Belum caves are a network of underground caves in the village named Belum in Kurnool district, Andhra Pradesh. They are one of the largest caves in the Indian subcontinent, and so you can imagine their size. They lay ignored, being used as a garbage dump till some 20 years back when they were restored to their current glory through efforts from the local people in collaboration with the government. Belum, the name is probably derived from the word Bilum that means tunnels. There are apparently many places near that place where the tunnels open up to the ground.
The caves are a massive network of chambers. It was formed when an underground river washed away the soft limestone from the surrounding hard stones. The walls of the caves have deep marks that are the result of erosion caused by the river. There are many chambers in the network, each with a different and interesting name. Most of the chambers are not open for tourists. The few accessible places are artificially illuminated and aerated through pumped air from outside. The air vents and the pumps can be seen and heard if you are observant. The most beautiful of the lot was the chamber with stalactites in the shape of a banyan tree.
Clockwise from top left:
Entrance to the caves, Tunnels inside the caves,
Broken stalactites, The banyan tree formation
(click pictures to enlarge)
Most of the parts open for the tourists are 'dead' (not forming stalactites/stalagmites any more). Sadly, most of the stalactites were broken off by visitors over the years. There is only one place we saw that was 'live' and water still dripped from the ceiling. However it had turned into a worshiping place thronged by people who are constantly touching the rocks. I wonder how can people be made aware to leave nature alone.
Where the caves are still alive. Water dripping (left), the worshiping place (right).
(click pictures to enlarge)
To explore the caves, we had taken the help of a guide (Mr. Nagamani. Phone: +91 9441375615), who was pretty good. He helped us see a few unique places and took us through a couple of tunnels which we otherwise wouldn't have discovered. I do not know if he still has the phone number though.
Approach & places en-route:
Belum is around 320 km from Bangalore. The route goes from Bangalore through Devanhalli(NH7), Chikkabalapur, Bagepalli, Anantpur, Tadipatri to Belum. Roads were good for most of the stretch as we were either on the national or the state highway. Not many fuel stations on this road, it is better to start with a full tank.
We started in the morning and took a leisurely drive, stopping by at two interesting places en-route - the Lepakshi Temple, and Penukonda Fort. Lepakshi has many carved structures and beautiful paintings on the roofs of the temple.
The Penukonda Fort was in use by the Vijayanagara kings for some time. We however could visit only the summer palace (Gagana Mahal) on the way to the Penukonda Fort. It was late and the fort was no longer accessible. The Gagana Mahal has a tunnel (that the caretaker showed us) that apparently goes till the fort. The Penukonda Fort and nearby monuments require a full day by itself.
I guess the driving time without any stops would be around 5 to 6 hours till Anantpur. The road from Anantpur to Belum is not that great. Enroute we crossed Kadapa, a city famous for the Kadapa stones - a kind of black limestone / slate stone.
Stay & Food:
Till Anantpur there are a few (and I mean a few) highway restaurants but no good hotel to stay. The market street outside Lepakshi has some decent places for lunch, but nothing near Penukonda fort. I would suggest having food at or before Lepakshi while driving to Anantpur.
There are not many places to stay near the caves, so the best place to get a decent hotel is at Anantpur. We stayed at hotel Saptagiri at Anantpur (tariff around Rs.1000). It was clean, spacious and had good large parking space for vehicles. There are not many good restaurants around, at least near the place we stayed. We found a few not-too-bad ones on Subash road where we had dinner. But there were lots of fresh fruits available with road side vendors, mostly delicious figs (anjeer). We feasted on them to our fill.
At Belum caves, there is only one eating place - a canteen that serves vegetarian meals. We had our lunch there; though the food was all right, it was not all that clean when we visited (lots of flies around). The place is not much populated, so no other shops can be found nearby. My advise would be to carry your own food here when you are visiting.
Update: If you have more time, you can combine these places with a much larger tour of historical places near Bangalore and Hyderabad. Check out my series of posts about a similar trip here: Trip Down Memory Lane.