What really adds spice to the tale of Coorg is the dash of legend and local lore that permeates all discussions on the provenance of the region.
According to the ancient Indian treatises or Puranas, the land of initial settlement was called Krodadesa which later became Kodavu. It is also said that Kodagu is derived from the word Kodava. ‘Kod’ means ‘give’ and ‘avva’ means ‘mother’, with the reference being to Mother Cauvery, one of the seven sacred rivers of India, the fountain of life and sustenance in this land.
Legend has it that the Goddess Cauvery appears at the sacred site of Talacauvery, the source of the Cauvery, on a specific day in October. She manifests herself as a sudden upsurge of water in a small tank. A large number of devotees gather to witness this bubbling spring and coconuts adorned with flowers are floated down the river as part of a special prayer. The water is especially potent on this occasion and is said to possess healing powers.
Much like India’s fabled wealth attracted invaders in the past, Coorg’s beauty, plentiful water sources and fertile soil were like magnets to the rulers of surrounding areas. Coorg’s rainfall and rice fields made it the granary of the region and it was much coveted by its neighbours.
For centuries, the hardy highlanders of Coorg successfully fought off the invaders, and even the mighty Tipu Sultan, and the British Empire couldn’t lay low the warrior spirit of the Coorgs. Their allegiance could be won only with their willing cooperation, not by force.
Ancient chronicles record that the region gave allegiance to a succession of Hindu dynasties. The Gangas of Talakad, were followed by the Cholas, and when Hoysala rule ended in the 14th century, Coorg came under the influence of the Vijaynagar kingdom.
When the great Vijayanagar Empire famed for its wealth all over the world, fell to the combined onslaught of its enemies, it left a vacuum which was filled by local chieftains. These chieftains constantly warred with each other and were united by Veeraraja, a Lingayat man from outside the land. Veeraraja posed as a holy man to win the confidence of the chieftains. He finally went on to become the first king of Coorg. His family, the Haleri rajas, ruled for 221 years.
For decades, Coorg withstood the frequent invasions of Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan. After many failed attempts, there was a brief period when Tipu Sultan attempted to enforce his rule by establishing four forts, and placing his troops in them. But these troops were soon besieged and had to negotiate a surrender.
The last king, Chikka Veerarajendra, was a despot who lost the support of his people. Things came to such a pass that the same warriors who propped up the Haleri Raja dynasty were instrumental in bringing it to an end. In 1834, a Coorg general called Apparanda Bopanna, whose forefathers had gallantly repelled the British, invited the British forces under Col. Fraser into the kingdom, and escorted them to the fort at Mercara (Madikeri).
What followed was a period of peace and prosperity. The British brought in coffee cultivation on a large scale and left behind a legacy of a colonial lifestyle that is still followed. The Coorg qualities of shooting straight from the shoulder, both literally and figuratively, found favour with the British. Coorgs were encouraged to join the British Indian Army.
After Independence in 1947, Coorg remained a Part ‘C’ State till 1956 when it was merged with the State of Karnataka. But the brief imperial rule left behind a legacy that is the source of Kodagu’s identity and income – the cultivation of coffee and spices.
The Birth of the Kodava Saree!
The sacred site of Talacauvery, the source of the Cauvery, lies 45 km southwest of Madikeri, the capital town of the district.
Legend has it that Cauvery, wife of sage Agasthya, transformed herself into a river to serve the people. She submerged herself into the ground after which she rose up again as a forceful river. At this site a small shrine was built signifying the birth of the river. According to the story, when the renowned sage Agasthya tried to stop his wife from becoming a river, the pleats of her sari were pushed back and to this day Kodava women wear their sari with pleats at the back!