Created in 1956 from the princely state of Mysore, Karnataka – a derivation of the word karu nadu meaning “black soil” in the local language, Kannada – marks a transition zone between central India and the Dravidian deep south. Along its borders with Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, 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, in contrast, quintessential Hindu south India, lush with tropical vegetation and soaring temple gopuram. 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.
Fed by the southwest monsoon and draped in dense deciduous forests, the Western Ghats, recognized among the world’s top eight biodiversity hotspots, run in an unbroken line along the state’s palm-fringed coast, impeding 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 as the Mysore Plateau, is considerably drier. Three of south India’s most sacred rivers, the Kaveri (also spelt Cauvery), 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 (Bangalore), go-ahead, modern city that epitomizes the aspirations of the country’s new middle class, with glittering malls, fast-food outlets and a nightlife unrivalled outside Mumbai. The state’s second city, Mysuru (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 Halebidu (Halebid), where several superbly crafted temples survive intact. More impressive still, and one of India’s most extraordinary sacred sites, is Gomateshwara, the 18m Jain colossus at Sravanabelagola, which stares serenely over idyllic Deccan countryside.
West of Mysuru, the Ghats rise in a wall of thick jungle cut by deep ravines and isolated valleys. Within, the coffee-growing district of Kodagu (Coorg) offers an entrancing, unique culture and lush, misty vistas. Most Coorg agricultural produce is shipped out of Mangaluru (Mangalore), a useful stopover on the journey along Karnataka’s beautiful Karavali coast. Interrupted by countless mangrove-lined estuaries, the state’s 320km-long coastline contains plenty of fine beaches. Attractions of the coastal belt include the famous Krishna temple at Udupi, an important Vaishnavite centre, Jog Falls – India’s second-highest cataract – set amid some of the region’s most spectacular scenery, though for many the region’s biggest draw is the atmospheric Hindu pilgrimage town of Gokarna, further north up the coast, a well-established hideaway for Western budget travellers owing to its string of exquisite beaches.
However, the state’s undisputed highlight lies in the hinterland of northern Karnataka: the UNESCO-listed ghost city of Vijayanagar, better known as Hampi. provide a magical setting, often prompting travellers to overstay. The main access point to Hampi is Hosapete (Hospet), from where buses leave for the journey north across the rolling Deccan plains to Badami, Aihole and Pattadakal, the last another UNESCO World Heritage Site. 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, 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 – now formally Vijayapura – harbours south India’s finest collection of Islamic architecture, including the world’s second largest freestanding dome, the Gol Gumbaz. The first Bahmani capital, Gulbarga (now Kalaburagi) 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. The period between the third and fifth centuries saw the rise of dynasties like the Satavahanas, the Kadambas and the Gangas of Talakad. From the sixth to the eighth centuries, the Chalukya kingdom of Vatapi (Badami) included Maharashtra, the Konkan coast on the west and the whole of Karnataka. The Rashtrakutas and the Hoysalas dominated 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 laid the foundation of the Bahmani kingdom and forced the hitherto warring and fractured Hindu states of the south into close alliance, with the mighty Vijayanagar kings 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. The Bahmani empire split into five independent kingdoms in 1490 but joined forces as a confederacy, the Deccan Sultanate, in 1565 at the Battle of Talikota, and laid siege to Vijayanagar, 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.