Author – Elsa Joel
The enthusiasm to reach Madikeri, the district headquarters of Coorg in Karnataka never waned, though our day began so early, hours before 6 AM when we boarded the Shatabdi from Chennai to Mysore, and the 3-hour drive from Mysore to our destination took a toll on us. Choi Myunghee, my travel buddy had everything in her backpack to keep us going. The otherwise quaint quiet hill station was noisy and crowded because of the imminent Dussehra procession. Unbounded merrymaking was largely written on all faces. After a warm shower, we could not wait any longer to explore. Dasha Mantapas, towering mechatronic statues, colorful shops, bargaining voices that rose above blaring music and gleeful faces, the aroma of foods and spices defined the run-up to the most famous festival of the country. Coming together of people belonging to different faiths looked glamorous.
After a few minutes of chatting with Buddhist Lamas, we met in Shree Kote Mahaganapathi Temple. That gave us an inkling of the historical significance of the festival and the extravaganza. It goes back to more than 100 years when the people of Madikeri suffered from a grave disease and the then King sought a divine intervention by carrying out ‘Karaga puja’ to appease the four ‘Shaktidevata,’ and the spread of the epidemic was contained. Ever since celebrating the victory of good over evil happens in the best possible ways with moving Mantapas that showcase Puranas or mythological stories. Looks of disappointment were clearly written on their faces upon knowing we missed the previous nine days of Karaga show.
Dussehra at Madikeri is a lifetime experience for anybody from any part of the world. The night grew darker, the floats began to move, crowds trickled in, ready-to-rock DJs held sway, Madikeri danced away to an enticing mix of Kannada and Hindi rap, my legs grew tired and I half-heartedly made my way to Treebo Trend Oleander after a heavy dinner at Coorg Cuisine, the much sought after restaurant for Akki (rice), roti, and bamboo pork.
Early the next morning, we found ourselves among the last revelers. Statues of Field Marshal K M Cariappa, first Indian Commander-in-chief of the army adorned Madikeri and spoke volumes of how the natives revered him. To me, it felt as though this proud son of the soil was overseeing everything that’s happening in his hometown. The reeling floats finally halted.
Our driver regaled us with stories of past Dussehras till we reached Nisargadhama, a delta formed by river Cauveri. The hanging bridge that led us into the reserve did sway a bit. I was nervous. So, I kept myself mentally occupied by trying to remember a word, and before I crossed the bridge I got it right: gephyrophobia- fear of bridges. Human-sized figurines offered visual storytelling. Just when I needed an adrenaline rush, I spotted ziplining. Before I could decide if those screams I heard meant panic or excitement, I was already pushed down the line. Spotted deer and stags loitering about slowly with their curved three-pronged antlers stood and stared, posed for all. Watchtowers provided me with the satisfying view of the whole islet; not to mention the shaky wooden ladders.
Our next stop was Bylakuppe, the second largest Tibetan settlement in the world outside Tibet after Dharmashala. Despite the tourists, the place was tranquil and quiet. It took much of my effort to learn the names of the three towering gold plated statues of three saints set against intricate murals and impress a few. A word of prayer to saint Padmasambhava for making me more kind and compassionate, one to saint Sukhayami for peace that passeth all understanding and last one to Buddha Amitayus for a long life. A casual chat with Pawan monk Rigchog who seemed to know a handful of Indian languages gave me a vivid idea of what is required of monkhood. He enjoyed the question-answer session but glances from other tourists who wanted to meditate made me forget the other dozen questions I had in my mind.
After the chance encounter with Rigchog, I found my nerve to interact with many more. Many conversations began with a Namaste, continued through uninhibited chuckles and debates and ended with cool photographs. Given the beautiful frescos that depict Buddhist mythology and traditional Thangka paintings in smaller Padma Sang-Ngag Choekhorling and Tashi Lhunpo monasteries, I got lost in time. Rhythmic chants, flickering butter lamps and moon-faced monks held my attention, helping me realize that I have finally learnt to sit still and silent. Oh, that big bell in the courtyard. Alas! It was tongue-tied. Yes, all bells in Bylakuppe should ring for a reason.
My hunger pangs disappeared on seeing quad bikes. My fantasies gave way to fear and excitement as I failed to maneuver the machine through steep slippery slopes and slushy swamps. Neither I nor my fellow riders were surprised when my bike stopped. My travel buddy quipped, “Nothing ends a perfect ride quicker than a broken chain”. Thankfully, the broken chain came as a saving grace giving me my much-needed relief and time to gaze at the plantations and farmlands around. As if the instructor already knew what was coming, he made sure I was on another bike in less than fifteen minutes. The 4km trail did test my endurance, strength and courage.
An hour later, I woke up to sounds of hawkers and costermongers crying, ’Buttered corn!’, ‘Oranges!’ and ‘Spices!’ We were at Raja’s seat, a beautiful misty laden place and a famous sunset point in Madikeri. Sipping my last drop of tea, I sighed, ‘Kings of Yore and their consorts were lucky’. Suddenly the clouds lifted up revealing lush green valleys, rolling hills and winding roads. A chill wind brushed softly against my face now and then but somewhere between the sudden bursting of the sky into colours and the swirling, moving, dimming, brightening and fading, I stopped complaining about how cold I felt. The sun had set in all its splendour.
In my mind’s eye, the movie did not end till we reached Omkareshwara Temple, built by King Lingarajendra II in the 18th century to honour Lord Shiva. A few locals turned storytellers. This temple, a token of a King’s penance for murder, reflects a unique blend of Gothic and Islamic architecture with a huge dome in the centre and four minarets in four corners. Carps in the water tank soothed my troubled soul and I forgot when I stopped deliberating on, ‘A temple to appease a murdered soul!’
Coorg Cuisine overflowed with golfers who were there to play a tournament at the Mercara Downs Golf Club. An avid golfer herself, Choi soon found herself in the company of a few friendly golfers and the kindest of all Shri. Ranjan Sood extended an invite, which we gratefully accepted.
Next morning, our trekking guide B B Chennappa fondly called as ‘Trekstar’ greeted us with an ‘Are you ready’. But for Choi’s passion, I wouldn’t have opted for a 15 km trek. We boarded a bus that dropped us at Galibeedu, the starting point of the trek. Along the 7km drive, the bus stopped a dozen times, once for tea at the only tea shop I saw in that entire stretch; another time to collect a letter from somebody; few minutes to collect a lunch box from a home; once again for a chat with a person who was familiar to all in the bus except the two of us; at a temple on request from a passenger and at a beautiful place to let us take some good photos.
With the magic of wind and mist against our faces, we began our trek. Trekstar turned a leech hater, botanist, zoologist, herpetologist and news reporter depending on the questions I posed to distract myself from what I was exactly attempting half-heartedly for the first time- A trek.
A dark secret followed my introduction to Angel’s trumpets as flowers with medicinal properties. Fever, delirium, hallucinations, agitation, persistent memory disturbances, flaccid paralysis, convulsions and death will result if eating the flower turns from best to worst. Will the flower be renamed Devil’s trumpet? ‘This is the Common Nettle plant which the tribes use to treat painful muscles and joints, eczema, arthritis, gout, and anemia’ said Chennappa.
My curiosity to take a closer look prompted him to yell out its other name ‘Stinging Nettle’ and I froze for a second. “Leaves of Agaves are used to make tequila and we have plenty here”, he said showing us wildly grown blue-green succulent plants. Eyes wide with excitement, my friend hummed, “Cause you and tequila make me crazy, run like poison in my blood”. Then a conversation ensued regarding which one is better- Kenny Chesney or John Anderson’s ‘straight tequila night’. Amidst our chitter-chatter, gurgling streams, burbling rivers and cricket stridulation, I wondered “Am I going on a hunt for ‘Blood Orchid’?
For the next few hours, I listened to Choi and Trekstar as I negotiated and enjoyed completely contrasting landscapes, steep and narrow and believe me, weather too. Drizzles cooled us, in no time winds dried us up. Spotting a tribal dwelling meant a short break because Trekstar stopped to explain the type of hut, the small solar panel on the roof which was meant to light one bulb, their small vegetable patch, white cloth pieces that kept wild pigs away from their gardens and pet dogs which barked their lungs out at us.
He explained at great length till somebody stepped out of the hut to exchange a few words with him about the recent developments in the family, around and about the place. We spotted a few tree snakes, snails, some big bugs, and beetles. Stories of tribes trading tusks of dead elephants for old clothes saddened me. How and why they look out for ‘Magic mushrooms’ is another sad story. Cold, inviting streams eased our tired feet occasionally.
Avocado trees and honeycombs on cliffs enhanced my self-doubt that my favorite things do not easily fall in place, in the right place. Trekstar’s familiarity of names, places and smells along the trails assured me that he can guide us, even blindfolded. A plethora of views along the trail kept me from nagging Trekstar and Choi with questions on the kilometers covered and yet to cover. Surrounded by mountains on all sides, it felt isolated, wild and in a way better than usual. Did I hear him say, “That’s Nishane Motte peak”? Yes, I heard it right.
The joy of running towards a summit, the exhilaration on reaching one and the breathtaking picturesque vista cannot be written or said, but they are to be felt and experienced. Chapatis, bananas and hot coffee recharged us. The spotlessly clean trail that led us to the mesmerizing peak belied Trekstar’s statement that Nishane motte is a favourite spot of trekkers. Animal footprints, sounds and droppings did not bother me. I almost became part of the wild with a leave no trace policy.
On and off, we had to pause for the dramatic clouds to pass by. Empty water bottles did not upset me. Thanks to water sources. To me, anything looked like magic, everything came across as unthinkable, clouds that limited our visibility to zero seemed marvellous, accidental slips and loud shrieks and getting stuck in mud made me feel intrepid. Nishani Motte peak stole my heart. I will definitely climb many more mountains and marvel at many more views, but Nishani Motte will always be my first love. In every way, it was the Coorg I was looking for.
Another morning, I lost my battle against waking up with the chirping sparrows by my window sill and a loud shrill whistling of an unknown bird heard from afar. With Choi still asleep, I took a quick walk to Madikeri Fort to see how Raja’s seat looked like from the fort. I envied kings and queens. Stone turtle inside the palace with the name of King Vijayarendra engraved on it could mean or convey anything to inspire. One cannot decide if it’s, ‘Slow and steady wins the race’ or ’10,000 years of happiness’ or ‘Heaven and earth united’ or ‘Everything we own is on our back’ because turtles are symbolic of Mother Earth.
An unusual early morning stir in the government offices happened because offices were being shifted out of the Fort to the new building of Zilla Panchayat in the wake of the High Court direction to hand over the Fort to the Archaeological Survey of India to be renovated and restored to its historical glory.
Faizal drove us through coffee plantations with palatial farmhouses and cottages. Poinsettias flourished everywhere, along the roads, in gardens and in the wild. For a moment, it felt like Christmas. The delightful fragrance of eucalyptus filled the air. We reached that large body of water. Broken bottles frustrated me. Experts around the world are yet to figure out whether Indians in their inebriated mood break bottles before throwing them away or they get broken after being thrown away. One perfect spot for perfect landscape photography with the Chiklihole reservoir sandwiched between rich green woodlands and a green meadow but the liquor bottles warn lone travellers.
Unplanned visit to this place turned out to be the first best experience of Day 3. Grazing cows, the still waters and songbirds had a hold on me until Faizal reminded us of the probable rush at Dubare elephant camp. The serpentine queue at the elephant camp surprised us. White water rafting was an option. Being a first-timer, I googled frantically. Sooner, I found myself on a rubber raft with a guide and five others- including two schoolboys Nitin and Nishanth aged ten and sixteen. The 11km stretch with four rapids and few whirlpools thrilled us. On reaching still waters, a perfect swim zone, Girish took it on himself to push scared adamant ones like me into the river to give me a ‘never again never before’ experience for which I am thankful to him. At the end of it all, seven of us felt victorious.
Basavanhalli was another pit stop with hundreds of look-alike houses. Greetings were acknowledged with warmth and reciprocated with an invite for a cup of tea at Shri Saami’s house. Project Manager at Nirmithi Kendra, Shri. Asangi Kareppa was already relishing his cuppa. His narration of the story behind the relocation of Jenu Kuruba, Beta Kuruba, Errava and Soliga tribes of the Diddalli reserve forests after years of agitations under Saami, representations to concerned officers, nude protests and the unfolding of political dramas held us in rapt attention. Meanwhile, Kamalakshi, Saami’s adorable teen daughter served us delicacies and confessed her love for Tamil, a language she spoke nice and easy. Goodbyes were not hard to come, for I will see them again, to know them better.
Off we drove to Gaddige, a place for both history and nature lovers. Indo-Saracenic style monuments, which are nothing but the tombs of King Veera Rajendra, his wife, and his brother Linga Rajendra, adorn the place. Gaddige also houses tombs of Raja’s priest Rudrappa and two brave army generals Biddanda Bopu and Biddanda Somaiah who fought Tipu Sultan. Looking through the bronze bars set in sculpted stone at the gilded domes in the centre and minaret –like turrets, each topped with images of bulls at the four corners got me an exclusive panorama of the uneven Madikeri skyline. Ranjan’s phone call jolted me out of my imagination mode. From afar, the golf dunes, elevated greens and trees welcomed me into a make-believe Scottish world. No plain talk is the first rule of ‘Golfish’- language of the golfers.
Everything ought to be adorned and top-dressed. Woods surrounding the course, fluffy clouds floating down to caress us and the tremendous sense of camaraderie Choi and Ranjan displayed as golf lovers made me think Golf is worth the time, dress code, money and effort for anybody who can afford it. Not because I was visiting a golf course for the first time but I knew I’ll never get comfortable with the idea of someone being able to hit a ball into 18 different holes hundreds of yards away. To any non-golfer, the most uplifting elements of the golf course were the endless greenery, the cleanliness, decorum of the club, poise, and good deportment of golfers and of course the food and drinks. If Downs Golf Club was a wonderland, I was Alice.
Three days and nights were not enough to explore Madikeri to my heart’s content, but travelling is not just about the places we visit. It is more about the people we meet, friendships we forge, and fond memories that urge us to retrace journeys. Summer berries and memories of Coorg sustain me. Well, there is a first time for everybody.
Hasta La Vista, Mercara