India: No fairer land

With hospitable locals, verdant mountains, miles of coastline and India's very own silicon Valley, Karnataka is ready for its moment in the sun

Published 2 Oct 2017, 09:00 BST, Updated 12 Jul 2021, 11:47 BST
No fairer land

Beena and Mahesh won't mind that I've crashed their wedding, I tell myself. There they are, sitting in ornate chairs in the main room of the Dharmasthala Manjunatha Kalyana Mantapa celebration hall, surrounded by 200 family members and well-wishers. It does feel a little unfair that I know their names — which are draped above the entrance on a huge banner — while they are oblivious to my uninvited presence. But they look happy and glorious in their outfits; the bride decked in garlands over her red sari; the groom a suited vision in white.

I'm not quite sure why I'm here, intruding on the last hurrahs of their unification as husband and wife. One moment, I was out on the long, arrow-straight Bull Temple Road, watching Bangalore go about its Saturday lunchtime business — cars welded in a jam that seemed as if it would last an eternity; with tuk-tuks, motorbikes, wandering children, idling cows and fast-gesticulating hawkers selling flowers, water and even spare tyres scattered liberally across this exhaust-fume carnival. The next moment, I've wandered into a party that's scarcely any less noisy than the scene on the street — a troupe of drummers building to a rhythmic cacophony; and a feast being prepared — all clattering pans, rolling steam and rice on the boil — in the chamber beyond.

Surely someone has to notice the British man, dusty from a morning exploring, who isn't on the guest list. When someone does, Yousuf is politeness itself. "You are welcome, my friend," says the silver-haired, grandfatherly figure. His perfectly pronounced English speaks of an antique education in the vestiges of the colonial school system. "Come, have you eaten? You look as if you are hungry." And, with a gentle hand on my arm, he leads me towards the pots of bubbling amber chicken curry.

After two days in Bangalore, the capital of the southwesterly state of Karnataka, I've finally found something truly special. The city does have its attractions, of course: the Big Bull Temple saluting Hindu demigod Nandi with its colossal bovine stone carving; the Gavi Gangadhareshwara Temple, where a giant trident statue declares this the domain of Hinduism's force of destruction, Shiva. And Krishna Rajendra Market, where powdered dyes and spices are piled precariously on rickety tables. Yet, there's nothing as gleamingly seductive as the Golden Temple in Amritsar, nothing hewn from marble and love as dreamily as Agra's Taj Mahal. Instead, there's Electronic City — India's answer to Silicon Valley, helping to fuel the booming Indian economy from within glass office towers and busy IT hubs, south east of the centre.

Here at Dharmasthala Manjunatha Kalyana Mantapa, though, amid the applause and delight for Beena and Mahesh, I'm finally on to something. Bangalore may not be the prettiest place, but it seems to be a people-pleaser. By the time I leave, I've eaten so much I fear I'll never be hungry again, and received four offers of accommodation. I've been made to feel at home.

Epic beauty
The charm of Karnataka has long been enshrined in Indian folklore. As far back as the ninth century, in fact, in a verse from Kavirajamarga, a scholarly text: 'In all the circle of the Earth, no fairer land you'll find than that where rich sweet Kannada voices the people's mind,' one line declares.

This praise echoes in the present. Kannada, one of the classical languages of India, is still the official tongue of Karnataka, and one of the defining elements of a state that has a relatively low profile among travellers. It's not that it's small — Karnataka is the sixth largest of the country's 29 states, an unsleeping beehive of 61 million souls, 8.5 million of them in Bangalore. But it tends to be overshadowed by some of its neighbours — among them tourism stalwart Kerala, and Maharashtra, where bejewelled Mumbai and its Bollywood film industry are the subcontinent's dream factory. And although Karnataka has a coastline, it's rarely viewed as a beach destination — despite the fact that its 175 miles of sand on the Arabian Sea easily eclipse Goa's 63 miles, just to the north.

By contrast, it's a stubbornly rural enclave. For all Bangalore's urban eye on the future, two-thirds of the state's landscape is devoted to agriculture — to rice, maize, pulses, cashew nuts and cotton. The terrain folds itself into furrows, fields and forests — but also slants sharply upwards at the Western Ghats just before land meets sea. This is a place of lonely hilltops and rustic calm; of morning mists drifting over coffee plantations.

I retreat from the hubbub to the Taj West End hotel, on the edge of central Bangalore. The shaded veranda rings with the clipped chimes of cutlery on crockery, as afternoon tea — an Indian version with samosas and chicken tikka sandwiches, as well as the cake-heavy English version — is served in the 4pm heat. I climb up to the grassy rooftop garden above the main building and look into the sunset. This is the direction the road will carry me tomorrow — National Highway 275 ebbing south west, slowly shedding its municipal skin, through Ramanagara and Channapatna, Madduru and Mandya. In some parts, this thread of asphalt is every bit as stuck in first gear as downtown Bangalore; in others, it's one elongated storefront, the roadside strewn with shacks selling everything from stubby green bananas to painted wooden rocking horses (a small troupe of which keeps watch over the traffic).

After several hours on the road, I reach Mysore — the state's third-biggest city, with its rising tide of software companies and 21st-century ambition. Yet it's also forever pinned to the 19th century by the royal palace at its heart. Younger than it appears — built between 1897 and 1912 after fire destroyed its previous incarnation — it sings of precolonial India, of the Kingdom of Mysore, a realm largely comparable to modern Karnataka, which existed between 1399 and the unification of India in 1947. It murmurs, too, of the Wodeyar dynasty — the warrior monarchs who occupied the throne during this period.

My guide, Rajesh, beams as he shows me the palace's Marriage Pavilion, an octagonal hall, where an elaborate stained-glass roof allows colour to pool on the tiled floor. "I think this is more beautiful than the Buckingham Palace," he says with a respectful nod. I tell him that I wouldn't know; that I've never visited the latter. He looks startled, then the grin grows. "Well, we're very glad that you chose to see us first," he says.

I feel as if I've drifted back a century or three. Almost as soon as I'm outside the city limits, it's clear that the Karnataka that awaits beyond Mysore has little in common with 2017. Rather, as I swap Highway 275 for the decidedly thinner, bumpier 90, the district of Kodagu recalls an unspoiled India, predating the one later eras have tossed at it.

During the early patchworking of post-colonial India, Kodagu was, for six years, Coorg State, before being absorbed into Karnataka. It still seems set apart from the areas around it; its people conversing in their own language (Kodava); its topography dominated by Tadiandamol, one of the outlying peaks of the mighty Western Ghats.

On the hillsides above the village of Hudikeri, the Glenlorna Tea Estate spreads out across the slopes. It's a photogenic scene — the earth underfoot a loamy orange; leaf-pickers labouring in the grooves between the emerald-green rows; a track slipping down to a processing plant where conveyor belts trundle and threshers clank. The former manager's home has been kept on as a bungalow where travellers desiring a soft bed — and few accoutrements except blissful silence — can find a nirvana, of sorts.

Kodagu held out longer than Mysore against British incursion — until 1834. The epoch that followed is visible directly north of Hudikeri in Pollibetta, where a golf course was created by the new overlords for the top brass at the adjacent coffee plantation. It's odd to see a nine-hole relic like this in such a setting; the sand in its bunkers a damp ochre in the humid air; its rough a little less kempt than it must have been in its early 20th-century prime.

Trying to slip back into this bygone era, I play a few untidy holes, shanking one shot horribly when what appears to be a hose left in the long grass reveals itself to be a coiled brown snake. It slithers away frantically as I emit a nervous yelp, provoking a warm bout of laughter from the grounds staff — and a swift reassurance that I was never at risk from this nonvenomous creature.

There are other collaborations between Victorian Britain and pastoral India — school children in pressed blue uniforms skipping up the unsurfaced road, waving as I pass, en route to the plantation's highest part: Cottabetta Bungalow, a former management office reborn as accommodation, amid meandering lines of coffee shrubs. Five simply furnished rooms surround an internal courtyard. Supper is chapatis, rotis and a gloopy lamb curry, served at a long table where numbers were once jotted into heavy ledgers. The evening culminates with a bonfire in the garden by the front porch; coffee poured in the post-prandial darkness to the click-click of crickets and the spit-crackle of burning logs. Blankets are brought out for further salvation from the night air.

Holy river
Madikeri is no grand regional capital; the Kodagu kingpin has a rather modest presence, 24 miles north of Pollibetta, at 3,840ft in the Western Ghats. The town fans out around a low-slung fort, built as a statement of strength by the local king, Mudduraja, in the mid-17th century. On its outskirts, laid out along the flanks of a compact valley, is the Vivanta by Taj resort. One side of its palatial lobby is open to the elements, guest rooms are slotted into the forested hillside, and the pool lies half-concealed on the valley floor.

This is where I meet Sajith Ponnappa. With his clipped moustache and khaki fatigues, the hotel's in-house naturalist looks more like a soldier than a hiking guide. But he knows and loves the area. "I was born and raised in Coorg, in these Western Ghats," he says, setting a muscle-stretching pace up Nishani Betta, a hill behind the hotel. "I used to work in finance, but I realised it was not the career for me," Sajith adds, shooting me a smile that begins in the eyes. "This," he says, with a sweep of the arm that encompasses the whole panorama, "is more my thing."

At 10am, we clamber upwards, as the sun dips in and out of the shade provided by the treeline. A deer breaks cover upon hearing us stride by, dashing madly ahead; an olive-coloured shield-tailed snake opts for the lie-still-and-hope approach — but is still scooped up by Sajith's careful hand. "Harmless," he says. "But look at how its head, so small, resembles the tip of its tail. It's a trick designed to confuse predators, who can't be sure which end they're biting. It works — very clever."

The view at the summit reveals the Western Ghats in all their glory, stretching out in the morning light, making a vague promise of sea somewhere near the horizon. It's enough to drive me on towards Mangalore, a modern coastal city, where surfers assess the breakers at Panambur Beach. But before I reach the shoreline, the road — if you can describe the pitted, rutted trail as such — pulls me back into the epic verse of the Kavirajamarga, and its admiration for Karnataka. 'Twixt sacred rivers twain it lies', the poem runs. 'From famed Godavari to where the pilgrim rests his eyes on holy Kaveri.' The Godavari, India's second-longest river, emerges much further north, in what's now Maharashtra. But the Kaveri River is right in my path, 30 miles west of Madikeri, at Talakaveri — where the steps of a shallow, all-but roofless temple lead down to the pool from which the river is said to spring.

Crowds of worshippers spill down to peer at the pale green liquid within, and — as at the wedding hall in Bangalore — there are interested questions regarding why, and how, a Brit has found himself here. And there's an appropriate joy in being at the river's source — for Karnataka feels like it's at the start of something too.


Getting there & around
British Airways flies direct between Heathrow and Bangalore.
Average flight time: 9h 50m.
Bangalore has a reliable metro network (day passes from 85p), while taxis are cheap and plentiful. Rail services in the state are limited, but long-distance bus journeys can be booked via the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation. Travel is easiest by guided tour.

When to go
Karnataka is best avoided during monsoon season (June-September). The best time to visit is October-December, with temperatures in the high 20Cs. Summer (March-May) is the driest time, but also the hottest, with mid-30Cs heat.

More information
Lonely Planet: South India & Kerala. RRP: £16.99.

How to do it
Cox & Kings has a nine-day tour that includes three nights at the Taj West End in Bangalore, two nights at the Cottabetta Bungalow near Pollibetta and three nights at the Vivanta by Taj – Madikeri. From £2,125 per person, including flights and transfers.

Follow @leadbeaterchris

Published in the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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