Global Politics

Preserving India's Hampi Ruins

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The government of India has ordered nearby homes and businesses to be bulldozed to protect the ancient ruins of Hampi. (Photo: Michael May)

The town of Hampi in southern India appeals to the kind of travelers willing to go 12 hours out of their way for something different.

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I'm one of them.

It's worth the trip for the setting itself. An azure sky meets undulating hills covered with red granite boulders. Abandoned monuments dot the landscape, the remains of the ancient metropolis of Vijayanagara, the center of a Hindu empire that existed from the 14th through the 16th century. The ruins – ornately engraved palaces, temples, stone chariots – sprawl over hundreds of square miles around Hampi. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In the center of town, there's Virupaksha temple. The bells still call Hindu worshippers to this 15th century temple. Inside, pilgrims line up with an offering of coconuts or rupees for Lakshmi, the temple elephant, who returns the favor with a blessing and a tap of her trunk on their heads.

Musicians play devotional music on a stone pavilion, and tour guides lead small groups through the sacred chaos.

This is what archeologists call "Living Heritage," an ancient monument still being used by locals.

The same was true for the Hampi Bazaar. My tour book promised a thriving 400-year old marketplace full of restaurants and guesthouses.

Instead, I found bulldozers leveling hundreds of cement homes and shops, most of which had been built over the past 60 years. The air was thick with dust. Locals stood around and watched, stunned. A few used sledgehammers to pry valuable steel rebar from the wreckage. Viru Pakshee, a tour guide here, stood outside his home watching a lurching bulldozer approach. The front half of his house had already been torn down.

"That's where I was born," he said. "Any minute it's going to collapse. They're going to bulldoze everything."

As I would learn, the Archeological Survey of India, or ASI, ordered the demolition. It's the government organization charged with protecting the monuments here.

M. Nambirajan, ASI's archeologist in charge of Hampi, told me that ASI had to take action because people were not just living near the ruins. Some of them had settled inside ancient kiosks in the market.

"We cannot to permit the monument to be used as an internet café, or hotel, roadside eatery," Nambirajan said. "That is not the original purpose of the monument!"

Hampi residents tried to fight back in court. But in April, the Karnataka High Court ruled that the people must go – immediately. And the ASI gave the order to clear more than 300 homes from the bazaar, though a small section away from the ruins was allowed to remain. Nambirajan says that people who lost their homes will be compensated and moved to a village outside of the protected area.

"In course of time, they'll get good business and can run their life without any trouble."

The sacrifice is worth it, according to Nambirajan. Once the modern buildings are cleared away, visitors will be able to observe the ancient structures as they were centuries ago.

"We are only increasing the outstanding value of the monument by removing illegal inhabitants and restoring original character and integrity of the monuments," he said.

But not everyone agrees that an empty Bazaar really reflects the original character of the place.

"It's a very simplistic way of understanding these things," said Nalini Thakur, of the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi. She was actually hired by the ASI to create a management plan for the Hampi ruins, but she says the ASI ignored her recommendation to work with the locals. She now accuses the ASI of having a "colonial mentality" about protecting the ruins.

"The assumption is that if the moment is cleared and without people it is safe. But it's not true," she said. "To maintain these sites, it's better to have people, and not rely on one organization."

Thakur says that locals can do a great job of maintaining archeological sites when they are given an incentive to do so, an approach that has worked at sites in Rome and Jerusalem.

Thakur does agree that the bazaar was becoming overdeveloped, but she believes the government could have found a middle ground. Her plan called for a field school in Hampi, where residents in the bazaar would be taught how to live among the ruins and protect them.

"So you clearly say, what are the dos and don'ts for this, which we all follow."

UNESCO has run similar field schools to safeguard living heritage sites in rural Thailand.

Thakur suspects the ASI had another motive in Hampi beyond preservation. The bazaar catered to backpackers who often spend just a few dollars a day. The government, she says, would rather attract wealthy foreigners who stay at five star hotels.

"The backpackers are better from my end, because whatever they spend, it will be spent on site and it'll help the local economy. The five star people, when they spend, the travel agent takes all the money.

As it happens, Hyatt has plans to open a hotel outside Hampi.

But Viru, the tour guide who lost his home, says there's still another piece to the story. He says there's been tension for years between the locals who cater to tourists and the swami who runs the temple.

"He thinks that Hampi is polluted, because of foreigners, because of the hippies, because they've been claiming that drugs been selling."

Viru says that was no reason to destroy the bazaar. He thinks police should have just stepped up enforcement. But whatever the ulterior motives, the effect for Viru is the same. He and his family will get a bit of compensation – and they'll be relocated to the new settlement.

"Our business depends on tourism, and there's nothing there to do. So one way or another way, life is finished."

As I gazed over the heaps of rubble that had been a thriving marketplace just days before, it occurred to me that travelers who love Hampi had lost something too. The historic bazaar is now just another stone monument, protected, perhaps, but devoid of life.