Kodagu or Coorg as it was re-christened by the British in the nineteenth century is a highland well up in the Western Ghats just to the east of Malabar in Kerala. This southern district of Karnataka is inextricably linked to Malabar in terms of culture and ecology.
Almost all the rivers of Malabar originate from the misty blue mountains and evergreen forests and lemon green grassland sholas of Kodagu. Most of the people in Malabar have their legends and myths about the Kodagu connection in their folklore and ritual practices like the Theyyam. So Kodagu has a vital significance in the cultural and environmental paradigms of Kerala and Malabar in particular as Wayanadu, the Nilgiris or Iduki in relation to the mid and southern parts of Kerala.
I toured some parts of this hill station with Jaime Chithra on bike as a getaway from the scorching heat of Kasaragod where I am working at present. We began our journey on the morning of Saturday 19 March, 2011 and came back on the evening of the 20th. We stayed at Kushalnagar on Saturday night.
We went up the Western Ghat to Kodagu en-route Cherkala – Bovikanam – Kanathur – Kuttikol – Panathur – Bhagamandala and returned via Sullya and Jalsur. While crossing the Panathoor bridge we got a wonderful view of the inviting cool mountains in the horizon and entered straight into the green shelter of the foothills. Thanks to the greenery of Kodagu there is water in the streams down in Malabar. But how long will it last; is an uncomfortable question that we really need to address.
The foothills and low-lying forests are vivid with a variety of hues at the onset of summer. The transient spell of spring has caressed the green canopies with dexterous strokes of impressionistic colors and textures. The forests are full of honey, bees and butterflies. Albatrosses flutter around with Great Orange Tips and tiny Blues.
As we ride up the sloppy mountain road to Bhagamandala the chill of the evergreen and wet forest is so soothing in the hot summer. Some cascades and rivulets still have water enough to be poetic. The green and tender foliage of wild trees, giant ferns and lichen are supple, serene and refreshing.
As we go up in elevation the forest pattern also changes from dry deciduous to semi evergreen to wet evergreen and finally to shola and grass lands. It is a direct but gradual ascend of around 1000m. We hardly notice the distance as we are immersed in the sea of green, yellow, orange and the chill of the wet forest.
It is a sensational ride for bikers and small vehicles as the road is narrow but well aligned. It becomes wider as we go up further towards Karnataka. The forests of this western slope of the Western Ghat are part of Talacauvery Wildlife Sanctuary of Karnataka forest department.
After sipping Coorg Coffee from Bhagamandala we visted Talakavery (Talacauvery) which is only 8km from there towards west. The road is wide and well maintained and plenty of home-stays and honey and spice shops are on the way.
At Talakavery or literally the head of river Kaveri (Cauvery), the grassland shola from which it springs up and flows down at around 1500m we had a great panoramic view of Kodagu topography. All the high peaks of Kodagu are visible from here.
It is also supposed to be one seat of Agasthya in the south as Agasthya Kootam down south in the lower end of Western Ghat in Trivandrum district of Kerala. It could be seen that Agasthya the Aryan sage who is said to be the author of Akathiam the first grammar text in Tamil (?)came and established his first power centre at Talakavery and then proceeded down to Agasthya Kootam which was the southern seat of Avalokiteswara in the Buddhist imagination of space and terrain in the peninsula.
There is also a saying that Mayuravarman the Kadamba king brought Brahmans and their servant Sudras from Ahikshetram or Ahichatram north of the Ganges in the 4th or 5th century to Tulunadu and settled them down in Shivalli. These Shivalli Brahmans of Tulunadu are still the priests of Talakavery temple.
It is evident that the place is a critical spacial arena in the southward migration of Brahmans. The Achar family of priests and the mere 2oo years of history of their associations with the Lingayat kings of Coorg and the legend behind the construction of Omkareswara temple (that of Brahma Rakshas) prove the infiltration strategies of Brahmanism in Kodagu.
It is clear that the invasion of Aryan Brahmanism through such conquering and converting god-men began well before Sankara who recolonized the North up to Kashmir in the 9th century by erasing the challenge of Jainism and Buddhism for ever by establishing pedagogic Brahmanic Maths across the peninsula.
This religious invasion was done with the royal patronage of kings and queens who were lured by the desire elements of Brahmanic Hinduism and its erotic and powerful semiotics and narrative textuality that were developed under knowledge/power monopolies of thousands of years after the devastation of the Dravidian civilizations of Indus valley around 1500 BC. The erotica of Belur and Halebeedu in Hassan district are typical examples of colonizing the minds through sex and phallic cults and images.
It is also interesting to note that the place still has a spring and the ancient springs of South India were originally Jain or Buddhist places of worship up to the 8th or 9th century. Any way it is reasonable to say that Kodagu as any other part of the peninsula was a Sramana territory at least for one thousand years. The architectural and sculptural evidences of Jain images and iconography in the Government Museum at Madikeri prove this peaceful and ethical past of Kodagu.
From Talakavery we came back to Bhagamandala and had our lunch at the Mayura restaurant of Karnataka tourism corporation. They also have budget rooms for domestic tourists and even dormitories for lone travelers . After resting there in the lap of shola forests for a few hours we began our ride to Madikeri or Mercara the capital of Coorg district through beautiful shady roads amidst rolling plantations of coffee and pepper.
The fragrance of coffee flowers and Parijatha blossoms, used as green fence at the edge of plantations fill the air and intoxicate even the insensitive traveler. Blue winged parakeets are also fairly common in the coffee and pepper plantations. There are also paddy fields and cardamom in Kodagu.
In the long 40km stretch we stopped midway at a small roadside eco-shop to savor honey lime to beat the slight heat of the slanting afternoon sun that turns biting in Coorg. The city of Coorg is visible from miles away on a hill top as we approach it from west in the evening. We spent a few hours in the garden at Raja’s Seat from where we got a splendid view of Kodagu and even parts of Kerala to the west. We also found some enjoyment in the miniature narrow-gauge train near the garden.
After taking a round in the city on the motorcycle we went straight to Kushalnagar some 30km east of Madikeri. The road is excellent and wide and it passes through shola forests, evergreen and deciduous patches of forests and finally reaches semi-deciduous forests of Nisargadhama wild life santuary which is actually an archepelago in river Kavery with a lot of bamboo forests and real wildlife including spotted deer, wild boar, Gaur and elephant.
The bamboo forests are in bloom all over Kudagu and the Western Ghats. It is a delight to the eye and tongue of the local population of living beings. The bamboo rice is a medicinal and nutritious delicacy fed even to infants.
On the way we could see a few wild elephants and a calf in the Nisargadhama wild life sanctuary some 20m close to the highway. It was getting dark so I managed to click a few snaps in the dying light in a hurry and Jaime never allowed me to close in.
We stayed at Kushalnagar a small town having plenty of private lodges even run by Malayalis and in the early morning visited the Buddhist Golden Temple at Bylakupe just 7km from there which is the sole sacred space of the Tibetan Buddhist community in exile in South India.
After spending a lot of time inside the temples that excel in Tibetan Buddhist architecture and outside in the beautifully and eco-spiritually designed zen gardens full of lawns, palms and flowering plants we came back to the hotel and packed for Madikeri again.
We reached Madikeri around noon and visited the 200 year old Omkareswara temple built by Lingaraja II of the Lingayat dynasty of Coorg. It is built in Isalmic architectural style with domes and minarets. It is interesting to note that the Lingayat people were originally Jains before the tenth century and their ancient heritage of inclusion and tolerance still survives.
Then we visited the historic fort originally built by the Lingayat rulers as a rammed mud citadel and later strengthened with stone by Tipu Sultan in the late 18th century and then governed by the British after the Srirangapatanam treaty of 1772. The cathedral built by the British after the take over now houses the state museum.
It has a representative collection of ancient hero/heroine stones from various parts of Kodagu. It is remarkable that most of them feature women warriors of Kodagu. All the sculptures and idols up to 12 or 13th century are Jain and later articles are Saivite or Vaishnavite Hindu in religious affiliation. This again proves the Jain and Sramana antiquity of ancient Kodagu.
After resting inside the cool cathedral which is more than 200 years old we started the return journey through Madikeri – Mangalore state highway via Sullya and Jalsoor. Though some parts are under construction bikes and light vehicles could still pass through.
In an hour we reached the lower range and rested by the side of river Payaswini originating from Kodagu with a view of the grass land sholas in the upper reaches and continued our journey along the banks of the river down to Sullya, Jalsoor, Adhur, Mulleriya and Bovikanam. It was almost 8pm when we reached back to the heat of Vidyanagar in Kasaragod. Thanks to my Kawasaki Avenger the 330km ride of two days was smooth and trouble free.