Six nights, seven days

Six nights, seven days
Masjid-e-Ala, Photo Credit: Varun Sreenivasan

Visit Karnataka for its spectacular attractions like Mysore Palace, Chamundi Hills and Srirangapatna

Lalitha Sridhar
April 21 , 2014
25 Min Read

It’s fairly easy to guess there’s a pre-paid stand outside when over-solicitous autorickshaw chaps offer rides to passengers who haven’t yet exited a railway station. So it was that I found myself in a still-sleepy queue, time enough to admire the old-worldly Mysore Junction, and I took the Rs 34 token to my hotel as a good omen for this assignment’s modest budget. And thus my raptures when I sauntered quite by chance to the highly famous Mylari Hotel, just a street away from our smart lodgings, and breakfasted on their melt-in-the-mouth sagu-dosa (Rs 22) followed by a bracing cup of hot filter coffee (Rs 8). One week in some of Karnataka’s finest destinations under Rs 20,000? Yes, we can!


A goodly half of my delight came from the monsoon, a playful and energizing force in our travels, the rains fitful, the winds soothing, the clouds a constant company. The sublime weather was transformative, as much of the landscape as our spirits. I appreciate the deep discounts, indeed I do, but they really should be promoting the monsoon as a peak season in this geography.


And quite like the monsoon, the best thing about Mysore came for free. Steeped in southern gentility, it simply lends itself to fine walks. The city-town is a diffidently colonial throwback with possibly the highest per capita institutional presence anywhere in the country — everything from the Postal Training Institute to something important sounding in linguistics. What this means, essentially, is that largish swathes of land are left free for a wild growth of trees and other flora, managed with adorably varied degrees of dedication, around low-slung, slanted-roof homesteads (it’s difficult to think of the quiet office of the Commissioner of Police as anything but). So walk by on a nippy day with the promise of rain, the green somehow greener for the grey skies.


Walk we did to pay the highest entrance fee charged through this trip, a princely Rs 40+35, at the Mysore Palace, for a leisurely stroll in its main complex, and the museum-and-residences. It surprised me how well a mish-mash of approaches in gold leaf, wrought iron, carved wood, inlaid marble and worn mosaic comes together in this much-loved remnant of a royal India.


Early afternoon found us in Chamundi Hills after a scenic twenty-minute ride up, better viewed from the air-conditioned Volvo Route 201’s (Rs 23 only) large and spotless windows than any cab I could have hired, and the same helpful bus dropped me off for Rs 19 at the Karanji Lake and Nature Park — this no plastic-or-food zone (entrance fee Rs 20) offers boating in a tranquil spread of water and houses a walk-through aviary closed off only by a chain mail entrance and high nets. A pathway hugs the lake up to a butterfly park, the lush environs home to birds like the Eurasian coot, blue-tailed bee-eater and painted storks.


The popular Mysore Zoo is right next door but we headed instead to the Lalitha Mahal Palace Hotel on a waning evening turned magical by imminent rain and what an unforgettably dramatic setting it was for this grand duchess of Mysore. We hadn’t the money to dine here, naturally, but Rs 100 per head not only got us access but a hot cup of tea served graciously with cookies, which would have cost us more had we stayed at the property — a thoughtful gesture from a management forced to limit the crowds of curious visitors. It was raining in the earnest now and this happened through our journey — occasional downpours that never lasted longer than a half hour, and drove us to the nearest inside (the next time this happened was at Belur’s Chennakesava and Hampi’s Vitthala temples, imagine).


Frequent buses ply from Mysore to Srirangapatna, the 307 taking a particularly scenic rural route past stops called Lakshmi Talkies, Pump House and arali mara (a vast peepal tree in the middle of the road). The Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary falls along this way, too. I travelled alongside children in freshly pressed uniforms, on their way to school with swinging lunch boxes, skinny shoulders and wide eyes.


‘Town buses’ are even more frequent and one hurled me back to the city in thirty minutes flat, a hulking beast on a honking highway. I found the din of daily conversations endlessly entertaining (someone had lost a cellphone charger, someone else was going to have a grandchild and beans were selling at Rs 110 a kilo).


Srirangapatna’s dispersed sights cost me Rs 300 with the diligent and well-informed Mr Venugopal (9535697753), who picks up tourists from wherever they like — I was outside the ninth century Ranganathaswamy temple, which gives the historic town its name — and he caps the almost-dozen ‘places to see’ with a visit to the Triveni, a gurgling confluence of ‘two Cauverys’ and the Lokapavani rivers, where life-jacketed coracle rides may be had for Rs 100 for a couple though the elderly boatman’s wife assured me he could take up to eight (sitting down, please).


Tipu Sultan (and who didn’t love him in the history lessons of our childhood?)is  everywhere in this island of immaculately kept sights — where he lived, prayed, kept prisoners, fought, died and lies buried. Tipu is interred with Hyder Ali at Gumbaz, a peaceful mausoleum the son built for his father, its interior walls painted with flame-like stripes in homage to the tiger of Mysore — entrance here costs Rs 2 (how do they keep it so clean and like-new?).


Daria Daulat Bagh, Tipu’s summer palace, set in the middle of vast lawns with gnarled trees, is one of ASI’s thirteen ticketed monuments in the state and I went to five others on this trip (an inexplicable Rs 5 or Rs 10, and since I was feeling so budget-conscious, I recalled a recent trip to Europe where I routinely paid a hundred times that much to gain admittance). The dark and cool museum here is shaded by thattis (reed curtains) and features elegant portraiture, forlorn furniture and his hand-written military code. ‘Colonel Baillie (sic),’ goes one plaintive explanation of a large war mural, ‘is in a palanquin carried by six native soldiers as he is wounded but astonished, who bites his index finger amazingly.’ I almost did.


By afternoon, I was zooming past great roads lined with fields. Farmers were still ox-ploughing some of them, in others sugarcane, coconut palms and marigold swayed in the whipping wind under thick clouds.  KSRTC plies only non-AC ‘Suvarna Karnataka Sarige’ buses on short hauls and that’s what Hassan was from Mysore — just over three hours by an all-halts service (Rs 95, every fifteen minutes through the day). Tuck your suitcase under the seat, never mind the peanut peels, for the private ‘share-van’ that ferried me on the fifteen kilometres from Halebid to Belur later that day stuffed sixteen people into space meant for half that number, playing a thumping ‘Character Dheela Hai’ in the background, which I found inconveniently and uproariously funny. You might prefer to wait for the Sarige service from Halebid to Belur and vice versa every half hour for the same cost: Rs 18.


Thank heavens for my budget, I thought, because KSRTC’s capillary-like network of frequent and reliable buses is not only the lifeblood of the state, it kept me safe and toasty when it rained. Most of all, I wouldn’t have missed this chance to travel like a local for all the money in the world, my engagement with the topography and people a rarer privilege than all the comforts and privacy more funds would have fetched.


I made quick work of checking in and freshening up before heading out to enchanting and abandoned Halebid, capital of the Hoysalas for a century and a half before two attacks and considerable destruction forced its abandonment. The sculptures here are larger than those at Belur and chiefly mythological. It’s difficult to believe the twin sites are not yet on the Unesco World Heritage list.

 

Belur, a ‘living temple’, remains open up to 8pm (Halebid closes at 6pm, both open at sunrise), which meant that I could divide a breathtakingly beautiful monsoon evening between them, the exquisitely etched stonework at the Chennakesava temple, on which master sculptors are said to have worked for 103 years, washed into a sharper grey by the occasional rain. There are forty-six pillars here, each designed differently, as if their creators had too much artistic genius to spare on symmetric doubles. In fact, their aesthetic is beyond my words.


I noticed locals wearing cardigans and mufflers and I didn’t laugh when the gusting air turned very cold. The stadium lights that surround the mandapas and temples at Belur were turned on as I left, bathing it in a liquid glow punctured by moving flashlights that guides focused on the intricate sculpturing. It was surreal.


I woke late the following morning, writing some of what you are reading now, before heading out for Sravanabelagola. The bus stand at Belagola is at the foot of the Vindhyagiri, the highest hill on which looms the all-seeing statue of Gomatesvara. The rain that drove me there fell no more as I climbed in the most perfect weather possible — at nearly noon, the countryside was a palette of varying emerald, the skies like asphalt, the wind powerful, and the 614 rock-hewn steps washed by the recent downpour. I confess I stayed up longer than I should have but it was difficult to return to a world more naked than the monolith behind me.


I would have traded all the treasures of my week for the top-of-the-world calm of Sravanabelagola — or so I thought till I arrived on the banks of the gentle Tungabhadra in Hampi, the morning so quiet that the sound of lapping water carried softly. June is the season of the wind in Hampi; it’s kind and fierce by turns, sometimes leaving badam trees whooshing like crashing waves. The skies dominate July, we were told, and the rains take over August.


There are frequent buses to Hampi from Hospet — if you are lucky, you might get the garishly opulent Vijayanagara Ratha (Rs 20, including music on a mounted TV), such a quirky thing to find on a mofussil morning. Hire an auto for Rs 700 at the Hampi Bus Stand, from eager peddlers of sites marked on creased maps (about three to four hours).


A coracle ride from Chakratirtha to the Chandramouleeshwara temple near Hanumanthanahalli and back (Rs 100 per person each way) could well be the pinnacle of your trip. Let the silence of the desolate mandapa behind you, where once a Veda-paathashaala flourished, seep through your soul. Soon, you will float by small stone temples rising from the banks, worn pathways of long ago, and rocks shaped by water, past a little ghat for pilgrims that might have been. They stand in pristine abandonment, these reminders of a greater past, no one to witness them other than the boatman and you. It’s the primordial setting of this Unesco World Heritage Site that makes it so extraordinary—the unsullied river and land are framed by the truest skies, boulders scattered about like this were a playground for the gods.


Walk the two-and-a-half kilometres strewn with rocks and ruins, along the rippling Tungabhadra, from the Kothandarama temple to the Vitthala temple. And head out later in the afternoon to the ‘other side’, especially in this quiet season of zero crowds. Hire a two-wheeler for a little extra adventure (Rs 200 per person; bring your license, please). Make the crossing at Talwarkatta — the ferry will take your bike across for Rs 25. Drive past the agrarian vistas of Junglee Valley on to the Sanapur Reservoir — the water changes colour with the skies which too change colour with the seasons. Return in time for the last crossing of 6pm although the sun sets later still.


By now even I was noticing a pattern in my reluctance to leave followed by the thrill of arrival. It was no different for Badami, which we reached by taking the reliable Hampi Express from Hopset to Gadag (two-and-a-half comfortable hours, Rs 483 by III AC). There are scores of buses to Badami from the Gadag Bus Stand (Rs 40 by auto). The seventy-five-minute/Rs 40 ride re-acquainted me with the pleasures of public travel — innocent company, glimpses of regional traditions in jewellery and attire, locally harvested and boiled peanuts (‘taste and see!’), the terrain changing again, from the rocky geology of Hampi to vast tracts of freshly tilled earth, alternately and curiously red, black and the deepest brown.


Badami is, sadly, a filthy town, and we escaped to the pleasing, mod-conned oasis of our resort, set between coconut palms and a reddish massif. The taciturn Mr Jayaram (8197824549) devoted his day to ferrying us valiantly in his diesel autorickshaw from before noon to after sundown, heading out first to Pattadakal (22km), then Aihole (13km) and finally to the Badami Caves (36km), then back to the resort, just a couple of kilometres away from it. He even dropped me off at the railway station for an extremely reasonable Rs 600. Jayaram mumbles the names of the sites, if that, so you would be well-advised to pick up a copy of George Michell’s handy Badami, Aihole and Pattadakal, one of a good series published on the archaeological wonders of the region by the London-based Deccan Heritage Foundation, available at The Heritage Resort’s reception for Rs 495.


I felt grateful for the chance to journey over this remote and rural countryside, beneath sweeping, leaden skies that threatened rain but did not deliver it, the scorched earth and ochre stone waiting in a silence broken only by tempestuous winds. Such lonely roads were these, trod upon only by occasional tractors transporting all manners of produce and people, a gaggle of schoolgirls on bicycles, or a lone farmer ploughing a field with a pair of oxen. July, August and September are, in fact, the perfect season to travel to Badami, Aihole and Pattadakal, and how poorly this is marketed. The cloud cover is continuous, paradoxically sheltering a drought-prone land that traditionally receives only twenty per cent rains.


ASI’s elegant touch was evident most in Pattadakal, an immaculate complex of temples where prayer has ceased and bats inhabit unlit sanctums meant for forgotten deities. Manicured lawns and trimmed hedges contrast prettily with the red-stone structures, this Unesco World Heritage Site once the glorious capital where Chalukyan kings were crowned.


The same haunting solitude, interrupted by tourists who wander perfunctorily, not quite sure what to do, followed us to Aihole, which isn’t so much ‘a site’ as a village with twenty-two major historic locations, and many others deemed less prominent. Most visitors end up at about a half dozen key places, including the Durga, Mallikarjuna, Vichimalai, Mahakuta and Kotti Lingam complexes, and the Rawalpadi Caves. They pop up across impoverished settlements and the ruins of the twenty-first century — a tiny post office shut down in the afternoon because there’s no work to be done, pigs nosing through garbage, vendors of plastic knick-knacks. Unable to engineer a complete evacuation of the protected area, ASI nevertheless does a fantastic job of keeping compounded monuments safe and clean.


I was on sensory overload by now and everything appeared magnified — or was this how it was? The sixth century Badami Caves, our final destination, exemplified man’s tussle and occasional triumph over his terrain — it was as if the pillars of the cave shrines held up the impossible weight of the massive rock-mountain above. The sculptures were stunning, carved out of rocks striated in Jupiter-like shades of rust. The view from the caves, especially of the huge tank below and the North Fort’s sandstone cliffs opposite, deserve meditative contemplation although fearsome monkeys rule the area and distract visitors.


I boarded the overnight Golgumbaz Express from Badami for Bangalore’s Yesvantpur Junction (yes, that’s the spelling, and it’s a station in the middle of the city but missing from IRCTC’s dropdown for it). I hadn’t picked up any souvenirs but a sweet-natured fellow passenger compensated by plying me with organic pomegranates and ‘export-quality’ lemons grown in a nearby village — so ripe, yellow and juicy that it was as if they had popped out of an ad. I was reminded, once more, of how enormously lucky I was to have made this trip, in this season, on this expense account, its prudence the reason for journeys and experiences as priceless as the destinations. A last delightful discovery that pleased me immeasurably — I had a little over a third of my budget left over. I knew it! I should have spent more time, which would have been, in any case, worth more than money.


The information


The route

I started with well-connected Mysore for its many memorable sights. I then headed to Hassan for Halebid-Belur (28km/35km; separated by 15km) and Sravanabelagola (51km). Of course, I had to spend a day at Hampi and therefore my next pit-stop was Hospet, the nearest town and railhead for it (12km). I finally reached Badami-Aihole-Pattadakal, which are generally recited together though it’s Badami that’s the base. So I stayed a night each in Mysore, Hassan, Hampi and Badami, and I spent two on trains.

 

Under 20 grand, you could easily fit in a couple of extra nights. It’s a route that pays off richly, traversing the almost perfectly constructed inverted equilateral triangle of Bangalore-Mysore-Hassan in the landlocked southeast, and how delightfully well they are connected, then moving north-east to Hospet for Hampi before ending with Badami, a half day’s journey to the left on the map and a well-timed exit away from Bangalore or even Goa.

Getting there

I took the overnight train from Chennai (Mysore Express, Rs 950 by II AC) to the well-connected Mysore Junction (trains also to Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, Pune, Jaipur, Mangalore, Trichy and Madurai). The city also has an airport (flights to Bangalore and Chennai).


You won’t see too many private buses in Karnataka—KSRTC has the state too well covered. Mysore to Hassan is 120km or 3.5 hrs on excellent roads by a non-AC KSRTC ‘Sarige’ bus for Rs 95.


This thematically linked collection of jewel-like destinations hits a perplexing stretch only from Hassan to Hospet — a journey that should have been a perfect overnighter on a train or a bus but travellers are left oddly bereft of such conveniences. There are a couple of untenable middle-of-the-night train connections via Hubli or Arsikere and the lone KSRTC Sarige bus starts at 6.15am from Hassan to reach Hospet at about the same time in the evening; the ‘faster’ alternative of a mid-way switch at high-frequency Shimoga may be considered (10hrs on the road). Instead, it seems easier to get to Bangalore from Hassan and then catch the overnight Hampi Express (Rs 850, II AC) to Hospet from the state capital, which is what I ended up doing.


Hassan to the nightmarish but most-important Majestic Bus Stand opposite Bangalore City Junction takes an average journey time of 4.5hrs, buses through the day (from Rs 155), seven of them KSRTC’s super-comfortable and super-fast Airavat AC Volvo or Merc Benz services (three-and-a-half hours, Rs 410 inclusive of online booking charges). The site is user friendly and seat-selection is possible; the driver’s mobile number and other details are sent by SMS when the bus leaves its point of origin and you can call for updates — they pick up and answer promptly — in case there are delays, as there sometimes are in long-haul services from the coast or the hills during the monsoon (080-44554422, ksrtc.in).


I took Hampi Express — five other trains do this stretch during the day — in the morning from Hospet to Gadag Junction (2.5hrs at Rs 470 by III AC), the better connected railway station, even though Badami has one of its own. From Gadag, it’s 70km or 90min to Badami by buses. A few Sarige buses also connect Hospet to Badami directly (4.5hrs; Rs 105).


The Hampi and Golgumbaz Expresses offer convenient overnight connections from Gadag and Badami, respectively, to Bangalore. Amaravathi and KCG YPR Expresses are both day trains that get to Goa’s Madgaon from Gadag on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays in just 6hrs.


Getting around

A simple to remember rule in Mysore: all intra-city buses start from and return to the City Bus Stand, the landmark that’s never more than 4km away, or so it seems, in this compact city-town which left my metropolitan heart full of envy. There’s also a Town Bus Stand for inter-city services. Buses are frequent and tickets cost Rs 5-25, even on the AC buses. KSRTC’s Rs 40 travel-as-much-as-you-please Day Pass for city buses, available with conductors on request, is a steal. Autos run to meter on request, or charge a flat Rs 30 for short hauls. Expectedly, autowallahs are not the most truthful tellers of distances. Hassan is roughly midway on the busy NH48 that connects the port city of Mangalore to state capital Bangalore.


Autos ply from and to Hassan’s New Bus Stand at flat rates of Rs 20-30, depending on where you are put up. The highway city’s arterial BM Road is too long to be walked but even out-station buses halt at three places on it — pick the stop near your stay and save time and auto fares to the New Bus Stand.


KSRTC also took me to Halebid (28km,Rs 22) and back from Belur (35km, Rs 32), ex-Hassan, both about an hour each way. Hassan’s ‘New Bus Stand’ has electronic signages and frequent connections everywhere, including Chennarayapatna (45min, there’s a bus every 10min; Rs 32), which is the best way to reach ‘Belagola’ (journey time 20min, service every 10min; Rs 12).


There are frequent buses from Hospet to Hampi, which is best seen locally by auto, bicycles, scooters, and the not-to-be-missed coracle.


I didn’t see any buses connecting Badami to Aihole and Pattadakal, leave alone routes between the sites but affordable autos (Rs 600 for all sightseeing plus pick-ups and drop-offs from place of stay or bus stand/ railway station) and cabs (non-AC Indicas for Rs 1,400) take you everywhere conveniently. The Badami Caves are just a couple of kilometres away from the railway station.


Where to stay

Mysore is after the quality-conscious budget traveller’s own heart and has plentiful accommodation in the Rs 2,000-Rs 3,000 range. Consider Jade Garden (from Rs 3,000; near the Law Courts, 0821-4008222, jadegarden.in) and Siddharta (from Rs 1,950; Guest House Road, Nazarbad, 4280888, hotelsiddharta.com) among hotels, and the MuaveOrchid B&B (from Rs 1,500; also in Nazarbad, 4265627, muaveorchid.co.in) as an alternative. I opted for the ever-reliable Ginger Hotel (Rs 1,570 upward all-inclusive; centrally located near the Nazarbad Police Station, reservations.mysore@gingerhotels.com, 1860-266-3333, gingerhotels.com). Ask for their best deals on phone; there’s no extra charge on early check-in (after 9am) and late check-out (before 4pm); some commonly used credit cards get a luxury tax waiver.


Hassan is not a place for a weary heart but the Peppermint Group’s centrally located Candy Southern Star offers a clean, comfortably outfitted and air-conned place to rest (from Rs 2,000, including taxes and a sumptuous breakfast; BM Road, 08172-251817, candy.hassan@pepperminthotels.com, pepperminthotels.com). Be sure to call and ask for the best discounts, which can be up to 50% on the published rack rate. Service is provincial and kindly. The lunch thali is a decent deal at Rs 75 but completely avoid their over-priced and over-spicy à la carte menu.


For Hampi, Hospet has a clutch of modern hotels with starry aspirations and the Hotel Malligi is a decent option (from Rs 2,250 for standard AC rooms, inclusive of taxes and breakfast; 5min walk from Hospet bus stand, Rs 40 by auto from the railway station; 08394-228101, stay@malligihotels.com, malligihotels.com). Karnataka Tourism’s Mayura Bhuvaneshwari (from Rs 1,650, karnatakaholidays.net) is bureaucratic but triumphs with a location 4km from the Virupaksha temple, at Kamalapur, where too is the far superior Jungle Lodges’ Sloth Bear Resort (from Rs 3,000, inclusive all meals and sightseeing, junglelodges.com).The family-run establishments around Hampi Bazaar are an awfully basic lot but if you must stay here, try old Padma Guesthouse (08394-241331; Rs 1,200 upward for standard AC rooms; a family room features three beds and costs Rs 200 more). I don’t have a backpacking bone in my body and neither Anegundi nor Virupapura Gadde, where stays are available on the opposite, quieter side of the river but close enough to the ruins, is equipped for other kinds of budget travellers. The Kishkinda Trust offers rudimentary accommodation at Peshegaar House (from Rs 450 with shared bathrooms, a definite no-no; urammaheritagehomes.com). The nearest meal is a kilometre’s walk away at their Uramma cottages, priced out of my budget (from Rs 5,000). Connectivity is almost absent and things can get uneasily isolated after dark.


I took my chances with the two-year-old The Heritage Resort (from Rs 2,400 inclusive breakfast and taxes; Station Road, Badami; 08357-220250, 9449852711, info@theheritage.co.in, theheritage.co.in) and it turned out to be a perfectly nice place to stay. The food is spicy but there’s little else to be had in Badami.


Where to eat

Mysore, of course, has plenty to offer hungry visitors of all preferences and wallets. Don’t miss the cheap and childish delights of the indigenous and Iyengar bakeries all over town. Everywhere else on this trip, I relied tremendously on the state-run Nandini Milk Bars, the equivalent of Mother Dairy up north and Amul in western India, with branches always to be found. Their chilled badam milk (Rs 17), deliciously spiced and hydrating majjige (buttermilk, Rs 6), mango lassi (Rs 12) and range of barfis, pedas and other sweets like Mysore Pak, available in small carry-packs, were lifesavers. Where I couldn’t find hygienic meals, and this was usually when I was on the road away from where I was staying, I stocked up snacks from local department stores and lived off fresh fruit, especially the tiny yellaki (cardamom) bananas, and tender coconut water. I loved the hot, coal-roasted corn I had on a rainy evening outside the temple in Belur. Budget and best.

 

 


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