Created in 1956 from the princely state of Mysore, Karnataka – a derivation of the name of the local language, Kannada, spoken by virtually all of its 53 million inhabitants, known as Kannadigas – marks a transition zone between central India and the Dravidian deep south. Along its border with Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, a string of medieval walled towns studded with domed mausoleums and minarets recall the era when this part of the Deccan was a Muslim stronghold. The coastal and hill districts that dovetail with Kerala are quintessential Hindu south India, lush with tropical vegetation and soaring temple gopuras. In between are scattered several extraordinary sites, notably the ruined Vijayanagar city at Hampi, whose lost temples and derelict palaces stand amid an arid, rocky landscape of surreal beauty. Coastal Karnataka is one of the wettest regions in India, its climate dominated by the seasonal monsoon, which sweeps in from the southwest in June, dumping an average of 4m of rain on the coast before it peters out in late September. Running in an unbroken line along the state’s palm-fringed coast, the Western Ghats, draped in dense deciduous forests, impede the path of the rain clouds east. As a result, the landscape of the interior – comprising the southern apex of the triangular Deccan trap, known here as the Mysore plateau, is considerably drier, with dark volcanic soils in the north, and poor quartzite-granite country to the south. Two of India’s most sacred rivers, the Tungabhadra and Krishna, flow across this sun-baked terrain, draining east to the Bay of Bengal.
Karnataka’s principal attractions are concentrated at opposite ends of the state, with a handful of less-visited places dotted along the coast between Goa and Kerala. Road and rail routes dictate that most itineraries take in the brash state capital, Bengaluru, a go-ahead, modern city that epitomizes the aspirations of the country’s new middle classes, with glittering malls, fast-food outlets and a nightlife unrivalled outside Mumbai. The state’s second city, Mysore, appeals more for its Raj-era ambience, nineteenth-century palaces and vibrant produce and incense markets. It also lies within easy reach of several important historical monuments. A clutch of unmissable sights lie further northwest, dotted around the dull railway town of Hassan. Around nine centuries ago, the Hoysala kings sited their grand dynastic capitals here, at the now middle-of-nowhere villages of Belur and Halebid, where several superbly crafted temples survive intact. More impressive still, and one of India’s most extraordinary sacred sites, is the 18m Jain colossus at Sravanabelagola, which stares serenely over idyllic Deccan countryside. West of Mysore, the Ghats rise in a wall of thick jungle cut by deep ravines and isolated valleys. Within, the coffee- and spice-growing region of Kodagu (Coorg) offers an entrancing, unique culture and lush, misty vistas. Most Coorgi agricultural produce is shipped out of Mangalore, a useful if uninspiring place to pause on the journey along Karnataka’s beautiful Karavali coast. Interrupted by countless mangrove-lined estuaries, the state’s 320km-long, reddish-coloured coastline contains plenty of fine beaches, mostly devoid of facilities. Few Western tourists visit the famous Krishna temple at Udupi, an important Vaishnavite pilgrimage centre, and fewer still venture into the mountains to see India’s highest waterfall at Jog Falls, set amid some of the region’s most spectacular scenery. However, the atmospheric Hindu pilgrimage town of Gokarna, further north up the coast, is a well-established hideaway for budget travellers, owing to its string of exquisite beaches. Winding inland from the mountainous Goan border, NH-4A and the rail line comprise sparsely populated northern Karnataka’s main transport artery and lean towards this region’s undisputed highlight, the ghost city of Vijayanagar, better known as Hampi. Scattered around boulder hills on the south banks of the Tungabhadra River, the ruins of this once splendid capital occupy a magical site and make a great spot to hole up in. The jumping-off place for Hampi is Hospet, from where buses leave for the bumpy journey north across the rolling Deccani plains to Badami, Aihole and UNESCO World Heritage Site Pattadakal. Now lost in countryside, these tiny villages – once capitals of the Chalukya dynasty – are still littered with ancient rock-cut caves and finely carved stone temples. Further north still, in one of Karnataka’s most remote and poorest districts, craggy hilltop citadels and crumbling wayside tombs herald the formerly troubled buffer zone between the Muslim-dominated northern Deccan and the Dravidian-Hindu south. Bijapur, capital of the Bahmanis, harbours south India’s finest collection of Islamic architecture, including the world’s second largest freestanding dome, the Golgumbaz. The first Bahmani capital, Gulbarga, site of a famous Muslim shrine and theological college, has retained little of its former splendour but the more isolated Bidar, where the Bahmanis moved in the sixteenth century, deserves a detour en route to or from Hyderabad. Perched on a rocky escarpment, its crumbling red ramparts include Persian-style mosaic-fronted mosques, mausoleums and a sprawling fort complex evocative of Samarkand on the Silk Route.
Like much of southern India, Karnataka has been ruled by successive Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim dynasties. The influence of Jainism has also been marked; India’s very first emperor, Chandragupta Maurya, is believed to have converted to Jainism in the fourth century BC, renounced his throne and fasted to death at Sravanabelagola, now one of the most visited Jain pilgrimage centres in the country. During the first millennium AD, this whole region was dominated by power struggles between the various kingdoms controlling the western Deccan. From the sixth to the eighth centuries, the Chalukya kingdom included Maharashtra, the Konkan coast on the west and the whole of Karnataka. The Cholas were powerful in the east of the region from about 870 until the thirteenth century, when the Deccan kingdoms were overwhelmed by General Malik Kafur, a convert to Islam. By the medieval era Muslim incursions from the north had forced the hitherto warring and fractured Hindu states of the south into close alliance, with the mighty Vijayanagars emerging as overlords. Their lavish capital, Vijayanagar, ruled an empire stretching from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea and south to Cape Comorin. Yet the Muslims’ superior military strength triumphed in 1565 at the Battle of Talikota, when the Bahmanis laid siege to Vijayanagar, reducing it to rubble and plundering its opulent palaces and temples. Thereafter, a succession of Muslim sultans held sway over the north, while in the south of the state, the independent Wadiyar rajas of Mysore, whose territory was comparatively small, successfully fought off the Marathas. In 1761, the brilliant Muslim campaigner Haider Ali, with French support, seized the throne. His son, Tipu Sultan, turned Mysore into a major force in the south before he was killed by the British at the battle of Srirangapatnam in 1799. After Tipu’s defeat, the British restored the Wadiyar family to the throne. Apart from a further half century of colonial rule in the mid-nineteenth century, they kept it until Karnataka was created by the merging of the states of Mysore and the Madras Presidencies in 1956. Following Independence, the political scene was dominated by the Congress party, with the exception of some Janata Dal administrations in the 1980s, until, following an unstable period of president’s rule, the BJP took control in May 2008. However, ructions within the party and the resignation of the chief minister in 2011 guaranteed a testing time at the autumn 2013 elections.