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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.
Kodagu has a huge range of stay options from rustic cottages to ritzy resorts, though its charm lies in the profusion of traditional homestays, many in plantation bungalows, which offer the legendary hospitality of the Kodavas. For more see coorghomestays.com.
Nestling beside a curved stretch of craggy hills, Madikeri, capital of Kodagu, undulates around 1300m up in the Western Ghats, roughly midway between Mysuru and the coastal city of Mangaluru. The gradually increasing number of foreigners who travel up here find it a pleasant enough town, with red-tiled buildings and undulating roads that converge on a bustling bazaar, but most move on to home and plantation stays in the verdant Coorg countryside within a couple of days.
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.
Nagarahole (“Snake River”) National Park, together with Bandipur and Tamil Nadu’s Mudumalai national parks, forms the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, one of India’s most extensive tracts of protected forest. Straddling Kodagu and Mysore districts, the park extends 640 square kilometres north from the River Kabini, which has been dammed to form a picturesque artificial lake. During the dry season (Feb–June), this perennial water source attracts large numbers of animals to its muddy riverbanks and grassy swamps, or hadlus, making it a potentially prime spot for sighting gaur (Indian bison), elephant, dhole (wild dog), deer, boar, and even the odd tiger or leopard. The forest here is of the moist deciduous type – thick jungle with a 30m-high canopy – and more impressive than Bandipur’s drier scrub. The park is best avoided altogether during the monsoon season.
Top image: Male Leopard stood in Nagarahole National Park in the dry forests of Karnataka, India © Andrew M. Allport/Shutterstock
Nestling beside a curved stretch of craggy hills, MADIKERI, capital of Kodagu, undulates around 1300m up in the Western Ghats, roughly midway between Mysore and the coastal city of Mangalore. The gradually increasing number of foreigners who travel up here find it a pleasant enough town, with red-tiled buildings and undulating roads that converge on a bustling bazaar, but most move on to home and plantation stays in the verdant Coorg countryside within a couple of days.
Madikeri is the centre of the lucrative coffee trade, and a walk to Abbi Falls is a good introduction to coffee-growing country. The pleasant road, devoid of buses, winds through the hill country past plantations and makes for a good day’s outing. At the litter-strewn car park at the end of the road, a gate leads through a private coffee plantation, sprinkled with cardamom sprays and pepper vines, to the bottom of the large stepped falls (fenced off so no swimming is possible) that are most impressive during and straight after the monsoons.
The Omkareshwara Shiva temple, built in 1820, features an unusual combination of red-tiled roofs, Keralan Hindu architecture, Gothic elements and Islamic-influenced domes. The fort and palace, worked over by Tipu Sultan in 1781 and rebuilt in the nineteenth century, now serve as offices and a prison. Within the complex, St Mark’s Church holds a small museum of British memorabilia, Jain, Hindu and village deity figures and weapons. Also worth a look are the huge square tombs of the rajas which, with their Islamic-style gilded domes and minarets, dominate the town’s skyline.
The early eighteenth-century Kodagu king was no dummy – he chose one of the best sunset vantage points in south India for Raja’s Seat, a popular grassy park and garden that fills up just before dusk. A water-and-light show set to Bollywood tunes dazzles the locals in the evening.