No matter how many times you go to a place, you’re always bound to see a different side to it. Or something new about the same things you see and do. The Coorg trip over the weekend that just went by was a lot like that. Visiting Kodagu – the name locals call Coorg by – was a thing I had to do at least once every year: there’s just something really soothing about rows and rows of coffee, pepper, vanilla and spice plantations and roads that wind through them. The visits sort of took a back seat over the last two years because I wanted to explore more of North India and new places in the South. When I checked the holiday schedule for this year and saw the long weekend, I decided to use it to renew my connection with the estates of Coorg. I’m happy to say that we are on genial terms again and Kodagu doesn’t feel like a scorned lover any more.
It took us around 10 hours to reach Coorg, only because we stopped several times to take pictures and just generally sight-see. The honey comb-like shimmering of the sun from between the Eucalyptus, Teak and Areca nut trees made me fall in love with the late-afternoon light all over again. We stopped at a coffee plantation that was in full bloom, so the entire place was a sea of green and white. Dreamy, dreamy setting. I discovered new wonders of my camera, walked through random rocky streams, bonded with the monks at Kushalnagar and recharged my batteries.
It was a new experience in so many ways, but what I loved most about this trip was the stories I gathered. Little tales about people, places and history – just the kind of thing I like.
The wild ones.
Somewhere off Virajpet, after many stops to shoot birds in green fields and climbing the barricade of a coffee estate to take pictures of the flowering plants, we passed through a stretch of jungle. And there, we saw elephants. Not one, but three. There was this hilariously cute elephant, standing and sleeping. Its tusks were tucked into the bark of the tree it was standing against; its eyes were shut, its trunk hanging limp and mouth wide open, snoring. To catch a sight like that is one of life’s little pleasures. However, we noticed that the elephants had chains around their ankles and necks and a man and woman were hovering around it. Apparently, the family is friends with the wildlife in the area – they’re so much a part of the surroundings that the animals have accepted them as one of their own. In turn, every time an animal falls sick, the family brings it to their clearing and takes care of it till it gets better. This time, one of the elephants in the herd was sick, so they got the entire herd and were taking care of them. Funny that we struggle to coexist with nature in the cities only to find the perfect example of it tucked away in a little jungle clearing.
When foreign soil becomes home.
Our home stay, Honey Valley, was deep in the lap of the Western Ghats, nestling at the base of Coorg’s highest mountain and surrounded by nothing but forest. Completely cut off from civilization, Honey Valley is simple, basic and beautiful. Only 4X4 vehicles can make it through the path all the way to the home stay, so we were picked up in a jeep and taken to the top where the place was. What with being lulled to sleep by the swishing trees and cicadas, waking up to birds chirping and the jeep rides through winding kachcha roads with a valley on one side and plantations on the other, the holiday was everything I wanted and more. Miraculously, I was up at 5:30 on the first day at Honey Valley to see the fog lift and leave behind crests and troughs of trees glittering with dew. And of course, I went mental taking pictures of flowers and birds.
Honey Valley is run by an ageing Coorgi couple and their son. But there are two other people as well – non-Indians, both. One of them, Jonathan I think, happened to pick us up from the junction in his jeep, and he told the story of his growing up on Australian terrain very similar to that of Honey Valley’s. He had been in Coorg for many, many years and had made the place his home, although he did visit Australia to meet his father from time to time. If you go, you’ll catch him running around everywhere bare feet and wearing a lungi at most times, folded up and tucked in at the waist. Jack, the other foreigner, lives there as well and is a business partner with the Coorgi couple’s son. Together, they’ve opened another home stay further down the slope from Honey Valley. Oddly, despite the two places being so close, the parents and son meet only over weekends.
The Coorgi saree.
The traditional saree is worn with the pleats in the front and pallu of the saree draped over the shoulder and trailing behind, but you’ll find that most women in Coorg wear their sarees with the pleats at the back and a part of the pallu pinned in the front at their shoulder. There are many legends associated with the origin of this style of saree-wearing, the most popular one being that the goddess Cauvery submerged herself into the ground and emerged as a river that would sustain the people of Kodagu. Harsh winds blew as her husband Agastya tried to stop her, turning her saree backwards. To date, Coorgi women wear their sarees the same way.
Nature above everything else.
No matter where you go, you’ll always see a Coorgi home surrounded by lush greenery. They have great respect for nature and believe nature to be their god and religion. Apparently, those who own land and practice agriculture leave about ten percent of their land uncultivated and untouched, just so that Mother Nature can take her own course and bring to life whatever she wants on that patch of land.
A different kind of Prasadam.
We were in Kushalnagar on Sunday, belting Chicken Momos at Hotel Golden Star. There were monks dressed in yellow and maroon everywhere, riding Avengers, eating, shopping, basically having a good time. (I’ve always wondered how the Buddhist monks are such cool people, but I haven’t found the answer to that yet.) When we entered the Golden Temple, the sight of a giant Dalai Lama vinyl draped over the first shrine greeted us. We wondered what was up. Then, above the hum of the crowd, we heard the mesmerizing sound of prayers happening in another shrine. We walked over and stood as if in a trance as the cymbals clanged together, the giant drum (I don’t know what it’s called) was beaten and the chants flowed. It’s music that elevates the soul – there’s no other way to describe it. There was a Dalai Lama poster kept in the inner sanctum as well.
Still curious, we went to the main shrine, the one with the giant Buddha. I walked in in anticipation of getting some fabulous shots of the Buddha and stopped dead in my tracks three seconds later. There was no giant Buddha, only a huge Dalai Lama vinyl covering it. A monk soon put our curiosity to an end: it was the Dalai Lama’s birthday and everyone was celebrating. Once the prayers were over, the monks handed out huge plastic covers of Prasadam to everybody. I was quite surprised – I didn’t know Buddhism had the system of handing out prasad to people. I was even more surprised at the contents of the cover – two packets of chips, an apple, an orange and a tetra pack of mango juice. I’m telling you, monks are cool people.
So that’s that, those are my stories from Coorg. It was a holiday spent exploring, learning, tasting and experiencing the flavours of the land of the Kodavas.
Getting there: Coorg is a six/seven-hour drive from Bangalore. I’m not sure about the train route, but there are buses that go to Madikeri and Virajpet, so choose according to the place you’re going to stay at. I only recommend getting there by car because the route is green, beautiful and goes through the forest, sometimes with a chance-spotting of wild elephants, bisons and even tigers.
Go if: You want to be in the midst of nature, eat lip-smacking Coorgi food, like seeing how coffee and spices grow, are a bird watcher, want to experience first-hand how awesomely cool Buddhist monks are. Yes, I’m stuck on them.