Karnataka has plenty of jungle, unspoilt beaches, and exquisite temples. Hampi, the heartbreaking ruins of Vijayanagar, a World Heritage site that I have been dying to visit for years, are all in Karnataka. In the southwest, are the wonderful highlands of Kodagu (Coorg) and the Bandipur-Nagarhole-Mudumulai-Wynad biosphere spreading over three states in the Western Ghats.
West of Bangalore are the Chikmagalur coffee hills, the ancient, delicately carved Hoysala temples of Belur and Halebid, and the giant Gomateswara at Shravanabelagola. Along the well-watered monsoon coast north of Mangalore are dreamy untouched beaches, and the seafood cuisine made famous by the Karavalli restaurant in Bangalore. And if you make your way up the Konkan railway towards Goa, the Ghat scenery is spectacular.
In northern Karnataka are the cities of Badami, Aihole, and Pattadakal, with their fine Chalukya temples as well as the old forts and towns of the Muslim kingdoms of the Deccan. I am told somewhere here are now-exhausted mines, the only source of diamonds in the world before the discovery of diamond-bearing rocks in South Africa and Australia a hundred years ago.
On the sun-baked shores of the Tungabhadra lies the village of Hampi, by many accounts a mystical, and certainly a historical site. I am reading a remarkable book, A Forgotten Empire (by Robert Sewell, Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, pp. 426, Rs. 195) written in 1900 by a British ICS officer, recounting the rise and fall of the great Vijayanagar Empire.
Given this diversity, Karnataka could make itself a major destination certainly for internal tourists, if it marketed itself as well as Kerala has done. Certainly, the resort at Bhimeswari was good; there are sister resorts elsewhere, on the Kabini river as well.
The most direct route to Bhimeswari is the Bangalore-Coimbatore road, NH 209, also known as the Kanakapura road. You leave the city limits somewhere near the suburb of Jayanagar, and then pass through a series of small villages. Then the settlements begin to diminish, you notice there is less of the endemic plastic waste littering the sides of the road. And you get your first glimpse of forest, although not the lush rainforest of the Western Ghats, this being the more arid Deccan plateau.
There is a large estate owned by the Roerichs, a European man and his Indian wife, well-known artists. In this area, there are a few new establishments, some residential schools, and some ashrams, appropriate for the bucolic surroundings. If Bangalore continues its breakneck growth, these will be suburbs soon; there are a few lakes, which I hope will be preserved. The water situation in the metropolis is already a little grim, and all along the route to Bhimeswari are the twin giant pipelines carrying Kaveri waters to the city.
Around Kanakapura, the landscape begins to change: there are glimpses of the true Deccan, that geologically ancient remnant of the original Gondwanaland, with its signature large monoliths scattered around like giant pebbles, much like the landscape surrounding Hyderabad. So much granite! No wonder Bangalore is profligate in the use of large slabs of the stuff for mere sidewalks—a waste!
There is a particularly appealing loaf-shaped mountain just off the road; and there is also a beautiful conical hill that appeals in its symmetry. The soil has become reddish, and the land looks more lush and well-watered. There are a few coconut plantations; but just as in Kerala you notice that these are dying trees, with yellowing leaves because of the deadly root wilt. This is silk country: there are mulberry farms; and we saw a man carrying a large number of fat white silkworms in a basket.
The town of Kanakapura is a disappointment, yet another dusty provincial (or as they say here, mofussil) town of no particular character, the only remarkable thing being a garishly painted life-sized sculpture of Hanuman and Rama embracing each other atop a small temple on the side of the highway. Kanakapura gets a lot of attention at election time, though: it has just elected Deve Gowda, former prime minister, to parliament.
A few kilometers past Kanakapura you turn off the main road at a large sign. This is the last leg of the journey: 16 kilometers to Bhimewsari, down a dusty, narrow road through what looks like tribal hamlets. It is a pleasure to experience the intimacy of the back roads of rural south India: one of my best trips was when I accidentally got off the highway in southern Tamil Nadu and got an up-close view of villages complete with terracotta figurines of horses and heroes unchanged from the days of the Pandyas.
The resort is in the middle of a reserve forest, down a rather rough road. An efficient small resort office directs you to the tent or cottage of your choice. They do require that you make your reservations and payment ahead of time, especially since there is no phone anywhere in the vicinity. You have to provide your proof of payment on arrival.
Each tent or cottage has a very comfortable hammock in front of it, and this is where you are tempted to spend most of your time. When the trees are in full foliage, the hammocks are in the shade, and they can hold two people, so they are quite romantic: you can cuddle with your significant other and watch the river flow by a few yards away.
The river does wax and wane with the seasons. In either case, the authorities warn you sternly, it is dangerous to take a dip in the cool and inviting waters of the Kaveri partly because of the many freshwater crocodiles about. We did see a couple of them on the many islands that dot the watercourse. The river seems quite still, but that is deceptive because you can hear the steady roar of nearby rapids; they tell you that the water is in fact quite deep, and the current strong.
We arrive a little earlier than most others, who generally show up around lunchtime. So we have an hour or two to laze about under the trees and take a lot of photographs. After a decent lunch, a buffet, you have the afternoon to yourself, possibly to doze in the steamy heat. At 4 p.m. they take you for boat-rides in buffalo-skin coracles. Life jackets are recommended. The boatmen take you to the little islands, where they point out safe places for you to bathe in little coves off the river, without treacherous rocks underfoot.
Another time when I was here, there were many dead fish in the water, killed, according to the staff, by poachers dynamiting the water. This is tragic, because it kills all the fish unnecessarily—carp, catfish, and even the fighting mahsheer. The staff tells me that the mahsheer are protected game fish, weighing up to 120 pounds. They are to be released after the angler catches them. Non-game fish can be taken. I spoke to an American angler and his daughter—they did manage to snag, with much effort, a small mahsheer.
We see a crocodile ease itself off the sand into the water from one of the islands. But the staff assures you that crocodiles are about as afraid of humans as we are of them, and that they are easily shooed off the sand where they sun themselves. Underwater, though, they say the crocodiles are a different matter, although no one has been attacked recently.
Before dusk, you come back to your cottage. We go for a walk up a nearby hill to see the sunset. Atop the hill is an old Siva temple, vandalized by the removal of windows and doorframes, but still apparently the object of worship by the local tribals. There is also a watchtower from where you can get a view of the surrounding hills.
We come back to a campfire where they serve you onion pakoras or tandoori chicken for a snack. Dinner is a little later, around 8 p.m., once again surprisingly decent for a meal in the middle of nowhere.
The night in Bhimeswari is electric. There is the inky blackness that envelops you, and the stars are preternaturally clear. There are noises from the bush: you hear the trumpeting of elephants far off; and you can imagine that the strange sound you hear is the roar of a leopard. And always, the reassuring distant thunder of the rapids.
At dawn, they wake you with bed-coffee, and then take you for a trek up the hillsides. Our guide this time was a taciturn man who insisted on taking us up the steepest track on the hillside. His dog, a rambunctious crossbreed, caused a lot of excitement by stampeding a herd of wild cattle directly at our group: we scattered in terror, as the cattle have wickedly sharp and long horns.
On my previous trip, I had been luckier: we saw a small herd of wild elephants, a matriarch, a couple of young females, and babies. We stood breathless, as the group ponderously crossed a nullah beneath us, no more than a hundred yards away. Our guide then, the man in charge of the resort, had also pointed out all the various birds and trees we came across.
The trek does cause you to pant a little and sweat a lot, and the destination is a large watchtower, about 40 feet high, from where you get a lovely panoramic view of a bend in the river. In the early morning mist, the river looks ravishing, still as a mirror in the valley below, making a big lazy loop around us.
After the trek, it is back to the cottages for a shower, followed by a sumptuous breakfast, a really excellent meal, following which you feel no more ambition than to lounge about on your verandah pretending to read a book, lazily watching the river flow by 50 feet away.
I reflect that I need to come back in the high season when the river is in spate. There are a couple of smaller satellite camps that you can get to by raft. There is some good whitewater rafting here in the rapids: I remember the time I went rafting in northern Maine, where our raft got stuck on a rock in a rapid named, ominously, the Terminator.
Bhimeswari is a lovely weekend trip from Bangalore, and perhaps the most astonishing thing about it is the fact that it is very well run by Jungle Lodges and Resorts, a quango—you are amazed that it is a semi-government entity. The staff, apart from the taciturn guide, is very helpful, and the place is a pleasure to visit. I recommend it highly.
Rajeev Srinivasan returned to India in 1997 after spending two decades in the U.S.