If the Portuguese traveller Domingo Paes were to return to Hampi today, he would find the coracles, exactly as they were, nearly five centuries ago. The only difference is that PVC sheets have replaced leather, and motorbikes are being ferried as cargo! If Paes came back a few months from now, however, maybe, just maybe, the coracle would be no longer the only preferred mode of river crossing, as it has been for over hundreds of years. The new bridge over the Hampi river will change the landscape in more ways than anyone imagined it would
Ballari: “People cross to this place by boats which are round like baskets. Inside they are made of cane, and outside are covered with leather; they are able to carry fifteen or twenty persons, and even horses and oxen can cross in them if necessary and the boats are always turning round, as they cannot go straight like others; in all the kingdom where there are streams, there are no other boats but these..."
— Domingo Paes, a Portuguese traveler, writing of his visit to Hampi, the erstwhile capital of Vijayanagar empire, in 1520 A.D.
If the Portuguese traveler were to return to Hampi today, he would find the coracles that swirl and swerve across the Hampi river, exactly as the did, nearly six centuries ago. Except, in some cases, PVC sheets have replaced the leather exterior, and motorbikes are among the cargo that is ferried downriver.
If he came back a few months from now, maybe, just maybe, the coracle would no longer even be the preferred mode of river crossing, as it has been over hundreds of years.
The coracle has thrived in this heritage site alongside the monuments left standing from the era that harks back to the first Hindu kingdom of the 16th century. But, the coracles that probably predate the Vijayanagara kingdom, going back in time to the era when the legendary monkey God Hanuman was the reigning deity, may soon be gone.
A new bridge across the Tungabhadra river, that connects Kadebagilu, Anegundi village in Koppal district to Bukkasagar village in Ballari district, is complete. Roads on either sides of the bridge are now being laid.
"By September, the bridge will be thrown open for traffic, once the laying of road is complete," said PWD authorities.
Vannur Swamy, a coracle operator is a worried man and unsure about his future in world heritage site - Hampi and Anegundi - once the new bridge across the river Tungabhadra is thrown open to traffic.
"I do not know any other work except to operate boats," he said in despair. Like Vannur, there are a dozen families who have traditionally been in the coracle trade at Anegundi.
"For generations we have been ferrying people from one end of the river to the other. We do not know any other vocation and we will be jobless when the bridge is ready. We are worried about our future and hope that the government will come to our rescue", says Vannur.
Mr. Swamy, who is also the secretary of the 'Harigolu Haisuvara Ambigara Sangha' said that they had been meeting ministers and elected representatives in the hope that they would be offered alternate sources of employment.Right now, there are four places along the river, from where tourists can hail a coracle.
The first and most important ferry point is near the Vittala temple. The road that goes to Anegundi from Hampi ends here. At this point, even today, motor boats are now engaged for safety reasons.
The people of Hampi and Anegundi believe therefore that the new bridge will only have a marginal impact on coracle operators, as for the last five years, the Anegundi gram panchayat has engaged motor boats to ferry people across the river. They suggest that to keep the coracles, a mode of transport that has been used from time immemorial, the government should make coracle rides for tourists part of 'heritage tourism', besides appointing them as life-guards. This would help the families to earn a livelihood.
At the Virupaksha temple, tourists cross over to the picturesque island- Virupapuragadde on coracles, as they do in front of the Kodandarama temple near the Riverside Ruins, where the coracle ride is a 'fun trip' without any particular destination. Further down, near Venkatapur village, people head out to Navavrundavan, an island where tombs of nine Madhwa saints located.
On most days - and it depends on the time of day - there are about 2 or 3 ferry men available from dawn to dusk at these ferrying points. They charge about `15 per head for one way. Similarly if you carry a bicycle, the rate is about ten rupees (traveler + bicycle). For a motorcycle, with you on it, it's about fifteen rupees.