I sat down to catch my breath, entreating the rest of my party to move ahead: I realised that I had grossly underestimated the Savandurga trek. I watched mortified as people several years senior to me clambered up the monolith with the grace of a mountain goat. It is no mean feat to conquer this monolithic structure, one of the largest in Asia, and I was astounded to see the wide age range of people scaling its steep incline. Unable to convince myself to get on with the trek, I decided instead to savour the magnificent view unfolding before me – a vast expanse of lush, green forest that held as much history as it did a multitude of life forms. If I had ventured a bit farther up, I would also have been privy to the beauty of the Arkavathy River winding its way through Manchanabele village on the near horizon. A gentle breeze brought with it the melodious sounds of the temple bells from the Sri Lakshmi Narasimhaswamy Temple below, from where we had commenced our ascent.
Standing tall at 1226 metres above mean sea level, Savandurga finds mention as the secondary capital of Kempegowda, and was considered to be one of the trickiest forts to conquer, until Lord Cornwallis defeated Tipu Sultan in 1791, and it was ceded to the British Empire. It was documented as ‘Savandi’ during the Hoysala Dynasty’s rule in the early 14th century, and a temple dedicated to Sri Savandi Veerabhadraswamy is located at the base of Savandurga hill. At a later period, under the Mysore rulers, the prison fort atop the hill was also known as Savina Durga (‘fort of death’ in Kannada), owing to its imposing and tough character. Today, only the remnants of the fort lie on the hill, along with ancient temple ruins at the hill’s base.
With the passage of time, the austerity associated with the hills of Savandurga mellowed, and the monolith turned into a bustling trekking destination due to its proximity to Bengaluru. With a chasm separating it into two hills, the trek along Savandurga has two distinct trails – Karigudda (black hill) and Biligudda (white hill), with the former more rock-strewn and shrubbier than the latter. The general public is allowed access only to the Biligudda trail, largely a relatively barren, sloping terrain. An entry fee is charged. The path is easily recognisable, with tourists and trekkers thronging this trail that starts near Sri Lakshmi Narasimhaswamy Temple.
Despite the fact that the chief attraction of Savandurga lies in its conquest by trek, with the trail ending in a mantapa atop the hill where a lone Nandi sits surveying the madness of humanity, the base of the monolith harbours its own treasure trove. Thick green foliage accompanies the trail that meanders towards Karigudda, and it is here that we were treated to euphonic birdsong emanating from a fruiting fig tree near a barbed wire fence. The usual suspects of Coppersmith Barbets, Red-vented Bulbuls, Jungle Mynahs and Asian Koel jostled amongst the branches, vying for ripe fruits. Nearby, a Blue-faced Malkoha lurked restlessly in the shrubbery with its characteristic wide-eyed countenance, peeking out of the undergrowth every now and then. Canoodling pairs of Laughing Doves fluttered away as we approached their cosy nook, while a White-browed Bulbul looked on longingly at a Green Bee-eater tossing and devouring its prey. Indian Robins hopped about, pausing now and then to provide photo opportunities to aspiring photographers.
Birds aside, the rocks of Savandurga host a number of reptiles and mammals as well. While the region does not support the presence of large mammals such as elephants owing to its terrain, there have been records of the Indian Leopard, Sloth Bear, Wild Boar, Indian Grey Mongoose, palm civets, and Black-naped Hare. Perhaps the most easily and frequently sighted wildlife here are reptilian species like rock agamas and lizards. We came across many of these charismatic creatures scurrying across the rock faces and freezing instantly once they realised they were under scrutiny. An adult Peninsular Rock Agama with its gorgeous rust and black colouration stood out prominently, whilst the females and juveniles merged against the craggy granite, the camouflage aiding their survival.
Besides the thriving avian and reptilian species, Savandurga offers more visual treats to non-trekkers. A few rock formations on and around the monolith fascinated me, giving wing to my imagination. Near the Karigudda trail, my attention shifted from the fig-gorging birds to a large boulder near the fig tree – a curved structure that ended in a jagged, upturned edge. I only had to blink once and behold, the ancient rock had turned itself into a giant tortoise! Another small cluster of rocks had caught my attention while driving towards Savandurga – a rock arrangement looking suspiciously similar to a watchdog sitting on its haunches and guarding the settlement below the boulders. One only has to look for such wonderful rock formations around the monolith to conjure up fantastical sights.
While such delights keep non-trekkers satiated at Savandurga, discerning trekkers are proffered varied layers of experiences and difficulty in scaling the monolith. Interestingly enough, there are indentations made on the rock face that provide a better grip and somewhat eases the challenge in the ascent as well as the descent. It goes without saying though that it is always prudent to visit Savandurga early in the morning and in the non-monsoon months, to escape the heat and the rain.
Speaking to the rest of my entourage who successfully managed to complete the trek, I perceived their palpable thrill as they described the magnificent view from the summit. Atop, there are small pools of rainwater collected in depressions in the rocks, supporting vegetation such as Rotala fimbriata, they said. At the lower elevation, I had observed Centranthera indica, or the Indian Spur-anther Flower plant, growing along the nooks and crannies of rocks jutting along the trail, its bright pink-purple flowers breaking the grey monotony of the rock.
With the return of my group to the “base camp” where I sat shielded between two large rocks for shade, we started our descent. Thus my trekking adventure was a damp squib; Savandurga had scored a big one over me. Non-trekkers can take solace in the fact that it still made for a pleasant outing. I am, however, hopeful of surmounting the monolith on another visit, another day. Apparently, Yellow-throated Bulbuls are found at the higher inclines, and that alone is a reason to return to Savandurga. Until then, the monsoon will perhaps give Nandi some relief from the swarming crowds, and take him back in time.