India: Holi Shit, We Missed It!

March 20-24, 2017

The whole reason we “rushed” through Sri Lanka and the Maldives (besides the price of the latter) was because it was our goal to be in India for the Holi Festival. You may be familiar with the concept of Colour Me Bad/Colour Me Rad runs or various other colour throwing events held in cities around the world; in India, Holi represents the victory of good over evil, the end of winter, or the beginning of spring. It is primarily celebrated in northern India, but we did some research and found that it was still celebrated in Hampi, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka.

Hampi also happens to be on everyone’s must-do list of India and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It seemed almost too perfect.

Tracy, having wanted to attend Holi for the past 15 years, had recently found a montage on CNN of Holi pictures and videos and she did a countdown to Holi post on Facebook. She couldn’t believe we were just a few days away.

We had found a series of flights, overnight trains and less-than-ideal accommodations in order to be in Hampi for March 22, 2017… what turned out to be exactly 10 days after Holi 2017 had ended. 
Tracy and I both contend that we checked, double checked and triple checked that Holi was in fact on March 23rd, 2017 throughout the past year, but it was in fact on March 12-13th, 2017. 

How did this happen? A Google search immediately following the event revealed that Holi 2016 was on March 23rd, but we couldn’t have repeatedly searched the wrong year so many times. Could we have? 

Whatever happened, we missed it. Tracy’s 15 year dream remains unfulfilled; we fucked up! 

As we were getting ready to leave the Maldives, we saw all of the Holi 2017 compilation videos from around India and I could tell that the stinging reality really got to Tracy. Combined with the fact that we missed out on Jaffna, Sri Lanka because of our rush to India, the last few hours in the Maldives were rather somber. But, as much as I know how much this event meant to her, she took it in stride, reminding me “It is what it is.”

My sister, Kristin, who I hadn’t seen in over one-and-a-half years, was meeting us in Hampi to celebrate Holi and was then going to travel with us for two weeks. She was due to arrive in Bangalore on the same day so we couldn’t modify our plans to all remain south rather than take the train further north to Hampi only to go further south again.

From Malé, we took an evening flight to Colombo and then had 8 hours in the airport to kill until an early morning flight to Chennai and then a connecting flight to Bangalore, allowing us to arrive by 7am. 

This arduous and insomnia-inducing flight plan would have been worth it if we had hundreds of Indians throwing colours at us in a matter of hours but since that would be impossible unless that was just what Indians in Hampi did (obviously not), we were doing this for nothing (nothing against you Kristin!).

From the airport in Bangalore, we took a public bus into the main bus station in the Majestic district of the city. Much like Greenland was called Greenland to confuse Vikings upon their arrive to the barren ice, Majestic was anything but. Maybe shit-holestic or dumpestic were already taken. In fact, Majestic is known as a slummy neighbourhood even by local standards and is an area that most Indians avoid.

We had a guesthouse in mind and had to walk down some pretty seedy streets in order to find it where every man there (there were only men) was trying to bring us to their shitty guesthouse. We were led in circles more than once, in 50 degree heat, exhausted, and with our heavy packs on, and when I turned my back, Tracy’s ass was groped numerous times. 

Finally, since there was no street signage anywhere, one eager man directed us to the hotel we wanted and we got a typical budget room at a mediocre price. He wanted some rupees as payment but I couldn’t use my ATM card and he refused my 1USD and Maldivian Rufiyaas, so I just asked him to leave. We took a nap and then decided to see a bit of the city before heading to the night train. 

As we awoke and headed to the main intersection, we saw a man lying on the side of the road in the 50 degree sun, sweating profusely and clearly struggling, although we were not sure if he was simply on drugs or if it was something more serious. We sympathized and believed that with the thousands of people around, someone would help.

Our first stop was the Bull Temple, which is one of Bangalore’s oldest. It was built in the 16th century and contains a huge bull statue, said to be sculpted from a single piece of granite.

From there we went to the city market. Normally I could care less about markets but Tracy was very keen to visit and I soon understood why. 

Upon entering it was a feast for the nose and eyes: flower merchants as far as the eye could see. They were stringing flower offerings for worship and the aromas and colours were simply beautiful.

From there we saw the fruit and vegetable sections and were quite impressed by the quality of the produce. Definitely worth a visit. 

We strolled along the filthy exterior, brimming with rats, roaches and cows, and were soon face to face with a bustling Muslim market just next to Bangalore’s impressive Jama Masjid, where we saw a makeshift dentist stool and some women getting their teeth pulled out. 

Even though Church Street was under construction, there were still numerous restaurants, bars and other appealing establishments. This seemed like the place where Bangalore’s IT gurus (it is considered the Silicone Valley of India) come to unwind after their 12-hour workday. 

This district had many Western brands, big billboards and far less shady characters. We people-watched from the second story restaurant where we grabbed a bite to eat. 

It was already after dark and we made our way back to Majestic, passing the impressive Vidhana Soudha, where Bangalore houses its state legislature and the secretariat. 

Unfortunately, the man that we saw earlier was now lying there dead, in the same spot.

We freshened up and got ready to head to the train station located a convenient distance away from Majestic. 

Indian train stations have a very distinct smell, that of a shit, piss and vomit smoothie. We walked up and down the dark and crowded platform, which seemed more like a homeless shelter than a train station, quite a few times until I finally found that out-of-place whitie standing at the far end of the station, my sister! 

Kristin is my younger sister, but oldest and first travel companion. She has lived abroad for almost 10 years now and it is quite rare that we get to see each other, let alone travel together. It had been almost two years since we had last seen each other and so I was ecstatic to meet up with her in Asia and introduce her to Tracy. 

We boarded our 3-tiered AC class sleeper, caught up, and settled in for the night (I agreed to splurge on AC since Kristin was more comfortable with that idea). Nine hours later, we arrived in Hospet.

From Hospet, we caught a tuk tuk which would bring us the final 15km of our intended destination, Hampi.

Hampi is the location of the former Vijayanagar empire, existing between the mid-fourteenth to mid-sixteenth centuries. 

The city was home to around 500,000 people in its heyday and was a major place of trade with the rest of India as well as with other foreign empires.

We were staying in the Hampi Bazaar to be close to the action. We stayed at Rocky’s Guesthouse, run by the wonderful Rocky himself (not his real name).

We had our first of virtually every meal, except one, at Gopi Guesthouse (Gopi-guesthouse.com) and got ready to start our day. 

A short walk brought us to the imposing and impressive Virupaksha Temple

This temple is one of the city’s oldest structures and is one of its most impressive. Built in 1442, and measuring around 50m, it can be seen from almost anywhere in the surrounding countryside. 

We spent a good while touring its grounds, avoiding langurs and macaques (they’re everywhere and can be quite aggressive) and admiring the temple’s resident elephant. 

Since Hampi has had a troubled past with tourists being robbed, attacked and raped (it apparently reached its peak 10 years ago), every tourist is required to register at the police station. It is located just at the end of the ancient bazaar and I figured we could get that out of the way and decide what to do from there. 

Just before arriving, I saw a turn off towards some temples and figured we could just check them out before heading to the station. 

We followed a rocky path and were soon face to face with a beautiful landscape. From this lookout we could see the beautiful Tungabhadra River and the bizarre yet intriguing boulder-laden countryside. 

We continued along the path and before long we were surrounded by temples. Not as impressive as the Virupaksha Temple but still nice nonetheless. 

The principal temple here was the Kodandarama Temple. 

Next we saw an immense and opulent walkway which led to the next temple. This ancient corridor is called the Sule Bazaar and it led to the Achutaraya Temple. This temple has been described as India’s Ankor Wat because of its architecture and location surrounded by palm trees. It’s also located at the foot of Matanga Hill which we planned on climbing for sunset on one of our days in Hampi.

Since Kristin is dating a guy from Cambodia, she was extra diligent at finding similarities between the two temples and sending them to her boyfriend back in Siem Reap. 

We then walked through the entirety of the Sule Bazaar again and since it was over 40 degrees in this desert  and we only planned on going to the police station, I volunteered to run back to town to get us some water while the ladies rested at the thankfully shaded Varaha Temple. 

Once we were hydrated, we continued along to the Purandra Dasara Mandapa and the King’s Balance.

We were virtually alone during this entire time because everyone counselled us about walking while being exposed in the midday sun. What do they know?!

We finally reached the Vittala Temple, one of Hampi’s signature temples and a World Heritage site. 
It was constructed in the early 16th century and is considered the pinnacle of Vijayanagar art. It’s signature piece is a stone chariot that is featured on every cover of every book on Hampi. I was particularly smitten by this piece and made sure to capture photos from every angle. 

There is also a temple with musical pillars which “sing” when you touch them, but this was under construction when we were there probably due to too many people touching them. 

When we exited the temple, we were relieved to see a golf cart that was going back to the parking lot for a few cents. What we didn’t realize is that from the parking lot, we were over 10km from the Hampi Bazaar and would have to negotiate with a tuk tuk driver to bring us back to town. 

We asked to be dropped off at the police station and finally got to register, just before Kristin almost stole the police woman’s pen. 

From there, we went back to  Virupaksha Temple and spoke to a guide named Krishna who convinced us to do a bike tour with him the following morning. 

Not a bad first day! 

The following morning, after an early breakfast, we headed straight to Virupaksha Temple and waited for Krishna. Hanging around the temple was fun: looking at the beautiful saris as well as the massive grey langurs stealing food from oblivious locals. 

Krishna finally came and told us where to get our bikes. Upon seeing that Krishna would be leading the way on a motorbike, and swayed by the fact that we were in a 40 degree desert at only 8:20am, Tracy decided that she would hitch a ride with him instead of use her legs like us suckers. 

Despite Krishna telling us there would be no hills, our first ride was a pretty steep incline which left my sister and I pretty out of breath. 

It was worth it though because our first stop was at a beautiful monolithic Ganesh. Krishna told us this is India’s biggest Ganesh, who consequently also has India’s largest ass. 

It, like much in Hampi, was damaged from the Muslim Sultanate invasions that brought down the Hindu Vijayanagar empire, and we were told that if a temple or idol is damaged it can never be worshipped again (at least officially) and therefore becomes a monument.  

From there we were pleased that the next portion of cycling was downhill and we stopped at a Krishna temple  much to the delight of the man himself. 

This temple was rather beautiful and contained some really impressive Garuda sculptures.

Another downhill portion brought us to the Lakshmi Narasimha, the fierce aspect of Vishnu. This statue was remarkably intact and measured an impressive 6.7m high. 

Right next to it was the Badavi Linga, the largest Linga in Hampi which was unique in that it was partially submerged in water and is one of the few idols in Hampi that was not destroyed in the Sultanate invasions. 

We continued biking for another kilometre and a half and were soon face to face with the underground Shiva Temple, which was not actually underground back in the day, but was completely buried upon its discovery and remains below today’s ground level. 

We explored this temple but didn’t enter its main chamber due to the number of bats waiting to flutter into our hair. 

We continued along into the Royal Enclosure, a huge walled area housing various ancient buildings and structures belonging to the royal family. 

Our first stop was to the Pushkarani, or Queen’s Bath, an MC Escher-style water tank that was really quite impressive and provided a beautiful photo op. 

From there we went into an underground chamber that acted as a secret, sound-proof war room where the emperor would consult with his most trustworthy generals. 

This was right next to the Victory Tower, which was a pain in the ass to climb in these stifling temperatures, but well worth the amazing views of this sprawling royal enclosure. 

Krishna then led us to a small fertility temple, where you could see the Royal City’s signature sites without paying for them. 

These sites include the watchtower, the Lotus Mahal and the famous Elephant Stables. 

You could enter this enclosure with the ticket we had purchased for the Vittala Temple the day before but they needed to be seen on the same day, so we were all content with seeing them from afar, rather than repurchasing another ticket. The view was acceptable from the other side of the wall.

Then we stopped at a little museum that showed the site at the end of the 19th century, the end of the 20th century and just a few years ago. It was remarkable to see how little had changed over the past 100 years and how well preserved these structures remained after all this time. 

Our final stop of the day was at another Queen’s bath, which didn’t contain the same cool Escher-like aesthetics, but had a cool breeze and some welcomed shade. 

We then cycled back to town and rested before heading out again in the afternoon. 

We decided to climb Matanga Hill for the sunset and this was a great idea because it really is beyond hot here during the day and climbing hundreds  of steps in the blistering sun is a recipe for disaster. 

We walked down Hampi’s ancient bazaar and took a few pics with the Monolithic Nandi (giant bull) before taking a turn and trying to find the right path that would begin our ascent towards the hill (think raw desert, not clearly marked trails).

On the way, we were provided simply amazing views of the Achutaraya Temple. From this view, we could all really see the similarities of Angkor in Cambodia. Stunning!

From here the ascent became more treacherous and steep, with good size crevices in the rocks. One portion left Kristin with a mild case of vertigo. 

Despite this, we made it to the top and were absolutely blown away by the 360 degree views we were given on top of this modest temple on Matanga Hill.

We had a great view of the Virupaksha Temple as well as the Achutaraya Temple on the opposite side. You could also see the Tungabhadra River in the distance as well as the royal enclosure. Truly a site to behold! 

We spent quite some time up here alone before some other tourists climbed up and joined us. 

As the sun had just passed the horizon, we made our way down, wanting to avoid plummeting to our deaths in the dark. Good choice I think. 

Since Krishna had done such a good job the day before, we decided to use his services again for the following day and signed up for a motorbike tour on the other side of the Tungabhadra river.

So, the next morning, we took a small boat to the opposite side of the river, known as Virupapur Gaddi. This was where the hippies had first started hanging out when they explored this region. 

Because Hampi is a sacred place, no alcohol or meat is allowed near the temples, but the other side of the river is fair game, so this is where the action actually was. 

Once we were in Virupapur Gaddi, I rented a motorbike and Tracy hopped on the back, while Kristin and Krishna shared the other one. 

Our first stop was the impressive Hanuman Temple built up on Anjanadri Hill. The Monkey King, Hanuman, was said to have been born here. Krishna gave us a little history about it before leaving us to climb it ourselves. He claimed to have hip pain, but we figured he didn’t feel like climbing 575 steps in 45 degrees to reach the top if he didn’t have to.   

This climb was a great experience because the site is an active pilgrimage site, so everyone was singing and happy to greet us and pretty impressed by Tracy and Kristin’s septum piercings. 

The views from the top were also quite beautiful and well worth the climb. 

Our next stop was the Pampa Sarovar, which is a small lake and is considered one of only 5 sacred lakes in all of India. Because it was the hot season, it was pretty empty and not so impressive but we were still impressed by its importance in Hindu mythology. 

It is also the site of a few interesting temples, the most notable being the Lakshmi, as well as is home to several caves which we explored before heading to our next site. 

The last time I was in India, in 2013, I prided myself in the fact that I never got the tilak, or dot, on my forehead during my stay and I wanted to see how long I could last this time around as well.

Unfortunately, as we entered the temple near the Pampa Sarovar, Krishna told me I needed to get it as a sign that I had visited the temple. I begrudgingly agreed to let the pujari mark me and my streak was ended before it even had a chance to begin. 

We then set out on a longer motorbike journey where Krishna wanted to bring us to some ancient cave art on some private property but some workers warned us that the owner was on his way and we didn’t want to get them in trouble so we decided to skip it.

We went instead to Anegundi, which is an ancient city as old as the Hindu Epic Ramayana. 

We visited a really atmospheric temple, filled with colourful pilgrims, some who had been walking barefoot for days, and coconuts wrapped in scarfs tied to a tree and just took in all the beautiful sights and sounds. 

From there we passed through some ancient fortress gates and were treated to some beautiful views of the surrounding countryside. 

We continued to hike for longer than we actually felt like in the blistering heat, jumping over and crawling under rocks, before we were led to a cave temple underground. 

It was kind of treacherous to get there and the centrepiece was a termite mound which is sacred like almost every other creature in India. 

We climbed back up to the temple and took a brief beverage break, before heading back onto the road towards our final stop of the day, a reservoir lake. 

The road to the lake was absolutely beautiful and being on the open road was definitely a highlight of our day. 

We got to the lake and as cool and inviting as it was, only Kristin took a dip, being either the bravest, or having the smallest regard for hygiene between the three of us. There were also signs of crocodiles warning people not to jump in.

We drove back to Virupapur Gaddi and dropped off the motorbike. We took a load off and had an ice cold beer at Nargila, a wonderful shisha place/restaurant that would have been so amazing to know about prior to our final night in Hampi, but what can you do?

We thanked Krishna immensely, tipped him handsomely and relaxed until the sun began to set. 

To get back to Hampi, we took a coracle, or circular basket boat, across the river after a pitiful attempt to cross by foot. 

As a final experience in this wonderful city, as we climbed out of the boat and up the ghats, we were followed by a colourful procession who veered off and headed towards the Virupaksha Temple.

We enjoyed our final meal before taking a tuk tuk back to Hospet to board a night train towards Chennai, our next destination. 

Hampi had been an absolute treat, and it really deserves all the accolades it gets. 

If you are into history, culture, architecture, backpacker-style vibes or just want to have an amazing time in southern India, please do not miss Hampi, for it is a truly wonderful place.

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