Not a ghost town, but nobody lives there: Hampi, India

We began our month in India with our generous friends, Pankaj and Retnam Kurup, as hosts and shepherds.  John met them last year at the marriage of their son, Priyesh, to Breck alumna Laura Egerdal, in a double-religion ceremony in Washington, DC.  Papa B got to do the Christian part and got to be an honored guest at the Hindu part.  Here is Retnam in the photo below, stepping into the brilliant January sun.

img_5943We started with a whirlwind first day of ordering replacement lenses for John’s glasses, making a hair appointment for Lynnell, buying wedding clothes for John to be shipped home, getting Indian SIM cards in both of our phones and activating them, and buying more tropical clothes for Lynnell to wear now that we are out of Europe until April.  The next day, we climbed aboard a taxi, driven by the resourceful Prakash, and we two couples headed north to the ruins of the city of Hampi.

In 1500, Hampi was the capital of a sprawling Empire that covered most of the southern cone of the subcontinent, and historians guess that the city was second only to Beijing in population in 1500.  There were more than a half-million inhabitants.  Palaces and temples were built in stone (either granite, which is hard to carve on but withstands the elements or schist, which is easier to carve on but which erodes over time).  Most other buildings were built of wood, and not a trace remains of them.  The Virupaksha Temple below is over 500 years old.


The Vijayanagar Empire was the last Hindu dynasty to rule there, and in 1565 the city suffered a catastrophic defeat by the armies of an alliance of Muslim kingdoms.  Most people escaped.  The rest were killed or enslaved.  The city was burned and no one, really, has occupied it since.  We wish we knew why.  It’s a perfect location to defend: it’s got steep, rocky hills around three sides and a big river on the fourth.  The land seems verdant.  Even if the capital of the newly-conquered provinces was moved, wouldn’t it have still been a good place to live?  It reminded us of Tikal, the great Mayan city swallowed by jungle, or Cahokia, which wikipedia tells me had a population of 40,000 in the 1200’s.  It covered 6 square miles along the Mississippi where St. Louis now stands, and only a few of its mounds remain, most of the others having been leveled.  No American city would be as large again until 1800.

What’s left of Hampi is ten times as large: an area of sixty square miles (Minneapolis is about 54 square miles) where  almost no one lives.  They farm bananas, coconuts, sugar cane, and corn, but the roads are winding, narrow, and dusty.  And although we saw plenty of school groups and foreign tourists, what ought to be the number one sight to see in India is pleasantly uncrowded even during this time of the year when the weather is perfect.    img_5906

We entered a dozen or so temples, and to oversimplify, they are a lot like churches.  There’s a place to enter (leave your shoes at the door, because it’s sacred ground).  A gathering space, often with columns all around and lots of sculptures.  A focal point, like an altar, inner sanctum, or niche.  There’s a strong metal box for donations.  There are people praying and people taking pictures.  Sometimes, there is incense.  There are carved inscriptions honoring the patrons as well as commemorating great deeds, healings, and saints.


There was also a clever young woman who cheerfully gave us a blessing and a smear of red powder on our foreheads, way before Ash Wednesday.

John was surprised then, when she also insisted on some rupees.  Lynnell was not surprised.  Our intrepid shepherd Pankaj gave her what he thought was a fair price.  She scowled, but then he said something to her and did that magical Indian wobble of the head, and she laughed along with him.  Such a diplomat he is, as well as a fierce advocate for our happiness.

One of our favorite visits of the day was the Queen’s Bath, which is a big swimming pool inside a courtyard inside a very secure building with a moat around it.  The queens used to take some ladies-in-waiting and enjoy the hot tub (really), the pool, the sundecks, and a plunge with perfumed water.  A real spa.  This school group (below) spent exactly five minutes walking in, scampering around the square cloistered inside, and then running out, singing a song together with a catchy chorus.


The last four kids included this one very friendly guy maybe ten years old.  They were still moving fast enough for John not to have realized until just now that the friendly boy was out of dress code: no tie.img_5890










The most perfectly-preserved building we saw was the Lotus Mahal.  Built in an Indian/ Islamic style, the invading armies left it untouched though they tore many temples down.


And it wasn’t spared because it had no representational art: the columns are full of carved animals and gods.  Its arches are just so beautiful.  img_5934

They are meant to imitate the leaves of a lotus plant.  The rooftop pyramids, which cover domed ceilings below, are meant to look like lotus buds.

The lotus is a richly symbolic flower in many Asian religions, in part because it is anchored in the mud, its graceful stalk rises through the water, and the leaves and flower sit in the air, thus bridging three of the four traditional elements.

Below are the 15th Century Elephant Stables, with iron rings in the domed ceilings of each giant stall to tether the pachyderms with.


Finally, a snapshot of our genial host, Pankaj, getting ready to What’sApp a photo back to Priyesh and Laura in the States:























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I am the Upper School Chaplain at Breck School in Golden Valley, Minnesota, USA., an Episcopal priest, and the author of the world religions text "Tree of World Religions," available on I've also done two lessons for TED-Ed.

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