Tag Archives: Biodiversity hotspot

Coorg: Coffee Blossoms in My Hair

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PRIYA GANAPATHY shares her socio-geo-apolitical-eco-cultural Kodava guide, with a whiff of coffee-scented nostalgia

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It’s hard to remain unbiased while writing about something that defines your identity (a distinct one at that). Though Coorg forms part of Karnataka, its people have a culture that bears little resemblance to the surrounding areas. Tomes have been written on the origins of Coorgs. We can argue about whether we are natives of the land, children of Goddess Cauvery,descendents of Greeks or Aryans, an Indo-Scythian race, Arab traders who got acculturised or Georgian gypsies who danced right into India! We can draw connections based on sharp features, language, religious practices, costumes or accessories and piece jigsaws till we’re blue in the face. Befuddling as it may seem, there is nothing to confirm where exactly, this warrior community with a legacy of distinguished soldiers, came from.

Being a Coorg is a reality I’m reminded of with every sip of morning coffee. Going by the volume consumed, I should have caffeine in my veins and wear coffee blossoms in my hair! And coffee isn’t the only brew we enjoy. It’s no secret that the majority of Kodavas love to knock-back the ol’ firewater and have a voracious appetite for meat – especially the ones that oink. Be it birth, marriage or death – meat, alcohol and music are a must. Some swear that our wildlife got eliminated thanks to our forefathers’ love for game. So don’t be alarmed when men, women and twenty-somethings quaff together at ceremonial gatherings. In fact, elders mock at the recent trend of youngsters becoming teetotalling grass-eaters! However, there are other things synonymous with Coorgs – good looks, loyalty and an innate pride that forbids a Coorg to curry favour with anyone are characteristics that exude from the entire clan, so excuse us if we preen.

A love for creature comforts is another. No matter how much elbow grease goes into running an estate, visiting a planter’s home gives the impression of a life of luxury in a ruggedly romantic county. The omnipresent wicker-backed planter’s chair in the verandah is testimony to that. Though the style harks back to the British years, the props remind me of an Old Western flick – khaki-hued jungle hats and P-caps on horned hat-racks, knee-length boots stashed in a corner, hunting trophies adorning the walls – heads and skins of big cats killed by great-great grandfathers, beautifully varnished deer antlers, glinting criss-crossing swords, rifles, guns and daggers. Phew. You’d think some cool cowboy gunslinger would slam out that double-door and swing into action!

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Despite a flamboyant and broadminded façade, Coorgs are fiercely traditional. Discipline, respect for elders and adherence to customs is a given. Kodavas don’t hesitate to touch the feet of elders anytime, anywhere. They do it with alacrity… thrice. Another habit, supposedly like the Greeks, is to offer food and drink to ancestors before wetting your whistle. We don’t forget to dip a finger into our grog and tap out three drops for them. Also, the ritual of althith porrduva (sitting before leaving the house) is a pause that spells success in any venture. Ok, maybe we are superstitious.

Although most Coorgs migrated to prove their worth in all walks of life, the defense services, agriculture and sports remain pet choices. Hockey is to Coorg what cricket is to India, so the ubiquitous hockey stick exists in every home. Strangely, I’ve never seen an untidy Coorg dwelling. Even the most humble traditional cottage is clean and inviting. Lush lawns with colourful flowerbeds and pots brimming with fuschia, exotic anthuriums, poinsettia or bougainvillae greet you. Architecturally, homes blend Kerala and colonial styles with sloping red-roofed tiles and monkey tops. Often, gleaming thookbolchas (hanging lamps) dangle from wooden ceilings.

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Most Kodava names end predictably with ‘aiah’, ‘appa’, ‘anna’, ‘amma’ or ‘avva’. All Coorgs are identified by family names, so the first thing you ask another Coorg after preliminary introductions is “Daada?” or ‘which family?’ This instant password unlocks the matrix… Immediately thereafter, the person computes your identity and you realise how you’re closely related to a virtual stranger!

When Coorg women are on the phone, notice how often they use the word oui. It’s not French for ‘yes’. Here it’s an ever-changing exclamation form, which means different things as conversation progresses. The stress and duration of ouuiii determines whether it’s a question, shock, chuckle or cautionary cry. And another Kodava stereotype: a Coorg guy is usually a handsome hunk who rides a noisy Yezdi or drives a jeep. His fashion statement includes blue jeans, a thick moustache and RayBan sunglasses (he’s been the unofficial brand ambassador for decades).

On a nostalgic note, for urban gypsies like me, holidays in Coorg meant a return to innocence. We hunted for bulbul and weaverbird nests in thickets, and shinned up trees laden with juicy oranges, mangoes, jackfruit, papaya, mulberries and guavas waiting to be plucked. We helped to milk the cows each morning, led cattle to grazing fields, fed the chickens and pranced to nearby streams with baskets and thin towels to catch schools of tiny fish and crabs. We skipped into the woods to pop wild berries and went mushroom picking in meadows carpeted by fungi. We knew our aalandi, koday and nuchchi-kummh (edible mushrooms) from our puchchi-kummh (toxic variety causing hallucinations). Tribal labourers would bring wild honey, venison, vannak yerachi (smoked meat) and bemble (bamboo-shoot) and we’d watch them transform into lipsmacking delicacies.

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Our aunts served up dishes we’d only read about in Enid Blyton books: bakes and homemade preserves of raspberries, strawberries and blueberries. The pantry was a virtual lab with bottled jellies of guava and banana, jars of pickled mangoes, bitter lemon, dates, pork and fish. Perhaps, Coorg women believe anything can be pickled or fermented into wine! Check out the wine-list at any ethnic wedding. Grape is passé. For us, it has to be passion fruit, ginger, pineapple, mulberry, rice, jamun, orange, betel-leaf, flower extracts or coffee liqueurs. Meanwhile, our uncles created targets to hone our sharp-shooting skills and drummed out sounds of kodava-aat as we danced under starlight. Those wild days and bonfire nights seemed to go on forever.

Perhaps, things have changed, but traces of a life of Riley and a fancy for the finer things still remain. And every time I step on Coorg soil, rain-drenched and leech-ridden, I know this is the only place where I stop to smell the roses. My home, my land, my secret garden.

Author: Priya Ganapathy. This piece appeared in Impressions, a celebrity column in Bengaluru & Karnataka (2nd Edition) a guide book by Stark World Publishing, Bangalore

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Rainforest Retreat Coorg: Life on an organic farm

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If man learnt the blues pickin’ cotton, he shall rediscover it learning how to grow coffee. And no any ordinary coffee, mind you, but organic gourmet robusta. The upper echelons of Coorg’s rain-slopes resonate not with the hum of mountain maidens, but Big Mama Thornton belting away the blues. Welcome to Mojo Rainforest Retreat, a 25-acre organic farm perched at 1100m in the lush Western Ghats of Karnataka. Mojo is as famous for its unimaginable shades of green as for its collection of blues, believed to be the largest in the country. If Robert Johnson’s wandering soul were to reincarnate as a farmhand, this is where it would come to rest.

Take it from Doc. That’s Doctor Anurag Goel, who claims to have seen every big blues act while doing his Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from Toronto. His wife Sujata, a Ph.D. from the Department of Botany (Delhi University), is a walking encyclopedia of natural remedies. Along with their ‘nature child’ Maya, the Goels have accomplished what most people only dream of in their dreams. They quit the rat race of urban drudgery to pursue a more harmonious existence with nature. After extensive travel through this vast country, they chose to settle in the rainforests of Coorg. The retreat was set up in 1999 to raise awareness about their environmental NGO. Initially, they intended to name it Worldwide Association for Restoration and Preservation of Ecological Diversity but realized that a name like WARPED would find little credibility. And so, after a little juggling of alphabets and a National Geographic grant later, they settled for WAPRED Research Foundation in 1996. Today, the idea has blossomed into a heady mix of eco-tourism, offbeat adventure travel and the blues. 

Coorg’s rich flora and fauna have earned it international recognition as one of the most important hotspots of biodiversity that need to be preserved. To say that it’s a challenge is an understatement. This here is Wild West Country, where every house boasts of a licensed rifle and most of the region’s wildlife can be found on the walls of living rooms in Coorg. Some of course, like the wild boar, have met a more honourable end. The transformation from a vile burrowing creature to a bowl of delectable pandi-curry can only be attributed to the genius of a people who have understood the very soul of the animal. Sadly, the importance of nature’s treasures has been lost on them. The heavy use of toxic pesticides has seriously endangered the region’s fragile eco-system. The falling prices of coffee have spurred the use of chemical fertilizers and a mysterious disease has wiped out the orange from ‘Orange County’. However, there’s one bastion that seems to be holding out – Mojo.

The farm is a perfect example of how to live in harmony with nature without necessarily exploiting it. The Goels use solar panels for their basic power supply. Crops are grown under the shade of rainforest trees using biological methods of pest control. A medicinal plant garden nurtures the wealth of traditional knowledge. Coffee berries are handpicked, hand-processed and specially roasted to obtain a special blend without using chemicals or chicory. The cuisine – mostly locally grown organic produce – is a delicious blend of continental and Indian dishes, homemade bread, cottage cheese, pastas, roasts, preserves and gourmet organic coffee.

Even the accommodation at the Rainforest Retreat is an unforgettable experience. A beautiful brook-side bungalow, set in a picture-postcard thicket of bamboo, banana, orange and pineapple, conforms to international standards of style and comfort. It has two bedrooms, a spacious living room, sit-out and perhaps the best rainforest loo any side of the equator. A second, more rustic shelter is the Yin Yang Cottage inside the plantation. A thin wisp of smoke rising from the bathroom chimney indicates that Muttu Pandey (the farmhand) has already heated the water. Before the stimulating bath can lull me to sleep, there’s a Doc on my door. It’s time for a first-hand learning experience at the farm.

Mojo is home to the Habanero, the world’s second hottest chili. The Red Savina Habanero used to be the hottest until it was deposed by our own Nagahari chili from Tezpur, Assam. Another brilliant flash – this time at the treetop – catches my eye and I wonder if it’s a bird, a plane or Superman. Doc angrily shakes his head and says it’s the Southern Birdwing, India’s largest butterfly. There’s Dendrobium Nutantiflorum, he motions to an orchid clump and that’s the raucous call of a Green Barbet. Stupefied, I try to keep pace with one new discovery a minute and forget more than I can remember. Doc plays the razor-sharp schoolmaster to my stupid boy from Botany class. A walk through the dense cardamom under-hang leads to a clearing where Doc comes to a halt in front of a tree. 

He has the reverence one would show to an Inca shrine. With all the compassion of a shaman consecrating a totem, he caresses the thick leaves of a creeper. “After saffron, vanilla happens to be the most expensive spice in the world”, he chuckles. “One kilo of cured, processed vanilla extract fetches as much as Rs.11,000 in the international market.” But before this article can trigger off rampant cultivation of vanilla in any available garden patch, let me add that it takes 5 kg of beans to process 1 kg vanillin extract. A lucky farmer may get about Rs.700 for a kilo of beans. What’s more, in the absence of its natural pollinator the Melipone bee, the orchid’s flowers have to be hand-pollinated. The flower opens in the morning and closes in the afternoon, never to open again. If left pollinated, the flower will drop the very next day.

Oddly content that I was not a vanilla farmer, I pick up samples of the local produce. Habanero extract, cardamom, pepper (which are indigenous), coffee (which was introduced), Garcinia (aka Kokum, used as a refreshing drink and a souring agent in curries) and a lovely set of picture postcards, all of which fund WAPRED. Back at the main house, Sujata thrusts into my hand what she calls a ‘hibiscus suspension’. I admire the glass like a potential Nobel Prize winning entry, when a patient feminine voice explains, “It’s a coolant; you are supposed to drink it”. “And next time, use kerosene on your boots. It’ll keep the leeches away”. This region gets so much rainfall it would make Mawsynram blush. The rains get so severe that leeches give up their positions on the ground and cling to overhanging branches to throw themselves like kamikaze warriors on to passing targets. If you’re into pain, I highly recommend Mojo in the monsoons.

Among the other denizens of the farm are the dogs – Jupiter, Janis (named after Janis Joplin), UB (Ugly Bastard – a deformed puppy who has grown up into a stocky watchdog) and Pigpen (from a character in Animal Farm), who died recently. It’s advisable to be overtly good to them as it is they who accompany you from the main house to the Yin-Yang Cottage at night. A solitary jaunt is not exactly spooky, but jungle walks have never been the same after The Blair Witch Project. Everything at Mojo – including Aki the Calf and Maya Hill – has been named by 4-year-old Maya. If she has finished partying with McDuff, John Barleycorn (who has a drinking problem) and her imaginary friends, maybe she’ll show you her ‘panoramic view’ and tell you about her philosophy. Meanwhile, a Golden Oriole lands on the tree near the verandah. While I gape open-mouthed at it like a 4-year-old kid, an oblivious Maya is content watching UB play with a ball-beetle.

Mojo is the sort of place where you’d hate to blink. It tends to leave you with a strange feeling that can best be described as a mixture of envy, awe, respect, rejuvenation and rage when the honeymoon is over. However, for those few precious moments, it gives people a chance to experience an inner peace that only nature can provide. Doc has also designed several escorted road tours that take you to interesting places nearby. There are excursions to other plantations like Ludwig Mahal, a nature walk to Galibeedu Ridge, a visit to the Dubare Elephant Training Camp and an insane drive to the Cauvery for swimming and mahseer fishing. What makes Mojo even more special is that it’s a Mecca for bird-watchers, insect-lovers, soul-trippers and blues-brothers. The misty mountains and dense foliage of this section of the Western Ghats make it one of the best places to get lost. In fact, Mojo adds up to such a wild weekend you might even be tempted to call it a ‘Doc Holiday’…

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the May 2003 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.