Dispatch from Hampi: Destruction of a "Boulderer's Paradise," and a Call to Better Care for Our Places
by Dominic Carrese. February 17th 2020, Sanapur, Karnataka, India
This is a (long) letter written primarily to the people who have enjoyed visiting Hampi Island over the years, especially climbers and those of us who were on the island, in the village of Virupapura Gaddi, when we were evicted over the past few days pending the imminent demolition. However, I also wrote this letter with a larger audience in mind - perhaps those who care about traveling responsibly in general; our relationships with technologies and their unintended consequences; Indian law and politics; the locals of Virupapura Gaddi; and acting to achieve political communities in harmony with human flourishing, right action, and non-violence - satyagraha.
What's Happening on Hampi Island?
Hampi Island will be bulldozed in a few days, according to the best available information. That's about how much many visitors and locals know. By virtue of the gravity, violence, and incompleteness of the information we have - that Hampi Island has been evicted for demolition - I'm guessing that you, like myself, are prompted to pause, breathe - and ask in a much more serious and concerned way "what is happening on Hampi Island"?
This letter discusses my two main answers to that question.
The first answer attempts to describe the situation in technical and legal terms, and is very complex. It relies upon interviews with locals and visitors, my own observations, and a host of sources in the "works cited" at the end of this letter. My research to inform this answer has made me aware of how much current and historical and legal and local knowledge I'm lacking; and it has raised a whole host of other technical questions. It leaves me feeling angry and frustrated and pessimistic. Nonetheless, it is necessary to give this first, technical answer in order to form the more political and actionable answer to the question.
The second answer attempts to describe the situation in political, common sense, and actionable terms - and it also makes me aware of how much I do not know. It's also a painful and challenging answer, but it gives us a solid foundation for action. Although the first answer, a general understanding of the legal details of the situation, is necessary to give this answer, I think it's best not to dwell on the fswer and instead move on to the second. I hope that asking "what is happening on Hampi Island" in common sense and political terms will spark conversations that can help visitors to Hampi - and many other places - understand what they might do to prevent a situation like this from developing again.
So what's the "situation like this" on Hampi Island?
First Answer: The Imminent Demolition of Most or All Structures in Virupapura Gaddi
Since it's likely incredible to many, including myself, I'll repeat: most if not all structures on the tourist and climbing destination of Hampi Island will be bulldozed in a few days, according to the best available information. The Supreme Court of India's verdict of February 11 2020 in the case of "Civil Appeal Nos. 1443-1456 of 2020" clears the Karnataka Government to proceed with "the demolition of the illegal structures erected by the Appellants in Virupapura Gaddi within a period of one month from the date of this order" (SCI § 27; see works cited for url to access this verdict).
One definition of Virupapura Gaddi is that it's a collection of homes, shops, and guesthouses that stretch from the north shore of the Tungabhadra onto Hampi Island; it is the only village on Hampi Island (curiously, SCI seems to conflate Virupapura Gaddi and Hampi Island, saying Virupapura Gaddi is "an oval islet formed by the Tungabhadra river, located on the west of the Hampi World Heritage site" (SCI § 3.2)). Over the past twenty years these guesthouses have become a favorite destination for climbers from November to March (see McAllister's 2012 Rock and Ice article). Although many other climbing sectors off Hampi Island are well developed (like Rocklands, boulder-strewn hills stretch as far as the eye can see), the Island became by far the most convenient place to stay in the Hampi area. The mutual reinforcement of the increasing allure of the Island's boulders and the increasing development of the guesthouses seems to have concentrated climbing activity on the Island. From Goan Corner, approach times to the main sectors on the Island ranged from five to twenty minutes. Pads were easily rented for cheap at Goan Corner and Golden Boulders and Sunny's Bouldering, and food and accomodation were relatively cheap (from three dollars a night for a roof-top dorm bed to ten dollars for a mud hut, and three dollars for most meals; I'm told prices were much lower just a few years ago). Open air lounge spaces with floor seating and low tables abounded and allured the traveling boulderer whose chill to climb ratio was very high (the stereotypical boulderer?). Many called it a boulderer's paradise.
A boulderer's paradise in the past tense - all the evidence suggests that within the next few days the guesthouses and restaruants and shops on Hampi Island - including Goan Corner, Manju's Place, and Bobby One Love, where for the past twenty years climbers like me have communed between bouldering sessions - will be a heap of rubble. To name just a few other places I've visited: Sunny's Boulders, Happy Hampi, Gali Djembe Music, Golden Boulders, Thali House, Dudu Falafel - will be no more. The businesses belonging to Sharmila, Manju, Sunny, Jerry, and the many other locals will be destroyed. Perhaps their homes too. A few trees and houses may be left standing.
Yesterday all businesses were posted with "closed" signs, fruit vendors were clearing out, and most visitors were asked to leave (to my knowledge, the few that remained were in tents). Police were seen frequently on the road. Locals are moving or preparing to move portable property. This is a tragic situation, and is a shock to many, especially newcomers to Hampi Island.
But for residents such an eviction and demolition has loomed as a possibility for many years. In fact, it has happened before: in 2011 Hampi Bazaar was totally demolished without the opportunity to appeal (see articles by Allana, Cambell, Chamberlain, and Equitable Tourism). Then in 2016, The old village of Virupapura Gaddi was also totally demolished under the authority of the same legislative order now being applied to the rest of the village (see Lonely Planet, Thima; I couldn't find much coverage of this demolition).
These demolitions were preceded by a long trail of litigation, reporting, and official recommendations and classifications concerned with development in Hampi. Thirteen years after Hampi became a world heritage site in 1986, in 1999, "UNESCO classified the Hampi World Heritage properties as being 'in danger'....this classification was significant inasmuch as it reflected the deteriorating condition of the area" (Campbell; SCI § 20.3). Three years later:
upon the introduction of the Hampi World Heritage Area Management Authority Act, 2002 (hereinafter 'the Hampi Act'), the authority constituted thereunder, the Hampi World Heritage Area Management Authority (hereinafter 'HWHAMA')... directed the panchayats and local authorities not to renew any licenses and not to grant permission for commercial activities within Virupapura Gaddi. Later, in exercise of its powers under the Hampi Act, the HWHAMA issued notices to the Appellants for demolishing the structures constructed by them. (SCI § 3.3)
In other words, February 11th's decision is the result of an eighteen year period of litigation to prevent the demolition of Virupapura Gaddi.
Like previous demolitions, further information about the upcoming demolition is frustratingly hard to come by. While there have been government officials inspecting properties and giving notice to residents and business owners yesterday and today, the date of bulldozing remains uncertain. A few days ago we thought it might be anytime within the next week. Then, on the 14th, locals were informed that a stay order, temporarily postponing the demolition for ten days, had been authorized. Now it seems that might not hold. It's small comfort that more notice was given this time than in 2011 and 2016. In any case, locals say that the final notice of demolition will be given in the traditional South Indian fashion: a drummer will walk the streets of Virupapura Gaddi, his drumbeats announcing the imminent arrival of bulldozing equipment.
Well, all those technical details are one answer to the question "what's happening in Hampi?". It's an important answer to understand - but it needs to be guided by a more common-sense, actionable understanding. Especially for those of us who aren't lawyers or scholars or committed to directly helping the Virupapura Gaddi community, we should think about what's happening on Hampi Island in less technical terms, in terms us that allow us to do something about it.
That is, unless we have an actionable framework to guide us, it would be frustrating and unproductive to pursue technical questions on our minds like: why is needless and violent destruction, instead of regulation and reform that can occur over many years, the way to "protect" the UNESCCO World Heritage site of Hampi? To that end, why did the Hampi World Heritage Area Management Authority largely ignore the 2004 "Integrated Management Plan (IMP), developed by Nalini Thakur, one of India's respected heritage conservation experts" that advocated for nonviolent Reform? (The HWHAMA instead implemented their own Master Plan in 2006, which seems to have led directly to today's tragic situation: Cambell writes about this Master Plan that it is "a strange amalgamation of pre-existing documents, everything from tourist brochures, census tables, and a touch of Thakur's IMP. I believe the master plan is concrete evidence of the problem expressed by ICOMOS, namely, that the preservation of archaeological remains becomes a conflict between preservation and development"). Is the Supreme Court of India really working to ensure the integrity of India's Constitution, or does it have other motives (see Gettleman et al)? Will there be any compensation for locals? Is the motive genuine concern about the integrity of the history, archaeology, and natural beauty of Hampi? Is the motive money - because the demolition will benefit current or future hotel and restaurant owners in Hospet or elsewhere?
These questions are important, but they lead to larger and more frustrating questions: is the legal system of India at fault? Is capitalism and commodification at fault? Is basic greed and pettiness at fault? Is systematic corruption at fault?
The speculation that might result from attempting to definitively answer each seems damaging, because it produces only impotent anger and frustration. Are we going to reform the legal system of India? Are we going to root out systematic corruption? Are we going to eliminate human greed?
So, if along with me you're wondering "what can I do?", then I think there's another answer to the question "what's happening in Hampi?" that does not result in such self-defeating questions, speculation, anger, and frustration. It is an answer that will help to guide continued research into the technical and legal details of this situation, if that is something we (you or I) choose to do. But, if we don't act in that particular way, as I assume most of us will not, a second answer can give a stronger foundation for action. It's an answer that can help us to be more responsible travelers, citizens, and stewards of the places in which we reside - whether for a night or a lifetime.
Second Answer: Visitors' (Mis)use of Technologies has Corroded Sense and Integrity of Place
Many visitors to Virupapura Gaddi, foreign and Indian, will hop in cars or get on buses, trains, or motorbikes to leave Hampi Island before the demolition begins. Many have already done so. In recent years most visitors to Hampi have come and gone by virtue of these powerful technologies and the technical complexes with which they're associated - roads, the concrete industry, train tracks, metal and rubber and plastic manufacturing, fossil fuels, digital computers.
These technologies allow us to drop in and out of the place. They are very likely to make Hampi just another of many, many places we visit in Karnataka, or India, or Asia, or planet Earth. In my experience humans can only care for a limited number of places - we only have so much care to give - so that means that our care is increasingly spread thin. We come and go without developing a relationship with Hampi, without developing a true "sense of place". If a place gets destroyed, it's easy for us to pick up and leave without suffering any inconvenience or discomfort (sadly, that's what many will do in this situation).
Here I quote at length from Cambell since he tells this story in terms specific to Hampi:
Most residents of the core zone were
engaged in small subsistence farming and agriculture (sugar cane, bananas, and
rice). According to informal interviews with older residents of Anegundi
Village and Virupapura Gaddi Island, apart from pilgrims coming to Hampi's
living Virupaksha temple and a handful of hippies who, like the pilgrims, did
not require or desire tourist infrastructure, Hampi was not a well-known
In the mid to late 1990s, however, private bus companies established a second bus route between Goa and Hampi. This brought a different crowd, mainly young international tourists who were tired of Goa's crowded tourism destinations. Their presence gave rise to hostels, homestays that served non-vegetarian cuisine and alcohol - things technically deemed illegal in a sacred site. This type of tourism blurred the more traditional boundary between hosts and guests maintained by the mass tourism industry. The newer tourists did not want to stay in hotels but rather live among the locals in makeshift tourist accommodation. While this fostered opportunities for cross-cultural exchange, it also created friction between the tourists and the locals. There was an unmistakable contrast between permissible "western" behaviour and "Indian-ness".
Indian tourists also travelled to Hampi in droves during the tourist season, putting strain on resources and personal relations. Thus, new settlements and spatial patterns begun to emerge in the core zone of the site as tourism grew. (Cambell II)
Some entrepreneur punched a bus-sized hole in the dam that until then had withheld the flood of tourists from Goa - and likely punched it without considering the impact it would have upon Hampi, whether the law and culture and infrastructure of Hampi and its people could withstand the resulting deluge, the rapid speed of touristic development. In any case, the result we're watching unfold (which has been building for some time) is that the government's bulldozers are fighting the tourist's buses. So I think we should go even further than Cambell does in emphasizing the role of technical systems in generating friction between tourists and locals. In addition to new bus routes, I'm guessing that "in the mid to late 1990s" information spread via the internet significantly contributed to the tourism boom in Hampi (not just Lonely Planet books anymore!). Even if we cannot quantitatively measure the effect of the 2003 climbing movie "Pilgrimage" starring Chris Sharma, Katie Brown, and Nate Gold on the number of climbers in Hampi, we can assume that it had a very significant positive effect. And the Indian tourists traveling in droves to Hampi - how do they know about Hampi, how can they plan a quick weekend trip with rooms already booked, how do they physically travel here?
Technologies not directly linked to the transportation industry also hinder us from developing a strong sense of place. For example, the technologies that climbers increasingly carry with us - most obviously electronic speakers and internet-connected screens - make Hampi an increasingly generic place. Just like my home in Colorado - or most other places in the world - I can talk to my family, instantly play the music I've always listened to, withdraw cash, and always know where I am by virtue of google maps, 4G, and gps. As Arne Naess writes of the "global place-corrosive process":
urbanization, centralization, increased mobility (although nomads have proven that not all sorts of moving around destroy the relation of belonging somewhere), the dependence on goods and technologies from where one does not belong, the increase of structural complication of life - all these factors weaken or disrupt the steady belongingness to place, or even hinder its formation. There seems to be no place for PLACE anymore. (Naess 45)
Without a strong sense of place, many people may have unintentionally or carelessly contributed to the tragic situation of Virupapura Gaddi.
When transportation and communication technologies prevent a sense of place from developing, other technologies have the opportunity to corrode the integrity of place. While it could be argued that the noise pollution from speakers, vehicle emissions, and the internet infrastructure all attack the health of the place named Hampi, we can start with more conspicuous examples.
Like most places I've visited in India, plastics that are used in Hampi stay in Hampi, in conspicuous trash heaps that are occasionally burned. In some ways this is better than what occurs in many parts of the world (and India, increasingly) where nonbiodegradable waste is also a huge problem but is hidden - "disposed" - while people pretend to "leave no trace". At least in Hampi the problem is evident and forces contemplation, rather than being hidden - out of sight and out of mind. It makes us realize that the tech-complex that produces plastics is corroding Hampi's integrity of place, or, in the Supreme Court's words, contributing to "the deteriorating condition of the area." Of course it is not just visitors that generate such plastic waste. But I think visitors in general provide powerful monetary incentives for businesses to do what they think the visitors want - incentives that it is unreasonable to expect that businesses will resist. Regardless, anyone who has seen the mountain of plastic water bottles in Goan Corner - a spectacle ten feet high by twenty feet wide, demonstrating plastic bottles' angle of repose, and composed of who knows how many bottles - cannot help but understand that visitors have exacerbated the problem in quality as well as quantity. (Why not drink, like the locals do, straight from the tap - or from a filter, or from a refillable 120 liter bottle - and prevent all that plastic bottle waste?)
Other than plastic pollution, which seems to be a quite objective form, there are more subjective forms of which visitors are accused. Many cultures in India have very strict views on purity and pollution that do not map onto most foreign understandings of those ideas. Specifically, pollution and purity are important ideas in Sanskrit texts like the Vedas and Upanishads and Laws of Manu that are considered sacred by many Indians. The ideas about purity and pollution in these texts have become essential to many cultures in India; indeed, the practice of caste is deeply tied to the idea of pollution and purity (some of the best sources on caste and pollution in Indian culture include B.R. Ambedkar's Annihilation of Caste, with Arundhati Roy's introduction; Louis Dumont's Homo Hierarchicus; Susan S. Bean's "Toward a Semiotics of 'Purity' and 'Pollution' in India"; and the 2012 India Human Development Survey which is heavily relied upon in recent scholarship on purity and pollution in India like Spears and Thorat's "Caste, purity, and pollution and the puzzle of open defecation in India"). For some of these cultures, "contact with death and dead bodies, feces, urine, saliva, menstruating women, the cremator of dead bodies, disabled people, foreigners, and especially Dalits are all considered highly polluting" (Spears and Thorat 5). As compared to the cultures of most visitors to Hampi, one scholar has written of an unnamed South Indian city that:
outside of private and sacred zones like temples, [people] have no interest in cleanliness. Their interest in cleanliness stops at the doorsteps of private homes, and habits related to the outside define it as an irrelevant rubbish dump. (Coffey et al. 11)
For many Indians plastic pollution might not be a problem, but the pollution of an inside toilet is (Coffey et al).
More pertinently to our situation, the common practices on Hampi Island of wearing revealing clothing and consuming alcohol (let alone other drugs) might be considered to be a form of cultural pollution. Or, even if it just simply makes locals uncomfortable, that uncomfortableness might be expressed with reference to cultural norms about pollution. From one perspective it might be to remind visitors not to pollute Hampi that there are signs posted at local establishments suggesting that respect for local culture mandates wearing conservative clothes. Perceived cultural pollution is likely why, when I asked an official from the Gangavathi Gram Panchayat about the reasons for the demolition of Virupapura Gaddi, "the consumption of bad things" was the first reason he gave; and why the Times of India published an article in a pro-demolition tone the day after the Supreme Court's judgment that casually mentions Hampi Island is "a favourite haunt for rave parties" - as if that's evidence for why it should be demolished.
I personally disagree with the ideas of pollution derived from sacred Sanskrit texts and developed in the caste system - like Dr. Ambedkar, one of the founders of the modern Indian constitution, I think such ideas have had bad effects on a scale from the most horrendous dehumanization to petty fears and pitiable haughtiness. Nonetheless, part of caring for a place is not carelessly, or unintentionally, or shockingly transgressing or protesting the cultural practices of that place. If you want to change those cultural practices, develop Gandhi's method of satyagraha - a strong, non-violent adherence to truth - instead. And although I think Indian norms of pollution are often backwards, I think they are often inseparable from the beautiful spiritual traditions and practices that attracts so many visitors (and, occasionally, eventual residents). We might have something to learn.
In sum: I think the most important answer to the question "what is happening on Hampi Island" is that a misuse of technologies, or a use of technologies that should not be used at all, has contributed to a degradation of place in Hampi. This has happened before in many other places; Jamaica Kincaid's A Small Place is a powerful narrative of how an ugly kind of high-tech enabled tourism destroyed her own island of Antigua, and this is currently happening to many other places in the world.
Analogous situations are also familiar to the climbing community in terms of access controversies. Particularly analagous to the Hampi Island situation are access controversies involving Native American sacred sites in the U.S. like Devil's Tower or Bear's Lodge (the tranlsation of the Lakota name) WY, Hueco Tanks TX, Red Rock NV, Indian Creek UT and Military Wall KY (Access Fund 23 and 24). Motivation to restrict access to these areas are usually provoked by climbers' use of new technologies - better roads and cars, GPS and internet maps, loud portable speakers, the tech-complex of modern climbing gyms, the tech-complex of modern camping equipment - allowing for more frequent intensive climbing activity. The destruction of Hampi Island does not appear direct access issue - only Hemakuta and Matanga hills, on the south side of the Tungabhadra, are closed to climbing, and no documents I read cited the act of climbing itself as a reason to demolish Virupapura Gaddi. Only the behavior of climbers when they're not climbing and in "camp" has been criticized. That makes this an indirect access issue, analogous to the regulation of camping and campgrounds with which the Access Fund is familiar (Access Fund 25). Just like Yosemite's Camp Four, the popular "campground" of Hampi Island has been regulated (out of existence).
So, as in the case of many climbing access restrictions and tourist exploitation, it is apparent that visitors could have done better to care for Hampi - regardless of whether the order to demolish Virupapura Gaddi resulted from genuine care for the place named Hampi - which seems unlikely given the needlessly destructive approach of demolition- or from more sinister motives. If climbers want to have the best access to the rock, if non-climber visitors want to continue to be able to visit and live with the places they value, we need to respect the places we visit. Especially in India, where its easy to think that anything goes - because it usually does, and usually has - doesn't mean that anything should go, or that it will in the future.
What We Can Do
So, as we move on to our next adventures, let us reaffirm our commitment to care for place. Perhaps for the next place we visit we will consider and choose the least polluting way to get there (this might add to the adventure!). Or we might try to reduce our plastic consumption by carrying a water filter and taking time to seek out good sources of local water (again, this adds to the adventure!). Or we might stay longer and develop a relationship with the locals. We might use our portable speakers less (or not at all) so we can hear birds and other animals, and better understand the ecology of the place. We might read about the history, natural history, culture, economics, and politics of the place. We might opt for non-AC rooms so that we experience the actual climate of the place. I'm sure we can think of many more imaginative ways to be better, more place-respectful travelers.
A more respectful mode of traveling does not necessarily mean that we cannot use advanced technologies to aid our traveling and visitation of places. Many of those technologies allow for wonderful relationships and new kinds of human flourishing to develop that would not otherwise have been possible. But it does mean that we should be more critical of technologies and technical complexes that we use and with which we interact. It means we should take care of, take responsibility for, the integrity and health of the places we visit. (Does that sometimes mean not visiting them?)
If we are more intentional and careful about how we visit places, if we take responsibility for the health of the places we visit, I think we can prevent a situation like the demolition of Virupapura Gaddi from occurring in other places. Furthermore, we can help to care for Virupapura Gaddi and Hampi once the demolition occurs.
Especially for climbers who will continue to visit Hampi for the world-class bouldering, and did not just come for the "chill vibe" of the Virupapura Gaddi, we will have the opportunity to establish norms that are more respectful of place. To that end I hope this letter will be fodder for good conversations not only about how to better develop a sense of place, care for places, and sustainable travel in general, but also in the specific context of Hampi. I know that many restaurant and guest house businesses plan to rebuild - so, what should their business model be? How can visitors provide incentives for businesses to develop in better ways?
These sorts of questions, and a new level of care for Hampi, will require an improvement upon my first answer - a much more detailed and comprehensive documentation and analysis of the historical, legal, and technical details of the impending demolition of Virupapura Gaddi. The first and the second answers I've given here should work in tandem; big-picture thinking will be much better if it relies on detailed research. Moving forward, my hope for Hampi is that people will commit themselves to this work, will become committed or renew their commitment to this place.
Perhaps articulating why we valued Hampi Island is a good first step. That would actively care for the place by showing support for the locals who are losing almost everything and commemorating (literally, remembering together) a place that we valued. Just because it is marred by the needless destruction of bulldozers doesn't mean we can't still care for its memory. Such commemoration will also help us to better understand why we visited Hampi and how we might have been better visitors. The natural instinct in our digitized age is to engage in such commemoration via the internet. Perhaps some of that is needed, in a careful and intentional form. But I think the majority of it should be via that more reliable and known medium, oral conversation. I for one want to hear commemoration of Hampi Island in the form of friends' voices from across the table or camp fire.
p.s. a bit about me: this year I have been working on a
place-based project centered around "how to live well with technology". I have
spent most of my time in India living in Gujjarbettu, Karnataka (from August to
November 2019) and Hampi; aside from a week long trip to Badami, I have been
lived on Hampi Island from January 20th to February 16th where I greatly enjoyed
my time climbing, writing, and making friends in a beautiful place. (I'm now
staying in the nearby village of Sanapur). This website (root url at whatisthis.technology) is "where" I've published a series
of conversational essays exploring the question "how to live well with
technology?". If you'd like to contact me my email is firstname.lastname@example.org
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Cambell, Morgan. "Hampi Bazaar Demolition II: How Maps Alienate People". Economic and Political Weekly, Volume 50 Issue 29, 18 July 2015. Web.
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Naess, Arne. The Ecology of Wisdom. Counterpoint Press, 2010. Print.
Shantangoudar, Mohan M., J. "Civil Appeal Nos. 1443-1456 OF 2020" Supreme Court of India. 11 February 2020. Web.
Spears, Dean and Amit Thorat. "Caste, purity, and pollution and the puzzle of open defecation in India: Evidence from a novel measure in a nationally-representative survey". 24 September 2015. Web.
Thima, local climber. Interview.