HAMPI is off the beaten track for most visitors to India but many better-known sights pale in comparison with its wonders. A visit to Hampi is a journey into the odyssey of Indian history, to the heart of its mysteries and contradictions. Hampi is the modern name for the ruined city of Vijayanagar, once the capital of India's most powerful Hindu empire. In the central state of Karnataka, it is a sprawling collection of ruins set in one of the most eerily beautiful landscapes on the sub-continent. Here, it is possible to wander among decaying temples and crumbling bazaars for hours on end almost without meeting another soul. If it were in the Western world, it would be signposted, packaged, marketed, exploited and crawling with tourists. Being India, there is nothing but a musty archaeological museum several kilometres away at Kamalapuram. Much of Hampi looks as if it has been untouched since the day it was sacked by victorious Muslim armies in 1565. Pillars lie broken amid rubble in temple courtyards, disturbed only by the monkeys that play and fight there. Some of the huge gopurams - pyramidical towers made of concentric terraces which are characteristic of Hindu temples - have been eaten away and appear on the verge of collapse. The ornate statues that cover them, depicting Vishnu, Shiva and other gods of the Hindu pantheon, are often faceless. Most of the temples, being deserted, can be explored at will, even the inner sanctums (areas usually barred to non-Hindus in temples which are in use). The air in these is dry and stale, the stone blackened by the burnt offerings of centuries of worship, the only sound is the squeak of bats. On first impression, Hampi looks like the ruins of ancient Greece transported on to the set of a spaghetti western. Huge rock tors formed from giant boulders jut out at bizarre angles into a cloudless blue sky, juxtaposed with the abandoned buildings. Hampi has been identified by some as a place named in the Ramayana, one of the two great Hindu epics. Hampi and its surroundings are considered holy ground and it is a well-known centre of pilgrimage for Hindus. The bus from Hospet, 13 kilometres away and where most tourists stay, brings visitors to the main bazaar at Hampi. This forms part of the ruins but is lined with soft drinks sellers, tea stalls, restaurants and basic hotels. The bazaar is dominated by the huge gopuram of the Virupaksha temple, which although in use is one of the less interesting sights. It is from this centre that most people set off to explore the 26 square kilometres of imperial city ruins. To the north, the sheet-like but deceptively fast-flowing Tungabhadra river snakes its way between the craggy peaks. It was this, almost unfordable, river along with the rocky landscape that gave Vijayanagar its impregnable strength during the 200 years it reigned supreme over most of central and southern India. On a plateau northeast of the bazaar lies the 15th century Vitthala temple, the best-preserved and architecturally most important of Hampi's treasures. Archaeologists have long since realised the significance of Hampi and archaeological survey teams continue to excavate and restore sites. The ruins are so numerous that the Archaeological Survey of India's tourist map contains only a fraction of them. They are scattered over a vast area, separated by rocky hills and bordered by fields of sugar cane and cotton. Even central attractions such as the magnificent Elephant Stables and the Lotus-mahal are all but deserted during the late afternoon. Although listed in guide books, Hampi remains largely undiscovered by tourists from outside India. But as India liberalises its economy and begins to search for foreign investment, hidden treasures such as Hampi will no doubt gain a higher profile. It is only to be hoped that it does not go the same way as Stonehenge in Britain, Ayers Rock in Australia, and other relics of world history.