South India has many beautiful and enchanting places to offer. Each one of them has such diverse cultures that you can’t help but get bewitched by the endless options India has to offer to all backpackers. One such epic exploration would be Gandikota. It is also called the Grand Canyon of India, and truly it doesn’t fall short from the famous Grand Canyon’s beauty (well from what I have seen over pictures at least). The word Gandikota is a Telugu word, which essentially comes from Gorge or Gandi and Fort or “Kota”. As you may have guessed by now, the place is named after a fort.
So as usual, I will quickly run you through the geography and the historical significance of the place. After all, we don’t explore only for the view, but also for the rich heritage and culture that the place has to offer, right? Stories have always been the catalyst that has moved human imagination to new heights, and in my humble opinion, shall continue to do so for as long as humans marvel the world.
So coming back to the story at hand, Gandikota was initially founded by Kapa Raja as a simple sand fort, a humble origin under the rule of the then Chalukyan king of Kalyana : Ahavamalla Someswara I. The fort was then further developed under the autonomous reign of the Kamma kings, who ruled from Gandikota to Kondapalli with Gandikota as their capital. The Kamma kings were famous warriors who worked with the kings of Vijayanagar to keep stability across South of India and fought valiantly against the Deccan Sultanate. In fact, you can see the traces of this alliance even in Hampi, which the Vijayanagar king had given them for camping. Unfortunately, not many stories of the epic battles are available except for the battle of Tallikota, whose details is sparse over the internet. However, I could gather that the Vijayanagar king Rama Raya had faced defeat against the Deccan Sultanate during the battle of Tallikota. This was short lived thanks to the successors of Rama Raya, and there are hints that the Kama Kings helped placing the next king of Vijayanagar on throne post the battle.
It was, hence, no surprise that Gandikota was such a prominent fort structure that was built around the gorge of the Pennar river making it inaccessible to its invaders. The fort was well planned with temples, gigantic granary and prisons. Weirdly, the fort also has a mosque. It was most probably because the then kings were open and tolerant to other religions even though they fought against the Muslim invasion from up north. Such diversity and tolerance towards different religion can’t help but make me feel proud over the grand history and culture of India.
Our plan to visit Gandikota was a simple one. Take a bike from Chennai to Gandikota, a seven hours journey passing through the well-laid roads of NH716. Camp outside of the APTDC hotel, Harita, and then wake up in the morning to explore the gorge. You will not require more than a day to explore everything the place has to offer, which is why it is a perfect weekend getaway for people from Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai. Oh and don’t worry fellow campers, you have a common washroom in the hotel, which the outsiders and campers are allowed to use. And fear not, these bathrooms are really well kept and has a bath as well. Food can be found in the hotel itself, but a fair warning to people who can’t handle spicy food, Andhra is famous for it and this place too has the same culture ingrained into it. Best take curd rice from the restaurant and leave it at that or pack food for yourselves if you can’t handle spicy food. I would suggest food like tamarind rice, phulka with pickle to my foreign travellers. These are excellent foods to pack and take along with you as they have a good shelf life. Instant noodles don’t really help cause you will need hot water for that, a resource you will have to make for yourself through campfire which can be a pain.
We had started our trip around 4:30 AM in the early morning and rode our way towards our first location: the Belum Caves. The Belum caves are the second-largest naturally occurring underground caves in the Indian subcontinent. The internal caves stretch up to 3229 meters in length. The cave has been explored around 3.2 km but only 1.5 km is open for the public to explore. The black limestone cave has over 16 different passageways open to the public and it is mind-boggling to see all the work the AP government have put in, to make it safe for the visitors.
As we reached the dry arid terrain of Belum caves, we were greeted by a huge statue of Buddha in his peaceful meditation form right at the bottom of the hillock, blessing all the travellers with a blissful smile. It has been discovered that the caves used to be occupied by the Jain and Buddhist monks over two thousand years ago. Heck, there is even a hall or the “Meditation hall” as the archaeologists have dubbed it and its relics have been now taken to the Museum in Ananthapur.
My friend and I parked our bike (the one and only Royal Enfield 350 Thunderbird) in the parking space provided for two-wheelers under a tree. The historical site has plenty of space for bikes, cars and even buses to park. The parking areas are mostly covered by trees so it should not be a problem to find a suitable parking spot. We met up with our other two friends who had also driven down from Bangalore to the Belum Caves.
All four of us then went to the ticketing counter and bought tickets for all of us. We were charged 50 bucks each. I believe there are additional charges for cameras and of course, foreigners ( 300 INR) and children ( 30 INR) are charged differently. You get guides there as well, who work for the government. Make sure to check their IDs before hiring them to ensure that you are being charged right. I would highly recommend taking a guide in the Belum Caves as it has so much history and archaeological significance to offer. I personally felt the absence of it, and have every intention of going back there with an educated guide. For those who would like to go from Bangalore or Chennai to Gandikota (and Belum Caves) while understanding the historical significance, I would recommend joining in the group theme travel company Keyterns . They conduct amazing travel expeditions with experts and Heritage buffs who know the deep history and epic stories behind each place. Not to mention, they take you to Gandikota during the full moon, which is an amazing view you shouldn’t miss.
Anyway, being the dimwits we were we just decided to explore it with no archaeologist by our side and the minute we entered the premises passing the security scanner we saw these amazing narrow stone carved staircase spiralling down into the caves. The government have made it safe with railing and fences, so you don’t need to worry about children falling off. Once we got down the staircase we entered the dark cave that took us to another world. In the centre was a singular hole from where light streamed through and lit up the cave’s second entrance. It literally felt like the bat cave. The caves went deeper and there were stairs taking us into a completely different world. Some places required torch, some places were well lit by light bulbs glowing golden yellow making the caves look that much more enigmatic. You could tell that there was a point where the river was flowing over the caves cause the surrounding walls were moist and some caves ground were super marshy. I would recommend that you wear good trekking shoes people. Cause sports shoes will come off in such marshy soil. Here are some fun photos we took of each other.
After spending nearly 2 hours in the Belum Caves, doing some cave climbing and taking loads of pictures in our phones, we decided to make our way out as the caves were getting closed by 5:30 PM and we needed to reach our camping site by 7 PM so that we could get a spot to camp and make it for dinner in Haritha Hotel. The route to Harita Hotel was around 60 km and the roads were quite straightforward but narrow. They were, nevertheless, of moderate quality with occasional patches of pits and potholes popping out of nowhere.
Finally, after riding for 1 hour we passed by the river Penner and started out uphill ride through the darkness. It was an amazing thrilling ride passing through a relatively winding road. We pulled our windcheater as the wind started to get cold. After two and a half hours, we reached the Harita hotel exactly at 8 PM. We decided to pitch the camp along with other campers, who had theirs pitched right in front of the hotel. The ground in front of the hotel is flat and cleared out, so it was perfect to pitch our tent. We pitched our tent, took turns to freshen up and finally went about with our dinner. The dinner was nothing too extravagant. It was a typical South Indian meal. After filling our bellies, we went back to our camp and decides to light a bonfire and chill out around the fire enjoying the stars in the sky, a sight very rare in the concrete jungle of our cities.
A word of caution to my fellow campers, many of us decide to light a campfire but don’t do it responsibly. Please ensure that while making a bonfire, you do it away from the tents and within a circle of big stones to prevent flares from flying off. Roast those marsh mellows, sings those fun songs on guitar, and tell those crazy stories among yourselves; and once you are done, please make sure to put out the flame with sand and stamp out any residual red hot wood that is lying around. This will prevent you from waking up to a fire incident.
So, once our eyes grew weary and drowsy, we decided to get into our cosy tents and snuggle into our sleeping bags. We all fell asleep as soon as we closed our eyes. It was definitely one of the best sleep I have had.
The next morning we woke up at 5, took a quick bath and rode to the gorge to get a glimpse of the sunrise over the canyon. We parked our bikes near the fort and proceeded inside. After finding a suitable spot to wait and take photos, we sat down and started enjoying the slow and beautiful sunrise that beheld our eyes for a good one hour. It was glorious. The pink-orange hue that burned across the distant sky as the blushing sun peaked out of the clouds over the horizon of the gleaming Pennar river moving in absolute silence through the golden and ruby canyon.
The early start was definitely worth the view. After taking loads of photos, we went exploring the gorge. The fort extended a long way and it took us almost half a day to explore the parts which were accessible to us. The view from there was also amazing.
After grabbing a quick late lunch, we went by the dam to try our hands-on boating and then left for our respective cities. The journey back was quite tedious seeing that there were no proper hotels, which is why I would advise my fellow travellers to make sure to eat well before leaving. We started around 4 PM and reached back to Chennai around 11:30 PM thanks to the traffic. But the trip back was amazing, to say the least. We saw sunflower fields and a glorious sunset against the hills of the eastern ghats.
Gandikota is a place of rich history, heritage and culture — a place famous for its roasted salted sunflower seeds and gorgeous Canyon. It was worth every bit of our time. Not to mention we barely spent 3K each inclusive of everything.
I would definitely recommend my fellow travellers to give this beautiful place a try.