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Window on India's best-kept secret

Myths, mountains, Mysore, mighty felines - and a mystery!

Our fellow travellers are over the moon! Can you guess what they are bragging about as we cross paths on safari? Find out later on--->

(Pic: Gordon Hammond)

Chances are if I mentioned Karnataka to you, there would be a polite silence. Karnata-where?

Even if prompted with the fact it is India's seventh-largest state, home to 64 million people, and a little bigger than Cambodia - or just larger than South Dakota, or smaller than Victoria in Australia, if that makes more sense - you'd probably be none the wiser. This area once had a powerful history and its former name, Mysore, might just ring a bell to older geography students, as it was changed in 1973.

Luckily we didn't have to sit a test before our recent visit to this state which is conveniently located on the western coast of southern India, between Goa and Kerala - both states we had already visited.

OK, so having agreed that we all know (knew) virtually nothing about this place, let's start with blank sheets and begin colouring-in Karnataka! After all colour - lots of it -is something India does so well.

This bar-restaurant in Bengaluru (Bangalore) the state capital is as trendy as the city itself. Known as the Silicon Valley of India, it is packed with IT people - young, smart, and very discerning. Places like this are all over town, but this aptly-named hot-spot is The Glass House where we were welcomed, newly arrived from London, jet-lagged, yet excited about our upcoming tour.

Our hotel for the night, Bangalore's Vivanta by Taj was, as the name suggests, upmarket yet restrained. 

Relaxed and welcoming, it could have been anywhere in the world except here they serve huge, papery, made-to-order dosas, potato masala balls, curries and coconut chutney for breakfast. Ah, India!

Our early morning view from our room shows another face of the city. Bengaluru is not all about cyberspace. Real space is valued, and it is also known as the 'garden city of India'. Note, too, the clean air.

Crown flower, growing roadside, has small waxy flowers. Flowers appear everywhere in this country. Threaded into wreaths and garlands, tucked into hair, adorning images and statues, floating in bowls of water. More colour. More beauty.

This one has other uses. It yields a durable fibre that is used for ropes, carpets, fishing nets, and sewing thread. Floss, obtained from the seeds, is used for stuffing purposes. It can also be fermented and mixed with salt to remove the hair from goat skins for leather production and to prepare sheep skins to make leather for inexpensive book-binding.

But wait, there's coffee too. Watch out for Coffee Day cafes. You'll find this franchise in many places throughout India and the coffee, while it may not match your favourite brew back home, is better than most. Cafes may be air conditioned and they are clean and serve little cakes and light lunches as well.

For me, perhaps the best part of travelling in India is meeting the people. Better still, most speak English, both a heritage of long-ago British rule, and also the IT industry and the internet.

On Gordon's video you will see the 600-plus steps he climbed to see the world's largest monolithic stone statue, the 58-feet tall image of Gommateshwara. Over a thousand years old, it is kept sparkling clean and is a very import place of pilgrimage and a very important Jain site.

While he was doing that I explored the shopping streets of Shravanbelagola at the base of it. There is no end to what people will sell in some countries. It can vary from true artisan work to a smile, or permission for a selfie with someone, to a photograph of this man's chalk-art.

Instead of climbing that mountain, I found a Jain temple of my own, far more accessible, and private and friendly. This gentle priest graciously invited my friend and me to enter the temple and watch as he performed a simple ceremony, blessing us.

While this temple, Mangayi Basti, is small and in a back street, it dates from the early fourteenth century. According to a sign at the door, this intricately carved elephant, one of two guarding the entrance, is said to be of 'considerable interest'.

The Jain religion is the sixth-largest in India. Its main beliefs centre around a strict code of ethics, and include non-violence, self-discipline and asceticism. Vegetarianism is part of the belief and this also includes not consuming root vegetables (including onions and garlic) and avoiding eating after sunset.

And here a woman wears flowers as she rests on the porch of the temple.

Chrysanthemums are very popular, no doubt because they are hardy, colourful and not easily bruised when threading them or braiding. Because they symbolize long life, joy and optimism, Indians often use all shades of them for wedding bouquets and garlands. 

Oh, and here are some more. These little three-wheeled cars are everywhere too, an invaluable form  of transport. The brand is Italian, pronounced ah-pay, meaning 'bee', because of the way they buzz around in their home country.

It would be difficult to find a more versatile, colourful or flattering garment than the India sari. Each garment may use 4.5 to 8 metres of fabric and it is carefully arranged so that the wearer can do almost anything (including riding a motor scooter) with grace and confidence.

A sari protects the wearer from the sun and rain, and yet allows air to circulate.

Below the mountain is this stunning lake. It is called the White Lake, but on the day we visited it was more emerald-coloured.

 

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South Indian food is varied and very nourishing. Fresh vegetables appear at every meal, as do whole grains and pulses (lentils and beans). Rice is usually served but is not always the main star in many meals.

And of course spices make all the difference, bringing out subtle nuances in the various ingredients. Interestingly heat (or spiciness) is not as important as fragrance, and balance of flavours.

In India, you are hardly ever far from a temple or shrine or some religious site. The walls of many temples are like a stone history book, with carvings often detailing scenes of early battles between neighbouring factions a thousand years ago.

Ancient meets modern. This huge soapstone bull called a Nandi, in an outdoor pavilion at the 13C Kedareshwara temple in Halebidu, has caught this tourist's attention.

And when sightseeing gets too much, it seems the only thing to do is to kick off your shoes and take a break!

For this lady outside the temple walls in the village, sadly there is no such reprieve. She is not young, those bundles of firewood are awkward and heavy, and the day is hot. Who knows how far she has to carry that load.

Appropriately coffee-coloured drapes are a perfect match with the pictures above the bed at Hotel Trivik at Chikmagalur, a region known for its coffee plantations. We stayed here at 1000 metres above sea level in the the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Western Ghats. They are known as the Benevolent Mountains, probably because of the cooler climate, and rise to quite a height: a nearby peak is 1900 metres. This area is one of 24 biodiversity regions in the world, and are said to be one of the world's eight hottest hot-spots of biological diversity..

Next morning this is the scene that greeted us as the mist rose up from the plains, the coffee plantations just becoming visible in the early morning light.  

While a walk might have been nice, as we had been told that leopards, bear and elephants roam the area, it seemed a better idea to have a coffee instead! in fact Chikmagalur is referred to as the Land of Coffee, some of the bushes being raised on near-vertical slopes. Who would want to be a coffee-picker!

Returning down the mountain, we visit Belur, home to the Hoysala temple complex. Hoysala means Strike Sala. Legend has it that this is what Guru Sudatta Muni, a Jain saint said to his student, Sala, who was in combat with a tiger. The tiger attacked them both and Sala struck the animal with one blow, and both became immortal, while Sala became the first ruler and founder of the Hoysala dynasty. Built 900 years ago, this entrance to the temple still appears breathtakingly new. 

Inside the Chennakeshava temple, built in 1117AD, the ornate decoration continues on huge lathe-turned pillars.

Serpents feature in Hindu mythology, so please meet ga. In India, nāgas are considered nature spirits and the protectors of springs, wells and rivers. They bring rain, and thus fertility, but are also thought to deliver disasters such as floods and drought.

There must have been a staggering number of craftsman and artists employed in the century-long creation of this temple, much of which was carved on site. This intricate relief sculpture of the angry Hindu god Narasimha, known as the 'Great Protector', has withstood the elements for almost a millennium.

Colour, form and balance are intrinsic to Indian art and even floral arrangements. Here yellow tacoma is accented by red leaves. In India red means purity, and yellow stands for knowledge and learning.

Finally we reach Mysore, the city which formerly lent its name to the entire state and was initially capital of the kingdom of Mysore in the 14th  century. Here we met Faisal from Royal Mysore Walks who led us on a fascinating walking tour of the old capital.

Today, Mysore is the state's second-largest city, still with the feel of a 'royal city'. Mysore Palace, reconstructed in 1897, is a gracious old building and it is said that it is illuminated by 97,000 light bulbs, each custom-made for the palace.

Until not so long ago, a man was employed to wind up the clock in this tower daily. 

Markets in any city are a delight, and even though we arrive almost at sundown, there is still plenty of action in the market square.

Sandalwood has always been an important resource found in Karnataka, to the point that Mysore is sometimes referred to as Sandalwood City.

Pomegranates have a number of uses in Indian cookery - to glaze kebabs, add colour to dishes, and bring an acidic touch to others. 

The local language in this state is Kannada, but if we had spoken to these people in English, they probably would have understood and answered us. This is one of the joys of visiting India.

Turmeric is a spice now hitting Western consciousness as health experts realise the great benefits of curcumin. It also adds a rich golden colour to curries - and stains hands!

Most Indian sweets are tooth-achingly sweet, often drenched in a toffee-like glaze. They're addictive, though!

And who else is invited to the evening party at the market? Cows are regarded as sacred in India and allowed to wander wherever they like.

It was relaxing to take a break in the cooler evening. After all we were on ISI, we had been told was: Indian Stretchable Time!

But our evening was about to become even more interesting as we were invited to hop up in a Tonga...

....and take a horse-drawn carriage tour of the city.

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Next morning we return to the palace area for one last look. I found Mysore to be a captivating city, one we would like to return to another time to explore more fully. This had been just a quick taste...

...and I felt we were little different to these pigeons being fed....

....outside the palace gates in the early morning...

...just a glimpse here, a taste there.

Something is always happening in Indian cities. Here a troupe of elephants is practising for a parade.

The Asian elephant is the animal emblem of Karnataka. Smaller than the African elephant, they often have an endearing smatter of 'freckles' on their heads.

They are not to be trifled with, though, as they weigh between two and five tonnes! 

While elephants may be glimpsed in the wild - see this road-sign for proof of that - sadly they are most often seen in a working situation, either hobbled by chains or led by a mahout as tourists ride on their backs.

They are such a proud and intelligent animal, with very distinct family and herd behaviour, and it is worrying that that so often they may be badly treated and neglected.

Like most tropical countries, India obtains its major sweetener from sugar cane unlike the world's colder countries which raise sugar beets for their needs. Here a length of cane is flattened through the rollers of a machine and the juice caught in a glass - fresh and reviving if you need a quick carb-recharge.

While you can encounter all levels of accommodation in India, there are some truly lovely world-class hotels too, like this one, the Radisson Blu in Mysore.

Rice is grown throughout most of southern India in flooded paddy fields. The work is slow, backbreaking and hard in the hot and humid weather. Notice the birds in the background waiting for insects and seeds to appear.

In a small village we find a mill for grinding the grains, as rice flour is used extensively in a number of cakes and breads.

Much of daily life in India takes place in the open - often with company, or onlookers. These women don't mind at all that we are interested in their washing. 

The river Kabini originates in the Wayanad district of Kerala to the south of Karnataka, and flows eastwards to join another river before emptying into the Bay of Bengal.  It is the largest river in the Nagarahole National Park, and was dammed in 1974 for an irrigation project. This has proved to be of benefit to the local wildlife as a large number of Asian elephants and other animals now live nearby.

During the dry season the lake dries out leaving only the river visible, and the open plain creates an abundance of fresh grass which is valuable for the wildlife. We stopped at the edge of the lake towards dusk, watching deer, wild boar, guar and a multitude of other animals and birdlife as they grazed on grasses or drank the water. 

But these are what we hope to see!

This National Park was set up in 1955 in the Coorg region and now has been extended to 644 square kilometres. 

Yes, they were showing off in that first picture, that they had, after all, just sighted a leopard! At that point we had only seen ......

...this, a chital or spotted deer, the retreating rumps of a couple of Asian elephants, and....

...many of these. As you'd expect we were very, very envious of the other jeepload of our colleagues. I vowed we would trump them with a tiger sighting - although how we could do that I had no idea, as the day was nearing sunset.

Back to a spot where our guide had  earlier sighted fresh tiger scat (droppings) and there she was, padding along a track beside an overpass. 

Obviously exhausted by her long day at work in the jungle....

....mumma tiger soon flopped down on the road just metres ahead of our van, calling out throatily.

To whom?

Find out on the VIDEO, below. You will not believe what WE WERE PRIVILEGED  TO SEE

Just to underline what we had been so lucky to encounter: the tiger is the largest of all living wild cats. Males have a total body length of 270 to 310 cm length, and weigh between 175 and 260kg. Females are smaller - from 240 cm, weighing 100-175kg. They can live at most levels from sea-level to 3000 metres, and can tolerate -35C to 48C. And we saw FOUR of them - all at once!

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'Expect the unexpected' is the best advice we were given, the first time we visited India, and it has proved true every time. At one lakeside hotel, the landing pier had needed repair. Indian people are very resourceful when problems appear, as this example of a makeshift gangway shows. It looks like a simple path laid on the water, but it was wobblier than it looks, especially when the weight of several people was added!

Glamping, Karnataka-style at KAAV (pron. KAH-voo) a forest lodge.

There are two units and while they may be isolated and hidden in the wilds, they are near to Waterwoods Resort, and the comfort is top-class.

Yet, even in paradise there are problems. Life is not easy for rice farmers, and birds are a constant worry. They will eat the grains before they can even germinate and grow, so here is this farmer's protection: a 'scarecrow' and a tree-hut to watch from and scare the birds away. 

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Watch this video about Marvel Tours

 

Karnataka, where ancient history meets cyberspace; where , in a single day you encounter rare and dangerous animals, cows that can do no wrong, and elephants that are often asked to do too much. Where flowers bloom at every turn, and there is colour and flavour and fragrance everywhere.
 
Karnataka - such a mystery, such a hidden secret.
 

More information: Marvel Tours

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Words and pictures: ©Sally Hammond

Video: ©Gordon Hammond

 

(Sally & Gordon Hammond travelled independently to India and were hosted on this tour by Marvel Tours)
 
 

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