A weekend well spent – revisiting Gandikota

Image Credits: Abhijithhopz [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

I had had enough of my US cousin’s ranting about his trip to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. I decided that Aditya (or Adi as he likes to be called) had to witness the magnificence of India’s very own Grand Canyon at Gandikota. Though I had been to Gandikota once, one more weekend trip dedicated to our magnificent Gandikota wouldn’t hurt. In fact, it was something I looked forward to.

A quaint little village, Gandikota is tucked away within the Kadapa district of the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Lying on the banks of the Pennar river, this picturesque location seamlessly blends nature and heritage into its fold. Packed and ready, Adi and me took off, me, all eager to introduce Adi to this hidden travel destination of India.

We drove from Bangalore through NH 44 leaving home early. We had plans of visiting the fort once we reached Gandikota and trying some water sports at the Lake before camping at the lake for the night. The next day was reserved for Belum caves.

The first glimpse of the gorge was simply mind-blowing, I didn’t think I would feel like that again on my second visit but I did. The gorgeous view of the Pennar river peacefully making its way through the stony gorge below was like an artist’s masterpiece on nature’s canvas. And to think that all this had taken over a thousand years of the Pennar river snaking it’s way through the Errramala range of mountains.! The sparkling green river, flocks of birds flying against the backdrop of the azure sky, and the stunning rock formations all around redefined the meaning of the word surreal! Adi wanted to simply sit atop the gorge and take in everything and I couldn’t agree more. There was no better way we could have done justice to the view and this moment!

Satisfied and energised, we got up to then scale the heights of the gorge. The long and arduous climb left us panting but the breath-taking views unfolding as we ascended made it all worth it.

Gandikota Fort

We decided to visit the Gandikota Fort next. Though the gorge is Gandikota’s defining feature, the Fort has always been a curious spectacle to prospective explorers. A monument that has passed through the test of time, it is truly not to be missed. Even a leisurely walk along the fort’s perimeter wall is said to be an experience in itself which indeed it was. Every stone seemed to have a story to tell and we couldn’t help ourselves but be drawn towards the chronicles of the Fort’s glorious past.

This 13th century structure was fashioned out of red sandstone and embellished with intricate carvings. With 101 bastions, all of which are more than 12 metres high, the fort is a symbol of Gandikota’s strength and power. Surrounded by natural deep valleys and impassable hills, there could be no better strategic position for a Fort than next to a deep and unforgiving gorge.

Once upon a time, the fort would inspire fear within the hearts of enemies. Today, it is revered with awe and respect.

Originally a sand fort built by the subordinate of a Chalukya king, Kapa Raja, in the early 1120’s, the fort was later annexed by invaders of the Khilji dynasty. It was in 1336 that the Khilji armies were driven out by the legendary Vijayanagara Empire. The Vijayanagara rulers then gave Gandikota to its commanders, who later came to be known as the Kamma kings. The Kamma Kings ruled for over 200 years and expanded the small Gandikota fort to the majestic edifice it is today.

Greeting us graciously at the entrance of the fort was the Pigeon Tower, a well-maintained structure with four minarets atop its roof. True to its name, we could see many pigeons alighted up there.

Near the tower was an old fort jail. Adi and me took one look at the gloomy stone building and were at once grateful that we were not among the unfortunate few imprisoned here in the times of war.

We walked through the fort taking in all that it housed. The Gandikota Fort is home to the exquisite Jamia Masjid, an edifice where religion and architecture fuse together elegantly. This time I noticed many things that I had missed before – the intricate domes and lofty arches that were constructed in typical Indo-Saracenic style. A stroll through the prayer courtyard of the Masjid led us to a beautifully carved Mihrab, a curved alcove indicating the direction in which the prayers have to be held.

Opposite to the Masjid lies an ancient water tank called Kattula Koneru, named so because it was used to clean the swords (Kattalu) of the soldiers after a battle.

We were fascinated to find out that the Jamia Masjid was not the only place of worship atop the fort. The Ranganatha and Madhavaraya temples are also sought out by travellers for their ancient stone architecture.

Ranganatha Swamy Temple Ruins
Ranganatha Swamy Temple Ruins

The Ranganatha Swamy temple embodies the proverb ‘Do not judge a book by its cover’. Our journey through the entrance of the temple was plain and unassuming. However, a few more steps inside brought us to an elegant mantapa with aesthetically carved pillars and other stone works. This temple does not have an idol but is compensated by numerous images from Indian mythology which decorate its interiors. We spent a few minutes silently walking through the temple, experiencing the peace and serenity that seemed to exist there.

We walked towards the Madhavaraya temple. Spectacular both inside and out, the majestic temple gateway beckoned to us, inviting us into its hallowed halls. Adi was in awe of the carvings of Gods and Goddesses in every stone of the temple’s gate and halls. Each and every one of them were made with such mastery that they seem to have come to life.

 

Rayalacheruvu Lake

Tired from our walk around the fort, the Rayalacheruvu Lake adjacent to the fort was a welcome sight. We mentally thanked  King Krishnadevaraya for creating this Lake using the pristine water of the Pennar river. Neither of us were upto kayaking or coracle rowing that day so we decided to enjoy the sights and sounds of the place –  the tranquil waters of the lake, the flocking birds amidst the backdrop of Erramala hills and the myriad of colours upon the skyline. It was truly a heavenly sight!

Camping

We had come equipped with camping gear for the night. We had an early dinner at the Haritha resorts of APTDC. Adi had never camped in India and he was as excited as I was in pitching up our tent by the lake area allocated for camping. Neither of us could remember when we dozed off. Our tired bodies must have relaxed amidst the cool breeze from the water and gazing up at the starry night sky.  

We got up to daylight and the noises of nature, something we weren’t accustomed to in our city lives. We had plans to try out rock climbing and rappelling that morning. However, we decided to skip these so that we could visit the Mylavaram dam before heading to Belum Caves.

10 kilometeres from Gandikota,  the Mylavaram Dam is a beautiful reservoir on the Pennar River, often touted as a must-visit tourist spot.

The view from the dam was spectacular. We could see miles and miles of shimmering blue water perfectly contrasting with the greenery of the horizon. We were told that the sunsets were spectacular. As the sun dipped below the horizon, the fleeting colours of dusk begin to fade away and the Pennar river is bathed in orange-yellow hues. But today, we would have to miss this, maybe another time.

We found out that the tourism department of Andhra Pradesh had set up a boat club in the backwaters of Mylavaram Dam in order to attract more tourists. Here, one can indulge in various water sports activities like speed boat and kayaking. For lack of time, we skipped the water sports and headed straight to the Mylavaram museum, a small treasure trove with interesting artefacts here from ages long forgotten.

An hour and a half later, we were on our way to Belum Caves, ready to explore India’s second longest cave system. We were not sure what to expect here. Adi had been to one long ago and I had never visited one. My last trip to Gandikota hadn’t included a visit to the caves and I was as excited as Adi was. Belum Caves….here we come.

Belum Caves

Winding tunnels, gorgeous stalactite formations awaited us as we stepped into the Belum caves. It is believed that these caves were once inhabited by ancient monks who came down here in search of inner peace. Adi and me didn’t think we could ever stay in a cave, but we were ever ready to explore one!

The descent to the cave was fairly effortless. Staircases with railings guided us into the depths of the caves inner belly. The artificial lighting created a mysterious aura and we felt that we were right in the middle of a sci-fi movie scene! Flashes of orange, purple and blue highlighted the contours of the rock formation.

We noticed a curious formation of the stalactites in the shape of a tiger’s jaw at the entrance to the caves. Perhaps this is why it is called the Pillidwaram or ‘the cat gate’. It was through this entrance that we took our first steps into the hidden caves of Belum.

Our journey through the tunnels of Belum led us to huge caverns, each displaying an array of stalagmite and stalactite formations similar to that of Renaissance paintings. Nature’s art was truly spellbinding! The miracles of Belum caves did not end here. Further down as we made our way through the winding passages, we reached the Saptasvarala Guha or the Musical Cave.

Saptasvarala means ‘7 musical notes’. Instinctively, I brushed my fingers upon the stones, only to hear gentle music emanating from them. This was true rock music, pun intended.

We went deeper and deeper into the cave, losing ourselves in its infinite hidden oddities. At the deepest end of the cave, we had reached the Pataalaganga, or ‘the Ganga of the underworld’, an underwater perennial stream flowing towards depths unknown. Many unusual living organisms had been found in the waters here.

The exit of the cave led us to a large white statue of Lord Buddha seated atop an open lotus. After hours of exploring the dark caves, the Buddha was a welcoming sight to the eyes.

Now that we had seen most, if not all, of the wonderful sights that Gandikota and Belum had to offer, we started off on our return journey home. Adi had truly enjoyed the experience of India’s Grand Canyon and a first-time cave visit. I knew this for sure as I heard him excitedly narrate every detail of our trip to his mother on the phone, as we drove back to Bangalore. After all, he had me to thank for his weekend discovery and I was proud to have introduced him to this. And I no longer would have to hear about his Arizona trip!

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