What you don’t hear about Conservation and heritage sites: Hampi, India’s heritage site versus local families
I visited Hampi, India in the summer of 2017 while backpacking. As a small village built on the ruins of the Vijayanagara Empire this place is almost magical with the landscape looking like something straight out of the Flintstones. While I was there, I was there at a particularly interesting time, this sacred place attracts many pilgrims and tourists every year and the locals have made a living through opening up their homes for people to stay, selling their art, and helping to restore these ruins from being part of the landscape to being something to be showed off and learned about.
In April 2012, Hampi became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These heritage sites are recognized for having outstanding International importance and therefore deserve protection. These sites are thought to be of extreme importance to the collective interest of humanity and there are over 1000 World Heritage Sites in the world. Since I have a background in Anthropology, I couldn’t help but think what exactly are these sites protecting and the conflict that these sites brush under the carpet so the world can have places ‘lost in time’ that we can ‘escape’ to from landscapes we have now ruined.
For many years before Hampi became a heritage site, locals were living there, setting up homes, and welcomed pilgrims and tourists who traveled from across India and more to explore and learn about this sacred site. It was a village to be explored and interact with not a museum where you can look, but cannot touch. However, now the Government has backed this heritage site, which aims to preserve and protect, it also aims to remove all traces of modernity and human life.
Even though I was only in Hampi for a few days the evidence of conflict was ever-present. From speaking to any local you could tell they were under immense pressure to leave their homes and village. The government was knocking down houses and offering them a plot of land outside the heritage site. However, there appeared to be no decision given to families whether they wanted to move or not, literally, overnight the village was being torn down and people were being re-located. A lot of locals were begging tourists to buy from their stalls since they knew in a few days they would be removed and would no longer have a way to make a living. This is what you do not hear about these sites. Somewhere in the middle of the creation of these beautiful places lost in time local people’s voices have been suppressed. Re-location of local families and the removal of human presence from these lands is unfortunately extremely common in places that are seen to be ‘lost in time’ and world-famous heritage sites. It was heartbreaking to know that in a few months if I was to re-visit Hampi it would be a completely different village void of the locals who made Hampi the magical place I remember.
Since I have been back I have looked more into the conflict surrounding the people of Hampi and the government and UNESCO has stated it is aware of the problems and tensions between the families in Hampi and the Indian government. The UN had reached out to the local authorities to ask them to remove unauthorized buildings and preserve the area, however, claims it did not ask for the residents to be evicted. They have since stated they have asked the government of India to speak and reach out to the people concerned and come to a suitable solution. I couldn’t help but think of the face of the man who was begging tourists to buy his tapestries so he was able to support his family knowing he would be struggling now.
With this in mind, I urge anyone who travels to speak to locals, engage in conversation, and listen to what they have to say. We live in a world of fast consumerism where social media makes everything look perfect, and it's easy to build ideals up about a particular place and expect it to look void of all people. However, next time think, think about the people who live here, sometimes places that look to 'perfect' end up telling a story of conflict. Rather than searching for that perfect peaceful place with no-one else, engage with people, and talk to locals about where you are and what you are experiencing I promise you will be glad that local culture and ideals are still present.
To end this off I would like to finish with a story, a story that will hopefully make you smile. While I was in Hampi one particular morning I woke up from the warmth from outside, wandered up onto the roof of my guesthouse and looked out at the landscape covered by boulders and temples and lay out my yoga mat to start my day, breathing and stretching with the soft sun heating my body. Feeling awake I wandered down to the river with my chai to watch the elephant from the temple take its morning bath. Since before I can remember I have had this undeniable connection to elephants and wherever we went in the world I always managed to find some souvenir with an elephant on it. Watching the elephant role around in the river and splash water over herself only fuelled my pretty perfect morning, especially since I wasn’t exactly sure how happy I was she was kept in the temple by herself alone. The river was usually quite a quiet place at this time in the morning with a few locals washing clothes and tourists awake and exploring. However, on this particular morning, there was a real buzz and lots of local people all in white t-shirts wandering around the river. Unsure exactly what was going on I walked down to the shore and began crossing into the middle to ask what they were all doing. A lovely young man explained that on the first Saturday of every month a group of people all get together to have a river clean up and they collect all the rubbish from the shores and make sure the surrounding area is void of any plastic and rubbish. Looking around there must have been over 100 people, of all ages, who had come together to help keep the area clean and make the earth a cleaner and happier place. Thank you to all the local families and people who came together in Hampi to clean up the rubbish and to the people I met who showed me around and made me fall in love with the place they call home.