The Kannada-speaking state of Karnataka, formerly known as Mysore, has a finely balanced mix of natural attractions and superb historic architecture. It appeals equally to temple lovers, wildlife enthusiasts, trekkers and beach bums, yet much of the state sees few travelers compared to neighbouring Goa, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
The state consists of a narrow coastal strip backed by the monsoon-drenched Western Ghats and a drier, cooler interior plateau that turns arid in the far north. It's a major producer of coffee, spices and betel nut, and supplies 60% of the country's silk. The capital, Bangalore, is the center of India's science and technology industry and is one of the fastest growing cities in Asia.
Karnataka has a rich history, thanks to the rollcall of competing dynasties which rose and fell in this part of the country. To see the architectural legacy of these kingdoms, you need to explore the central plateau; to witness the beauty of the state's teak and rosewood forests, you need to explore the Western Ghats; and to enjoy the serenity of Karnataka's coastline, you need to come before developers take advantage of the new Konkan Railway and start meddling with this forgotten stretch of India's coast.
A multitude of religions, cultures and kingdoms have unrolled across the terrain of Karnataka, beginning in the 3rd century BC when Chandraguupta Maurya, India's first great emperor, retreated to Sravanabelagola after he had renounced worldly ways and embraced Jainism. Many centuries later, the 17m high statue of Gomateshvara, which celebrated its 1000th anniversary in 1981, was erected at Sravanabelagola, in the 6th century, the Chalukyans built some of the earliest Hindu temples in India near Badami. All later south Indian temple architecture stemmed from their designs, and from those by the Pallavas at Kanchipuram and Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu.
Other important Indian dynasties, such as the Cholas and the Gangas, have also played their part in Karnataka's history, but it was the Hoysalas, who ruled between the 11th and 14th centuries, who left the most vivid evidence of their presence. The beautiful Hoysala temples at Somnathpur, Halebid and Belur are gems of Indian architecture, with intricate and detailed sculptures rivaling anything to be found at Khajuraho (Madhya Pradesh) or Konark (Orissa).
In 1327, Hindu Halebid fell to the Muslim army of Mohammed Tughlaq, but his triumph was brief. In 1346, Halebid was annexed by the Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar, founded in 1336, whose capital was at Hampi. This ruined kingdom is one of the most beautiful, extensive and fascinating in India. Vijayanagar peaked in the early 1550s, but in 1565 it fell to the Deccan sultans and Bijapur became the most important city of the region. Today Bijapur is just a country town, but it contains many striking Islamic monuments.
After the demise of Vijayanagar, the Hindu Wodeyars of Mysore grew in importance. They quickly established their rule over a large part of southern India, including all of the old Mysore state and parts of Tamil Nadu. Their capital was at Srirangapatnam. Their power remained more or less unchallenged until 1761 when Hyder Ali (one of their generals) deposed them.
The French helped Hyder Ali and his son, Tipu Sultan, to consolidate their hold over the area in return for support in fighting the British. In 1799 the British defeated Tipu Sultan, annexed part of his kingdom, and put the Wodeyars back on Mysore's throne.
The Wodeyars continued to rule Mysore state until Independence when they were pensioned off. They were enlightened and progressive rulers, so popular with their subjects that the maharaja became the first governor of the post-Independence state. The boundaries of Mysore state were redrawn on linguistic grounds in 1956 and the extended Kannada-speaking state of Greater Mysore was established. This was renamed Karnataka in 1972.
Under Nehru's premiership, vast irrigation schemes and dams were initiated in Karnataka, but since the dams tap two of the major rivers which flow into Tamil Nadu, the respective state governments have been involved in a protracted and bitter dispute over water rights which remains unresolved.
The state's modest national profile was increased temporarily when Kannada-speaking HD Deve Gowda became India's prime minister in 1996.