In southwest India, on the coastline of the Arabian Sea, there’s a state that’s home to a breathtaking building. Every year, the country’s monsoon season causes Karnataka’s Shettihalli Rosary Church to undergo an incredible, haunting transformation. And as you’ll see, there’s little wonder that it’s become such a must-visit destination for travelers throughout the region. In fact, you might just start planning a trip there yourself.
The church is positioned just over a mile from Shettihalli, which is located in the district of Hassan. The wider state of Karnataka was formed in 1956 through the States Reorganization Act, although at the time it was known as the State of Mysore. Its capital city is Bangalore, with a population of over 10 million people.
The church has been standing since the 19th Century, when a group of French missionaries set to work constructing it for the rich British owners of the estate. While the exact date of its completion isn’t known, it’s thought that the church was erected sometime in the middle of the century, during the 1860s.
However, you’d be forgiven for thinking the church hailed from a much older period. That’s because it’s a fine example of Gothic Revival architecture, which is itself based on an architectural style from the medieval period. Hallmarks of the style include lancet windows, finials and decorative patterns, contrasting with the neoclassical style usually favored in the 19th Century.
The church was in use for about a century, until work began on a reservoir and dam around the nearby River Hemavati in 1960. Indeed, it was that project that ultimately led to the startling transformation the church now undergoes every single year. And as a result, the church’s congregation was forced to abandon the magnificent structure.
It wasn’t just the church that was affected by the building of the dam and reservoir, however. In fact, about 28 nearby villages were completely submerged by the water. The local residents, then, had no choice but to uproot their homes, families and lives, simply to accommodate the area’s new geography.
In doing so, though, they ensured the wider population of Karnataka would have water in their faucets, and local farmers could irrigate their crops regardless of the weather. With their homes submerged underwater, the Shettihalli Rosary Church is now the only visible reminder of the sacrifices the villagers had to make back in the 20th Century.
The church was built with mortar and bricks, but a century-and-a-half on from its construction, it’s now a crumbled shadow of its former self. The roof has caved in, for instance, and there are no stained glass windows left in its walls, or pews left inside. Indeed, it’s simply a shell of what it once was.
However, certain parts of the church remain intact. For example, the nave and altar are still recognizable in their current form, while other elements of the architecture have been preserved over the years. It’s not too difficult, then, to imagine how majestic the building must have looked in its prime.
Nowadays, the church is mostly home to birds catching fish in the nearby reservoir, but it’s still a serene, peaceful place. And the picturesque ruins are a photographer’s dream, particularly on a sunny day when wildlife abounds. Indeed, the vast expanse of the reservoir makes for a perfect foreground to the stunning scenery.
What’s more, it’s said that some of the locals in the nearby villages that didn’t flood consider the church to be haunted. However, according to travel writer Nithin Biliya, these rumblings are mostly “rumors.” Indeed, he wrote in July 2019 that they’ve simply been started to “keep the tourists from visiting the place in the night.”
Yes, Shettihalli Rosary Church has started to become something of a tourist attraction in recent years. And the building’s abandonment and its popularity with travelers are inextricably linked, because the events that drove away the worshippers are precisely what lure tourists to the area. Every year, India’s monsoon season transforms the church into something even more spectacular.
The state of Karnataka doesn’t have a single, broad climate. Indeed, certain regions – such as Coastal Karnataka and Malnad – experience plenty of rainfall, particularly during India’s southwestern monsoon season, which spans June to September. But other regions, such as Bayaluseemae and the Deccan Plateau, are some of the driest in the entire country.
India receives a mighty 80 percent of its annual rainfall during the southwest monsoon, making the season’s weather pattern crucial to the country’s entire economy. Indeed, the success of the summer crops is dependent on the rain. In 2019 pre-monsoon precipitation was lower than expected all over Karnataka, but by the end of the monsoon season proper, rainfall was 23 percent higher than the average.
Unfortunately, the rainfall was distributed poorly across the state, causing problems for farmers. While some areas experienced less rain than expected, others were hit with intense downpours, leading to landslides and flooding. Indeed, the uneven weather affected even the sowing of some crops, which may yet have a knock-on effect on the country’s economy.
“Even where sowing has been done, crop yield is expected to be hit for various reasons,” Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre’s director, GS Srinivas Reddy, confirmed to The Times of India newspaper in October 2019. “This may in turn hit food production.” While some districts experienced 19 percent less rainfall than expected, others had a whopping 90 percent over estimates.
Even beyond Shettihalli Rosary Church, Karnataka is full of interesting places to visit during monsoon season. Indeed, there’s no need for the rain to put a dampener on your travels. And the temperature is still warm enough that you won’t have to layer up, averaging roughly 82 degrees during the day, and 68 degrees at night.
Photography enthusiasts, for example, might want to check out the ancient village of Hampi. During monsoon season, the typically arid UNESCO World Heritage Site turns a lush green, and its numerous temples stand out emphatically in the pouring rain. You’ll bag more than a few killer shots as you bounce between historical monuments.
If you’re planning on driving around Karnataka during monsoon season, meanwhile, head for Maravanthe. The stunningly scenic beach road that runs down the village is flanked by a river and an ocean – specifically, the River Souparnika and the Arabian Sea. And even from June to September, you can come close to both, without worrying about the road becoming completely submerged.
That’s not all Karnataka has to offer, though. If you appreciate nature, look to Dandeli National Park, one of the state’s largest wildlife sanctuaries. The forests come alive during the monsoon season, teeming with all manner of birds, reptiles and wild animals – including elephants, leopards, black panthers and even man-eating crocodiles.
While the peak of the ancient mountain fortress Skandagiri offers incredible views year-round, you’ll really appreciate how high up you are during the monsoon season. That’s because embarking on the night trek will allow you to watch the sun rise over a sea of cotton candy-like clouds. But the list of amazing attractions in Karnataka doesn’t end there.
For a more powerful demonstration of the rainfall that occurs during monsoon season, head to Agumbe, a village in the Shimoga district. Just like any other time of year, you’ll be able to hike along various trails, through rich, biodiverse rainforests. But when the rain comes, the tranquil waterfalls are transformed into thundering forces of nature.
Elsewhere, the sprawling coffee plantations of the Kodagu district are well worth a visit during India’s southwest monsoon season. Not only can you partake in a fresh cup of joe direct from the source, but the panoramic views available from Raja’s Seat – Madikeri town’s highest point – are even more breathtaking in the rain.
Beyond all of those incredible attractions and sights, though, there’s also – of course – Shettihalli Rosary Church. While it’s no doubt an impressive place throughout the year, monsoon season is when it really comes alive. Indeed, something truly incredible happens to the abandoned place of worship once the rain starts to fall.
Yes, when the monsoon comes to India, the Shettihalli Rosary Church becomes partially submerged underwater, thanks to overflow from the nearby reservoir. It makes for a stunning sight to behold, as evidenced by the tourists who flock there every year, driving along uneven roads through backwater villages.
In fact, if you want to witness the true majesty of the church, you may want to visit it twice: first, during monsoon season, from June to September, when two thirds of it lie underwater. Then, head back from December to May, when the water recedes and the entirety of the building is visible.
If you do venture out there during monsoon season, though, don’t worry: you can still get up close and personal. You’ll just need the help of a local. Indeed, according to local English newspaper The Deccan Herald, you can hire a coracle – a small, light, rounded boat – to take you through the ruins.
However, while the church is becoming increasingly popular, it’s still not a major tourist destination in and of itself. To that end, you won’t find much in the way of amenities or accommodation nearby. For those, you’ll have to head to the closest city, Hassan, which is around 13 miles away.
Fortunately, traveling to the church from Hassan is easy, even if you don’t have access to a car. Buses run frequently to Shettihalli, with a five- to ten-minute walk at the other end. Alternatively, you can take a rickshaw for about $8.50, including an hour’s wait time while you look around the haunting ruins.
Thanks to its annual submersion, the place has earned the nickname of “the floating church” – a term that conjures up images matched only by the real-life location’s breathtaking beauty. According to the church’s official website, the best time to visit is from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m., so it pays to be an early riser.
The church isn’t just popular with tourists, though. Indeed, the building and its surrounding areas have actually become a prevalent filming location for regional shows and movies. Alas, that’s not always a good thing – one film crew apparently painted the church white for its own purposes. Elsewhere, the crumbling walls have even been marred by local troublemakers.
Even if you can’t get to the church yourself, you don’t have to miss out: the official website currently hosts a digitized, 3D model of the historic ruins in all their unpainted glory. And with the right tools, you can even find out what it’s like to stand in Shettihalli, because the website offers the option to view the model in virtual reality – provided you have a headset.
Unfortunately, the already-crumbling structure of the church is growing weaker by the day – a possible knock-on effect of the monsoons. To raise funds for its restoration, then, the official website is currently selling 3D-printed scale models of the building, which you can buy for just over $40 each.
Amazingly, Shettihalli Rosary Church isn’t the only partially-submerged place of worship in the world. In fact, there are multiple churches around the globe that have fallen victim to the construction of nearby reservoirs and dams. Macedonia’s St. Nicholas church in Mavrovo, for instance, became submerged in 1953 after a dam was built for the nearby village.
In recent years, however, the church has risen again from the depths, mainly thanks to droughts in the region. Others, however, have not fared so well: in Venezuela, the very top of a church bell tower is the only proof that the town of Potosí ever existed. In 1985 the country’s president ordered the evacuation of the area, before flooding it with the construction of the La Honda dam.
In the U.K., however, public outcry to the proposed flooding of a church was so high that alternative plans had to be made. In 1970 plans were drawn up for a reservoir in Gwash valley, Rutland, to support the growing population – but its construction would have meant the demolition of Normanton church.
After protests from the locals, a number of proposals were put forward to save the church. In the end, the building’s lower levels were filled in and topped with concrete, raising the floor above the reservoir’s water level. The ceilings may be much lower as a result, but the church is still used to this day, with a causeway joining it to land when the reservoir fills.
A church in Italy had no such luck, though, when long-gestating plans to unify two natural lakes with a man-made reservoir were finally completed in 1950. Lake Reschen completely submerged 163 homes, along with an historic, 14th Century church. Today, only the steeple of the church remains, with its nave demolished ahead of the lake’s creation.
However, the steeple is still clearly visible poking out of the water. And you can actually reach it by foot during the winter, when the lake freezes over – if you dare to trek onto the ice. According to a local legend, the church’s bells continue to ring out every winter, despite them having been removed just prior to the nave’s demolition.
So if you ever do find yourself in Karnataka, you would do well to head to Shettihalli, and check out its famous floating church for yourself. Whether you travel during monsoon season or not, it’s a picturesque piece of history that’s well worth the journey. But if you do visit when the rains come, you’ll find that it’s undergone an incredible, haunting transformation.