Being the largest coffee producer in the country, Chikmagalur is known as the coffee capital of India. It’s where the best coffee of the country comes from. It’s grown, curated, processed and packaged here before it’s exported to the rest of the world. Almost every family here is involved in some kind of coffee business, be it plantation, processing or retailing. Many coffee estates, spread across acres of land, growing some of the finest coffee, providing employment to thousands of locals are actually generations old!
Me! I’m a coffee enthusiast and was enthralled about this journey to South India in the hope of finding amazingly aromatic, fully flavored filter coffee at roadside stalls. My dream of finding this aromatic filter coffee came to a screeching halt as I discovered that filter coffee is available in some places of Karnataka. Yes, contrary to the popular perception filter coffee is not available freely across the south! People are more inclined towards the spontaneity of instant coffee which surprised me. I have traveled across various parts of India to find the finest locally grown coffee beans and at last destiny brought me to Chikmagalur where this dark brew couldn’t get any better!
The first whiff of it’s aroma made us stop abruptly on our way from Shimoga to Chikmagalur at an estate owned coffee shop where I had the first cup of my dream coffee. Aah and it was delicious! I sipped coffee back to back until I could feel butterflies in my stomach! I couldn’t help it, it was the best coffee I’ve ever had!
We left around mid afternoon and could see the clouds forming above us. The drive from there on started to transform drastically. Suddenly we were amongst dense coffee estates lined one after the other for miles and miles. They all looked picturesque and similar with same pattern of plantation. Hundreds of tall, red stemmed Silver Oak trees, less taller Arecanut trees on which pepper creepers were climbing & beneath them – lush dark green coloured coffee shrubs. There were some bits of vanilla plantations among these estates as well I could tell that by the fragrance in the air. The clouds were getting more and more dense and it started to drizzle, a golden shower of dried leaves from the Oak trees poured as the breeze became swifter. It was magical and it went on for long, it almost felt like we were stuck in a limbo, driving around a beautiful scenery and dreamy sky for about 20 kilometers. I don’t know if that road had a name but it’s gotta be the most beautiful road I have ever seen or been on and I have seen quite a few roads!
We struggled finding a good home-stay, they were either too expensive or too far. We almost gave up, but as they say, night’s darkest before dawn. We found a perfect place set in eight acres of coffee plantations – Nature Craft, just a couple of kilometers outside Chikmagalur. We met our host Ansari, the owner of the estate, living there with his family. It was dark so we couldn’t really see how the place was, but the cottage was great and we waited eagerly to see how a coffee estate looked like in daylight.
As the sun came up, we were thankful to have found this heaven as it was truly a “craft of nature”. A dense estate where I can see and hear countless colorful birds chirping their lungs out with the break of the dawn. Strange looking flowers that I have never seen before, an uneven, forest like estate rich with aromatic herbs, flowers, silver oaks and coffee. There were ducks and swans roaming around freely and then I heard the barking. I went to the house, a few yards away where the family lives. Their tall black Great Dane dog – Soxy with a shiny black fur coat climbed up to my shoulders, panting, drooling, licking my face and I had to put her back on the floor, patting her and as she looked at me with affection wanting some more loving.
I greeted Ansar and his wife Nishad, both of a very strong and lean built. They offered me a cup of coffee and I shamelessly asked for two. I’m gonna drench myself in coffee I thought to myself.
I started asking them about their estate and Ansari promised me a tour of the property.
As we were sipping coffee, talking, Ansari told me a very interesting story about origin of coffee. Along the gentle mountain slopes of Bababudan Giri hills of Chickmagalur is where coffee was first grown in India. The mountain range is named after a sufi saint Baba Bundan who on his return from Mecca, carried a hand full of coffee beans from a coastal town called Mocha in Yemen and brought it to Chikmagalur in 1670 AD. He found residence in one of the caves in the Bababundan Giri hills and planted those seeds there. Not just that, the cave is also believed to be inhabited by Dattatreya – the last incarnation of Vishnu. The site is a holy shrine which has a Dargah and a Matha in the same place, and is held in high esteem by Hindus and Muslims receiving large numbers of pilgrims every year. I have never imagined that a place like this could even exist in thoughts. Beautiful, rare, one of it’s kind shrine which is a medium of peace between two of the biggest communities in India who are always at a verge of collapse. It’s proof that coexistence is not just a theory.
We decided to have a day out in the countryside to see the mountains and waterfalls of Chikmagalur.
A beautiful drive on a sunny day through the Western Ghats to Mullayanagiri Peak, the highest mountain in South India which is known to have spectacular views of sunset, was getting obscured by thick fog as we climbed up. At 6000 feet above sea level we were lost among the clouds, with hardly any visibility, disoriented, disheartened because we knew there will be no sight of sunset for us today, we roamed around aimlessly consoling ourselves by thinking how wonderful it is to be in the middle of the clouds. Well it actually was beautiful but a little sunshine would’ve been nicer.
Sitting there waiting for the fog to clear, the wind unveiled a series of green mountains one after the other in all directions leaving us amused because we didn’t knew what lies under these clouds. The cold and moist air left us shivering and we started to descend to Dabdabe falls. To get to these falls one has to hire a 4×4 jeep as the it’s a dirt road till the falls and normal cars can easily get stuck in the slush.
A short hike through a mildly leach infested forest you reach to the base of the waterfall. The falls were ecstatic. Fine streams of milky white water gushing to the pool below. We were crossing over to the other side of the stream when I saw a big dark brown snake crawling speedily on one of the rocks before it disappeared. I have never seen a snake that big in it’s natural habitat. I was both scared and enthralled.
Chikmagalur is known for it’s flavorsome Biryanis, yes that’s right! We stopped at Maharaja restaurant, one of the best places to have authentic Biryanis and fish preparations in Chikmagalur. Town canteen was another of my favourite spots to eat classic Dosas and filter coffee. That’s the only two things they serve there and the place is full almost all the time.
When we got back to the estate, I told about my brief encounter with a snake in the wild. Ansari and his brother started narrating interesting snake stories from their estates. It’s good to have snakes on the estates because they keep the rats away, they said. They have encountered various snakes both poisonous and non poisonous including Cobras and Vipers on their estate and even in their homes. Nishad is no less than a snake wrangler. She grew up in a farm with her brothers who would hunt snakes often. She picked up those traits very well I must say because according to the entire family, Nishad has a knack of catching snakes no matter how big or poisonous they are. She will catch it with her bare hand and be-head it with a dagger in a split second while all the family members will be standing on top of the furniture, scared to the bones. The irony is, that she is frightened by little flying insects and runs out of the house in panic every time she sees one. But when it comes to snakes, she leads the game! Ansari’s brother jokingly said “You know what they say that when you listen to a lot of snake stories, you dream about snakes?” I laughed at it because it didn’t make any sense but I did dream of a snake that night. Not just that, I even woke up to find a baby snake in my room. Universe has a weird sense of humor I wondered. We bottled up the tiny creature and took it to Nishad so that she can tell us more about it. She looked at the snake like a curious child as she examined it. It was a harmless water-snake and she released it in the garden. I couldn’t admire her more. She is one hell of a woman and she makes amazing coffee! She even taught me her style and I ended up making coffee for everyone…
Ansari’s mother referred us a government coffee shop from where I bought the same coffee to take back home with me. We said our goodbyes with a promise to come back again soon with my family.
Chikmagalur now holds a special place in my heart and I know this is one place that I will keep going back to.