In Search of Hampi: South India’s Lost City by Motorcycle

Words by Steven Goodell
Photos by Steven Goodell

The rider in front of me is testing the door handle of the car next to him and eyeing the passenger’s purse. The soldier I asked for directions a moment ago just watched a moped get t-boned and didn’t bat an eye. I’m sitting on a motorcycle in the worst traffic on the Indian subcontinent and my bike’s horn, a safety device more popular here than helmets, shoes, or turn signals, doesn’t work. The odds are dicey and I wouldn’t change a thing.

Right now I’m in Bangalore. I’ve just arrived by train after finishing my work week at a tech company in the southern coastal city of Chennai. The rented 400cc Royal Enfield Himalayan I’m on is an air-cooled beast about to overheat on these jammed city streets, but a great bike for the mix of off road and highway miles I have planned.

My destination is Hampi, a lost city in the south central desert region of India and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A group of Welsh travelers I met in Rajasthan tipped me off to it a year earlier. I’ve given myself four days to make it the seven hundred kilometers there and back to Bangalore before my flight home to Seattle.

Before setting out, I meet up with a former Indian coworker to explore the city. We maneuver our bikes through teeming, narrow streets to a commercial flower market held in an underground bazaar. The labyrinth of bare bulbs feels like an abandoned New York City subway. But instead of flowers, I leave the market with hand tools and a statue of a winged cow goddess with human tits. If the bike breaks down and the wrenches don’t work, I’ll need something to pray to.

I hit the road with my duffle strapped to the Himalayan. It’s my third moto trip in India and the unwritten rules of traffic are familiar. I’m so used to being run off the road by oncoming trucks that veering into the dirt to avoid being hit is almost casual. It’s hard to get mad at a trucker when he’s garlanded his rig with flowers.

As I move north I fuel up on sweet south Indian coffee and spicy onion dosa, a type of crispy crepe that’s a local specialty. At first it’s wide open highway and my only concern is the sun burning my exposed forearms. I should have known sunscreen would be hard to find here and riding in a t-shirt feels too good to cover up now.

Hours go by and the road narrows with each passing town. The goat herds get thicker and the corners are slick with banana leaves. Then I’m on a rural track, carving a plateau of rolling hills. I let the bike lean low and try to ignore the paradox of exploring by moto: the more beautiful the scenery becomes in a remote place, the more scared I am of something going wrong. I’m a bundle of nerves when a gang of children stretch a clothesline across the road ahead of me. I brake hard and then laugh when I realize what’s happening. A dozen highway pirates all under the age of ten clamor around their latest catch. It says something about India that the only crime I experience on this trip is little girls shaking me down for rupees.

The sun gets low and I try to make better time by checking my map less often. The lane I’m on comes to a footpath at the edge of a river where I’m expecting a bridge. Clearly I’m in the wrong place. But a local sits on his bike expectantly, so I join him. Soon a small ferry no bigger than a rowboat arrives with a few passengers and a motorbike. It looks less than stable, but I decide to take a chance.

In the evening light, I push my bike across a two by eight plank into the tipping aluminum vessel. Moments after we shove off, the outboard motor dies. It’s getting dark but the ferrymen laugh and begin rowing. I feel the tension ebb, even as I work to keep the bike upright against the gentle rocking. I’m watching a nearby fisherman cast his net from a coracle, a traditional round boat woven from palm fronds, and it hits me that this peaceful scene is the best wrong turn I’ve ever made.

At dusk I reach the road into Hampi. Cactus and large round boulders frame a patchwork of green rice fields in a landscape that resembles Joshua Tree National Park. The temples start on the outskirts and increase in size. Hampi is a ruin complex so large it has ruin suburbs. At the edge of town the road is pinched to a single lane by an ancient gate and processions of worshippers and livestock all compete to pass. It feels like I’ve ridden into an archeological dig holding a church service.

In what seems like only a few hours since the intoning of the local religious sect fades away, I hike to the top of Matanga hill by headlamp to watch the sunrise. The crude steps of the trail are carved into the rock and wind up and around a haphazard pile of boulders for five hundred feet.

A priest emerges from his simple stone dwelling at the summit and serves chai. We sip while we watch farmers burn the previous crop from their fields. The flames look apocalyptic, like they must have when the city was sacked and burned by invading Muslim sultanates. At daybreak, the bloody sky and rising smoke transport me back four hundred years.

Then I understand the scale of this place. There’s a temple on every hilltop and even larger ones below. The ancient city grid sits untouched. Spread over sixteen square miles, the ruins are so extensive and undeveloped that I can tour them by motorbike. Archways and multistory pavilions. Places of sacrifice with carved motifs. Cliffside shelters and landings. The thrill of discovery is on tap here. The Enfield eats up the rocky paths as I move from one to the next until the heat of the day forces me to turn around. I envy the buffaloes I see bathing in the river and I plan my next move.

I set off upriver in search of a rumored swimming hole. In a banana plantation I find Ram, a worker with a machete and a couple hours to spare. We pick our way through a landscape of sculpted sandstone with the sound of rushing water somewhere beneath. The psychedelic rock formations open into a swimming hole walled by a thirty foot cliff. The water is green, but clean to the eye. We’re upstream of town and the river flows through a thick filter of rocks. It feels so good to be upside down as I plunge from the cliff that I don’t care what’s in the water.

Departure day comes and it dawns on me that I’m trying to catch a flight from three hundred fifty kilometers out. I press the bike hard on the ride back to Bangalore. The route is even more stunning than the way I came. Usually the tears in my eyes are from the wind, but sometimes I can’t tell in this country. The beauty, the relief. India gets me every time.

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