Rain-drenched Coorg is a magical paradise of waterfalls, adventure sports, homestays and delicious Kodava cuisine, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY
The frantic ascending notes of the cuckoo accelerated our last minute packing efforts. A quick gulp of steaming coffee and we were off at the crack of dawn to beat the chaotic traffic and urban mayhem in Bengaluru. Outside, it was still dim and like negatives developing in a dark room, images of Coorg (Kodagu), the misty mountain district and coffee county of Karnataka were already forming in our minds. Over the past few months Coorg would have seen monsoon clouds hanging dark as beehives from the skies, dripping and rejuvenating the earth with its honeyed rain.
The drive was practically a breeze as we sped down the expressway past flooded fields of blinding green paddy, shimmering lakes and swollen tributaries of the Cauvery. As the landscape segued from plains to gentle slopes of coffee plantations almost imperceptibly, we noticed how the oxy-rich air was crisp, tingling our senses. Neat hedges bordered each estate while tall shade trees wore long green skirts of pepper vines on their trunks.
This tiny district garlanded by mountain ranges, velvety meadows and plunging valleys covered by a mosaic of rice paddies, held some pretty impressive records. Coorg is India’s highest coffee producer, Asia’s biggest honeypot, and was declared one of the 38 richest bio-diversity hotspots by UNESCO, possessing the world’s highest density of devarakadus (sacred groves) and several endemic species of flora and fauna at famous wildlife preserves like Nagarahole.
The fascinating people of the land – the closely-knit Kodavas or Coorgs form a community with a culture unlike any in the country; their origins remain an enigma till date. Researchers continue to ponder over this 2500 year old civilization – Could its roots lie in regions around Yemen and Oman or a faction of Alexander’s wandering Scythian Greek armies from Macedonia, are they an Indo-Aryan lot from Mohenjodaro or Georgian gypsies or Arabs?
Or, are they simply, the children of the River Goddess Kavery? The abundance of nature, the aura of mystery around its martial hill tribe and their innate spirit of hospitality are deadly bait for any curious traveler to pass up. Today the steadily increasing caravan of visitors to this landlocked corner of South India, have transformed the once secret paradise to a much favoured tourist destination.
The road to Madikeri wrapped around the mountain like a giant serpent and the statue of the region’s illustrious warrior son, General KS Thimayya swung into our view. Charming houses with red gabled rooftops fronted by pretty gardens dotted the mountainscape. We turned off the crowded main road leading to the bus-station and headed to Gowri Nivas, a homestay run by Muthu and Bopanna (Bops).
The beautifully renovated family home has a room open for guests besides independent cottages in a backyard full of fruit trees. Despite being in the heart of town, the homestay was tucked in a quiet back lane, providing enough privacy for a pleasant holiday and easy access to the main sights of Madikeri. After devouring a sumptuous spread of Kodava cuisine we nodded off in the mild afternoon sun, taking a cue from the chameleons in the bushes.
A short 8km drive from town led us to Madikeri’s most popular attraction Abbey Falls (a rather strange nomenclature as ‘Abbi’ means ‘falls’ in the local dialect). Post-monsoons, the brimming cascade thundered over a rocky precipice deep in a coffee and cardamom plantation with a roar that could be heard from the main road. It’s a 10-minute trudge to the metal bridge dangling over the stream where one can capture the waterfall’s fulsome beauty.
The spot was a well-known movie locale where the famous croc scene from Khoon Bhari Maang was shot! At the northern corner of town in Mahadevpet stands Gaddige, the royal tombs of the Kodagu kings, a unique blend of Hindu and Muslim architecture. Stray groups of children played cricket and cycled around the grassy compound as we marveled at the intricate trelliswork.
With its narrow undulating lanes lined by colonial houses, Madikeri is a walker’s dream. The famous hexagonal fort dominates the hillock upon which it stands as it looms over the valley like a brooding patriarch. Originally built in mud by the Haleri king Mudduraja (who incidentally gave the town its earliest name – Mudduraja-keri (place), the fort underwent several renovations under subsequent rulers – Tipu Sultan, Veerarajendra I, his brother Lingaraja and later, the British.
The double-storeyed palace today houses government buildings and the old English Protestant chapel is now a Government museum displaying relics excavated from the region. It also holds a fine collection of memorabilia belonging to the land’s most honoured soldier, Field Marshall Cariappa. The fort complex has a number of edifices, secret passages, a prison, a large portico, a Veerabhadra temple and an ancient Ganesha shrine called Kote Ganapati. A simple memorial dedicated to the brave martyrs of Kodagu who fought the First World War stands outside the palace.
The Omkareshwar Temple (6am-12noon, 5pm-8pm) built in 1820 by Lingarajendra Wadiyar looks almost Islamic in appearance – a square structure crowned by a massive dome and minarets in its four corners. The tell-tale sacred bulls in the corners reveal that the temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva worshipped as a linga, specially brought from Kashi. A flight of stairs in front of the temple complex leads to the emerald green temple tank below where the grand Theppothsava or annual Boat festival takes place in Nov-Dec.
At dusk we walked to Raja’s Seat, the regal pavilion offering the best sunset view. Set in a manicured park lined with flower hedges and musical fountains, we watched the skies blaze with fiery reds and oranges before softening into peachy pink and lavender. In one part of the park was Gandhi Mantap, a memorial built at the site where the Father of the Nation addressed the people of Madikeri in 1934.
Nearby, children squealed in excitement as Coorg’s only train, a toy train called Baba Saheb Express, chugged along the tracks. The air was rife with speculation about the introduction of a proper rail link from Mysore to Kushalnagar. During the famous Mercara Dasara in October, grand tableaux and processions line the streets. At nightfall, the stars and bulb-lit homes enveloped the town with the hushed fairytale prettiness of fireflies dancing in dark.
If Orange County had put Coorg on the tourist map, Club Mahindra had only reinforced that position, and with luxury resorts like Amanavana and the newly opened Vivanta by Taj, Coorg was upping its hospitality game. Golfing enthusiasts could try the 200-year-old Mercara Downs, an 18-hole natural course considered one of the toughest in the country or improve their handicap at the Bittangala Golf Course near Virajpet while staying at Ambatty Greens Resort or Neemrana’s boutique property Green Hills Estate.
Or for a whiff of plantation life there were several Plantation Trails bungalows around Pollibetta run by Tata Coffee with quaint names like Thaneerhulla, Woshully and Glenlorna, the last being a tea estate bungalow in a land known for coffee. For the adventurous, there was no dearth of trekking trails around Madikeri, each trail having its own fascinating legend.
At the summit of Kottebetta was a temple built by the exiled Pandavas in the course of a single night; they had no time to make a door as the cock had crowed signalling the break of dawn. Nishanimotte was the peak where sentries raised an alarm (nishani) to alert about intruders. Mandalpatti and Mukkodlu waterfalls were located near Madapur while the twin-humped peak of Pushpagiri near Somwarpet was home to rare crystals shaped like six-headed miniature lingas representing Lord Subramanya.
But we were headed for Bhagamandala (36km) and Talacauvery, the source of South India’s holiest river. At the sacred confluence of the Cauvery, Sujyoti and Kannike rivers in Bhagamandala, people pay tribute to their ancestors and offer prayers to departed souls. The stunning temple complex is dedicated to the holy trinity of Bhagandeshwara, Brahma and Vishnu. Exquisite architecture and delicately painted woodwork on the ceilings and mantapas divulge the artistic genius of yore.
A further 8km drive uphill past the 3,700ft high viewpoint and wayside stalls selling golden honey in assorted bottles and packets of spices, deposits you at Talacauvery. At the recently renovated temple complex, throngs of devotees gather at the large steps of the famed temple tank. After a holy dip, they perform pooja at a smaller tank, where the deity Goddess Cauvery is worshipped in her elemental form, a perennial spring.
Lakhs gather around mid-October to witness the mysterious bubbling of the spring on Cauvery or Tula Sankramana at a pre-ordained moment. It is believed that India’s most sacred River Ganga travels from the north to wash her sins in the south, in the purifying waters of the Cauvery, which is thus called Dakshin Gange. Shrines dedicated to Lord Ganesha and an ancient linga allegedly worshipped by Sage Agastya can be found in the upper level while a steep flight of steps lead to the Brahmagiri peak where the seven sages had performed a yagna eons ago. The hike presents a sublime 360 degree view of misty hills and valleys with stray windmills spinning in the distance. Being a wildlife zone covered by dense mist and thick forests, entry is restricted after 4pm.
We continued towards Kakkabe (39km) and swung into Kabbe Holidays beyond Chelavara village near Cheyandane. This was the region of birdsong, bountiful honey and lofty heights like Thadiyendamol, the tallest mountain in Coorg. Soaring 5,730ft into the skies, it dwarfed other peaks like Chomakund, Hanging Rock and Kabbe Kund. For trekkers the daunting 6km trek to Thadiyendamol comes with the promise of splendid views and a statutory warning: leeches! Nearby, Chelavara Falls crashes in a sheet of white, more magnificent than Abbey. In the dry months, this sheer rockface turns into a rock-climbing haven as adventurers abseil down its craggy face.
Col NK Appaiah of Keemalekad (08274-269449) organizes jungle walks, obstacle courses and off-sites for corporate and student groups while Quad Biking, zip-line or quad biking are done at Now Or Never Land outdoor activity centre. Sagar Ganapathy of Jungle Adventures (08272-238341/98418 31675) conducts year-round adventure sports like rappelling, rock climbing, river crossing, kayaking and white-water rafting.
Kakkabe is also home to the ancient Padi Igguthappa temple dedicated to the patron god of rain and rice and the historic Nalaknad Palace, built in 1792 by King Doddaveeraraja as a hunting lodge and summer escape. A tiny sculpted pavilion crowned by a dome and four bulls facing the cardinal directions stands forlorn in an empty courtyard.
The palace itself wears a sloping roof pulled hat-like, low over a simple two-storeyed façade hides its regal trimmings. One notices its pillared verandah, the barely visible wall mural and delicate wooden friezes only after stepping inside. Interestingly, it was here that the king plotted his military moves in the war against Tipu Sultan at Bhagamandala.
The 250-year old Nadikeriyanda Ainmane at Karada with its pillared front and intricately carved doorway and windows is a finely preserved specimen of traditional architecture. Each Kodava family has an ainmane (ancestral home), which holds a mirror to the social structure, customs and traditions of the entire clan.
The biggest gift the rains brought was the joys of white water rafting on the KKR or Upper Barapole river. Being the only river emptying west of the Western Ghats into the sea, it had a steep and terrifying descent. Organized by Southern River Adventures and Barapole Rafting from Ponya Estate near Srimangala, the river offers some good Grade 2 and Grade 3 rapids as raters and kayaks deftly maneuver the surging waters.
But nothing prepares you for the grandeur of Irpu Falls, believed to be an outpouring of Lakshmana’s remorseful tears after a rare fight with his brother Lord Rama on their way to Lanka. Another story alleges that when a repentant Lakshmana shot an arrow into the Brahmagiri hills and threatened to kill himself in the flames erupting from the earth, the all forgiving Rama pacified him and created the Lakshman Theertha at the summit to extinguish the fire and blessed its waters with purifying powers. Before proceeding to the falls, people visit the Irpu Rameshwara Temple, which enshrines a linga believed to have been fashioned by Lord Rama after his victorious return from Lanka.
The 1 km stroll amidst iridescent rainforest takes you closer to the torrential cascade tumbling 51.8 m over slippery dark boulders. Everywhere, the clinging moss and lichens on branches and rocks exaggerate the emerald gleam of nature as rare orchids, mushrooms, medicinal herbs, exotic butterflies and endemic birds announced their presence alternately with colour, movement and distinct musical calls. Trekking further into the Brahmagiri Sanctuary requires prior permission from the Forest Department at Srimangala.
Near Dubare, we pitch ourselves at Bamboo Loft, a cosy homestay run by Savitha and Ashish (08276 267800 / 9845848224). The table heaved with an array of Kodava fare and Savitha’s divine culinary skills left us begging for more. Between mouthfuls of kadambuttu and dark spicy pandi curry, akki otti (rice rotis) and bemble (tender bamboo shoot) and yerchi (mutton) pulao, Ashish engaged us with historical nuggets about architectural ruins in the vicinity. We discovered that it made an ideal perch to savour the riverine pleasures of Dubare (25km from Madikeri).
The unique Elephant Interaction Program (8.30am-12noon) run by the forest department offers a fabulous hands-on experience to understand elephants better. One can assist the mahouts in feeding or scrubbing the pachyderms as they lolled and splashed in their rippling plunge bath, the Cauvery. A short drive takes you to Cauvery Nisargadhama a captivating eco-island, the scenic picnic area of Harangi Dam near Kushalnagar and Karnataka’s very own Little Tibet, Bylakuppe and its stunning Golden Temple at Namdroling Monastery.
Yet there were so much in Coorg still waiting to be explored – the colourful terays (oracular festivals), estates plunged in a sea of white with coffee blossoms in March, plantations afire with countless fireflies in April, the frenetic picking season with berries drying in coffee yards, the month-long Family Hockey Festival and the traditional attire and zest for life, best seen at a Kodava wedding. As the rains abated and a landscape magically revived, we realized how easy it was surrender to the misty mountains of Coorg where each homestay was a destination by itself and no two visits were ever the same.
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the January 2013 issue of Rail Bandhu, the Indian Railways magazine.