For the most part, my travels this month were a breathless race against the oncoming summer heat. While adrenaline – for getting better at solo-tripping – carried me through some, the people I met along the way made the journey easier and the experience absolutely new.
Of all the southern Indian states, Karnataka, I think, is the most underrated. While Tamil Nadu tends to be chauvinistic about its temples and Kerala its beaches, Andhra Pradesh and now Telangana come across as a tad arrogant in what they may or may not have to show leaving it to you to find out for yourself; but Karnataka’s sits almost shyly with its abundant treasures of history, heritage, religiosity and nature.
I think I left a part of my heart and soul here, among the boulder-laden mountains of Hampi strewn with magically hallowed stone temples and still majestic looking ruins of Emperor Krishnadevaraya’s prosperous empire, as I time traveled through ranges that seemed to hold more intriguing stories set in time and space than the depths of the seas.
What made Hampi memorable was the making of my own version of motorcycle diaries – pillion riding on my guide Ravi’s bike as he zipped over hills and dales, through lush fields and along docile rivers, past somnolent villagers and intrepid foreign tourists and from sunrise vistas to sunset points – pretending I was on horseback galloping my way into the 15th century.
At one point I almost blamed Ayn Rand and her fictional hero Howard Roark for influencing my architectural orientation towards the post-WW II steel and glass structures, or what we would like to believe to be the ‘modern’ age of building construction. The question is what hits the emotions deeper: Is it the functional neatness of the square and stark skyscrapers that rise in defiance of nature and its benign laws, or the symphonic lyricism of ancient sculptural architecture that harmoniously blends into its natural geography.
The answer perhaps lay between the degenerative and slumming potential of modern urban architecture, and the stoic withstanding of temporal vicissitudes by the mesmerizing temples and excavated remains of fabled kingdoms that I witnessed in Hampi.
Case in point: The Vijaya Vittala temple complex here houses a beautiful mantapa with 56 musical pillars that use the elements of nature –and ancient Indian ingenuity – to produce music when tapped rhythmically. No electricity, no batteries, no software chips. Hundreds of years on, they still work!
Remnants and ruins of the prosperous Vijayanagara dynasty that include gigantic monolithic Ganeshas, Lingas and Nandis; idol-less temples atop the hills; urban engineering ingenuity in the water systems, the endless stone plazas that made up the bazaars of yore where gold, silk and spices were sold by the sack; the Emperor’s royal platform from where he surveyed and enjoyed the performances and festive celebrations of his people; folklore about Mongol traders, carved depictions of a society of empowered women; sculpted perpetuation of the religious epics, mutilated sculptures that bear witness to hateful and intolerant Mughal invaders, all transport you to an era of riches in art, culture, piety and royalty seamlessly blending Jain, Buddhist, Islamic, Persian, Portuguese, Egyptian and Chinese influences.
Who were those people with such strength and softness in their hands to create such magnificent monuments? What was their typical day like? Were they treated well by the King? What were their aspirations? What made them laugh or cry? Were they happy?
I saw a number of mammoth boulders with a series of rectangular holes in them. My guide Ravi tells me they used to pour gun powder, salt and hot water through those holes to blow the rocks into submission before sculpting them. Well, I haven’t verified that story or the one about Lord Krishna and his 16,000 girlfriends that Ravi interpreted from the carvings on one of the temple walls.
As I wistfully searched for my likeness among the many sculptures on those stone walls, I was sure I lived then with the same spirit even if in a different body.
My best accomplishment: Topping the Anjanadri Hill (575 steps J) in Kishkindha, the birthplace of Lord Hanuman, about 5km from Hampi town.
My most picturesque moment: The coracle ride on the Tungabhadra. Getting off the coracle from time to time to climb wily rocks that led to small hidden temples. Crouching low on the coracle to get under a cave formation in the rocks overhanging the river, and just listening to nature, was the high point.
My moment of surprise: Café Italiano across the road from lush running fields on Hippie Island in the Kishkindha valley. Foreign tourists, whiff of high smokes, Latin music: Suddenly Goa!
My moment of Zen: The abode of poet-saint Purandaradasa on the banks of the Tungabhadra River.
Shout-out to Archeological Survey of India for their amazing excavations of Krishnadevaraya’s lost kingdom and relics far beyond, and the dozens of priceless sculptures now displayed at a museum in Hampi.
Belur, Halebid, Shravanabelagola:
Toward the south of Karnataka, the Chennakeshava temple in Belur and the Hoysaleshwara temple in Halebid are perhaps the finest specimens of some of the most intricate of Hindu temple carvings and architecture, standing almost intact since the 12th century. Although built in the Vaishnava and Shaiva traditions respectively, both temples are adorned with extensive depictions of Jain and Buddhist friezes as well, a testament to the inclusive society prevalent at the time.
Much as I relish the idea of living in the glorious past when temple architecture flourished, I must thank modern technology which made the amazingly handy smart phone camera possible that can take as sharp a picture as the best of DSLRs (in my humble opinion), otherwise I would’ve needed at least two more sets of eyes and a couple of layers more in my brain’s memory to fully register these two wondrous temples.
What blows the mind is the sophistication and mastery in craftsmanship of the sculptures inside and on the outer walls of the temples. The precision, the cut, the smoothness, the finesse and the beauty that preface the stories makes you desperately want to know those sculptors, artisans and designers by face and by name.
My takeaway: Since there isn’t much else to do or see in Belur or Halebid, it is tough to plan a visit specifically to these two places. So plan a big one across Karnataka and make sure to include them. If Indian, you will find renewed respect for your existential identity.
In Shravanabelagola, Gomateshwar Bahubali has been standing tall (58ft) and stark but for a supple creeper around his arms and legs, since 993 AD. Of pilgrim importance to Jains, this sacred son of the first Jain Tirthankara, purveys the holy land from atop the Vindhyagiri hill that takes more than 700 stone steps to reach the top.
With a visage exuding equanimity, the majestic bare torso of Bahubali, which had changed color to a rust red thanks to the elaborate Maha Mastakabhisheka (anointment), is a glorious sight to behold whether you are a follower or not.
And yes, I climbed all those steps – barefoot – to reach the top of the hill and at least 300 more to level with the Bahubali.
My takeaway: Jainism is as serious a religious business in this country as any other. Unless you are a devotee, avoid the mastakabhishekam period to visit; the huge, elevated platforms for devotees and mammoth scaffolding around the statue kind of minimize the spectacular impact of the towering statue.
And do pause long enough to savor the view from the top before you climb down.
Coorg for me was as much a luxury getaway as it was an aspirational fulfilment to pretend to own a plantation. I managed both by opting for a homestay deep inside a 50-acre coffee plantation chirpily named Chilipili Estate.
Now there are people and there are places that make travels memorable. Chilipili Estate and its generously companionable owners – Dilip Ganapathy and wife Darshan – epitomized the Coorg of my imaginations. Long walks on winding hilly roads, trees and nothing but tall greens everywhere, spice in the air, songs of birds by the day and crickets by night, homemade wine on the porch, precious solitude and actually audible thoughts.
One has to get to Madikeri first, the big town with the bus stands, big restaurants, and the multitudes of noisy cargo shorts-holiday T-shirts-cap-and sneaker wearing desi tourists, about 20km from Coorg. Madikeri is also the closest shopping point for the residents of Coorg. Dilip, who was running errands in Madikeri at the time, picked me up and there from began my true vacation.
The sole heir to the family’s property, which his paternal grandfather had gained as a war grant for his service during World War II, Dilip is a warrior in his own right, fighting along with other concerned plantation owners to safeguard Coorg’s environment from mercenaries and colluding governments. His wife Darshan is a story unto herself. A pro-trekker, she’s circumambulated Mt Kailash twice already, last winter trekked 105km on the frozen Chadar River in Ladakh, and is planning another trek this fall in Spiti Valley.
But that’s not just what is likeable about them. They are the perfect hosts. He can fill the mini-fridge in your room with the beverage of your choice, and she makes meal spreads, whether breakfast, lunch or dinner, with at least eight courses. Milk is fresh from the two in-house cows (both about to deliver baby cows!). Five varieties of homemade wines on the house with each dinner (available to buy). Coffee, black pepper and cardamom from the estate (also available to buy). Dilip also gives you a guided walk through the estate.
A half-day trip from the estate covered Tala Cauvery (origin point of Cauvery River) and a bare-foot climb of the Brahmagiri Hill (356 steps) where the Sapta Rishis are fabled to have sat in penance. The view all around, is to live for.
My most enjoyable moments: Long, chatty evening walks with Darshan. And my own morning discovery on a 6km walk around, the Chilipili Shiva temple – a tiny naturally formed Lingam nestled under a canopy of two gigantic rocks, with a bubbly stream traipsing next to it. I could have died there from sheer tranquility.
Those two evenings on the Chilipili Estate, sitting on the porch downing a couple of pints, staring into the pitch dark, in the knowning comfort of the protective trees all around, time was irrelevant because I owned every breath and beat, I owned my life.