Royal Tour of India
India’s little-known southwestern region is an enlightening place for the newcomer, with tea plantations and royal cities, fairy-tale palaces and bustling markets. What could be more inspiring than a road trip through Karnataka in a type 320 Open Touring Car.
Before the sun begins to sink below the horizon we have to step out of the car – lovely as it is – and into our hiking boots. There’s a hill to climb. A trail of 555 steps snakes uphill like a winding stone python. At the very top of Anjeyanadri Hill is the gleaming white temple said to be the birth place of Hanuman, the Hindu god in the form of a monkey. Sadhu priests murmur their mantras here as they meditate among the rocks.
It’s a place of enchantment: Hampi, in the south- west of India. For a few moments in the final minutes before the sun goes down, there is a veritable explosion of colour. On the plain below the Monkey Temple, the monsoon-green paddy fields hold the promise of a rich harvest; coconut palms line the neat parcels of land, their leaves dancing on the breeze.
Women from the villages make their way to the sluggish Tungabhadra River, where freshly washed saris make a splash of colour as they dry in the sun. The panorama is framed by hills formed of granite blocks that appear to be stacked on top of each other. In the evening light they glow like coals on an immense barbecue.
On the road to the old homeland
The clouds, which have been making a somewhat pallid impression all day, now also gradually assume a red hue against the darkening sky. This would be the perfect moment for treasure hunters Angelina Jolie or Alicia Vikander, aka Lara Croft, to appear on set, as the scenery here is characterised by ruins from a long-forgotten kingdom, like a location from Tomb Raider. Hampi is a lost city, complete with fortified walls, towers, shrines, ceremonial avenues, public baths for ritual washing and elephant stables. The gods themselves preferred four-wheel transportation: in front of Vitthala Temple stands a stone chariot used by Garuda, the messenger of the gods.
A modern but equally historical vehicle has been exploring this architectural treasure trove for several days. The man at the wheel is not going to be easily put off by dusty tracks and potholed side roads: when Dr Ravi Prakash has a goal in mind he makes sure he gets there. The heart surgeon from Bangalore is one of India’s biggest collectors of classic cars and a wellknown Mercedes-Benz enthusiast. He is travelling with his family to visit the most beautiful areas of the region of his birth
This would of course be possible in a current model with the Mercedes star on the bonnet, but a road trip like this in glorious weather is great fun with the top down, and everyone feels like a king in his car. The 1937 Mercedes-Benz 320, a long-wheelbase opentop tourer, was once owned by the Maharaja of Darbhanga. Ravi Prakash had it restored at great expense, and it is now finally ready to be taken for a drive. There’s plenty of room in the back, and we’re invited to come along for the ride.
Reminders of a glorious past stretch petrified across many square kilometres in Hampi. Five hundred years ago this was one of world’s great metropolises – the legendary capital of Vijayanagar, the last great Hindu empire in southern India, had a population of several hundred thousand. Then Hampi was plundered and destroyed, and, overgrown by jungle, it sank into oblivion. Hindu pilgrims do still arrive in their hordes, however, and the lost city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In India, people are rightly proud of this treasure in the state of Karnataka.
As big and important as Hampi once was – today it is more of an insider tip.
A surprise package
All in all, the state of Karnataka, located in the south west of the country between Goa, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, is something of a surprise package: look inside and you’ll be amazed at everything it contains. Sounds, sights, fragrances, flavours, textures: Ravi Prakash takes us on a safari that seduces all our senses. He navigates the touring car through the green jungle of Nagarhole National Park. We would be allowed to cross this huge nature reserve, part of southern India’s biggest conservation area, in the open-top classic, but as the wild animals are able to roam freely we tourists prudently opt for the safety of the rangers’ off-roader instead.
Anyone see a paw print in the mud or a tail twitch ing in the bush? There are supposed to be Bengal tigers and leopards here, but it looks like it’s their day off – along with the sloth bears and wild dogs. However, we do spy their prey: spotted chital and mouse-grey sambar deer. And we are also granted an audience by the real kings of this jungle: long-serving working elephants on patrol through the forest with their mahouts on their backs.
Afterwards, we get back into the 320, and now our more than 80-year-old veteran really has to work hard for the first time: the mountains are calling. The sun struggles through the morning fog that veils the plan tations in the uplands of Coorg. Here, Karnataka pre sents us with a seductive perfume, as the fragrance of jasmine is everywhere. There is more focus on coffee here than tea, and production is primarily for the export market.
The final stage of our tour takes us to Mysore, where our red Mercedes-Benz is allowed to park in front of the gleaming white Lalitha Mahal. The bustle of the flower market provides a contrast to the magnificent marble and the liveried waiters at the palace. Anyone not wishing to tie their own garlands for spiritual salvation can buy them here – along with sandalwood and silk, colour pigments and pieces of incense.
In the evening, as the night finally descends on the rooftops, Mysore is transformed into a fairy-tale town. Besides the lavish pomp of the audience halls of the Amba Vilas Palace, the town puts on an impressive show every Sunday evening, when the towers and cupolas, arches and windows are lit up by a hundred thousand light bulbs
Anyone who has not already fallen in love with Karnataka will surely fall under its irresistible spell at this point.
The city is as pretty as a picture all year round. In the mornings flowers are sold on the market. At lunchtime you can eat like a king in the ballroom of Lalitha Mahal Palace. In the evening, light bulbs cast their spell over the Amba Vilas residence
Visit Nagarhole National Park:
Will there be any tigers around? With a bit of luck you’ll see one of the big cats on the safari. The Dubare Elephant Camp is round the corner. Retired working elephants show visitors around the forest. You can give the pachyderms a scrub-down afterwards
Enjoy Vijayshree Resort:
The park-style retreat is close to Hampi Temple. Vegetarian cuisine is served, alcohol is banned, and the spa offers Ayurvedic treatments. Magicians and fortune tellers appear in a Heritage Village.
Relax Plantation Trails:
The green uplands of Coorg are the “Scotland of India”. Historic bungalows have survived among the vast coffee and tea plantations, now providing accommodation for tourists in the homes where the directors once lived.
Helge Bendl, photographer and author, often reports for our magazine from regions that Europeans like to refer to as “exotic”. The journey through India in the 320 was quite an experience even for this globetrotter.