Features

Weekend in Coorg: Countryside Charm

30 Sep 2016 by Neha Gupta Kapoor
Coorg (India): View from Raja's Seat iStock_68508587

It was a rainy 10am when we left from Mysuru for Coorg. The sky was cloudy, rain-washed trees glistened in the daylight, the city smelled of fresh mud and the air had a nip; not unusual during the monsoons in this part of Karnataka. Tobacco plantations pass you by as you exit Mysuru. A paradoxical sight it was, with large green leaves waving clean air at you, only to be processed later into lung-tarring nicotine sticks.

Mysuru is the midpoint for Bengaluru, the capital of Karnataka, and Coorg, our escape for the weekend. In spite of its infamous traffic, the 289km distance from Bangalore International airport to Coorg can be covered in five hours.

As we neared Coorg and began our climb on the Western Ghats where the air is richer with oxygen, population dwindled to isolation in some parts, stray clouds appeared intermittently, vegetation thickened with deciduous forests, and fields that must be those of rice began to appear.

An aerial view is even more beautiful, best enjoyed from Raja’s Seat or the king’s seat in Coorg. It blooms into a carpet of flowers during summer and spring, and is a neatly manicured sprawl in the other seasons. Locals say that royalty from past eras used to spend most of their idle time there, year round. Even the rains didn’t deter them from visiting their favourite gardens. We could see why, for the picture before us was enchantingly misty.

Coorg, or Kodagu as it was known before the British invasion, has remained a fertile region that is heavily dependent on agriculture for survival. And so it came as no surprise when we noticed the absence of building clusters in the heart of the town. Instead there are expanses of open, arable land. Amongst these are a number of spice shops — a high revenue-generating product — owned by local wholesale dealers who supply to the rest of the country.

Unlike a stereotypical tourist destination where shopkeepers may harass you with intended charm, in Coorg they find no thrill in vying for your attention or haggling for a sale. Their condiments are of high quality, which are pretty much the souvenirs to bring home; as is coffee, which we experienced later.

We entered a small shop that was lit by a few candles. There would be no electricity for the next hour in town. It was only 2pm, but it felt like 6pm because the sun hid behind dark clouds impregnated with raindrops. Nonetheless, we could pick what we wanted with ease. We only needed our noses to sniff the honey, peppers, chillies, cardamom, tea and coffee — their main products — on display. In fact, the stores encouraged us to smell, feel and taste their goods, just to be reminded of their purity.

We licked honey off disposable wooden spoons. It didn’t taste much different in comparison to that obtained from a beehive. Sourced from an apiary near Coorg, its thin consistency, cascading quality and smoky golden colour were just as unadulterated honey should be. Next we scooped peppercorns from a jute sack, also grown in Coorg, as was the locally packaged coffee.

Coffee berries

Coorg’s relation with coffee goes back centuries. It is believed that such was his love for the beverage that when Baba Budan returned from his pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in 1670, he brought with him seven coffee beans. Since then, Coorg has been flourishing from exports of mild coffee beans — Arabica and Robusta.

Over centuries, coffee plantations have multiplied in the region, earning it the title of being “India’s coffee cup”. It is because of Coorg that the state of Karnataka is accountable for producing over 3.5 lakh tonnes of coffee, about 70 per cent of the national production. It has also pushed India to the sixth rank in global production for the aforementioned varieties. Not just in sales, coffee estates are also a factor in drawing tourists (tourism is the second highest revenue generator after coffee) to Coorg apart from its perennially pleasant weather and rainforest topography.

We walked into one such estate (hotels usually plan visits for their guests) trying to spot the coffee tree amongst rosewood, teakwood, silver oak, firewood and others. Turns out, coffee is a plant, and a really tall one. As our guide pointed to red “berries” over my head, explaining coffee in its ripe form, she led us down a narrow path that ended at a cabana that overlooked the entire plantation. I plucked a few beans and reached for more; unexpectedly, they weren’t bitter at all.

A short chat about how the fruit is finally processed into a smoky bitter bean ended with her handing us steaming cups of “filter kappi”, as the brew is colloquially known, mixed with milk and sugar. This is similar to how Nestlé India’s machined filter coffee tastes — after all, this is where the food and beverage giant sources its beans from.

Our route back to the entrance was flanked by pepper trees that resemble Jack’s beanstalk. Like kids in a candy store, excitedly we plucked the green peppercorns to take home. In some places we stopped to rub leaves of orange trees between our fingers for a citric scent, and at others we bent down for a whiff of cardamom plants. At one point we stopped to click a chameleon hugging a branch as tiny red beetles or lady bugs climbed over our now moist shoes.

Coorg, India: Namdroling Nyingmapa

The next day was a contrast to our typical rainforest welcome on the hilly terrain. Day-two began with a spiritual trip to Bylakuppe, the largest Tibetan settlement on Coorg’s eastern periphery. This is where the revered Namdroling Nyingmapa Monastery (namdroling.org) is. The site was consecrated by the Dalai Lama himself, over which the monastery was established in 1963.

On entering the gates, you walk pass souvenir shops with gongs, prayer flags and other such memorabilia in red and gold. This is one source of income for the monastery that depends heavily on donations. Inside the gated compound about 5,000 practising monks and students occupy humble quarters that share space with a school, accommodation for visitors and the golden temple.

The golden temple is where guests are permitted free entry at any time between 7am and 8pm. We paid ₹2 to leave our shoes in their care while we toured the beautifully designed interiors. To sit in silence, soaking in blessings from Padmasmbhava, Buddha and Amitayus, the residing idols, is a serene experience to say the least.

The altars are lined with flowers and incense sticks, behind which are cushions for chairs beside low tables that held chanting bowls and scrolls. This is where the monks had recited prayers in chorus that morning. High ceilings, pillars and walls tell stories of demons and gods from Tibetan mythology in the form of large murals in wide, dramatic strokes. We remained silent while inside, not just in awe of the beautiful art that surrounded us, but also in respect to the sacrosanct aura that reverberated from the monks’ incantations earlier at dawn.

Not far from there, closer to the town square is another shrine — Omkareshwara Temple (6:30am- 12:00pm and 5:00pm-8:00pm). In contrast to the brightly painted monastery, this one has faded red and white walls that looked even more dull under the foggy sky. The Islamic-styled dome and four minarets marking the temple’s boundary walls are punctuated in pale yellow. A tiny entrance leads to a well sized pond that some devotees consider holy. Up a short flight of stairs is an open courtyard across which are more stairs that end at small rooms with idols from Hindu mythology.

The story behind the temple goes like this: when King Lingarajendra II had slain a Brahmin for political gains, he built the Shiva temple in 1820 to appease his victim’s spirit that haunted him until then. He had a Linga (symbol of Shiva), believed to possess strong powers, specially transported from Varanasi and placed at the temple doors where the Brahmin had died. This we read on a metal plate inscribed by the king and affixed at the entrance of the temple.

A dhoti-clad priest greeted us by placing the customary vermillion and rice dot between our eyes. We took blessings from a lit lamp on his plate that held the vermillion paste and rice, and was decorated with flowers. The afternoon prayers with incense sticks, fruit offerings and chanting had just ended. It was a good time to visit, a quick one though, for by now we craved some traditional grub.

Coorg, India: Abbey Falls

Ready with directions to the much recommended restaurant Coorg Cuisine (Stuart Hill, Madikeri; open 12pm-4pm and 7pm-10pm), it was easy to spot its bright blue exterior from a distance. Don’t expect any fancy eateries in this part of the world; and so with this in mind we weren’t taken aback at the humble appearance of Coorg Cuisine. The windows are dressed in cheap red-striped curtains, the walls are punctuated with machetes and rifles, and the floorboards creaked as we pulled out faded upholstered chairs around scratched glass table- tops that would hold the feast we would order from crinkled plastic menus.

Luckily for a traveller, Coorg Cuisine’s kitchens haven’t been influenced by foreign tastes yet. This is where you will find the age-old onak erachi. It is a dish popular from the time when Coorg’s diet consisted of only game meat that was dried, salted and rubbed with turmeric before consumption.

The modern-day onak erachi uses pork, and is spicy and succulent. Also ordered were the pandhi barthadh (pork dry fry) and kadambuttu (rice dumplings) that were, without exaggeration, worth every calorie intake. Coorg knows how to use its spices well.

A happy soul, satiated spiritually and gastronomically, yearns for a deep siesta. However, not before one last tryst with nature. Luckily Coorg is a tiny district and Abbey Falls was within reach of our resort. The white water that thudded hard into the Kaveri river below, formed a cascading backdrop for tourists who posed for selfies on the hanging bridge that received clouds of mist.

By the end of the ten minutes at the falls, we realised our clothes were damp with splashes from the powerful avalanche. As the air got cooler with the setting sun, our toasty rooms and warm showers beckoned us to call it a day.

A weekend well spent — when city-life needs to take a back seat, and a luxury hotel room isn’t enough, Coorg is where nature assuages tired nerves into a tranquil lull.

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