Ancient Treasures of Karnataka, India

March 4, 2015 Updated: March 4, 2015

The Golden Chariot train trip through the Indian state of Karnataka is not only the most comfortable way to go—it’s the only way.

Well, that’s not exactly true; you could travel through the small villages and farmlands on rutty and unreliable roads, fighting for space with ox-drawn carts, people walking and on bicycles, and unfettered animals lumbering across the road simply to get to the other side. But to travel through one of the most exotic and well-preserved historical regions in India less stressful, treat yourself to a cruise-on-land and take the train.

Our trip began in Bangalore, renamed Bengaluru, at the Yeshwantpur Junction station. A four-piece Indian band led us down the platform toward hostesses dressed in colourful saris. They applied traditional red bindi dots to our foreheads (representing wisdom, love and prosperity) and placed fragrant flower lei around our necks. After a welcome-aboard party I retired to my cabin.

In the morning we boarded an air-conditioned bus to take us to our first stop, Bandipur/Kabini and the Rajiv Gandhi National Park, originally the private hunting reserve for the Maharajahs of Mysore. A water safari is a unique opportunity to view the animals as they come out of the thicket to drink and frolic at the water’s edge. We saw elephants, monkeys, deer and impala, wild boar, and large bison.

The statues are so lifelike they look as if they could walk right off the walls or speak to you from where they stand.

After lunch we got to ride in a coracle and on an elephant. The coracle is a small circular hand-woven boat that is paddled from a kneeling position. The boats often leak, so a small stool was placed in the centre for me to sit on while I tried my hand—what a hoot. Afterward we rode on the elephant Meenaskshi, a sweet lady who good-naturedly suffered our gleeful attentions.

The next day we headed for Mysore and the museum in the front of the glorious Mysore Palace. On display are treasures of the Wodeyar kings, such as the jewel-studded golden throne which was once hoisted on the back of an elephant to carry the Maharajah past throngs of his adoring subjects. At night the spectacular Palace and grounds are illuminated—a sight to behold.

Ancient Temples

The 12th century Hoysala temple complex at Belur is still in use today and no one could fail to be moved by the remarkably detailed and intricate carvings and friezes. It’s easy to believe it took 103 years to complete. The complex at Halebid was constructed a decade after Belur, and the Hoysaleswara temple there is considered to be one of the finest examples of Hoysala art. The statues are so lifelike they look as if they could walk right off the walls or speak to you from where they stand.

Riding the elephant Meenaskshi. (Barbara Angelakis)
Riding the elephant Meenaskshi. (Barbara Angelakis)

But if Belur and Halebid captivated our imagination, Hampi was to leave us awestruck. A major tourist destination, Hampi is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is separated into the Sacred Centre and the Royal Centre. Its buildings were constructed with, around, and sometimes out of the huge pink granite boulders scattered throughout the hills. The boulders are of such size and shape as to create an otherworldly landscape. Hidden by the megalithic stones, the Virupaksha Temple slowly came into view in the valley below, towering over the ancient city. The steep grade down the well-worn rock hill looked far more intimidating than it turned out to be and was thankfully easily navigated.

Standing by the entrance was the temple elephant—the “keeper of the gate” and a somewhat greedy bestower of blessings. I watched as children placed a coin in her trunk which she quickly passed to her mahout (handler) and then laid her trunk on the child’s head in a blessing gesture. When I followed suit, she passed the coin on but refused to bless me; it seems adults are required to pay more of a tribute before being worthy of a blessing. Once I got it right, I received the elephant blessing which was really a bop on the head.

Full Moon Festival

Hampi has clusters of temples all enlivened by temple monkeys that seemed to be everywhere and were adorably photogenic. But for me, the most magical experience was in the Vittala temple complex at the Royal Centre. That afternoon, on our way to the temple we drove through Vittala village where preparations were underway for the monthly full moon festival.

Cows were painted with pink circles and festooned with brightly coloured tassels, hooked up to carts filled with family members dressed in their finery, and on the move to join the ceremonial tower being paraded around town. The scene radiated a joyous air with music, flowers, colourful clothing, and smiling faces all merging in a lively tapestry.

Our bus inched its way through the crowds and arrived at dusk in time to see the moon rise between the pillars as a bright orange ball. Once the moon was high in the sky, lights illuminated the ancient carved pillars, competing with the moon for sheer radiance.

The King’s Balance is also here. Vertical granite pillars are connected at the top by an adorned horizontal bar from which scales were suspended. The King was weighed against gold, silver, and jewels, and when his weight was “balanced” by the treasure, it was distributed to Brahmins (priestly caste) for the poor.

Our final temple visits the following day were to the unique 6th century Badami Caves and the Pattadakal temple complex. The Badami Caves are a site like no other. Cut into the steep rose-coloured sandstone cliffs rising from the Malaprabha River, are a series of four cave temples, each at a higher elevation then the previous one. The 8th century Pattadakal group of ceremonial temples is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has been wonderfully preserved with beautiful landscaped lawns, flower beds, walking paths and, of course, gawking tourists.

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Barbara Angelakis is a seasoned international traveller and award-winning writer based in the New York City area. To read more of her articles and adventures visit LuxuryWeb Magazine at