A year back, I came to Delhi for my college education and met the girl who was to soon become one of the most important people in my life. My roommate Sahitya is quite a character. Her side of the room is always squeaky clean, she sleeps at 10:30 p.m. every night (sometimes, it can extend to 11:30 p.m. if she is feeling particularly risky) and wakes up latest by 7 a.m. Sahitya is sincere with her studies, punctual with her exercise routine and passionate about the world around her. Despite a few bumps on the way, I found myself to be in a very rewarding friendship with this nice South Indian kid, who is indeed, in many ways, my complete opposite.
One of the first conversations I remember having with her was about Coorg (Kodagu) and her Kodava ancestry. I distinctly remember asking where Coorg was because before that conversation, I had always assumed it to be “somewhere down south, I think’’. Well, turns out that Coorg is a district in south Karnataka that borders Kerala and is known for its expansive coffee plantations. Her stories about the Coorgis and their distinctive culture left a deep enough impression on me that I decided that I had to see what the place was like.
The Kodava people of Coorg, who are Shaivite Hindus who embraced the Lingayat school of thought (that emerged in the 12th century and rejected caste discrimination and many patriarchal attitudes), find a mention in the Skand Puran and the Sangam literature and have been suggested by some to have shared their ancestry with the Kurds or the Caucasians. They held their sway in the region till before the British advent and till date, have their distinctive cuisine, attire and marriage customs.
My father had an official engagement in Bangalore for a couple of days after which we decided to take a two-day getaway trip to this quaint little hill town of Coorg nestled in the Western Ghats. My parents and I decided to go for a family holiday after a long gap and since they hate planning trips, the responsibility was thrust on my young shoulders. After some last-minute online searches, we zeroed in on two places – The Lodge in Madikeri and Karada Cottage in South Coorg.
The route from Bangalore to Coorg also has the historic towns of Srirangapatna and Mysore on its way, so try not to miss them. As the drive progressed, I saw the landscape change from flat and wide roads to rolling hills with narrow, winding roads. A long five-hour drive later, we finally reached Madikeri, the headquarters of the Coorg district sometime late afternoon on Christmas Day.
The Lodge in Madikeri is around a century old and situated in the heart of the town on Gen Thimmiah Road. The charming little cottage is a nostalgic retreat into the past with its colonial décor. Personal effects like books and family photographs of the owners are scattered throughout the property, but since none of them live there, I constantly kept feeling like I was intruding upon someone’s home, a realisation that was slightly disconcerting. We walked around the area and bought spices and coffee from a nearby shop. I went to sleep listening to a choir sing hymns and church bells ring. It was a quiet but beautiful Christmas in Coorg.
Quick tip: Don’t spend so much on the slightly overpriced food at The Lodge; eating at nearby restaurants is a cheaper and tastier option. I was particularly impressed by the popularity of the local imitations of the KFC menu that are pretty much on point when it comes to taste and presentation.
There is something about the wind in Karnataka, no matter how harsh the sunlight is, there is always a cool wind blowing. The tall canopy of trees that dot the Western Ghats and the ubiquitous coffee shrubs with their bright red berries are practically everywhere in Coorg. It’s almost like an illustration from a children’s storybook because of how pretty the traditional Coorg houses look once erected in such lush green surroundings.
For most North Indians, Coorg in the end of December is nothing compared to Delhi’s unforgiving winters. Just one sweater or a warm shawl in the evenings was all I needed. The absence of traditional hill station weather may initially strike you as odd (like it did for me) but honestly, what’s better than a cool breeze and gentle sunlight during daytime and just a bite in the air at night?
The next morning, we decided to explore Madikeri a little. A small but bustling locale, Madikeri has a quaintness to it that I find endearing. We went to Raja’s Seat, a small square in brick and mortar of four pillars bridged by arches and commanding a view of a chain of high and low-rise-mountains attired with mist, the garden was the one-time-favourite of the kings of Kodagu. Right next to Raja’s Seat is a toy train that traverses across a distance of 500 metres perhaps, and getting into it was something I was unduly excited about, taking into consideration the fact that I am an adult who is halfway through college.
From Raja’s Seat, we went to Madikeri Fort, an early colonial fort in the heart of the town. The fort isn’t particularly well maintained, but the St. Mark’s Church inside its confines is. The church was built by men of the British East India Company in 1859 and was converted into a museum after independence. If the beautiful stained glass windows and memorial epitaphs that send a chill down your spine weren’t enough, the museum hosts a large range of historical artefacts from Karnataka’s history and even has a section displaying personal items of the legendary Field Marshall K.M. Cariappa of the Indian Army, who led our army in the wars waged by Pakistan in 1947-48 and 1965, refusing to accept the offer of the release of his own son, also in our army and taken as a prisoner of war by the Pakistani soldiers in 1965, saying that all Indian men taken as prisoners of war were his sons.
I found Madikeri Fort interesting for history buffs like me because of the multiple forces of colonial India it was used by. Built by a Kodava king called Mudduraja in the 17th century, it was renovated by Tipu Sultan. After Tipu’s demise, the British restored the Wodeyars to the throne who took over the fort and built a summer palace within its boundaries. The palace is now used as the office of the District Collector.
Despite the somewhat dilapidated state of the fort, I firmly believe anyone visiting Coorg shouldn’t miss it, simply because of the beautiful view of the entire town it offers. Atmospheric and steeped in the tumultuous history of the region, the Madikeri Fort needs to be ticked off your list once while visiting Coorg.
After this, we drove for about an hour to Karada, a village in the southern part of the Coorg district to reach our next homestead, Karada Cottage. For those who have seen the gorgeous property online, be warned, it’s notoriously difficult to find; so, definitely try to reach the place before sundown. Karada Cottage is a vast coffee plantation and owned by Mukul Appaiah’s family. We instantly fell in love with the place, a huge plantation nestled amongst the forests of Coorg and far away from the main city.
Mukul first showed his beautiful ancestral home to us, built in the Kerala style and adorned with pictures of the family’s ancestors. Their old granary has now been converted to a dining hall and we were treated to a sumptuous Coorgi meal there. Then, we were taken to our room in a wooden cottage a few hundred metres away from the main house, overlooking the plantation. The rooms were basic but pleasant, and the construction echoed that of a tree house. Serene, tranquil and untouched, Karada was unforgettable.
We visited the Chellavara Falls nearby but to my disappointment, it was packed with people picnicking there. On our way back to Bangalore, we crossed the Dubare Elephant Camp, a sort of petting zoo for elephants, which was more like a mela with a horde of families and holidaymakers crowding the entire place. Sadly, I wasn’t able to give a bath to an elephant.
Not to be missed is the Namdroling Buddhist Monastry in Kushalnagar, a town bordering the Coorg district. The gorgeous monastery was built in 1963 and is the largest teaching center of the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism in the world.
And with that, I bade farewell to Coorg’s rolling hills and coffee-scented air. You were utterly delightful, Coorg. Oh, and after my visit to Karnataka, I have become obsessed with filter coffee. I refuse to have any other sort now. Nothing beats it. I bow down to its supremacy over all other types. There ain’t no kaapi, like filter kaapi!
Image Courtesy: Kalidas Pavithran (Flickr)