There’s a stillness in Agumbe that tends to sneak up on visitors. Inhabited by a couple of hundred families, the village in the western reaches of Karnataka’s Shimoga district is interspersed by dense forest. The air accommodates the occasional stir—a giggling child cajoling a cow to drink from a pail of water, the static while changing channels on the black-and-white television in a dhaba, a passing truck—and then suddenly, overbearingly, there’s silence again. Until it starts to rain.
The rainforests surrounding Agumbe are part of the Someshwara Wildlife Sanctuary. They receive the second-highest annual rainfall in the country and sustain a diverse ecosystem of mammals, birds, and reptiles, including the elusive king cobra. A look down into the unending wilderness from the “sunset point” showcases the grandeur of the Western Ghats, emphasising why it holds UNESCO World Heritage status.
Once you come to terms with the ticks and leeches, walks into the forest lead to hidden waterfalls of different sizes (Onake Abbe, Jogigundi and Barkana) and panoramic view points. Agumbe and the surrounding forests were the setting for the television adaptation of R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days, and visitors with memories of 1980s Doordarshan may feel a surge of nostalgia.
Swap greenery for spirituality at the busy temple town of Sringeri around 28 kilometres from Agumbe, on the banks of the Tunga. The beautifully-maintained eighth-century temples with intricate Keladi architecture are the town’s biggest draw, although the banana and jackfruit chips come in a close second.
The Big House Agumbe is a village of just a few streets, and landmarks are hard to come by, but one particular house stands out. Dodda Mane, as the locals call it (it means “big house”), is possibly the oldest structure in the village. It was one of the central locales for the 1980s TV adaptation of Malgudi Days. The cameras aren’t around anymore, but it feels as though the children from Narayan’s fantasy world never moved out of the two-storey manor. Chairs and toys are carelessly strewn about the living room, along with a sewing machine and other household appliances that feel out of place. The tiny rooms upstairs have now been converted into a pay-as-you-wish homestay of sorts. Visitors are welcome to take a look around, and the owner Kasturi Akka and her family are happy to regale them with trivia about the house and village, and suggest sightseeing spots. They are reasonably fluent in English, Hindi, Marathi, and Kannada.
Walks and Falls Agumbe’s rainforests have trekking trails of varying lengths and difficulty, almost all of which culminate in an isolated waterfall. However, the rain tends to wash away trails, so it’s best to engage a guide. Kasturi Akka can help organise guides. The shortest is the hour-long hike up a gentle incline of green thickets to Onake Abbe Falls (around 3 km from Agumbe). As the foliage suddenly clears, trekkers will find themselves at the top of the fall, looking down as the water pours powerfully into a clear pool.
The trek to Barkana Falls and Narasimha Parvat is longer and more taxing. The journey starts early in the morning at Mallandur, a few kilometres from Agumbe, and the route to Barkana Falls is a four-hour battle against wayward branches and sticky terrain, to a soundtrack of crickets and invisible birds. Narasimha Parvat is a further four hours away, and the reward is a night spent camping at close to 4,000 ft, in absolute solitude, with a gorgeous, unobstructed view of the Someshwara Wildlife Reserve.
Visitors who would rather spend their time in a vehicle can make the 60 km/2 hour drive to Hanumanagundi Falls in Kudremukh National Park. A winding staircase leads down to a misty pond at the base of the 22-metre-high fall, where tourists tend not to take the no-swimming signs seriously. Visit early in the morning to avoid crowds.
The busy streets of Sringeri’s main market, 27 km from Agumbe, lead to one of Karnataka’s most popular pilgrimage spots. The Sringeri Sharada Peetham is a complex of temples and monasteries constructed in the eighth century by Adi Shankaracharya, the pioneer of the advaita philosophy. The centrepiece, however, is the Vidyashankara Temple, constructed in the 14th century by the founders of the Vijayanagara Empire. The intricately sculpted exteriors exhibit distinct Hoysala influences, and have references to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. There are 12 pillars inside, each depicting a zodiac sign. A staircase behind the temple leads to the banks of the Tunga River, where pilgrims feed fish with puffed rice which can be bought outside the temple. A bridge across the river leads to shady gardens scattered with small temples and monasteries. Visitors must remove their footwear before entering the temple complex, although there are no such restrictions across the bridge. It’s advisable to put slippers or shoes into a plastic bag and take them along to avoid the chance of them being stolen. Visit early in the morning to prevent blistered feet.
Dodda Mane in Agumbe offers accommodation for backpackers on the upper floors of the manor, along with home-cooked, vegetarian meals. There is no set price, and visitors are asked to pay what they consider appropriate. The money from the homestay is used to promote education in the village (08181-233075/94486 03343).
Hotel Advaith Lancer in Sringeri has comfortable, air-conditioned rooms and amenities including hot water and cable television (94490 83488; www.hoteladvaithlancer.com; doubles ₹2,200; includes breakfast).
Kanaka’s Homestay is a few kilometers away from Sringeri. The bungalow has three comfortable rooms and a living room with loud colours and a bizarre four-poster sofa. Large families can rent the entire bungalow at a discounted price, depending on availability (90357 82221; doubles ₹2,500; meals extra, ₹100 per meal).
Between Agumbe and Sringeri, there aren’t too many restaurants to choose from. Most dhabas and homestays serve simple, vegetarian food. Hotel Advaith Lancer serves Chinese and Punjabi cuisine, but visitors are advised to call beforehand to check availability. The pick of the restaurants in the Sringeri market is Hotel Shree Ganesh (around 300m from the temple complex). They serve delicious and authentic Udupi cuisine. While in Sringeri, stock up on the freshly prepared jackfruit and banana chips, which are something of a specialty, and sold by several vendors in the market.
Agumbe is a village in the western part of Karnataka’s Shimoga district, at an elevation of around 2,700 ft. The village and its surroundings are part of a perennial rainforest in the Someshwara Wildlife Sanctuary.
The closest cities are Shimoga (90 km northeast) and Mangalore (100 km southwest). Bengaluru is around 360 km to the west
Air The closest airport to Agumbe is Mangalore (100 km/2 hours away), which is well connected to Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Chennai.
Rail Udupi (60 km/1.5 hours away) is the closest railhead, and connected to Bengaluru and Mumbai.
Road Agumbe is around 370 km/7 hours from Bengaluru. Travellers could choose to go via Shimoga (NH73) or Hassan (NH75). Both routes are equidistant and equally scenic. There is a daily KSRTC overnight bus from Bengaluru to Agumbe, but bookings need to be made well in advance. Buses passing through Agumbe depart from Mangalore and Shimoga every half hour.
Agumbe has a tropical climate. Summers (Mar-May) are hot, with temperatures approaching 35°C, although the forests remain reasonably cool. There is extremely heavy rain between Jun-Sep. The post-monsoon and winter (Dec-Feb) months are pleasant, with light rain. Minimums drop to around 16°C.
• There is a heavy police presence in Agumbe owing to sporadic Naxalite threats. Treks and drives to Barkana Falls may be off limits on certain days. Enquire at a check-post before planning a trip.
• Carry leech socks or salt which is used to get a leech to detach itself from a person’s body. Bring mosquito repellent for treks. Travellers must bring their own camping equipment.
• The only major petrol pump in the area is at Sringeri.
• Hanumanagundi Falls is in Kudremukh National Park. Visitor permits, easily obtainable at the entrance, are only valid for two hours.
Appeared in the October 2012 issue as “Reptiles and Waterfalls”.
The Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS) sits deep within the rainforest, with no signboards or banners belying its existence. The reason apparently is to keep out people who think it’s a zoo. The ARRS is a 10-acre research facility equipped with the latest in trapping and telemetry equipment, where a small group of researchers go about their business of tracking king cobras, flying lizards, and other interesting creatures, in addition to studying forest ecology and climatic change. Beyond the research, though, the ARRS’s primary aim is to educate the locals about why they need to help preserve the rainforests. Enthusiasts can sign up to volunteer and help with the research, although a minimum commitment of two weeks is required, along with willingness to live a no-frills life filled with leeches. While visitors to the ARRS don’t need to be scientists themselves, a genuine interest in the rainforest is required for the staff to take them seriously. Whatever happens, resist the temptation to ask if the facility has king cobras on display. They don’t. (08181-233186; firstname.lastname@example.org. You can reach ARRS’s director, Anup Prakash, on 09480334613).