South India Motorcycle Trip – Part 1: Bangalore – Belur and Halebeedu – Chikmagalur


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Foreword

Last November, I took a trip through South India on my dear motorcycle, Perezosa. Over the course of a month, my ride took me to mountains, valleys, temple towns, beaches, forts, and much more. It was a great ride, especially because after almost 15000 km riding, I began to feel the joy of being on a motorcycle.

 There is a direct union of oneself with a motorcycle, for it is so geared to one’s proprioception, one’s movements and postures, that it responds almost like part of one’s own body. Bike and rider become a single, indivisible entity.

— Oliver Sacks, On the Move: A Life.

I still won’t go as far as to call myself a motorcyclist (words come with baggage, and I like minimizing the amount I carry!), but I’m getting there.

The route I took is described in the master post. In this post, I’ll cover the first week or so of the ride. Ratings are very subjective and mean very little outside of their little bubble of context which extends only as far as their section.

First Stop: Belur and Halebeedu

Belur and Halebeedu are small temple towns about a four-hour-ride from Bangalore. Built in the 10th and 11th century AD, the temples here are rightfully famous for the incredible detail and artistry in the sculptures around and inside them. I remember visiting these towns on a school trip when I was (give or take a year) ten years old, and they seemed like a good place to plant myself for my first night on the road.

On the way there, I gave a ride to three giggling and squealing kids with their backpacks. Them and my luggage must have put quite a strain in Perezosa (my motorcycle), but the kids seemed to enjoy it so much that I didn’t mind. They did call me Uncle at the end, but I’m getting used to that these days.

That evening, I reached Belur and visited the ChennaKeshava temple complex.

Sculptures on the temple exterior
All along the temple walls on the outside are layers upon layers of carvings, of animals symbolically offering structural support to the temple, of the lives of the people in those times, and of scenes from mythological tales
Layers of sculptures along the exterior wall
Layers layers layers

The temple complex at Halebidu is a little better preserved than the one at Belur. According to the guide, the Mughals ransacked with enthusiasm only the temple at Belur, because that was the capital of the empire at that point.

The statue at the entrance of the temple
Garuda (the eagle avatar of Vishnu) guarding the temple
Entrance of Belur Temple
Above the main entrance of the temple. Look at how many things are going on in that sculpture!
Sculpture of musician holding instrument
Badly exposed picture. But isn’t it ingenious how the sculptures have induced a musical instrument in there? The hand passes through the ropes of the drum, and the crazy thing is that the hand-drum-combo is all one rock!
Restoration of temple in progress
In more recent history, the Archaeological Society of India has taken to restoring some parts of the temple that have been lost to invasions, vandalism and weather. They are really not doing a good job (restored parts on the right above).
Sculpture of Narasimha
The half lion avatar of Vishnu, Narasimha wearing the intestines of Hiranyakashipu as a garland after killing him. Hiranyakashipu had a magic power that he could not be killed by man or animal or god, nor could the cause of his death be a weapon, nor could the time be day or night, nor could the place be inside or outside. To solve this quandary, Vishnu takes the form of Narasimha: half-man, half-animal, avatar of god, but not a full god. The killing is by hand at twilight on the threshold of the house (neither inside or outside). Be careful what you wish for.
The main temple at Halebidu. The number of corners in the outer wall corresponds to the number of Gods that are present in the table. Each God gets 32 corners; the Belur temple has only one God and 32 corners, while the one at Halebidu has 64 corners.
Sculpture of Nandi
A sculpture of Nandi in Halebidu. I haven’t taken a very good picture of it, but the necklace and other adornments are incredibly detailed
Krishna holding up Govardhan mountain
A sculpture of Krishna holding up Mount Govardhan. The guide kept showing me more and more details in this picture. There’s a lot of life depicted in that mountain: lizards, jackfruits, monkeys, tigers, hunters. God, the devil, and all of creation are in these details.

My favourite sculpture was not one of the big ones; it was this composite animal that the guide told me represents the ideal soldier. The mouth is that of a crocodile, because soldiers need to be as aggressive as crocodiles obviously. The eyes are that of a monkey, for alertness. The stomach is that of a pig, because you have to be ready to eat anything when you’re out fighting a war. The feet are those of a lion, to walk silently. The ears come from an elephant. I’m not sure why. Maybe elephants hear really well?

The best part of this soldier is the tail. The tail is that of a peacock, representing the dreams of the soldier. No soldier is all aggression, and it is important for them to have colourful dreams to keep them grounded in their fight.

Sculpture of composite animal representing the ideal soldier
The ideal soldier

I stayed in Belur for a night, and then rode on to Chikmagalur with a stop in Halebidu to see the temple there.

Road: 6/10 (nice highway all the way, but highways are highways. They’re optimized for taking you from place to place rather than for enjoyment of the scenery)

Stay: 7/10 (KSTDC lodge at Belur. Comfortable, if a little expensive. Neat, good facilities and mediocre food)

Temples: 9/10

Guides at temples: 7/10 (They’re knowledgeable, but the guys who came with me in both places were not very enthusiastic)

Chikmagalur

Chikmagalur has many attractive choices for accommodations: homestays in the mountains and in coffee estates, hotels in farms. But they are all mostly beyond my budget for long term travel. Thankfully, a hostel (part of the Zostel chain) opened up recently, so I could sleep for cheap. The guy who owns the hostel used to work at Cisco and had quit to come lead a more peaceful life in the mountains.

The hostel itself used to be a coffee-farm homestay, so it is surrounded by a lush green coffee and spice farm.

Pepper plant
This is what pepper looks like when its still on the tree. The green pods taste like a milder version of pepper, which I guess is exactly what they are.

With the hostel as a base, I went for rides to places near Chikmagalur: Mullayanagiri, Jhari Falls, Kemmangundi and so on. If you were looking for a place to spend up to a week in the forests relaxing and seeing beautiful things, you could not go wrong with Chikmagalur as your choice.

Perezosa, my motorcycle, on a road
On the drive to Mullayanagiri

Mullayanagiri is the highest peak in Karnataka at an astoundingly unimpressive height of 1930 m. The ride to there is really nice though, with a decent road all the way except for a few kilometres at the end where it’s dirt and stones. The view from the top is nice, but I’ve only seen it in other peoples’ pictures because it was too cloudy when I went. There is a Shiva temple that you can walk up to, and of course tea stalls where you can tea and fried snacks.

There are many waterfalls around Chikmagalur. Hebbe Falls is the most famous among them. I didn’t make it to Hebbe Falls because it was too far from the hostel, but I did chance upon Jhari falls close to Mullayanagiri. These falls were wonderful. You could even scramble up halfway to the top of the falls and stand in the water.

View from the road
Somewhere on the road to Jhari Falls. You could stop at a thousand places in the Western Ghats with views like this
The trail to Jhari Falls
The trail to Jhari Falls
Jhari Falls
Jhari Falls

When I got back from Jhari falls, I found that the mobile phone mount I had bought for my motorcycle had been stolen. To add salt to that wound, the thieves were in the process of emptying my fuel tank into a water bottle that they had (admittedly ingeniously) attached to the fuel pipe. They must have seen me coming and disappeared back into the forest as I poured what little fuel I could salvage back into the tank.

Another nice place to visit near Chikmagalur is Kemmangundi, so named (Kempa mannu means red mud in Kannada) because of the iron deposits through the region. It used to be an area of intense iron-mining, but these days is finally treated like the hill station it has always deserved to be. There is a short walk here to a viewpoint called Z-point which overlooks the characteristically cascading hills of the Western Ghats in all directions.

Perezosa (my motorcycle) was quite muddy after my ride to here.

Z Point at Kemmangundi
Z Point
On the way out of Chikmagalur on to Sringeri

Roads: 8.5/10 (Nice, curvy, tar roads with green forests. But trucks everywhere).

Food: 8/10 (Chikmagalur had an amazing biryani place. I forget the name, something like Mughal Garden. I ate there every day! There was a really cool outdoor cafe where I spent most of my working afternoons).

Mountains: 9/10 (They’re mountains).

Stay: 8/10. I stayed in the Zostel in Chikmagalur. It’s a very nice place, but gets a little busy on weekends

Winding roads through green forests led me to my next stop: Sringeri. That town and the rest of the route are coming up in the next post!

4 comments

    Author’s gravatar

    This sounds awesome, especially the week-long meandering around Chikmagalur. I recognized Halebidu from your pictures — I must have gone there when I was in Bangalore several years ago. I thought that was kind of cool.

    Reply

    Author’s gravatar

    Yeah, you might even have seen the akki-kaalu Ganesha (rice grain Ganesha — a Ganesha sculpture the size of a grain of rice). I remember seeing it as a kid, but the guide didn’t mention it at all this time around!

    Motorcycling here in India is a lot of fun. Unicycling will be even more crazy and fun if you decide to do it 😀

    Reply

    Author’s gravatar

    Nice write up Pritam… cherished again my visit to belur n halebid with these snaps..

    Reply

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