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Karnataka, India: The state that's making a name for itself

Bordered by tourist hotspots Goa and Kerala, Karnataka is often overlooked – but all that's starting to change, says Chris Leadbeater

Bangalore
Bangalore

Bangalore wants to keep me prisoner. This is the only conclusion I can come to as my taxi sits there, fused to its spot in the road. Ahead, a cranky carnival of auto-rickshaws, buses, and cars waits similarly idle – horns playing in unison, the most discordant symphony you will ever hear. Finally, a single cow extracts itself from the jumble and ambles to the kerb. Engines are revved – and no one moves. Whatever the cause of the chaos, it was not this lone bovine wanderer.

Bangalore is not a city that charms. It is too large for that now, too busy. As of 1 November, it is now formally known as Bengaluru, a dropping of its anglicised name which underlines its importance to modern India. And it is important – the capital of the south-westerly state of Karnataka; the third most populous city in this giant country, home to nine million and rising – thanks to the technology boom which has made it the nation's Silicon Valley. But it is not a city that expects tourist adoration, bereft, as it is, of an A-list landmark – a Taj Mahal, a Golden Temple – to draw the focus of a million smartphone cameras. Nor is it easy to love, the wealth canyon between its internet professionals and its slum citizens making for uncomfortable viewing. Indeed tourism is lacking in the bigger picture too, since Karnataka is often seen as merely a corridor between Goa and Kerala.

Yet Bengaluru is a city that intrigues. Once I have extricated myself from the traffic jam – the source, it transpires, a three-way auto-rickshaw collision and a resultant bout of finger-pointing that seems to involve every driver within a square mile – I try to locate the city's soul.

It is there, if you know where to look. It shows itself shyly in the Gavi Gangadhareshwara Temple, a Hindu relic of the ninth century where worshippers stoop faithfully below the low rock ceiling. It struggles for room in the cramped confines of the Krishna Rajendra Market – where stalls laden with prisms of bright powdered dyes, copper pans, and fresh flowers compete for customers in improbably close quarters. It basks in the space of the Lal Bagh Botanical Gardens, a 240-acre expanse of mahogany trunks and tropical blooms whose manicured prettiness suggests the British Raj in all its pomp, but in fact dates to 1760 and the glory days of the Kingdom of Mysore – of which Bangalore was once part.

It all makes for the sort of tiring, thrilling day of revealed secrets at which India excels – not least because, afterwards, I have somewhere to pause for breath. Almost at the heart of the matter, the Taj West End is a genuine remnant of the colonial epoch, displaying its Victorian heritage with a proud smile. It was the first hotel in the city when it opened in 1887, and little has changed in the intervening 127 years – though nowadays, it offers an "Indian High Tea" of chicken tikka sandwiches, kheema (mincemeat) samosas and naan khatai (almond biscuits) alongside an "English" version of mushroom vol-au-vents and Darjeeling tea. Both are served on a long garden terrace where the roar of the city ebbs away.

As sunset approaches, I clamber up to the calm rooftop space above the main building, to watch the dying of the day. In truth, the eye has always been drawn west from Bangalore. The sultans of Mysore sat on their thrones, not here, but some 90 miles to the south-west, in the city whose name still salutes their lost kingdom (which fell under British rule in 1799). Beyond, all notions of urban life disappear as the Western Ghats lift their stony heads and the fabled district of Coorg – a defiantly agricultural area of coffee plantations and rice fields – deals in discreet relaxation for those who want to escape the metropolis.

It is not that I am desperate to flee Bangalore. But I cannot ignore this call from the oasis on its doorstep – down the wide Highway 17, the number of cars seeming to lessen by the mile. Here, on each side, is India in all its idiosyncrasy. One roadside shop sells only gaudily painted rocking horses, another a legion of teddy bears in a rainbow of hues.

It is a colourful picture into which Mysore slots perfectly, the main royal palace beckoning to passers-by, its beauty undeniable. There is no hint of modesty to this dreaming structure of turrets, towers and domes – an Asiatic Versailles in love with its own appearance. But then, it has every right to be – even if, completed in 1912, after fire destroyed its predecessor in 1897, it is rather younger than it looks. Not that there is anything less than stately about its Marriage Pavilion, where the stained-glass roof makes a kaleidoscope of the floor. The new Indian republic may have robbed the palace of its purpose in 1950 – but somewhere in these grand chambers, royal ghosts must still dance.

From here, the road rolls fitfully west, narrowing steadily yet rising sharply on its way to Madikeri, Coorg's main town. The distance from Mysore is just 75 miles, but the transfer takes three hours, the car grumbling through potholes and chafing at the gradient.

It is a blissfully backward environment in which the 21st century seems like a pushy intruder rather than a matter of fact. Indeed, at first glance, my destination, the Vivanta by Taj resort, seems jarringly out of kilter. It opened last year, daubing a broad stripe of the contemporary across this most rustic of settings. The reception area is a colossal open-air platform fringed by an infinity water feature, which burbles on the lip of a sheer drop. Standing on the tiles of the unstintingly polished floor, I feel as if I have been jerked forward 200 years on a journey through time every bit as juddering as the cracked asphalt I just travelled along.

However, pastoral India reasserts itself as I am shown to my room – one of 63 dotted in this forested valley – down a winding path through the trees. I sleep amid near-silence, the only noise coming from the birds that haunt the branches at this elevation of 4,000ft.

I wake up refreshed and determined to explore. At the main entrance, a trail wanders up to the top of Nishani Betta (Target Hill), which rears above the resort. The slope is hard on my calves, but the overall image is peaceful in the woozy early morning – the Western Ghats flowing to the horizon, some still caught in shadow, some bathed in light.

I return to the resort and pick up a mountain bike to tackle the rough tracks which dissect the surrounding countryside. I find myself bumping along through the afternoon heat, wheels slipping in dirt left unhelpfully damp by recent rains, but though my progress may not be serene, the landscape is. The small village of Chapandakare, a paintbox splatter of homes in red, pink, green, yellow and blue, where children in school uniform chase after me, giggling at the expending of such effort on so hot a day; the soupy green of Galibeedu Lake – where kites stretch their wings overhead.

It would be easy to stay longer amid this mixture of five-star luxury and rural beauty, but I am keen to see more of Coorg – though it is no straightforward task to discover it. The road south from Madikeri barely merits the description – 25 miles of cracks and crevasses that somehow exist under the misleading title of "State Highway 89". Bones are shaken, brakes and gears tested – but after two hours, the air is thick with the aroma of rich soil and leafy productivity. Rows of coffee plants seem to meander in all directions, enough to fill up breakfast cafetières from Paris to Polynesia. The only interruption is the miniature outpost of Pollibetta, where a nine-hole golf course betrays the sporting proclivities of the British colonials who once lorded it over this fertile realm.

The Raj lingers too – in pleasing fashion – at the Cottabetta Bungalow. What was once the home of the plantation owner (built around 1900) is now a quiet retreat where five bedrooms are positioned around an interior courtyard. It must have been a joyful spot from which to run a business – it is certainly a wonderful location for a day or two's rest.

As dark descends, the table in the main room is set with a merry feast of local fare – a gentle chicken curry with rotis and chapatis, and a colossal bowl of sticky white rice. But before dinner, a bonfire is lit in the gloom beyond the front porch, embers flying as the last of the light fades. In this context, it is almost impossible to recall the clamour and cacophony of Bangalore. It is still out there, back over my shoulder – but here, with the spit-crackle of the flames the only sound, it could be part of another journey entirely.

Getting there

British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com) offers the only non-stop flight between Bangalore and the UK – daily from Heathrow.

Touring there

Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk) can arrange a nine-day tour of Karnataka which includes three nights at the Taj West End in Bangalore, three nights at the Vivanta by Taj resort in Madikeri, and two nights at the Cottabetta Bungalow near Pollibetta. Prices from £1,795pp, with BA flights, breakfast and private transfers.

Staying there

Taj West End, 25 Race Course Road, Bangalore (00 91 80 6660 5660; tajhotels.com). Doubles from Rs13,852 (£139), with breakfast.

Vivanta by Taj – Madikeri, 1st Monnangeri, Galibeedu, Coorg (00 91 82 7266 5800; vivantabytaj.com). Doubles from Rs14,330 (£143), room only.

Cottabetta Bungalow, Cottabetta Plantation (00 91 80 2356 0761; plantationtrails.net). Doubles from Rs10,151 (£102), half board.

Visiting there

Mysore Palace, Sayyaji Rao Road, Mysore (0091 82 1242 1051; mysorepalace.gov.in). Daily 10am-5.30pm; Rs200 (£2).

More information

karnatakatourism.org

incredibleindia.org

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