Travel Bucket List – India: Karnataka Part 1

The southwestern state of Karnataka was formed on 1 November 1956, with the passage of the States Reorganisation Act. Originally known as the State of Mysore, it was renamed Karnataka in 1973 and the state corresponds to the Carnatic region with the capital and its lagest city being Bengaluru.

The state is bordered by the Arabian Sea to the west, Goa to the northwest, Maharashtra to the north, Telangana to the northeast, Andhra Pradesh to the east, Tamil Nadu to the southeast, and Kerala to the south. It is the only southern state to have land borders with all of the other 4 southern Indian sister states. The state covers an area of about 5.83 percent of the total geographical area of India and is the sixth largest Indian state by area and the eighth largest state by population. Karnataka is the fourth largest state in terms of economy. The state language is Kannada, which is one of India’s classical languages. One unique aspect of Karnataka is that the state contains some of India’s only villages where the ancient language of Sanskrit is primarily spoken.

The generally accepted notion for the state name is that the word Karnataka is derived from the Kannada words karu and nādu, which means “elevated land”. Karu Nadu may also be read as karu, meaning “black” and nadu, meaning “region”, as a reference to the black cotton soil found in the Bayalu Seeme region of the state. The ancient Tamil scripture, Shilappadigaram has references to Karunaadaar, which refer to this region, which some experts believe is the sanskritised version of Kannadar referring to the two tribes of Kanna and Nadar who lived in this area. There is also some reference to Karnata Desa in ancient texts which could also be why the state got the name Karnataka. The early references to Karnata Desa can be found in texts like Sambhava Parva and Bhisma Parva of the Mahabharata. The British used the word Carnatic, sometimes Karnatak, to describe both sides of peninsular India, south of the Krishna.

With an antiquity that dates to the paleolithic, Karnataka has been home to some of the most powerful empires of ancient and medieval India. The philosophers and musical bards patronised by these empires launched socio-religious and literary movements which have endured to the present day. Karnataka has contributed significantly to both forms of Indian classical music, the Carnatic and Hindustani traditions.

Karnataka’s pre-history goes back to a paleolithic hand-axe culture as evidenced by discoveries of, among other things, hand axes and cleavers in the region. Gold discovered in Harappa was found to be imported from mines in Karnataka, prompting scholars to hypothesise about contacts between ancient Karnataka and the Indus Valley Civilisation. Prior to the third century, most of Karnataka formed part of the Nanda Empire before coming under the Mauryan empire of Emperor Ashoka. Four centuries of Satavahana rule followed, allowing them to control large areas of the state. The decline of Satavahana power led to the rise of the earliest native kingdoms, the Kadambas and the Western Gangas, marking the region’s emergence as an independent political entity. The Kadamba Dynasty, founded by Mayurasharma, had its capital at Banavasi in northern Karnataka while the Western Ganga Dynasty was formed with Talakad as its capitalclose to the border with Tamil Nadu. These were also the first kingdoms to use Kannada in administration.

These were followed by imperial Kannada empires such as the Badami Chalukyas, the Rashtrakuta Empire of Manyakheta and the Western Chalukya Empire, who ruled over large parts of the Deccan and had their capitals in what is today the state of Karnataka. The Western Chalukyas patronised a unique style of architecture and Kannada literature which became the precursor to the Hoysala art of the 12th century. Parts of modern-day Southern Karnataka, also known as Gangavadi were occupied by the Chola Empire at the turn of the 11th century. In early 12th century, this region was the bone of contention between the Cholas and the Hoysalas before eventually coming under Hoysala rule.

At the turn of the first millennium, the Hoysalas gained power in the region. Literature flourished during this time, which led to the emergence of distinctive Kannada literary metres and the construction of temples and sculptures adhering to the Vesara style of architecture and the expansion of the Hoysala Empire brought minor parts of modern Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu under its rule. In the early 14th century, Harihara and Bukka Raya established the Vijayanagara empire with its capital, Hosapattana, later named Vijayanagara, on the banks of the Tungabhadra River in modern Bellary district. The empire rose as a bulwark against Muslim advances into South India, which it completely controlled for over two centuries.

In 1565, Karnataka and the rest of South India experienced a major geopolitical shift when the Vijayanagara empire fell to a confederation of Islamic sultanates in the Battle of Talikota. The Bijapur Sultanate, soon took control of the Deccan but was defeated by the Mughals in the late 17th century.  The Bahmani and Bijapur rulers encouraged Urdu and Persian literature as well as the Indo-Saracenic architecture, the Gol Gumbaz being one of the high points of this style. During the 16th century, Konkani Hindus migrated to Karnataka, mostly from Salcette, Goa, while during the 17th and 18th centuries, Goan Catholics migrated to the North Canara and South Canara regions, as a result of food shortages, epidemics and heavy taxation imposed by the Portuguese.

In the period that followed, parts of northern Karnataka were ruled by the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Maratha Empire, the British, and others. The Mysore Kingdom, a former vassal of the Vijayanagara Empire, in south Karnataka was briefly independent, but with the death of Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar II, Haidar Ali, the commander-in-chief of the Mysore army, gained control of the region. After his death, the kingdom was inherited by his son Tipu Sultan, both of whom four significant Anglo-Mysore wars to contain the European expansion in South India, the last of which resulted in Tippu Sultan’s death and the incorporation of Mysore into the British Raj in 1799. The Kingdom of Mysore was restored to the Wodeyars and Mysore remained a princely state under the British Raj.

Dissent and resistance from princely states from across the country fanned the flames of rebellions in Karnataka in 1830 and by the late 19th century, the independence movement had gained momentum leading to India’s independence in 1947. After independence, the Maharaja of Mysore, Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar, acceded his kingdom’s to India and in 1950, Mysore became an Indian state of the same name with the former Maharaja serving as its Rajpramukh or head of state until 1975. Following the long-standing demand of the Ekikarana Movement, the Kodagu and Kannada-speaking regions from the adjoining states of Madras, Hyderabad and Bombay were incorporated into the Mysore state, under the States Reorganisation Act of 1956 and the newly expanded state was renamed Karnataka, in 1973.

The state has three principal geographical zones – the coastal region of Karavali, the hilly Malenadu region comprising of the Western Ghats and the Bayaluseeme region comprising the plains of the Deccan Plateau. The bulk of the state is in the Bayaluseeme region, the northern part of which is the second-largest arid region in India.


The diverse linguistic and religious ethnicities native to the state, combined with their long histories, have contributed immensely to the varied cultural heritage of Karnataka. Apart from Kannadigas, Karnataka is home to the Tuluvas, Kodavas and Konkanis. Minor populations of Tibetan Buddhists and tribes like the Soligas, Yeravas, Todas and Siddhis also live here. Yakshagana of Malnad and coastal Karnataka, a classical dance drama, is one of the major theatrical forms of Karnataka. Sringeri in   previously. The Dusshera festival of Mysore is a highlight of the state and is famous all over the world.

In terms of tourism, the state has something for everyone. Be it ancient sculptured temples, modern cities, scenic hill ranges, forests or beaches, this state has everything. Karnataka has been ranked as the fourth most popular destination for tourism among the states of India and has the second highest number of nationally protected monuments in India, second only to Uttar Pradesh. In addition to 752 monuments protected by the State Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, there are 25,000 monuments yet to receive protection.

As I explore each state, I will start with the capital city of Bengaluru which is very close to my heart, then it’s cultural heart, Mysuru followed by other major cities and then some beaches from its coastline, wildlife reserves and hillstations. So let’s explore Bengaluru in our next post.

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