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.
Entering central Mumbai is like entering a whole new India. It’s the India you witness on the TV – the showcase piece for the rest of the nation. This is the India they want you to see, steeped in colonial stuffiness and Hollywood pretension it might look close enough to your homeland that you buy into the dream temporarily.
If Mumbai were New York, Chowpatty Beach would be it’s Coney Island, boasting “world famous” street food and doting, pre-teen couples. If it were LA, Malabar Hill would be its Malibu, boasting some of the world’s most expensive real estate. If it were Antwerp, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus would be its Central Station, offering visitors a lavish welcome to the bustling city. And if it were Paris, the Gateway to India would be its Arc de Triomphe, introducing you to the grand boulevards of this cultural capital.
Made of a series of reclaimed islands, the old fort walls of historic Mumbai were removed long ago to make way for the city’s constantly expanding sprawl.
Mumbai is a world-class city and truly a rarity among India’s megacities. In the center city, there are trash bins, clean streets, and an absence of cows and rickshaws. It’s almost as if you’re no longer in India.
Initially, this new India is refreshing. Yet, after a time, central Mumbai feels stale. It feels sterilized, manufactured, and meticulously organized to appeal to Western investors. Business suits prevail, Indians bicker on cell phones instead of gossiping with each other on the streets, and only the Indian tourists are wearing saris.
But, who’s to say this is wrong. Often times we tourists prefer things to be exotic in order to feel as though we’ve traveled further and seen more. Perhaps, there’s nothing wrong with this “new India.”
Though you’ll hear the soundtrack blasting on each street corner, Mumbai is nothing like “Slumdog Millionaire.” In fact, many here were upset with the way their city was portrayed in the Oscar-winning Danny Boyle film. However, one thing the movie did capture quite accurately is the modern metropolis’ dizzying divide between the rich and the poor.
Mumbai is a town of grand houses and gritty hovels – a megacity centered around lavish gothic architecture, statued circles and tree-lined boulevards that spills out into one of the world’s largest slums on the far side of the horizon. It’s a city where rich and poor slide past each other without ever acknowledging the other’s presence.
It’s the India of the past fist-to-fist with the India of the future.
You’d be as likely to hear English on the streets of Mumbai as you would Marathi or Hindi. The GDP here is three times that of the rest of the country. A hotel room in Mumbai is double or triple the price of nearly everywhere else in the country and coffee at the faux Starbucks chains is equally dear.
In this modern India, caste and class are harder to decipher. The traditional system is obscured – distorted by business and opportunity.
India produces more films per year than any other nation on the planet, and the majority of these films are made in Mumbai. Home to India’s dream-making machine, grand cinemas dot the city, showcasing the latest and greatest Bollywood has to offer.
Producers are known to comb the streets for white, blond tourists to play roles as extras and backup dancers. They look for girls who’ll appear in clothing — or lack thereof — that no Indian woman would be caught dead wearing – girls that will dote on budding Hindi pop stars to make enough dough to extend their holidays.
Mumbai may be a city of dreams, but it is also a city of uncomfortable extremes.
The order of the daytime gives way to the disorder of the night. Men gather on Mumbai’s gritty backstreets, stumbling and stuttering the night away. The once polished avenues soon become the bedrooms of Mumbai’s other residents.
An early morning trip outside of the hotel reveals an entire family huddled along the steps – bare-chested and mud-marked. Small children wander around aimlessly with Disney-wide eyes and blank stares – stuck in the jail of their parent’s poverty and their caste’s fate.
Is Mumbai the future of India? If not, it’s certainly the face that it likes to portray not only to itself, but also to the world. It’s the good. It’s the bad. And it’s the ugly.
It’s a glittery dream floating above the smog of reality.