We awoke an hour before dawn. It was still cool. We had decided to beat the heat and find a vantage point above the town to watch the sun rise over the strange rocks. To our surprise, however, we walked out on to the main strip to find most of the rest of the town awake and bustling around as if the sun was high in the sky. Even groups of westerners wandered around, smoking in their overly-baggy red trousers and hanging out in waiting rickshaws. Perhaps this was simply what sensible people did in the desert.
Above the town and away from most of the bustle, we found ourselves an enormous rock to perch atop. From the deep blue of the horizon, we watched – as if we had forgotten where we found ourselves – the bizarre hills and formations around us begin to jut out of the clearing darkness. While the morning haze sat low in the valleys, the clearer rock-heads peaked up into the sky against one another as if to remind each other that they were there and were competing for an assembled audience.
It struck me there and then how prehistoric this place looked. It would not have surprised me at all if an ancient Greek Army were to suddenly rumble across the landscape and shoot arrows at an enormous dinosaur in pursuit. Other than the small town splayed off to our left, there seemed to little of the traces of modern life here like there were anywhere else. So unusual were the rocks around us and so striking the ruins that it felt as if we roamed in a theme park, dedicated to a fantastical interpretation of pre-history.
As the sun rose, the greyish-blue hue of the sky washed away the final remains of the dawn, bringing with it the blanket of oppressive heat and shimmering horizons. We headed in the opposite direction to yesterday, taking a richshaw to the other side of town. Here, over the ridge and the buildings petered out and melted away, leaving our path weaving through the rocks above the town and beyond.
Over the hill, we stumbled across another long and dilapidated temple complex nestled in the valley amongst the shrubs and the palm trees, as if we had somehow discovered this new place all by ourselves. As we entered the rubble-strewn courtyards that were clogged with crumbled masonry and tufts of grass, lizards scattered from their basking perches and crickets silenced their calls.
Beneath each building stood scores of small carved pillars featuring creatures and gods dancing, fighting and re-enacting the various mythical sagas that these temples celebrated.
I wished that I knew what they all represented. In some of the cases, I wished I even knew what or who the characters that were depicted were. It was not always easy to tell.
Further along the road, the architecture changed towards a more preserved and manicured style. As if to contrast with our previous experiences of the rugged, chaotic, open-plan Hampi, we passed along a grand, manicured lawn and towards a regal gate beneath formidable walls.
Paying an inflated fee at the gate, we passed into what must have, once upon a time, been the seat of power in this small kingdom. Off to one corner of the estate stood a watch-tower gazing out at the surreal, baking realm around us. In another stood a long building overlooking a courtyard with twelve imposing archways – elephant stables. Of course, all of the elephants were long gone apart from a far smaller one that stood nearby posing for tourist photographs for ten rupee a go while its handler prodded it with a hook on the end of a rusty pole.
Reaching an inner wall, we stepped up through another gate and deeper into this royal playground. Splayed out before us was a large stone courtyard with masonry slabs underfoot, broad, heavy and piping hot under the sun. Merging with the bleached grey of the buildings around us, it felt as if the architecture here had embedded its permanence even further into the landscape, so that it was almost becoming the landscape itself, saturated in the mysticism and beauty of the surrounding environment. In a sense, both the human and natural architecture were as enigmatic and striking as each other. There seemed an odd harmony between them. This place was beginning to get into my head.
I was inside one of the intricately carved buildings that stood at what felt like the culmination of that particular courtyard. It was there that I realised where I had seen this architecture before, but in living form rather than these stone monuments: The giant chariot in Madurai! The very same style of intricately carved, angular steps, deep embossing, small images and pillars also now stood all around me. But in Tamil Nadu, it had been decked in multi coloured drapery and holy men as it trundled through a screaming, writing sweating crowd of fervent worshippers; here, it stood, silent and inert in grey stone, frozen and lifeless in time. The contrasts could not have been greater, but yet there it was. It seemed to me a poignant metaphor for the life and death cycles that belief and memory can take. In a place such as this, I thought, tradition and religion are forces of every-day existence, where in the west, they are at best regarded as quaint. If it was ever difficult to see what the appeal of India was to many people, it was here for me to see.
That night, we decided to indulge in some night photography. Walking back from the temple over the rocks as the sun lengthened and deepened it colour, we picked out a number of vantage points that would lend themselves perfectly for some foreground scenery. The characteristic twisting, circular star-scapes that are the results of long-exposure photography are all well and good, but a striking foreground helps to really give a shot character and contrast.
We begun walking out of town from our guest house after dinner, through the cool, quiet air and emptiness of the roads. The sky was – as predicted – cloudless and, more importantly moon-less. This is another important component of long-exposure night photography: if the moon is out, the ambient light that it emits drowns out any clarity of the stars and the picture is lost in a washed out shot of blackness. The brighter the moon, the worse the loss at the development end. This actually testifies to the delicate nature of human eyes: the moon emits one millionth of the sunlight of the sun, but our retinas are so adaptable that this is barely noticeable on a bright, moonlit night. However, camera film is less forgiving and so a moonless, star-strewn night in these surroundings was a blessing.
On our way, we passed one of the temples we had visited earlier. This presented another perfect opportunity: The high walls would be able to filter out almost all of the ambient light that the town was emitting behind us, as well as any unexpected streaks from a motorbike headlights. But the best part would be the intricate, mysterious architecture of the temple stretching up into a bright, dense star-strewn cosmos. It was perfect.
Despite the sign forbidding entry after dark, the gate was not padlocked. We could just slide the latch and walk right in. Just as I was sliding the latch, chuckling once again at the lax way in which Indians treated the rules, we were greeting with an unearthly screech of metal on rusty metal, piercing the rural silence like a flare in the night.
I stopped instantly, my hand frozen on the handle as we listened out for movement around us.
Gentler this time, I tried to slip the latch across the metal, gingerly wiggling it to try and avoid the same banshee-like screech.
To no avail, we were subjected to the same grating howl, except for this time it had an additional lifelike quality to it, wobbling in pitch as my hand attempted to quieten the noise. There could have been no doubt to anyone in the area that someone was attempting to enter one of the temples.
Just as Alec and I were debating whether it was worse to draw out the noise by pulling it millimetre-by-millimetre or to simply rip it across like one would a plaster on a knee, we both froze on the spot. Coming through the trees towards us, swaying purposefully from side to side, was a torch beam.
In an instant, the debate moved on to an urgent new topic: Should we run or stay? To run would be to betray our knowledge that we had been breaking the rules and invalidate our pleas to have been ignorant, innocent tourists. If we were to stand our ground, we could employ that innocent tourist card and run the risk of facing a bribe. We could also, I hurriedly blurted out, admit we have been caught red-handed and bribe whoever it was that was approaching into letting us in? Alec quickly pointed out that raising the prospect of bribery was the last thing that two rich, western law-breaking tourists in India should sensibly be considering.
We decided, through indecision and apprehension, to stand our ground as the torch bobbed closer and closer. We did not have a plan.
As it slowly approached and drew to a halt in front us, the bright white beam shone authoritatively from my face to Alec’s and back again. Whoever was holding the torch appeared to be sizing us up.
“Temple forbidden”, said a male voice.
We said nothing, and a long pause ensued. They were waiting for us to make our move.
“Temple forbidden”, they said again. “You pay fine now.”
Shit. This was not what I wanted to hear.
I looked at Alec for a lead.
“No”, he said, flatly.
I think I audibly gasped. He was displaying real audacity and chutzpah, considering the circumstances. I was impressed. But my heart was also hammering in my chest.
“Yes! You pay baksheesh!” The voice was more shrill and urgent now, using the ubiquitous Hindi word for bribery. We had already heard it mentioned enough to know what it meant.
“Five hundred rupees you”, he said, shining the torch straight into my eyes and, as the beam swung back to shine into Alec’s eyes, “five hundred rupees you”. I watched his pupils dilate as they went from blackness back to bright light in an instant.
For the first time, my eyes caught sight of the man beyond the torch beam as he jabbed the torch aggressively into my friend’s face. Light reflected onto his shirt, shoulder lapels and the brim of his cap. He was, as I had suspected, a policeman.
Neither of us spoke. I was beginning to panic now. This was not a good situation to be in. I had no idea of what kind of a guideline we had broken by trying to enter a temple outside the prescribed hours. Were they especially protected? Had we violated some kind of religious sensitivity? In resisting a bribe, were we inviting the full weight of the law instead of a quick resolution? How much worse a treatment could we expect at a police station? What rights did I even have? After all, this was Hampi not Hampshire.
The frozen seconds dragged by in a silent slow motion. I had opened my mouth to begin reasoning with Alec to pay the fine and say sorry when the buzz of a motorbike approached, piercing the silent tension of the stand-off that had ensued. As the noise increased in volume to one side, the trees to our left became flecked in shifting light as the bike’s headlamp approached. Then, the bike turned a corner in the road and appeared, flooding the entire blackness in white light and noise.
Briefly, night turned to day.
Suddenly, the accuser and the accused saw one another for the first time. The policeman was stood before us, alone, still thrusting the torch upwards into Alec’s face. The arm that held the torch was bare, skinny and hairless. The shirt that he wore was short-sleeved and too big, so that the collar, despite being buttoned to the top, hung down from his neck in a deep sag. The hat was also too large for him, so it hung down over his eyes like a child dressing up as a policeman for the day. Aside from a dusting of fine hair on his upper lip, his face was nervous and child-like.
For a moment, the three of us stood in a circle, the situation laid bare while the harsh shadows shifted and the bike buzzed past us. And then, it turned a corner and disappeared again, the silence and the blackness descending once more. This time, however, I still saw the boy’s nervous expression and oversized hat imprinted in my retina.
“Alec, let’s go”, I said.
“Yes, let’s”, he agreed quickly. He had obviously made the same conclusion I had during those three illuminating seconds.
We begun to walk, brushing past the young boy as he begun to protect his authoritative edge:
“No! You pay fine! Five hundred rupees! You PAY!”
His loud protests had taken on a desperate edge and he begun to grab onto the corner of my vest weakly as if to somehow cling on to his control of the situation. Pretending to ignore him and the sharp pulling at my waist, I strode fast and purposefully away from the temple, while offering words of encouragement to Alec under my breath: “Walk-walk-walk! Don’t turn around! Keep walking!”
Trotting to catch up, the child-policeman ran around in front of us and begun to take point, as if he was leading us.
“Okay, yes”, he said, with a mock voice of defiance. “We go this way. Police station this way!”
Swivelling on our heels, we changed direction almost as one, trotting in the opposite direction as fast a walk could plausibly take us without breaking into a run. Again, the child-policeman found himself lagging behind us.
“Okay, I am very cheap”, he said, more pleading now than aggressive. “Two hundred rupees each.”
We walked faster, leaving his voice trailing behind us in the darkness as he negotiated with us from afar.
He was gone.
Poor kid. No wonder he was working the graveyard night shift. He looked like he couldn’t have been a day over sixteen. He probably wasn’t getting paid anything like a decent salary. It was no surprise that he tried to weedle a little baksheesh out of the silly western tourists breaking the law. Still, we were lucky it was only him and not someone more burly and intimidating. To think, technically speaking, we had just resisted arrest!
“Let’s not have any more run-ins with the police tonight, yeah?”
Alec laughed and agreed as we walked back the way we had came, away from the temple and the probably very sheepish-feeling child-policeman. I can only imagine how foolish and emasculated he must have felt at that moment.
Laughing and joking about the situation, we begun to relax and unwind again, revelling in our absurd fortune. We still needed somewhere to take our pictures though. Luckily, the road was leaving the town, climbing up the incline of one of the hills as the banana trees begun to fall away around us.
Soon enough, we stood out on a ridge overlooking a surreal, star-lit panorama of rocks and black shapes that bulged up into the sky, silhouetted against a rich, silver avalanche of stars. The Milky Way streaked like an enormous galactic baguette above our heads, arching from one horizon over to the next. Periodically, shooting stars streaked silently here and there, their movement increasingly visible in the stillness.
We begun to shoot. In the windless night, the only sound that interrupted the soft ambience of the crickets was the occasional snapping back of the shutters within our cameras. Alec had a digital SLR, whose silent mechanisms was only betrayed by the solid snap of the shutter. To contrast, I was using an old Olympus OM1 that I had bought especially for the trip. As I adjusted the rickety dial for the shutter speed, I could hear grains of sand being ground by the mechanisms, probably still lodged there from our beach photography in Hikkaduwa. Each long exposure would end with a satisfying snap of the shutter, the ringing of the tiny springs inside echoing like piano wire in the silence.
Before too long, an engine approached behind us. For the second time that evening, the area was bathed in an abrasive white light that drenched the two of us and illuminated our surroundings. Just as I was chuckling again at the already half-forgotten memory of our earlier encounter, the engine slowed to a halt.
My heart began to sink. What is it this time, I thought, wearily.
The engine reversed back up the road towards us, the window rolling down. It was a white van, with a lone guy driving it. But we had had enough hassle for the evening and were getting some good shots, so we received his attempted chatter with reluctance. Through his broken English, though, he was quite keen to tell us that where we were was not a ‘good place’ and that there were ‘bad people’ here.
This was not the first time we had heard this. Hampi had, it seemed, a reputation for isolated but violent robberies against tourists as they wandered amongst the ruins alone, clutching digital cameras and travellers’ cheques. Yes, we had heard this, we told him, but it was no problem for us. We knew the risks, so thank you, but we are fine.
Our new friend, however, was insistent: Here was a bad place and we must get in the van and he would take us back to Hampi.
My temper was beginning to fray with this guy. I was about to tell him that we were capable of looking after ourselves and that he should leave us alone, when the deep, coughing splutter of a large motorbike approached over the hill. It slowed as it saw us and came to a stop next to the driver’s window on the far side of us. Instantly, I heard a loud voice from beyond the motorbike headlight berating the driver of the van over the noise of the engine. Why was he getting yelled at?
And then I saw. For the second time that evening, there was, beyond the headlight, a policeman.
The yelling continued for some time and then paused. But instead of driving off again, the bike jerkily revved onto the gravel, twisted around the van and approached us. To my utter surprise, the policeman begun to yell at us as well, gesticulating and babbling in an unfamiliar, angry tongue. As the bike sputtered and the light glared in our eyes, I could make out a full moustache and an indignant face that almost threatened to knock back the hat that was tilted on his head. His big bike and booming voice suggested that it was not an adolescent boy that was yelling at us, but a policeman who was in charge. And he was not pleased with us.
The yelling paused. He held out his arm towards the van in expectation as if he had demanded an answer to a question. Our agape mouths clearly enraged him further, causing his moustache to twitch and his eyes to widen at our impertinent silence. He twisted the throttle. The bike roared and lurched forward, closing the few feet between us and spitting gravel at our feet so that we had to leap backwards to stop ourselves from falling under the tyres. Closer to us now, so that we could see the headlight shining in his mad, wide eyes, he pounded the door of the van menacingly with his meaty hands, as if to emphasise the message:
Get in the VAN!
As we drove back into town my heart was, once again, racing in my chest. Neither of us had even been expecting the ire of the law out here, let alone from a livid, chopper-riding, nutcase. Our friend and driver rather sheepishly explained that the police in the area were very keen to avoid any more violence against tourists and that if we had only listened then we might not be in trouble now. As he said this, we saw the policeman leading the way in front of us, the wide chopper cutting straight down the middle of the road ahead of us.
“Trouble?” we asked.
“Yes, trouble. Policeman problem. We go to police station now”, he said. “Hampi has….reputation”.
He did not expand on what kind of reputation Hampi had.
We pulled up outside the police station in the centre of the town. It seemed that half of the entire station had been relocated outside, with a desk and a long line of chairs lined up against the wall of the building. As our irate chaperone drew his motorbike to a halt, the policeman loitering outside the station in the evening heat leaped from chairs and huddles to assemble.
The policeman had already swung himself off the motorbike and begun to stride over to where our van was pulling up, so that as we climbed out, he was instantly bearing down upon us like a vengeful boxer back in the ring. With our backs against the white van, the unintelligible verbal battering continued where it had left off. This time, we could clearly see his wide belly bulging over his belt and the grey chest hair spilling over a shirt that was three buttons down from his collar. While the more junior policemen followed their superior and formed a respectful circle around us, his arms waved in the air and gesticulated as if he was giving some kind of lesson to the assembled cadets at how to discipline unruly tourists.
To one side, our driver now stood as an interpreter to this reprimand, providing halted English additions to the policeman’s rapid fire barks:
“Outside dangerous…many tourists robbed…”
He paused from time to time to protest to the policeman and receive a sharp blast back before continuing to translate.
“He say one, er, Japanese tourist…how you say, er, killed…last month…with robbers….Tourists not allowed out at night…”
At this final curfew order I unintentionally let out a derisive snort. I was beginning to lose patience with not only this situation, but this entire evening, which was turning out to be one disaster to the next, all exacerbated by the ridiculous police in this country. We weren’t allowed out at night!?
The policeman saw me roll my eyes. At this, his eyes widened, his moustache wiggled indignantly and his chest puffed out. He paced up to me and, with a sharp bark, raised his hand to strike me. It was only the cautionary yells of his recruits and a hand grabbing his extended arm that stopped his from hitting me full whack. Instead, I opened my eyes from having cowered from his blow to see the back of his hand raised above my head, while his angry face stared down at me, his teeth biting his tongue with anger at my sheer impudence.
Having been stopped mid-flow by one of his subordinates seemed to have also halted his tempter. As if he had somehow expended himself, his arm dropped from the freeze-frame above his head. He turned away from us and walked towards the door of the police station, the circle of trainees parting deferentially to let him through. The interrogation was over.
At his exit, the tension eased and circle broke loose. A much younger senior officer elbowed his way through the dispersing group towards us. We were to return at seven o’clock the next morning, he said, to “report to the police”. He would not provide any further details and instructed us both to go straight home.
Our friend who had driven us from the road had remained by our side throughout all of this.
“I am sorry”, he said, as he walked us away from the crowd of loitering cadets. “Police in Hampi..very bad.”