x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Indian villagers stuck in limbo after the past swallowed their lives

Poverty-stricken after being forced out of their homes to make way for a heritage restoration scheme, the people who helped make the city of Hampi one of India's most impressive tourist attractions complain they have become victims of their own success.

A derelict building in the marketplace, where modern structures are being removed to make way for the restoration of stone-built pavilions.
A derelict building in the marketplace, where modern structures are being removed to make way for the restoration of stone-built pavilions.

A line of heavy steel poles forms an ugly makeshift barrier that runs down either side of the old bazaar. Behind this fence, lie the ruins of once-thriving businesses, their shopfronts smashed up, rubble strewn across their floors.

This was a bustling street a few years ago, with hawkers competing, restaurants full and guesthouses offering cheap accommodation to the half a million pilgrims and tourists who flock to Vijayanagara (which is a short distance from the city of Hampi) and its attractions. It is one of India's best-kept secrets, the country's Machu Picchu or Pompeii. Now it stands empty and abandoned, destroyed in the name of history. For the people who made this Unesco World Heritage Site a living monument, the past has come back to haunt them.

It was already an important centre when the brothers Harihara and Bukka founded the Vijayanagar empire in 1336. At its peak, the city was home to approximately half a million people and spread over 110 square kilometres.

When it was sacked by the armies of the Bahamani sultanates in 1565, the population fled, and for hundreds of years the City of Victory lay abandoned. It was only when an engineer from the East India Company stumbled upon the ruins in the early 19th century that it began its renaissance.

Today it is a place of sprawling beauty, of immense scale, comprising 2,000 monuments scattered across a landscape of enormous granite boulders, pulling in awestruck visitors from around the world. The Unesco World Heritage Centre characterises the site as "spectacular" and describes its numerous temples, palaces and markets as nothing short of "fabulous".

But there is virtually no sign of the people who helped transform it from an overgrown ruin into one of the world's most awe-inspiring tourist destinations. They have been swept away, ordered out by conservation authorities determined to restore it to the way Vijayanagara looked in its heyday.

Many had been there for decades, setting up home in the small stone pavilions that line the bazaar. With their food and souvenir stands, their cheap guesthouses and stalls they brought history to life in the shadows of the nine- storey Virupaksha temple that dominates the marketplace.

In many parts of India, the march of modernity is forcing people to abandon their homes to make way for new development. But in Vijayanagara they are being driven out by the past. Last month the Karnataka high court threw out their final legal challenge and backed the Hampi World Heritage Area Management Authority and the Archaeological Survey of India in their plans to clear the traders out and remove all modern traces. A few have clung on. A couple of weeks ago 326 people bowed to the inevitable and moved out. Some have rented properties in nearby villages, others are staying with relatives. The rest, those who have lost everything, have been housed in rows of small huts built from bamboo and plastic sheeting on a patch of land outside the perimeter fence.

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It is late afternoon, yet the sun still beats down relentlessly on the dirt street between the huts. A small, elderly widow squats in the dust behind a basket of peanuts. Kenchamma used to sell the peanuts in the bazaar, in front of the home she made in one of the pavilions when she arrived with her husband some 40 years ago. She never made much money - only about 50 rupees (Dh3.3) a day, but it was enough to support her. She has no idea how old she is, but she is probably in her mid-60s. She clutches her knees and says she is too frail to walk to the bazaar from here. Instead, she sits outside her hut every day and waits for the tourists to come to her. But of course they don't come and they never will. The only people who walk past are fellow evacuees. Today she has made five rupees. She is bewildered and beaten.

"I am ready to beg now because I can't earn the money to eat," she says. "My husband died eight years ago and I have no children. There's no one to support me."

A few doors down, Kokila, 20, nurses her young son. Her daughter is asleep on the floor of the hut. Kokila was born in the bazaar; her family had been there 35 years. She sold coconuts to the visitors; now she shares this hut with her mother, while her husband is away searching for work. She has no idea what they will do now and she is scared in this place, afraid of the wild animals and the local men who, after a few drinks, gravitate towards where they know there are vulnerable women.

"It is very hot here and at night there are animals coming, a lot of snakes and sloth bears are here too. Yesterday I saw a leopard. Many people sleep outside because there are no fans and it is too hot inside, but we are scared ... we are living in fear."

Around the corner Naga Raj sits amid half-empty sacks of food, brought to the camp from his family's restaurant after they were evicted.

The 26-year-old is in a state of despair. There is no electricity in the small huts and people are too scared to use lamps or candles inside, for fear of setting light to the bamboo.

"All they said was that it was a World Heritage Site and we had to leave. We told them we had been there for four generations, but they did not care. They will not even let us sell coconuts or drinks in the main street now. The government has stolen the happiness from the people."

To try to soften the blow, the authorities have offered a small plot of land about 4km away in Kaddirampur village to all those who have been evicted. Each family has been allocated 130,000 rupees (about Dh8,500)) to build a new home, but the money has yet to materialise and will in any case only be paid in instalments as the houses are built.

The allocated spot is a barren patch of scrubby grassland, scattered with boulders. The building plots have been marked out with granite blocks, each nine metres by six, with no spaces between them. A solitary earth mover is digging trenches for the drainage and marking out rough roads.

Known as Gori, the site is a former burial ground. Three graves straddle two plots. Nearby are a couple of centuries-old Muslim mausoleums, but there is nothing with the pull of the temple to bring the tourists here. "They want us to go to this new place, but that is next to a monument too, and who knows, in two years they will tell us to leave there too," says Naga. "All our lives we will be moving, moving until there is nowhere for us to go."

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From first thing in the morning to late into the evening, a steady stream of tourists and worshippers makes its way along the bazaar towards the Virupaksha temple, which towers majestically over the site, an ornate and intricate wedding cake soaring into the sky.

Heavy steel poles keep the visitors away from the wrecked buildings on either side of the 728-metre-long street. Many have had their front walls torn away. In one, a barber's chair sits empty. The sign on a partly demolished hotel declares "Customers is our God".

At the far end of the street, the finishing touches are being put to a sound and light show, another part of the authorities' ambitious plans.

Here and there, a few of the traders have chanced their luck and slipped back into the bazaar, setting out their meagre wares on plastic sheets laid on the ground in front of their former homes, keeping an eye out for the police.

Galappa, 34, sits behind a small pile of mangoes. Behind him, a red cross, signifying that the building is slated for demolition, has been daubed above the doorway of the blue-painted pavilion that was home to him, his wife and their two children.

"My father and my grandfather lived here, but one morning we woke up and found they had painted these crosses on our houses and there were notices telling us we had to leave," he says. "Now if the police come they will slap and beat me. They say it is the government rules."

There are still people who have clung on in the buildings, but they know time is running out. On a corner by the side of the temple, 60-year-old Parwatama sits in front of the small blue-painted building she says has been home to her family for the past 80 years.

"I was born and brought up here. If the government throws us out what will we do?" she says.

She lives with a handful of female relatives; her husband is dead. All their money comes from selling a few items of clothes and jewellery they buy in the nearby town of Hospet.

"We have nowhere to go and nowhere to live. They say they will make provision for us but we have no house and no other work. How can we live without the tourists? We will have to work in the fields because the tourists won't come to the new village."

The authorities are wary of outside interest in their plans. The Archaeological Survey's assistant superintendent, T M Keshava, a short, squat man with beads of sweat glistening on his bristling black moustache, refuses even to discuss the reasons for driving out the traders.

One of his staff, Suresh Varadaraj, nervously sets out their position. Suresh is a conservationist; these are his personal views, he stresses.

What they want to do is return the site to its original condition in the 15th century, he says. The plan is to knock down all the later additions, excavate the site, then restore the street as best they can to its original state, though the shops of the bazaar will be empty.

"We cannot bring back the people from the 15th century so instead we are going to preserve it," he says.

"It is a protected monument and the government of India says it is nationally important. These people were all encroaching. In the interests of the monument, in the interests of the country, everyone should have an interest in our heritage, so based on that it is the correct thing to do. We only shifted the people who were encroaching. This is our heritage."

In the offices of the Hampi World Heritage Area Management Authority, Suvarma Jain is sympathetic but unbending.

The problem, she says, is that the people who moved into the mandapas - which originally housed shops and people working in the temple - were encroaching on the street and selling all manner of items that had nothing to do with the temple.

The plan is to restore the buildings to their original state, minus the occupants.

"Now it has been cleaned up, the conservation plan can be taken up. We can now restore the historical structures ... you do feel for the people who have been moved out, but there is a larger picture and it is not as if they have been thrown away. They have been rehabilitated."

But P Hussen, an official guide with the Karnataka department of tourism and holder of a BA in archaeology and tourism, is struggling to understand that reasoning.

Hussen picks his way through the ruins of his home towards the far end of the bazaar, stepping over the smashed brickwork and a couple of torn religious images that once decorated the family shrine.

"As a guide I want to protect the monument, but as a local person I don't like it," he says.

"This was a completely empty pavilion when my family came here. We built the walls and redid the roof, to start with using coconut leaves, but slowly, slowly we developed it. We have been here 40 years but they gave us no choice. When the first demolitions took place they came in with diggers and men with sledgehammers and smashed everything and lots of people lost their property."

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Back in the makeshift village outside the perimeter fence, 55-year-old Peera Bhai prods a bundle of firewood with her foot. Peera is a Lambani, an Indian gypsy. She was a little girl when her family moved to Hampi about 50 years ago. She and her family had only recently finished converting one of the pavilions near the temple into a small house. They borrowed money to pay for the work. Now their home is gone, and they still owe the money. Peera used to collect firewood and sell it to pilgrims for cooking their food, but business has evaporated.

"We are locked here, we don't get any business, we can't get any money from this place," she says. "I have not yet been to the place they want us to move to, but I have listened to those who have. There is no option for us so we will have to move and go to do daily wage work in the fields. If you want to live you have to do something."

LIke many of those who made their homes in the bazaar, there is an underlying bitterness that those who moved into the ruins should now be driven out when it is finally on the up.

"No one took care of Hampi for the last 50 years. We cleared some pavilions and built shops and made houses but now it has become so popular the government is throwing us out," she says.

Gethin Chamberlain is a photojournalist based in South India.