Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Coorg: Om Away From Home

‘Wake up and smell the coffee’ has a very different connotation in Coorg: this phrase probably best describes your mornings here. An aroma wafts in from the kitchen, forcing you to wake up sooner than you’d wanted to, on a holiday. It makes you think that having a cup of coffee without brushing your teeth wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all. ‘Stop and smell the roses’ too has a Coorgi meaning; as you walk out into the garden, aforesaid coffee cup in hand, flowers in bloom draw you towards them, begging to be smelt. Thus begin your lovely Coorgi mornings.

Coffee beans

If you stay in one of the numerous coffee plantations—and I recommend that you do—the morning cuppa can be followed by a session of lying around in the verandah with a vacant expression. Until, that is, the resident pet comes bounding over and demands your attention and some play. That dealt with, wander around the estate admiring coffee plants, pepper climbers, sunlight streaming through tall trees, and flowers adorned with dew-drops. If you are lucky, the estate will have a pond, a lake, or a river-side; at your luckiest, even a waterfall. Seated by the water, watch kingfishers deftly fish, listen to the gurgling river, and lie down on its bank with the by-now-perfected vacant expression.

When hunger pangs strike, allow the coffee fragrance to guide you back to the house, to partake in an enticing repast: yummy Kodagu breakfasts ensure that you eat like there’s no tomorrow. Then, opt for idling on the verandah, a hot shower, or resuming your nap; after all, you did work hard since morning, what with all the walking and playing with the golden shepherd. A couple of hours later, you wake up once again to the smell of coffee, this time accompanied by lunch. You get the drift. It takes surprisingly little effort to get used to this routine, repeating it until the moon illuminates the trees, and stars hijack the brilliantly clear Coorg sky. Now, it probably seems like there isn’t an awful lot to do in Coorg and you’re most likely worried about the rest of my story being exactly what has been said until now. Allay your fears.

Coorg (Kodagu) lies in south-west Karnataka, near the Western Ghats. Mercara (Madikeri) is the headquarters of this region. Coorgis (Kodavas) are a race with distinct and unique customs, language and clothing. Staying in a local estate allows you to learn about their lifestyle and enjoy the local cuisine. Coorg’s proximity to the Western Ghats endows it with diverse flora and fauna, including frogs, snakes, and other assorted reptiles and insects, many of them endemic. The hilly terrain, also the birthplace of the river Cauvery, makes for challenging treks and adventure activities. The topography has also ensured a generous sprinkling of waterfalls throughout the region. However, with this visit dedicated to the pursuit of doing nothing, my paths were charted only by my search for Zen in Coorg.

Shaking myself to stir beyond the coffee estate, I head to one of my favourite places: Namdroling Monastery at Bylakuppe, one of the largest Tibetan settlements in India. On a day with bright blue skies, you could be forgiven for thinking you are in Tibet, conifers and all. The air resounds with chants of om mani padme hum, and the twirling of prayer wheels. Monks in maroon robes pray or perform their daily chores with a calmness that is infectious; as your gait subconsciously slows down, a group of novice monks playing football vigorously, question your clich├ęd notions of monkhood. The sound of the Dungche, the Tibetan long-horn, acts as a beacon, guiding you towards the altar. Peeking through the out-of-bounds room’s window reveals chanting monks, seated in a neat row at their desks; the fragrance of incense wafting out through the window grills, which you and they both inhale,  forms a strange bond between you. The only incongruities in this piece of Tibet are the coconut trees swaying into every view.

Swinging the beads in the doorway aside, entering the monastery’s main building through brilliantly painted walls, I have the wind knocked out of me. Though expecting to see golden statues of the Buddha, I wasn’t prepared to be suddenly rendered small and inconsequential by sixty-foot tall statues. I plonk myself on the floor and gaze at Padmasambhava, Shakyamuni and Amitayus, a formidable trio.  Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche, is associated with tantric Buddhism. Prince Siddhartha or Gautam Buddha, also known as Shakyamuni, signifies peace and enlightenment. Amitayus is a form of Buddha associated with longevity. It’s relatively quiet inside, if I successfully ignore the screaming kids and a few loud adults.  Luckily, the room is humungous and we can each carve out our space; seeking silence, I move towards the far end, to sit near one of the unused beaded doorways. Just across the beaded curtain, two monks sit on the porch, intently stringing together some beads, unperturbed by the noise around them. Amidst all the madness, they epitomise the peace and quiet I am looking for.

Gurgling water often enhances the feeling of Zen; its search led me to Abbey falls, located within a private plantation. A powerful cascade of bountiful, post-monsoon water, I hear it much before I see it, its sound increasing as I walk through the estate from the parking lot. The steady stream of weekend visitors on the rickety viewing-bridge is not exactly what I had in mind. Uneasy, I slink away to a quiet corner, where the far-reaching spray drenches me; on this hot afternoon, though, it’s quite welcome. I contemplate seeking peace in some of Madikeri’s other sights, but not quite in the mood for a hectic day, I choose instead to settle down on a seat. And no ordinary one at that - nothing but the king’s seat will do for me.

‘Raja’s Seat’ at Madikeri conjures up images of a throne - it’s actually a park located on a plateau, with great views of the valley below, weather permitting. The park is a popular hangout for visitors and locals alike. A strange metallic clanking catches my attention and soon enough, a toy train comes around the bend. Maybe it’s my Coorg-induced Zen state of mind, or maybe I am on a coffee high, but self-consciousness gone with the wind, I get myself a ticket and an ice-cream cone and join the melee of kids for the next ride. The kids eye the ‘crazy aunty’ in their midst, even as I’m tempted to shout “wheeee!” as the train rounds a bend. The ride is over within minutes. By now acutely conscious, I battle my desire to go on another ride. As fountains gurgle to life in the evening, with a few lighting effects thrown in for good measure, I seat myself on a bench overlooking the view, a cheerfully pink cotton-candy in hand. There’s no view, though­ - the valley has clouded, and looks not unlike my cotton-candy.

The view from Raja's Seat, obscured by clouds.

The next morning, I ride a coracle across the river, to reach the Dubare elephant camp. The camp appeals to children and adults alike, especially the morning ritual of bathing elephants in the river. Post-monsoon, you can also raft in this river. The pachyderms, slowly led into the water by their mahouts, seem to enjoy the water and the hard scrub the mahouts give them. Visitors are allowed to help the mahouts; occasionally, a playful elephant squirts water on you. Bath done, they’re taken to the feeding area to be fed their staple: ragi balls and jaggery. What is sad though, is to see the elephants chained at times. Despite the fact that the camp houses forest department elephants who have been retired from work, and they are supposedly well-looked after, it is still heart-wrenching - these giants are meant to roam freely in the jungle.

That afternoon, I head to the riverside within the estate, guided by Tejaswini and Diana, two young girls who live here with their mother. Familiar with every inch of the estate and the wonders it holds, they show me how to blow bubbles using sap from a leaf, spot patterns formed on the river bed by a shoal of fish, and observe footprints on the sand that a heron or an egret has left behind. Throughout the way to the river, I’d been trying hard to keep up with the girls, who were giggling, running about and looking for insects. On the way back in the now-darkening evening, they’re determined to scare the wits out of me by hiding and then giggling at my alarm when I find them missing. At sunset—back on my favourite perch, the verandah—my eyes seek out patterns in the trees silhouetted by twilight. Much further away, the various peaks that surround Coorg would also have formed imposing silhouettes; I wonder how it would feel to lie on one of those peaks at this very moment, looking at the light slowly dim over Coorg.

These peaks are what make Coorg a trekker's paradise; the highest, Thadiyandamol, is especially a favourite. Kodavas will shame you with their athleticism, even as you make an ungainly sight, huffing and puffing up the slope to catch up with your guide, who seems to be what can only be described as ‘bounding daintily’ up the very same slope. Trying to be active is especially hard when Coorg’s cool breeze infuses you with what feels like a sedative.  Vainly trying to conquer this languour in my body which causes my limbs to behave jelly-like, I plod my way to the house for some coffee: in all probability, my last cup this trip. The peaks will have to wait for another time, when I seek another Zen moment - probably while contemplating during a trek.

And if you thought the endless cups of coffee would have left me an insomniac, you are wrong – ‘sleeping like a baby’ too took on a whole new meaning at Coorg.

About my Thandiyandamol Trek:

Read another story about the lesser-known areas of Coorg:

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Lepakshi: Symphony in stone

My article on Lepakshi has been published in the Sunday Herald on 15th Jan, 2012. It is the Sunday supplement of a Bangalore-based English daily, the Deccan Herald. The link to the online version of the paper is:

The article in the paper is an edited version of the Lepakshi post on my blog, which can be read here: