In the quiet narrow back-lanes of Melkote, 150 kilometres from Bengaluru, old men and women lounge in the old verandahs of old-style houses—bestowing upon the delightfully small hilltop town, or rather village (population 3,305), a quaintly antique air. The streets have retained their timeless character with pilgrims’ rest houses, stone pavilions, maths (monasteries), kalyanis (cool water tanks), and a feeling of culture more or less unchanged since ancient days.
There’s for example Raja’s Street leading up through a gate. As I pass it an old man who looks like he might be a hundred years old points at it and says ‘thousand years.’ Beyond it, I come to the Cheluvanarayana Swamy temple at the town’s heart. Significant parts of this temple belong to the Hoysala era (c. A.D. 1000-1350), and it has some rather dramatic stucco sculptures on its outer wall facing Car Street: one of a lady entertaining herself with an elephant, another of a lady giving birth. On the corner, a colourful temple chariot is parked in its shed, awaiting the next big festival. Lakhs of Vishnu-worshipping pilgrims arrive in Melkote on festivals, as it is as important a Vaishnavite centre as Tirupati or Srirangam.
Further along Raja’s Street, up a prehistoric-looking set of stone steps, I discover a majestic ruin which looks like a half-built temple or maybe a royal viewing platform (very little is signposted in Melkote). On Google Maps the structure is marked as Raya Gopura, and it overlooks a series of deep stepped tanks; a combo of monuments supposedly built during the Vijayanagar or perhaps Hoysala rule as a gateway into town, but left unfinished. The structures have since then served as the backdrop for movies starring Aishwarya Rai and Rajinikanth. Whenever I stop at a mysterious edifice to admire it, and ask people what it is that I might be looking at, their stock answer is, “It is very old.”
I have truly travelled back in time. Once my taxi had left Bengaluru and turned onto the Mangalore highway at Nelamangala, the journey was a breeze through some of Karnataka’s most beautiful landscapes, vistas of lush paddy and millet fields dotted with palm trees and lined by rocky outcrops looking like the playground of prehistoric giants. After two hours of driving, I had turned onto narrower roads that eventually led uphill and I spotted the Yoganarasimha Swamy temple atop the highest peak of Melkote, said to mean ‘hill fort’ though there are not many traces of fort walls left to see. The little town is made for exploring on foot, crossing it from one end to the other takes barely 10 minutes. Wherever I walk, I sooner or later get to the edge of the cliff with stunning views.
Melkote is also a town of learning: There’s an 1850s Sanskrit College, a 1930s library of thousands of Sanskrit texts, a 1970s Academy of Sanskrit Research that follows the gurukul system, and the Indian Institute of Trans Disciplinary Research in the Philosophy of Ramanuja. The theologian Ramanuja (1017-1137) spent a good many years here, anywhere between 12 or 20, depending on whom you ask, during the time he was exiled by the Shiva-worshipping Cholas from Tamil Nadu. The then Hoysala king was converted by him to Vaishnavism and appointed Ramanuja his guru. The town’s founding in 1099 seems to be connected to his stay here, though it appears that a place of worship had already been established at Melkote, which, it is said, finds mention in the Puranic literature.
Apart from walking, eating is a great pastime here judging by the messes serving Iyengar Brahmin cooking. I’m invited to share a meal with a family in their 100-year-old home: a thali with a mix of Melkote style and classic Mysore dishes—lightly spiced vegetables, fragrant sambar, rice with curd, chapattis, the local sweet pongal, and the famous Melukote puliyogare: tamarind rice tempered with groundnuts, coconut, curry leaves and jaggery.
After digesting, I take a walk among the cliffs surrounding town. It’s quiet and only a lonely shepherd watching over his bleating flock keeps me company by offering me a slice of tasty papaya. Eventually, towards sunset, I climb up the peak to the town’s other signature temple, the Yoganarasimha Swamy that watches over pilgrims and population alike, and where macaques and langurs prey on the spillage of the snack stalls selling cold drinks and munchies. If it weren’t for the Coca-Cola advertisement painted on a stone wall, the scene could almost be set in Ramanuja’s time.
There’s not much nightlife and shopping is limited mostly to puja items for temple-goers. Many stalls and restaurants sell the classic Melukote Iyengar Puliyogare Mix, with the slogan ‘It’s not taste? Get money back!’ Just fry it with some leftover cooked rice and you have a meal. Although the town’s silk-weaving traditions appear mostly to have died out, there’s a khadi unit on the outskirts with an outlet in town. Known as Janapada Khadi it specialises in organic handwoven cotton clothes coloured with natural dyes from betel nut shells and pomegranate peels.
For an overnight stay, Melkote has the option of dharmsalas for pilgrims, a traveller’s bungalow and one or two small lodges such as the Yadhugiri Guest House, though apparently pilgrims are allowed to sleep the night on any porch or veranda. One can also stay comfortably at the resorts situated 30 kilometres away at Srirangapatnam, outside Mysore from where buses run to Melkote bus stand.
Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).
Jonas Gratzer is a Swedish freelance photojournalist with a focus on Asia. For almost a decade he has travelled through large parts of the Asiatic continent and covered issues of development, environmental, political and human rights.