Travel
The remote town located in the heart of Ballari district is home to Shivavilas Palace, which once belonged to the scion of the ruling family and is now a heritage hotel.
Shivavilas Palace | All pics by Susheela Nair

Overshadowed by the neighbouring UNESCO World Heritage site of Hampi, this remote town located in the heart of Karnataka’s mining district of Ballari remains fairly unexplored as a tourist destination. With its sedate pace, untouched beauty, rustic charm and pleasant weather, Mahatma Gandhi described Sandur as ‘an oasis’ when he stopped over for a few days in 1934. What makes Sandur distinctive is that it is hardly on the popular tourist itinerary and thankfully so. It came to be known only after the picturesque locales of Sandur formed the backdrop of the Kannada movie Manasa Sarovara, directed by Puttanna Kanagal.

In times of yore, the place was known as Skandapuri in honour of the temple dedicated to Skanda, or Kumaraswamy, that still stands today. Once upon a time, it sheltered panthers, deer, chinkaras or Indian gazelles, peacocks, set in one of the earth’s oldest rock formations. Thanks to the ban on illegal mining, the land continues to be teeming with flora and fauna, and deposits of iron and manganese ore. Today it is known as Sandur, which in local parlance means ‘town between hills’. It is an apt name for an area that is defined by a valley surrounded by forested hills, with two natural narrow gorges on either side, and the expanse of the Narihalla Reservoir.

Following the Forest department's travel advisory ‘See Sandur in September’, we embarked on a trip in September. We started with a visit to the 1200-year old Kumaraswamy temple built by the Chalukyas, now a protected monument. It was discovered by the local rulers, the Ghorpades, in the thickly-wooded Swamimalai hill in the 15th century. Though women were allowed to worship at the adjacent Parvathi and Shiva shrines, the Kumaraswamy temple was out of bounds for women for centuries. Initially special tin barricades and a curtain were hung across the precinct to prevent women from taking a peek at the idol of Kumaraswamy.

According to a temple priest, the reason for the biased attitude is the belief that Kumaraswamy, the son of Shiva and Parvathi, does not want to look at a woman. Legend has it that when his mother Parvathi found a bride for him, Kumaraswamy was shocked to find that the bride looked like her. He not only decided to forgo marriage but also vowed never to look at a woman. So, in deference to Kumaraswamy’s wishes, women were barred from this temple.

The head trustee of the Kumaraswamy temple, MY Ghorpade, a former Congress finance minister of Karnataka and also the last Maharaja of Sandur, felt that religion should not discriminate. Thanks to his progressive outlook, the ban on the entry of women into the temple was lifted in 1996. The Ghorpades, well-loved and respected by the locals, had declared the temple open to Scheduled Castes/ Scheduled Tribes as early as the 1930s. After learning of this on his visit to Sandur, Mahatma Gandhi wrote in his magazine, “A small state in south India has opened the temple to the Harijan, the heavens have not fallen.”

To delve deeper into Sandur’s history we start our royal exploration at the Shivavilas Palace, home of the scion of the ruling family who handed over his territory to the Government of India in 1949. Built in the 1900s, sprawling over 20 acres, and painstakingly restored in 1941, this palace started its operation as a WelcomHeritage Hotel in 2012. A driveway lined with trees leads to the red-domed palace.

Strolling around the palace, we felt we had travelled back in time. A bronze statue of a lady with a lamp in the open courtyard welcomed us. The palace has two floors of about 20,000 sq. ft each. The pillars, the corridors and the arches of the two floors overlook the courtyard. The first floor is the residential section with 12 rooms and suites of which the Maharani Suite is the pièce de résistance. The Maharaja Suite and the deluxe rooms are all equally impressive.

The ground floor houses the offices, dining hall, two temples, a billiards room with bar, and a ‘durbar hall’, a virtual museum of regalia and weaponry. The library is a treasure house of ancient books. Around the ground are a swimming pool, a spa, and a garage housing the Maharaja’s collection of vintage cars. This includes a hunting jeep, a Mercedes and a Dodge. The vintage edition photos and relics of the royal family, Lambani wall hangings, antique furniture, weathered cannons, elaborate embellishments on the pillars, delicate jali work – all transported us back to an earlier era. After a tour of the palace, we had Sandur Thali, a platter of north Karnataka dishes for lunch.

No trip to Sandur is complete without a visit to the Sandur Kushala Kala Kendra (SKKK), which is just a hop, skip and jump from the palace. The centre was started to revive and market traditional Lambani craft. As we walked into the SKKK premises, we saw a colourful group of Lambani women from the neighbouring settlements engrossed in creating magic and marvels out of scraps. It was fascinating to watch them fashioning rhythms with needle and thread. Using thread pulled from old saris, they sewed together small pieces of cloth to create beautiful garments, linen and accessories. They create wonders with their applique patch work and thread embroidery with mirrors, shells, wooden beads, coins and other tiny metallic jewellery to add more shine and elegance to the fabric.

The designs, motifs and colours are inspired by images from their nomadic lifestyle and their folk traditions and rituals. Traditionally, these painstakingly created items were an essential part of the bridal trousseau. In the past, work on a trousseau began as soon as a girl was born! SKKK owes its existence to the initiative and involvement of Sandur Manganese and Iron Ores Limited (SMIORE). The centre has also units for khadi, cane, bamboo, stone and wood sculpting, traditional block-printing and natural dyeing.

Susheela Nair is an independent food, travel and lifestyle writer, and photographer based in Bangalore. She has contributed content, articles and images on food, travel, lifestyle, photography, environment and ecotourism to several reputed national publications. Her writings constitute a wide spectrum, including guide books, brochures and coffee table books.