AS NATIONAL HIGHWAY (NH) 44, the longest highway of India running from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, veers off north of Bengaluru, to the left rise hills and amidst them are shining blue lakes, brown hiking trails, quaint villages, farms, bright flower fields, coconut groves and temples with colourful gopurams. In this landscape, about 70km from the city, rises the 112-ft statue of Adiyogi, inaugurated in the beginning of this year. The nearest small town of Chikkaballapur is 10km away.
Despite the remote location and road infrastructure that is still being completed, hundreds of visitors come here everyday. Swami Abhipada, the monk managing the temple, once told me that the temple was consecrated late into the night and the next day from 5 AM devotees began visiting.
I volunteer here and have spent many hot, tiring afternoons managing the visiting devotees but every time I look up at the surrounding green hills and the thoughtful aesthetics of the yoga centre, I am recharged. With facilities at the centre quite makeshift, it is a challenge to find places to stay for longer durations. After intense online browsing, I find the perfect place, a thriving coffee estate 15km away from the Adiyogi. Only later, I realise that it is a feat of cultivation to grow the crop in that climate. Muniswami, the owner of SM Nisarga Farms, tells me that there was a time when the surrounding hills were lush green with forest cover and the climate was colder but now with heavy depletion of the green cover the region has heated up. The hills have become bare and rocky. He had spent time in Chikmagalur and realised that tree cover would be absolutely essential to cultivate coffee on his land. With the support of his parents, both agriculturists, and back-breaking effort, he now has a thriving plantation. “If you come to my estate in the summers, you will notice it is at least a couple of degrees cooler than the surroundings because our Arabica coffee crop is interspersed with over 30 different varieties of trees,” he said.
This coffee estate is located in a village called Muddenahalli, the birthplace of the Bharat Ratna awardee M Visvesvaraya, who shaped New India’s engineering, civil construction and industrialisation. As you explore his birth home, museum and samadhi located in the village, you can’t miss the towering Skandagiri looking over you. It is the tallest hill in the region. A trekking route for this hilltop starts at Papagni temple in the nearby village called Kalwara. Muddenahalli is also the base of a thriving Sathya Sai Ashram.
Just a 10-minute drive away, Nandi Hills is a widely known tourist spot in the region with trekking routes, historic forts, temples, adventure activities like paragliding and more. Situated at its foot, the 9th-century Bhoga Nandeeshwara Shiva temple leaves me astonished as I meander through its mandapams with the architectural style changing distinctly throughout the temple. I learn that each of the successive dynasties that came to power in this region contributed to expanding this temple. It feels like a great example of our proverbial unity in diversity—united in the purpose of enhancing the temple, diverse in architecture and method. Originally, it is said to be built in the Nolamvadi style with the oldest shrine being Bhoga Nandeeswarar. Later, the Ganga dynasty built a twin temple shrine to Arunachaleswarar. Between these two is a third mandapam that will transport you to the soapstone temples of Halibeedu and Belur with intricate carvings—this is the Uma Maheshwara shrine set up by the Hoysalas. Further additions were made by Vijayanagara, Chola and Pallava kings. Unsurprisingly, this temple was one of the heritage spots showcased to the international G20 delegates who arrived in Bengaluru in December last year.
Other notable temples in this region include the Yoga Nandeeswarar on top of Nandi Hills, Rangasthala at the foot of Rangadhama Hill, Subramanya Ghati near Mallikadurga Betta and Jalari Narasimha. Ancient stories surround these temples and hills as do the myriad hiking trails that lead to a viewpoint frequently with a temple on top. These trails can be done as a pilgrimage or as a fitness activity, either way it is rejuvenating.
Skandagiri and Nandi Hills are the most popular treks but there are other lesser known ones too. Two short trails very close to Adiyogi are the Kaurava Kunda and Harihara Betta. Locals also tell me a short hike from the Isha Gate among lush trees will get me to a picturesque spot called the Vivekananda waterfalls. These places are marked on Google Maps and it is easy for travellers to explore on their own though knowing some Kannada would help you navigate much better.
I FREQUENTLY DRIVE from Muddenahalli to Adiyogi. The road passes through small villages. Often, there are potholes, bumpy speed breakers and narrow squeezes with tractors or trucks coming from the other side. My car has to share the road with dogs, cats, poultry, cattle and even monkeys. Occasionally, bright flowering fields of marigold or rose colour up the scene and I will see people on mopeds precariously carrying huge sacks of these flowers. One day, a rose farmer came with a large bag full of fresh red blooms to the Yogeshwar temple below Adiyogi. He wanted to offer it to the deity. The soft fragrance filled the temple as the flowers were transferred into a cane basket and placed in front of the deity.
I feel a cheerful camaraderie with these locals who are so curious and excited about the Adiyogi coming up in their area. Once, when I was filling petrol at the local pump, the owner was keen to know more about the centre, “Will Sadhguru be living in the centre? Can we also volunteer there? A lot of people come to our pump and ask directions to the Adiyogi.” The regional dynamics shaping up around the upcoming centre are fascinating. I find that my travel experiences in this region are unique due to my dual role of a volunteer at Adiyogi and a seasoned solo traveller.
These hills extend from Nandi Hills near Devanahalli, close to the Bangalore Airport, all the way to the border. Just a few kilometres farther into Andhra Pradesh is Lepakshi. Famous for some of the best Vijayanagara architecture and (arguably) the largest Nandi in the world, Lepakshi was on my bucket list for ages. When I realised it was so close to Adiyogi, I planned a visit right away. The largest monolithic bull greets us as we enter the Lepakshi town. “If you notice, the Nandi is looking slightly upwards,” says the guide. “This is because he is facing the iconic Nagalinga located in the Veerabhadra temple. Since this linga is much higher up than the Nandi, he is looking upwards.”
The Veerabhadra temple situated on a hillock some distance from the Nandi has intricately carved pillars, many of which have been made into timeless border designs which adorn saris even today. On the ceilings, we find fresco paintings made from locally available earthen colours on lime. Many have faded, but a few good specimens remain for us to marvel at. They depict scenes from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and other Indian epics. Another wonder of this temple is the “hanging pillar”. Try passing a twig or thin cloth from under this pillar to ensure that it indeed is suspended mid-air without touching the mandapam floor below. There are many more carvings, idols, shrines and stories to captivate us in this temple structure. As we step in farther into the inner temple, our attention moves to the various deities and ancient lingas being worshiped even now. Veerbhadra, a form of Shiva, is the main deity, but there are also shrines to Devi, Ganesha, Navgrahas and more. Some of the lingas are said to be consecrated by Rama. There are other ancient legends. It was only on my second visit to this temple that I spotted a stunning Veerabhadra fresco on the ceiling of the inner temple.
After my Lepakshi explorations on a hot April day, I stop to have ice-cream at one of the shops below the temple. The ice-cream vendor tells me that social media posts visiting Adiyogi and Lepakshi on the same trip had led to many doing clubbed trips nowadays and business is booming. On my way back, I decide to explore. About 15km from Lepakshi is the Sabbanahalli lake. A dirt road forking away from the state highway 94 takes me all the way to the sandy bank of the vast lake. I am wary of driving my car on this road expecting it to become narrow up ahead. However, the worries are unfounded. Next, I check out Gudibande, a small town with an hour-long trek up a hill, to a 17th-century fort and temple. I see rainwater harvesting tanks and small escape routes for soldiers built into its various layers. It is said to have been built by a Robin Hood- style chieftain named Byre Gowda. There is another large lake right by Gudibande but finding a place to relax by its bank would require more time and effort.
Explorations need sustenance. I ate at hole-in-the-wall eateries in villages where a sambhar meal plate cost as little as `30. For richer fare, there is Nandi Upachar at Devanahalli, Srisierra of Chikkaballapur or Marriot’s swanky Prestige Golfshire. At Adiyogi, the Chandramukhi restaurant offers dosas, bisibele rice and more. You could also stumble upon a rare find like the A2J cafe on the road from Nandi to Chikkaballapur that has scenic sit-outs and brightly painted walls with Warli art on it. Sit on their terrace floor with a plate of akki roti and lemon juice. If you time it well, it is one of the most amazing sunset spots. Ankitha, a young graduate from Chikkaballapur, started this cafe with an all-women staff. She tells me she wants to preserve the old way of cooking that her granny used to make a normal meal into an outstanding dish. “You get purely home-made food here,” she says.
There are yet other places in this region that I plan to visit. There is Tipu Sultan’s birthplace in Devanahalli and an intriguing beak-shaped rock on the Avalabetta hilltop. NH-44 may be synonymous with high speed travel but this is a stretch that rewards you when you get off the fast lane into the countryside.
Best time to go: September to February, after the rains have perked up the surroundings and the summer heat is less
Getting there: Take a flight to Bengaluru airport and then rent a self-drive car to explore this region at your own pace
Places to stay: SM Nisarga Farms coffee estate, AirBnb cottages in Muddenahalli or Srisierra in Chikkaballapur