From a floating church to temples that tell stories, the district of Hassan in Karnataka harbours in its hinterland relics of contrasting pasts. By Mary Ann Isaac
The heart of Karnataka brims with temples boasting Hoysala architecture, echoes of Carnatic music, bright flowers waiting to be picked to garland a deity, and the aroma of mouthwatering food.
The state was also home to 19th-century French missionaries, who have left a mark on the architecture of the region. One such region with a discernible French hangover is the village of Shettihalli, located in the Hassan district of Karnataka. It is offbeat in every sense of the word, and holds secrets that, once unravelled, enthrall any traveller.
It is in pursuit of one such secret that I land at the gates of the abandoned 19th-century Rosary Church in Shettihalli, an 18-kilometre drive from the temple town of Hassan. ‘The Sunken Church’ or ‘The Floating Church’, as it is popularly known, remains submerged in water half the year. Built by French missionaries in the 1860s in the once thriving village of Shettihalli, the church was abandoned after the Hemavati Dam was constructed in the town in 1960. Though derelict and ghostly, this imposing structure takes my breath away with its Gothic architecture. I can’t but commend the missionaries, not just for this brilliant feat of architecture but also for getting their gospel to this far-flung region.
I arrive here during the monsoon, when the structure and its surroundings are submerged in water from the nearby dam, making the area uninhabitable. From the bank, I spot delicate spires, stained glass windows, arches, and rib vaulted ceilings that are reminiscent of French churches around the world. Years of neglect coupled with life in water has resulted in the poor state of its ceilings and windows, but the base still stands strong. The locals tell me that it is built with brick, mortar, and a mixture of jaggery and eggs.
There was a presbytery as part of the church when it was built. According to legend, missionaries Father Martins and Father Ramos took refuge here when they were attacked,presumably by the ruling Marathas. But they later fled to Coorg. When they returned to Shettihalli, they found the church and the presbytery plundered and destroyed. I try to conjure up images of the magnificent building in its heyday and the chaos that ensued.
Every time you visit The Sunken Church, it is a different experience. In the peak of monsoon, when almost the entire church is submerged, the faded yellow spire floats above the water. As the monsoon comes to an end, water starts to recede, and most of it becomes visible, but the interiors are still flooded. During summer, when the water dries up, it can be seen in all its glory, and is a sight to behold.
You can get a glimpse of the interiors even when the church is flooded. Local men with bamboo coracles wait by the bank to take tourists on a ride around and inside the church. Though it isn’t possible to venture inside during monsoon, as water blocks all points of entry, a ride along the perimeter of the structure helps one take in some of its grandeur.
During summer, a service is held inside the church by local parish members, and the church is lit up for the occasion—locals inform me. A flock of birds who have made it home fly in and out. The marsh around the church is tricky, and my white canvas shoes are caked in mud. I decide to try a different vantage point; the bridge across is a good one and gives you a unique perspective.
It is soon time to leave the architectural marvel of the French missionaries, to see poetry carved in stone—the temples of the Hoysala Empire. During my 40-minute drive to Hassan, I familiarise myself with the history of the dynasty—they ruled Karnataka between the 10th and 14th centuries.
The three-shrined Lakshmi Narasimha temple in Nuggehalli, built in 1235 AD by King Vira Someshwara as a dedication to Lord Vishnu, is a 35-kilometre drive from Hassan. I walk along the jagati (the raised platform on which the temple is built), in awe of the intricately carved friezes of dancing deities and stories depicting soldiers, elephants, and horses. Mesmerised by the tales narrated in stone, I enter the mantapa (hall), only to be stunned by the identical, hand-cut, ornate pillars that lead me to the deity at the far end. I’ve learned from my experience at Hoysala temples so far that the tales continue on the ceiling, and I look up to see intricate floral motifs adorning the domed roof.
As I bid adieu to these walls that seem to have so much more history to share, I find myself looking forward to one of the oldest Hoysala temples—Lakshmi Devi Temple in Doddagaddavalli. Built in 1114 AD by King Vishnuvardhana, it is 16 kilometres from Hassan, and located en route Belur, the erstwhile capital of the Hoysala Empire and home to the famous Sri Chennakesava Temple. At first sight, I notice that the temple isn’t built on a jagati. The symmetry of its chatuskuta (four shrines and towers) construction is breathtaking. As I jostle against the crowd to enter the mantapa of the main shrine, I see 18 lathe-turned pillars, each surrounded by eager devotees. But there are some who are enamoured by the roof engraved with motifs and figures of the ashtadikpalakas (deities who rule the directions).
As the crowd thins, I find what I’m looking for—a unique three-foot-tall image of goddess Lakshmi holding a shanka (conch), a chakra (discus), a japamala (rosary), and a gada (mace). I am told that an image of her standing is quite a rarity, as she is commonly seen in a cross-legged position. The other shrines, paying homage to Goddess Kali, Lord Vishnu, and Bhoothanatha Linga (the symbol of Lord Shiva) are beautiful and tell their own stories. It isn’t often that tourists gather in a small space in silent contemplation, but every time I visit a Hoysala temple, I see wonder in the eyes of the young and the old alike.
While catching up on history lessons, I also take a gastronomic journey across Hassan. Healthy vegetarian food is a must-try here. Start the day with tatte idli (a large, flattened steamed rice cake) served with coconut chutney and sambar (lentil soup with vegetables), and a delicious serving of khara pongal (a rice and lentil dish). Lunch can either be rice served with an array of vegetarian dishes, ragi mudde (finger millet ball), which is served with sambar or chutney, or bisi bele bath (rice, lentil, and vegetable dish). End the day on a light note with jolada hittu (flatbread made of jowar/bajra flour), served with ennegai (stuffed eggplant curry).
The small-town charm has enamoured me; my heart and stomach sing a happy song as I bid adieu to Hassan.
Fly to Bengaluru, which is 204 km from Hassan. There are regular buses and trains to Hassan from Bengaluru.
Nestled amid sunflower fields, Hoysala Village Resort forms the perfect base to explore the small towns of Karnataka (starts from INR 6,050/USD 85). The Ashok Hassan offers a comfortable stay with modern facilities and round-the-clock guest services (starts from INR 2,989/USD 42).
Shettihalli Church: July to October, when the church is submerged. December to May, when the water begins to recede. Hassan is pleasant all year round, though in April and May, temperatures can go up to 33 °C.
Couples, families, and solo travellers interested in history and mythology.
The Hulikere Pond in Hassan is surrounded by stone steps, atop which are several shrines depicting constellations. Bucesvara Temple in Koravangala (10 km from Hassan) is dedicated to Lord Shiva, and is a simple yet elegant specimen of 12th-century Hoysala architecture.