lakshmi Narasimha
On our way back to the car, we also checked out Lakshmi Narasimha (The largest monolithic statue in Hampi; it is an interestingly carved statue of Lord Narasimha sitting in a yogic position on the coil of seven headed nag, Sesha) and Badavalinga.

Next stop: Zenana enclosure, Lotus Mahal, Elephant stables:
The queens lived lavishly indeed! That was my thought as I strolled the vast garden here. The secluded, walled area reserved for royal women has a huge bath, massage parlour, sprawling garden and a lotus shaped hall which was the meeting place for the queens. (Polygamy was not unlawful back then)

Lotus Mahal
The Lotus Mahal, the main attraction, is a two storied, pastel coloured arched pavilion which is a blend of Indo-Islamic architecture. The roof of this structure consists of nine pyramidal shikaras of varying sizes, the central one being the tallest. From the top, it appears like a blooming lotus, giving the palace its name.

The Queen’s Palace (only the basement remains) is located at the middle of this area; measuring 46 x 29 meters, in fact this has been the largest palace base excavated in the Hampi ruins so far.

Elephant stables
The elephant enclosure is right next doors and consists of 11 chambers dedicated to the eleven elephants who served only the Royal Family. The chambers are airy, spacious and have beautiful carving. The middle chamber is extra elegant with three tiers and apparently housed the elephant who carried queen Bhubaneshwari during Dasara procession.
On one side, there are abandoned rooms meant for mahouts and on the other side there was the elephant treasury which is in shambles.

However, some researchers claim, that the entire area was actually Rama Raya’s secretariat; why otherwise would you have stables just next to the queen’s living area!

IMP: The same ticket which you purchase while entering Zenana enclosure, is valid (only for the same day) for entry at the Vittala Temple and the nearby Elephant Stables. Preserve the ticket.

There is a museum outside the Zenana enclosure, if you have time, you can take a closer look at a lot of statues that has been excavated.

Hazara Rama Temple:
I remembered this from a story read during my teens and was very excited to finally see it first hand. This is located south east of the zenana enclosure and is much smaller than the other temples indicating that it may have been a private temple for the Kings.
Hazara Rama Temple - Just see the artwork!

View from inside Hazara Rama
The 'Break Dancer'
Sculpted friezes, depicting Ramayana, covers every inch of the outer wall. Inside the temple there are black granite pillars exquisitely carved and had images of Krishna, Mahishahsur mardini (the Bengali in me was pleased with this) and also that of a break dancer! Break dance, in those days!!
James Brown, now I know that you didn’t invent it J

To liven up the quiet atmosphere, there was a gay couple, dressed identically in yellow t-shirts and black Turkish pants (representing yellow/ black cabs) who took nearly 1000 photographs of themselves oblivious to the architectural beauty all around!

We were famished (at least I was) and requested our Lokesh to suggest an interesting place where we could grab lunch. He named a place called Mango tree and further mentioned that it is a vegetarian joint. Traumatized upon hearing “only veg”, we requested him to take us to an alternate eatery and he decided to take us to a place called Hotel Ashoka near the main bus stop.

The interesting tale of two sisters: On our way to the bus stop, as we crossed two mammoth boulders touching each other precariously, Lokesh narrated an interesting tale.
Apparently, there were two sisters who once got lost in a mela in Vijaynagar (uff, this is sheer Bollywod in 60s); they took shelter in a place where a holy man was meditating. Since their chatter disturbed him, he turned them into stones. Rather than using magical powers to help them he turned them into stones? A very unhelpful, rude man, if you ask me. I wish he mentioned how to lift the curse; someone may have freed the sisters who have stayed like this for years!!

Hotel Ashoka is beyond definition. Not that we were expecting a five course meal in a posh joint, but goodness gracious, it was the most dingy place where I have had food in the last decade. I was 100% sure, I will fall sick after eating there, but did not. I will still NOT recommend it to anyone.
From here on, we headed towards Vittalnagara (Vittalpura) & Vittala Temple:

On the way to Vittalswamy temple
For me, this place is what made the Hampi trip so endearing (apart from running around barefoot on Hemakuta Hills). This place is sheer goosebumps; you must visit it to feel it. 
A similar winding road with plantations on both sides take you towards Vittalnagara; once you pass by main entrance to the village/ town and cross the stone house of the gatekeeper of the erstwhile town, you seriously wish that instead of a car you were riding a horse! 
The winding road takes you through a completely deserted town till you reach a point where cars are allowed to park. 

You can either walk for ten minutes or board a battery operated vehicle (rate Rs 10/ person), much like an elongated golf cart that takes you to the epicenter of Hampi’s attractions – The Vittala temple.
Interestingly, ALL these vehicles were being driven by women! When we asked for more details, we were told that this was on a trial basis, and if it worked out, the same system would be implemented all over Hampi. It was nice to see this little empowerment project.

The Gopuram of the Vittala Temple is severely damaged, but once you enter the courtyard, you are struck by the sheer beauty of the structures. 
The stone chariot takes its proud place in the centre of the courtyard and I stood transfixed next to it for some time – it is a sheer piece of art!
Stone Chariot
The wheels used to move earlier, but now they have been fixed because tourists would manhandle them. There were few art students who were intently doing water colour/ pencil sketches and I loved some of their work.

Wheels of stone chariot
Inside temple compound

The temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu houses a Kalyan Mantapa (marriage hall) and a Maha Mantapa. The main highlight of the MahaMantapa is its richly carved giant monolithic pillars. The outermost of the pillars are popularly called the musical pillars. These slender and short pilasters carved out of the giant pillars emit musical tones (can be heard till a distance of 1.5kms) when tapped and they also reproduce the sound of various musical instruments.

Musical pillars
 The technology behind how the music emanates it is still a mystery; the British did try finding out by neatly cutting two of those pillars (they are now found in Chennai museum) but they did not succeed in their quest!
The irony is that touching them has been barred. Guess why? Indian tourists being what they are, they had been damaging what had been left untouched by the marauders years back. It is such a shame.

There is simply too much artwork all around, each pillar has and interesting story. I think, one needs at least 5-6 hours to grasp all that is there. There are points in the courtyard, from which you get a good view of Tungabhadra and after loitering around for some more time, we headed back.
Temple courtyard
 The clouds had darkened in the horizon, and we went back towards Hampi to visit Mahanavami Dibba (and watch sunset): This was the last leg of the day’s tour.
King Krishnadevaraya constructed this in commemoration on the victory over Udaygiri (now in Orissa). Legend is that the king used this platform to watch the army march-pasts, war games, aquatic sports, shows of the royal animals, musical performances and also the most important Navarathri celebrations, the nine day-nine night state festival. And this was the annual occasion the governors of various provinces under the king visited the capital to pledge their loyalty to the king’s dominion. For the king it was an event to demonstrate the imperial pomp and power at his disposal.
View from Mahanabami Dibba
From a distance this looks like an ordinary elevated square stage. As you go close, the details emerge. The whole structure is made as a giant square structure in three layers. There are mainly two stairways to reach the top.
The front one (east facing) is highly decorated on either sides with carvings of elephants, horses and a host of other things. At the back of the platform a twin staircase is located. Probably this was used as a service staircase during the ceremonies.
On the top there is nothing special to see except the great views all around it; honestly I have not seen such a large undisturbed view of the sky for a long, long time. Mornings or evenings are preferred time of visit, as this vast enclosure does not have shades.
There is also a large Puskarini or a step tank close by.

We returned dog tired to our hotel and spent the rest of the evening chatting, guzzling drinks, discussing the places seen and revisiting it through the snaps clicked.

Day 2 (Bit of a dampener for me):  Started bad; I woke up with severe body ache and realized that I should have been more careful and taken it a bit easy. Nearly 2.5 months of illness, innumerable courses of antibiotics followed with strict instructions of not exercising had left me in a “not at all’ fit mode. Post breakfast, shower and roaming inside the hotel compound (Iramma, the main porter informed me that our Presiden,t the severely saree clad Ms. Patil had visited them sometime back), we drove back towards Hemakuta Hills. 
Local kids who wanted to be clicked

Loitered for 2 hours amongst the rock sheets and boulders and had a whale of a time. It was drizzling and we did have a nice time taking in the beautiful view all around us. 

Post lunch, I stayed back at the hotel, while the husband and friend visited Matanga Hills to watch the sunset. 
Sunset @Matanga
They came back ga-ga and from the pictures I could see that it must have been one glorious sunsetJ
The Veerbhadra temple on top of the hills (the only temple where prayers are performed 24x7x365) also forms one of the important vintage points from which a good and picturesque view could be had of the Hampi monuments.

Ruins of Hampi is “I-cannot-really-put-it-in-words” experience. It is truly a traveler’s paradise; every turn springs a surprise, every monument hides more than what they reveal. The mammoth boulders that forms the ruins stands the test of time; they stand testimony to the high level creativity of the artisans and the highs and lows of the various dynasties that were once a part of the magnificent Vijaynagara empire!

My two bit suggestion to the ASI:
a)      Can there be more toilets? And a compulsory rule that states that children should not be seen relieving themselves on the road? I mean, are we all not supposed to treat heritage sites more seriously than an open lavatory?
b)      Maybe the ticket prices should be increased so that you do not have unruly crowd trying to spoil what is left? Or maybe more security?

Day 3: The return journey was peaceful. The sole highlight was the lunch at Hotel Aishwarya Fort @Chitradurga. Finger licking good food. I recommend to everyone who travels by Chitradurga to stop there.

Hampi can be visited again and again – am sure some nook or corner will always be around to tell you one of the long forgotten tales! I am sure going back!!

Guide Lokesh: +91. 944.821.2579
Hotel Aishwarya@Chitradurga: 7184, Turuvanur, Chitradurga (Opp RTO office)

Photograph courtesy: Sudipto Chakraborty