Another year-end, another road trip from Mumbai: this time to north Karnataka and western Maharashtra. We covered Pune, Kolhapur, Badami, Hampi, Tarkarli, and Mahabaleshwar over a 10-day period. The approx. 2,000 kms drive gives you a huge variety: taking you to places of historical and religious interest, beaches, and mountains – all of which is while you drive through the lush green Western Ghats.
With Mumbai sea-locked, a road trip out of the city means taking one of three routes out: south via Alibaug/Pune, east via Nashik, or north via Surat. Last year, we had taken the Nashik route out to Madhya Pradesh; this year, it is the Pune route to go down western Maharashtra into northern Karnataka; maybe next year, we can plan to spend the New Year in Gujarat.
We covered three UNESCO World Heritage sites last year (Bhimbetka, Khajuraho, Sanchi), this year, we did two (Pattadakal and Hampi). The Western Ghats are also listed in the natural category in the heritage list. When we planned our trip, we did not think about our journey to explore UNESCO heritage sites; however, this is a good heuristic to plan around for future trips. Interestingly, Sanchi features in the new Rs 200 note and Hampi in the Rs 50 one. Maybe the other way to plan trips is to turn over an Indian currency note for ideas. And you know what, this also takes us to the icon on the Rs 100 note: Rani ki Vav in Patan, Gujarat!
With a quick pitstop at Pune to catch up with friends, we headed to Kolhapur/Ichalkaranji. Kolhapur has a famous Lakshmi temple that is a must-visit. Do not miss the spicy Kolhapuri food and eponymous chappals. We had been to the city a few years ago and so this time, we decided to push further inwards towards Maharashtra-Karnataka border to the town of Ichalkaranji. Nothing specific to see here – this was catch up with folks we know. We were concerned that the recent commotion between the Maharashtra and Karnataka borders might cause some delays – thankfully there was a seamless transition between the two states. We headed to Badami, which has ancient Chalukya heritage sites dating to the sixth and eight centuries in the common era. Hampi is the more recent Vijaynagar empire of the sixteenth century, an gap of almost a thousand years.
If you decide not to do these pitstops, you can head directly to Hampi from Mumbai. Many tourists are able to do the 9-10 hour stretch to Hampi easily which is well connected via the Mumbai-Bangalore expressway till Hubli and then onwards via another multi-lane highway which takes you to Hampi. If you do this, you miss out on Badami, which requires a detour. However, this route avoid large stretches of poor-quality single-lane roads that connect Kolhapur-Badami-Hampi.
We had a tough time between Ichalkaranji and Badami as we drove between 4:30pm and 9:30pm with low fuel. The large sugarcane tractors playing both ways can slow down traffic significantly in the potholed roads. The roads run from within the villages and small towns which do not have bypass roads. With no street lights and almost no traffic post 7pm, it was an eerie experience. The least that you should plan for is to do this stretch while the sun is around.
Apart from this stretch, the roads are reasonably good. The western ghats offer fantastic hairpin bends (say on the way back from Tarkarli to Mahabaleshwar). Once you end up on top of the mountain that the road circles around, the views are fantastic. Again, make the sun your friend and drive during the day. One thing that we found surprising was the lack of eating options on the road in Karnataka – clearly there is a market for a Haveli like chain that operates in the Delhi-Punjab route or a bunch of Udipi restaurants.
The Chalukyas who ruled this area in about fifteen hundred years ago created some intricate temples and cave carvings. The cave temple is a series of four caves which have shrines for Shiva, Vishnu, and Jainism, showing a harmony between the various branches of theologies.
The carving at the right edge of the first cave shows a 10-handed figure killing a demon with Ganesha and Karthik looking along – reminded me of the Durga puja imagery that is so popular in Bengal to this day.
The serenity and the silence of the Bhootnath temple on the banks of lake Agastya is soothing. The lake is used by local folks for cleaning their clothes – the soft thap-thap of the clothes beating the steps on the banks are the only sounds to give you company as you lie in the shade of the large stones balanced on larger stones.
We then headed to Aihole and Pattadakal. Aihole is the oldest constructions and one can begin to see the experimentation in various styles of temple making. This reaches a unique harmony at Pattadakal where both the north Indian nagara style and the south Indian dravida style temple structures stand side by side.
The region has Shiva temples and have inscriptions of the two epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, in exquisite details in one temple. Do take a guide along who can explain the story as you see large parts of the epics etches in a small, squarish tablets on the pillars.
There are quite a few other places to visit and see in the area, largely temples of antiquity. You may want to budget for a longer stay here than the two nights we did, especially if you check-in late one of the days.
The seat of grand power and prestige as recently as five hundred years ago is a sight to behold in the magnificence of their expansive vision. A double-storied market running to almost a kilometre that flanks the key temple, the sizes of the numerous temples and their towers, and the sheer number of structures give an idea of the immense riches of the place and the empire.
The carvings in the walls of the main Vittala temple show the trading with merchants from many countries attest to the international importance of the region. The many tens of musical pillars in the main temple, when struck with playing sticks, are said to produce different notes – the dancers, it is said, would dance to the beats played on the pillars. The famous chariot at Hampi (the one on the Rs 50 note) is a shrine to Garuda. The chariot motif is rare with Konark and Mahabalipuram being the only two other prominent places where intricate chariots are carved. We are informed that when attacks on the Vijayanagar empire intensified, the Vittala idol was moved away to Pandharpur, where is now famous for its annual pilgrimage.
The area around the temple also features the coracle boat rides. Plan to reach there around 4pm or so to enjoy the beauty of the river and the rocks as the sun begins to set. The round boats are unique in themselves: do not miss the sailing under the large rocks and fast 360-degree turns of the boat mid-river. The boatman makes the ride interesting by telling you stories from Ramayana that took place in this area (the Bali-Sugreeva battle and the birthplace of Hanuman). The Bhedaghat boat ride near Jabalpur last year and this one compete very closely for their natural beauty. One caveat: keep cash ready. This was the only place where the telecom network did not work and hence options of digital payment do not work.
Hampi has many points of interest and so again, you might want to plan a longer than a two-night stay. The Tungabhadra dam is nearby. The Virupaksha temple, where puja continues to this day unlike in many other structures, has a majestic tower. We spent one half of the day at the Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee Zoological Park (incidentally on his birthday, Dec 25!) – they have done a good job with the lion and the tiger safari, apart from other animals and birds.
One fantastic thing about Karnataka was that in all the places we saw a lot of students from government schools who came in big groups with their teachers to see the heritage sites.
We passed Hubli-Dharwad on the way to Tarkarli. We stopped by to see the final touches in the construction of the brand new IIT at Dharwad – it is expected to be dedicated to the nation soon. The drive is a long one – you may want to consider taking a one-day break at Hubli-Dharwad. We had heard a lot about the Dharwad pedas – however, we could not find a shop on the highway where we could pick them up.
The choice of our route was also determined by a desire to explore a new beach apart from Goa and Ganpatipule, places that we have been to earlier. With the expectations set by Ganpatipule which is a laid-back clean beach, Tarkarli was truly a surprise for us! We expected this to be a quiet, dull beach where we would lounge after the hectic Karnataka trip. Were we wrong and how! Hidden away between Goa and Ganpatipule, this is a water sports enthusiasts haven.
Head to Tusnami Island for a day of adventure. The idea of a tsunami on the western coast of India is rare in itself (the large 2004 tsunami was treacherous for the eastern shores); on top of that, an island in the river before it meets the sea is rarer in the smaller rivers of Western Ghats. And oh, the island is underwater – which means that when you land on the island, you will walk in waist deep waters! If this is not scintillating enough, the water sports are fun too.
The parasailing just around the juncture of where the river meets the sea is mesmerizing with view of the clean, long beaches and the lush greenery. From the heights, if you are really lucky, you can see the schools of dolphins jumping around in the waters. It all ends too soon.
What we did not have time (and energy post the water outing!) for was the Sindhudurg fort, famously built by Shivaji Maharaj around the mid-seventeenth century. Coming as we did from Hampi, which till about a hundred years ago before this fort was built, was a centre of trade and prosperity, it was instructive for us to note how political and social priorities change within a relatively short span of time. In the era of a hot war in Europe (again after 75 years), the lesson is pertinent and poignant – trade can take a backseat when defence of the realm is at stake. The rock garden sunset and fountain show were good and relaxing.
We ended up there on a night when all the five visible planets were clearly visible: Mercury and Venus close to each other near the Sun as it set, Jupiter and Saturn flanking the crescent moon not very high up from where the sun set, and finally some distance away in the ecliptic, Mars in all its red glory.
Again, take more time out for this place. With the new north Goa (MOPA) airport coming less than a 100 kms from Tarkarli, expect this to become more easily accessible to tourists from all over the country! The place needs a massive infrastructure upgrade in terms of roads, hotels, etc. as it prepares for the Indian traveler.
For any Mumbaikar, this is the go-to hill station and many would have done multiple visits. The sunrises and sunsets in the mild-temperature hills are always a beautiful sight. If you go in the season of strawberries, go feast! This was a pitstop for us to recharge ourselves before we head back to the new year party and the grind of the new year.