Rolling green hillslopes in every direction you can turn around and look at; Your eyes cozily indulging in the game played between the mist and the mountain peaks; all this, and spending the evenings sipping steaming hot coffee lying around doing nothing in a 300 year old hertiage home – this is the summary of what we did on a three day trip in the heart of Western Ghats – the pride of southern India.
I may never get tired of visiting Chikmagalur year after year. There must be some magic in this quaint little district in central Karnataka. This is the district that grows most of the coffee we drink; the home of the tallest peak in the state; the land where the spectacularly ravishing Malnad dishes like kadubu, akki rotti, shaavige and kaai haalu have reigned high; the supplier of iron ore for over a quarter of a century; an area of rich bio-diversity; and most importantly, the place where my family came from. I do not remember how many times I have been to Chikmagalur before, but I know the trips would not stop.
I and my wife were one of the three couples who got together to visit this beautiful place in the middle of August. Monsoon is one of the best times to visit Chikmagalur. The brown iron-rich slopes of the lazy mountains of western ghats especially get blanketed in green during the monsoons. We decided to brave the rain, or rather, enjoy the rain for three days, leaving behind Bangalore to continue building its flyovers.
In recent times, the drive to Chikmagalur has only become better than ever. The four laning work on the Bangalore-Mangalore road has been progressing quite fast. The stretch from Nelamangala to Bellur cross is complete, and the stretch to Hassan is being developed quickly. The route would be- Bangalore – Hassan – Belur – Chikmagalur.
Link to the route on Google maps: http://goo.gl/XjIfE
On the map, zoom into Hassan, and see how I have bypassed Hassan town to reach Belur. Please follow this bypass – your vehicle would be very thankful you did.
When I think of Malnad cuisine, the places which come to my mind, of course other than my home, and the homes of my umpteen relatives dotted around Chikmagalur – are the homestays. I just love food in homestays. This time, we decided to find one which would be ideal for all of us to stay, soak in the mesmerising mountain scenery, and enjoy the scrumptious food as well. Remember that, when I say Chikmagalur, it is not the sleepy little town – which is the headquarters of the district – whereas, it is the whole district itself. So, do not be restricted in looking for homestays around the Chikmagalur town – not worth it. Zoom out of the town, and look for homestays nestled in one of the many coffee estates of the district – you would not be disappointed. Our choice was Gonakal homestay – 25 kms from the Chikmagalur town – on the Tarikere road.
The home we stayed is a 300 year old heritage house. It has been refurbished, and maintained spotlessly clean for the guests. A courtyard in the center of the house, which opens to the sky is the highlight. There are tasteful carvings on the wooden doors and pillars, which adds to the aesthetic appeal of the house. The hosts – the Gowdas should be definitely commended for their hospitality. Anudeep – the owner’s son took good care of us – gave directions to places to visit, briefed us of the history of the place, the family, the hunting traditions, and the ecology of the surroundings.
The food was a delight to the palate. We had akki rotis, parathas, kadubus, shaavige, pooris, and what not – all happily doled out from a kitchen manned by the landlady. Out requests for coffee and tea were always fulfilled in the three days we spent in the home. The lip-smacking evening snacks were thoughtful, and rain pouring through the open courtyard while muchning on the snacks, only made us all fall in love with the place.
We did an evening drive up Mullayanagiri – the tallest peak in Karnataka. The winds are generally strong around this hill, and it would be smart to take a windcheater with you. On a clear day, the views from the top will be unparalleled. However, mist can play spoilsport and cover up the entire valley leaving you blind. A small temple on the climb up to Mullayanagiri is a nice spot to park your vehicle, and take a hike on a rainy/cloudy day. On clearer days, the top of Mullayanagiri remains as inviting as ever to the nature-lover.
The most popular hill station in the non-touristy district of Chikmagalur is Kemmangundi. The hill is simply and iron-ore hill, and this gives the red color to the ranges. That is where it gets its name – Kemman, or ‘kemp mann’ – which means red soil in Kannada. The famous Kudremukha iron mines are not too far away from here. However, iron mining has been stopped in the district since the last 7 years, due to increased pressure from naturalists and environmental activists. The place is now free from the commercial activities of iron mining, and entirely a haven for trekking and tourism.
Coming back to Kemmangundi – it is a tiny little hillstation – that ends before it begins. There is a park and a children’s play area, and when you cross these to the tip of the ridge, you get a beautiful view of the valley below. Nevertheless, there is a small hike along pristine hill scenery which takes you to Z-point – the highest point tin Kemmangundi. This hike is a must for anybody visiting this place – the high point of your trip. The hike is around a kilometer, and should not take you more than an hour. You will be rewarded with more greenery than your eyes can take, or your camera sensors can capture. It is pure bliss.
The wind was blowing heavily when we reached the Z-point – and the mercury was falling – and three couples in this atmosphere meant romance was in the air. We sat around the hills enjoying the atmosphere, snacking on the biscuits we had carried along. Even after an hour, we could not drag ourselves out of this utopian surroundings. However, we had to. On our way back, we made a stop at a small, but charming waterfall. The hike to the Z-point made our day in Chikmagalur.
A jeep ride downhill from Kemmangundi to Hebbe falls would have been a highlight – but it could not be done. The recent Supreme court ruling which banned tourism in core areas of national parks has stopped jeep access to the Hebbe falls. An alternate route exists to the falls through coffee estates – but rainiy season in the hills brings with it the problem of leeches. A 4-5 km downhill walk with leeches getting on to your legs is the last thing couples would want on a romantic day out 😉 So, we decided to give it a miss. I should point out here that leeches are harmless and do not cause any pain when they suck out your blood. They do not spread any kind of infection. A little salt should make the leech leave its hold and fall. So, let not leeches hinder your experience in the western ghats. (The hike to Z-point does not have many leeches – however, the small waterfalls has some. So, plan accordingly).
A visit to the world-famous Hoysala temples of Belur and Halebid in Hassan district would be a delightful addition to your trip to Malnad. The temples have paid guides who can make you wonder at the architecture and skillfullness in carving out these outstanding pieces of art, and also the history of the Hoysalas. I have also talked about another symbol of heritage and awe – the Bahubali shrine in Shravanabelagola. This is also on the route from Bangalore to Chikmagalur.
The best thing to do in Chikmagalur would be doing nothing. Just take a reclining chair with you to sit in the verandah of your homestay and gaze at the hills. The western ghats have been witness to many a historical events and culturally significant turnarounds – all the time nurturing in themselves the abundant flora and fauna – a lot of them endemic to this part of the world. Whether or not Western Ghats have to be a UNESCO world heritage site is a hotly debated topic these days. The need of the hour for development. as well as the need to preserve the bio-diversity of the valleys – both sides of the argument find merit. My only hope is that the district of Chikmagalur, and the Western Ghats in general, retain the loving memories they manage to invoke today – for the generations to follow too.