The hill region of Kodagu, formerly known as Coorg, lies 100km west of Mysore in the Western Ghats, its eastern fringes merging with the Mysore plateau. Rugged mountain terrain is interspersed with cardamom jungle, coffee plantations and fields of lush rice paddy, making it one of south India’s most beautiful areas. Not much has changed since Dervla Murphy spent a few months here with her daughter in the 1970s (the subject of her classic travelogue, On a Shoestring to Coorg) and was entranced by the landscape and people, whose customs, language and appearance set them apart from their neighbours.
If you plan to cross the Ghats between Mysore and the coast, the route through Kodagu is definitely worth considering. Some coffee plantation owners open their doors to visitors. A good time to visit is during the festival season in early December, or during the Blossom Showers around March and April when the coffee plants bloom with white flowers, but be aware that some people find the strong scent overpowering.
Kodagu is relatively undeveloped apart from a new crop of homestays, and “sights” are hard to come by, but the countryside is idyllic and the climate refreshingly cool even in summer. Many visitors trek through the unspoilt forest tracts and ridges that fringe the district. On the eastern borders of Kodagu around Kushalnagar, large Tibetan settlements have transformed a once barren countryside into fertile farmland dotted with busy monasteries, some of which house thousands of monks.
The first records of a kingdom here date from the eighth century, when it prospered from the salt trade passing between the coast and the cities on the Deccan. Under the Hindu Haleri rajas, the state repulsed invasions by its more powerful neighbours, including Haider Ali and his son Tipu Sultan (see The East India Company (1600–1857)). A combination of hilly terrain, absence of roads (a deliberate policy on the part of defence-conscious Kodagu kings) and the tenacity of its highly trained army ensured Kodagu was the only Indian kingdom never to be conquered.
In 1834, after ministers appealed to the British to help depose their despotic king, Vira Rajah, Kodagu became a princely state with nominal independence, which it retained until the creation of Karnataka in 1956. Coffee was introduced during the Raj and, despite plummeting prices on the international market, this continues to be the linchpin of the local economy, along with pepper and cardamom. Although Kodagu is Karnataka’s wealthiest region, and provides the highest tax revenue, it does not reap the rewards – some villages are still without electricity – and this, coupled with the distinct identity and fiercely independent nature of the Kodavas, has given rise to an autonomy movement known as Kodagu Rajya Mukti Morcha. Methods used by the KRMM include cultural programmes and occasional strikes; violence is very rare.Read More
Theories abound as to the origins of the Kodavas, or Coorgis, who today comprise less than one sixth of the hill region’s population. Fair-skinned and with their own language and customs, they are thought to have migrated to southern India from Kurdistan, Kashmir or even Greece, though no one knows exactly why or when. One popular belief holds that this staunchly martial people, who since Independence have produced some of India’s leading military brains, are descended from Roman mercenaries who fled here following the collapse of the Pandyan dynasty in the eighth century; some even claim connections with Alexander the Great’s invading army. Whatever their origins, the Kodavas have managed to retain a distinct identity apart from the freed plantation slaves, Moplah Muslim traders and other immigrants who have settled here. More akin to Tamil than Kannada, their language is Dravidian, yet their religious practices, based on ancestor veneration and worship of nature spirits and the river, differ markedly from those of mainstream Hinduism. Land tenure in Kodagu is also quite distinctive: women have a right to inheritance and ownership and are also allowed to remarry.
Spiritual and social life for traditional Kodavas revolves around the ain mane, or ancestral homestead. Built on raised platforms to overlook the family land, these large, detached houses, with their beautiful carved wood doors and beaten-earth floors, generally have four wings and courtyards to accommodate various branches of the extended family, as well as shrine rooms, or Karona Kalas, dedicated to the clan’s most important forebears. Key religious rituals and rites of passage are always conducted in the ain mane, rather than the local temple. However, you could easily travel through Kodagu without ever seeing one, as they are invariably away from roads, shrouded in thick forest.