I can't remember the last time I had so much fun," chimed Shweta Singh, a happy-go-lucky insurance professional from Gurugram as we chatted over dinner under a glittering vault of stars next to a roaring bonfire. We're at the Uramma Heritage Home in Anegundi village, a charming resort cocooned amid almond and coconut trees near Hampi in northern Karnataka.
Both Shweta and me are part of a group of 10 women, who have congregated from different parts of the country in northern Karnataka to explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hampi. The tour is organised by Wonderful World (www.womenontheirowntrip.com), a women-only travel club, which hosts about 25 tours a year, connecting a sisterhood of 25 to 65-year-old "young at heart" wanderers to adventurous and off the beaten path experiences around the world.
Arunachal Pradesh, Spiti Valley, Leh, Ladakh, Bhutan, paragliding and pottery sessions at Andretta, as well as spectacular overseas destinations like Jordon, Iran, Nepal, Sri Lanka are all a part of WW's scheme of things. The club is founded by two passionate travellers and friends ~ Shibani Vig and Liane Ghosh.
No sooner do I sign on the dotted line than I'm filled with trepidation about Hampi as a choice of a holiday destination. Is this really what I'd like to do on a holiday? I muse to myself. Explore ruins, peek into dilapidated temples, click crumbling forts, and tweet about disintegrated architecture? Really? However, Hampi soon laid to rest all my niggling doubts. It offered me an epic cultural kaleidoscope that was not only stunning and spectacular but also fun and adventurous. Apart from temple hopping, the thoughtfully curated WW itinerary also took us on treks and river rides, shopping and unique culinary experiences.
A UNESCO heritage site
Hampi ironically derives its cachet from ruins. Vast stretches of boulder-strewn craggy hills and plunging valleys are peppered with over 500 plus monuments of the redoubtable Vijaynagara Empire, founded by two brothers ~ Hakka and Bukka Raya. The intrepid duo, the guide informs us, were also instrumental in stopping the march of the Mughal invaders from the North thanks to their gargantuan army.
Hampi's spectacular setting is dominated by river Tungabhadra and sprawling plains. Among them nestle breathtaking temples like Virupaksha and Vithala, palaces, remains of aquatic structures, ancient market streets, royal pavilions, bastions, royal platforms, mandapas, gateways, sacred complexes, treasury buildings…the list is endless. Hampi's religious associations and ongoing archaeological investigations also make it a destination of international significance.
"Most of the structures at Hampi are constructed from local granite, burnt bricks and lime mortar. The stone masonry and lantern roofed post and lintel system were the most favoured construction technique. The massive fortifications have irregular-cut-size stones with paper joints filled with rubble without any binding material," explained our guide Ravi, as we ooh-ed and aah-ed over a 16th century temple.
On day two, we woke up at 4.30 am to trek to Matanga Hills. Negotiating a tricky terrain in inky darkness near a river bed, we marched forward flashing our mobile lights and torches, to get to a waiting Coracle. These are large baskets made from bamboo used to ferry people across the river. The transportation is indeed as old as civilisation! Darkness envelops us as we tune into an elemental symphony of bird song and the gushing Tungabhadra.
There's muffled laughter too as we spot many sadhus bathing in a state of semi-undress at the ghats. We tease our shy oarsman Manju, about holding the hands of so many pretty ladies to help them on and off the boat! The huffing and puffing up the Matanga hills is richly rewarded with one of the most spectacular sunrises. As the sun climbed over the hills, its reflection showing up in the large glassy pond inside the Veerabhadra temple complex, we're gobsmacked. No words come to mind to describe our experience. The chants and chimes emanating from the temple add to the moment's magic.
Hampi Bazaar is where the cosmic and commercial co-exist seamlessly. Ash-smeared sadhus and babas jostle for space with coconut sellers, peddlers of souvenirs, handbags, clothes, footwear, hats, confectionery, bric a brac and snacks. "Madamji, yeh dekho…Aisa badhiya kaam aapko kahin nahi milega," a seller from Gujarat tries to lure me to her psychedelic collection of mirror work encrusted handbags, tops and footwear.
Wonderful World's research and meticulousness was evident throughout the trip. Be it the authentic food they served, their choice of drivers, who negotiated tough terrain with ease, or efforts that were made to accommodate last-minute whimsical requests. "Our travellers like in-depth travel experiences, rather than photo ops that others provide. We try to have homemakers, single women, professionals, and entrepreneurs for a rich mix," elaborated Vig.
"Our endeavour," added Liane, who spearheaded our Hampi trip, "is to offer more than a tour. We hook up with the best places to stay at, explore unknown worlds, savour local flavours and life, experience popular cultural and historical traditions ~ and to make travel comfortable and safe. Our trips are carefully researched and planned and guarantee the travellers a taste of adventure, learning and local interaction. The idea is to make learn while travelling, introspect, grow and become more inclusive and help you shed your biases." We couldn't agree more.