Through Karnataka on the Golden Chariot

By | Category: Travel destinations

What do you know about Karnataka? Maybe you’ve come across the name of Bangalore, the capital city. It is the Silicon Valley of India. Maybe you know it because it is a cricket test match ground. But what of the rest of Karnataka? Did you know that it is a cultural and historical destination? Just the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hampi could be the main reason to travel there.
Although some of the northern part of Karnataka is not part of the route of the Golden Chariot, it is worth visiting as there are lots of beautiful monuments in Bijapur, Gulbarga and Bidar. Because these towns, capital cities of three ancient kingdoms, were ruled by many different dynasties, they contain the remains of interesting architecture that combines Hindu, Turkish and Persian styles. Before going be aware that travelling to this remote region means that accommodation is not five star. There aren’t really any tourist hotels, just local, standard ones. But for those who venture this far then it’s well worth it and, of course, not having tourist hotels means not many tourists either!.
Karnataka is also a nature destination. There are wildlife sanctuaries and national parks that shelter tigers and elephants. The hill stations, like Madikeri which nestles in the Western Ghats, or Chikmagalur in the Baba Budan Hills, present spectacular views of sandalwood forests, coffee plantations, waterfalls as well as deep and dark valleys. In the Kodagu region, usually known as Coorg, there are trekking trails (the best trekking season is from October to February. Avoid July and August – the rainy season). And look out for the coffee plantations some of which hide gorgeous hotels that give their guests a peaceful retreat away from the roads swarming with people, cars, trucks and cattle.
Among the best of these is the Serai in Chikmagalur which has 30 independent exclusive villas each with a choice of swimming pool or jacuzzi inside each villa garden. They match the Golden Chariot for luxury with dark wooden floors, all amenities and a large bathroom. The reception area is open air with a comfortable and cosy bar just off it. The restaurant overlooks the huge main swimming pool and all the villas are found inside the 70 acres of coffee plantation. The food is pleasant but maybe not what might be expected given the quality of the rest of this hotel. However, a stop at the Serai is a good option for those who want to hark back to nature whilst still living a life of luxury!
Karnataka state is like a multifaceted precious stone. Each of its regions presents its own identity but with one common feature; – traditional agriculture is shared by all. Everywhere people are working in the fields from dawn to sunset. It’s in this varied landscape that the Golden Chariot provides to its guests a wonderful panoramic tour over the hidden wonders of this unrecognised state. If you aren’t on the train but sightseeing by car (with a driver), allow yourselves about two weeks or so to do it. Again, night travel is really not an option.

traditionnal rice harvest on buffalo cart

traditionnal rice harvest on buffalo cart

Bangalore

For anyone flying in from Europe, allow a minimum of one night in Bangalore to get some rest before moving through the country. That day also gives you the opportunity to visit the Lalbagh Gardens, a 240-acres park with a beautiful greenhouse modelled on London’s Crystal Palace, or the lovely Tipu’s Palace, a small ornate wooden summer palace with pillars, arches and balconies. For shoppers there are any number of big malls of Bangalore.
For Golden Chariot travellers the Taj West End Hotel seems to be the more convenient choice as there is a transfer to the train for all passengers from this 5 star hotel. This hotel is older and stretches out with its numerous small buildings with their old fashioned wooden verandas, restaurants and pool, in a garden filled with tropical flowers and trees.
Other alternatives to the Taj West End include other luxury hotels such as the Leelah and the Paul. The Leelah is considered by many as the best in terms of traditional luxury hotels. It has huge, cosy rooms; a nice garden pool, good restaurants and bars. As it is adjacent to a mall there are a range of luxury worldwide shops with brands everyone will recognise.
The Paul, hidden off a main road, is a completely new and modern hotel. No outside garden but this hotel, built around a big patio, has some of the biggest rooms and suites available in Bangalore each with all modern amenities and state-of-the-art bathrooms. But what also make it famous locally is the quality of the seafood meals served in a romantic musical atmosphere in its Keralan restaurant, the Vembanad. The Allepey prawn curry could be a good choice, if you like spicy food!
Before boarding the Golden Chariot, a guests meeting is organised every Monday afternoon at the Taj West End Hotel for high tea, checking in formalities and a presentation about the train including a warm welcome by the train crew. Then it’s time for the latest group of new guests to discover the train and, after dinner is served, the train leaves for Mysore, where it stays for the night.

Mysore

The next morning starts with the visit to Mysore Palace. The former palace of the Maharaja, this magnificent palace built in Indo-Saracenic style with countless domes, arches, turrets and colonnades strikes you with awe. Standing there it becomes easy to imagine the pomp and opulence of the Indian royal families.

Mysore Palace

Mysore Palace


For those travelling independently, try to get to Mysore for a Sunday night because on that one night of the week and just from 7-8pm the palace is entirely lit up by more than 100.000 lamps. Wander through the throng of locals and be as amazed as they are by this and unmissable show.
After lunch on board the train, all the guests depart for 24 hours so just pack some light clothes in an overnight bag. It’s the only night you’ll have not sleeping on board. A coach takes you south to reach a jungle lodge in Kabini or Bandipur, two wildlife sanctuaries where tigers, elephants, deer and birds inhabit. The jungle lodge hosts the travellers for the night. A jungle safari is arranged in the afternoon or very early next morning. It’s quite difficult to see a tiger. They are wise and cautious, preferring to avoiding humans. But, usually, there are lots of deer to see and, maybe, a big sambar (a type of deer that tends to be nocturnal) or a herd of wild elephants. And as for the colour of and variety of birds? From the shimmering kingfishers to the boldness of the peacocks, they need to be seen to be believed.
The day after, leaving the jungle lodge, the coach reaches the train in Mysore by lunch time. The afternoon is filled with a visit to Srirangapatna, the island fortress of Tipu Sultan where he died in 1799, killed by British troops after having fought them on-and-off for more than 30 years. The dungeon where defeated British officers were chained to the walls can still be seen. The second visit of the afternoon is to the summer palace of Tipu Sultan. It has veranda walls covered with magnificent frescoes describing the many victories of Tipu Sultan and his father Hyder Ali. Finally on to his impressive mausoleum, the Gumbaz, an ornate white dome with doors of ebony inlaid by ivory where he remains for all eternity.
But you’re not finished yet in this busy day. A cultural show before dinner is arranged in one of the hotels that were former palaces. Then during the night the train moves to Hassan.
I have one, small regret. The program does not allow any time for a visit to the Mysore market. Here is a world of colour and of smells that should be a must for any visitor. The fragrance of incredible fruits, spices and flowers momentarily stops you from watching people creating with long needles which dart in and out a profusion of fresh flowers necklaces Others manufacture wooden handmade artifacts (which are displayed in very small shops) whilst being watched by a crowd quiet in the face of such skill. Nothing better gives the visitor a feeling of what it must be like to be a true Mysore local.
Mysore Palace

Mysore Palace

For those travelling independently, there are good tourist hotels to stay in here. Among them, the Windflower Mysore is away from the noisy centre offering large, quiet rooms overlooking a long ornamental pool with palm trees. The swimming pool is hidden behind the spa where a massage is available at a reasonable price. But the best part of the hotel is the restaurant, Le Olive Garden. The quality of the Indian food served by the chef attracts so many customers from outside, that even hotel guests have to make a reservation to avoid a long wait for a table.

Hassan

Arrival at Hassan means you have a stop that that you won’t forget easily. This is not due to the town itself, but to its location which is in the middle of a triangle of three important monuments, As such it is in a strategic position for a one night stop. The Hoysala Village Resort offers travellers a good place to stay in Hassan. It isn’t sophisticated but that is its charm. It has large, rustic rooms spread across a huge garden of trees, shrubs and flowering plants. The buffet restaurant is a real find, much better than what many might expect. Don’t even bother about thinking of going out to look for another restaurant.
From Hassan station, a one hour coach drive, takes Golden Chariot guests to Shravanabelagola, one of the world’s tallest monolithic statues. This impressive,18 metre. high statue of Lord Gomateswara, a Jain saint, stands on top of a holy hill where the monolith had been carved 1,000 years ago directly into the rock. To get to the statue and its temple, pilgrims and visitors have to climb up around 700 stairs barefoot. That may seem pretty tough, but I can testify that Tom and Gilda, two American friends, did it although Tom is 80 years old and Gilda, only a little younger! I am very proud of them. For those of you not quite so fit, palanquins ( a sort of sedan chair structure) each carried by four bearers, take people to the top. After reaching the summit of the hill and getting your breath back, gaze at the magnificent landscape and then up to the huge statue staring down at you. At the foot of the monolith, inside the courtyard of the little temple, Jain priests offer to bless any visitor. Then you have a slow way down what often seems like an endless number of steps back to the coach
Back to Hassan for lunch on board the Golden Chariot, and then it’s off again, this time the coach taking its passengers to two fabulous temples sites, Belur and Halebeedu, which go back to the Hoysala kingdom of the 12th and 13th centuries.

Belur temple

Belur temple

In Belur the major attraction is the Chennakesava Temple, a star-shaped temple with a huge carved tower over the main door. Figures of dancing girls designed with perfect proportions on the outer walls are the first sign you will see of Hoysala art. Inside, the main temple is impressive with its amazing pillars and delicate ceiling sculptures.
bas-reliefs of Halebeedu Temple

bas-reliefs of Halebeedu Temple

Halebeedu, 17 km away from Belur, is an imposing black-stone temple. The Hoysaleswara temple with its outer walls totally covered by incredible figures and animals is sure to take your breath away. Walking on the floor of that star-shaped temple allows anyone to look closer at an endless variety of Hindu gods, men, animals and birds. Where do you look first? The long lines of small elephants, soldiers and, voluptuous dancing girls at the bottom of the walls or the taller bas-reliefs of deities further up? One tour around the temple is not enough. You need to repeat it in order to admire the delicacy of the fabulous work of the sculptors, describing various scenes from Ramayana and Mahabharata. There is so much that each time you look you see something you missed the time before. Hoysaleswara is the high point of Hoysala art.
women in Halebeedu Temple

women in Halebeedu Temple


After that very long day, many of the guests go back to their cabins immediately after dinner and fall asleep quickly, perhaps dreaming of those ancient times of kings and warriors, dancing girls and heroic tales. As we sleep the train moves onward to a station near one of the highlights of the journey for me, Hampi, the largest UNESCO World Heritage Site of southern India.

images © Frederic de Poligny
To see other photographs from Frederic’s travels see www.fredericdepoligny.com and www.phototheque-des-voyages.com
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