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The Southern Circuit
Outlook Traveller, November 2003

Travel is such an enlightening thing. A mere eight days on the road revealed, among other things, that Karnataka is extremely pretty, that it offers a great variety of experiences; that you will never want for a Piles & Fistula Clinic, and that you shouldn’t stop for a concussed sheep.
I mean that. We were flying along in our Qualis, two hours’ drive out of Bangalore, when a sheep made a sudden dash into the middle of the road. There was a bump and a slightly gross grind. It was not the driver’s fault, and the sheep lived, but one tense hour later, involving a crowbar and threats, our wallets were substantially lighter, and our hearts heavier with the shattered remains of one or two pastoral illusions.
Fleeced or not, we were determined to enjoy our Deccan circuit, and pressed on. Our legs were still quivering from a 650 step climb up a mountain to see the 17m-tall statue of the Jain saint Gomateshwar at Shravanabelagola (an ancient name meaning ‘This will teach you to do some regular form of exercise’). We’d admired the statue and the view, and the white clad women signing soothing songs in the temple, and slithered back down in rivulets of rainwater.
By the time we got to the Hoysala Village Resort at Hassan, I needed a hot shower and a strong decoction of Chikmagalur coffee beans. The resort is a cosy little ethnic hideout, architecturally a mix of kerala tharavadu and Hoysala granite, a flagstoned path lined with low lights in a flower-filled garden. Dinner was an excellent Kerala fried fish and chicken Chettinad. My room h ad a front porch and a back garden; I was put to sleep by chirping crickets, and woken by birdsong and fresh watermelon juice. It’s already a lovely spot, and a major upgrade is planned in the next few months.
Hassan is famous as ‘the poor man’s Ooty’; for its peerless potatoes; and for being the most convenient base from which to visit the heritage sites of Belur and Halebidu. The first interesting profile on the landscape was a 900-year-old Jain temple complex filled with amazingly carved interior pillars and a 900-year-old teakwood door frame. Close by lies magnificent Halebidu, once called Dwarasamudra, 12th-century capital of the Hoysalasl and 16km away, magnificent Belur, capital of the Yadava kings. People argue heatedly over which is more magnificent, and you can see why. The Channakeshava temple at Belur has a fantastic interior, with every pillar differently carved. I’m told that the aarti here is a thing to behold. But I decided in the end that I preferred the delicate external carvings at Halebidu-like the woman dancing with external carvings at Halebidu-like the woman dancing with her toe curled up, so plump and real that you have to remind yourself that this is stone, not flesh, and the two huge and beautiful Nandi sculptures.
It was a hot day, and I had a crick in my neck from gazing at statues and ceilings. I stole an afternoon nap at the resort until it was time for our excursion to the church ruins at Shetty Hally, 13 km away. My first glimpse of it was heart-stopping. The building stands near the water body that destroyed it, on a rolling green plain that looks remarkably English, against a flaming sunset. What remained of its pale Gothic arches reached to the clouds, with a pretty bell tower and red oxide floors. It was decidedly romantic, and in the aftermath I simply had to get an ayurvedic massage from one Nirmala, who was sweetly sympathetic and recommended milk and besan face masks for my ‘bimbles’.
There’s something about palm and banana plantations that makes me want to sleep, but I’m glad I didn’t because I would have missed the last lovely hour on the drive to Coorg, in the Western Ghats, where the cool moist green of coffee plantations takes over. We passed small gates promising, much deeper in, some old bungalow and an older, gentler way of living; and then we reached the little hamlet of Siddapur, from which the Orange County Resort is a mere 4km.
There’s an excellent reason why Orange County is famous: it’s lovely. You might think it odd to put a bunch of luxury Tudor-style cottages in the middle of a south Karnataka jungle, but that’s because you haven’t been there (go, what are you waiting for?). Hammocks, boating, quiet green… if ever there was a place to kick back in and do nothing, it is this.
But there’s also lots to do. First off, a tasty lunch at the restaurant overlooking the pool. Then we set off with Ganesh, resident naturalist, for a tour of the plantation. Tasting cardamom and pepper fresh off the stalks, peering at birds and wandering down long red-earthed corridors, we came to the Dubare reserve forest, separated from the plantation by a trench. “The elephants come in anyway,” said Ganesh. “They like the smell of coffee.” An hour’s walk in the forest took us to a pretty spot by the Cauvery river, then back to the resort.
The next day we went to the Dubare elephant training camp. I came away with a novel experience: putting a ball of ragi into an elephant’s strange, pointy mouth with its rounded and hooked tongue. In the afternoon we drove to the Tibetan settlement at Bylakuppe where the imposing Namdroling monastery stands. The monks were at prayer when we arrived, the hall swelling with their chants. That night I treated my jolted bones to the most delicious massage at the ‘ayurvedic village’; two nice ladies ministered to me with warm oils in a dark room filled with soft music, and their synchronicity was a thing of beauty. I emerged fuzzy-brained with joy and fell, after dinner, into a dark and polished sleep.
Which was just as well, because the morning drive to Mysore was bumpy. This pretty city has 90 heritage-value buildings, so you have to pick and choose. We checked into King’s Kourt hotel and set off immediately with the knowledgeable Mr. Venkatesh, guide par excellence, to that turn-of-the-20th-century Indo-Saracenic-Turkish-Greco-Irish architectural folly called Mysore Palace, roost of the Wodeyar kings, whose Russian-style domes define the city skyline. Passing exquisite woodwork, stained glass and a mural of the king’s procession through the city-so accurately copied form photographs that locals recognize their ancestors-we came to a forbidden side door which the good offices of Mr. Venkatesh opened to us. Within lay the armoury, featuring fearsome and devious weapons; and the game room, in which thirteen tigers, several bison and dozens of other animals stood in rampant poses. Like all palaces, this one is a monument to extravagance: snarling stone tigers by Rodin, silver doors, a gold throne presented by Aurangzeb- on display for Dussehra and ringed by edgy policemen.
Equally characterful was Tipu Sultan’s wooden palace at Sringapatna, 16 km away, built to commemorate his victory over the British in 1780. It stands in a French-style garden, with a pigeon post which carried messages to and from the French at Pondicherry. Every square inch of the palace is painted the unpleasing screens over the frontage are worth it to preserve the delicate vegetable dyes.
We took in the sunset from Chamudi Hills, with Mysore’s lights sprawling becomingly beneath. The 90,000 bulbs of the Palace unfortunately did not light up-apparently a bill of Rs.20,000 per hour was proving too rich for officials. I saw the Nandi stature at the base of the Cahmundi temple, an 80 tonned granite beauty. We didn’t enter the temple, though- the line of worshipers waiting to enter the Vijayanagar-era garbha griha was too long. We left Mysore with no regrets about missing the famous Vrindavan Gardens, which are reputedly now just a rundown patch of turf; but I would have like to see the temple at Somnathpur, 40 km away, which Mr. Venkatesh ranked Most Amazing of All Indian Temples.
We looked forward to the peach of the wildlife sancturary at B.R. Hills. Arriving at the K.Gudi camp amidst thick jungle was worth the pain of a bad road. Be warned: this is not luxury. There’s no electricity except for a couple of hours in the evening when the generator my (or may not) run, the alum they put in the water makes it gluey, food and accommodation are basic. But, for all the same reasons (except perhaps the gluey water) K.Gudi is terribly charming. When night fell the darkness was total. Hurricane lamps twinkled like stars. Meals were in the Gol Ghar, a thatched hut with a bonfire at night. The jungle bristled with bison, barking deer, and wild elephants flapping their ears and grazing. The big cats stayed out of sight, but that night, as I slept in my stilt-mounted log hut, I heard something come up the stairs, lounge around the verandah for a bit, and slip away. Maybe it was a monkey, but I couldn’t help thinking of the guest who decided not to go on safari with the rest of the camp one New Year’s eve- as he relaxed with a beer outside his tent, two tigers strolled past right under his nose (it isn’t clear whether this caused beer to squirt out of his nose). Cats or not, though, I loved the safaris.
I loved them also the next evening, in Rajiv Gandhi National Park-latterly Nagarhole-after we’d checked into their beautiful tents (complete with carpets, table lamps, fans and attached toilet and shower). After lunch at their Gold Ghar, we set off with the doyen of Jungle Lodges and Resorts, the 87 year old John Wakefield, a.k.a Papa. This hunter-turned-conservationist doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but has all the time in the world for a wild dog, or a Giant Malabar Squirrel, or a baby elephant putting its naughty trunk in his pocket. His stories enlivened our safaris. And there’s nothing like the sight of a stag standing in a forest clearing in fading light.
A coracle ride and an elephant safari in the morning and then too quickly, it was time to head home. What a varied plantations, Mysore’s heritage, B.R. Hills’ rough charm, and the comfort and wilderness at Kabini. Southern Karnataka, you’ve come a long way, baby.





 
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