In the course of my job as a technical subject matter expert, I seemed to be perpetually striving hard to meet deadlines. The stress factor was high and we were all beginning to feel the pressure. Frayed nerves led to short tempers triggered by frenzied schedules. So when this vacation plan was announced, we all exuberantly cheered the idea. A week later, bundled into vehicles of all shapes and sizes, the excited employees started towards this intriguing destination.
Day 1 saw us reaching Coorg at around 5 a.m. The air was thick with mist, and lush green hills surrounded us as we alighted from the vehicles. Unaccustomed to the chill, we were more than eager to get into the warmth of the lodges booked for us. An hour or two later, having freshened up, we consumed piping hot idlis with green coconut chutney and spicy sambhar in the open courtyard where tables and chairs had been laid out for us. The fresh early morning air whetted our appetites.
Apart from its unspoilt scenic beauty, Coorg is especially renowned for its coffee. We were now thrilled to be drinking the famed blend in its land of origin. It was a rich and strong brew with a distinctive flavor—something that set it totally apart from all the other blends we had tasted until then. Coffee needs a lot of rainfall, high altitude, and a steep terrain to flourish. Since Coorg meets all these conditions, it has lots of coffee plantations. Karnataka is the largest exporter of coffee in India and Coorg contributes 80 percent of the crop for export. Coorg’s coffee estates have produced some of the world’s best coffee with a variety of plants like Arabica and Robusta.
At mid-morning we headed towards Nisargadhama, which is a man-made island of over 60 acres. Covered with lush green forests, it was a soothing sight for sore eyes that had been subjected to the glare of computer screens for many months. Sunlight streaked through the dense foliage, casting a golden glow here and there. A particular sight of a dewdrop clinging to the edge of a leaf caught my eye and remains in my memory to this day.
We soon came across an overhanging rope bridge. Several hundred feet below, a stream made its way through treacherous-looking rocks. At first we were terrified to get on the bridge which seemed rather fragile, but having no other choice, we did, and then there was no looking back (or down)!
Nisargadhama could be called a riverine forest. You can find a large assortment of trees on either side of the river banks: mango, teak, punnai, and occasional rosewood. We wouldn’t have been able to identify these trees accurately without the guide accompanying us. In addition to these trees, Nisargadhama has various species of terminalia and clumps of bamboo. We trekked through thick foliage for a while and came across the river stream of Kaveri. Some amount of playful frolicking took place in its shallow depths during which we raced against one another, splashing lots of water.
We then left for our next stop—Abbi Falls. Abbi, which means “waterfall” in the Kodava language, is breathtakingly beautiful. The route to Abbi Falls is a combination of steep twists and curves, winding through numerous coffee plantations. The waterfall swells during monsoons and thunders down heavily through boulders of rock.
That evening, our resort manager invited a few local tribals to entertain us. They sang, danced, and spoke of the historical background of Coorg. From them we learned about the various rulers who had ruled over Coorg. From the Kadambas in the 2nd century to the 6th century to the Cholas in the 11th century to the Hoysalas in the 12th century, Kodagu or Coorg was ruled by a variety of kings. In 1834, the British usurped Kodagu, and ruled over it until India became independent. In 1950, under the new constitution, Kodagu became a state. In 1956 Karnataka was reorganized, and Kodagu became part of the state.
Later, after a sumptuous dinner, the resort manager joined us for a cup of coffee. He informed of the Coorgis’ affinity for martial arts. Some of the best soldiers and generals in the country are Kodavas, natives of Coorg, the men being tall and well built.
“The Kodava dialect is a curious combination of Kannada, Tamil, and Malayalam,” he explained. The Coorgis have their own deities whom they worship—Mother Kaveri and Iggutappadeva. Coorgi cuisine is very distinctive, as are their clothing, customs, and festivals. The most delectable items in their cuisine are the pandi curry (succulent pork curry) and kadumbuttu (rice dumplings). There are also the koli curry (chicken curry), nool puttu (rice noodles), and votti (rice roti). Coorgi women can be easily identified from the way they wear their saris. They pleat the sari at the back unlike other women who pleat the sari in the front,” the manager briefed us.
We also visited the capital city of Madikeri where we shopped for knick-knacks and souvenirs to take home. It’s a sleepy sort of place with the ubiquitous STD booths, lodges, and hotels scattered here and there. I managed to strike up a conversation with a couple of men who were idly gazing at us. They seemed a little wary and reticent initially but soon the ice was broken and we got talking.
During the course of the conversation, they revealed to us that many Coorgis had migrated to metros like Bangalore and Mumbai in search of a better lifestyle and growth. They talked with unconcealed pride about their traditional wedding ceremonies. Coorgi weddings are celebrated with great pomp, they said. I was instantly curious and wanted to know more.
The bridegroom wears a white kupya, a long coat worn over trousers that is cut at the elbows to reveal the white shirt underneath. This costume is generally tied at the waist with a gold-and-red tasseled sash. The men carry two knives and wear flat-topped turbans. The bride typically wears a red sari with gold border.
Coorgi weddings usually take place only between March and June in kalyana mantaps or wedding halls found all over the district. The Coorgis have no priests. The weddings are solemnized in the presence of the elders who shower the couple with rice grains. Towards the end of the ritual, the bride carries a brass pitcher on her head filled with water from the well of the groom’s house. She goes around the house and into the kitchen while the energetically dancing relatives of the groom’s family block her route. The ceremony was devised decades ago to test the stamina of the new member of the family and the mother of the next generation. It was interesting to hear of all these traditional rituals and festivities that accompany a Coorgi wedding.
The next day, at dawn, we left for Talakaveri, which is the source of the river Kaveri. Tala means “base” in Kodava and Kannada. It was a tough, but worthwhile climb up the hills to get to the actual spot. The sun had just risen and its brilliant reflection reddened the surface of the river. There was still a trace of mist in the air, and we were all taking in deep, unaccustomed breaths of fresh, unpolluted air. In the midst of this splendor, we felt removed from the humdrum of the city. It was with a peaceful, relaxed feeling that we returned our lodge.
On the last day, we visited the nearby Nagarhole wildlife sanctuary. Since we traveled only in the outer fringes of the forest, all we could see were a few bison and deer. Still, it was a thrill merely being inside the famed wildlife park. In the evening, we had a glimpse of the spectacular sunset at the Maharaja’s Seat. Legend has it that the kings of Kodagu would come here to spend the evenings and watch the grand sight of the setting sun in the deep valley beyond.
We didn’t have the time to savor a real plantation experience such as watching coffee being harvested and dried, or picking green pepper from the vines, as it was time to leave. We gazed out of the dusty bus windows until the sights of Coorg grew smaller and smaller.
When I set out for Coorg, I knew nothing about it except that it produced a well-known blend of coffee. There is, however, a lot more to Coorg than just a rich blend of coffee. Through the years, despite the changing ethos all over the globe, the people of Coorg have preserved their traditions and culture. They have incorporated a few inevitable changes but apart from that have refused to succumb to the trappings of a “modern” life. The warmth and generosity of its people, their fierce sense of pride, and quiet dignity are bound to leave an indelible impression on you. Add to all this a liberal dose of lush green forests, protected wildlife, gushing streams and waterfalls, a near absence of traffic, pollution, and crowds, and you have a place that beckons you to return. And our team proved this by unanimously choosing to visit Coorg again in subsequent years.
Mamta Murthy writes from Mumbai.
Nearest city: Madikeri, 18 miles
Nearest airport: Bangalore, 146 miles
Nearest railway station: Mysore, 62 miles
Nearest bus station: Madikeri, 18 miles
Altitude: 5,003 feet above sea level
Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam, English
Best time to visit: November to April
WHERE TO STAY
Orange County Resorts: 20 miles from Madikeri
ATTRACTIONS WITHIN COORG
Nisargadhama: About a mile from Kushalnagar on the Mysore-Madikeri Road, this beautiful man-made island was established in 1988. The entrance to this spot is through a hanging bridge. Machans (treetop shelters) and Pargola (wall-less shelters) are found here. Brick cottages or log cabins are available for tourists. Pedal boating, elephant riding, and deer park are other attractions.
Bhagamandala: It is here that the river Kaveri merges with the Kannike. There are three important temples in the area dedicated to Bhagamandaleswara, Subramanya, and Vishnu. During October-November, the temple is illuminated by thousands of oil lamps. The Central Apiary offers research-cum-training in modern methods of beekeeping.
Talakaveri: This is the birthplace of the river Kaveri. Legend has it that Goddess Kaveri makes her appearance once a year during Tulamasa, when thousands gather to take a sacred dip. There are steps leading to the nearby Bramhagiri Hills.
Abbi falls: This beautiful waterfall is situated at a distance of 3 miles from Madikeri in a private coffee estate.
Maharaja’s Seat: Built in 1820, this temple is remarkable for its square shape in Islamic style. It has an impressive dome in the center and four minarets surrounded by figures of sacred bulls.
Nagarhole Sanctuary (40 miles): Situated on the banks of the Kabini river, the Nagarhole Wildlife Sanctuary is spread over an area of 110 square miles. Lined with tropical and deciduous forests and belts of swampy marshes, the place gives visitors an excellent opportunity to see wild animals.
Ranganathitu Bird Sanctuary (62 miles): Ibis, egrets, and migratory birds from Siberia and various other countries frequent the sanctuary.