Corporate life can make for an insufferable companion sometimes. Some reminiscing about the Chikmagalur trip led to a bout of deja-vu and a strong inclination to visit the Western ghats again, only, this time the monsoons seemed to be in full force with no signs of relenting. To our luck, sunlight dawned one beautiful day that week and with some pushing by my friends, onward we went one Friday night, to a little known place called Kalasa – a town shadowed by its more famous (but still relatively unknown) companion – a pilgrimage town called Horanadu. Kalasa also serves as the base for people trekking up the Kudremukha range.
From Bangalore, Chikmagalur town itself is reachable by a 5 hour drive. We set out by 11 pm on the usual Friday night and were in Chikmagalur by 4.30 in the morning, even accounting for a pitstop for tea on the way. From Chikmagalur, there are multiple routes to reach Kalasa-Horanadu, we chose the route that passed through Mudigere (not to be confused with Madikeri which lies in Coorg). GSM network reception, hitherto intermittent, was completely unavailable after Mudigere and we had to rely on GPS to press on towards our destination on a moonless, pitch-black night. The roads were so bad after Mudigere that we took almost an hour and a half to cover some 30 odd kilometres. The last 20 kilometeres however, thankfully turned out to be in better condition and we were at our hotel, the Suprabha Residency, by 6.30 in the morning.
With a quick nap substituting the all-nighter (I can never sleep in a cab for some reason), we parted the curtains of our windows at 8.30 in the morning to find the Malnad mountain ranges covered by thick dense forests on all sides, lit up by a glorious yellow morning sun. The scene of the freshly drenched roads and the green countryside added to the sense of tranquility and freshness, but also instilled seeds of doubts about rain threatening to derail our sight-seeing, but luckily, it only drizzled slightly that weekend.
We were out by 10 that morning, on our way to Sringeri, which is some 70 odd kilometres to the north west of Kalasa. The road, in relatively better condition compared to the horrible Mudigere-Kalasa stretch, snakes along, giving company to the insouciant Bhadra river. During the monsoons, the Bhadra swells and irrigates both the banks, covering it in various shades of green and creating mini waterfalls along the way. There are places where you can park your vehicle and walk over banks covered by rounded stones to reach the river. Policemen patrolling the roads, will mostly warn you not to venture too deep as most of the land is forest area and the river currents can be swift and unforgiving.
Pretty soon, the road passed through a village called Samse, whose tea gardens are a big departure from the lush green forests that we’d witnessed all along. We pressed on without stopping and soon enough, saw a signpost that claimed to be the starting point of the trek to Kudremukha. A few miles of winding roads later, we reached a check-post near the border of the Kudremukha forest range. Although trekking is not allowed in the Kudremukha range in the monsoons, the roads leading through the forest range are a delight, and the monsoons lend it a character that is quite completely its own.
Our first stop for the day was the Lakkya dam, which contrary to its name, is not a proper dam; just one built by the now defunct Kudremukha Iron Ore Co. Ltd. (KIOCL) for carrying away sludge from the mining operations. It is deceptively charmingly, very quiet and you can still see the scars left behind by the miners in the form of broken faces of some of the hills nearby. The sludge itself is reddish-black in color and has been known to swallow anything that wades into it, so climbing over the walls is strictly prohibited. There is a limit beyond which visitors are not allowed but we saw a jeep with KIOCL decals, full of visitors being driven by a guard; so it seems that some sort of trip is available that can take you behind the permissible limits.
Sringeri, the famous temple town, is home to the famous Sri Vidyashankara temple. The temple, built during the Vijayanagara reign, seems to reveal carvings that were inspired by the Hoysala school as well. The constructor’s knowledge of astronomy is apparently evident in the placement of the doors and windows of the temple which, during an equinox, afford to the deity – the lord Shiva, a view of the sunrise.
We decided to have lunch or the ‘annadaanam‘ as it is known, in the temple premises itself. This lunch is prepared by the temple priests and is served to everyone, free of cost, every single day. Batches of devotees sit in rows inside a special hall, with designated rows for seating. Once seated, they are served in a huge plate, copious amounts of piping hot rice, sambar, rasam, buttermilk and a sweet ‘payasam‘ made of lentils. We were pleasantly surprised by the taste of the rasam served, it easily beat out the best ones I’ve tasted. What I’ve never seen anywhere else is the fact that the temple also seems to offer meals at night as well.
After lunch, it had started drizzling a little and we drove back, stopping only at the Hanumangundi waterfalls enroute. True to its name, the parking area is inundated with monkeys. A small descent (you’ve got to purchase a ticket first) leads to a raging waterfall that is an absolute delight during the monsoons.
After a tiring first day, we awoke the next day to a slight drizzle and a leisurely breakfast, washed down by hot coffee and were soon on our way back to Chikmagalur town. This time, we didn’t follow the GPS map closely and somehow chanced upon a road that did lead us back to Mudigere – talk about serendipity. We whizzed by coffee plantations and cardamom trees with a slight smell of eucalyptus hanging in the air, while row after row of arecanut trees only allowed us a glimpse of the nearby mountain ranges. In between, the sunlight would play hide and seek with the road, penetrating the canopy of trees while gurgling waterfalls continued merrily on their journey downwards, almost as if they thought the monsoons would last forever.
It was afternoon by the time we reached Chikmagalur town after passing through some truly delightful and twisting roads and the following scenes welcomed us. Paddy fields stretching away in to the distance and hills and looming clouds over the horizon.
After lunch in Chikmagalur, we decided to hit Ayyannakere lake which is some 20 odd kilometers from the town, as it was something that I had missed out on, the last time we hit Chikmagalur. To my surprise, and in a departure from the isolated mental image of the lake I had drawn in my mind, the lake’s banks were being converted into some sort of park with a walkway. The crowds had turned out in such great number that the overflowing lake, standing out in sharp contrast to the rising hills around its periphery, failed to rise to any of our expectations. It did seem as if the best time to visit the lake now would be on weekdays, especially to catch the sunrise or sunset.
We still had some time before sunset and thought we could pay our respects to the Chennakesava temple in Belur once again. This time, we hired a guide (ask for a certain Mr. Anand, very enthusiastic and knowledgeable) and were enlightened about some of the unique aspects of the temple we’d missed out earlier. With the sun descending as soon as the temple tour came to an end, we decided to call an end to what had been, most certainly, a rather welcome break from the dreariness of daily life.