Hilltop temples hold a special fascination for me, especially those that can only be accessed on foot. The changing flora, fauna, and views as you go higher, paths steeped in history, and the stories that lie hidden around every bend, all add intrigue to weary steps. One such hilltop gem is the Sidilu Mallikarjuna temple of Bettadapura.
Bettadapura is a small town en route Madikeri from Mysore. Here, rising 1600 feet from the surrounding plains, and standing at over 4350 feet above sea level, is a forested hill crowned by an ancient stone temple built during the Chola era, almost a millennium ago. Over 3000 steps lead up to this temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is believed that when lightning strikes the hill, the bolt enters the temple and circumambulates the deity; this is how it gets the name ‘Sidilu’, which means lightning in Kannada. During Deepavali, hundreds of people from the local villages walk around the hill and then climb up to offer prayers to the deity, all while carrying traditional fire torches of teak or rosewood. The rest of the year, the hill is rarely visited, and remains shrouded in mist and mystery.
One cloudy September morning, we drove down a winding road to the base of this hill, where there are several shrines, mantapas and gopuras dating back to various periods. The Cholas, Vijayanagara kings, and local Kodava rulers, have all added their touches to this sacred place. Yellow cassia flowers added a splash of colour to the large boulders and green undergrowth of the mist-covered hill. The steps rose steadily, with arches and small shrines breaking the monotony every 100 feet or so. Faint carvings on the steps added interest to the well-trodden stone.
Bulbuls, robins, babblers, and fantails chirped and flitted across the path and between shrubs. A large raptor made swoops in the air and landed on a distant boulder. As we passed under arches, rock agamas slid into crevices. Lichen growing on the rocks added grey, green, orange and purple hues and many textures to the old rock.
Many wildflowers in shades of purple, pink, white, and yellow grew along the steps. When we brushed against bushes, butterflies like pansies and leopards shifted lazily in their roosting places, without any sun to warm them today; only a pair of psyches rhythmically flapped their wings close to the ground, like fairies leading the way. As we climbed higher, the mist hung thicker, the wind howled louder, and the path got narrower. Fast-moving clouds rushed over ridges like flowing water, depositing droplets as they passed. On either side of the steps, old stone mantaps and temples kept appearing. We explored some and left others for another day.
As we were there just after the monsoon, green life had sprouted on every bit of exposed soil, which the wind shook violently as if meaning to uproot. The mist refused to lift its veil to afford us views from the many lookouts we passed. We arrived at a large rock with a perennial fresh water pond – a kalyani. A few skittering frogs floated without concern in this little haven. On a pile of boulders stood a tall stone pillar, atop which was a Nandi idol.
The temple complex is built atop the flat summit, with a retaining wall surrounding it. Although built with large rock slabs and pillars, parts of the temple seemed to have fallen into disrepair. Inscriptions in the old Kannada script are also seen on the facades. The inner chambers were dark but in good condition. Alarmed by our unexpected entrance, a few bats flew out, and we ducked out of their way. A small stone window opposite the sanctum sanctorum is where the lightning bolt is said to enter the temple from. Though the hill and temple wore a deserted look, the mist streaming through the doorway, the plants swaying in the wind, the droplets of water that formed garlands on every blade of grass, all added to the natural divinity of the place.
On the other side of the hill from where we climbed up, is another rarely used and very overgrown stone path, leading down to the opposite side of the hill. A short way down this path is a large boulder with another tall stone pillar with a Nandi idol atop it, similar to the one seen earlier while climbing up. We decided to carefully make our way down this path. The going was slow, since we had to move aside the tall grass and tread carefully on the slippery and much steeper path. Several large beehives are also seen hanging here from rocky outcrops, with honey buzzards circling in the sky above.
Further down this rear path is a cave temple of Rudra, which has a narrow tunnel said to lead up to the hilltop. From this point, the path became less steep and easier to follow. As if satisfied by our efforts, the veil of mist began to lift, enthralling us with views of little villages, sprawling farmland, and distant, blue hills. The howl of the wind now gave way to birdsong and butterflies.
Bettadapura, near Periyapatna, is situated on the Periyapatna – Hassan Road. It is about 57 km from Mysore and 68 km from Hassan. Water and food have to be carried, as nothing is available on the hill. It is better to climb down the same way as the climb up. If the back route is attempted, it is an additional 6-8 km around the hill to return to the village of Bettadapura.