Comfortably Coorg

Staying at Tata Coffee’s plantation bungalows and living the Kodava life holds a charm all its own

Waking up to birdsong and the smell of coffee. Having a hot cup of coffee in the sprawling verandahs. Sleeping in large bedrooms made of woodwork and period furniture (rosewood and Burma teak). My stay in Coorg (anglicised version of Kodagu) was all about this and more. Cardamon and pepper trees. Tea leaves and coffee beans. I found myself passing by them all the while I was in the Woshully bungalow of Tata Coffee’s Plantation Trails.

The Scotland of India did have enough to satiate the die-hard traveller in me. Savouring the cool yet tropical weather, meeting handsome Kodava men and chancing upon beautiful Kodava women was as exciting as the daily morning nature walks along the plantation trails. Not to mention, the water bodies with their colourful birds; sometimes fighting with each other and sometimes taking flight in unison. On ground, there were a variety of spiders weaving their webs – on the ground, on the trees – and some were crawling on the ground weaving nothing. This was even while earthworms were crawling in gay abandon, punctuated with sounds of boars coming from a distance. I had the option of playing table tennis or teeing off at Tata Coffee’s nine-hole golf course, but I stuck to the rustic. Adding to the refreshing ambience were spacious, airy rooms, tiled roofs, large windows and doors, cozy fireplaces, Victorian furniture, African tribal art and craft lining up the walls and floors. It was like stepping inside a time machine and being transported back to the British times.

The food was as much a revelation. And it began with Akki Roti (rice chapathi) and Nool Puttu (rice noodles), and proceeded to soft rice cakes and aromatic coffee and tea wherever I went. It was vegetarian fare all the way since the Coorgi non-veg speciality largely lies in all things pork (pandi curry is most popular). And I stayed away from anything that ‘boars’. However, having my own personal butler and cook helped at the bungalow. Soon, he was making finger chips, chicken kebabs which I had by the bonfire in the nightly air. Around the dinner table, I settled for fish fry and fish curry on one day and mutton curry the next. However, the food at the bungalows was below par, making me explore Coorg’s capital, Madikeri. One such destination was Neel Sagar. A pure vegetarian restaurant, I opted for the North Indian thali meals and found it finger-licking good. Be it the fried rice or gravy or gulab jamun, it was aromatic and yummy all the way.

Visiting the different bungalows was an experience. Each room was different… from a sparse superior room to a more spacious luxury room to the eyeful heritage rooms and suites. And that included five bungalows and one cottage offering 27 different kinds of rooms for people to stay in relative comfort. My personal pick was the Cottabetta bungalow offering sweeping vistas from 5000 feet above sea level. I could have stayed there, but it was under renovation at the time. The Tata Coffee guys said the Arabidacool bungalow in Chikmagalur, six hours from here, was way better as the colonial red-tiled house offered panoramic vistas unrivalled by its Coorgi cousins.

Our next stop was the Glenlorna bungalow that was an hour away from Woshully. Simple yet stately, it was where Tata Coffee has 700 acres of tea plantation (the only tea plantation area in Coorg) as opposed to its 6500 acres of coffee farms in Coorg. Clean, serene and panoramic, the sloping tea plantation puts you at ease and you feel wonderful about yourself and the world around you. Picture perfect, it’s straight out of a Hindi film song.

On my way back, I saw a burly young man walk out of a wedding hall, blood dripping on his white shirt. He was lunging forward to a group of men who were getting inside a car. A fight ensued. The Kodava guide accompanying us said fights were common in Coorg. “Someone must have teased his sister or he must be nursing an old grouse. People let it out on occasions like these,” he reasoned. Match-making in Coorg happens in an interesting way, too. “We have annual hockey tournaments where families come in droves to watch or play,” said the Kodava. “Here is where prospective brides and grooms get to see each other and finally get married.” Keeping us company was the filtered light of the surrounding coffee estates and the picture perfect views.

Going through the plantation trail by jeep has its own appeal. You get to see all the nooks and crannies of this ‘managed forest’ even while the driver is giving you a walkthrough on how water bottles injected with pest repellants are hung from trees to keep the coffee bush safe. We also spotted rosewood trees, each costing Rs 25 lakh. There were a few sandalwood and teakwood trees, too.

However, the biggest threat to coffee estates is elephants who come in search of jackfruit and mangoes, and there are 9000 elephants in Coorg alone. Electric fencing is of no use. When the elephant gets a jolt, it places tree trunks over the wire for safe passage. You have to write off some of your profit. After all, the area first belonged to elephants before the humans encroached their forests and took over. Not that the humans are callous about it. There’s the Dubare Elephant Camp where they are protected, nourished and kept in great health. We went the next day by boat to reach the camp. It only takes a few minutes and can be seen from shore to shore. Here is where you can feed, bathe and ride elephants, big and small. I stuck to taking pictures of others in the act. I had ridden tuskers before.

This was also a place for white water rafting. I had come prepared for it – my first, therefore with a palpitating heart. But the season of rapids had just gotten over and I was given the option of still water rafting. I opted out and thought ultralight flying might be a better bet. And I don’t need to be a certified pilot to fly one. But my idea of taking off from a nearby paddy field didn’t click either. The machine had misbehaved a month ago and the proprietor had stopped operating it to my bad luck.

My driver decided to take me trekking instead. But this was different. He took me to the birthplace of the Cauvery river: Talacauvery. Apparently, every year on October 17th, the springs come alive in this birthplace and people come from all over to bathe in it and cleanse themselves from sin. They even drop coins wishing well for themselves in a rectangular enclosure where poojas are conducted all day. From here, there are steps leading to the top of the Brahmagiri hills. I climbed more than a hundred steps in just three stops, and woke up with muscle cramps the next day. They lasted for three days before they vanished. But the trek of sorts was worth it. On top of the hills, lush green mountains were hugging each other, and with no clouds to block the view. On one end, there were windmills lending an artistic touch and completing the picture postcard view.

Cauvery Nisargadhama was my next stop, and it didn’t disappoint me either. Walking through a hanging rope bridge, I entered a bamboo forest. Right at the end was the Cauvery river where I put my feet – it’s here that the Cauvery river splits to make way for an island. But what pleased me most stood half an hour’s drive away. I could hear the welcoming roar of water even before I reached Abbi Falls nestled among the coffee and pepper trees. A few kilometres away was Raja’s Seat that gave me a bird eye’s view of Madikeri’s matted green landscape.

What thrilled me most was the Golden Temple (Namdroling Monastery) in Bylakuppe. Three jaw-dropping gold-plated statues greeted me as I entered. These were 40-feet tall idols of Buddha, admasambhava and Amitayush. It is said that the temple is at its dramatic best when the school is in session. That’s when sounds of gongs, drums and chanting of hundreds of young novices rent the air. It’s a different world out here – Buddhist schools, temples, houses and shops dot the area over two square kilometres. Tibetan monks dressed in maroon pulling up their long dress and riding bikes was a sight to watch. Established in 1961, this Tibetan refugee settlement is home to over 50,000 people.

The transit through the Western Ghats to visit places in and around Coorg was as much the highlight of my visit – many small springs and mountain water flowed down the rocks. I saw some people taking back water in mineral water bottles and some were even seen washing themselves. Even three days was not enough – I had to miss out on Nagarhole National Park and Irpu Falls. Maybe next time.

Plantation Trails
Pollibetta 571215, Kodagu, Karnataka Phone: +91 (080) 2356 0761. Daily room rates for double occupancy range from Rs 5,500 to 10,500 + tax, inclusive of breakfast, guided bird watching, plantation walk and plantation drive. Sightseeing costs extra.

Distance: 241 kms from Bangalore and six hours by road
Best time to visit: November-April
Karnataka Tourism: 080-2227-5869
Nearest airport: Mangalore
Nearest railway station: Mysore
Famous for: Arabica and Robusta coffee

Hotel Capitol, Madikeri: Forget the shabby interiors and focus on the food. Popular items include the flavourful and spicy pandhi (pork) curry, best had with a pint of cold beer.
Athithi, Madikeri: The best vegetarian option in town, Athithi is known for its lip-smacking vegetarian thali. But come here starved as it’s an elaborate affair served on banana leaves.
Shanti Family Restaurant, Bylakuppe: Inside the shopping centre bang opposite the Golden Temple is this restaurant dishing out a range of Indian delicacies and Tibetan delights like momos (dumplings) and thukpa (noodle soup).

The most popular treks in Coorg happen to be the peaks of Pushpagiri, Brahmagiri, Kotebetta and Tadiyendamol. At the bottom of Tadiyendamol is the picturesque Nalakunad Palace, the restored hunting lodge of a Kodagu king dating back to 1794. Within walking distance are several excellent places to camp.
Kodagu (old name of Coorg) was a state until 1956 when it merged with Karnataka. Local politicians, tired of seeing little financial assistance from Bangalore for infrastructure and social services, are pushing for statehood to be restored, or at least for more local autonomy.
Coffee, cardamom, pepper, orange, timber and honey known as ‘Coorg Honey’ are Kodagu’s major resources. Tea, rubber, arecanut, coconut, citrus fruits, pineapple, papaya, plantain, piggery and poultry are the other products fuelling its economy.
Tata Coffee has 19 coffee estates spread across Hassan, Chikmagalur, Coorg and Coimbatore.

(Published in ‘M’ magazine, 2011)