Friday, 11 July 2014

The forgotten palace of Kodagu

The grey ominous clouds sound a final warning and large droplets descend from the sky splashing on the brown dirt of the school playground. The characteristic smell of the land when its thirst is quenched by the rain on a warm summer day is complimented by the fragrance of coffee plants lined along the washed paved road. Beautiful houses straddle this road; the courtyard a canvas for hundreds of blooming red flowers and towering trees with hanging branches. Colourful pictures adorn the walls of the school – today is Sunday and a blanket of silence wraps this remote corner of the Western Ghats. Beside the school, behind a parapet wall, stands an aloof wooden structure topped with a sloping brick roof; its appearance is shabby yet it retains an unusual air of nobility. A creaky wooden door leads to the courtyard of the one storied Nalaknad aramane (house) where a sense of gloom and despair is palpable. This modest palace was the last refuge of Chikka Veerarajendra, the last king of Kodagu, before he was deposed by the British in April 1834. It was here that the Haleri Dynasty of Kodagu, established by Veera Raja in the 16th century, breathed its last and faded into the dense jungles and lofty mountains of the Ghats.

The palace sits in the shadow of the highest peak of Coorg, Tadiandamol which rises to the clear blue sky and is kept company by equally impressive lesser peaks dotting the landscape. The mountain looks over the plains of Mysore, with its paddy fields and the meandering Cauvery, to the east and glances towards the distant sea-shore to the west. The journey to the summit begins at the aforementioned school from where one must follow a paved road threading the coffee plantations to the edge of the forest. A mud track continues from here and climbs steadily along the mountain face; it bounds over small streams and dives deep into the jungle and then re-appears on the open slope offering unadulterated views of the heavily wooded foothills. It darts across the mountain face and emerges into a wide clearing looking up to the towering peaks. To the left the top of Tadiandamol is faintly visible through a misty veil, to the right rows and rows of mountain ranges fade into the distance. The path then swerves left and climbs along the spur till it reaches a thickly wooded and steep section; the summit is another half an hour climb from here. After a hard day’s work toiling up the mountain the vista from the top is tonic to the tired lungs and heart. The wind howls lending wings to the fog which runs amok on the lofty ridges and swoops down the parched brown hills reining in the unbearable heat of the mid-day sun.

Back at the palace an eerie silence grips the decaying walls, wooden pillars and perforated windows. In the courtyard a forlorn pavilion narrates the stories of King Dodda Veerarajendra and his beloved Queen Mahadevamma. It remembers the capture of the King by Tipu Sultan and his subsequent escape from the prison in Periyapatna; it remembers the coronation of the King, the accompanied revelry and the aroma of feasts. It also recollects the final years of the King shattered by the death of his Queen – a bitter and inconsolable man. A fading mural spanning a wall on the ground floor depicts Dodda Veerarajendra seated on an elephant surrounded by spirited Kodavas. The ceiling of the courtroom on the first floor is intricately painted with flowers and the patterns carved on the woodwork are impressive. A secret stairway leads to a couple of dark rooms in the basement designed as a hideout in the event of a raid on the palace. The lonely corridors of the house evoke a feeling of nostalgia for the glorious history of Kodagu and its people. The tales of courage of the Kodavas, the roar of the tigers in the jungles, the worship of weapons during the Kailpodh Festival and the songs about the monsoon and planting rice reverberate in these empty halls. These halls are mute witnesses to the last days of Chikka Veerarajendra, a somewhat unpopular and unfair ruler feared for his cruelty. In April 1834, the British had marched into Kodagu and had captured the Madikeri Fort; they had then summoned the King to surrender in Madikeri thus ending the era of the Haleri Kings who had ruled this region for more than 200 years.
In the olden times the Kodavas were considered to be reputed huntsmen - bow and arrows were placed in the hands of a new born in the hope that the child grows up to be a fine warrior; this martial tradition has been kept alive by numerous decorated officers who have served in the Indian Army. Today Kodagu is known for its sprawling coffee plantations, pleasant climate, warm hospitable people and a vibrant culture. The days of conflict have been forgotten and the neglected aramane in Nalaknad is an added attraction for people trekking to Tadiandamol but even so it never disappoints curious travelers searching for the past – the lost legends of Kings and Queens buried in the dark jungles.

Deeptangan Pant

Friday, 4 July 2014

Wandering the lanes of Bylakuppe

As the darkness envelops the towering three storied temple adorning colourful victory banners, tassels, bright red canopies and a golden pinnacle hundreds of earthen lamps give birth to soothing light which grapples with the night. The hustle and bustle of the day has given way to a surreal calm - the sound of drums, trumpets, conches and cymbals which reveled with the morning sun has faded in the emptiness of the cosmos. The chorus of chants which resonated in the halls of the monastery has been swallowed by a vacuum. While sitting on the cool floor and beholding a red hue bathing the golden statues of Buddha, Guru Padmasambhava and Buddha Amitayus time stands still and all worries disappear into nothingness. A child monk in ochre robes clutching prayer beads ambles gaily to the tranquil Buddha and gazes at the peaceful face; breaking from a trance he then prostrates himself and walks away humming.  Here on the steps of the Golden Temple in Namdroling Monastery, under a canopy of a starlit sky, the magical silence is broken only by the hushed voices of a couple of young monks enjoying a coca-cola. As the monastic town of Bylakuppe in Karnataka prepares to fall asleep it compels me to contemplate this eventful day spent wandering its streets.

Arriving in the dull town of Kushalnagar, sitting on the highway from Mysore to the hill station of Kodagu, one is pleasantly surprised to come across Buddhist monks dawdling through the market. From here a lonely road threading green fields runs to the Tibetan settlement of Bylakuppe known for the sprawling monasteries, Namdroling being the most popular, and its jolly inhabitants. The Golden Temple, in the Namdroling Monastery, houses huge copper and gold statues of Buddha, Guru Padmasambhava and Buddha Amitayus which are filled with scriptures, relics, small clay mould stupas and statues which symbolize body, speech and mind of Buddha. The walls on third and second floors are colorfully painted to illustrate the life and teachings of Buddha, great teachers and disciples of Dzogchen (body of teachings and meditation practices of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism). On the first floor the walls are covered with male and female deities - some in wrathful forms attired in skins of living beings and bone armaments others in amicable silk and white. Behind the Golden Temple and to the right, silver prayer wheels, interspersed with giant red coloured ones, form a boundary which ultimately ends in a row of pagodas.

Heading further along the road, in the opposite direction of Kushalnagar, one comes across the civilian cluster called Camp One offering authentic Tibetan crafts, paintings and cuisine. Close by is the quaint Sakyapa Monastery with its golden and red heavy wooden doors, a neatly laid hall with bells, heavy drums and trumpets. Behind the monastery is a field where a thousand prayer flags flutter sending their message to the heavens. Retracing the steps, strolling past a decent pond and following the road across open country one comes to an intersection; taking a left here brings one to a mish-mash of massive monasteries and colourful compact houses with small courtyards and gardens. This settlement boasts of exquisite monasteries like Sera Jey, Sera Mey, Sera Lachi and Serpom. The artwork in the Sera Jey focuses on the life of Buddha – conception, birth, renunciation, enlightenment, teaching dharma and the deed of passing away – and houses paintings of all the Dalai Lamas. During prayer hours the halls, drowning in incense smoke, come alive with the crash of cymbals and gongs accompanied with guttural chants. Other interesting murals in these monasteries are of the Four Guardian Kings of north (Vaisravana), west (Virupaksha), east (Dhritrashtra) and south (Virudhaka) which grace the walls of the porches. The walls also depict the Three Roots and tantric practices of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. 

In the evening when the sun transforms itself into a big ball of orange hundreds of monks gather in the courtyards of these monasteries to indulge in the Tibetan tradition of debate. It usually involves a couple of people, one standing who asks a question and the other seated who answers them – the end of a question is often punctuated with a clap. Buddhist temples are inherently bastions of peace and sobriety where troubled minds can find solace and Bylakuppe is no different. Add to this the opportunity to experience the life in a monastery up close complimented with delicious Tibetan food makes Bylakuppe an ideal destination for travelers aiming to relish different cultures. And I can assure you that listening to the clamour of claps emanating from the monasteries in the backdrop of the setting sun will cleanse the trepidations of an urbane life and rekindle a na├»ve sense of joy – if only for a little while!

Overseas tourists are not allowed to stay in Bylakuppe without a Protected Area Permit. Visitors can stay in Kushalnagar and make a day trip to Bylakuppe. In Bylakuppe accommodation is available in Namdroling Monastery, Sera Monastery and Paljor Dargye Ling Hotel located near Namdroling Monastery. For information on getting a Protected Area Permit please visit

Written by
Deeptangan Pant