This is not the season,” the man at the tourism desk said. “It is the monsoon.” But being more decisive than the monsoon, we set off early, at 7am, with the sky grey above us and a light scattering of raindrops on the windshield of our car. We are headed to Somnathpur and Talakad, about 180km from Bangalore, on the banks of the Kaveri, to see the historic temples there. The hospitable basin of the Kaveri in southern Karnataka has been ruled by a succession of dynasties, beginning with the Gangas in the fifth century, followed by the Cholas, the Hoysalas and the feudatories of the Vijayanagara empire right up to the 17th century. While historical records may sometimes falter, the region is rich in legend and lore.
Our taxi is driven by Narendra, a spry lad from Mandya, who asserts his authority immediately by telling us that we are reversing the order of our trip.
We will go to Talakad first and then Somnathpur, and take the less crowded Kanakapura road to reach and return by the busy Mysore road. It makes eminent sense; we know we are in safe hands. The freshly tarred NH 209 is smooth but we have to travel quite a bit on it to leave Bangalore behind. We go past a string of ‘educational institutions’ (for which Bangalore is famous), the Art of Living centre and several plastic-strewn garbage fills mulched into the sides. We cross a bridge over the Arakavathi, a tributary of the Kaveri, and now we have an uninterrupted view of green on either side of the road and lines of coconut palms follow us. In the distance is a low range of hills, and the fields are dotted with the massive, sheer-faced boulders of the Closepet granites.
In one of the fields, we are treated to a sight of painted storks drinking from a shallow pool of water.
At Sathnur, Narendra attempts to lead us off the road towards Channapatna to visit the Kabbalu temple. Kabbalamma is “sakkath powerful”, he says solemnly. But today we are committed to the men, to Shiva and Vishnu.
There is a price to be paid for the less-crowded road; there are very few hotels on this route and we are looking for breakfast. At Malavalli, about 100km from Bangalore, we drive past buildings sliced in half — victims of the road-widening project — and settle for the tinted windows of Hotel Sri Ganesh.
At nine in the morning, the place is full. We are in the company of grizzled men, the local farmers I imagine, their white dhotis turned up at the knees, wearing towels on their shoulders; one of them at an adjacent table has a plate of sambar in front of him, with his idlis mashed efficiently into it, waiting while he reads the Samyukta Karnataka.
On the Malavalli-Kollegal road, we take the fork towards Talakad, which now promises to be 26km away. For the first time, we see ploughed fields of the red earth for which these parts are famous and the aerial roots of the roadside banyans seem close enough to touch. The red spire of the Mudukothore temple beckons from a nearby hilltop and alongside the road flows the Kaveri, leading us to Talakad.
Our first stop is the Vaidyanatheswara temple. At 11am on a weekday in the wrong season, we are the only visitors. A deferential gentleman detaches himself from the temple wall and offers to show us round. He is a freelance temple guide and when he tells us his name, harkening to a king or a chieftain of yore, we cannot but ask him to lead us. I want to add a caveat that he speak only when spoken to but, in Talakad, where fact rides on legend, the only thing a man can do is tell stories.
Talakad, the capital of the Gangas, prized by the Hoysalas, came to be buried under sand at some time in the course of its history. Mr N, our guide, dismisses the shifting course of the Kaveri as the reason and endorses the legend of Alamelamma’s curse. When the Wodeyar ruler of Mysore tried to force Alamelamma, the widow of the local chieftain, to part with her jewels, she condemned the city to a dirge of sand (and the Wodeyars to infertility) before jumping into the Kaveri. And so it came to be. To clinch his point, Mr N picks up a handful of the sand on which we are standing to show that it has no shells — it has not come from the river. The Archaeological Survey of India has, over the years, excavated many temples from the sand, though several are supposedly still buried.
Talakad is known for the panchalinga temples, or the five lingas, said to be born of Shiva himself. The story goes that when Tala and Kadu, brothers and intrepid hunters, began chopping down a silk cotton tree in the forest, it began to bleed, for the tree was Shiva himself. They were instructed to bandage the wounded tree with its leaves and bark, which they did. From the pieces of the bark that fell to the ground were born the five lingas around which temples were built.
Shiva as self-healer and naturopath — Vaidyanatheswara — presides in this temple, a well-proportioned granite structure topped with a tower of mortar; both the Gangas and the Cholas are credited with its construction. A tiered dhwaja-stambha or flagpole stands in the courtyard, its brass encasing gleaming in the dull morning. The entrance to the temple hall is guarded by two well-fed moustachioed men, bare torsoed except for their jewellery, hewn 12 feet in granite. Mr N introduces them as the ganas Nandi and Mahakaala and then, somewhat secularly, draws our attention to the triangle formed by their nipples, navel and paunch, resembling the face of a bull, supposedly Nandi, Shiva’s vahana. From the mandapa or the pillared hall, we can see the gleaming black granite linga in the cell beyond being bathed and readied for worship. The walls of the temple are dressed with large sculptured panels of Shiva in his many avatars.
A pillared hall, the Kattale Mandapa, dark as the name suggests, extends from the back of the temple — a homely space stacked with bamboos and with pigeons cooing in the eaves. The reliefs on the pillars bear legends from mythology — we spot Bedara Kannappa, foremost among Shiva’s bhaktas (with even the mighty Ravana being second to him), all set to cut off his eye for Shiva, and Markandeya, clinging to the linga, praying to Shiva to save him from death. Suggesting that it is not bhakti alone that sustains the temple, Mr N points to a marvel of technical accomplishment — two interlinked rings of granite, like tenniquoits, with no joints in evidence, hanging from the eaves on the northeastern side of the temple.
We ascend a sandbank and then descend into the Pathaleswara and Maruleswara temples, which have just the cella containing the linga, without the grand superstructure, reputedly the oldest of the temples in Talakad. Stomping through the soft sand, we are unprepared for the perfect cube of the Keertinarayana temple nesting below us in a small maidan. What we see is only part of the 12th-century temple ascribed to the Hoysala Vishnuvardhana. The rest of it — shafts of pillars, whorled capitals and bases with inscriptions in Kannada and Tamil, strewn in numbered pieces — is being assiduously reassembled by the Archaeological Survey. The idol of Keertinarayana, about 10ft tall and perfectly preserved, stands in what is assembled of the temple.
Lunch is in the Udipi Mess, a stone’s throw from the Vaidyanatheswara temple. We duck into a low doorway and enter a courtyard roofed with a blackened thatch; the air is faintly redolent of wood smoke. Here, the Bhatts serve us a perfect vegetarian meal on banana leaves — a light rasam, a sambar with the local variety of cucumber, a sweet-and-sour gojju, with chapattis and rice. We leave for Somnathpur, 30km away, at 1.30pm, stopping briefly at Tirumakudal (‘the confluence of the three’) Narsipur or T. Narsipur, where the Kapila joins the Kaveri (and the mythical lake, Spatika Sarovara) picturesquely in a broad confluence. We sit for a while on the steps, watching the herons and the cormorants, listening to a medley of birdcalls, but we cannot linger as the skies are darkening and Somnathpur awaits.
The Keshava temple at Somnathpur stands in a square of modest houses, with tiled roofs and square windows. And at three in the afternoon, the square is asleep — except for a school that abuts the lawns of the temple and where children are playing in the yard. If the temples of Talakad are shrouded in legend, the facts are etched in stone at Somnathpur, on an inscription placed just inside the gateway. The Hoysalas, who ruled from the 11th to the 14th centuries, were known for their temple-building and are credited with extending the Chalukyan style of temple architecture, and combining the Dravidian and the Indo-Aryan styles. The inscription informs us that this temple was built in 1268 by Somanatha Dandanayaka, a powerful Hoysala general, in the reign of Narasimha III.
When you step in from the gateway into the courtyard, the temple opens up in front of you like a flower. The Keshava temple is considered the finest embodiment of the Hoysala architectural innovations — the raised star-shaped platform on which the temple stands, its walls following the angles of the platform, producing its photogenic planes; the lathe-turned pillars with their knife-edged finish; the three spires that rise over the three cells; and the wealth of sculptural detail, as intricate as the art of the jeweller, enabled by the soft soapstone or chloritic schist out of which the temples are built. But no description prepares you for the perfection of its proportions and the pleasing harmony of its many features.
As if on cue, a temple guide appears at our elbow and fixes us with a beady eye. His hauteur is such that we dare not refuse him. Mr R begins our tour with the outside of the temple. The friezes on the outer wall resolve themselves into horizontal bands and vertical sections, and run right round the temple. The lowest band has a procession of elephants, with horsemen and mythical creatures in ascending bands. Tucked in between is a frieze of warriors and musicians and scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata — so clearly etched are the figures that every strand in a sage’s beard and each bead of corn that an attendant holds stand out clearly. In the section above the horizontal bands, right up to the eaves where the spire begins, are panels of gods and goddesses, each a complete piece of sculpture in its own right — and, in a departure from convention, bearing the signature of the sculptor.
If I had to pick one, it would be Mallitamma’s Mahishasuramardini on the northeastern wall, her right foot planted on Mahishasura’s chastened buffalo while her left hand pushes the rakshasa’s face down. Every inch of the surface, including the towers, is carved, except for the waterspouts. Such a wealth of riches should be cloying — but surprisingly is not — you just have to take your time with the details.
As we step into the temple proper, into the pillared hall, the monsoon asserts itself and the solar-powered lights go off. The resourceful Mr R shines his torch at the ceiling to show us its many sections, each bearing an inverted lotus or a banana flower, and then into the three cells, briefly illuminating the gods. Keshava is flanked by the flute-playing Venugopala and Janardhana, each of them locked behind a standard government-issue metal door. The idol of Keshava is a copy, the original having been “carried away by the Britishers”, Mr R informs us in a tone that brooks no argument. His torch rests a little longer on Janardhana’s midriff. This is a Vishnu temple, he says, but this idol is the work of a closet Shiva bhakta. Can you tell me how? I cannot resist myself — I point to the bull on Janardhana’s torso and Mr R switches off his torch.
When we come out, the rain has stopped. We are admiring the rain tree just outside the gateway when the bell in the school next to the temple rings and some of the schoolboys run in a line to the side and, with their backs to the wall of the school, relieve themselves across the barbed wire that divides their school from the temple. On that reassuringly earthy note, we leave for Bangalore.
At Bannur, we turn towards Mandya, where we meet the Bangalore-Mysore highway. The newly refurbished road is the government’s showpiece and right up to Bangalore, we are chased by the bright lights.
Somnathpur and Talakad are temple towns located in southern Karnataka, in the district of Mysore, on the banks of the Kaveri, within a radius of 30km from each other, 50km from Mysore and 180km from Bangalore. They’re ideal for day trips (round trip in a taxi from Bangalore in an AC Tata Indica, Rs 2,750 approx.; from Mysore, Rs 1,900), but from Bangalore, be prepared for a 12-hour day.
The Karnataka State Tourism Department (KSTDC) runs conducted bus tours on weekends and holidays in the season from Bangalore (Rs 495 per head) and Mysore (Rs 325). Visit the KSTDC offices in Mysore (J.L.B. Road, 0821-2423652) or Bangalore (N.R. Square, 080-43344334; Race Course Road, 080-22352901).
Or plan your own itinerary and take the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) buses. From Bangalore, change buses in Srirangapatna or Mysore; and to Talakad at Malavalli or Maddur. From Mysore, take buses headed for Bannur or T. Narsipur. Call KSRTC General Enquiries (Bangalore, 9480815155; Mysore, 0821-2567121; Malavalli, 08231-214340; or Mandya, 08232-224226) for details. There are private buses to these places as well. Saleem Travels (080-41241557) runs buses from Kalasipalya in Bangalore to Talakad.
Where to stay:
Bangalore and Mysore offer a choice of hotels. Visit www.karnatakaholidays.net for a list of KSTDC hotels (from Rs 900). For another budget option, check out Ginger Hotels (from Rs 1,600; Mysore, 0821-6633333; Bangalore, 080-66663333; www.gingerhotels.com). Other useful sites include: www.hotelsinmysore.com; www.starhotelsinbangalore.com and www.travelguru.com/india-hotels.
If you’re staying overnight at Talakad, Jaladhama (from Rs 5,600 for a couple, 10 per cent discount on weekdays; 9945695942, www.jaladhama.net), a resort at Mudukuthore close to Talakad, is a nice enough option. There are many more options at Mandya, which falls somewhere between Bangalore and Mysore, among them Hotel Haripriya International (from Rs 350; 08232-226112) and Hotel Gururaja Continental (from Rs 500; 238002). Visit www.mandya.nic.in/hotels.htm for more options.
An excellent homestay off Malavalli is the Georgia Sunshine Village (from Rs 2,250 per person; 9845754661, www.georgiasunshine.com), which could be the base for your trip to the sights around Mysore.
What to see & do
The 13th-century Keshava temple (daily 8.30am-5.30pm; entry Rs 5; 08227-270010) at Somnathpur is considered the best-preserved example of Hoysala architecture.
Unlike Somnathpur, the temples of Talakad are ‘live’ and famous among them are the panchalingas or five lingas — the Vaidyanatheswara, Pataleswara and Maruleswara temples are close to each other; the Mallikarjuneswara Mudukothore temple is on a hill 4km from Talakad; and the Arakeswara temple, at Vijayapura, is at a distance of 5km. The Keertinarayana temple, 12th-century Hoysala, is the only Vishnu temple in this bastion of Shiva. No entry tickets, but vehicles are charged a small fee.
After your fill of the temples, you could relax on the banks of the Kaveri or ride on the river in a coracle (Rs 20 per person). There are many small eateries in Talakad and the Udupi mess next to the Vaidyanatheswara temple serves an excellent vegetarian meal for Rs 40. You could stop at T. Narsipur, between Somnathpur and Talakad, where the Kapila joins the Kaveri and sit by the river or explore the temples, for T. Narsipur is a historic town in its own right.
Organised tours usually include a trip to the Shivanasamudra falls and other sights around Mysore and Srirangapatna.