The Emerald Route: One book, many narratives

What would you call a book that

(a) is primarily a travelogue,
(b) is also a concise literary, spiritual, religious, mythological, and political history of the region,
(c) is part autobiographical, and
(d) includes a description of taming wild elephants, a folk tale and a one-act play.

The cover illustration is by R.K. Laxman

The book that I am talking about here is R.K. Narayan’s (RKN) The Emerald Route, which is the outcome of the author’s travels along with R.K. Laxman, his brother and the famous cartoonist, through the length and breadth of Karnataka.

First published in 1977 by the Director of Information and Publicity, Government of Karnataka, and then by Penguin India in 1999, I recently bought the latter edition on the recommendation of Smeedha, a friend.

RKN chose to title his book “The Emerald Route” for one important reason—he did not encounter even a single dry patch during the first phase of his tour from Mysore through Hunsur and Hassan and back. He says:

Green of several shades we saw, mountain shades lightly coated with verdure and fern, the dark foliage of trees rising hundreds of feet from the valley, light green, dark green, pale green, evergreen and every kind of green shade, were offered for our delectation all through our circular tour of approximately a thousand kilometers.

December 2005: The Vidyashankara Temple, Sringeri

The main narrative of the 178-page travelogue is divided into 5 parts. In addition to this, the book also has an Introduction, a Preamble, a Postscript and 3 Appendices (comprising the one-act play, the folk tale and the description of taming wild elephants mentioned earlier).

Part I of the book, also titled “The Emerald Route”, covers the greenest part of Karnataka—Halebid, Sravanabelgola, Chikmaglur, Sringeri, Agumbe, Mangalore, Dharmasthala, Udipi, Pajakakshetra, Subrahmanya, and Mercara. Part II, “The Rockies”, covers places like Gulbarga, Bidar, Bellary, Shorapur, Hampi, Chitradurga, Tumkur, Devaraya Durga, Maddagiri and Sira. Part III is titled “Whispers and Echoes” and is about Bijapur, Badami, Aihole and Pattadakal. While Part IV is devoted to Bangalore and Mysore, Part V is titled “Here and There” and as the name suggests is a mix of places—Srirangapatnam, Talakad, Somanathpur, Sivasamudram, Melkote and Kolar.

November 1998: Outside one of the 8 maths affiliated to the Srikrishna Temple in Udipi

The preamble to the book sets the context to understanding Karnataka through a concise introduction to its literary, political and mythological history. The spiritual and religious history is woven into the main narrative of the places visited. For example, the Advaita philosophy is explained in Sringeri’s write-up, while the Dvaita philosophy is introduced with Udipi.

I particularly loved the way Karnataka’s mythological history or “legendary background”, as RKN prefers to call it, is introduced:

Before history comes the legendary background. Every place in Karnataka has an association with an episode or individual in the Ramayana or the Mahabharata.

The entire book is a seamless integration of history (political, literary, spiritual or religious) and mythology. Nowhere is this more evident than in the write-up on Sringeri, the place Shankara, the founder of the Advaita philosophy, chose as his home.

After travelling extensively from Kashmir to Cape Comorin, he [Shankaracharya] arrived in Sringeri, which had already been sanctified by the presence of sages like Vasista, Viswamitra, Vibhandaka, Kasyapa and others, who had their ashrams in its forests…

RKN has a way of conveying what he wants to say to his readers without spending pages over them. For example, on being overwhelmed by the minute details on the temple walls of Belur, he says:

Moving along the circumference of the star-shaped pedestal, if you could spare ten hours a day for examining each section of the wall methodically day by day, you could complete the viewing in fifteen days.

For the Halebid temple, he estimates that complete viewing of the temple would take double the amount of time in the Belur temple that is, 30 days !

Nothing escapes RKN’s eyes—the ordinary, the extraordinary or the mundane. Consider his observation of school children sitting on a wall in Shorapur.

…school children lend a touch of universality, wherever they may be.

Or the fact that the temples in Udipi, Sringeri and Dharmasthala feed hundreds and thousands of pilgrims day after day and have been doing so for centuries. Or the simple description of the people of Kammangade waiting for a bus.

You feel his wonder at the perfect acoustics in the Jami Masjid at Gulbarga and join him in rueing this lost art in modern concert halls and auditoriums. One also experiences the same anguish and anger as RKN does at Hampi on seeing the broken statue of Ugra Narasimha with fingers and nose lying as debris on the ground.

You will surely chuckle when you read about the guide’s spiel at Belur.

That’s Krishna dancing on the hood of the giant serpent Kalinga… See the coiffure of this woman. Does it not remind you of our modern fashions, which were really known 800 years ago…

I can’t tell you how much I laughed over this one. During my visit to heritage structures in North Karnataka in September 2010, I stopped count of the number of times I heard this. However improbable this may sound, I wonder if RKN and I had the same guide, or if all guides are products of the same “guide training school”. 🙂

I have been lucky to visit some of the places that RKN has written about (Sringeri, Udipi, Mangalore, Bijapur, Badami, Aihole, Pattadakal, Hampi). It was very interesting to read about them as they were 30 years back. While Sringeri and Udipi have not changed much, the other places have been considerably “cleaned up”—for instance, the Ugra Narasimha at Hampi no longer has any debris lying around, and the climb to the Badami caves is manageable. RKN’s descriptions of places, events and legends are such that you feel either you have seen them or should have seen them!

R.K. Laxman contributes a few pages in the book through his impressions of Hubli, Dharwad, Belgaum and Bijapur. He writes quite crisply and comes to the point straight away. His description of the Malik-e-Maidan at Bijapur is worth reproducing here:

I saw a Big Bertha of a cannon atop a fort. It was massive and ugly. I thought that more than its firing capability, Tippu must have had trust in its appearance to destroy the enemy more effectively.

The Emerald Route is not perfect; in fact the section on Bangalore and Mysore is a big let down. The pages on Bangalore can be skipped altogether. The only highlight in this section is a tongue-in-cheekish look at the 10-day Ram Navami celebrations in Mysore, which happen with the fervent hope that the “Rain-God” does not participate in them. The show goes on, nevertheless !

Proof-reading gaffes are quite glaring—on page 126, circumstance has been used instead of circumference, lending an entirely new meaning to “thirteen kilometres of circumstance”.

November 2005: The beach at Murudeshwar, approximately mid-way between Karwar and Udipi

I am also a little puzzled as to why coastal Karnataka has been ignored— only Mangalore and to a certain extent, Udipi are mentioned. R.K. Laxman’s “the run from here [Karwar] to Mangalore along the seacoast was indescribably picturesque” is the only statement that we find on coastal Karnataka.

In the Postscript, RKN shares his dilemma of finding a “via media between objective and subjective treatment” of a book like this to prevent it from being too grim or too flippant. He rightly says that bringing in too much of personal impressions would have made the book read more like an autobiography than a travelogue. He ends his travelogue with a sobering note on the effects of development in the state threatening heritage, forests, animals and humans alike and reminds us of our collective

ambition to protect and preserve our riches to the maximum extent possible.

My expectations of reading just a travelogue on Karnataka turned into a multi-layered, rich experience opening up a nuanced understanding of the State. I go back to my initial question of what does one call a book such as this. Karnataka State Tourism’s tag line is “One State, Many Worlds”. The Emerald Route, which is about that State, is somewhat similar in that it is “One Book, Many Narratives”.

14 thoughts on “The Emerald Route: One book, many narratives

  1. Wow (i don’t have a better exclamatory word in my limited vocabulary). If this write-up were a pretty girl, and yours truly, a roadside connoisseur of beauty, i would have whistled loudly..
    Sudha, i think you are terrific at book reviews. The circumference of your proficiency is slowly increasing, and very sure, circumstances will see it spread far beyond thirteen kilometers.
    Now, where does one get this book?


  2. The rich heritage of Karnataka cannot be fathomed so easily, to ingest the same and pen it requires the skill of an architect, sculptor, painter and dancer. The amount of wealth or revenue generated during the vijaynagar empire, that it invited all the powers of globe into the kingdom remains a fact. Seems to be a good read for its attempt to unravel the mystery and history of karnataka


  3. Thank you Sudha for introducing me to this book. The ’emerald’ as RKN describes it is my weakness too, as you already know..:) I am also curious about the play and the taming of the wild elephant part. This book has been marked to be read…and soon. 🙂


  4. Wow, that does sound like a wonderful book! I have read only Malgudi Days by RK Narayan. Would love to read his other works, too.

    Terrific review!

    I have seen parts of Karnataka out of those you mention here. Am waiting for an opportunity to see the rest.


    1. Thanks, TGND. The Emerald Route was a real treat and part of the reason I enjoyed it was because I had visited many of the places myself. Also it was a treat to read a non-fiction account from a writer who is mostly known some of the best original writing in English fiction from India. Karnataka is my favourite state in India and I wait to travel to the parts I have not been to 🙂


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