On the Deccan Trail

Hampi: River Tungabhadra and view over Anegundi

Before arriving in Mumbai, we followed a route across the Deccan plateau in the state of Karnataka. Broadly speaking this is the central belt of Southern India and is a little bit off the beaten tourist trail but home to many fascinating and beautiful UNESCO World Heritage sites. In a few towns, particularly Badami and Vijayapura, we hardly saw any other western tourists and, correspondingly the request for selfies intensified. It remains a mystery what on earth everyone is going to do with all these photos of us.

Elephant Stables and the Royal Rath (Chariot), Vitthala Temple, Hampi

Other than Gokarna (which was just a beach stop), our first proper stop on this route was Hampi where we spent the first 2 days exploring on bicycle in the searing heat. Needless to say, we were sufficiently saddle-sore to be pleased to spend our third day of sight-seeing on foot. The cycling was not without incident too: as we left the museum, it became clear that one of the bikes had a big puncture: now whether the fact that we had had a minor disagreement with the “parking attendant” about whether a parking fee was due (and if so, how much) was in any way related to the sudden arrival of the puncture remains unclear (nb: we did pay the stated amount on the “parking ticket” albeit this was for motor bikes rather than pedal bikes). However annoying as it was, because this is India, within 100 metres we found someone who was able to open up their roadside garage and fix it for us (for the princely sum of 30 rupees (about 35 pence)) so we were soon back on our Tour de Hampi (minus yellow jerseys).

Hampi is quite a surreal and very picturesque place – spread out over 32 square kilometres of boulder strewn terrain, there are lots of ruined temples (allegedly over 3,700 monuments) where once a magnificent Hindu capital stood until it was devastated by a six month Muslim siege in the late sixteenth century. Apparently up until recently you could actually stay in guesthouses and eat in restaurants which had been illegally built among some of the central ruins themselves although a government revamp programme has now taken place and cleared back some of these buildings away from the main drag, Hampi Bazaar. Still our guest house (one of our most basic to date albeit not the cheapest) was only a stone’s throw from the ruins and may be a target of a rumoured second phase of clearance. Due to its religious significance, meat and beer were not available here (at least not legally anyway!).

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The view from Matanga Hill over the Achyutharaya Temple, Hampi

Our next stop was Badami and its nearby villages of Aihole (pronounced “I-o-lee” rather than any other unfortunate way) and Pattadakal (which is another UNESCO World Heritage site). These are home to various cave temples and a vast number of freestanding temples and made for a couple of days of interesting exploration. However, the number of pretty aggressive monkeys in Badami was something we could have done without: although we weren’t carrying any food, that didn’t seem to stop them going for our water but am pleased to report we did manage to win the Battle of the Water Bottle and came away unharmed.

Left and Top Right: Aihole; Right: Pattadakal

Our final stop on the Deccan trail was Vijayapura which is the first predominantly Muslim city we have visited in India to date. It is home to the Gol Gumbaz, South India’s answer to the Taj Mahal and therefore the city bills itself as “the Agra of the South”. That may be a stretch although both the Gol Gumbaz and the Ibrahim Rauza (both mausoleums like the Taj) were impressive (and I suspect slightly less crowded than their northern counterpart).

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Gol Gumbaz

The Gol Gumbaz boasts a whispering gallery at the top of its huge dome (which is the world’s second largest after St Peter’s in Rome) where the acoustics are such that you are meant to be able to whisper into the wall and a person on the other side of the gallery should be able to hear you clearly. Unfortunately, it was hard to put this to the test as the hordes of Indian tourists were all shouting, shrieking and clapping so much (with a very strong echo) that the noise, coupled with the lack of a significant balustrade between the edge of the gallery and the huge drop below, was a little disorientating. Let’s just say that while not normally a vertigo sufferer, I was much happier near the enclosed outer edge of the gallery rather than peering down into the open hall below.

Ibrahim Rauza (L) and Asar Mahal (R)

Although not strictly on the Deccan trail, a quick mention about Mysuru which was billed in the guidebook as one of South India’s more appealing cities and certainly lived up to this. Its billing is City of Palaces and is home to the very grand Mysore Palace (another UNESCO World Heritage site) and other buildings which were also impressive, if a little faded and jaded. Also, once you could get past all the incense and scented oil touts (of which there were many), the colourful market was also fun to explore. Mysore is also home to a small Rail Museum which would have been rude to have missed!

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