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The magic of Hampi

Saxophone music wafted through the open door where I was lying on my sleeping bag on the floor of a guesthouse. It added to the mystique of one of the most magical places that I have ever encountered. Not a very salubrious place to spend New Year, but it was 1996 and I had arrived in Hampi, backpack in tow, without any pre-planning!

Fast forward more than 20 years… and I’m glad to say, my accommodation could not have been more glamorous. I stayed at the luxurious Kishkinda Camp on the outskirts of Hampi in central southern India. Time had not dimmed the spellbinding charm of the boulder-strewn landscape and its myriad of ruins. Once the medieval capital of the Vijayanagara Empire, Hampi was enormously wealthy and regarded as greater than Rome.

Lying on the banks of the Tungabhadra river are temple complexes that date back to the Vijayanagara Empire in the 7th century. The highlight is the 16th-century Vittala Temple with its incredible sculptures. In the central hall, the dervishes –known for their ecstatic dancing rituals – would perform and the ancient pillars depict their whirling movements. The hollow pillars, on the other hand, were once banged to provide the musical accompaniment. Prior to my trip, I dug out an old photograph of me standing in front of the ornate stone chariot, which was homage to the Hindu God, Vishnu. Today, it is no less spectacular.

The Hampi bazaar, once a kilometre-long bustling street, leads to the Virupaksha Temple, with its impressive 50m-high Hindu gopuram – a monumental gatehouse tower. It’s not hard to imagine its former life as a thriving market where sweet rice, perfumes and cloth were traded. Dedicated to an incarnation of the Hindu deity, Shiva, the temple has been a place of worship since the 7th century, when it was a collection of simple shrines. In subsequent centuries the complex grew, adding beautifully carved colonnaded halls and gateways. I descended into the underground sanctum to retrace the steps of worshipping ancestors.

My base for three nights was a luxury suite tent at The Ultimate Travelling Camp’s sublime Kishkinda Camp. It was surrounded by giant boulders and jade-green palm groves and paddy fields. Lounging on a four-poster bed, I found myself reminiscing about the nomadic days of travelling while my personal butler brought me a fresh lime soda. What a difference 20 years can make in your travelling style – less backpacker and more glampacker!

The camp served me delicious fresh food, offered attentive service and provided an entertaining guide who used to work as a location scout for film crews. The restaurant served mouth-watering recipes from the chef's family, interspersed with fusion cuisine and the camp's activities showed me a side of Hampi that I would never otherwise have known existed. I spent an idyllic afternoon cycling among the farmlands that surround the secluded camp. I’m not the most observant when it comes to bird-watching, but even I could not fail to spot the yellow-throated bulbul and painted spurfowl that clung to the vegetation.

One evening, we were taken down to a secluded spot on the banks of the Tungabhadra river for a peaceful coracle boat ride. We watched the local fishermen haul their home-made nets from the river, hoping to catch their evening meal. We chatted with our coracle rower and her young son about life for the indigenous Banjara community and their dependence on the river for food. Transported to the other side of the river, for what we thought was the end of the experience, we were instead welcomed by Soutam and Vaibhav from the camp. They served us afternoon tea and an ice-cold beer as we watched the sunset over the surrounding landscape. These elements of surprise were signature to the camp experience and elevated the magic of the place.

I’ve been lucky enough to see sunrise at Machu Picchu and the sunset over Angkor Wat but all pale in comparison to the sunrise on Matanga Hill. We ascended up a footpath, accompanied by an expert naturalist who pointed out the tracks of tigers that inhabit the rocky outcrop. At the top of the mountain is the Veerabhadra Temple. From here the view of the sun as it rises over the countryside, with Hampi and its temple complexes clearly visible, was truly spectacular. I went into the temple and received a blessing from the priest, before descending. Half way down the hill we stopped for an impromptu breakfast, served by the ever professional and amiable Soutam and Vaibhav. It never ceased to amaze me how they always popped up at just the right moment. How I could have done with them as travelling companions on my first visit to Hampi!

On the other side of the river lies the village of Anegundi and its Monkey Temple, which is an idyllic spot for sunset. I visited an NGO involved in community conservation, local handcrafts and education. I then had lunch with a local family who were happy to chat over a delicious thali – an Indian meal with small bowls of curry, vegetables and condiments. Next was the home of a raja – an Indian king or prince – who was a direct descendant of the Vijayanagara emperors. He shared stories about his ancestors and showed me around his family home, complete with an indoor cinema.

20+ years later, I found that Hampi is still a fascinating place with temples to rival those on any continent. My experience was all the richer for the interaction with local people and other areas I hadn’t uncovered the first time. As a destination off the main tourist trail, I was warmed by the friendliness of everyone I encountered and have never been so photographed with so many smiling, happy people! I was nervous returning to a place that held so many wonderful memories for me… I needn’t have been, as this time I made even more. I’ll be sure not to leave it so long for my next visit!

Cox & Kings' Hampi & Beyond private tour includes three nights in Hampi. Alternatively, one of our India experts can organise a tailor-made itinerary, including The Ultimate Travelling Camp’s Kishkinda Camp.

Find out more about The Ultimate Travelling Camp