First scrub your elephant

7th July 2006 at 01:00
Karnataka in south India is less famous than Goa and Kerala, but equally alluring. Renata Rubnikowicz discovers the jungle resorts, nature reserves and palaces where Bangalore's computercrats recharge

The Indian boom city of Bangalore has a silicon valley all of its own which is fast becoming the biotech hub of India. Karnataka, the state of which Bangalore is capital, is less well known. Yet its beaches are not as developed as those of its neighbour Goa and its nature reserves rival those of its other neighbour Kerala. Add India's budget airline boom which makes it a short hop from Goa, and Karnataka must be on the brink of its own boom time.

We drive down the coast from Goa through the Western Ghats, a long and wearying journey; a viciously winding road and jetlag are not a good combination. For diversion we play "spot the ambassador car" and point out the trucks, brightly decorated with improving messages ("Save oil, save India"). The homeward leg, flying on Kingfisher Airlines, with an excellent curry lunch and seatback videos, makes the trip less of a journey and more of a holiday. (Contact to offset your travel carbon emissions.) Weekending computercrats from the city can choose from two generations of jungle resort on Kabini Lake at the entrance to Nagarahole National Park.

Kabini River Lodge has a long colonial history: Mountbatten met his future wife Edina there, on a shooting party with the Maharaja of Mysore. My spacious room features a photograph of a 1932 hunting party which had bagged a tiger 10ft 4in long, the width of my living room at home. Both Kabini River Lodge and its neighbour Cicada Kabini, a new eco-resort, offer drives through the forest and an opportunity to study the wild environment with those who are making it their life's work.

Although this national park is home to one of the biggest concentrations of large wild mammals in Asia, you won't see the animals as close up as you might on an African safari. A dawn coracle ride on the lake is notable for the pond herons flying out of the grey mist, while on Jeep rides through the forest it's the silence, the many shades of green and the occasional glimpse of giant gaur or elephant you appreciate more than the roar of the tiger.

Hoysala Village Resort near Hassan is a good resting place when visiting the ancient twin temples of Belur and Halebid. The detail on these temples is so profuse, and the culture it describes so rich, that we need an expert guide to get a toehold on understanding it. Rows of carving mount from stone skirting to parapet, with child-friendly elephants and birds on the lower levels, and erotic carvings on the top shelf, as it were, above the heads of those too young to see them.

In Karnataka today, many religions co-exist: Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Jain. At the Hindu temple in Udupi - a centre of pilgrimage where the sights, sounds and scents give a total immersion into another culture - the temple elephant, who "blesses" those who give donations with his trunk, is trained by a Muslim, as are most elephants in this region. A different kind of richness is celebrated at the Maharaja's Palace at Mysore, where painted and decorated Victorian pillars made in Glasgow support glass ceilings with peacock designs, and a roomful of stuffed tigers is succeeded by one bristling with swords.

Outside the city, Tipu Sultan's summer palace, once the home of the Duke of Wellington, tells of the battles for South India and the history of the Raj. Whether you are eating in international hotels, such as the modern Southern Star in Mysore, or country resorts, south India's food is something to celebrate every day. There's no going back to toast after a breakfast of light pancakes with spiced vegetables, coconut relish and hot sambal sauce followed by slices of mango and a cup of local organically grown coffee.

Some of the coffee is grown at Orange County Resort, a riverside plantation in the Coorg Hills, which is also an eco-resort. Guests can choose to take a dip in the black depths of its infinity pool or an early morning nature walk around the plantation with Ganesha, the resort's enthusiastic and knowledgeable naturalist, who knows every bird call and plant on the estate. He explains how local children help pollinate the vanilla flowers by hand before school, and how the farmers here borrow trained elephants to deter their wild brothers and sisters from trampling the crops. These wild elephants are wily, using bunches of leaves to grip electric fences and bridging protective fences with logs. Ganesha complains that he sometimes runs into them when he is cycling into work before dawn.

Later in the day, we cross the shallow rapids of the Karveri river to the Dubare Elephant Reserve. After their day's work in the forest, the trained elephants come down to the river to be washed and to get their teatime feed of large balls of special dhal, followed by sweet jaggery. They are semi-wild and can bunk off anytime they want, which the females are prone to do, returning to their mates in the forest for nights of passion. Before tea, they must wash, and we are there to help. Wading in the river, I splash cooling water over Ammi, an ancient mother elephant aged over 80, and Parashuram, a baby of two, who plays with us, rolling over and splashing. In the river beside me is a cool guy in immaculate hip hop gear.

"Where are you from?" I ask, anticipating the answer. "Bangalore," he says.

"Well, it makes a change after a week on the computer."

Avion Holidays (020 8492 3531, specialises in tailor-made tours to India, including Karnataka. Further information: The Commission of Tourism for Karnataka (,

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