Anyone who has seen Hampi can tell you that walking is the only way to enjoy its richness. On my way to Hampi, after my only visit as a young girl fifteen years before, I was determined to walk around all day to make the most of the next two days. Anyone who has seen Hampi will also tell you that two days are nowhere enough. So, I was keen to cram in the sights as much as possible. Not only was the plan ambitious, but it was also somewhat futile. The heat of early March is a good preview of the unforgiving summer that is just around the corner. By midmornings, the skies can turn blinding white and the boulders punishing to look at. (At this point, a wise guide will advise you that this is the time to stay within the rock structures where the temperature drops a few notches — the temples, the mandapas — and enjoy the carved stories on pillars and walls). So, enjoying the scenic landscape of Hampi meant planning an early start around dawn and wrapping up a good while after sunset.

The rolling hills glowed with a reddish hue around sunrise. I had planned to walk along the river to view the sun rising behind the boulders lined by coconut fronds. My path first took me along a dry-as-a-bone bottomless ravine before I caught up with lush fields along the plains. A flock of Woolly-necked storks sailed gracefully across the sky, seemingly surveying the length of the rift. From several feet below in the rocky ravine came a familiar cheek-eek-eek-eek, as a blue streak flew across the walls.  A white-throated kingfisher landed on a bare branch of a tree leaning out horizontally across the gorge. As my eyes followed the little bird across its flight, I became aware of being watched.

owl

Indian eagle-owl – Photograph: Gowri Subramanya

 

Unnerved, I changed focus from the little blue bird to the big fiery eyes fixed in a rock staring at me with what I could only imagine as disapproval. I realised the ‘rock’ had a feathery outline of an eagle owl. Two long tufts of ‘ears’ hung proudly above the face that continued to scrutinise me.  I thanked the kingfisher in my mind and pulled the camera out ever so slowly, hoping the bird would stand its ground. It did. The fixed stare had started to make me nervous. The owl was perched on a tiny ledge barely wide enough for it to be tucked in for a good day’s sleep. The shelf was on the opposite wall, at least fifty feet away. I certainly hadn’t barged into its bedroom or rudely interrupted its nap. Or had I? The owl was too alert for that, sharply turning at a sudden sound but bringing its gaze quickly back.

After a couple of shots, I decided to step back. The sun was up, and I only had a few minutes to catch it behind the hills. As I turned back to my gravelly path, I noticed another tree growing sideways from the gorge wall, a few metres ahead of the owl. This one had fresh, green leaves — the only tree in the vicinity to have any. They fell like a curtain covering the wall behind where I… noticed the now-familiar ember eyes — two pairs of them, sleepily half-closed in a tufted mass of woolly feathers. The faces were devoid of the long ‘ears’ or the sternness of the parent who was still watching me. My mouth formed an O as I looked back at the guardian. The wide eyes hadn’t left me. The sun, however, had given me the slip and had made a quick ascent while I had lingered around the ravine.

owl

Indian eagle-owl – Photograph: Gowri Subramanya

 

The sunset, on the other hand, was a colour fest. As the sun dipped down as a fiery red boulder and merged into the earth, his glow reminded me of the owl’s eyes from the morning. Driving back, tired beyond words, I wondered if I could catch another sight of the owl family. A short stop and a sweeping look at the old spot revealed nothing. It was time to move.

A deep U-hu sounded from nowhere. The unmistakable booming call that gives the eagle owl its onomatopoeic Latin name Bubo, at once seemed to come from behind us and ahead of us, near at hand and far away. It is little surprise that the call could be a come-hither signal to the partner or a warning to stay away, depending on the season. I was sure this one meant ‘goodbye’.