Over the hills & far away

Over the hills & far away

The Gomateshwara Statue at Shravanabelagola

It really is a lovely drive down to Chikkamagaluru from Bengaluru, all 251 km of it. The two main reasons for that is the national highway being a good road for the most part of the journey, and the scenery on both sides of the road being a pleasing one. Green fields dotted with sturdy trees roll away to the horizon where hill ranges stand like some sort of impermeable hedge. This being the monsoon, these parts are getting good rains, and fat grey-tinged clouds have taken over the skies, occasionally letting in intermittent sunshine.

The tourist brochures all say that the best time to visit Chikkamagaluru is between September and March, which is when you get to walk in the clouds, literally. However, if you are an adventurous sort, up to navigating wet roads, slushy tracks, climbing hills in the rain, as well as warding off leeches, I would recommend a monsoon visit. Because that has its own unique charm.

Coffee, first 

There’s no getting away from it: coffee still dominates the area and the agenda. Karnataka accounts for 71% of the coffee grown in India and much of it is grown here in Chikkamagaluru, as well as in Kodagu and Hassan. One interesting fact is that coffee is something of a recent debutante here; it was brought in by the Sufi saint Baba Budan in the 16th century, replacing paddy, cardamom and areca plantations which were the main crops heretofore.

Coffee, mainly arabica and robusta, is grown at an altitude between 2,000 and 3,500 ft. Chikkamagaluru produces the hugely popular Mysore coffee with its appealing mild and subtle flavour. Mysore coffee is drunk straight, blended with coffee from other regions, used as a topping, and has become a many-flavoured and very popular beverage. 

A walk through a coffee plantation is de rigueur for the visitor and good fun besides. It’s fascinating, the sights and sounds of the shola (gallery forest) shrubbery; giant trees with a rambutan-like bract growing red on its branches; hibiscus, yellow berries, russet tree orchids all around, and in season, the startlingly beautiful white coffee flowers in bloom. This is also a birdwatcher’s paradise and purple heron, wagtail, racket-tailed drongo, oriole, and the flameback woodpecker can be spotted by the vigilant observer.

Chikkamagaluru’s main attractions continue to be the Mullayanagiri peak, Hebbe Falls, Baba Budangiri Hills, and the Kudremukh National Park. However, some 40 km away at Mudigere, you will find a fresh set of beautiful spots.

There are lovely streams that flow swiftly at times, languorously at other times, most of them rushing to join the Hemavati river. There are small but vigorous waterfalls at the edge of the forest, the water jumping whitely over jagged black rock. Looming over us in a benign fashion is the magnificent Western Ghats. There are meadows galore, with lavender, purple, pink and yellow wildflowers growing amidst the grass. There are modest-sized hills wreathed in mist that make for an easy climb; only, you need to do it before the clouds and the rain descend.

Temple trails

There is the ancient Bettada Bhairaveshwara Temple that has a faintly sinister air to it, the ambience amplified by its isolation and abandoned appearance. Just one turn ahead of the temple stands the Pandava Hill, a steep hill which is worth the climb for the lovely views it affords of the deserted Bhairava Temple below, as well as the hills and valleys that surround it.

Then there is the 900-year-old Kalabhairaveshwara shrine at Devaramane with its ancient temple tank. The tank is still occasionally visited by wildlife in the form of elephants, sambar, wild dogs, and the like. A hut by the side of the tank has one wall painted with a mural of a fierce goddess; an old tree bends protectively over it. Our guide said it was a shrine to a yaksha but sadly, was unable to supply more details.

Given that Karnataka is getting its regular quota of monsoon rains after ages, everything is glinting a brilliant green. The paddy gleams, with egrets landing and taking off every few minutes. Fat pepper vines wind themselves lovingly around trees, and the air is scented with the fragrance of cardamom.

Anyone driving to Chikkamagaluru must make two stops. One at Shravanabelagola, 145 km outside Bengaluru, to climb the 650 steps and admire the world’s largest monolithic statue, that of Bahubali. The ‘Mahamastakabhisheka’, grand consecration, held every 12 years, had just got over a few months ago and Bahubali looked the epitome of calm grandeur, all 58 feet of him. The pond which gives Shravanabelagola its name, the white pond of Shravana, was full to the brim.

The second stop is at the 12th-century Chennakeshava Temple in the old Hoysala capital of Belur in Hassan district. The temple is simply stunning, every available surface of its facade covered in intricate sculptures and friezes. Inside, an array of carved pillars further stun the visitor into a delighted silence.

And then it’s back to Bengaluru, with memories of a great holiday inside your head and in your phone camera gallery.

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