The city of Hampi, carved into the heat-soaked rock of south India, is a landscape of the gods built by mere mortals
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The Independent Culture
THE AGONY and the ecstasy is a descriptive technique that has been much abused over the years. Most experiences, when it comes down to it, are neither agonising nor ecstatic. Thus, when a travel writer experiences something that is best described in such magenta terms, he retires to his hotel room double-quick and jots his thoughts down in a frenzy of excited agitation. This I did in the drab little town of Hospet, a town buried in the heart of the southern Indian state of Karna-taka and notable mainly for its proximity to the extraordinary ruins of Hampi. Under the mosquito net my girlfriend Julie and I had hung over our bedbug- ridden bed, I started to scribble.

We had been staying in Mysore, a sleepy town dominated by a large, vastly over-the-top palace whence the local maharaja had ruled until the principality's incorporation into the newly independent India in 1947. Prior to the monsoon, Mysore is a dry, hot place, and the cow-dung patties that the women collect for fuel and building material, harden quickly under the intense sun.

Time slows down in an environment where most people do not wear watches, and those who do generally have nowhere that they have to be in a hurry. We drank a lot of coconut milk straight from the husks, wandered around the town's market, savouring the smells and colours, and we ate honey cakes and halvahs. We spent two days among elephants, monkeys, wild pigs and peacocks on a luxury safari at a wildlife park called Nagarhole, and one more day exploring the intricate carved temples of Belur and Halebid. After each side-trip, we'd return to Mysore and relax with the yoga students, poolside at the Quality Inn hotel. It would be easy to be seduced by this lifestyle, floating on the privilege of a First World background and income, while living a simple, yet comfortable life in a town where $15 a day allows you to live like royalty. But we had to move on.

So Julie and I decided to make the trip to Hampi. Before I left for India, I'd been told about this place, a huge ruined city, itself built upon the site of one of the great mythical kingdoms of Hinduism - the monkey- kingdom of Kishkindha. When I got to Bombay, the friend I was staying with there insisted that it would be criminally negligent of us not to visit these ruins. "Sasha," she commanded, "you must go to Hampi! It is the most important place in Karnataka." And that was that. It was decided. I was going to Hampi, even though it was a 12-hour journey. And 12 hours is a long time to travel in Indian heat and dust. "But," my internal voice dictated, "as they say in New York: whuddeveh!"

We made a serious mistake in our choice of transport. From Mysore we could either take a three-hour train to Bangalore and a desperately slow overnight train from there to Hospet. Or we could take an overnight state-run bus from Mysore straight to Hospet. Taking the bus seemed the most sensible alternative. And that was the big mistake. Unlike the private buses that provide a fairly comprehensive - and passably comfortable - transport network for most of the country, the state buses in India are truly abominable and should only be taken if there are absolutely no alternatives.

As the dilapidated vehicle pulled into Mysore bus station, a mob of passengers swarmed towards it. The concept of an orderly queue does not exist in India, and entering or exiting any vehicle is an exercise in sheer brutality. With huge backpacks, we were stuck. I tried to find out from the conductor if we could put our bags in the luggage hold until some amused bystanders finally informed us that state buses didn't have any kind of boot and that we would have to squeeze the enormous packs under our seats. We managed to push and shove our way to our reserved seats, and to oust the people who had taken them. Somehow, we wedged the bags in, and sat with our knees jammed upwards waiting to depart. More and more people got on the bus, until every inch of space was taken up. People were packed like sardines into the centre aisle, hanging off the small luggage racks overhead, even lying on the floor between the legs of the standers. The stench was infernal. I came as close to having a claustrophobic attack as I have ever come. If I could have got off, I probably would have done.

All night long, we sat crammed into our seats. It was so crowded that if I moved my leg an inch, someone's hand or foot snuck into the space I'd vacated. Hands grabbed on to my legs in the dark, men hanging from the racks thumped into my body as I huddled on my wooden seat. There are no toilets on Indian buses, and the drivers, barrelling over the one-lane rutted highways at a suicidal pace, show little inclination for stopping. If there is a road accident (which, luckily for the riders, there frequently is) or some other traffic jam, people jump off and squat by the side of the road in a collective ritual of muscular relief. This time around, there were few accidents and hardly any stops. In the middle of the night, unable to bear it any longer, Julie somehow managed to push her way through while the bus was letting off a few passengers in the middle of nowhere, and find the conductor. She thrust some rupees at him and bribed him to signal the driver to wait a minute while she jumped off. Everything in India runs on baksheesh, and the conductor seemed to think that paying for a call of nature was only natural. The bribe ended up costing almost as much as the ticket.

She returned to the bus and pushed her way back to the seat, and our bus continued to ricochet over the holes in the road all through the night. As dawn broke, we neared Hospet, shattered. And as the sun rose, we arrived in Hospet, and slowly manipulated our bags out. We shouldered the packs, hailed an auto rickshaw and headed for the one hotel the guidebooks listed as semi-decent. We rented a room and collapsed on the bed. It was breakfast time, already fiercely hot, and, only having three full days to explore Hampi, we had to set off to see the sights. As it turned out, we only had two days: the first night and the second day were lost as the combination of heat, bad water and nervous exhaustion sent me into a spiral of vomiting and diarrhoea so severe that I was almost convinced to bail out of India altogether - almost but not quite. For where we had ended up was simply too extraordinary.

Hampi is a ruined town of enormous proportions (26 square kilometres for the city itself, 120 for the surrounding population centre), recently excavated out of a craggy, bouldered landscape that could be the twin to the American southwest. Although officially only founded in 1336 by the brothers Harihara, some of its Buddhist temples are thought to be close to 1,500 years old.

Half a millennium ago, Hampi was the capital city of Vijayanagara, the largest Hindu empire to have emerged on the subcontinent. It was home to up to a million people, and known throughout Asia and Europe for its riches and culture. The kings built vast elephant stables, huge granite palaces and temples, waterworks to channel fresh water into the hot semi- arid bowl surrounded by red-rock hills (now by banana plantations), underground meditation centres, roadways for triumphal processions and splendid living quarters. They carved a civilisation out of the rocks, or - more accurately - into the rocks. And then, in 1565, Muslim armies from the north conquered Vijayanagara. Hampi was destroyed.

These days, with Hindu chauvinism asserting itself with a vengeance in the supposedly secular politics of India, Western tourists wandering through the eerie ruins, glimpsing ghosts of a history almost completely eradicated by time, watching the monkeys at play among the skeletal edifices, are sometimes approached by Indian visitors and told, "You see, Hampi represents the true face of the Muslim!" In a land where communal riots routinely claim lives, these are discomforting encounters. It is also discomforting to see the tiny peasant huts nestling along the bases of the grandiose monuments. It is a depressing reminder that often the past is more glorious than the present.

But the depressing parts of Hampi are dwarfed by the emotional impact of seeing these ruins spread out across this landscape. When, accompanied by our guide Pampa, I saw them that first morning, the towering sculpted entrance way to the Virupaksha Temple and the crazily detailed stone carvings of legends and god-myths at Vitthala Temple, and then stumbled upon a wedding ceremony inside the marriage hall, I almost cried. They are so majestic, so improbably splendid, that they leave you hollowed- out inside, a little speck of humanity stumbling in awe through a landscape of the gods. Pampa, who we hired for 350 rupees (or $10) per day, took us through the northern part of the ruins on our first day. We spent eight hours in temperatures of well over 100 degrees, and drank litres of bottled water. But we hardly noticed the heat. We walked from temple to temple, clambered over rocks and along a dried-out riverbed, got caught in a sudden rain shower and disturbed a couple of lovers as we sought shelter in one of the hundreds of deserted, pillared little mantapas, or shrines, that grow up out of the rocks. We sat on hilltops and observed the expanse of nature's rocks and man's stone creations spread out below us. When we came to some of the sunken temples, we descended the stairs and looked up through the gap behind us at a sky as blue and as large as any on earth.

When we took an auto rickshaw the eight miles back from Hampi Village to Hospet, we sat silently, immersed in the beauty of what we had seen. Pampa was going to pick us up at our hotel the following morning and take us to the southern part of the ruins. But, I was too busy projectile vomiting to join Pampa, and we told him to come back the following day. Which he did.

That was a strange day. Pampa began by taking us to a Khali festival at the nearby village of Ooligi. Khali is the destroyer god, and the worshippers were busy sacrificing goats and sheering their hair in an effort to appease it. There were processions of the diseased and impoverished, the dying and the dead lain out by the sides of the pathways, on rocks next to the local river. The smell was atrocious, with excrement smeared across the land, and bathers swimming in the polluted river. Beggar children with manky monkeys latched on to us, and transvestite beggars - a local religious custom at festival-time - demanded money. For the second time, I began to feel the panic of claustrophobia, the urge to escape, the need to be anywhere but where I was.

Pampa took us to the archeological museum in the southern part of Hampi. It is a small museum built around a grassy courtyard; and while we were looking over scale models of the excavations, and exhibits of the statues and weaponry unearthed here, a commotion began outside. In the courtyard, about a dozen local villagers were clubbing to death a cobra, the snake having slithered right into the heart of the museum. As I ran to take a look, the villagers, victorious, held up their long, dead, slimy trophy.

From that point on, the day became more normal. Pampa led us to the elephant stables - one-time home to the 11 royal elephants and then on to the Queen's Palace and a dark, cool underground chamber. We saw the old aqueduct and what must once have been a vast water tank.

Again, we spent an entire day wandering the ruins, returning to Hospet as the sun was setting over the hills to the west of our hotel window. In the morning, we would leave, heading north to Bombay. This time we were going to take the train. It would be a long journey, through the endless valleys and rocks and fields and hillocks that make up the great Deccan Plain of central India. And it would be a slow journey. But it would be a train journey. And that, for us, would be a perfect ending.

Campus Travel (0171 383 5337) has flights from Gatwick or Heathrow to Bombay in January. Prices are from pounds 339 return with Alitalia or pounds 409 with Gulf Air. A one-way rail pass from Bombay to Hospet costs pounds 26, available from S D Enterprises (0181 903 3411). For details of bus services, or local tourist office numbers, contact the Indian Tourist Board on 0171 437 3677. The Maligi Tourist Home in Jambunatha Road in Hospet offers single rooms at around pounds 10.50 per night, or pounds 13 for a double room. The Quality Inn Southern Star at 13-14 Vinoba Road in Mysore has singles at pounds 21 per night and double rooms at pounds 34.