From sheltering men to their Gods, caves in India have been special right from ancient times. Indian cave systems usually bring to mind the north-eastern state of Meghalaya with its extensive network of caves; surprisingly the southern state of Andhra Pradesh has the second largest system of caves in India, the inconspicuous Belum Caves. The name Belum is derived from the Sanskrit ‘Bilum’ which means caves, so calling these caves Belum Caves is but a repetition. Belum Caves is a network of underground limestone caves that are over 3 kilometres in length and 29 metres in depth at the deepest point. Presently, only half of this length is accessible to the public. This site draws in visitors from the nearby Gandikota, who plan a day-trip covering both these places. The availability of limestone and water has made this region very suitable for cement factories, a number of which are located on the highways nearby. Our travelogue here should help you plan your one-day itinerary and guide you through your tour as you explore the depths of Belum.
It is theorised that the river Chitravati, a tributary of the Penna river, cut through these rocks thousands of years ago. Over the course of time, the river changed its course leaving the caves ready for occupation by prehistoric humans. The undocumented history of Belum caves started 6500 years ago, when people lived in these caves, evidence of them having used clay vessels has been unearthed from here. Much later, after the origin of Buddhism, these caves also housed Buddhist monks who used these caves to meditate in peace. And relics belonging to them have also been unearthed and kept at the nearby Anantpur Museum. However, the documented evidence starts with the discovery of the caves by Henry Bruce Foote, an European speleologist, in the year 1884. A common error that people make is confusing Henry Foote with his father, Robert Foote, who led the expedition to Billa Surgam caves, which are coincidentally confused with the Belum caves.
Though surveyed, Belum caves remained unknown widely even after independence, until the expedition of 1982 led by the German speleologist Herbert Daniel Gebauer in 1982 and 1984 comprising of speleologists from India and abroad. Following this re-discovery, the inflow of locals started and the government subsequently declared the caves as a ‘Protected Area’ in 1988. Further, in 1999, the state’s Tourism Department, Andhra Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (APTDC) took over this area in an attempt to maintain these caves and develop them as a tourist destination. After cleaning the slush and garbage accumulated over the years, they took up the job of illuminating the caves with yellow lights and providing oxygen shafts with blower motors to the interior locations. Special mention must be given to a local person, Mr. Narayan Reddy, who was largely responsible for his efforts in making the place tourist-friendly. Finally, the place was thrown open to tourists in 2003.
BEST SEASON TO VISIT:
The hot climate here is as rugged as the terrain; Belum caves, being in the southern part of India, remain hot throughout most of the year and the best time to visit it would be between the months of October and February when the weather is pleasant. Do note that the temperature in the underground caves is slightly more than the ground-level temperature due to the continuous accumulation of Carbon Dioxide at the bottom of the caves.
HOW TO REACH:
Gandikota is usually done in conjunction with a visit to the Belum caves nearby as a day-trip from Chennai or Bangalore, the two major cities nearby. A day-trip from any of these cities is the easiest option and can be done using a hired taxi, but you have to start really early if you want to make it back on time. The nearest railway heads are Tadipatri which is at a distance of 30 kilometres from here, and Banganapalli at a distance of 33 kilometres. From Tadipatri you can find taxis and buses, whereas from Banganapalli, you have regular buses. Most buses stop at Kolimigundla from where there is a shuttle service to Belum caves. There are buses from Bangalore and Hyderabad to Tadipatri, but there are no major bus services to Tadipatri or Banganapalli and we recommend you do not try using a bus service unless you speak the local language, Telugu.
Punnami Hotel, which is run by the Tourism Department of the Andhra Pradesh government, APTDC, is the only option if you want to stay near Belum Caves itself. But Punnami only provides dormitory-type accommodation and if you want a decent room, you better head over to Tadipatri.
The people here speak Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, Hindi and to a good extent, English too. We were surprised at the number of multi-lingual guides available here who were courteous enough to ask us which language we preferred, without so much as touting us.
Right next to the APTDC hotel is the canteen run by it. The canteen provides a multitude of options, both North and South Indian as well as a few breads. It would be a shame if the world-famous Banganapalli mango were not tasted after visiting a place so close to Banganapalli.
Belum caves can be explored on foot itself, just make sure you carry lots of water when exploring. Also be sure to wear light clothing with trekking shoes as the inner part of the cave tends to get slippery when wet. There are also a few places where water tends to stagnate.
PLACES TO VISIT:
As we entered the premises, driving along the cemented road, we came across the Parking Area, from where we had to walk on foot to the Ticket Counter. Next to it was a board paying the rightful tribute to Mr. Narayan Reddy for his efforts in opening up the caves to the public. The entrance fee here is 50/35 INR for Indian Adults/Children and 350 INR for foreigners. The guides here do not charge for a tour and would happily accept the amount that you give them. Even though it is just a walk through a cave, you could choose a guide to help you understand the formation of these caves. We approached the cave through one of the natural entrances, which has been modified and provided with a staircase leading down to the cave.
One-day Belum Caves Itinerary
The first sight here is the Dhyan Mandir (Meditation Hall) which, coincidentally, is also the place where we started noticing the difference in temperature. This is a relatively wide area with flat rocks that are suitable for seating people. After crossing this place, we were solely dependent on the illumination inside the cave as we were cut off from sunlight. Although not necessary, we suggest you carry a torchlight to guide you inside.
As we proceeded along the pathway, it split into three, one leading to the place containing Veyi Padagalu, one leading to the Mandapam and the other leading to Koti Lingalu. Veyi Padagalu translates to ‘Thousand Cobra Hoods’ in Telugu; the stalactite structures on the top have been deposited such that they appear like many cobra hoods at one place. There is not much light here and we could hardly get any blog-worthy photographs.
Tip: Past the Veyi Padagalu, the track becomes tougher and we advise that people who find difficulty walking can stop here.
The next object of attraction was the Pillidwaram which means Cat Entrance, named so because of the many projections from the roof that resemble the head of a cat. The Mandapam, which is a common term in India used to denote any place for gathering of people, is a place that stands true to its name.
As we reached the depths of the caves after quite a few crouchings and a few crossings of water, we were asked to keep our voices low as we were nearing the more delicate parts of the cave. The structures here are feeble enough to be damaged by sounds, which made the Saptaswara Chamber off-limits to people. The rocks here produce notes when struck with a stick and hence the name Saptaswara, which denotes the seven notes of classical Indian Carnatic Music. Also of interest is the Voodala Maari meaning Banyan Tree Branches; not much explanation is required here, we believe.
The last point on our trip was the sight of the Paathalaganga, a combination of the words Paathala Lokam and Ganga, the term used to denote a perrennial stream of water that flows underground. The locals here consider that their Belum village is blessed to have such a source of water that would lend them a helping hand in times of dire drought. The stream is thought to be a tributary of the Chitravati river and also a source of a well in the village.
We wrapped up our visit to these caves after visiting the Pathalaganga and a ten-minute stop at one of the blowers installed for circulation. We were visiting this place after our trip to Gandikota and were hungry for lunch by the time we were done with these caves and we certainly were not going to fill our stomachs with the Carbon Dioxide inside. We had our fill at the canteen before proceeding back to Chennai, our starting point.
The official website contains a lot of historical information and is a good place to keep yourself updated. Not much can be found online about these caves except blogs and the official website.