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Official zeal ruins life for residents of Hampi heritage site

Homes and businesses are razed in Hampi in an attempt to reclaim the former capital of thee Hindu empire of Vijayanagara as a tourist attraction.

A resident of Hampi cooks amid the ruins of her home, which was demolished by authorities along with other residences and businesses in the main bazaar in July.
A resident of Hampi cooks amid the ruins of her home, which was demolished by authorities along with other residences and businesses in the main bazaar in July.

HAMPI, INDIA // A new set of ruins has appeared in Hampi, one of the most sacred archaeological sites in India, as the government sets about destroying the homes and livelihoods of hundreds of families.

Hampi, about 350km from Bangalore in the southern state of Karnataka, was the capital of the great Hindu empire of Vijayanagara from the 14th to the 16th centuries until its dazzling palaces and temples were ransacked by the invading armies of the Deccan Sultans.

Today its awe-inspiring ruins are a Unesco World Heritage Site, drawing tens of thousands of tourists every year, as well as Hindu pilgrims who revere the area as the birthplace of the monkey god Hanuman.

But a new ransacking is taking place. In July, giving just a few hours' notice, the government sent in bulldozers to destroy almost every home and shop lining the main bazaar running through the centre of the town.

With many of the buildings within or against the ancient pavilions that line the boulevard, the over-eager demolition drive took down many parts of the ancient brickwork in the process, including part of a stone arch at the entrance.

"I was very afraid," said T Parvathi, 42, a widow who ran a small restaurant on the bazaar to support her two children, who suffer with mental and physical disabilities.

She now serves customers at salvaged tables and chairs amid the rubble that was once her business and home.

"They destroyed everything - even my children's school books and belongings were lost."

The authorities were blunt: "No eviction notices were necessary because we have been telling them for a long time that their buildings are unauthorised," said K Panduranga Vittal, an officer with the government-run Hampi World Heritage Area Management Authority.

Asked if he thought the eviction could have been handled more humanely, Mr Vittal said: "Humanity is a secondary thing in this country. First is the law."

July's demolition was just the start. There are 314 buildings listed for destruction in the coming years as the government seeks to clear all homes and businesses from the site.

The authorities, which comprise the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Karnataka state government, say they are following court orders based on an Integrated Management Plan for Hampi.

But the experts who drew up the plan say their ideas have been either ignored or wilfully distorted.

"What has been done in Hampi is totally criminal," said Professor Nalini Thakur, of the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi, who led the planning team.

"As a signatory of the World Heritage guidelines, India is bound to preserve the communities that live around these sites. The government officials used our plan to legitimise themselves, but they have completely misunderstood it and use it do whatever they want."

So far, none of the US$3.6 million (Dh13.2m) allocated for compensation has reached the residents who lost their homes in July, and is unlikely to do so despite orders from the High Court in Bangalore and the fact that some families on the bazaar have been there for almost a century.

BR Muni, an additional director of the ASI, said the evictees were "encroachers" and therefore "do not have any rights".

Many of the residents have proof of ownership or tenancy, but most come from local bodies that are no longer recognised by the state.

Originally, the plan was to set up a team to investigate claims individually, but this was ultimately abandoned in favour of wholesale evictions.

Those affected have been offered housing in a resettlement village, but since it is several kilometres from the site, it offers little hope for a livelihood.

One of the buildings listed for demolition houses the Hampi Children's Trust, a charity providing education to about 30 street children.

"The government wants to turn Hampi into a museum," said the trust's founder, Kali Das. "But this is a place of living history. People have lived and worked around the temples for thousands of years. Preserving culture has nothing to do with removing people."

Many suspect the real motive for the destruction lies in plans to build high-class hotels and that local officials are positioning themselves for lucrative land deals once the small backpacker hostels have been removed.

There is little room in their plans for those who have spent decades building Hampi into a tourism hotspot.

Kiran Kumar's parents arrived 30 years ago, before the tourism boom. They started off selling coconuts and tea to pilgrims on the roadside. Gradually, they saved enough to open a small guesthouse, which has since grown and flourished.

"My parents were totally illiterate, but they made enough money to educate me and my three brothers," said Mr Kumar who now manages the guesthouse, which faces demolition.

"The government did nothing for my parents, but they dragged themselves up from nothing to build a life for themselves. Now the government wants to take it all away."

Unesco says it is troubled about the reports from Hampi and has sent two requests for information to the Permanent Delegation of India to Unesco, which have been ignored.

"Unesco and the World Heritage Committee are concerned about the need to include, rather than exclude, local communities in all efforts to conserve World Heritage sites," a spokesman said.

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