The Emerald Route: One book, many narratives

What would you call a book that

(a) is primarily a travelogue,
(b) is also a concise literary, spiritual, religious, mythological, and political history of the region,
(c) is part autobiographical, and
(d) includes a description of taming wild elephants, a folk tale and a one-act play.

The cover illustration is by R.K. Laxman

The book that I am talking about here is R.K. Narayan’s (RKN) The Emerald Route, which is the outcome of the author’s travels along with R.K. Laxman, his brother and the famous cartoonist, through the length and breadth of Karnataka.

First published in 1977 by the Director of Information and Publicity, Government of Karnataka, and then by Penguin India in 1999, I recently bought the latter edition on the recommendation of Smeedha, a friend.

RKN chose to title his book “The Emerald Route” for one important reason—he did not encounter even a single dry patch during the first phase of his tour from Mysore through Hunsur and Hassan and back. He says:

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The Banashankari and Mahakuta temples: Examples of neglect and apathy

My recent trip to some heritage sites in North Karnataka (Aihole, Badami, BijapurHampi and  Pattadakal) was an eye-opener in more ways than one. While I was amazed to see the excellent work done by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in restoring and maintaining the sites, as well as the efforts taken by the Karnataka Tourism Board, I was appalled to see condition of heritage sites not maintained by the ASI. My visits to the Banashankari Temple and the Mahakuta Temple Complex, both near Badami, are perfect examples of this.

The Banashankari Temple site has been a place of worship for about 14 centuries or so, though the current temple building is only about 200 years old. The temple’s name is derived from its location in the Tilakaranya forest. The main deity, Banashankari is also known as Shakambari or the vegetable goddess. Banashankari was the kuldevata or the tutelary deity for the Chalukya kings of the 7th century.

Our tour group arrived at the Banashankari Temple after spending a magical and enchanted evening at the Bhoothnatha Temples and the Agastya Teertha, near the Badami Cave-Temples. And came back to earth rather rudely with a ride through narrow, dusty, potholed and dirty access road to the temple. It was an inkling to the state of the temple itself.

Outside the Banashankari Temple. The guard-cum-lamp tower at the entrance to the Harida Teertha in the centre of the photograph

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Aihole: A UNESCO world heritage site-in-waiting

A stone ladder leading to the roof and inside the Ladkhan Temple

A drive through sleepy hamlets, lush green fields and the village of Aihole (pronounced I-ho-lay), brought us to another heritage temple site dating from around the 5th century.

Known as Aryapura in ancient times, Aihole occupies a unique place in the history of temple architecture in India. It was the site for experimenting with different temple-building styles by the early Chalukyan kings from AD 450 to 750. This experimentation began in Aihole, continued at Badami and finally culminated at Pattadakal. Our guide told us that the ruins of a temple, probably dating back to pre-Chalukyan times, had been recently excavated in Aihole. The present-day village settlement and agricultural lands were coming in the way of a full-scale excavation.

There are around 120 temples of varying styles and sizes in Aihole (all built from the same local red sandstone). I tried to imagine 120 temples, each with a unique architecture and failed. But I could imagine the whole area being turned into an architectural laboratory or a workshop, with architects and sculptors being invited over and given a site for constructing a temple. Just imagining the creative buzz in the area was enough to give me a high! Unfortunately, our group had the time to visit only one site, which had about 4 temples of such varying styles that it was astonishing and gave a glimpse into the kind of experimenting that was promoted and encouraged.

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The journey to a destination

Someone said, and I can’t remember who, that the journey to a destination is as important and interesting as the destination itself. But sadly, most of us do not give much importance to what we see around us during journeys. I, too, have been guilty of this.        

But a recent holiday to North Karnataka (where I visited Bijapur, Badami, Pattadakal, Aihole, and Hampi) changed all this. Since I was travelling with a tour group for the first time, common courtesy dictated that I do not bury myself in a book all the time, something I normally do while travelling.        

But more than that, I feel that the main reason for the interesting journey was because I did not travel in a sterile aeroplane or air-conditioned train compartment (except on my return journey to Mumbai), or an air-conditioned car/jeep/bus, which usually does not allow you to be a spectator or participant to the world around you. Travelling in a Second Class train compartment or non air-conditioned vehicle forced me to look out of the window and breathe in the fresh, cool air or sometimes air flavoured with dust and diesel/petrol fumes !       

This recent trip was a veritable feast for my jaded eyes and soul. Every leg of the journey (and the various destinations, about which I will write in other blog posts) presented something new and refreshing.        

Enroute to Bijapur from Mumbai by train …       

Lush green countryside after Solapur

River crossing near Tadwal

Railway lines and stations often come in the way of traditional grazing grounds for cattle. Here, a buffalo and her owner make their way along a well-tread path through the railway station. The way the pair of them came charging down the path, I thought that they would get into the train !

On the way to the Bhootnath Temple at Badami…       

A film shooting was in progress on the steps of the Agastya tank. As far as I could figure out, the scene being shot involved people stoning a woman as she cried out to her mother for help

Enroute to Pattadakal…       

A magnificent, 300-year old banyan tree outside the Mahakoota Temple

Enroute to the Vittala Temple in Hampi…     

Talarigatta Gate, one of the entrance gates to the ancient village of Vittalapura

Enroute to the Daroji Bear Sanctuary…     

Sunflower field with fast approaching rain clouds

Enroute to Hubli…    

Tungabhadra Dam (Photo Courtesy: Shailaja Apte)

Enroute to Mumbai by train…    

Passing a thickly forested area before Londa Station

There were so many things that I was unable to photograph and share it here with you:       

  • endless fields of bajra, jowar, corn and sugarcane
  • lush green banana plantations
  • agressive pigs, nervous dogs and emaciated cats in the various towns and villages that we passed through
  • monkeys, monkeys and more monkeys
  • the ever-changing landscape of North Karnataka
  • the hundreds of beautiful trees in the region
  • eager-eyed children with their families

 The list can go on and on and on…