Early morning drives through Karnataka’s Malnad (Malenadu) region are rewarding. Smooth roads flanked by plantations and thick forests snake outwards from Shimoga, past little towns and 17th century landmarks. The river Tunga flows under bridges at Thirthahalli, forming tiny white sand beaches. The sound of elephants trumpeting echoes through the forest further along, as the enormous animals emerge from their slumber to be washed and fed by their mahouts.
A bit of exploration on foot can reveal imposing fortresses with tales of the 17th century Nayakas of the Keladi dynasty, who once ruled these lands from a royal fort palace near the town of Nagara. In the opposite direction, the landscape around the steel town Bhadravati is dominated by smoking chimneys before the air suddenly gets cooler, the vegetation dense, and illustrated road signs warn of the presence of tigers in the nearby Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary.
If the stillness in the air gets too overbearing, Shimoga has metropolitan-style refuge with chain restaurants and fancy hotels, and just a couple of hours away is Jog Falls. But really, Malnad is about the serenity; it’s a series of picnic spots without the crowds. It’s the kind of place where you can expect homestay hosts to pack large, elaborate lunches into heavy steel containers for their guests’ day trips or where a grandfather stands at his front porch waving at travellers as they pass by. It is where memories of childhood summer vacations can be brought alive all over again.
Malnad is a land of forests, hills and flowing rivers. The rivers Tunga and Bhadra flow through Malnad’s towns, coming together at a town called Holehonnur. At Thirthahalli, the Tunga unexpectedly forms a little white-sand beach called Bheemanakatte, while the Bhadra evolves into a massive reservoir near the steel town of Bhadravati. Tigers prowl in the nearby wildlife reserve.
The town of Nagara, 30 km west of Thirthahalli, lets visitors see the world from the eyes of the Nayakas of the 17th century Keladi dynasty. Kavale Durga Fort is 20 km/1 hour away on the road from Thirthahalli to Nagara, followed by a half-hour trek through forests and paths strewn with blocks of stone. It was an impenetrable stronghold in its day, with three levels of fortification. The climb to the top offers a panoramic view of mountains and flowing rivers. A further 10 km drive along narrow roads with fading road signs reveals Nagara Fort, which once doubled as a royal palace, although there’s little evidence of that amid the ruins today. Southwest of Thirthahalli, a diversion off the road to Agumbe winds into a set of steep hairpin bends, leading to Kundadari Hill. At the top, at an altitude of around 3,000 ft, is a whitewashed Jain temple overlooking a pale green pool. Carved relics and scripture-laden rock tablets are strewn about. The views of mountains and silhouettes in the distance make this hilltop a popular sunset point.
The peaceful Shivappa Nayaka Palace in Shimoga is a stark contrast to the city’s urban culture. The designation “palace” is a bit of an exaggeration, it is more a manor with pillars of polished teak. But it is one of the city’s only remaining buildings of the Nayaka era. The little museum inside has centuries-old carvings and artefacts from the Keladi dynasty. Around 7 km from Thirthahalli, along the road to Sringeri, is Kuppalli, the ancestral home of Kuvempu, considered Karnataka’s greatest 20th-century poet. Kuppalli is divided into two sections—Kavimane (the poet’s house) and the hilltop Kavishala (the poet’s school; see “India’s Stonehenge” at the end of this story), which are connected to the manor by a long, wide staircase. The three-storey manor is a rectangular structure with an open courtyard in the centre. Rooms have low ceilings and even lower door frames, they are built around the central courtyard. It is filled with interesting souvenirs from Kuvempu’s life, from personal artefacts to extracts of his poetry, all crammed into the quaint, traditional manorhouse (entry fee ₹10; 9 a.m.-5 p.m.).
The Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary, around 30 km south of Shimoga, is home to tigers, as well as leopards, elephants, macaques and wild boar. The River Tern Lodge nearby organises game drives and forest treks, but for residents only. Closer to Thirthahalli, visitors can watch elephants as they’re washed, fed, and trained every morning at the Sakrebyle Elephant Camp (14 km from Shimoga; 8-11 a.m.; ₹20 entry; elephant ride ₹70; early morning visit recommended). Between July and September, migratory birds like the median egret and little cormorant visit the Mandagadde Bird Sanctuary (30 km from Thirthahalli, on the way to Shimoga), which has birding towers set up. A more commercial wildlife experience is available at Tyavarekoppa Lion Safari Park (10 km from Shimoga, along the road to Sagar; 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; closed Tuesdays) with safaris through a dense forest of lion, deer and scores of colourful birds.
Thirthahalli and Shimoga are the most centrally located towns. It’s a good idea to set up base at either while exploring the Malnad region.
Bananki Homestay in Thirthahalli has pretty cottages with pink walls and little front porches, run by a friendly family. They serve elaborate home-cooked meals—Malnad cuisine uses an abundance of seafood and rice. There are sprawling green lawns with swings and gazebos to laze about on. There’s also a room within the family bungalow for couples travelling with infants who need assistance and late-night access to the kitchen (94814 90555; www.banankihomestay.com; doubles ₹4,000, includes all meals).
Vihangama Holiday Retreat is in between Thirthahalli and Shimoga and has villas and cottages with a view of the Tunga. The hotel organises boat rides, and rents bicycles to visitors who want to explore the surrounding forest trails (94481 05125; www.vihangamaholidayretreat. com; doubles ₹2,500-₹10,000; boat ride ₹600 for a group of 6; cycle rental ₹150 per hour).
The Royal Orchid, set amidst the busy streets of Shimoga, is the only upmarket hotel in the region, with various comforts and amenities (08182 401999; www.royalorchidhotels.com; doubles from ₹5,000; includes breakfast).
Visitors who’d rather spend their time on game drives spotting tigers can stay at the River Tern Lodge near Bhadra Dam. The wood-floored cottages are very comfortable, with balconies that overlook the Bhadra reservoir (094495 99780; www.junglelodges.com; doubles ₹6,341 per person; includes all meals, one daily game drive, boat rides and birding).
Numerous budget hotels and lodges can be found in and around Shimoga’s L.L.R. Road, with doubles from ₹500.
The best restaurants in the region are in Shimoga city. Hotel Shubham serves vegetarian Punjabi cuisine that would give many metropolitan restaurants a run for their money (L.L.R. Road). Jewel Rock Hotel nearby has a vegetarian restaurant with South Indian fare, and a pub that also serves non-vegetarian Chinese and Punjabi food (L.L.R. Road). The breakfast buffet at the Royal Orchid is extravagant and fantastic value for money at approx ₹250. Malnad specialties like kadubu (stuffed rice dumplings, eaten with chutney), jackfruit pancakes and patrode (a preparation of steamed colocasia leaves) are delicious, and available seasonally. Bananki Homestay offers all these to its guests (in addition to fantastic seafood preparations). A stay there is recommended, not least for the food.
The Malnad region in southern Karnataka encompasses parts of Shimoga, Chikmaglur and Hassan districts. Shimoga city is the region’s administrative hub, and lies around 190 km northeast of Mangalore and 280 km northwest of Bengaluru. Around Shimoga, most accommodations and points of interest are spread across Thirthahalli (60 km southwest), Sringeri (114 km southwest), Sagara (73 km northwest) and Bhadravati (20 km southeast). Shimoga is on the route from Mangalore and Bengaluru to Jog Falls; the falls are a further 100 km northwest.
Getting There and Around
Air The closest major airport to Shimoga is Mangalore, 190 km away.
Rail Shimoga is the primary railhead in the Malnad region. It has no direct trains from Mangalore. Trains are available from Bengaluru (5-7 hours).
Road Shimoga is around 200 km/4 hours from Mangalore along NH169. Air-conditioned buses are available from Mangalore for under ₹500. Thirthahalli is around 30 km/1 hour away from Shimoga on the road to Mangalore.
Rickshaws are available in most parts of Malnad, although visits to remote places like Kavale Durga and Kundadari Hill require cars/taxis.
Having personal transportation is a bonus. There are frequent KSRTC buses between Shimoga and Thirthahalli, which aren’t too crowded.
The Malnad region has mostly warm weather with summer (Apr-May) temperatures peaking at around 38°C in Shimoga and Bhadravati. It is slightly cooler near Thirthahalli because of the surrounding forests. There is heavy rainfall in the monsoon (Jun-Oct), and in winter (Nov-Feb) temperatures drop to around 18°C.
Appeared in the September 2012 issue as “Southern Picnic”. Updated in November 2016.
A giant staircase outside Kuvempu’s ancestral manor at Kuppalli leads to a structure that used to be the poet’s hilltop school (Kavishala). Stones of various sizes serve as seats, surrounded by tablets engraved with some of Kuvempu’s more famous verses. A little pedestal marks the spot where the Kannada poet once stood and taught his students, discussed the nuances of literature with his peers, or simply sat alone and sought inspiration. What’s curious, though, is the collection of stone structures placed all around the hilltop that look like doorways to the sunset. The carved stone pillars form an unabashed, if diminutive, replica of Stonehenge. At around ten feet tall, they aren’t nearly as imposing as their British counterparts. Locals say this is a memorial put there by the government after Kuvempu’s death in 1994, but nobody seems to know how or why it was done in this style. Either way, they lend an element of mystique that rather befits the silent hilltop.