Lush Places

03.25.14

Lush Places: The Scotland of India

India has become known for the congested traffic and crowds of the cities. To escape the madness, Indians head to Coorg, a land of lush beauty, traditional food, and—sigh—tranquility.

On a recent family visit to Delhi, with its acrid air and evil traffic, my mother suggested an escape—a long weekend in Coorg, some 1,400 miles away in a tiny corner of the southern Indian state of Karnataka, just north of Kerala. In spite of its unprepossessing size, Coorg, which the British called the Scotland of India, is a region of intense pride and history. Many Indians regard it as a quasi-mythical place, a land of lush hills, temperate climate, martial men, and handsome women. Its ample rain and still-thick forests, not to mention its low population density, make it one of the few remaining Shangri-Las in over-peopled India.

Tyrannical rajahs ruled Coorg until the British, who knew a promising escape from the heat when they saw one, annexed it to the East India Company’s territory in 1834. The British established farms there, recruited the famously valorous Coorg natives for their Imperial mission, and, in 1947, left behind tidy settlements of Victorian-influenced cottages in shades of lavender, rose, and mint, along with graceful plantations of Robusta and Arabica coffee. Coffee flowers smell something like jasmine, and from mid-March to early April, the white blossoms add their perfume to the other scents of the region—orange, pepper, cardamom, vanilla, honey.

While venerable hill stations in other parts of India are overrun with tourists, doughty little Coorg is still putting up a fight to retain its old essence, even as it welcomes visitors with courtly hospitality. Coorg is a fashionable destination for wealthy Indian travelers hungry for places cool and green—not merely in the literal sense, but also in keeping with the eco-alert, Indo-centric new ethos of the country’s intelligentsia. Coorg is not a hippy-strewn, land-locked Goa. Nor is it a more verdant Jaipur, overrun with Bloomingdale’s buyers. It’s a more understated and introspective sort of place that honors its roots. The locals worship their ancestors, and their attachment to family land is almost visceral. Coorg isn’t easy to get to from afar, for which we should be grateful. Bangalore is the nearest international airport, a six-hour drive away. The highway is smooth and hassle-free by Indian standards, until you get close to Coorg, when you hit sinuous roads that wind through hillsides: these can range from bumpy to bone-jarring, and are best tackled at a sedate pace, all the better to take in the landscape.

“India’s cities are so insistently provocative that, for a certain class of Indian, to be under-stimulated has become the ultimate luxury.”

India’s cities are so insistently provocative that, for a certain class of Indian, to be under-stimulated has become the ultimate luxury. For some time now, members of the Indian elite who have no family connection to the place have been quietly buying land in Coorg, building vacation houses in its remote hills and valleys. Once obsessed with gleaming hotel towers and swimming pools in the “foreign” mold, India’s domestic tourists have grown infinitely more sophisticated and, even, jaded. Indians who have “been there, done that” in Sri Lanka, Singapore, and the Swiss Alps want languid escapes from their overscheduled lives. And they are deeply nostalgic for the quiet India—so recently changed—that they remember from childhood vacations.

Enter the Taj Group, with its astute understanding of the needs of the well-heeled and the well-traveled. Their hotel in Coorg, situated near the region’s capital, Madikeri, is called “Vivanta by Taj,” and it is the company’s nimble response to travelers who clamor to get off the beaten track without collapsing from weariness and worry.

With its hotel outside Madikeri, Taj promises “a haven for the curious mind,” dotted with “interpretive nature trails” set in a “model of coexistence.” The Eden theme is coupled with a celebration of modesty that seems to reflect a wider backlash against modern Indian brashness. The property comprises 180 acres of rainforest, and each of the 60-odd cottages and villas offers views of woods, cloud, and vibrant green. The buildings are beautifully unobtrusive, designed to be in hushed harmony with the surroundings. In the evenings, the lighting is subdued, almost apologetic, and this deference to nature is apparent also in the materials used: wood and local stone, the architecture seeking to emulate the Coorg vernacular.

The hotel was built on land carefully surveyed to avoid displacing trees in a rainforest teeming with some 350 species of flora and fauna. Compressed soil from the site was used to make the bricks for the resort. Most of the stone used was sourced from within a 200-mile radius of the hotel’s premises. The interiors of the cottages resemble the sort of understated living room you might find in a gracious Indian home. The roof-tiles are handmade and repurposed from dismantled houses in Tamil

Nadu, Pondicherry, and Andhra Pradesh. “Revived craft” artifacts made by indigenous tribes—like light fixtures fashioned from old-style fish traps—are incorporated into the décor, providing both authentic ambience and employment for local craftsmen. The property’s architect, Pramod Ranjan, aimed for an unobtrusive, minimalist design that allows the organic landscape to outshine the manmade artifacts. That said, the manmade and the natural do converge in a setting of utter glory: the infinity pool in the hotel’s main building, where, immersed in warm water, one can gaze upon a lush green heaven that stretches for miles before the eye.

Traditional food is also “revived with love” at the hotel. Native Coorg cuisine is a delight to savor. It revolves around a few local ingredients, such as Kachampuli (a type of vinegar), pepper, chilies, rice flour, coconut, and Maddu Soppu, a medicinal leaf believed to confer 18 healthful properties, each especially effective if delivered on a particular day of the year. Succulent pork also figures centrally in the local cuisine, along with dishes made from bamboo shoots, wild mushrooms, banana stems, and jackfruit—flavors that have not yet been appropriated by the vacation-industrial complex.

Coorg also offers its share of picturesque anthropology. The Kodavas, the people of Coorg, revere weaponry and maintain a reputation as brave soldiers well represented in India’s wars. They are tall and light-skinned, when compared with other south Indians, and some attribute their appearance to Arab blood. Others contend that Greek mercenaries who came to India with Alexander the Great left their genetic mark in Coorg. At the hotel, however, the staff reflects the variety of modern India: our bartender, whom I tested with the making of a martini, was from Himachal Pradesh, in the far north; the cheerful chatterbox who waited on us at dinner was from Orissa, in the coastal east. But the unmistakable tenor of the place was that of a Coorg bastion, a hotel in the heart of a fabled region, bathed in mist in the morning and alive with the sounds of birds at dusk. A graceful, benign getaway it was, and we wrenched ourselves from it sorrowfully at the end, hating the horror of a return to Delhi.