Bliss lies in a glass of perfectly brewed coffee. The steam rising from the surface emulates the wispy mist that shrouds the gently rolling mountains in the distance. The aroma hits the nostrils, shocking somnolent senses into sudden life. The taste buds respond with alacrity to the blend of 70 to 80% ground coffee beans and 20 to 30% chicory, the ancient chemistry appropriated by South Indian coffee.
In many ways, that coffee experience—at a nondescript, deserted wayside restaurant that we checked out in complete violation of our rules of frequenting only those establishments boasting of a sizeable clientele— summed up Coorg for us. Clouds could obscure views. Impeccable manners could disguise the lack of warmth. A square cement tank could be the source of a mighty river.
And yet, and yet. When the clouds clear, the valleys stun us with the depth of their beauty. Patient conversation causes the veneer of politeness to shift and crack, yielding a glimpse of a proud, self-contained people. Even the river, a few miles from its venerated source, morphs into a friendly stream, perfect for photo opportunities and paddling.
Coorg is never what it seems. Belying its apparent, touch-me-now beauty, one has to give the destination a second chance, wait for the clouds to lift.
Confession one: We hadn’t approached the destination with adequate respect. Located just six hours away from Bangalore, it was a quick getaway, the weekend bolt-hole, for us. An easy ride, great views, good food—and some home-made grog, if we got lucky. Old-fashioned R&R, that’s all we had in mind.
Instead, we found ourselves confronting a culture and a country that have never compromised on their integrity. Sure, great views and good food are there for the asking, but if it’s all you carry back from Coorg, the loss is yours. Look at it this way: This tiny district, barely 4,000sq. km. across in an eastern enclave of the Western Ghats, doesn’t even toe the national line in how its women wear the sari.
According to local legend, the Kodava woman’s unique back-to-front way of draping the sari— with a corner of the pallav over the right shoulder and pleats at the back—is inspired by sage Agastya’s request to the Cauvery river to make a 180-degree turn back to Coorg from Balmuri. Unlike other regional ways of wearing the sari, this is still very much the norm, from Kodlipet in the North to Kutta in the South and, in multiple numbers, as bewitching a sight as the wild flowers by the roadside.
Confession two: We had had no idea how difficult it would be to demythologize Coorg. “Pandi curry?” we had asked hopefully at Hotel Spice, which boasted of Mangalorean, Konkani and Chinese cuisine at the bus stop at Madikeri. “No! No pork,” the head waiter told us brusquely, looking down his straight nose as if at some low life. After sundry rebuffs, a helpful shopkeeper directed us to Coorg Cuisinette, with a caveat that “it is a very small place, go fast, it runs out of food”. We ran down an incline and up another and then clambered three floors to find a 10ftx10ft room with three tables and the last vestiges of a meal. From the satisfied looks on the faces of the lunchers, though, we knew this would be a must-stop on our next visit to Madikeri.
It could well be the only reason to visit the headquarters of Kodagu district. Why, after all, would anyone want to spend time amid diesel fumes and plastic bag-laden shoppers from the interiors when the prettiest countryside in India lies beyond the municipal limits? The homesick British unimaginatively labelled every likely hill station the Scotland of the East, but Coorg is possibly as close as one can get to Europe’s pastoral prettiness without boarding a plane.
For, the road continues to be the only way to get to Coorg. And, after the notorious streets of Bangalore, the state highways through Mandya and Mysore seem like strips of black silk, rolling out into infinity, coaxing the holidaymaker to stop and take shots of perfect asphalt rather than the countless shades of green and brown that crowd the vistas. We took the wrong turn after Hunsur and went down to Periyapatna instead of Aneohaukur—read miles out of our way—but no one complained, least of all our driver, because the road took us through acres of plantations.
Coffee, of course—though the harvest was over and we missed the sight of the rich red berries—but also pepper, climbing up spindly silver oak trees, little caterpillar-like strings of light green fruit contrasting with the dark leaves, clumps of cardamom plants, groves of bananas and jackfruit—the smell of the latter would linger in our noses for days—and palm and guava, with young boys climbing unguarded trees to pluck and eat the fruit and share with the policemen flagging down tourist cars to check the papers.
Nor is it just trees and estates. Every now and then, the foliage is interrupted by a lush meadow, immediately conjuring up images of games of cricket for my 11-year-old nephew, picturesque cottages, each with their pots of bougainvillea or hibiscus or rose or rhododendron, paddy fields, most looking a bit forlorn with their crop harvested, and designated “view points”, which look over acres of shades of green and maybe a single red-tiled house nestled in the valley.
As the websites and guidebooks will tell you, there’s plenty to “see” in Coorg (read the Trip Planner alongside for some pointers). But it’d be such a shame to reduce this enchanted corner of the country to the Talacauvery and the Abby Falls. Here, more than in any other part of India, the journey can seem more worthwhile than the destination. That’s the taste that lingers, more than the pandi curry and the kadumbuttu (rice balls), which we finally sampled, more even than the life-giving coffee at Friends Hotel. We drank Coorg with our eyes, tasted it in the raindrops on our tongues, carried it back in our memories of mists and mellow fruitfulness. Best of all, we knew we had just scratched the surface.
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