Friday, March 16, 2007

Coorged

It often takes a long journey — in my case three hours of a frustrating wait at the airport and nearly five hours of a back-breaking drive — to learn basic things. Such as the elephant has 292 bones. And that its eyesight covers less than 50 metres. But that its smelling distance is 5 to 6 km. Or that it has 45,000 to 50,000 muscles in its trunk. And that it is a female that leads the pack.

Presently we are standing in a semi-circle in front of a female. Her name is Mythili and she is 40 years old. Standing by her trunk is P. Joye Eerappa, the naturist-guide with the Club Mahindra resort at Coorg. He is nice and cheerful to us not because we, a bunch of journalists, are the guests of Club Mahindra, but because he is made that way — going the extra mile to unravel the nature of nature in the Kodagu valley. He keeps his audience engaged by constantly playing the quiz master on wildlife.

We have now spent the best part of the morning amid elephants at the Dubare forest along the stream that goes on to become the river Cauvery — bathing them, watching them being fed, learning about them, and even riding them. We stroll around, and we are in a village in the heart of Kodagu valley. It’s a village that fits our childhood imagination of a village — forests around, no electricity, no roads. But there’s a school — a neat classroom under a thatched roof, with about two dozen students whose enthusiastic grins distract from the shabby clothes they are wearing. They greet us with a loud “Namaste” and, for our benefit, put up an impromptu song and dance show, “Madikeri ogona raja setannu nodonna or korona…” (a song in praise of their region). We are in a different universe.

A tribal from the village happens to be loitering around. Joye speaks to him in Kuruba, a local variant of Kannada, and the villager tells us his story. There are 86 houses in the village, and the primary occupation of its people is to grow raagi and to collect wild mushroom, wood rose and honey from the forests. They also pluck aamla, or gooseberry, but make sure to leave some behind for the deer. In the evenings, they light a bonfire and play games or sing and dance. Now doesn’t that sound like real holiday? Perhaps the day is not too far. The Karnataka forest department is already holding regular classes to teach them how to behave with visitors (read tourists). The next step could be to let visitors stay in their huts.

There was a bonfire at the Club Mahindra resort too the night before — on a hillock that in the daytime overlooks the beauty of Coorg. The resort had kicked off its gourmet festival that morning, and we were supposed to have sampled many cuisines throughout the day before creating a thirst for drinks that would precede an elaborate dinner spread out by chef Padmanabhan.

But nature had conspired against the team from Chennai: fog in Bangalore delayed the plane that was to carry us from Chennai to Mangalore, and as a result, the drive from Mangalore to Coorg was undertaken mainly under darkness, which meant poor visibility for the driver and no visibility at all of the scenic drive.

It was past ten when we reached. Whatever little desire was left to drink had died, but the ambience of the resort turned out to be a rejuvenator, especially the fragrant candles lit up along the pathway to the hillock where the bonfire and the dinner was on. I made a stiff drink, sat by the steps of what looked like an amphitheatre, and watched the mist settle in on the valley. Punjabi music played and a lavish dinner awaited us. Presently, Kodava dancers took over. Their drums lent zest to the chilly air and gave me an excuse to make another drink. And yet another. Time to eat. What I relished most was the jackfruit biryani.

But what I would remember the most is the walk back to the room: climbing down and up and down and up, amid singing insects and the fragrance of the candles, and the sight of a giant moth hovering around. It was the night to be up and get mushy, and not the night to sleep. But sleep one had to, for one had to be up early for the date with Joye Eerappa. Foodies were up even earlier: they had to catch up with a session on doughnut-making. A lot of those doughnuts and sandwiches were packed in boxes, and off we went with Joye to explore Madikeri (the district headquarters of Coorg) and places around. That’s when we met the elephants at Dubare.

From there we went to Bylakuppe. Bylakuppe is one place I’ve been planning to go for a long time: the idea being to learn meditation. And now I suddenly find myself being driven there. It’s a small town at the foot of Coorg but technically part of Mysore district. It houses the Namdroling monastery which, according to Joye, is the second largest Buddhist monastery in Asia. It is home to more than 5000 monks and over 1400 nuns.

You could be in Tibet, if not for the scorching sun, and the sights and sounds were straight out of the Brad Pitt-starrer Seven Years in Tibet — the maroon-robed monks and the horns and the drums and the chants. A new shrine, locally called the Golden Temple, has giant statues of the Buddha flanked by Guru Padmasambhava and Buddha Amitayus and has plenty of space for visitors to meditate without feeling they are confined within four walls.

Across the monastery is a market where you get Tibetan handicraft. I bought a Tibetan bell, which lets off a humming sound as you keep rubbing a wooden staff around its base. “The sound is very good for stress,” the Tibetan boy running the shop told me. I also bought a rosary, punctuated by green stones which he said were “lucky.” I asked him if I could keep it on while bathing. He said no, and he also asked me to take the rosary off every time I did “ghalat kaam” (this Hindi expression, translated literally, stands for “wrong doing”, but in effect means having sex).

I wore the rosary. Tonight, after all, was my last night in Coorg, and most of it was going to be spent wine-tasting. We sat under the sky by the poolside. The table linen was limp with mist, but our spirits soared with every glass of wine. A two-man orchestra kept us entertained, the violinist giving a melancholic touch to popular tunes, such as Que sera sera. It was a “Greek night” — the idea was to celebrate the Coorg-Greek connection but in effect it meant that the dinner was Greek and, in hindsight, great.

Wine isn’t intoxicating — unless you drink copious amounts, which you can’t afford to anyways, at least not in India. A small amount is actually good for your heart, and a little more than that leaves you just happy. That is why we entertained — and got entertained by — Kapil Grover, the director of Grover Wines, at our table. He held forth on the art of wine-drinking and wine-making, and at one point berated the waiter for filling his glass more than decorum allowed. And then, of course, the Greek dinner, followed by the fascinating walk to the room — the singing insects, the mist, the giant moths… But tonight I had to sleep: the team from Chennai had a morning flight to catch. Life is unfair just when it shouldn’t be.

(Published on 30 November 2006)

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