a coffee-table story of Angadi

There isn’t an outlet that serves a decent cup of coffee in Malnad. The little shops that make it use instant-coffee powder; but if you are desperate for good coffee, knock on the door of the coffee-planter. His woman will serve it with a fluff of froth with a wee bit of powder on top, in a cup larger than for espresso, smaller than for cappuccino. Fine South Indian coffee, the very best cafe au lait in the world. The coffee planter is a friendly guy, and immensely hospitable. Go on, knock boldly. It is possible he’ll also treat you to some akki-rotti. The real problem is how to reciprocate on his scale in your turn.

That is how you get good coffee in Malnad, where almost all Indian coffee is grown. Of course, the planter would rather spend the evening with you, to share with you some good whisky.

But it has been a bad winter for him. It rained on consecutive days for a week in December and ruined a promising crop across the belt; weeds have sprung at the feet of coffee and the berries cannot be gleaned (on a decent scale) from the chaos on the ground; in the meantime the rain has confused the plants and they have sprouted white blossoms in odd patterns and on random patches of plants. The planters are woebegone in all the three coffee districts, Coorg and Hassan and Chikmagalur.

Last week I went to Angadi from Sakleshpur, arriving where the narrow road splits into three, at which point you know you have arrived even if you miss the unmissable large sign: there is a stone tablet at the base of a large dried tree on the edge of the cross, rooting the place to antiquity. If you have come looking for Angadi, your turn is left, and you go a hundred meters up in the shade of the line of trees that flank you, and you come upon the mounds that you've come for, which hold the relics from the time of the founding of the Hoysala dynasty, from ten centuries ago.

The first Hoysala with detailed records to his name was Nripakama. He ruled from Angadi. He began a mere hill chief, but he packed the audacity to attack the Chola, the Chalukya, and a powerful neighbor, all of whom defeated him. But he displayed such valor as to win respect in his region, and yet not ruffle the emperors of the north and the south. The defeats did not deter him. Soon he attacked Banavase, the capital of the Kadambas down south from him in the plains. He won. By 1047, the year of his death, he was lord of an area large enough to be called a kingdom and commanded an army of hardy people, and both fell to his son Vinayaditya to extend.

Vinayaditya ruled a long time, so his son and grandsons were martially active with him while he ruled. Vinayaditya’s son Ereyanga, together with Ereyanga’s son Vishnuvardhana, went far north and torched the city of Dhara for the Chalukya, whose feudatory the Hoysala had become. Ereyanga would scourge three more cities, all before he himself became king. By the time Vinayaditya died, father and son and grandson had established a good sized kingdom, the nucleus of the major empire that the kingdom was to become within the next one-hundred years. Vinayaditya moved the capital away from Angadi on these ghats to Dorasamudra in the plains, a short distance away.

Why did the Hoysala's sword—and the torch—travel only so far? His nemesis would arrive from such a distance. Did our peninsula, sealed by mountains, box our heroes within it? Were they denied the big bold dreams the grand terrain of Central Asia gave the Turkic men?

In Angadi, the monuments are small, and attest that what happened here was only a beginning. There are rises all round, hemmed in by coffee plantations. On the first rise I saw a modern temple and turned back. In a short while I was before two rises on either side of me. The one on the right had three Hindu temples on it, on which men from Hampi are working to a plan to restore them in three years. The rise on the left had a Jain basdi on it, its restoration quite advanced, the thirthankaras already standing in its garbha. Perhaps there are big plans for this small temple, now in the charge of Dharmasthala: the plan for this temple also extends three years.

If you’ve come searching for Angadi, you have the story of Sala in mind. The men on this site didn’t know where Sala performed his feat. A schoolboy who now tagged along with me didn’t know either. I drove back down the street and continued further, to the school, on another rise, broad like a short wide table. They were teaching on a Saturday, and in the classroom which I passed the teacher asked what happened in a substance (I didn’t hear the name) if four electrons fused with a single electron. His class gave him a rousing answer, all in chorus. In the next room I saw a dozen computers, of HCL, new under plastic hoods, and thought, maybe now, after ten centuries, the mind of even the commoner in Malnad is no more boxed, not by sea, nor by mountain, and who among these young—with the world open and inviting—might soar to the heights of a Chandrashekar or an Amartya Sen?

The teachers didn’t know either, where Sala had performed his brave feat. But they were helpful. One went into the library and returned with the monumental Kannada Vishwakosha, and found for me the short entry on Angadi. We read it, but it didn’t tell where it happened. Where did Sala kill the tiger? They directed me back to the new temple, the one I’d first skipped.

It is new only on the outside. The deities in it are female, with round, mother’s faces. They are of mud, and are ten centuries old. Sometime in their life someone has glazed their faces into a smooth-china finish, any woman’s envy. The rakshasa’s head is at the feet of Vasanthaparameshwari in the center; next to her, Varahi is on her haunches, and she has a sow’s sweet face—the only such face on a goddess that I've seen.

They are vanadevate-yaru, goddesses of the forest. In their early life they sat in the open, with the jungle canopy their shelter, and this, when it was an open spot, according to the priest, was the gurukul of Sala, where his Jain guru threw him the staff, and the exhortation, Hoy! Sala!

With that staff Sala killed the tiger that had come upon them, and gave birth to a name, and a dynasty.