At 4a.m., Bangalore’s raspy din is muted, craftily pretending to sleep before the dawn chorus of screaming cuckoos, auto-rickshaws, and dusty commuters spark the city to life. Crumbling pavement stones droop unthreateningly, easily avoidable in the empty street. Those streetlights fortunate enough to be granted electricity scribble their signatures between the potholes and open sewers. Everything lies in wait.
We don’t witness this scene too frequently. This unearthly scenario is reserved for the special excursions that draw us out of our cocoon like reluctant scavengers. We have to wake up the guard that is minding our building’s gate so he can open the cheap padlock that keeps us safe from whatever or whoever lurks at this hour.
Our friends pull up in their mini-van, their two kids nearly awake, slumped in the backseat. We squeeze inside, whisper good-mornings and set off through the darkness. It’s the only time that driving through these typically infested streets—horns blaring like feral macaques, lane-markings ignored—can be pleasurable. Soon, we reach the edge of the city and for the next hour-and-a-half, we watch the sun rise over villages that pepper the countryside west of Bengaluru.
Savandurga, a giant rock that rises nearly 300 metres above the Deccan Plateau, is one of Asia’s largest monoliths. From the base, we can just about make out the white roof of the temple, which houses the carved statue of Nandi at the summit. The sun is still low enough to keep the rock cool when we set off and there are hardly any other hikers around. Our backpacks are full of water bottles and a healthy picnic of boiled eggs, freshly baked bread and, my wife’s speciality, Spanish tortilla. There is solace in knowing the load will be significantly lighter on the way down.
Within minutes of our ascent, there is some question of our fitness. My gimpy knee keeps reminding me of my age, my wife’s plantar fascia suggests she may need to be carried some of the way, and our son complains of the over-strenuous activity at this early hour, even though he’s already a hundred metres ahead of us. The steepness of Savandurga is deceptive, especially on the lower half where the bare rock offers no hint at progress.
After 10 minutes, four men appear from nowhere and overtake us, casually and confidently, chatting among each other. Here we are with our hiking boots, footwear robust enough to climb the Himalayas, wearing ventilated shorts and t-shirts, carrying water and food, scaling this rock like it’s the final frontier. These local men wearing trousers or dhotis, shirts and jackets, carrying no provisions and without so much as rubber chappals on their feet, climb past us like they’re strolling through a shopping mall. I swear I hear them chuckling at us as they pass.
Before long, they’ve left us in their dust. We tell ourselves our slow progress is intentional; that we must enjoy the spectacles Savandurga provides, even though we haven’t yet climbed high enough for the horizon to appear appreciably lower. Reaching the steepest section of our climb, we’re pleased to see that makeshift stairs have been hand-hewn into the rock face. This makes our foothold easier but slows us down even more. The sun continues to rise, its relentless heat reflecting off the sheer pink as if the granite was a mirror.
About halfway up Savandurga, we pause for water among the ruined parapets of an old fortress, its crumbling red brick wall providing a hint of shade. These are some of the last remnants of one of the strategic outposts of Kempegowda, the chieftain who founded Bengaluru. The barefoot men, I notice, did not stop to rest.
Up ahead, we find pools of rainwater that have accumulated in the sensual hollows carved out by centuries of wind erosion. From these oases grow lush acacia trees and heather-like shrubs that belie the barrenness of this rock. Higher still, as the steep terrain levels off, an entire forest grows from between the boulders. Just beyond this we see the tiny Nandi temple built on the cliff edge at Savandurga’s highest point.
This is when the four barefoot men reappear. They’re making their way down, passing us without so much as a nod our way. In the three hours it took us to march up, these men had made it to the top, finished their prayers at the temple and would likely return to the base, reclaiming their flip-flops, before we even have the chance to stroke Nandi’s haunches.
For us, this is an exercise in commitment; a full day’s adventure to quell the surging monotony of city-dwelling and to remind us that the journey is the destination. To enjoy the outdoors so that there is some solace in being forced indoors.
We reach the summit of Savandurga. We have our picnic. The kids still have enough energy to climb boulders while the grown-ups clamour for the limited shade and worry about running out of water before we return to the base. On a clear day, we’re told, we could see as far as Bengaluru.
The mini-van is quiet on the drive back home. We’ve been up for eight hours and have already had enough exercise for the month. Everyone but the driver naps. The air conditioning is a welcome luxury.
The city is awake as we tiptoe back. Shops and markets are open, heaving with fruit, flowers, and homeware; painted lorries cut each other off as they vie for space on the narrow roads; children play makeshift cricket in every empty dirt lot, and there are people everywhere—but I’ve stopped noticing.
Savandurga is around 50 km/2 hours from Bengaluru by road.
By car, take the Magadi Road/State Highway 17E. The last petrol station is at Tavarekere. There is free parking near Lakshmi Narasimha Temple.
Alternatively, take a bus from Kempegowda (Majestic) Bus Station in Bengaluru to Magadi, and catch another bus to Savandurga, or cover the 12km distance by auto.
The ascent and descent should take 2 to 6 hours depending on fitness levels. There is no entry fee, and a guide is not necessary. Hike early in the morning to beat the heat. Carry at least a litre of drinking water per person. There is no lodging nearby, however you can get thatte idli at a restaurant in the village of Nayakanapalya, 3km before Savandurga.