Mastering the art of rock-hopping in India

For devotees of the sport of bouldering, the Indian town of Hampi is a rock-hopper's heaven, says Robin Barton. All you need to take part is a pair of shorts, some plimsolls - and fingers made of steel

My fingers are searching for any sort of grip. A 2mm-wide lip of rock, a crack, anything. I try to read the rock like Braille. Nothing.

"Move your right leg up," shouts my new friend and "spotter", Tod. I edge my foot up, smearing the sticky rubber sole of my climbing shoe to the rock and pressing myself as close as I can to its face.

To no avail: my muscles start to twitch and my hand can't find any sort of purchase. I'm not roped in, so I know that if I jump I will land back down at the base of the rock.

I let go and fall all of two feet, landing beside Tod. "You made it look too easy," I complain to him.

It was 234 years after the sacking of the imperial city of Vijayanagar in 1565 that the British, in the form of the amateur archaeologist Captain Colin Mackenzie, chanced upon its ruins. Mackenzie was later to become Surveyor General of India. The ruins that he had discovered on the Deccan Plateau in what is now Karnataka State in central India were once the capital city of one the most powerful Hindu empires in India's history.

With the introduction of British Airways flights to the Karnatakan capital, Bangalore, this World Heritage Site now named Hampi is poised to be rediscovered by the British. Hampi was long a word-of-mouth stopover on India's traveller circuit. The village that has slowly spread in and around the ruined temples, forts and civic buildings of Vijayan-agar and along the Tunga-bhadra River that bisects the site enchanted those retreating inland from Goa's now-passé beach parties. But it also attracted rock climbers and, in particular, boulderers, from Europe and America. Why? Because Hampi is what heaven looks like to a boulderer.

Bouldering, as the name hints, is the sport of climbing boulders (as opposed to cliffs or mountains), and the attractions of the area for enthusiasts can immed-iately be seen from the description of the area by the archaeologists John Fritz and George Michell: "Granite boulders of varying tones of grey, ochre and pink dominate the landscape, distrib-uted either as hills and long ridges or as piles of rock that seem to have been thrown down by some primeval cataclysm."

The landscape for miles around Hampi is certainly one of the most mesmerisingI've ever seen; millions of rounded boulders, from the size of a football to the size of a bus, are seemingly swept into piles as if by a cosmic broom. Some stand alone; others balance one on top of another, or congregrate in great mounds beside collapsing temples.

There are sound geological reasons for this unique landscape. It wasn't caused by earthquakes or volcanoes but by three billion years of erosion by sun, wind and rain. "Some geo-logists think that these are the oldest rock formations in the world," says Vivek, who runs the small lodge-style Hampi's Boulders retreat in a private nature reserve in nearby Narayanpet where I stay.

You might, like me, prefer the alternative explanation. Hampi is one of Hin-duism's most sacred places: in the Ramayana legend it is called Kishkindha, the forest domain of the monkey-god Hanuman.

According to the Ramay-ana, such was the strength of two brothers, Sugriva and the impetuous Vali, rulers of the land, that a battle between them for suprem-acy resulted in the hills being broken into pieces as they threw boulders at each other. Events in the Ramay-ana are depicted by relief images carved on boulders, some of which have been used to build temples.

But it took a DVD to turn the trickle of in-the-know travellers into a flood. That DVD, released in 2003, was entitled Pilgrimage, and featured Chris Sharma, a phenomenal young American climber. Sharma, who had been climbing professionally since the age of 12, was 22 when he made the climbing film that still draws boulderers like Tod from California to India.

"Hampi is a place of pilgrimage, because it is the birthplace of Hanuman," he explained at the time. "The movie makes parallels between our culture, which values the boulders, and their culture, which values the temples. For us, Hampi was a place of pilgrimage because the boulders were temples for us."

Boulderers refer to routes up boulders as "problems", and it can take years for someone like Sharma to solve a particular problem. The moves that a boulderer makes can be bolder and more dynamic than those of a traditional rock climber thanks to a crash mat on the ground.

Problems, like climbing routes, are graded according to difficulty and the moves required to solve them. Dynamic moves, ("dynos") such as jumps, require commitment, strength and timing. But it is a sport that is especially accessible to first-timers; as another American says to me when I ask him where I should start: "Pick a rock, any rock."

And there are very few rules to break: "don't chip the rock to make a hold" is the most important. And no "top-roping" on the ascent, or you're climbing, not bouldering.

Another attraction of bouldering is that it is a kit-light activity. Got a loose-fitting T-shirt and some baggy shorts? You're ready to boulder. Ideally, a boulderer would want to wear a pair of sticky-soled climbing shoes such as the Scarpa Marathons that have been taking up very little space in my rucksack, and a bag of chalk around their waist, for drying the fingers to help increase grip. A crash mat prevents some bruises when a boulderer dismounts. What you can't buy are fingers of steel and the upper-body strength and agility of a primate.

At Hampi, boulderers share the rocks with monkeys and, increasingly, sightseers, who arrive on the overnight train to nearby Hospet from Bangalore. Multi-storey hotels are being built in Hospet to cater for the visitors, but it is not an attractive town to stay in - you're better off taking a room in Hampi itself, or at Hampi's Boulders resort if you prefer a few more creature comforts. Times have certainly changed since Captain Mackenzie found Hampi teeming with wild beasts and spent the night in Virupaksha temple because it was the only place that could be locked.

"Hampi is an amazing place, with some of the best bouldering problems in the world," says the British boulderer Tim Glaseby, "but it is losing a little of its polish. People are arriving there who aren't as aware of the environment as they should be, and they're leaving rubbish."

The Save Hampi Trust has started to campaign for additional protection for the site. It is a sign of the times that the coracles which used to ferry people across the river were replaced by a 20-seater motorboat last year, and there are as many internet cafés as temples in the village now. But the mythical always overpowers the mundane in Hampi.

Over a curry at the wonderful Mango Tree restaurant Tod, seated crosslegged at the low table, tells me that recently boulderers have been asked not to climb in the heritage site itself. No problem: there's no shortage of boulders in these hills.

On my last night I climb a hill overlooking the village; no need for rock shoes, because there's a path of sorts. On the way up you can see the dammed and braided Tungabhadra River and evidence of settlements radiating outwards from it. Humans have lived here for at least 3,000 years, and by the 16th century Vijayanagar was the majestic showpiece of an empire that stretched from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea.

Foreign travellers of the time, such as the Italian Nicolo Conti, thought the city larger than Rome. Its ruins cover 25 square kilometres, but outer fortifications and suburban districts spread out much farther. At the top of the hill there is a small temple to Hanuman, where I pay my respects. All those who worship him are blessed with fortitude and strength: it's probably a bit late for me.

Getting a grip in India

British Airways (0870 850 9850, ba.com) fly six times a week from Heathrow to Bangalore; return flights from £450. Double rooms at Hampi's Boulders Resort (00 91 8539 265 939) from £30 a night. Trans Indus (020 8566 2729, transindus.com) offer tours of Karnataka and surrounding states, including a 16-day Hampi and Deccan Plateau tour from £1,998, including flights. For more details of the Save Hampi Trust: savehampi.org

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