No one who has traveled this way once will forget the journey, ever.
In time I grew used to the turns in the road, swerving with the bus as it rounded yet another bend in the narrow ribbon cut in the hills. The leanly built elderly driver from Bangalore was equal to the challenge of driving in the hills, occasionally barking instructions to his teenaged assistant, Manju, a slender wisp of a boy who made himself busy no sooner the driver dug his voice into him. The road ran thin and the curves ran sharp. Where they straightened out, trees cast shadows on the road, so if you weren't looking at the trees along the road you saw their presence on the narrow tar ribbon. There was no escaping them, and I was glad for it. And every once in a while as the bus driver prepared to take a particularly tight turn or make way for a bus coming in the opposite direction I had to hurriedly draw in my elbow as vegetation swiped the side of the bus, crashing the open windows in a dull kat-kat-kat-kat.
Unfamiliar flowers on the sides of the hill sprung into view time and again. Except at the turns in the road that broke through the vegetation at an angle on a slope or an incline to allow a quick view of the Western Ghats Mountain Ranges through the bus window, gigantic folds in the landscape disappearing into blue outlines at infinity, a sharp wind gusting in through the break, occasionally prompting me into drawing the window shut, the air largely stayed still on our journey from Madikeri to Bhagamandala, and beyond to Thalacauvery (also spelled Talacauvery).
On our way out of Club Mahindra in Galibeedu at whose all-expenses paid invitation we, a group of Travel Writers, came visiting Coorg, the bus inched slowly along the road made narrow by workers digging trenches on either side to lay cables. Outside Club Mahindra dew from the night before glistened on the cables in the early morning sun, freshening up the bright orange from the dust that passing vehicles deposited on them through the day. While the adults worked the earth, making steady progress, their children played in the mud heaped along the trenches.
As our mini-bus eased down the altitude by over 200 metres in covering the five kilometres between Galibeedu and Madikeri (1060 msl), before heading South-west to Bhagamandala, dropping a further 150 metres in altitude over the thirty-nine kilometres separating Madikeri from Bhagamandala, every once in a while I turned to look at the driver concentrate on negotiating the narrow stretches, wondering if we would have to reverse all the way back should a large bus come at us in the opposite direction, luckily we were spared of it that morning on our way out, but we copped it on our way back to Galibeedu from Thalacauvery that evening.
Manju, the teenaged assistant to the bus driver had given up his seat by the bus engine to Joy, and Joy in turn gave it up for me. Manju sat on the steps in front of me in the driver’s cabin, his head rising up to my knees, barely clearing the height of the engine box while I sat straight without the luxury of a backrest. A door separated us three in the driver’s cabin from the rest. To our left houses lined the road on the sloping hill side, their roofs barely rising above the level of the road. Some houses had sloping roofs, others didn’t.
However most of the houses were set back from private entrances with flowering trees arching over gates opening into their front-yards. A house named Cauvery Krupa idles past as the driver coaxes the bus into a lower gear to make way for a car honking its way past us. We come upon the Field Marshal K. M. Cariappa College dating back from 1949 and affiliated to Mangalore University. At a split in the road Harangi Fish Stall straddles the turn, a short run later the University of Agricultural Sciences draws up on our way before lush green agricultural fields open up the landscape near a Police Station not far from the Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC) office.
The mini-bus groans up an incline as the driver quickly throws the gear low before taking the climb to Madikeri. Down the side of the hill houses with sloping roofs fall away like terraced fields.
At Madikeri we stop for diesel at a pump off the Field Marshal Cariappa Circle where his statue in military uniform stands erect in martial pride. I get off the bus as a pump attendant comes up to the driver.
A board in green beyond the compound wall separating the petrol pump from commercial establishments announces in Kannada ‘Koli Masada Angadi’ (Chicken Flesh Shop). A Rooster seemingly shedding blood from its eyes stands erect while a headless Chicken hangs from a hook in the entrance to the shop. On the wall inside a large poster latches on to two birds amid lotuses to paint serenity and exude some ‘Spring Joy’, letters that I cannot quite make out from where I wait for the pump attendant to tank up the bus. Dead Chickens do not understand irony! And live Chickens do not live long enough to understand it either!
Behind me a man in rolled-up trousers dips a mug into a used HP Laal Ghoda plastic container filled with water to wash a white Maruti car. The Sun lights up the spray, each drop enclosing its Sun filled canvas of Madikeri. Laal Ghoda 20W-40 is a Hindustan Petroleum Multi Grade Diesel Engine Oil product, for use in Diesel Engines of Buses, Cars, Tractors, Trucks, Pumpsets, and Diesel powered Generator Sets. The sturdy containers are rarely thrown away once empty, usually reused to ferry or store water for washing purposes.
Madikeri has a laidback feel to it that I quite identify with. That morning only a few people were about the town as we pulled out of the petrol pump and eased down the slope, heading East before eventually turning West to Bhagamandala where the Cauvery, revered as one of the ‘Sapta Sindhu’ or seven holy rivers, meets the Kannike and the mythical Sujyoti in a sacred confluence (Triveni Sangam) of great significance to the Hindus.
Like before the road ran narrow. Out the window to my left I trailed my eyes along the distant contours of the Western Ghats each time a break in the vegetation afforded me a view of the mountain ranges. On the outside of a gate letters in white paint read N. J. Achaiah, behind the iron bars a narrow trail disappeared round a bend in the trees lining the mud path. In time more names flashed past – Kuttappa, Madappa, Thimaiah among others, names peculiar to the Kodavas, the original inhabitants of Coorg, and proud bearers of what they believe is the Greek legacy from the time of Alexander the Great.
With tourism booming, and tourists looking elsewhere after overrunning the whole gamut of over hyped destinations until they retained neither the original allure nor the hype, it is now time for Coorg to open her arms to new promises that travel agents coin for gullible tourists, who in turn live up to the pictures painted for them. Resorts, Hotels, Homestays now announce vacancies along the route. I pretend they don’t exist even as the corner of my eye ‘catches’ Misty Woods Resort along the route! I’m desperate to leave them behind if only to experience a semblance of authentic Coorg, whatever that may mean! As a tourist I’m living on borrowed time, and so is the timeless Coorg. The irony doesn’t escape me!
Five kilometers from Madikeri we pass a milestone: Thalacauvery 42 kms., Mangalore 137 kms. Here, we leave the road to Mangalore behind and turn left in the direction of Virajpet. Shortly after, we take a right turn in the direction of Thalacauvery. Bhagamandala lies 34 kms. ahead, enroute to Thalacauvery, the birthplace of river Cauvery.
At Appangala we pass the Cardamom Research Centre of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. A board outside the facility announces ‘Indian Institute of Spices Research’.
Each time the bus rounds a bend and aligns with the road I quickly point my camera out the window while keeping my eye out for the next bend, jerking off shots, hoping for minimal shake as the bus rattles along, passing tiny bus stops along the way every now and then. Mostly empty the bus stops remind me of Goa.
As is fairly common in hilly terrain one leaves a road to a destination behind only to happen upon another road later that joins the road you left behind earlier. Now we turn left and leave the road to Mangalore behind the second time. Bhagamandala lies 29 kms. ahead, and Talacauvery eight kms. ahead of Bhagamandala. In all this time while we chipped 5 kms. off the distance to Bhagamandala the last time we left the road to Mangalore behind, we only managed to knock off 1 km. off the distance to Mangalore (from 137 kms. to 136 kms.) now! In the hills it is easy to lose a sense of direction.
Plantains and stray betel nut palms shade the small bus stop at the turn in the road beyond a narrow culvert passing underneath the tar. A shin-high wall painted white marks the spot where the culvert passes under the road to the other side, draining water from the fields. I imagine villagers sitting on it in the evenings for gup shup. Back in Goa it is known as sakho.
Buses to Mangalore stop here for passengers. Like elsewhere along the way film posters cover the walls of the bus stop. A corrugated sheet makes up its low roof. On either side of a pillar holding up the roof, and in full view of passengers awaiting transport to Mangalore, two posters, one each in Kannada and English, scream BETRAYAL while lamenting the demolition of Babri Masjid, the ‘anniversary’ of its demolition due in five days time. As shade from tall trees by the side of the road weaves the sunlight into a soothing pattern on the tar I sense a silent undercurrent in the air. Instinctively I look around for signs of a local masjid to explain the presence of the posters; instead I find a board directing the Muslim faithful to Yerumad Dharga, in the same direction as Bhagamandala. There is no one on the road, not a single soul, lending the message in the posters an apprehensive air. Not knowing who makes one turn and look over the shoulder. We turn left in the shade of trees.
Five kilometers on we break out into bright sunshine. We’ve left Madikeri 15 kms. behind. On a signboard by another of the quaint bus stops, Karnataka Tourism announces ‘One State, Many Worlds’. To our left, Napoklu and Yemmemadu lie 7 and 11 kms. respectively. We keep straight, passing trimmed hedges enclosing front-yards of houses. Like before, an anguished poster screaming BETRAYAL at the demolition of the disputed Babri Masjid stares out from the wall of the bus stop. A man, his hands crossed at the chest stands in the shade of the signboard while a lady reclines against the wall in the confines of the bus stop. Nothing stirs in the air outside, the roar of the engine fills my head. I wonder how the driver can keep at it in the cabin all day with the engine crying hoarse inches from him. Maybe in time it is possible to shut everything out except that which matters. I cannot tell for sure though.
We pass more houses with sloping roofs, some barely rising to the level of the road, while others look down upon us from short embankments. Every once in a while our mini-bus slows down to make way for a public transport bus belonging to Shree Vijayalakshmi Motor Service bearing down on us from the opposite direction, returning from Bhagamandala. The buses are colourfully painted and lend a festive feel to the journey. However, for much of the way we encounter little or no traffic. I look forward to the hide and seek our bus plays with trees along the route, their shade interlocking sunshine into random grids, lending calm to the sharp air outside.
Streams and irrigation channels criss-cross the landscape, evident in the string of culverts and small bridges along the route, the narrow bridges fenced along their length by three rows of concrete strips painted white, setting off the road against the green of the countryside. We passed them by the dozen, sometimes on turns in the road disappearing round the bend amid thick vegetation, other times flanked by paddy fields, cows grazing in earnest in the backdrop of the Western Ghats mountain ranges.
Ten kilometers on Cherambane draws up. Single storey structures with two-tier sloping roofs run the length of the road as we make our way through the village. Like all old villages and towns across the country, commercial establishments in the heart of the village run out of traditional structures, the newer ones starting off from pucca concrete dwellings. The rows of shops under Mangalore tiles might as well be a scene out of Goa. Try as I might I cannot resist drawing comparisons, except maybe for the rafters that arch in tight semi circles along the length of the sloping roof. A board advertises Prakash Studio and Video services. Bhagamandala lies 14 kms. ahead. We motor on.
A village school under a drooping roof set back from a smallish playground with the mandatory flag pole, and images painted on the front wall draws up to our left. An image of a pirouetting peacock among those I suspect to be of pre-independence Indian figures reinforces the stereotype of village schools from the hinterland even while lending it an innocence that is as refreshing as it is grounded in the village ethos. Yet again I say to myself, ‘Why, this school might as well have been tucked away in Sanquelim and none would have been any wiser for it’.
A quick run between paddy fields against the backdrop of the Western Ghats and Chettimani draws into view; a milestone records the name of the village and its elevation (2592 feet). Outside a shop by the milestone, a cat warms itself in the morning Sun. A yellow coloured PCO is nailed to the wall behind green, yellow, and red plastic pots sheathed in transparent plastic to keep out the dust. Vegetables heaped on the floor await customers. Glass jars line the shop counter, more likely than not filled with confectionery. A red postbox hangs from a hook in the wall. Out in the interior people still await the knock of the postman bearing mail from afar. Two men, one clad in lungi and a shirt, the other in trousers stand outside the shop conversing, turning to look in our direction as we rumble past.
Shortly after, in the backdrop of the mountains we leave a temple complex behind. I marvel at the feel that mountains lend to temples even as I recollect similar scenes from my travels by the Konkan Railway. Set amidst vast expanses of paddy fields, or breaking out from dense foliage along the banks of rivers snaking through valleys in the mountains, temples far out from nowhere add an allure to the mystic, strengthened by long intervals of silence between devotees arriving at their doorsteps. Crowded temples in the middle of everywhere rarely invoke such allure or so I feel.
Bamboo must be plenty out here if the creativity people display in fashioning gates is anything to go by. Not all gates to houses have flowering trees arching over them, but where they do the houses look inviting. I draw in my elbow as the wheels take the edge of the road, come close to swiping stray branches as the mini-bus swerves before straightening up and splitting a paddy field into two. Cows graze in the distance. I turn to look through the windshield for signs of Bhagamandala. It cannot be far now, I tell myself. Manju wakes up and stretches his neck. He caught up on sleep at infrequent intervals along the way, resting face down on hands crossed at upraised knees. It is a comforting pose to sleep in, reminds me of all those days.
In the mountains time stills journeys. Even as distance runs under groaning wheels, the timelessness of it hangs still in the air.
Ten minutes later we touch Bhagamandala. I take a deep breath and stretch my legs, aware of the significance of the moment.
Note: Except for three pictures in this post the rest were taken from the moving bus. This is Part Two of my Coorg Diaries. Read Part One and Part Three of the series.