Friday, 7 July 2017

Welcome to the Land of the Kodavas

Some memories are best left unperturbed floating in a feel-good bubble that you don't want to dissect with the "when, where, what, why" conundrum. That is probably the reason why I can't bring myself to blog about my travels immediately after I return home despite having a vivid account of it playing on loop on my mental screen. Months pass by and I just observe the passage of time. Sometimes they stretch into years. Then, I feel guilty of not having recorded some of the best moments of my journey as they begin to recede to the inaccessible layers of my mind. The urgency of the situation - the frantic attempt to gather all that remains in a massive sweep, brings me back to my photo journals. Whatever I mine out of them get condensed into a blog post with wistful flavors. This is going to be one such write-up.

Last November, Azal, Sammy and I took a short vacation in Coorg or Kodagu - the land of the valiant Kodavas. The place had been on our bucket list right from the very beginning of our courtship but for some reason we deferred it for about three years in spite of living in Bangalore during that period. The first time I visited Coorg was when I was in the twelfth standard. The untainted magic of school days lent a particular charm to my memory of this coffee haven. With the word 'Coorg', my mind would quickly conjure up images of wet forests, Buddhist monasteries and a bunch of uniform-clad teenagers on the brink of breaking free. However, my second trip changed everything. Now the only thing I can think of when I hear 'Coorg' is the insidious flavors of the rich and dark Pandi curry (authentic Coorgi pork) infused with the tangy notes of Coorgi vinegar derived from Gambooge/Malabar Tamarind locally called the Kachampuli or Kodampuli.

Coorg is roughly a five hour drive from Calicut, my hometown. We started a little after six in the morning and entered Madikeri/Mercara before noon. For the first night, our stay was booked via airbnb at Beans and Blossom Estate stay, a tastefully designed hideout in the heart of a privately owned coffee and pepper plantation in Napoklu, about 20 km from Madikeri. After checking in, we headed out for lunch at Tiger Tiger - a family run restaurant serving the best local food in town. An array of authentic dishes were laid out before us in no time - Akki roti (chapati made from rice flour), Paputtu (steamed rice cake inebriated with milk and garnished with coconut), Kadamputtu (steamed rice balls), Pandi curry and Chicken cutlets.  The Kodava cuisine, a beautiful amalgamation of locally sourced ingredients like wild fruits, bamboo shoots and wild meat, is tightly bound to its geographic and cultural roots. Rice is the main crop cultivated in the area and therefore, forms the foundation of most dishes. The distinct flavors take us back to the history of this indigenous tribe that still carries ceremonial knives.

Delightfully satiated, we drove down to Kaveri Nisargadhama to unwind in the company of nature. A river island near Kushalnagar, it has beautiful hiking trails punctuated by tree houses, deer parks, boating facilities, hanging bridges and rivulets enshrouded by dense forest land. It is a popular picnic spot for tourists especially those traveling in large groups. Another prominent attraction for those visiting this part of Karnataka is the Golden Temple or the Namdroling Monastery in Bylakuppe, the second largest Tibetan settlement in India after Dharamshala. Elaborately ornamented, the temple is a grandiose structure that houses colossal statues of Guru Rinpoche, Buddha Sakyamuni and Amitayus. The walls are adorned with colorful mural paintings depicting images of Gods and demons from Tibetan Buddhist mythology. The monastery is home to about five thousand monks who play a key role in the dissemination of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. On reaching the walkway leading to the temple, we were attacked by wasps. Azal got stung by one as he tried to get it out of my hair. Throbbing with pain he returned to the jeep to get some first aid. I caught a quick glimpse of the temple insides before heading back.

It was dusk when we reached our abode for the night. We got acquainted with our host Bopanna who promised to take us on a plantation trail the morning after. Thrilled by the novel settings, Sammy gamboled around the cottage as we sipped some Coorgi coffee by the warmth of the fire flaming right into the chilly night. For dinner, we were served generous portions of chilly pork, rice, dal, chapati, cabbage sabzi, salad and bananas. After a good night's rest, we woke up refreshed to take on the challenges of the day. We had a trek planned for the second half. Bopanna took us on a tour of the estate, giving us an insight into the technicalities of coffee cultivation and the day to day life of a planter revolving around this cash crop - growing it, tending to it and savoring it many times a day. A sumptuous breakfast followed.

Our next destination was King's cottage located in Kakkabe at the foothills of Tadiandamol, the highest peak in Kodagu district. Beset in the embrace of a lovely garden, the cottages overlooked the swaying reaches of the paddy fields below with the foggy mountains playing sentry to the picturesque setting. Coffee beans evenly spread out on the concreted courtyard got roasted in the unsparing heat of the tropical sun.

Being a trekking enthusiast, Azal wanted to hike to the top of the mountain and revel in the mesmerizing views from up above. I fell prey to his infectious spirits, nodding a yes to the adventure unbeknownst of what lay ahead of me. We lunched at a roadside shack called The Five Star Thattukada run by local Muslims who spoke Malayalam with a heavy Kodava influence. With close proximity to the Kerala border, the intermingling of cultures was visibly evident in the area. Before setting out on the trek, we visited the Nalknad Palace, which served as the final refuge of the last of the Haleri Kings of Kodagu before he was deposed by the British. With secret chambers and paling artworks decorating the walls and ceilings, the palace was a relic of the bygone era.

We started the trek a little after two in the afternoon, hoping to be back by sun down. At the outset, I was geared up for the challenge but as time went by, the uphill trek began to take a toll on my weak calf muscles. I was heaving and panting as my body blatantly refused to catch up with the thrill of conquering a goddamn mountain. My heart felt like it was being stumped down by the weight of the entire universe. I was at a point of no return; all that I could do was hurl philosophical abuse at my husband who tricked me into this futile sport of inflicting self-torture simply to appease the ego. Pardon me, but the pain was so mind numbing that the higher meaning of this relentless pursuit escaped the limits of my comprehension :/ However, we completed the trek successfully and returned to sanity before nightfall. Being up there among the clouds wasn't too bad after all. Lesson learnt: it's more about pushing your limits than conquering the mountain.

When we got to our cottage, Sammy was up from her midday siesta and looking forward to her biggest joy in life - food. We took her around the fields before dinner which comprised of a full meal similar to the one at Beans and Blossom. But this time we opted for chicken instead of pork. We retired to our beds soon after for a well-deserved break from the draining activities of the day. After a wholesome breakfast, we vacated our room and drove to Madikeri to visit the Abbey Falls. The magnificence of the waterfall was amplified by the greenery around it. Sammy was bemused by the vibe of the place but not the unsolicited attention bestowed upon her.

Our trip was coming to a close and what better way there was to end it than with a generous helping of Pandi curry and its accompaniments from Tiger Tiger! Once again, we relished the inimitable blend of spice and meat, and licked our plates clean before bidding adieu to the exotic land of the Kodavas.

PS: My Coorgi coffee beckons and I must go, Now!

Friday, 30 June 2017

Kolkata - the City of Joy n' Everything else

I admit to my repugnant inertia as a travel blogger. There is no other explanation for why I haven't jotted down my impressions of a city that deeply entrenched my fickle and flighty mind with its cacophony of emotions. My prior interactions with those who imbibed the city's cultural heritage have always left me in awe of its liberalism, intellectualism and artistic versatility. I was curious to get into the vein of this intriguing land of writers and filmmakers, scholars and poets, and unravel the mystery for my own understanding. So, I grabbed the very first opportunity that came my way to visit Kolkata - the City of Joy as its popularly known.

January 2016

Azal's bestie from college was getting married in Kolkata and there was no way I would let my chance slip. We boarded the Mysore Howrah Express from Bangalore City Junction at three in the morning on the 18th of January 2016. The train journey was uneventful and pleasant. We shared the compartment with a young jovial man from a village on the outskirts of Kolkata who worked as a cook with an online food delivery service in Bangalore. He was going home to attend his brother's wedding with a box of chocolate cookies he baked himself. I remember him for his cookies more than anything else. We reached Howrah Junction by 3 pm the next day. Commotion, typical to a railway station, heralded a mundane welcome to the travelers. A fleet of yellow ambassadors were lined up outside the prepaid taxi counters. We hired one of them to go to Hotel Lindsay in the bustling New Market area. As the taxi made its way across the iconic Howrah bridge, I marveled at the mammoth steel framework forming a canopy over the sea of vehicles and pedestrians. The dilapidated buildings with their hand-painted name-boards smothered with dust and age, the maroon and beige architecture of the 19th century monuments and the unobtrusive flow of human traffic deported me into a world that was still caught in the wide chasm between the pre-independence era and a fledgling modern economy. Sometimes the streets looked straight out of a movie scene with its wide roads dotted by yellow cabs and the dome of an ancient cathedral in the vicinity.

Lindsay Hotel is situated in the middle of a historic market replete with vendors selling all kinds of products from fresh produce and exotic varieties of cheese to fashion garments and accessories. The main market is inside a Victorian Gothic style complex overlooking a narrow lane filled with food stalls and hawkers. The location of the hotel was perfect for us - we were right in the middle of all the activity. That evening we visited the Prinsep Ghat on the banks of the Hooghly river - the lifeline of Kolkata. Hooghly has played a key role in the growth and development of this riverine port city, right from attracting the mercantile interests of the East India Company and elevating it to the first capital of British India to sustaining the local economy and enriching the culinary delights in this part of the country. We took a boat ride under the twilight sky on the tranquil waters of the Hooghly against the backdrop of the resplendent bridges with a euphonic Bengali song humming from some place beyond - it was almost mystical. The Palladian porch built as a tribute to the Anglo Indian scholar James Prinsep stood tall against the spokes of the Vidyasagar Setu. We hopped on a local train from the Prinsep Ghat station and walked past the Shaheed Minar and Eden Gardens to get to our hotel. There wasn't enough time to do everything but we tried to squeeze in as much as possible into those five days. The same night we grabbed a drink at a joint called Someplace Else on Park street, one of the oldest pubs in Kolkata frequented by locals for its live music and vibrant atmosphere. We walked back to Lindsay street with the satisfaction of a day well spent. 

Azal was keen on experimenting with the Indian Chinese cuisine in Kolkata. Online sources confirmed that Terreti Bazar was Kolkata's very own Chinatown with the streets going live in the early hours of the morning. We are sure we reached the right place but we could not find the juicy momos and soupy noodles we were looking for. Instead we got to see life in action - fish and flowers laid out by the roadside and locals bathing and shaving and cooking all next to each other on the narrow pavements. We walked through the inside lanes to catch a glimpse of the despicable poverty and filthy living conditions Kolkata is often linked with. I feel the colour of the city is brown - brown with age, brown with dust, brown with dirt and in its varying shades, the color captures the earthy tones of existence in its crumbling brick walls and congested alleyways inhabited by a forgotten strata of society. The next on our agenda was Kumortuli - the globally acclaimed potters' quarter that manufactures and exports clay idols to different parts of the world. The artisans were at work as usual, adding a stroke here and a knot there. The straw and bamboo framework was plastered with paper mache and cow dung before the clay was applied. There were enormous statues of various Gods and Goddesses from the Hindu mythology fashioned out of clay dug out from the river side. We stopped to speak to an elderly man engrossed in his craft and watched him give life to clay right before our eyes. For lunch, we chose Nizam's inside New Market - the legendary restaurant that claims to have invented the ubiquitous Kathi roll. I must say the place lives up to its name. We attended the marriage that evening - a traditional Bengali wedding with all the hooting and snickering and chuckling that made it a happy affair. I watched intently as the couple underwent the various rituals with the holy fire bearing testimony to their lifelong union. The highlight was of course the sumptuous feast with an array of fish and mutton delicacies and the quintessential rasogolla. 

The next morning we headed straight to the Victoria Memorial, a visual delight in Indo-Saracenic Revivalist style made from white Makhrana marble. The monument dedicated to the memory of Queen Victoria is distinctly European with a formidable collection of paintings and artifacts. The first half of the day was spent absorbing and assimilating the unparalleled historic wealth of a city that has somewhat lost its past glory. By noon we vacated our room at Hotel Lindsay and checked into Hotel Eastern Plaza on VIP road, close to the airport. Moving from the ancient quarters steeped in antiquity to the urbanized half of the city was a long leap. The former sported an old world charm that was lost upon the modern aura of the newer half. Post lunch, we visited Science City, the largest science centre in the Indian subcontinent and a distinguished landmark in post-independent Kolkata. Later that evening we caught up with an ex-colleague of Azal's at a nearby mall that had not yet come out of the festive mood of Christmas and New Year. The chit-chatting continued over dinner at her cozy little apartment where we hogged on authentic Kolkata biriyani from Arsalan and guzzled some chilled beer. 

Shopping was next on our agenda. We battled the morning traffic to get to Gariahat market that is famous for its saree shops. That is when we inadvertently walked into Gupta's to experience one of the best mishti dois in town. We savored more of the freshly prepared sweets including the 'notun gurer sandesh' and bought a box of the delicatessens to take home with us. All the sweetness was followed up by some extravagant shopping at Indian Silk House and a hearty meal consisting of Mutton chaap, Biriyani and the best ever Shahi Tukda from Royal Indian Hotel which has a legacy of serving customers for more than a hundred years. Swarming in and out of the first metro railway in India, we plunged headlong into the intellectual hub of Kolkata - College Street. It is the largest second hand book market in the world with countless book stalls packed together on either side of the road. One can find almost any title here, all at throw away prices - from academic textbooks and paperback editions to rare gems which aren't stocked elsewhere. Many renowned educational institutions are located here including the Presidency College, the University of Calcutta and the Hindu School. I picked up a book to mark the memory of my visit to this book lovers' paradise - The Weekenders - Adventures in Calcutta, a collection of fiction and non-fiction travelogues about Calcutta by eminent writers from around the world. Back in Bangalore, I relived my personal adventure in this esoteric land as I flipped the pages of this gripping book. 

We attended the wedding reception in the evening, conveyed our heartiest wishes to the newly wedded and feasted some more on the choicest culinary creations. On our last day in this eclectic city, we paid an early morning visit to the much revered Dakshineshwar Kali Temple. Both of us being non-religious, it was more of a sightseeing activity than anything else. Devotees thronged to the temple in large numbers to make offerings to Goddess Kali and take a dip in the holy waters of the Ganga. Ardent religiosity seething with vermilion was the concluding note to our Kolkata tale. There is a lot more to see including the Indian museum which is the largest and oldest museum in the country, Mother House, St. Paul's cathedral and Nicco Park. It seemed as if we had just scratched the surface of a fathomless sea of secrets. I hope to go back some day and delve a little more into the profoundness that is Kolkata. I wish to listen to an ardent fan passionately untangle the many threads behind Tagore's poetry artfully scrawled on the subway walls. I long to relive the heart wringing melody echoing on the distant horizon of the Hooghly. And maybe then, I'll find true joy in the deepest core of this singular city of idiosyncrasies.