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On the coffee trail: Coorg

After so many travels in north India, I was very eager to explore the southern belt. As a coffee lover, Coorg held great fascination and I charted my trip from Bangalore into the Orange County, as the colonists called it.

On the route from Bangalore to Chikmagalur, the pilgrim town of IMG_5881Shravanabelagola beckons the traveler. Nestled between two hills, the town’s main attraction is a 17.4 metre high monolithic statue of Lord Gomateshwara Bahubali, which bears inscriptions in Kannada, Tamil and Marathi. Located on an igneous basalt outcrop, it is awe-inspiring to imagine a single volcanic chunk being carved into such an imposing sculpture. After taking my blessings at the Jain shrine, I traveled on to Chikmagalur.

The name Chikmagalur, literally means the young daughter’s place, a tract said to have been given as a dowry to the younger daughter of Rukmangada, the legendary chief of Sakrepatna. Known for its lush coffee plantations carpeting the Western Ghats range, a patchwork amidst wildlife sanctuaries, Chikmagalur, is a secular hub with monuments to every religion. Yet, the town has gained reputation as the Mecca of coffee, and its produce has spawned a culture of coffee houses, cafes and baristas across a country that thrived on tea.

Woodway homestay2Fifteen or twenty kilometres away from the main city, along the Mallandur road, the Woodway homestay was the chosen accommodation for my stay in Chikmagalur. Homestays, a peculiarity of this region, offers the great balance between a hotel and a home, where you are less a guest, more a member of the family. Moreover, homestays allow you to better partake of the culture. A rich traditional meal was the perfect end to a long, travel-worn day.

The next day morning, Mr Shreedev, the owner of Woodway homestay, greeted me over breakfast. He offered to take me for a walk around the plantation, which I delightedly accepted, and soon, we were trailing through the 300 acre estate, with his dog Brownie at our heels. Along the way, he explained at length the different varieties of coffee that are grown in the region, namely Arabica and Robusta, and how to distinguish one from the other. It was interesting to understand the market values of both, and how some coffees are mixed with chicory to make it more economic. Following global market trends, the region is also in the process of marketing civet coffee, a bean digested and expelled by civets, sold as gourmet coffee.

He then suggested a quick trek to Bandekallu, a rocky basalt outcrop that commanded views over the Chikmagalur landscape. As I climbed onto the rock face, it seemed like verdant coffee plantations unfolded before me, and the valley echoed with the sounds of birds and insects. On the way back, I passed a household selling products like homemade wine and honey. The region has prospered by diversifying cottage industries that make spice and fruit wines, honey products like soaps and balms, as also homemade chocolate. A quick tasting session made me decide upon red wine and some honey to take home.

No trip to the Western Ghats is complete without a visit to its rich, teeming wildlife sanctuaries. The Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary was the closest to the homestay, and I drove off along the forest road. However, I was to be disappointed, as the park is closed during the months of March and April due to forest fire outbreaks. I headed back to Woodway for lunch and a quick nap.

Later in the afternoon, I made my way to the Coffee MuseumCoffee Museum2 at Chikmagalur. In the landscape of coffee, it was interesting to understand the rich history behind the industry. The museum was creatively done up to exhibit the varieties of coffee, regions across India that produce them, changes in the trade and pioneers in the field. My next stop at the Malenadu Planters Coffee Curing Works (MPCCW) introduced me to the processing and curing that beans undergo, before finding their way to supermarkets and cafes. From my morning at the coffee estate, then the museum and the Curing works, it had been a most interesting walk through the coffee industry.

The next morning, I decided to conquer the Mullayangiri peak, the highest in Karnataka. A trek up the rugged volcanic landscape, watching meadows and pristine forests stretching out in all directions, is the most delightful way to leave the city woes behind. A Shiva’s temple at the pinnacle offers spectacular views across the Western Ghats. After descending, I traveled on to the Jhari falls and Bababudangiri. Being summer, the Jhari falls had dried to a trickle, yet I could imagine how refreshing it would be during the monsoons. Bababudangiri, a sacred mountain for Muslims and Hindus, has shrines of Muslim Sufi saint Baba Budan and Guru Dattatreya, nestled inside a cave.

I headed back to another resort called The Serai for lunch. I took respite from the afternoon heat with a quick swim, and then continued to explore the village by cycle. Pradeep from Capture, accompanied me and pointed out the little interesting details along the way. As twilight approached, we returned to the resort for a drink, dinner and a much-needed sleep.

The next morning was kicked by another cycling tour, this time of the coffee estate a little distance away from The Serai property. After a quick shower, Belur temple2I checked out and made my way to Belur, a city located on the banks of the Yagachi river, that bears traces of the Hoysala Empire. Belur’s famous Chennakeshava temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu, is one of many reasons why the site has been proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

From Hassan district, I traveled towards Madikeri, a town at the heart of Coorg. After checking in to the Palace Estate, a short walk took me to a nearby waterfall and the Coorg palace. The day’s high note was the Coorgi-style dinner, a cuisine inspired by the landscape, making the most of local spices, produce and game. The perfect recipe for a good night’s sleep.

raja's seatThe next day morning, a hearty Coorgi breakfast of puttu, potato curry, bread and coffee awaited me. Having stuffed myself, I decided to take in some local sights. The Omkareshwar temple, with Islamic and Gothic architectural influences, hosts a Shiva lingam purported to have come from Varanasi. Then, at Raja’s seat, a recreation spot for kings of yore, I could see the valleys and cliffs to the west.

Madikeri, a dirty little town, with open sewers and free-ranging pigs (whose forefathers the wild boars provided great sport to locals, and whose mounted heads are still displayed in clubs and ancestral mansions), has little to offer. Yet it is a window to the rest of Coorg, with its coffee plantations and waterfall-draped cliffsides. The day was frittered away, visiting overrated sightseeing spots in the company of some friends.

The following day, I was determined to make the most of my stay here, and I was sure the Dubare Elephant camp would not be a disappointment. Dubbare elephant campDubare Elephant camp showed me what elephants (and their mahouts) do during off-time from sanctuary safaris; they take long, cooling baths in the river. There is something endearing about watching elephants have as much fun splashing about in water, as we do. Yet the camp is also a place where wild elephants are broken and tamed, to be used for elephant safaris. To watch wild elephants through huge cages of logs (ironically, felled and piled up by other elephants) being broken and tamed, is emotionally overcharged.

Soon after, I made my way to the Golden Temple at Namdroling Monastery in Bylakuppe.Namdroling monastery2 Amidst lush paddy plantations, a little road winds its way towards the monastery. Peopled by Buddhist monks in their customary maroon habits, the hustle-bustle of the little town is a surprise. A little market square opposite the monastery sells all kinds of Tibetan artefacts from bells to pennants, and a busy restaurant serves hot thukpa and momos, and other Tibetan food.

Namdroling monastery1As you enter the monastery, a beautiful golden arc painted with myriad animals representing the world, soars towards the blue, cloudy skies above. The rich sound of Buddhist chants fills the airs, the gongs echo through the monastery, and the colourful pennants dance with the wind. The walls of the monastery are vibrantly painted with mythological figures, and most monks are happy to recount stories and lore about them. The main temple houses three huge seated statues of Buddha in different forms. The gardens spell tranquility, and the warm glow of peace stays with you for a long time afterwards.

Orange county1After this eventful morning, I checked into Orange County Coorg, set in 300 acres of coffee and spice plantations. As the resort claims, this is the world of the Gentlemen Planter, a return to a bygone era yet with all the comforts of modern day. After lunch, I luxuriated in the infinity pool, set amidst bamboos and lawns, followed by a nice massage at the Ayurveda centre. Later in the evening, a cultural dance performance entertained me over a hearty dinner of sizzlers and white wine, followed by a quiet, pensive hour at the reading room of the resort with a cup of excellent expresso coffee.

The next day morning, I borrowed a cycle and explored the village that Orange County has adopted in the vicinity. The plantations languidly spread out before me in every direction, and a faint smell of coffee and spices filled the morning air. At the banks of the river Cauvery, I abandoned my cycle for a more intrepid mode of transport: the coracle, a light, bowl-shaped boat made of woven bamboo. I was much amused by how a circular boat could be navigated across the river, and my own attempts at rowing made the boat spin round and round in consternation. After thanking the boatsmen, I headed to Plantain Leaf for an authentic South Indian breakfast.

Having made the most of my short stay at Orange County in Coorg, I was eager to visit their other property in the area, so I bought some souvenirs at the gift shop, checked out and headed towards Kabini. The area of Kabini, thus named for a river that flows through it, is thickly forested and is one of the top destinations for wildlife in Karnataka. IMG_6060Keen on making up for my disappointment at the Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary, I checked into the Orange County, Kabini had a quick lunch, and rushed out for a boat safari organised by the Jungle Lodges. Our guide Venky, was a fascinating, enthusiastic sort who pointed out the wildlife of the area from spotted deer, elephants to a plethora of birds. The highlight of the safari was the sight of a majestic leopard making its way through the forest. The day ended with a dip in the Infinity Pool as the sunset tinged the skies pink. Another cultural dance show, followed by a 5 course grilled dinner.

Kabini’s forests compel even the laziest traveler to make the most of the mornings, and I started mine with a nature trail through the property. Every naturalist tells forest lore to capture one’s interest, and during my walk I was regaled by accounts of the touch-me-not plant, the abandoned termite mounds being used by snakes as homes and the tricks employed by spiders to catch their prey. Thoroughly enchanted by these accounts, I was all the more delighted to chart my next destination: Bandipur, a tiger reserve located upon the former hunting grounds for the Maharaja of Mysore, forming a part of largest protected area in south India.

The Serai in Bandipur resort welcomed me with great hospitality. Nestled within forests, half the land is reserved for the animals, making this a great place to experience wildlife and luxury. A machan provides a bird’s eye view of the forest, and I watched the twilight melt into the night, as the calls of the wild filled the air. Awakening to the sounds of the forest in the morning, is a heartening experience, and I made the most of it by walking across the 16 acre property with Mr Kuttapam, the senior naturalist who helped me identify various birds.

After breakfast, I had to leave the forests behind and drive to Mysore, a city bearing tales of ancient kingdoms yet plaIMG_6066ying an important role in the economies of today. I did the usual circuit of the Mysore Palace, and the museum and the temple in the vicinity, fascinated by the styles of architecture and paintings. I checked into Wildflower Resort, had a quick lunch before continuing my sight-seeing. Atop the Chamundi Hills, I learned the lore of Mysore. as per Hindu mythology, Mysore was ruled by a demon Mahishasura, who could assume the form of a human and a buffalo. The name Mysore is an anglicised version of Mahisha, meaning buffalo in Sanskrit but implying the demon of the area. The goddess Chamundeshwari slayed the demon, and thus her temple oversees the city below.

The hubbub of the city had various wonders in store: IMG_20140320_180541the Devraja market of flowers and vegetables, St. Philomena’s Church and its rosewood handicrafts, the light and sound show at the Mysore Palace, and the unmissable palatial delights of Mysore pak and Vinayak Mylari restaurant’s dosa!

Thus I reflected upon my own trail, so like that of the coffee bean’s, which grows upon mountainous plantations in Chikmagalur and Coorg, travels through the tropical forests of Kabini and Bandipur to the reach the urban hub and market of cities like Mysore, from red, raw bean to a matured, smoked coffee. So my journey had tempered me with rich experiences, and I hope to offer the same to anyone who chooses to follow the path less taken.

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