Our first newsletter for 2010 focuses on the southern state of Karnataka, a typically diverse and enthralling region of India with a rich and fascinating history and culture. Karnataka is also blessed with great scenic beauty, atmospheric towns, and some of the best wildlife viewing in southern India. Large areas of the state are semi-arid but irrigation is continuing to open up more land for agriculture.
The large distances between Karnataka's major attractions can mean there are some long drives during a tour of the state, but the rewards of places like Hampi, Badami and Aihole are well worth the effort taken to reach them.
The main gateway into Karnataka is Bangalore and although this city is widely known as one of the hubs of India's IT success over recent decades it is not a place in which many travellers choose to linger. For most visitors the nearby (and much smaller) city of Mysore is a far more appealing option. At one time the capital of the princely state of the same name, Mysore is a compact city with several outstanding sights all within close proximity of its centre. The Sultan's Palace is one of the most famous buildings in the south and would not look out of place in any of the great cities of Rajasthan. The palace was built in the early 20th century in the Indo-Saracenic style, combining elements of Hindu, Islamic and western architecture. A potential highlight of any trip to the south is the once-weekly sight of the 97000 lights which adorn the outside of the palace being turned on - this occurs only on Sunday evenings but is a totally unforgettable sight if your trip happens to take you to Mysore a Sunday.
Another undisputed highlight of Mysore is the flower and vegetable market located not far from the Palace. This bustling market is a heady brew of sights, sounds, aromas and as a slice-of-life snapshot of ancient-meets-modern in southern India there are few experiences to match it. The market is busy virtually from dawn to dusk and there is always sure to be something remarkable going on!
On the outskirts of Mysore and affording superb views of the city and plains below is the Chamundi Hill temple, and its nearby Nadi statue which is the largest representation of Siva's consort in the world. If you choose to spend more than one day in Mysore there are other places to visit in close proximity.
Many of Karnataka's finest temples are in remote parts of the state which take hours of driving, spread of several day, to reach. The major exception is Somnathpur, which is less than 2 hours from downtown Mysore. This small but incredibly intricately decorated temple is one of the finest examples of Hoysala architecture, and indeed is arguably one of the most beautiful temples in India, rivalling even those of Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh for complexity and sheer artistic beauty.
There are superb wildlife viewing experiences to be had in Karnataka, and the state's best known National Parks - among them Nagarhole and Bandipur - are easily accessible from Mysore. Both parks boast significant elephant populations with the expansive grasslands of Bandipur being a prime location forsightings of large herds.
The manmade lake at Kabini, on the fringes of Nagarhole and 2 other National Parks, is also a great place to see large numbers of elephants as they come to the water's edge to drink.
There are also healthy populations of leopards, sloth bears and tigers in Nagarhole and while sightings of these are less frequent than is the case with the large herbivores there is still a good chance that you might be lucky. As with any of India's National Parks, the best time to visit Nagarhole/Kabini is towards the start of summer - March to May being the peak time for wildlife viewing.
Vijaynagara which was the original name of the city here. At one time the Vijayanagar Empire ruled over much of
Between Mysore and Hassan is a major pilgrimage site for people of the Jain religion; at Sravanabelgola there is a remarkable and quite massive monolithic statue of a Jain deity. At over 17 metres tall it is probably the largest monolithic statue in the world.
Karnataka also boasts a long and very beautiful coastline and although much of this is still completely undeveloped from a tourist perspective, the beaches of the Konkan Coast in the states south are among the most serene and unspoilt in India. One of the world'sgreatest archaeological treasures is the vast site at Hampi or more correctly south India from here. Hampi today is a rather remote place but the rewards for anyonemaking the journey are significant. The remoteness serves to keep the area (which coversover 40 square kilometres) largely free of tourists and its sheer size means that space is never at a premium.
Literally hundreds of small temples, vast compounds of royal buildings and such wonderful major buildings at the Elephant Stables make this one of the most fascinating destinations in Karnataka, if not all of India. It takes some time and dedication to reach Hampi - the same inhospitable terrain and remote location which made this an appealing site for an easily defensible city in the 15th century still have a bearing today on reaching Hampi, and as such we recommend an absolute minimum of 2 whole days to really experience the atmosphere of the sight. An excellent way to experience Hampi is to have one day of guided sightseeing and another day (or more) of exploration at your own pace and using any combination of walking, cycling or auto-rickshaws to get around and see the many remote corners of the area. An absolute highlight for many people is to climb the Hemakuta Hill for sunrise and to see this entire vast site illuminated by the rising sun. Hampi is a difficult place to fully explain but for anyone who makes the effort to go there the memory will live forever.
The Coorg district of Karnataka is a lushly forested region of coffee, spice, fruit and cocoa plantations with a number of notable sights. Deepest south India is not the place one would expect to find a Tibetan population, but one of the largest communities-in-exile outsideDharamshala can be found at Kushalanagara, home to a spectacular golden temple, hospitable people and an atmosphere which is quite genuinely mini-Tibet (albeit in a tropical climate) - not really a tourist attraction but an interesting place to visit if you are inCoorg. Notfar away is the Dubare Elephant Camp, one of a handful of places in south India where one can get a hands-on experience amongst elephant trainers (mahouts) and their charges. This delightful place can be reached only by means of a sort boat ride across a river to the area where elephants are domesticated and cared for by a diligent team of Forest Department workers.
There is an opportunity for visitors to join in the bathing of the elephants and to talk with the mahouts about their animals - a must-do while you are in Coorg (a similar experience can be had at Kodanad Elephant Camp near Cochin if your travels are primarily in Kerala). Coorg is also a major centre for trekking and has several notable peaks including Tadiyandamol, the second highest in Karnataka at over 1700 metres. Whether you are interested in a short amble through a spice farm or coffee plantation, a bike ride through bamboo forest to a remote village or a walk of a day or more, there are many great opportunities in Coorg to experience a little visited and picturesque part of south India.
Near to the city of Hassan are a pair of magnificent temples- Belur and Halebid- which are wonderful examples of Hoysala architecture from the early 12th century CE. Along with the Somnathpur temple near Mysore these are the finest examples of this style of architecture still extant today.
For those with an even greater sense of adventure, and a desire to link the semi-arid plains of Karnataka to the palm-fringed beaches of Goa, an further overland option is to continue north from Hampi and spend time exploring the even more ancient sites of Badami, Aihole and Pattadakal. These are all wonderful remnants of early kingdoms dating back as much as 1600 years which illustrate the evolution of Hindu architecture. The four cave temples at Badami are among the finest examples of the area's former importance as a capital of the Chalukya Empire which dominated this part of India in the 4th to 8th centuries CE. Using Badami as a base and allowing 2 or 3 complete days to explore the nearby sites at Bijapur, Aihole and Pattadakal is a richly rewarding experience.