Tag Archives: Madikeri

Coorg: The trickle-down effect

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Rain-drenched Coorg is a magical paradise of waterfalls, adventure sports, homestays and delicious Kodava cuisine, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY 

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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Getting Away from It All: India’s Top 10 Great Escapes

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY showcase India’s ‘coolest’ destinations, from Himalayan retreats, beach holidays to legendary hill stations

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There are many things for which we blame the British – cricket, bureaucracy, railways, tea and anglicized spellings – but the quaint ‘hill-station’ has to be their most charming contribution. From Snooty Ooty in the Neilgherries where the rules of snooker were laid down, to Simla in the Himalayas, where imperial plans were drawn every summer, most hill retreats were ‘discovered’ by British collectors to escape the scorching heat of the plains. Complete with lakes, botanical gardens, pony trails, golf courses, racetracks, bakeries, the ubiquitous Mall Road and scenic viewpoints and waterfalls named after Company officials and British memsahibs, these Little Englands were hailed as ‘Scotland of the East’, ‘Switzerland of India’, ‘Queen of Hill-Stations’ and other grand epithets.

Some of these hill retreats were developed into sanatoriums and cantonments of the British Empire, where homesick soldiers found rest and respite. The term Doolaly, Brit slang for ‘gone crazy’, originated in the hill town of Deolali in Maharashtra where recuperating soldiers often feigned madness to avoid being redrafted! Netarhat in Jharkhand, considered the Queen of Chhotanagpur, is supposedly a corruption of ‘Near the Heart’! The cool climes drew European planters to set up vast estates of coffee, tea, fruits and spices while missionaries established educational institutions. With time, these outposts became summer retreats for a vast Indian populace.

However, not all hill stations were British finds. Kodaikanal is credited to the Americans while Indian rulers developed their own summer capitals – Almora and Binsar by the Chand Rajas of Kumaon, Kemmangundi by Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV, while Chail was created by Bhupinder Singh, the swashbuckling Maharaja of Patiala to peeve the British after he was banished from Simla for eloping with a British lady! From Horsley Hills in Andhra Pradesh to Pachmarhi in Madhya Pradesh or Saputara in Gujarat to Mount Abu in Rajasthan, the state’s only hill station, India’s cool hideaways stretch from the Western Ghats to the Himalayas. Here are 10 great picks…

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1. Nilgiris (Tamil Nadu)
Lured by the irresistible charm of the swirling mist and eucalyptus-scented air wafting above the sweeping acres of manicured tea plantations, for decades tourists have wound their way up the hairpin bends towards the Blue Mountains. Sprawling bungalows with sloping roofs, monkeytops and vibrant gardens hark back to the colonial legacy of the region while the looming hills cloaked by dense forests are still home to herds of elephant and gaur. If Ooty seems too commercial and Kotagiri somewhat warm, Coonoor is indeed the perfect balance! One of the newest retreats is Tea Nest, run by The Kurumba Village Resort. Surrounded by 1,800 acres of the Singara Tea Estate, the charming colonial bungalow is perched in the shadow of Tiger Hill with its lofty manager’s bungalow and Pakkasuran Hill where Tipu Sultan had an outpost. Relish tea-themed cuisine like tea-mushroom soup and smoked chicken or fish infused in tea, wake up to grazing herds of gaur among the tea bushes or birdwatch from the comfort of your lofty lair. Drop by at Needlecraft in the century old Erin Villa to browse through exclusive petit point embroidery, cutwork and tapestry. Try tea-tasting at the Tranquilitea lounge and buy organic hill produce, Toda shawls and Kota stone pottery at the Green Shop. For complete pampering, surrender yourself to Kurumba’s brand new Jacuzzi suites.

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2. Wayanad (Kerala)
With a sweltering coastline, Kerala’s highlands are the ideal refuge – plantation bungalows in Nilambur and Nelliyampathy to Neelambari, the luxurious Ayurvedic hideaway in a pristine corner of Ranipuram. Yet, Wayanad with its rolling hills and profusion of homestays and resorts is a clear winner. Enjoy solitude in a 500-acre plantation left to grow wild at Fringe Ford near Mananthavady. Stay in luxurious tree houses at Vythiri Resort and Tranquil Plantation Getaway, where you wake up to the carefree whistles of the Malabar Whistling Thrush or choose from 14 nature trails within the property. Rekindle romance in a cave restaurant lit in the warm glow of a hundred candles at Edakkal Hermitage and marvel at Stone Age cave drawings nearby. The newest entrant My Garden of Eden, is a premium plantation retreat set in the hilly tracts of Valathoor near Meppady. Don’t forget to drop by at Uravu near the district headquarters of Kalpetta for an astonishing range of bamboo instruments like binsi (a hollow reed that whistles when swung), rainmaker (cascading seeds that emit sounds of the rain) and other innovative products.

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3. Coorg (Karnataka)
Blessed with nature’s bounty of hills, waterfalls and brooks, Coorg or Kodagu is a paradise that boasts dense forests teeming with wildlife, lush coffee and pepper plantations grown in the shade of rainforest trees, unmatched culture, unique cuisine and the genuine warmth of Kodava hospitality. From rustic and organic homestays overlooking estates and paddy fields to palatial plantation bungalows of the colonial era, Karnataka’s smallest and most mountainous region is also the fountainhead of the Cauvery, South India’s greatest river. Stay at Neemrana’s Green Hills Estate in Virajpet, a town formed after King Virarajendra met Lord Abercrombie to form a historic pact against Tipu, their common enemy. Straddle the Kerala border at Kabbe Holidays and walk along historic trade routes or base yourself at Palace Estate near Kakkabe and trek to Thadiyendamol, the highest peak in Coorg. Discover organic farming at the Rainforest Retreat or stay at exclusive heritage homestays like School Estate in Siddapur, Gowri Nivas in Madikeri and Java Mane near Madapur. For a cool splash in streams, choose from a new clutch of homestays like Silver Brook Estate or Bird of Paradise around Kushalnagar or resorts like Amanvana, Tamara and Kadkani River Resort. Or immerse yourself in colonial comfort at Tata Coffee’s Plantation Trail bungalows around Pollibetta.

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4. Spiti (Himachal)
If Shimla, Manali, Dharamsala and Dalhousie sound too familiar and you’ve been to Ladakh already, head to the Himalayan realm of Spiti for a change. Abutting the Tibetan highlands in eastern Himachal Pradesh, the region is dotted by some of the loftiest homestays in the Himalayas. Perched above the left bank of the Spiti river are the high altitude villages of Langza, Komic (the highest in Asia), Demul, Lhalung and Dhankar, the site of a crumbling monastery that was the first to be built in Spiti and as per legend will be the last to fall. Plan a tour with Spiti Ecosphere to uncover a mystical world of gompas (Buddhist monasteries), amchis (traditional medicine men), Bon traditions (animist religion preceding Buddhism) and unique experiences like the Tibetan Wolf Trail, protecting fossil sanctuaries, Yak Safaris and River Rafting. For a more inclusive experience, participate in rural development projects in this remote and rugged region as you watch locals involved in eco livelihoods like hand-woven handicrafts and organic products available under the brand name Tsering (blessing in Tibetan).

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5. Lake District (Uttarakhand)
Unobstructed views of the Himalayas often stretching across 300 km, stunning high altitude lakes and mythical tales of the divine infuse Uttarakhand with untold magic. The period when the mountains are awash with the fiery glow of rhododendrons leaves every visitor spellbound. Explore the Lake District of Nainital, a reflection of the emerald green eyes of Sati, the majestic Bhimtal and Sat-Tal and the nine-cornered Naukuchiyatal that bestows everlasting bliss on the beholder. Follow the high mountain road to Ranikhet and Majkhali or hike from Nainital to Corbett through forests of broad-leafed sal, oak and deodar, while staying at jungle lodges or century old Forest Rest Houses. Beyond the hill town of Almora, lies the quaint hamlet of Kasar Devi, where spiritual masters, artists and beat poets sought inspiration while Binsar doubles up as a wildlife sanctuary and a hill station. Scenic homestays like Valley View Villa near Ranikhet, The Cottage at Jeolikot, Emily Lodge at Nainital, Emerald Trail at Bhimtal and a chain of resorts by Leisure Hotels across Kumaon and Garhwal offer an assorted bouquet of options. The signature jams, pickles, preserves and flavoured honey available under the Kumaoni label and warm woolens can be picked up at Umang, a local co-operative.

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6. Meghalaya (North East)
A delicious nip in the air along undulating roads and strains of retro music emanating from cafés and mobile phones announces Shillong, touted as the Rock Capital of the East. Picture postcard images unfold in scenic churches, old schools and hill slopes swathed in green. Relive colonial grandeur in sprawling bungalows like Rosaville and the regal Tripura Castle or soak in the luxury of Ri Kynjai resort overlooking the shimmering Lake Umiam at Barapani. Watch locals wager on the age-old game of teer (archery) in the market area, marvel at the dazzling collection of beetles and butterflies at a private museum and savour delicious Khasi cuisine in homes and tiny hotels like Trattoria. Unfold the secrets of ancient root bridges, sacred stones and lonely waterfalls in Mawlynnong, the cleanest village in Asia and at the rain-drenched paradise of Cherrapunjee, track the Dark Rumped Swift swooping along the misty cliffs of Nohkalikai Falls. In this Abode of Clouds, there are other surprises – the surreal limestone contortions of Mawsmai Caves, the sacred groves of Mawflong, fish spas in natural pools and even a Double-Decker Root Bridge!

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7. Konkan Coast (Maharashtra)
The Konkan coast of Maharashtra can rejuvenate your senses in a delicate fusion of nature, peace, solitude and simple pastoral life. From the irrepressible joy of eating luscious Ratnagiri mangoes to golden sunsets along the sea-kissed beaches of Kashid and the historic sea fort of Murud-Janjira to the north and Ganpatipule, Devgad, Sindhudurg, Tarkarli and Sangameshwar stretching to the south. Just off the coast, choose from a host of homestays like Atithi Parinay, Nandan Farms and Dwarka Farmhouse that offer special experiences of farm life. Relish flavours that range from the subtle sattvik fare of Saraswat Brahmins to the spicy indulgence of seafood and Malvani cuisine. Pick up hand-painted pieces of Ganjifa Art at the Sawantwadi Palace or lacquerware toys from Chitaar Ali (Artisans Lane) before driving up to Amboli Ghat. If this is not enough, head north to the high hills of Lonavla, Matheran, Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani for breathtaking views and local specialties like chikkis, sweet corn, homemade chocolates and fudge.

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8. Canacona/Palolem (South Goa)
Far from the psychedelic beach scene of North Goa, serpentine roads lead south to the quieter shores of Canacona and Palolem. Just beyond the main bus stand lies a 12,000 sq ft oasis called Turiya where you can experience a legit mode of mind expansion! Inspired by the fourth state of consciousness, the newly opened 100-year-old yellow Portuguese villa draped by bougainvillea creepers houses a spa offering authentic Ayurvedic and western therapies. Renovated by a well-known architect, the impeccably furnished Turiya exudes a sensual lazy charm with delicious home-cooked food and a cozy verandah overlooking a garden twittering with birds. Personalized visits to the local market for fresh fish and nearby farms to hand pick your choice of vegetables make the holiday unique. If you can drag yourself out of the armchair, there’s Palolem beach just 2km away with bistros and boutiques or the serene Agonda Beach 10 km north, boat trips to Butterfly Island and the promise of dolphin sightings, day trips to Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary and Karwar (Karnataka), besides some of the most scenic trekking trails in South Goa.

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9. Darjeeling/Sikkim (North East)
Surrounded by tea plantations and cradled in the lap of the mighty Kangchenjunga mountain, Darjeeling’s allure has always inspired poets, writers and filmmakers besides scores of tourists to roost upon its cool slopes. Visit local factories to taste the eponymous Darjeeling tea or take a ride in the UNESCO World Heritage train, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) up the Batasia Loops to Ghoom. Apart from a slew of resorts and plantation bungalows, you can check in at the unique Beatles theme lodge, The Revolver, with rooms named after John, Paul, Ringo and George! A more plush option is Mayfair Darjeeling, the erstwhile palace of the Maharaja of Nazargunj. Their newest offering, the ritzy Mayfair Spa Resort in Gangtok fuses a monastic theme with colonial architecture and has raised the bar for luxury in the North East. While in Sikkim, the land of prayer flags and chortens, visit Buddhist monasteries at Pemayangstse, Rumtek and Tashiding and experience the warm hospitality of heritage homestays like Yangsum Farm at Rinchepong, Mayal Lyang at Dzongu and Bon Farmhouse, a birding haven at Kewzing.

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10. Andamans
It is hard to imagine that a notorious penal settlement of yesteryears is today a tropical isle of pleasure. While the remoteness of the Andaman Islands has worked in its favour, its sparse population and laid back charm accentuates the privacy one seeks on a holiday. Located 1000km east of the Indian coastline and fringed by coral reefs and a palette of crystal clear blue waters, the islands are among the finest beach getaways and diving destinations in the world. Take a trip into history in the triad of Port Blair, described as India’s only ‘warm hill station’, Viper Island and the ruins of Ross Island once praised as the Paris of the East. Sunsets at Chidiya Tapu and Mount Hariett, snorkeling above iridescent coral reefs at North Bay and Wandoor, deep sea diving and sport fishing around Ritchie’s Archipelago are not to be missed. Havelock, the main tourist hub bristles with resorts and diving experts like Barefoot Scuba, Dive India, Laccadives etc. Visit during April-May as the waters become murky once the monsoons set in. Grab a tan at Radhanagar Beach, ranked by Time magazine as the best beach in Asia. Scenic Neil Island nearby has a subdued ambience and rustic stay options, making it an offbeat outpost. Besides regular boat access between the main islands, the swanky Makruzz cruise zips across 50km from Port Blair to Havelock in just 1½ hours!

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 8 April, 2012 in Deccan Herald (Sunday edition). 

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.