The hill region of Kodagu, formerly known as Coorg, lies 100km west of Mysuru in the Western Ghats, its eastern fringes merging with the Mysore plateau. India’s leading coffee-producing region, Kodagu is also the birthplace of the River Kaveri and home to the martial Kodavas, whose customs, language and appearance set them apart from their neighbours. Its rugged mountain terrain is interspersed with cardamom valleys and fields of lush paddy, as well as coffee plantations, making it one of south India’s most beautiful areas. Yet 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. Homestays have given tourism in Kodagu a big boost, and larger hotel chains and resorts have moved in to cater to weekend visitors, making the main towns feel much more crowded. Nonetheless, the countryside is still idyllic and the climate refreshingly cool even in summer.
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Theories abound as to the origins of the Kodavas, or Coorgs, 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 a branch of Indo-Scythians; 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. Their language is sacred groves (devarakadu) , 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, deep in the plantations.