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In the lap of the Cauvery

No modern gimmicks, no organised tours of fun — it was just great. RUPA GOPAL unwraps the splendour of Coorg.


COORG sits about 4,000 feet above sea level, nestling snugly among the verdant rainwashed Western Ghats, 120 kilometres from Mysore, a 5 hour drive from Bangalore in Karnataka. Mercara (Madikeri) is the capital of this lovely place.

So secure among the ranges is this place that quite a few South Indians have never visited this place, especially from the adjoining States. It is quite easily accessible from certain regions of Kerala, and hence a popular retreat among the Keralites — a rather unfair situation when Kerala itself is bountifully blessed in the matter of holiday destinations.

A drive from Mysore would take about three hours and about five from Bangalore. Delicious vegetarian and non-vegetarian food can be had on the way making the drive a leisurely one, with halts at Chennapatna, to have a dekko at the age-old wooden toy industry, and at Seringapatna, the long ago capital of Tipu Sultan, along the banks of a gentle Cauvery.

As Coorg was the plum on this trip, we decided to bypass Mysore, and proceeded along the bypass road to Madikeri. The road seemed to go on and on, climbing and twisting, between heavily forested hills. Along the roadside were trees flowering gloriously, chiefly the magnificent African Tulip, with its spectacular orangey-red flowers. The air was getting cooler by the turn, thrilling us hot Chennai city dwellers.

Thoroughly entranced by the place even before reaching Madikeri, the place was a relevation in tiny towns, to us. Perhaps cute is the word to use here — a tiny main street lined with shops — jewellery seems to be a big thing here, and spice shops lending the mountain air a special fragrance. A bakery or two, eateries, a tiny post office, a few banks, common goods shops, a fruit and vegetable stand, and there you are — you've traversed the main street of Kodagu, the local name for Coorg! A tailor proudly displays a painted board of a Coorgi gentleman in his native costume — simply resplendent.

Our host is a coffee estate owner — but of course he must be, in Coorg! The surprise is that most of the estates are owned by the Tamil Chettiars from Karaikudi, in Tamil Nadu, the effect of their investing money in land on return from the Far East, a half century ago. Mr. Arunachalam has arranged for us to stay on his estate, the Srinivasa Estate, 40 km away from Madikeri. More travel!

But first things first. We are guided to Abbey Falls, five kilometres away. It's already drizzling, as indeed it has been almost through our drive up. We set out on foot from the car park, the falls being a good 10-minute walk away, on a stony path that goes up and down. It's a bit slippery now, and crowded, and the brollys are unhelpfully in the way. A rising roar can be heard gradually, till a final turn brings us face to face with the falls — in full flow at this time of the year. A very broad sweep of water rages over the rock face, drenching us all in a constant fine spray — the cold drizzle has become marginalised! Getting wet seems to be the done thing here — it's fun. If not raining, one can climb down to the stream from the suspension bridge, and bathe or paddle in it. It's a terrific picnic spot.


Where a great river is born... Talacauvery.

The trudge back is longer somehow, with the rain playing hookey. I actually thought the rain played a splendid game of hide and seek, seeming to sense our descent from the car. Lunch it is at a hotel in the town, a filling South Indian thali.

A quick tour of the town is taken — the old fort built by one of the Rajas of Coorg (his descendants today live happily in Bangalore), the Omkareshwar temple, a spice shop, Raja's Seat, a garden rooftop viewpoint, over the valleys, and then we decide it has been a very long day (up at 5 and on the road from 6 a.m.) and that we must now head for the estate, a long drive away.

Visions of rows of orange trees in full bloom or fruit, and the joys of the picking season no longer exist — a stray tree or two with a few fruit is all that remain to be seen. A severe plant disease struck a few years ago, destroying the orange trees. Since then it's only coffee, pepper and cardamom on the estates.

We reach the estate and the long driveway leads to a modern practical bungalow — solid in the frequently inclement weather, and most important, well able to withstand marauding elephants! The manager receives us warmly, and we're instantly comforted with hot tea — it is so chill here.

The next two days have a packed agenda. We're off to Talacauvery, the source of the holy river, about 30 km from Madikeri. It's a longer drive from the estate. On the way we pass a tamed elephant, a rarity here, where herds launch themselves on residential gardens and estates every night, coming in from the surrounding forests, in search of plantains, jackfruit, or even pepper, if desperate. The loss is huge, for they trample on the coffee shrubs, often uprooting them too. Trekking in the forests sometimes brings the locals face to face with elephants. A unique trick is then employed. The local tribal, the Kurumba male, is sent forward to speak gently to the tusker. Amazingly, it listens to him, and turns peacefully away! This is a charmed, magical place.

The tiny village of Bagmandala precedes Talacauvery, where we stop for a hot cuppa. Talacauvery has no such facility — it's purely a holy place.

Fortunately, our host with a philanthropic bent of mind, maintains a small temple and hall here, in front of the holy spot, where annual festivities and free feeding are held. We lunched here, all the time taking in the view of endless hills, and the road leading up to the hallowed tank, marked by a temple. Our view was every now and then obscured by swirling mists and cloud, and you guessed it — sweeps of rain.

A small open water tank can be seen, and on its steps is a tiny shrine to the river goddess, next to a very tiny tank. This is the actual source of the river, unbelievable as it may seem — the water level, though right up the brim, is said to never lessen or overflow. The Kannadiga priests perform pooja here, even in the rain. After the arti, we're told to pray and wish, and throw a coin or two into the water. There is a rare peace here, guarded by misty green hills — one can feel a kind of godliness.


The Namdroling monastery... a mini-Tibet

We climb about 10 steps to the small formal temple of Sri Agasteeswara — a silver encased mud linga said to be installed by the sage himself. "How old is this temple," I ask. "As old as the Cauvery," is the reply. What better answer could there be, so timeless is the place. A Ganesha too is worshipped here. The river was said to be a royal princess, who changed into a flowing river on being unhappy with her husband (lucky for the earth this cannot happen now, for surely the earth would drown!)

About 320 steps up a very steep hill gives us a complete view of the area. We hasten to climb down, before the wind does away with us. The climb does not seem to affect anyone adversely — no bodyaches even the next day. How can this be?

Every visitor to Talacauvery bears away a unique souvenir, for which he has come prepared — complete with a bottle, or a huge vessel. The priest dips this into the tank, and hands us the water. It is said to remain fresh for ever, a sort of divine prasad or blessing. Through all this, somehow one gets the feeling that one is being peeked at by gods from behind a tree or rock, that we're in their midst.

Nagarhole — a wildlife sanctuary nearby — was to be on our list that day, but the rain kept us away, and I was rather glad not to have to see wild animals, after all this peace and beauty.

Driving back along the endless forests and coffee plantations, we come across many plant nurseries. Coorg is a floral paradise and flowers like the huge dahlia, the anthurium, the orchid, the hibiscus, the lily, the rare pink allamande, the passion flower, the wild dhatura and the rose, bloom with supreme abandon. Roses are a passion of every estate owner.

We visit our neighbours, a Coorgi couple, so very friendly and hospitable. Coorgi traditions and hunting stories are told us. A food loving and hardy people, it is said that they descend from foreign blood. Pork is held dear, and one finds tame and wild pigs wandering over the hillsides. A whole pig is roasted at a spit, for a feast, and liquor is almost a beverage here. The Akki roti or rice roti is a traditional dish, eaten with a meat or vegetable or both.

Fearful of meeting elephants on the way back, we make our way home, in a car of course, which is anyhow no answer to an elephant or two, bent on a hungry chase!

We get up very early next morning, to leave for Bangalore, and on to Chennai, by night train. A walk through the huge estate is not possible, so I walk a little way in among the orderly rows of coffee bushes laden with pods. Tall silver oak trees cast the essential shade, their wood made into sturdy plantation house furniture. Pigs have dug deep at the base of the bushes, not in search of truffles, but something similar.

A rare sight... a tame elephant

The workers come in, armed with long knives that help them in clearing the undergrowth. The air is crisp and cold. How I wish I could stay here forever, breathing in the beauty, and the perfect pure air.

We reach Kushal Nagar about 40 km away. This is a place so orderly — the fields are lush, the trees pruned, the bunk has pure petrol, the air is different. What is this place?

This is the famed Tibetan settlement — 40 years ago, India granted a wild expanse of land to the desperate Tibetan refugees. Today, this place is a matter of pride for the hardworking Tibetans. The fields yield paddy, their cattle are well fed and fat, water is well guided, they have their own eateries serving their favourite beef filled momos and noodle dishes. Even the older monks have a hearty tuckin, when coming in to shop for prayer materials, got in from Nepal, as are clothes and things.

The settlement has doctors, a dispensary, hospital, carpet units, and snack making centres. Old age homes too, for the first lot of refugees have become old!

But what is an amazing sight here is the outstanding edifice of the Namdroling monastery — one could well be in Nepal or in the Far East. It is simply huge, with oriental murals on the walls and inside, huge idols of the Buddha, prayer desks, gongs and huge blowing instruments et al. Prayers are going on in the next hall, and little monks go about purposefully. A mini-Tibet in India, that's what this is, so neatly tucked away in the hills. One of the old residents is very nostalgic — "I've some family in Tibet. How to go? China good outside, bad inside. When we come here, had to chase away elephant and tiger, today see our hard work. It's okay, we like here, people are good to us. We are now 20,000 Tibetans here."

The trip has taken on a philosophical twist at Namdroling. We speed on towards Bangalore, tired but happy — happy we saw all the beauty made somewhat inaccessible by the hilly terrain. No modern gimmicks, no organised tours of fun — it was simply great. I wish Coorg was nearer home! Perhaps the pure honey and plants we brought back will keep us going until our next time there. Meantime there is the precious bottle of Talacauvery water, sitting safe up on the kitchen shelf, more precious than all the spices in the Orient.

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