Centuries of history, over a cuppa

Centuries of history, over a cuppa


Incredible journey Kodagu’s locals cultivated coffee in the Nalknad area initially and it is probable that most of the coffee grown then was wild coffee. Photo by Lakshmi Sharath

There was something brewing in the air. The strong flavour stirred the senses  and shrugged off our lethargy. It is amazing what a cuppa can do to awaken the spirit. Outside the late afternoon sun was completing its course.

A walk into the woods took us right inside a dense coffee plantation. Rows of Arabica jostled for space with silver oak trees and pepper plants snaking around them. A ray of light lit the red berries that were waiting to be picked. We paused for a moment and looked at the vast expanse of greenery on the slopes of the Baba Budan Giri Hills that girdle Chikmagalur. This is the birthplace of coffee, where the seed was first sown about 350 years ago.

It is the Arab connection that led to the mushrooming of the coffee industry in India. The legend today is as old as the hills where it all began. A pilgrim called Baba Budan, also known as Hazarat Shah Janab Allah Magatabi, smuggled seven seeds of coffee in his tunic while he was on a pilgrimage from Mecca. The saint  sowed the seeds in his garden near a cave at Chandragiri and the rest is history. The hills called Chandra Drona in the Puranic age are now called Baba Budan Hills after the seer.

Earlier in the day, we had stopped by at the shrine and heard how the beans had slowly journeyed from the seer’s backyard into Karnataka. The local farmers planted the saplings in the neighbouring villages around forests and mountains. It soon became a commodity for trade from the Malnad region. Coffee was  taken by merchants to the West coast and from there sold to Arabs in exchange for salt and gold. The wild coffee slowly moved from Chikmagalur towards Mysore and Kodagu.

Coffee in Kodagu

Kodagu’s tryst with coffee soon started. It is believed that the coffee seed was introduced  here by the Mopla community from Kerala who traded with the Arabs. The locals cultivated coffee in the Nalknad area initially and it is probable that most of the coffee grown initially was wild coffee. Soon small holdings came up on the fertile slopes of the Western Ghats which were too steep to grow rice. The homegrown crop was traded with Bhatkal merchants for cash and kind. This was well before the British entered the scene  and it took probably a century or more later for the “forest produce” to become a plantation crop.

Mysore Maharaja’s patronage

While the Europeans did wake up and smell the commercial potential of the crop, it was the local rulers who patronised the farmers. The Mysore Maharaja, Krishna Raja Wodeyar III, gave away lands and established norms. Even Tipu Sultan offered inams (gifts) and rent-free lands to farmers. The locals grew the crop in small plots around their homes and it is said that the coffee trees grew up to 20 feet high. Soon, coffee spread to Aigur in Manjarabad region and to Saklespur, Belur and Hassan. The capital of the ancient Hoysalas had become the capital of coffee.

The Mysore durbar was controlling the coffee grown in Malnad at that time and the land owners had to give part of their produce to the state.

Plantations and the British

In the 19th century, the Maharaja leased the collection of coffee to Parry & Company and the British stepped into the scene. The annual amount agreed upon was Rs 4270 for the collection in 1823.This was just the beginning of the plantation story as coffee cultivation soon changed hands from the locals to the colonial powers. The coffee that was grown in fenced lands (hitlus) soon started flourishing in estates and by 1830s, coffee was the only commercial crop in Malnad other than arecanut.

The colonial control over coffee spread as estates started opening up. In Chikmagalur, Thomas Cannon of Mylemoney had 500 acres and he exported Canon’s Mark one, named after the famous Canon Nose Peak in the hills. Chikmagalur and Kadur called North Mysore were the favourite areas followed by Sakleshpur and Manjarabad in Hassan district known as South Mysore. There was even a rush for land near Agumbe, but too much rain made the settlers opt for Koppa .

What the patta said...

Most estates even today have the Kan suffix and I was told that it meant forests. Forests offered the British owners game and their spare time was spent in killing tigers and gaurs in their estates. These Kans or forest lands were sought from the local government and a grant was given to them to cultivate coffee within a stipulated period of three years. The patta had details that stipulated that 300 plants were to be grown in an acre and the boundaries were specified and marked. It is recorded that a path had to be in the north, a stream in the south, a jack fruit tree in the east and a path lined with trees in the west. The plants bore berries within six years and labourers were paid Rs three per day. It is recorded that during Ugadi, in March-April, the labourers went home and returned only during August-September after the Gauri Puja, while the planters came to Bangalore to escape the monsoon.

Sought after by British

Our hosts at Baba Budan Giri Hills told us that Mysore coffee as it was called was in great demand in Europe. The mountain grown large beans were blue green in colour. The coffee beans were shipped to Europe in wooden sailing vessels, taking four to six months to sail around the Cape of Good Hope before reaching their destinations. Coffee, stored below the water line, was affected by the humidity as moisture seeped through the wood and it underwent a form of treatment during its voyage. When that coffee reached Europe, it had changed its colour from bright green to pale gold, and had lost its new crop acidity. It was mellow in the cup and easy on the stomach and much sought after by the Europeans.

We looked out from the sprawling verandah into the Baba Budan Hills and into the blur green horizon that met our eyes. As we sipped our coffee, we wondered how a small cup of coffee had so much history behind it.

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