Review: Coorg; Stories and Essays by CP Belliappa
A collection of pieces on the history and personalities that shaped the beautiful coffee-growing province of Kodagu
In this well-researched book, CP Belliappa traces the history of Coorg (officially known as Kodagu), the picturesque coffee-growing district framed by the Western Ghats, and its people. Beginning with stories of its earliest rulers, he presents stories of the British era, the Independence movement and the area’s reorganization and merger with the state of Karnataka in 1956. Belliappa’s earlier books include Nuggets from Coorg History and Victoria Gowramma: The Lost Princess of Coorg, and this compendium builds on those earlier volumes. Incidentally, after the book on Victoria Gowramma, daughter to Chikka Veerarajendra, the last raja of Coorg, was published, her descendants got in touch with the author.
The Kodavas or Coorgis have a long military history and though they number less than 200,000, many high-ranking officers in India’s defence forces come from this community. Further, many hockey players who have represented India in the Olympics and other international platforms are Coorgis. The province is also home to prehistoric stone structures or dolmens, which were used as memorial landmarks or markers of territorial boundaries. Belliappa also throws light on Tipu Sultan’s connection with Coorg. His assaults on this pristine stretch of hilly terrain mean the Tiger of Mysore is a much-disliked figure till date.
Coorg is synonymous with coffee and it was J Fowler who established Madikeri Estate, the first coffee estate in the area in 1854. By 1906, the British and local landlords were cultivating coffee on nearly 33,000 acres of land. In the mid-1990s, post Liberalization, growers were given the freedom to sell their crop in the open market and this helped them achieve better returns. During the 1990s and early 2000s, there were unexpected increases in the international prices of both coffee and pepper, which added to the general prosperity of the region.
Since this is a collection of pieces, the reader is treated to what can be called a tasting menu that eventually provides a well-rounded picture of the place and its people. Especially interesting are the essays to do with the author’s own family. Belliappa dedicates a chapter to his great grandfather, Subedar Chepudira Thimayya, an influential personality in Coorg during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Actively involved in several public causes, Thimayya built a school at Kakotuparambu, which is still functioning. He donated land for the Government Hospital and the Government School in Gonikoppal and was one of the main promoters of the Victoria Club in Virajpet. He also planted an avenue of jackfruit trees along the Gonikoppal-Virajpet road and the Virajpet-Madikeri Road.
Another section focuses on Princess Victoria Gowramma, of whom Queen Victoria was particularly fond. When the 11-year-old princess visited England with her father in 1852, the queen sponsored her baptism, announced that she would be her godmother and presented her with an autographed Bible. Further, she surprised the court when she asked the young princess to add the prefix ‘Victoria’ to her name. Princess Victoria Gowramma received a Western education, was taught Christian values, and was a regular invitee at various royal events. She spent 12 years in England until her death in 1864, and her story has, over the years, inspired lectures, discussions, dance dramas, musical renderings and paintings.
The author also writes of the freedom movement as it unfolded in Coorg. “It is said that though the population of Coorg at the time was around 200,000, the percentage of freedom fighters from the province was the highest in the country,” he writes. The Kannada newspaper Kodagu, which was started in Coorg in 1921, represented its growing sentiment against colonial rule. Women like Kotera Accavva and Pandyanda Seetha Belliappa also entered the struggle. On 30 May, 1930, an impressive rally was held in Madikeri by several women, including two of the well-known Codanda Sisters, Chitra and Lata, who gave up their education to become satyagrahis. In February 1934, Gandhi visited Coorg, which further boosted everyone’s fervour. Many women donated their jewellery in support of the country’s freedom. Beliappa also writes of his father, CM Poonacha, who discontinued his studies and joined the movement for freedom.
In 1956, Coorg was incorporated into the Vishal Mysore state (renamed Karnataka in 1973), in accordance with the States Reorganisation Act. While the merger has improved living standards, it has also led to a loss of political clout for the province. Growing corruption, Beliappa believes, has resulted in the exploitation of Coorg’s forests, which, in turn, has changed rainfall patterns, displaced wild animals and led to human-animal conflicts. Human-elephant conflict especially is a cause for worry. Unrestricted tourism and the construction that accompanies it have also been cited as a reason for an increase in landslides in recent years.
READ MORE: Excerpt: Coorg; Stories and Essays by CP BelliappaThis is a slim volume but a very informative one that presents a fulsome picture of a beautiful part of the country. It also makes you want to set off immediately for this land of plantations, forests and gleaming waterfalls.
A freelance writer based in New Delhi, Neha Kirpal writes primarily on books, music, films, theatre and travel.