Karnataka’s popularity today owes much to its capital city – Bangalore. But it is impossible to judge the state by its modern and cosmopolitan capital. The real Karnataka unfolds as you travel east and northeast of Bangalore. In past, this state has seen the rule of three major dynasties: Chalukya, Hoysala and Vijaynagara. All the three were Hindu clans and have left behind some beautifully sculpted temples and shrines. These temples, dotted across the plains of the state, have become major attractions for travellers. The coffee coming out of the hilly regions of Coorg and Chikmagalur, in the southeast Karnataka, accounts for 71% of country’s produce. Karnataka’s eastern border is hemmed in by the Arabian sea and is speckled with the pristine and lesser-known beaches. More often than not travellers prefer to start exploring Karnataka from the historical city of Mysore.
Bangalore (or Bengaluru) was founded by a ruler named Kempe Gowda. It was eventually taken over by Haider Ali and his son Tipu Sultan who had toppled down Wodeyars in Srirangapatna. Once known as a garden city, today’s Bangalore is a fast-paced metropolis driven by the IT industry. It has earned a moniker: Asia’s silicon valley. Bangalore is so modern and cosmopolitan that it is hard to explore its history and authentic culture. In an attempt to do so, you can visit some of its old temples, walk along the streets of the old city and check out its palaces. While the palace of Tipu Sultan is a simple structure, the city palace, known as Bangalore Palace, is said to be the replica of Windsor Palace.
Location: Bangalore is 985 km southeast of Mumbai and 346 km west of Chennai.
Mysore (or Mysuru) was once the name of the kingdom and the present city was its capital. Later on Bangalore (or Bengaluru) sped fast to match the pace with the modern world and became the largest city in Karnataka. Mysore, despite being the second-largest city in the state, has a slow pace of life. It still has that royal feeling in its atmosphere. The Amba Vilas Palace (also called Mysore Palace) here is one of the most splendid palaces of India. It is a fine example of the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture. There are a few other palaces. One of them, Jagan Mohan Palace, is now an art gallery; and Jayalakshmi Vilas Palace houses a university and a folklore museum. From Mysore, you can go out on excursions to the 17th-century Srirangapatna Fort and the beautiful gardens of Brindavan.
Location: Mysore is 147 km southwest of Bangalore.
Travel Tip: Mysore is the right place to begin the exploration of Karnataka as it is surrounded by the some of the ancient sites and a couple of popular wildlife sanctuaries. From here you can easily access some of the finest hill stations of south India – Wayanad, Ooty, Coorg and Chikmagalur.
Shravanbelgola, 50 km southeast of Hassan, is a temple town and is a pilgrimage for Jains. What has made Shravanbelgola popular is a monolithic statue of Bahubali (or Gomteshwara). This statue is 57 ft tall and stands atop a hillock called Vindhyagiri. This is considered to be the largest freestanding sculpture in the entire country. On another hillock, called ‘Chandragiri’, there is a set of temples dating back to the 10th and 12th centuries.
Location: Shravanbelgola is 80 km north of Mysore.
The small and sleepy hamlet of Somanathpura is home to the 13th-century Chennakesava Temple. Being the last temple developed by the Hoysalas, this temple is in better condition than its counterparts at Belur and Halebid. This temple with its exquisitely carved exterior, built on a star-shaped plan, sits on a high plinth. Within the shrines of the temple, there are idols of Krishna and Janardan – a form of Vishnu. Each of the three shrines has a tower on the top.
Location: Somanathpura is 35 km east of Mysore.
The beautiful hilly region of Coorg was a separate state until it was merged into the state of Karnataka in 1956. Its bracing climate, rolling hills, thick forests and coffee plantations attract many holiday seekers and nature lovers. Except for some resorts and homestays, this region is untouched with modernization. Coorg is the major coffee producing region of Karnataka and also has acres of orange and spices plantations along with the forests of oak, teak and rosewood.In Coorg, you can either relax amidst nature or go on short treks and hikes, biking is also an option. If you stay anywhere near Madikeri, the district headquarter, you can visit its fort built in the early 19th century and also walk up to Abbey Falls.
Location: Madikeri, the district headquarter of Coorg, is 120 km east of Mysore.
Bandipur Sanctuary, spread over 875 sq km, shares its borders with Nagarhole and Mudumalai sanctuaries. Bandipur and its neighbouring national parks form the ‘Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve’ which encompasses the last surviving tracts of the tropical forests of the Western Ghats. There is a thick population of four-horned antelopes here; other often-seen inhabitants are elephants and wild boar. The park is also home to hyenas, leopards, sloth bears, Indian bison and the elusive big cats – tigers. Bandipur was listed under ‘Project Tiger Reserve’ in 1974. Only 22 vehicles are allowed per day within the park.
Location: The entry checkpost of Bandipur is 75 km south of Mysore.
Nagarhole National Park
Nagarhole, also part of Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve is spread over 645 sq km. It is separated from Bandipur National Park by the picturesque Kabini Reservoir. It has been created by building a dam over Kabini River. During the dry season, when other water sources dry up, the animals are attracted to this water body. The thick deciduous forests of Nagahole are home to about 250 species of birds along with several species of mammals. Asiatic elephants, bonnet macaques, sambar, spotted deer and wild boar reside in these forests. Karnataka tourism runs jeep and boat safaris here, private vehicles are also allowed.
Location: Kutta, 103 km from Mysore, is the entry point to Nagarhole.
This small and unassuming town serves as a base to visit the nearby sites of the historical Hoysala temples. The Jain pilgrimage site of Shravanbelgola is 45 km southeast of Hassan. There are some decent mid-range and budget accommodations available in Hassan. From here, you can also visit the hilly region of Chikmagalur.
Location: Hassan is 124 km northeast of Mysore.
Belur had been the capital of Hoysalas before Halebid. This town attracts art lovers and history buffs with its Chennakeshava Temple – one of the most impressive temples of south India. Dedicated to Lord Vishnu, this temple was built in 1116 by Vishnuvardhan to commemorate victory of Hoysalas over Cholas. It is said that it took more than a century to complete this richly carved temple. The flights of steps leading to the ‘mandapa’ (hall) are flanked by two smaller shrines. The exterior pillars are connected with screens carved with geometric designs and scenes from ‘puranas’. Carvings on the walls of the temple are depiction of elephants, garlands, dancers, musicians and huntresses.
Location: Belur is 39 km northwest of Hassan.
Halebid (or Halebeedu) was previously called ‘Dorasamudra’ and it was the capital of the Hoysala rulers (12th and 13th centuries). Hoysalas are known today for the artistic temples they have built. All their temples are built on star-shaped platforms and have intricately carved exteriors. There are three temples in Halebid and interestingly none of them ever got comoleted. Out of the three temples at Halebid – Hoysaleswara, Shantaleswara and Kedareswara – Hoysaleswara has the most ornate carvings. Many of the sculptures here are three dimensional as the rear sides are also carved. The profusely carved outer walls are based on the sturdy sculptures of animals. The temple has two shrines, both have ‘Shivalinga’ in the sanctorums and have connected hallways.
Location: Halebid is 23 km east of Belur and 32 km north of Hassan.
Chikmagalur is a hilly region, north of Hassan. With verdant hills and sprawling coffee estates, Chikmagalur is an alter ego of Coorg. It is home to Karnataka’s highest peak – Mullayangiri. Baba Budan – a Sufi saint who introduced coffee to India – had sown the seeds he brought from Mecca in this region. In Chikmagalur, you can either enjoy staying amidst the plantations or go on plantation walks, hikes and temple visits. There are also a few waterfalls in the region which become livelier after monsoon. The nearby town of Sakleshpur also has huge coffee estates and several plantation stays.
Location: Chikmagalur is 61 km northwest of Hassan.
Hampi, a deserted town, was once the seat of power for the rulers of the kingdom of Vijaynagara. Today, spread over more than 20 sq km, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has the remains of the temples, palaces and quarters. The rulers who ruled for more than two centuries were great connoisseurs of art and architecture. It is evident from the elegantly and intricately sculpted temples and the well-planned city they had made out of a dry, parched and bolder-strewn terrain. They diverted the flow of the Tungabhadra river and built tanks and channels to meet the need of water. But all this was put to an end when some occasional skirmishes with the Muslim rulers led to a full-blown war in 1565. The city was plundered and never inhabited again.
Location: Hampi is 342 km north of Bangalore.
Travel Tip: While there are a few staying options around Hampi, there are several mid-range hotels in Hospet which also has the nearest railway station.
Excursions from Hampi:
Anegondi: Anegondi is a historical village whose monuments are older than Hampi. Here you can find out the ruined palace, old temples and remains of the fortifications. The only way to reach here, until the bridge gets constructed, is by sailing on the coracles.
Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary: This sanctuary, 15 km from Hampi, is spread over 82.72 sq km. Visitors are allowed from 4 pm to 6 pm everyday. A watchtower within the sanctuary is a good place to spot bears coming down the surrounding hills.
Badami and its neighbouring areas of Aihole and Pattadakal offer a peek into the temple architecture of Chalukyas who ruled Deccan from 6th to 8th century AD. Badami, now a small village, was the capital of the Chalukyas. Here Agastya lake, a manmade water tank, is flanked by two cliffs on which most of the attractive temples and shrines are situated. The south cliff has the temples carved into the caves while the north cliff has the structural temples. Some of the temples are also situated near the lake and in the village. The cave-temples on the south cliff are the most ornately decorated monuments. Both the cliffs were once fortified; there is an archaeological museum at the base of the north cliff.
Location: Badami is 140 km northwest of Hampi and 450 km northwest of Bangalore.
Travel tip: Badami has a few staying options, hence it can be used as a base to explore nearby Aihole and Pattadakal. Around Badami, there are a few rock-shelters with traces of prehistoric rock-art.
Pattadakal’s main temples are part of a complex which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Situated on the banks of Malprabha river, Pattadakal was used by the royals for coronation and celebrating festivals. Here you will find temples built in both north-Indian and south-Indian styles. The largest temples in the complex are ‘Virupaksha’ and ‘Mallikarjuna’ temples. Virupaksha is more elaborately decorated and is a functioning temple.
Location: Pattadakal is 23 km east of Badami and lies on the way to Aihole.
Aihole village might not be of any significance today. But its numerous temples and shrines dating back to the periods of Chalukyas and Rashtrakutas speak a different story. The largest temple here is the Durga temple, its architecture is as splendid as it is unusual. The temple is built on a high plinth and its semicircular sanctum is surrounded by an open colonnade. Another popular temple in Aihole is Lad Khan temple which has layers of sloping slabs forming the roof. A hill, southeast of the town, leads to the 7th-century Meguti temple (Jain). On the same hill before Jain temple, there is a cave comprising of a two-storeyed Buddhist temple.
Location: Aihole is 35 km northeast of Badami.
Mangalore (or Mangaluru), the coastal district of Karnataka, is situated near the northern tip of Kerala. It was once a thriving port trading in spices. Today this city of red-terracotta roofed houses has coffee and cashew processing and exporting as its mainstay. Surrounded by peaceful beaches, Mangalore is dotted with ancient temples and 19th-century churches. The temples at Mangalore are all functioning ones and aren’t as ornate as the ancient temples in other parts of Karnataka. Surrounding villages like Moodabidri and Karkala have old Jain temples. If you love strolling on sandy beaches, don’t miss to visit Ullal, 12 km from the city. If you are planning to make it to Kerala from Mangalore, a detour to the 350-year-old Bekal fort is worthwhile.
Location: Mangalore is 352 km west of Bangalore.
Udupi (also called Udipi) is situated north of Mangalore near the coast. This pilgrim town is centred on a square where the popular Krishna Temple is situated. Surrounded by eight ‘mathas’ (monasteries), this temple was established by a Hindu saint ‘Madhava’ in the thirteenth century. Only men are allowed in the main shrine and they have to go bare-chest. Malpe beach is just 5 km from Udupi.
Location: Udupi is 56 km north of Mangalore.
Gokarna’s coast is lined with some beautiful unspoilt beaches. This town is worth stopping at when driving from Mangalore to Goa. Gokarna is a pilgrimage for Hindus, owing to the presence of Shri Mahabaleshwar Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. Most of the stay options here are low budget as for a long time Gokarna was a favourite of hippies. But now it figures on travellers map and has a couple of beach resorts.
Location: Gokarna is 232 km north of Mangalore and 163 km south of Panjim.
Though Karwar falls in Karnataka, it is so close to the Karnataka-Goa border that it is easier to reach there from Goa. The palm-fringed beaches of this fishing village hardly receive any tourists. Hence, the place and the culture remain unaltered.
Location: Karwar is 62 km north of Gokarna and 105 km south of Panjim.
Bijapur (or Vijayapura) was the capital of the rulers of ‘Adil Shahi’ dynasty who ruled here in the 16th and 17th centuries before Aurangzeb’s conquest in 1686. This fortified town has magnificent tombs and mausoleums and a few palaces. The chief attraction here is the massive dome-shaped mausoleum called ‘Gol Gumbad’ – the second-largest dome in the world. Going by the design and and architecture, the tomb and mosque of Ibrahim Rouza are the most exquisite structures in Bijapur. Jami Masjid, though looks impressive, was never completed.
Location: Bijapur is 522 km northwest of Bangalore and 172 km east of Kolhapur.
Gulbarga (or Kalaburagi) was once the capital of the Bahamani rulers, and today amidst its crumbling buildings it isn’t hard to find heaps of filth. The fort here is said to have been built by a Hindu ruler and was later in the 14th century was strengthened by Alauddin Hasan Bahaman Shah. The best monument within the fort is the Jami Masjid. There are many Muslim shrines and tombs in the town. Out of them the Dargah of Gesu Daraz and Shah Bazaar Mosque are worth visiting. Gulbarga would appeal only those who are keenly interested in the medieval Muslim architecture. From here, you can also visit the nearby city of Firuzabad (28 km). All that remains of the 15th century city are ruins of some of the parts of the palace and a mosque.
Location: Gulbarga is 154 km northeast of Bijapur.
Situated on a steep hillock, the fort of Bidar is way more striking than the one at Gulbarga. Its outer wall, almost 10 km long, is studded with bastions and towers.The monuments worth exploring inside are: Solah Khamba mosque, Rangeen Mahal, Diwan-i-am and Diwan-i-khas. Outside the fort, in the old town, a three-storeyed structure called ‘Mohammad Gawan’s Madrasa’ has an impressive façade.
Location: Bidar is 277 km northeast of Bijapur and 147 km northwest of Hyderabad.