The day the backhoes rolled into Hampi, a stunning archaeological archipelago set in a town of about 10,000 people in Karnataka state in southern India, the sky was an eye-popping blue. At least, it was until the backhoes began bashing their scoops into the side of buildings, quickly raising a cloud of eye-burning dust. The brightly painted walls had once held the homes and businesses of about 300 families who had made their living selling handicrafts, bottled water, banana pancakes, and other tourist goodies to the hundreds of thousands of visitors who hit Hampi each year. They come for the monuments — over 2,000 stone sculptures, temples, palaces, and shrines dating back to at least the ninth century — and to soak in the haunting, boulder-strewn landscape. This year, the visitors who came in late July got an extra show: a display of the challenges that come from trying to balance archaeological heritage and living heritage in a country where property ownership is often subject to dispute.
Before the twentieth-century tourism boom, Hampi had stood largely abandoned for centuries, ever since the razing of the city in 1565 ended the Vijayanagara Empire that had ruled much of south India for two centuries. According to Equations, a sustainable tourism nonprofit based in Bangalore, the last decade was a boom time for Hampi tourism, with visitors increasing from 1 million to 1.3 million from 2009 to 2010. Tourism always comes with tensions, and these manifested themselves in the theories offered by spectators to Hampi's final moments for the 'real' reason for the destruction. The head priest in town wanted to get rid of the scantily clad foreigners disrespecting the sanctity of the holy sites, said one man. It was a government plot to replace $10-a-night guesthouses with high-end resorts, said another. Someone else suggested that the guesthouse owners who were farther from the main sites had paid off the authorities to eliminate some of the competition.
The day the backhoes rolled into Hampi, the sky was an eye-popping blue. At least, it was until the backhoes began bashing their scoops into the side of buildings...
The official reason, however, is this: squatting. The part of the bazaar that was demolished was built literally on top of Hampi's older incarnations — table-like pavilions called mandapas, some barely a dozen feet from the wall of the Virupaksha temple that towers over town. Officially, the structures that were destroyed had no right to exist in the first place, although the same could be said for many, if not most, of the structures in a country where land titling is still poorly documented and subject to dispute.
When the walls came tumbling down in Hampi, over a decade of discussion had already ensued over how to best manage both Hampi's wealth of architectural heritage and the living heritage of its residents. In 1986, Hampi was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, which began an effort to create an ongoing management plan for the site. It's clear from its 2007 report 'Report on the Joint UNESCO-ICOMOS Reactive Monitoring Mission To the Group of Monuments at Hampi' that UNESCO was extremely concerned about the illegal construction in both the bazaar area and in the 48-square-kilometer 'core zone' of the World Heritage Site. That being said, it also took pains to distinguish a 'complex heritage site … such as a living historic city' from a 'conventional' monument site. In other words, Hampi's inhabitants were part of the heritage that had to be protected. To balance these two competing goals — living versus 'dead' heritage — UNESCO's recommendation was to immediately impose strict temporary building controls, and then use a survey and stakeholder consultation process to come up with a sustainable tourism strategy.
However, the entity legally responsible for development (or destruction) decisions in Hampi is the Hampi World Heritage Area Management Authority, a bureaucratic agency created by state statute in 2002. The HWHAMA is a 'local planning authority', a term of art in Indian law for bureaucratic bodies with great power to pass plans with relatively little public input, and then effectuate those plans. With, say, bulldozers. Indeed, under the HWHAMA Act, the authority has a 'security force' with the power to prevent and remove illegal construction.
The HWHAMA filed and won a lawsuit seeking permission to remove the encroaching homes and businesses, offering as compensation 130,000 Indian rupees (2,350 US dollars or 1,500 British pounds) to rebuild, and a small plot of land in an undeveloped area about 4 kilometers from the old neighborhood. That's a long way to walk for banana pancakes, so many people have effectively lost their livelihoods. Residents — some of whom were watching their own homes fall — said the sums were nowhere near enough to rebuild. The residents raised the issue of inadequacy in court (as well as argued that the land they were given was actually a burial ground) but lost their case in April, clearing the way for this July's coup de grace.
Officially, the structures that were destroyed had no right to exist in the first place, although the same could be said for many, if not most, of the structures in a country where land titling is still poorly documented and subject to dispute.
It took less than a week for Hampi Bazaar to go from ghost town to rubble pile. In the evenings, residents picked through the smashed concrete for unbroken bricks or usable rebar. But the debate is far from over. Hampi as a whole is over 100 square kilometers peppered with thousands of ruins, and other families who make a living among those ruins. Local activists are pushing UNESCO and the Indian government for a number of reforms, including a more thorough compensation package, true citizen involvement in how to manage living and historical heritage, and a stronger institutional role for local democratic institutions rather than the unaccountable bureaucratic agency of HWHAMA.