In Hampi with Gollings

“Most of my work as an architectural photographer has never been seen… it is of dead cities in deserts and jungles where I return year after year for an orgy of self-flagellation and recrimination over lost images and intransigent buildings.” –  John Gollings

John Gollings has been documenting the ruins of Vijayanagara, a UNESCO World Heritage site for over thirty years. The ruins date back to the 14th century and cover an area just over twenty-five kilometers. Johns work was featured in an exhibition at the Immigration Museum in Melbourne in 2008 and was entitled ‘PLACE-HAMPI – Inhabiting the Cultural Imagery’. The exhibition was later procured by Jindal Steel Works and installed at the Kaladham Museum in Karnataka, India.

©Photo John Gollings

©Photo John Gollings

John has been a mentor and friend for over fifteen years, so when the opportunity presented for us to meet in Hampi and for me to share his knowledge and passion for this sacred site it was too good to pass up. We both marveled at the coincidence that we should find ourselves in India at the very same time, under completely different circumstances, John on a shoot to document the Virupaksha Chariot Festival and more of the Vijayanagara ruins, and me driving a tuk-tuk 3700km across India to raise money for clean water.  Karma must have wanted it.

What began as an invitation from Johns dear friend George Michell (an architectural historian) to photograph the ruins of Vijayanagara in 1980 has become one of the most comprehensive and definitive records of this ancient city. What intrigues John about Vijayanagara is that it is one of the only purpose built imperial cities that from a planning perspective fundamentally imbues the king with leadership. The hierarchy of look-out platforms endows the king with a God like presence. John is fascinated by the extraordinary medieval way of life and has savored every opportunity to learn and absorb the Hindu culture.

Hampi is one of the worlds last functioning villages that thrives and prospers amidst ancient ruins. It is currently under threat of demolition by the government. The obsession with sanitising the site under the guise of protecting it is leaving inhabitants whose families have lived there for centuries feeling displaced and abandoned. The village is literally being bulldozed piece by piece, and the residents who depend upon tourism for their livelihood have officially been evicted.

©Photo Dianna Snape

Photo ©Dianna Snape

As John’s passion for Hampi has been solidified over time, similar values and insights have forged my own connection with Tanzania in East Africa.  Ironically I was en-route to Tanzania to establish a photography workshop for disadvantaged children when we met in Hampi.

I can best describe my time in Tanzania as an insightful glimpse into the purity and strength of the human spirit. I have experienced the generosity of people living in poverty and have been forever changed by witnessing the happiness and contentment of people that have virtually nothing. This is one of life’s precious lessons and you know when you are personally touched by this insight you have a responsibility to find a place for the wisdom within your own life.

John has forged lifelong friendships with the inhabitants of Hampi and in turn he is embraced and respected, not dissimilar to the Gods that are worshipped within the ruins. The people of Hampi understand and respect the value that John’s work plays in their plight and their place in history, in John they know they have a loyal advocate. It was beautiful to see how John is equally in awe of Hampi and the people he has come to call family.

Photo @Dianna Snape

Photo @Dianna Snape

John’s original assistant Viraya is now too old to carry the camera bags so his son Jambaya has been passed the baton. Viraya and John have shared three decades of their lives and they chat like old wise friends who value all that has passed between them.

Photo ©Dianna Snape

Photo ©Dianna Snape

Photo ©Dianna Snape

During our stay we were generously hosted by Raghu at the Pushpa Guesthouse and offered several invitations to dine with Jambaya and his family in their home, a short motorbike ride away. As we were debating how to get there John confidently announced to our hosts that I could ride one of the motorbikes and take us both to their home. As our hosts scooted off into the distance I was left with Gollings in the laneways of Hampi and me protesting that I’d only ridden a 250cc before and my license didn’t permit me to carry pillion passengers. If any of you know John Gollings you will know that rules are never adhered to and he’s a “throw your baby into the pool to teach them to swim” kind of guy. So fresh with my motorbike license, I found myself in Hampi reenacting a sad homage to ‘Easy Rider’, on a motorbike way larger than anything to which I was accustomed, with Gollings as my pillion passenger skirting the dusty, bumpy back roads of Hampi. A a sight to behold.

The planning of the trip to meet with John began with coordinating our initial meeting in Bangalore where we would hire a car and make the 353km journey to Hampi.  So the first step was to work out the date we would meet. For most people this would seem like a pretty simple task.  As I expected, John had very little knowledge of the logistics of his trip. I’ll start with what John could tell me. He could tell me that he was photographing a festival. He could not tell me the name of the festival. He could describe aspects of what would take place at the festival, like big chariots being wheeled down the main street. He could not tell me when the festival started or for how long it ran. He could tell me the name of the guesthouse we should stay at. He couldn’t tell me any contact or address details. I managed to find the Pushpa Guest House via Google and would you believe the only trace of the place was one tripadvisor review and a few mentions on some India travel sites, listing only a telephone number, no website and no email address. Before the Internet I lived a functioning existence and traveled widely, so it was not unfathomable to me to imagine life without it, however it is indeed unique in 2013 to find Guesthouses that do not communicate via email and have no web presence.

I eventually bullied John into committing to a meeting date so I could book airfares out of Guwahati in the North of India to get to Bangalore. I foolishly made the mistake of relying on receiving accurate dates from John and booked our airfares based on his advice.  Sometime later, I actually think I was driving a tuk-tuk across India when I received the unapologetic email that the dates were wrong.

Sue Shanahan, John’s longstanding and loyal producer (or his left arm which is a more appropriate description) couldn’t understand why I would rely on any information John provided as being factually correct. I am fully aware of John’s ability to embellish a good yarn, but I really did trust that he would have the date right, as I knew he was organising this trip himself.  Lesson learned, I really should have checked with Sue.  So the upshot was that we found ourselves in Bangalore with a day to kill.  Ok, it was only one day, but I would have much rather spent an extra day in Shillong.

John was staying at the Oberoi Hotel and my friends and I were staying at the Oberoi’s much poorer cousin down the road.  Having driven across India with thirteen days in a tuk-tuk, John’s kind invitation to host all of us at the Oberoi for breakfast before embarking on our road trip to Hampi was much appreciated. Truly a lavish, colonial affair and given the digs we had been frequenting, we felt like the homeless being harbored.

John is always good company.  I am fairly certain most people who have travelled or dined with him will vouch for this.  Even if you are not in agreement with his views or some of his outlandish protestations, you will at the very least find him entertaining.  When you have his undivided attention (which is rare) you get a real taste of the man who is Gollings. He is intelligent and has that gentlemanly, insightful, worldliness that shows a considered understanding of a breadth of topics. He is charismatic and charming and he can be a good listener. That’s the good stuff, paradoxically he can also be profoundly stubborn, flippantly dismissive and ignorantly unapologetic. However, he had his party manners on this trip and was not only a gentleman but also a generous and magnificent host.

We arrived in Hampi and made our way by tuk-tuk to the Pushpa Guesthouse where we occupied all four rooms. The rooms are located on a rooftop that has a large balcony with spectacular views over Hampi and the surrounding ruins of Vijayanagara. It is an ideal vantage point to observe the life of the village as it begins and ends each day. You almost feel like a voyeur watching unnoticed from above.

The rooftop was to be our home for the next four days, and let’s just say it was anything but uneventful. John had a rather scary altercation with a monkey that crept down from the roof and tried to steal his water bottle. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a quick and instinctive response as John’s when he successfully swiped his bottle back from the monkey. Conversely, I’ve never seen such a reactive and vicious response from the monkey as it advanced towards John sneering and hissing, very agitated to lose the bottle. The confrontation was primal and a testament to John’s amazing reflexes that he retrieved his water bottle.

Photo ©Dianna Snape

Photo ©Dianna Snape

John strategically invited me to the ruins at 5.30am each day. An invitation like that is code for ‘come and keep me company and fend off the odd security guard’. So, as if no time had passed since I finished as John’s assistant in 2001, there I was on holiday, by John’s side from 5.30am until sunset and grabbing the odd bit of food between shoots. It’s the life of an architectural photographer to always be seeking food. Most times you never stop for lunch and John has become an expert at taking advantage of food presented at any opportunity.

For four days John and I strolled amidst the ruins of Vijayanagara in the company of Jambaya, who assisted in locating and identifying the last undocumented ruins. It was truly magnificent.

What I enjoyed most about our time together in Hampi were the conversations we shared in the solace and peacefulness at the beginning and end of the day. I always enjoyed John’s company when I assisted him and because of the crazy workaholic that he is, I think it’s possibly only his assistants that ever get to glimpse the relaxed and thoughtful man.

At the start of the day it’s an interesting mix of tranquility and anticipation where you marvel at the beauty of a sunrise and all the magic it brings to your subject. You know it’s special, because generally there is no one else around and no matter how many sunrises you see, they never fail to add a little something to your soul. At the end of the day, it’s a combination of exhaustion and gratification, mixed with excitement and anticipation as you wait to download and start editing.

Photo ©Dianna Snape

Photo ©Dianna Snape

Photo ©Dianna Snape

Photo ©Dianna Snape

The three day Virupaksha Car Festival is the largest religious festival in Hampi marking the annual ritual marriage of the Shiva and Goddess Pampa. In the days leading up to the main parade, Hampi is abuzz with excitement as merchants from neighboring villages erect their makeshift stalls to sell their wares.  Stacks of sweets and spices fill the stalls that line the roadside, providing a colourful compliment to the dry dusty street.  Pilgrims camp among the ruins.

You can feel the anticipation mounting as everyone awaits the festival highlight, a procession along the main street where the deities are paraded in giant wooden chariots. Crowds of people jam the bazaar, desperately seeking a blessing from the elephant that is decorated and placed in the centre of the chaos. The movement of the chariots is like a pulsating, living organism that plunges forward as hundreds of men pull the huge ropes that lead the chariots through Hampi Bazaar.  It is truly a site to behold.

Jambaya collected John and me to shoot a fire walking ritual before the main parade. We were swept along by a tide of people as we documented this amazing ceremony of dance and drums. Apart from the general heat of the Indian summer, the coals added to the intensity and we both sweated profusely as we bore witness to the ancient custom.

Photo ©Dianna Snape

Photo

Photo ©Dianna Snape

Photo ©Dianna Snape

Photo ©Dianna Snape

Finally it was time for the chariot parade. John and I were both knackered and had been up since 5.30am, the anticipation and fervor mounting among the crowds kept our adrenaline pumping. John immersed himself in the chaos at ground level and I found myself an elevated position, perched upon the ruins to watch the magical parade in all its ritual. Without a doubt the large, decorated chariots, surrounded by thousands of trancelike worshippers was simple spectacular.

Photo ©Dianna Snape

Photo ©Dianna Snape

Photo ©Dianna Snape

There was a kind of lull once the chariots had passed, slowly the street thinned and the crowds dispersed. We were all ready for a meal and bed. It’s curious coming from a place like Australia where most onlookers would be edgily waiting for the ceremony to end, so the party could begin, but as Hampi is a religious center drinking is not allowed.

The trip had been eventful but little did I know that there was a lot more excitement just around the corner. In the unrelenting heat of an Indian summer, with no air-conditioning and only the whirring and squeaking sounds of fan blades, you never really manage a deep sleep, so it wasn’t unusual to wake at 2.00am. What was disturbing was the distressed screams from an unidentified woman. They were distant sounds and I couldn’t make out if the woman was upset or angry but the screaming become louder and more desperate, coupled with hysterical ranting in French and English. The screams oscillated from muffled to loud and clear almost within an instant.

It was then I realised that the woman was outside our rooms on the rooftop balcony and then I heard the words ‘I’m going to kill you’, I knew there was trouble. A million thoughts came to mind and the first was ‘How the hell did she get on the balcony?’  You can only enter through the owner’s front door at street level, so this alarmed me. ‘Where were the owners?’ ‘Where is everyone else?’ ‘ Am I the only person woken by this?’ The screaming continued and I was scared.

Although my room was situated close to my friends when I called for help there was no response.  By this time I was convinced that everyone had been massacred and I was the last one left. Unfortunately the only person who seemed to hear me was the crazy woman and she now decided that she wanted to get into my room and kill me.  She began banging on my door and trying to turn the door handle while I screamed ‘Help, Help’ gripping the handle from the other side. This was my worst bloody nightmare. I still couldn’t fathom why no one else was responding and I really did believe in this moment that this was it.

Out of nowhere came a soft, gentle voice ‘Madam, it is ok’. The screaming stopped and a relieving silence fell. For the first time in this madness I looked out my window to the balcony and thankfully the woman was gone.  I carefully opened my door to find John, calmly standing outside his room wrapped in a white towel, observing the scene like an onlooker at a street performance.  I was quite shaken and I frantically asked why he didn’t respond to my cries for help.  He couldn’t hear me, in fact no one could hear me, not Katelin, Chris or Carol. Outside my room I found a Swiss Army Knife and a 2012 diary.

It was indeed a full moon with all its craziness.  Later we were told that the woman was a tourist staying at a nearby guesthouse who had not taken her medication and was having an episode. She had knocked on the front door of our guesthouse and bowled over the owner’s wife to make her way to the rooftop. This was an experience I never want to repeat but it did make me appreciate life.

Photo ©Dianna Snape

All in all, I think I can safely say this trip with John to Hampi had a little bit of everything. Traveling with John is always an adventure. Even if you don’t have a companion like John Gollings you must go to India and you should definitely include this sacred site in your visit.  Hurry, waste no time Hampi is most certainly being destroyed.

http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/south-asia/official-zeal-ruins-life-for-residents-of-hampi-heritage-site

http://www.theworld.org/2012/11/preserving-indias-hampi-ruins/

http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/05/2012/indias-hampi-heritage-site-families-face-eviction-from-historic-ruins

https://www.facebook.com/savehampipeople/timeline