I hear the chanting from miles away, but it takes a ferry ride across the river, an hour on my bike, and a 30-minute climb to get to the source.
I bike along the Tongahadra River valley, a palm-lined oasis in the veritable desert. It’s so incredibly hot that my body refuses to remain dry. With clammy hands and growing pools of sweat under my eyes, I pedal on toward the Monkey Temple – birthplace of the monkey-shaped god Hanuman, who’s considered a devoted disciple and very strong warrior of Lord Rama.
Leaving my bike with a seemingly trustworthy banana seller at the foot of the hill, I start the long hike up the 572 steps to the top.
The town of Hampi — a trash heap built on the promise of tourism — sits on the edge of a beautiful rock cemetery in the distance. The landscape itself is one of the most jarring in all of India.
Like gaping at clouds as they morph into barely familiar shapes, the Hampi region is a mesmerizing, constantly surprising jumble of utter unpredictability. Formed by millions of years of volcanic activity and erosion, the result is truly awing. It’s at once both desert and oasis.
Amidst the rubble of the precariously perched boulders and jumbled rock clusters sit ancient ruins to rival those of Angkor. The pleasant symmetry of the majestic kingdom sits in stark contrast to the rutted rock cemetery surrounding.
In 1336, Telugu prince Harihara chose Hampi as the site for his new capital Vijayanager, which in the ensuing centuries grew into one of the largest Hindu empires in history. At its peak, the empire covered the vast majority of Southern India.
Just before it was raised to the ground by the Decca sultanates in 1565, Vijayanager boasted over 500,000 residents living in unparalleled grandeur.
It’s amazing what man can do under the auspices of religion. The massive columns of Hampi’s grand structures are like ancient storybooks, full of wild tales of gods and warriors. In addition to the heroic plotlines, the walls of the ancient city provide vivid displays of Hinduisms casual mix of the erotic and the everyday.
The historic site of an epic battle, the 21st century city faces an altogether different type of conflict – that of conservation. Local residents moved in amongst the ruins, building guesthouses and restaurants on top of priceless constructions as tourism began its gradual rise several decades ago.
Some locals even spend their entire lives monitoring minor monuments, claiming ownership and demanding fees from onlookers.
Though the town relies on tourism, Hampi remains one of India’s remarkably well-kept secrets. It’s a wonder the place isn’t bustling with intrepid jetsetters. A trip from the nearest train station at Hospet belies none of the glory of Hampi – but a few high-end resorts could certainly alter the trajectory of this architectural and natural wonder.
Turning away from the dramatic vista, I venture to the far end of the hilltop temple toward the source of the noisy clamor. Entering the lavishly decorated temple, I find a two-man band in a side room, blasting their music into mountaintop speakers.
Around another end of the temple, a fat-bellied man lies on the tile terrace with two young attendants.
The young boys massage his limbs as he offers orders between bouts of lethargy. Others stand by, waiting to serve. A larger-than-life mural of the Monkey King, Hanuman, looms above the entranced man and it strikes me that the two are not so dissimilar in appearance.
Hampi is a holy site mentioned in the Ramayana as Kishkindha, the realm of the monkey gods.
It’s a place where anthropomorphism is not fiction but fact and men can get away with pretending to be descendants of animal gods.
Each morning and evening, crowds gather to clean their bodies and souls in the river below the monkey god’s towering home.
As I make my descent back toward the river, the sun plots its course through the valley walls. Crossing back across the rambling water, an Elephant plays in the stream, dressed in ceremonial gear for a parade in a neighboring village.
As the orange sunset gives way to the violet hour it begins to rain. It’s the first rain of the season – the first rain this area has seen in months. The chanting from the monkey temple grows as the rain intensifies and the people of Hampi praise the monkey god while the sky turns tar black.
The Maharajas once ruled Rajasthan with bejeweled fists from the security of their imposing forts. The passionate monarchs had an affinity for all things exquisite and the splendor and extravagance of these erstwhile rulers lives on in the forts of this fabled land.
The castles of Europe have nothing on the forts of Rajasthan. If you’re after truly massive structures with enough opulence to please the king and queen of any country, Rajasthan is the spot.
Built of burnished sandstone and marble, these architectural marvels contain intricate carvings, elegant facades, majestic domes, and elaborate balconies.
The great Rajput rulers of Rajasthan fought off the Arabs, Turks, and, most notably, the great warriors of the Mughal Empire. It was not until the British came in and offered their protection that the maharajas slowly lost their power.
When the leaders struck deals with the rulers of the British East India Company, the maharajas were reduced to puppet rulers. Rajasthan soon became a part of the newly independent India in 1948 when the “desert kingdoms” were incorporated.
The role of the Maharaja continued its slow fade until the title itself was officially squashed in 1971 when royal entitlements were abolished along with privy purses through a constitutional amendment.
Today, the erstwhile Maharajas are considered political, cultural, and religious icons in modern Rajasthan. They play the role of philanthropist, conservationist, and keeper of traditions.
Here’s a look at three of the Maharajas’ great forts of Rajasthan:
The muscular fort at Jodhpur is a beautiful beacon on the flat landscape. The formidable walls grow organically out of its rocky perch. From the top, the view over the city of Brahmin-blue buildings is striking. The decadence of Jodhpur’s fort is unmatched. Behind Mehrangarh’s seven gates is a terra-cotta-colored palace complex dotted with elegant courtyards and lined with intricate carvings. The 15th century fort is truly the most impressive example of Rajput grandeur in Rajasthan and the theatrical, award-winning audio tour may be one of the best on the planet.
A lighthouse on the edge of the desert, 99 colossal bastions encircle the still-inhabited streets of this massive fort. Within the fort walls are seven meticulously carved Jain temples dating from the 12th to 16th centuries. There are also several lavish Havelis and the elegant seven-storey Maharaja’s Palace. Sadly, the fort at Jaisalmer is an example of what can happen with unchecked development. Unlike Rajasthan’s other historical monuments, the narrow alleyways of the fort now house numerous gift shops, restaurants, and guesthouses. Overcrowding and poor drainage have seen the fort sinking into Trikuta hill.
Nestled 1100 meters skyward in the Aravalli Hills, this 15th century fort is perhaps the least visited of the forts of Rajasthan – and that’s a shame. Kumbalgarh was the most important Mewar fort after Chittor. Kumbalgarh was only taken once in history and it took the combined forces of Mughal emperor Akbar and of Amber and Marwar to breach its defenses. Even then, they only managed to hold onto the fort for two days. Understandably, rulers would retreat within the massive stone fort in times of danger. It is a testament to the romantic expectations of Rajput grandeur. The massive fort walls stretch some 36 kilometers and enclose roughly 360 temples, palaces, gardens, and bunkers.
People often think that the desert is a barren, lifeless landscape of unending repetition, but that couldn’t be more wrong.
The sand itself is an amalgamation of thousands of different colors that join together to give off a unified appearance. But, even that changes as the sun paints the sand in different hues from sun-up to sundown.
The desert is full of surprises. It’s a land in constant motion – an ocean of sand cascading in waves toward an unseen shore.
It’s a “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” adventure park. It’s a pale-blue-sea-sand-baby-landscape of rippling waves and blinding skies. It’s constantly changing, upgrading, and modifying its look.
It’s also a land of extremes. The blistering sun bakes the sand by day while the dark-sky-moon grabs it by night, holding it captive in its icy grip and whispering secrets into the wind.
There are prickly burs, nature’s landmines. There are also prickly flowers whose pastel colors belie a pointy petal. There are buzzing bees, and fluttering flies. And, of course, there are people.
My first trip deep into a desert took me time traveling to my childhood sandbox. I’d always wondered what it must have felt like to be one of the little green army men that I played with in the sand. What did their world look like from the vastness of my bucket-shaped landscapes?
Now, I felt I understood.
Muslim men in long tunics led me along a desert “road” through small gypsy villages of dark-skinned and florescent-clothed desert dwellers. Their modest homes, made of mud and sticks, barely visible against the backdrop.
In the Great Thar desert of India, the only shade comes under mushroom-topped trees. Your bathroom is a bush and your food comes with dry, tasteless chapatti bread – both your fork and spoon for the accompanying mush.
No matter how much my bum hurt and no matter how often my testicles complained, the bumpy ride atop the humpy camel could not stop me from staring in awe at the sun-baked sands.
You hear stories of camels being violent, nasty creatures but my impression was the total opposite. They’re some of the goofiest creatures you will ever meet and, when domesticated, have an almost doglike playfulness and affinity for humans.
They roll around in the sand, kick their feet up like giant dogs, and regularly jiggle their jowls in a comical motion that I generally reserve for late night party pictures.
The gypsy children, sensing a foreigner, seemed to know just one phrase in English, “school pen,” which they repeated endlessly with hands outstretched.
Though my group of travelers came from different corners of the world (1 North American, 2 South Americans, 2 Asians, and 2 Europeans), they looked at us all as one thing only – foreign.
In an already unfamiliar landscape, I came across one of the strangest communities I have ever seen.
As we approached a small village to water our camels, a group of young children rushed up to ask for “school pens.” I began wondering why these kids wanted pens (What would they write on? Wouldn’t they prefer something a bit better than that?). But I soon realized that what I had first thought to be a group of young girls was actually a crowd of both boys and girls. Yet, the boys were all dressed in saris or other traditional Indian women’s outfits, complete with the necessary bangles, piercing, jewelry and makeup.
What could possibly be going on in this village and why were there just three boys in the whole town who dressed like boys?
In this far western corner of the country, women are married off at alarmingly young ages. 14, is considered old – too old. Would these young boys be sent off to marry like their female counterparts in Rajasthan?
I never got an explanation. My guides shrugged it off – or perhaps misunderstood my question entirely.
Some mysteries must stay in the desert.
Every now and again when you’re traveling you have one of these AHA! moments where you grasp the magnitude of your journey. You realize that that little boy in the sandbox in Virginia is riding a camel through the desert along the Pakistani border… and that’s pretty wild!
You remove yourself from the moment to step outside and look back in on it.
You dream big as a kid, but so often there’s a Grand Canyon between your dreams and your realities.
So when you find yourself swept up in a foreign desert, picking the grains of sand from your growing beard, you try and seal up the moment in some remote memory box. You pick and choose the elements, creating a miniature shoebox diorama in your mind to dig out at a later date when you’re buried in bills and threatened with the insanities of everyday monotony – so that one day, you can say AHA!, flip the switch, hike up your drawers, and jump back on that camel for a journey to the unknown.
Kagbeni appears over the ledge of a hillside vista like a fantasy village dreamt up by C.S. Lewis. Perched on a small isthmus in the valley, its glistening green fields glow against the drab colors of the rocky plateau. It’s an oasis in the middle of a veritable desert. Teetering on the edge of a cliff below the harsh white peaks of the world’s largest mountains, Kagbeni is the end of the road – the final frontier of sorts.
No foreigner is admitted past the borders of this remote town. Beyond, lies the world’s last “Forbidden Kingdom.”
On the way into town, a man sells fossils found amidst the rubble of the Himalayas’ greatest rift. Above him, a sign warns foreigners from venturing past Kagbeni. The fine for entering upper Mustang (the “Forbidden Kingdom”): $500 USD per day.
The streets of Kagbeni are lined with Tibetan prayer wheels. Devotees spend their free moments marching through the town, spinning wheels as they mutter chants. The sky above is peppered with the bold-colored prayer flags that wave in the wind until they’ve disintegrated back into the breeze.
Below the rainbow of colors are hidden alleyways of an ancient city. Stone barns sit next to mud brick houses. Back alley corners hide erotic phalluses and a piecemeal settlement that straddles gushing, milky blue rivers.
The walled-in town feels medieval. Ancient. Like a time warp to another era.
Life here is methodical. It’s ritualistic. It’s hard. The winter is long and there are no Western comforts to make it more bearable. Kids play in the brisk cobblestone streets until their rosy cheeks turn so red, you’d swear they’d burst. Women walk in sandals with no socks until their feet stiffen into solid blocks.
Drunks and beggars prey on the piety of generous Llamaists and wandering pilgrims.
In the afternoon, women sit on their roofs to take in the heat of the sun and avoid the walloping winds that race through the deep valley walls of the Kali Gandaki.
But, it’s the sounds of sunset that are unforgettable.
As the blazing sun cuts its path through the Himalayan Range, the delicate drone of devout Llamaists echoes throughout the valley. A dreamlike warmth blankets the frosty town in this violet hour and magic feels very real.