The Scotland of India
It is often said that Coorg is the “Scotland of India”. Having seen something of Coorg on this trip, and having travelled much in Scotland some years ago, I can say for sure that Coorg is nothing like Scotland. There is no way a rolling landscape of tropical forests and lush estates can be compared to the wild mountains of the Scottish Highlands, the bare isolated peaks of the Hebrides or the gentle hills of the Scottish Borders. I guess this epithet was coined by the British during colonial times and is perhaps a reflection of their nostalgia for things out of the ordinary everyday lives.
My experience of Coorg and Madikeri in particular was not all that great or memorable. At times it was close to a nightmare. The journey from Bangalore by KSRTC bus was sleepless, no thanks to bed bugs on the cushioned seat. I arrived at Madikeri tired and bitten all over. A good night’s sleep was in order the next night but finding a decent accommodation proved to be difficult. Decent options were all booked for this Good Friday weekend and I has to hole myself into a place way below standard. A room not more than 7 feet by 5 feet with basic toilet facilities on the floor below was hardly a place for a holiday. There was no fan. A single night lamp was all the lighting the room had. Finally, the mattress was a haven for bed bugs. They kept me awake most of the night. I must have squashed thirty of them through the night.
Madikeri does not deserve the praise it gets. It is not really a tourist destination in my opinion. Nature has blessed it with a picturesque location and a wholesome climate. Looks like civilization has spolit them both. On one hand, open drains, dirt and garbage greet you as soon as you step out of the bus station. On the other hand, the climate is warmer than it used to be some years ago. Global warming, shall we say.
There is nothing worthwhile to see at Madikeri. There is Abbi Falls 8 kms from here. There is no bus to the falls and even pictures of the falls are not inviting. Certainly, not a place to tempt me before the monsoons. Raja’s Seat is a popular vantage point and easily accessible for tourists. The view from here is excellent. There is a fort in the center of town. For someone who has seen the great forts of Bidar and Chitradurga, Madikeri Fort does not even come across as a fort. It stands on a moderate hill with an equally moderate bulwark with some bastions. The fort has a colonial touch to it, undoubtedly the work of our erstwhile British rules. From the top of the fort the red tiled roofs of Madikeri set in a hilly landscape make an interesting sight. There is nothing more I can say about this uncommon view. Had I been in a better mood, perhaps I would have appreciated it more.
Inside the fort walls is the office of the Deputy Commissioner but you really wonder how this government official can manage a district when even the fort stands unattended as an eyesore. Inside the fort walls are many crumbling buildings, not historic ruins but simply buildings that need to be demolished. I thought I will at least visit the museum, which is housed in a church building. It is closed on Mondays and the second Saturdays of every month. Just my luck.
Perhaps the only thing about Madikeri that I would like to remember is my visit to the Omkareshwar Temple. I thought I had covered just about every element of temple architecture that’s there to see in Karnataka when this temple sprung a surprise. The main shrine is capped with a central dome and surrounded by four corner turrets topped with cupolas. Everything in this scheme suggests a strong Islamic influence. A flight of stairs go down from here to a water-filled tank. At its centre is a small shrine and a path leading to it. One is reminded of Amritsar’s Golden Temple but of course this is much too small and plain. It is a Hindu temple for sure and nothing on the outside suggests this. There are three levels of ambulatory around the shrine – one at the level of the inner sanctum, one at a level below in the inner courtyard, one on the outside which then leads to the tank. There is a balipeetha, a stone platform for sacrifices. This is the first time I have been introduced to this temple feature. On the inside, walls carry recent murals of deities and saints in splendid colours. This is cheap temple art of the modern age. These murals are purely decorative, perhaps informative at best. At least for me, they had no power to infuse piety.
Tea, Coffee and Cardamom
Within a first hour of arriving in Coorg, I visited Ganesh Estate located a few of kilometers from the bus station. I was itching to see some estates and I found out about this one from one of the locals. Interestingly, this estate also offers homestays and so I approached one of the holiday cottages. I met the officer who informed me that the estate has just been sold and homestays are temporarily not offered. The estate has an area of 20 acres on hilly ground with a good number of trees providing shady conditions for coffee growing.
For an hour and a half, I walked up and down these slopes amongst the coffee plants. These are twisted plants with green waxy leaves. Most of them looked to be in bad condition but this was simply my ignorance on the matter. Later I came to know that coffee is picked only once a year, about November-December. Due to recent rains, the flowers were just coming out on some plants. It would be many more months before the seeds could be picked, processed and packed for the cup.
This estate had mostly robusta coffee. Coffee comes in two varieties – robusta and arabica. The latter has better taste but needs more maintenance and has a shorter lifespan. Arabica has smaller leaves which grow close to one another. The plant itself is shorter and tends to be compact while robusta tends to spread out a little more.
Cardamom is also grown in this estate as is common in rest of Coorg. These are smaller plants with long leaves. The flowers grow close to the ground at the base of the plant. These are white flowers with purple colouration at the center. Normally flowers appear in June and seeds much later. Like coffee, it is picked towards the end of the year. If you find a fruit, break it open. The distinct smell of cardamom can be sensed right away. On the day I left Coorg, I bought some fresh green cardomom which the seller claimed was picked only 8 days ago, a claim I find hard to believe. Different grades were available and I paid Rs. 60 for 100 grams.
Tea is not so common in these parts but I did walk through a tea estate in a place named Onachalu. This is also a nice place for hiking. There are well-laid paths used by tea-pickers but one can also walk right up the slopes through the plantations to get a wide view of the surrounding hills. I found that in this tea estate there were few trees and those that stood did not provide a lot of shade. Perhaps, coffee plants require more shade and tea plants require more sunshine.
On the whole, the estates in Coorg are all small. The landscape is hilly but very fragmented. Wide open views of uninterrupted rows of tea plantations can hardly be seen. To put it simply, the plantations cannot be appreciated easily and are not all that picturesque. I can say this with certainty after having seen better ones at Cameron Highlands in Malaysia.
One of the guidebooks I had carried with me recommended long drives along the estates. Since I am not much in the way of road trips, I decided to do this by bus. I rode from Madikeri to Virajpet. After spending an entire morning here, I rode to Siddapur. Here I stopped for a few minutes before getting a connection to Polibetta where I stopped for less than an hour before proceeding to the town of Chettalli. From Chettalli, I walked along the winding road towards Madikeri, stopping along the way at two coffee estates.
These rides are delightful. Looking from the window, estate after estate pass by. Coffee it is most of the time. There is greenery everywhere. There is freshness in this landscape. I have learnt that coffee provides more oxygen than the same area of rain forests.
When the clouds have gathered and a mist descends on the valleys below, when the afternoon heat has cooled off in a light drizzle, when the hour of sunset approaches in a mellowed light, when the bustle of village and town is left behind to the calls of whiskered bulbuls, then is the full beauty of Coorg revealed.
With all these coffee plantations here, it is hard to come away without drinking a cup of coffee. The first time I drank a cup I hated it. The second time I drank it, I knew a little bit about how coffee is drunk in these parts. They use jaggery instead of sugar in their coffee. It is not a taste you will like unless it becomes a habit.
On Sunday afternoon I was waiting for my return bus from Mukkodlu to Madikeri. As I waited at the Valley Dew homestay, I was offered a cup of coffee. It was made from the produce of estates that sprawled on these verdant hills. There is sweetness but not the clean sweetness of sugar. The taste is coarse. Even the colour of the drink is a little yellowish even if the coffee is strong. When I was finishing the cup I confirmed that it was indeed unfiltered.
Although Coorg is renowned for non-vegetarian cuisine with many speciality dishes, it was not something I could try. But even for vegetarians there are items that are bound to surprise you. Take for example, a dish named patthal. It is fried in oil and looks a lot like our traditional puri. However, it is made of rice . The cooked grains are broken and flattened. They are mixed into a ball of flour, rolled flat and fried to a golden brown. It is served with either potato bhaji or peas curry. I tried the latter. At only Rs. 30, it’s a great item for a filling breakfast. I discovered this at a restaurant in Virajpet.
Another item of surprise to me was the use of raw jackfruit in cooking. We normally eat jackfruit as a fruit when it is ripe and sweet. However, people in these parts are surrounded by jackfruit trees. With so much in supply, it was inevitable that they find more than one way of using it.
At the Omkareshwar temple, I was offered a prasadam which too was unique. It was made of flat beaten rice (avalakki in Kannada) and sweetened with sugar. The priest named this as panchagajanya, a dish made out of five ingredients. He was busy with his chores and I did not ask further about the five ingredients.
It was difficult to find thali meals. Each dish is to be ordered separately. It’s difficult to say how this has evolved. Perhaps it is an attempt to look upscale and cater for the spending tourist. Perhaps, Kodavas are more discerning in their meals and like to savour it in leisure and style.
Food is not the only thing about Coorg that’s captivating. The women here wear the sari differently. It is elegant, stylish and almost modern. The sari wraps around the body at chest level, goes across the shoulders and is pinned in front at the right shoulder. The pleats are worn at the back. At the front, the width of the sari covers from chest level to the feet in one fall. The pallu hangs at the back in full view, displaying elaborate designs and colours to full advantage. It has a certain formality which is why it is often worn this way at all ceremonies and social gatherings.
The men too have their traditional dresses but these are not often seen on the streets. At most, you will get to see them wearing a turban.
These folks understand and speak Kannada but they are bilingual. They mostly speak a language called Coorgese. I was told that this language borrows from five other languages – Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam, Tulu and Konkani. For this reason is it qualified as pancha dravida. Without some practice and study it is difficult for the uninitiated to follow this language. You can understand some words but the meaning of a sentence is generally lost unless you know all these five languages.
While Hindus are in majority, there are people of other faiths as well. At Virajpet, I visited St Anne’s Church, an admirable building of Gothic Revival with an elegant tower topped with a spire. It cannot of course be compared to the great cathedrals of Europe. There are buttressed walls. There are small windows above the main stretch of arched windows. There are no triforiums or clerestories. This is not a stone building but one built of concrete and brick. The roof is all wooden.
At Polibetta, I took a few moments to sketch an outline of the CSI Christ Church of the Karnataka Southern Diocese. It is notable how buildings that are functionally same can look so different in different parts of the world. Here the church is a low structure with sloping red-tiled roofs, covered porches and pillared corridors on the outside. It has a certain similarity to residential buildings of the colonial period. The church has transept-like extensions which are furnished with wooden pews. A modest tower at the back has the same sloping roof structure.
If all this isn’t really exciting wait till you attend an authentic Kodava village temple ceremony. It is by chance that I got to see this on a Sunday morning when I had missed a trek to the peak of Kotebetta. By god, it is almost tribal! It makes you really wonder how progress in the 21st century can so happily coexist with ancient rituals that have no apparent scientific basis. The Kodavas are not socially or economically backward. On the contrary, they have progressed better than other minority ethnic groups. They have embraced modern ways. Yet they continue to practice and follow ancient traditions with such rigour and detail that it is baffling to a visitor.
The ceremony I attended was at a temple dedicated to Bhadrakali, located someway between Mukkodlu and Hattihole. It happens once a year about this time of the year. Along the length of the bad winding road leading to Mukkodlu, you can spot people and families dressed in fine clothes carrying their offerings towards the temple. The temple is on the other bank of the Hatti river and I crossed it by a line of rocks. The temple is a small complex built into a clearing some six feet below ground level. The general population is not allowed into the temple while elaborate ceremonies and rituals take place. People are allowed only to make their offerings and prayer.
I do not intend to write about the intricate details of the rituals, most of which made no sense to me. I fear that as with many things so traditional, rituals are blinding followed. Even many locals may not know the real significance of what they do and why. Goats and bullocks are dragged around the shrine within the inner courtyard. Prayer follows prayer in unending succession. A traditional priest recites verses in Sanskrit but the real mood comes from the Kodava men dressed in white tunics and red waist bands. One of them leads and others follow. Often they go into a trance. A small band of musicians beat drums and chant. Later the men dance in a group around the temple chanting in their own tongue. Some men dance with fire torches, bringing them close to their heads and chests. Their faces redden in the heat. Their white tunics blacken in the rising soot. They sway with unsteady step. Time and again there is a sudden shout and they go into a trance. Camphor, coconuts, rice, fruits and flowers are offered. A makeshift fire is made some distance outside the temple and some of the offerings are used to cook the midday meal. Perhaps the goats that happily pranced about earlier in the temple are to be had for lunch. I did not stay for lunch but the entire experience was something new and extraordinary.
I came to know of something called devarakadu, sacred groves or literally forests of the gods. Apparently, there are hundreds of them all over Coorg. These are special places which have been worshipped for generations. The object of worship are traditional deities or forest spirits. No one has an individual claim to these places. They cannot be demolished and developed. At Virajpet I went in search of one such place.
I climbed to the top of a hill that overlooks Virajpet. It’s a wonderful view. At the summit of this hill is a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is in an isolated and peaceful setting filled with the calls of numerous birds. The forests around the temple have been cleared long ago and there is a good clearing between the temple and the surrounding vegetation. So this was not the sort of temple I had been looking for. The Bhadrakali temple by the Hatti river was perhaps closer in spirit. With guidance from the temple priest, I proceeded to the village Maggula some 2 kms from here. I was told that I would find a devarakadu there.
There is an easy downhill path to this village. After walking for about 10 minutes into the village, the road bends. Right at that bend is a temple dedicated to Bhadrakali. A small flight of steps, actually loose stones, lead up to the temple. The temple is bare and open to tall and green trees that surround it. At the center is a six feet elevated rectangular platform. There is no deity here save an 8-inch metal disk leaning against a piece of stone. On this disk was carved the face of Bhadrakali. Offerings of dried jasmine garlands and loose red flowers were strewn about in the company of incense sticks and green bangles.
It was truly a special temple. It was not a temple of art, architecture or dance but simply a place of basic tribal worship and ancient belief. I felt I had seen my first devarakadu.
Guideless in Coorg
The first reason why I came to Coorg was to do some trekking. Surrounded by hills and significant peaks it has plenty of opporunities. Day hikes or weeklong treks are possible. However, someone new to the terrain requires a guide.
I did some hiking on my own in coffee and tea estates but a serious daylong hike was what I had in mind. I decided to climb to the peak named Kotebetta, a peak that looks like a fort on account of steep rocky cliffs that surround it. I booked a guide at the Coorg Trails. They have a booking outlet on the main road at Madikeri. At Rs. 400, a 4-hour hike to the peak and back includes lunch as well.
As arranged, I took a KSRTC bus the next morning to a place named Mukkodlu where the guide was supposed to meet me. The trek operator said the bus was scheduled for 7.15 am but in fact, it was scheduled for 7.30 am and left Madikeri only at 7.45 am. When I reached Mukkodlu, I found that the guide (Mittu) had already left with 3 foreign tourists. When I had paid the full amount, it was his obligation to wait for the bus to arrive. How can they depart without me? I did not plan the schedule. They did and I simply followed it. So my first trek in India came to an abrupt end without even a start.
As a compensation, another guide (Vijaya) was available in the afternoon and took me to a viewpoint nearby. The views were great but the experience of hiking was somewhat banal. I did not need a guide to climb up to this viewpoint. Most of the day was wasted except for the village temple ceremony I had noted earlier. At Mukkodlu is a small falls which locally goes by the name Kote Abbi Falls.
This experience now tells me that you should never pay the full amount to any tour operator in advance. If they insist, see if you can find another operator. Nonetheless I came away with a positive experience. The staff at Valley Dew at Mukkodlu were very friendly and hospitable. This reflects well on the people of Coorg. Valley Dew is owned by Manu Muddappa and Nayan Chengappa. Manu owns about 60 acres of land here, each acre worth about Rs 8 lakhs. It is ancestral property passed on from the time of his grandfather and before. Today Manu is a millionaire. You can stay here for Rs. 750 a night, inclusive of trekking and plantation visits.
The real problem why my trek had failed was the lack of communication between Coorg Trails (where treks are booked) and Valley Dew (those who conduct the treks).
Coorg’s capital Madikeri does not have a railhead and an overnight bus from Bangalore was the best way to get there. I left Bangalore’s Mysore Road Satellite Bus Station at quarter past elevan and arrived at Madikeri at six the next morning. Around Madikeri, buses are the means to get around.
For the first night I stayed at M.N. Lodge on Kanakadasa Road. It’s such a bad option that it’s not even worth mentioning. Room was only Rs. 100 per night but I had no sleep due to bed bugs, scores of them. For the second night, I stayed at Hotel Caveri, a much better option, at Rs. 300 for a single room.
For the entire stay at Madikeri I dined at Choice Restaurant close to the bus stand for private buses. Clean place. Good menu. Good service.
Plenty of places around Madikeri. Try hills and peaks at Galibeedu and Mukkodlu or a longer hike to Kotebetta.