Madikeri, Kodagu: The Heart of India's Coffee County
In Coffee Country
By Deepa Bhasthi
There is a thing about clichés that I find a little unsettling. Despite how you might not want to resort to them in the light of over-use, sometimes you can’t help it.
Every one of those clichés is true and often times, the only most apt adjective you can find to use. While describing Madikeri, I can only use a lot of clichés: long winding roads, soothing greenery all around, perfect weather, you know, the works for a picture postcard. And then there is the coffee.
Just about five hours drive from Bangalore, the capital of the state of Karnataka, and of course, the country’s IT (Information Technology) hub, there is the district of Kodagu. It is still popular as Coorg, the name the British chose to call it by.
Madikeri is the district headquarters, at a height of over 4,000 feet above sea level. Coorg happens to be the state’s smallest district, one of the most prosperous in terms of standard of living and literacy rates and other social-economic parameters, as also the only one without a railway line.
Kodagu, where you take five steps to the side and land in a coffee plantation, is still the largest producer of coffee in the country, followed closely by places like Chikmagalur, in the adjacent district.
The quaint little town is nestled between coffee estates and winding roads and impromptu water falls, peppered with orange trees, the heady smell of cardamom that is interspersed in between the coffee plants, resulting in an eclectic mix of aromas that can make you believe in the utter goodness of a slow paced life of luxury. There, clichés again, all but true!
Madikeri is where my family has lived for over four generations. My dad is a coffee planter and my childhood was spent in estates, walking through the narrow paths, getting bitten by leeches, secretly eating the blackish-red ripe coffee beans (and getting a stomach ache) and yes, smelling the coffee!
Waking Up To Smell The Coffee:
The whole process of the coffee bean to the cup was something I grew up understanding and as with all things that you grow up with, took for granted. It is only now that I realize that most people don’t know that coffee beans are preceded by the most delightful white flowers and followed by a horrible smell of the pulp that makes you want to retch.
There are many varieties of coffee, Arabica, Robusta and a more local Cauvery, but all of them typically take a few years to start giving yield.
Late December to early January is when the flowers are in full bloom. Undoubtedly the best time to visit the district and drive around. Madikeri is a typical small hill town, but go just a few kilometers away and you will find roads lined with estates for miles on end. With the flowers in bloom and the fragrance beyond that of any other flower, it makes for one heady journey.
It is when the flowers wither away that the beans begin to develop, then are picked, pulped and further processed by putting them out to dry and then grinding them into a fine powder.
Typically, new buds in the stump of the coffee plants are nipped in the bud. Over a period of several years, the stumps begin to take unusual and very interesting shapes. Coffee estate owners who would replace the plants would either cut the stumps and keep them in homes for décor, or throw them away for the estate labourers to polish and sell.
If you drive around in the interior of the district, there are still several little shops and huts which sell these stumps that they, with a little tweaking here and there, turn into flower vases and base for glass tables. They make for unusual souvenirs and come in all shapes and sizes, typically not costing more than a few hundred rupees. These coffee ‘bodde’ as we call it, have made for gifts at several family weddings and events in my family.
For the tourists, there are of course scores of shops that sell coffee powder, spices and what is passed off as Coorg honey, another product that the district is very well known for. The honey has a strong tinge of the coffee flavour in it and can taste a bit unusual for those not used to it.
The district was once very well known for its oranges but the variety is on the verge of extinction. If you can manage to find them someplace, distinguish them by the thin peel around the fruit. They are usually small in size and aren’t too sweet.
A word of caution though: most places do not stock authentic goods. For the coffee, try Sharma Coffee Works or Jyothi Coffee Works in Madikeri, they powder the beans right before you and will add chicory as per your taste. Most bottles of honey are synthetic too; buy instead from the Janata Bazaar in Madikeri or Jenu Co-operative Society.
Many Things to Keep the Tourist Busy:
Kodagu has several things that will keep you busy for at least a week if you have that kind of time. Madikeri itself has several interesting things to see. There is the Raja’s Seat, a little park in the middle of town, built on an old British cemetery. The small structure in the park is where the king of the district used to come and sit to take in the gorgeous view of the mountains and the setting sun in the evenings.
Even today, the place offers one of the best views of the Western Ghats and a most delightful view of roads leading down to the coast four hours away, little houses with smoke billowing up lazily, bright green patches of farms and pretty clouds that hop from one mountain to the next.
The Madikeri Fort is where the Linga Rajas ruled from for several centuries before the British snatched power in the 1800s. The fort, till recently, housed all the government departments, the central jail and the district courts. On the other side of town is Gaddige, three imposing tombs of the kings, their wives and their most important officers. Several waterfalls abound in and around the town, but Abby Falls is the most accessible if you are short of time.
This is built in the Indo-Sarcenic fashion and sports a dome shape ‘gopura’ (the top of a temple which are otherwise shaped like a triangle). Built in the 1800s by a king seeking to rid himself of the curse of having killed a Brahmin priest, the temple is a lovely place to end a day of taking in the sights.
Kodagu is also home to the largest number of Tibetan refugees at Bylakkuppe, the second largest such settlement after Dharmasala in Himachal Pradesh. The route to Namdroling Monastery again takes you through green roads and beautiful plantations.
‘'Doing' the Coffee Country:
Kodagu is all about homestays these days, and there are several estate owners who let out their gorgeous bungalows to travelers, sometimes at a hefty price though. They would take you around the estates, point out the plants and explain the whole coffee making process, apart from organizing local tours and the like.
You can be assured of a taste of local cuisine too, that of the Kodavas, a separate community of people with their own dialect and culture. See www.homestaykodagu.com for some of the best deals.
You would be surprised to know though that most people in the district are more of tea drinkers than the coffee that they painstakingly cultivate! Restaurants and little cafes that are sprouting up serve lovely coffee though.
It would be idyllic, a holiday in Madikeri. There are the hills, the perfect weather all year round, easy accessibility, the hills, I must repeat, gorgeous valleys and the greenest trees and fields and then the coffee.
A hot cuppa, a deep chair to sink into, a cool breeze that might threaten to turn colder, a postcard view in front… In here, the vision, with the aroma of freshly brewed strong coffee, just becomes more real than imagined.
Deepa Bhasthi is an independent writer and journalist based in Bangalore, India. She quit her full time job to travel, write and stare into happy oblivion and blogs about all that at dbhasthi.blogspot.com
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