27 February 2015
Did you say Karnataka?
Any traveller announcing their next destination of Karnataka to their entourage will discover that humanity is divided into three categories. It is safe to say that they will run straight into an awkward question, according to the majority of seasoned voyagers. “Karnata-what? Where is that?”
For those few insiders, who know that Karnataka s, amongst its other fabulous sensations, houses Hampi, the fiefdom of the ancient kingdom of Vijayanâgara. This magnificent site has a tragic history, representing to India what Versailles represents to France and Bagan to Burma. In short, it deserves to be considered one of the wonders of the world. But the knowledge of the West has its limits, for the ultimate happiness of the most adventurous travellers can be found in this sublime region, which remains shielded from the crowds.
So why is this part of South India still so little known? Perhaps because the former state of Mysore only adopted this name in 1973. Unless it is because Kamataka was eclipsed by the notoriety of certain of its neighbours, including Kerala (in the South-West), the Goa area or Tamil Nadu? With a population similar to France, Karnataka is one of the main birthplaces of the entire Indian civilisation. It was the fief of numerous empires of old India, such as the Kingdom of Vijayanâgra and one of the final fortifications, before the Maratha Empire, against the Mughal domination. An absolute must-visit for any informed adventurer.
In order to reach these sites, a little energy is required. But the beauty is worth the journey. Landing in Bombay, a brief stay in Taj, depart at dawn on a three-hour journey to Hubli, if the airport is open, otherwise to Belgaum and then drive to Badami…
With the first site comes the first shock. Making up the backdrop of this peaceful village, the remains of the Chalukya Empire are nestled in the reddish depths of a little mount. Monkeys have made their homes in the middle of Jainist sanctuaries in the hollowed-out cliff. Sculptured statues in the caves mock eternity. Down below, the bluish waters of a lake edged with red bring the final touch to this unique sight. Time flies when the magic sets in.
But we must press on, continuing 4-hours by road to the sites of Pattadakal and Aihole. The Royal Orchid Central Kireeti hotel offers a bucolic break, with rabbits and turkeys that graze freely on effervescent vegetation between bungalows. Throughout the surrounding area, amongst the sumptuous Dravidians, and the Chalukya dynasty temples, beauty reigns supreme. This is the final stop before your arrival at the “Kingdom of the Wise”.
When discovering Hampi, beyond the delights of walking around this site, you must consider the force of Indian history and penetrate the ‘deepest dreams of India’, which are so dear to André Malraux. Deemed a world heritage site by Unesco, this former capital of Vijayanagar was a greater city than Rome itself, housing a palace of sophistication and ambitions to rival Versailles. Its history has the air of legends, to the extent that it is impossible to differentiate between myth and reality.
With a lunar austerity about it, the site falls into a supernatural dimension with gigantic blocks of granite, from the original chaos of our planet, dramatically tangled up in fantastic stacks. Some may say that it is the work of demons or the gods.
Mythology tells us that this is the birthplace of one particular legend: Sugriva, the Monkey King, who reigned over the Kishkinda before leaving to help Rama find his wife, Sita, who was kidnapped by the demon Ravana. At the first of the 14th century, North India succumbed to the Muslim domination, whereas the South experienced instability under a charismatic leader. The tale touches on the legend that tells of Shiva, who asked his two brothers, Harihara and Bukha, to found a new town under the name Vijayanagar or “The City of Victory”. When seeking the spot to place the first stone, these two caught sight of a hare attacking two dogs. This unexpected vision convinced them, in around 1336, to choose this site, establishing the construction of the future capital of South India.
This royal city prospered for over two centuries, shining for its riches as well as its army, its creativity and architecture. The princes who ruled the city of gold, famous for its precious stones and fabrics, had established the world’s second richest city, after Rome. But a tragic end came to this pearl of India. Betrayal led to defeat against the coalition of Muslim sultans, who murdered King Ramaraja and his entire entourage. For six months, they plundered this city spanning 43 km2, massacring the population, burning and pillaging all its wonders…
Despite all this, the remains of the royal city still depict the extensive power of this dynasty. The old palace, enthroned amidst an Arabian Nights garden, is entirely irrigated by canals and aqueducts. It houses a scared basin, as well as an enormous pool where one could come and shake the hand of the royal family. In the women’s quarters, enormous elephant menageries remain intact, demonstrating once again the splendour of these former kings.
Dispersed about the Tungabhadra River, visitors may also admire remains of the temples of Virupaksha and Achyutaraya, as well as the majestic Vittala temple, a gem of elegance with its musical props. You might even come across the sacred Lakshmi elephant in the middle of his bath. Tended to with honours worthy of her position (massages, finery and jewels, etc.) the mistress of the house gives out her blessings to a great fanfare, for a price.
Custom dictates that the day should end at the top of Mount Matangda, which offers the best view to monkeys and humans alike. Here, you may bump into the latest local hippies who have come to contemplate the setting sun in a collective silence, as the distant tinkling of bells announces the evening ceremony.
On the way to Bangalore airport, there are now two new stops en route. Firstly in Hassan, the crossroads of the Hoysala culture, amongst the temples of Chennakeshava in Belur, and the Hoysaleshvara sanctuary in Haledid, consecrated to Shiva. This is also an opportunity for welcome relaxation at the Hoysala Village Resort***, a charming hotel planted in a true Garden of Eden. Beautiful Indian décor, with an exceptional restaurant. One of the best places to linger thus far.
Design fanatics will undoubtedly prefer to continue onto Vivanta by Taj Madikeri*****. A the end of several extra hours of driving, in the heart of a coffee bean plantation, you end up at this hotel located in the midst of a vast rolling area, situated 1400m above sea-level.
It is almost impossible to return to Earth. And yet, there is one more stop to make before the airport. Mysore city, a high-end shopping spot, houses the former royal palace, one wing of which still belongs to the heirs. The architecture, the brainchild of an Irish architect, and the kitsch decoration, leaves one mystified.
Allow your mind to drift towards the flocks of Indian children and teenagers, who have come to discover their history, as part of their education. Imagine wise teachers in smart uniforms, glowing adolescents, sporting a variety of colour; brows furrowed as they take in the words of their teachers; mischievous eyes on the watch for an opportunity to take a selfie with rare tourists. So many smiling images will be engraved upon your memory, of this trek through the traces of history.
Asia offers a “Deccan Empires” trip of 14 days / 12 nights…from Bangalore to Hyderabad, passing through Mysore, the Madikeri regions and its coffee plantations, the Hoysala sanctuaries of Belur and Halebid, and of course the UNESCO recognised Hampi site. The visit to the Deccan empires also stops in the ancient cities of the Chalukya dynasty and Golconde.
Starting at 2290 euros (including tax) from Paris, including full-boarding, with a French-speaking guide.
For enquiries and reservations: 01 44 41 50 10 or visit www.asia.fr.
Twice-daily flights from 449 EUR (including tax) run by Lufthansa, which serve Mumbai with connecting local flights, from Paris, Lyon, Nice, Toulouse, Marseille and Strasbourg via Frankfurt and Munich. Return from Bangalore starts at 597 EUR (including tax). Premium Economy (visit http://premium-economy.lufthansa.com) starts at 1297EUR (including tax). Contacts: www.lufthansa.com and tel +33 892 231 690.