Words and Pics by Barry Greville-Eyres
After a long trip on Kerala State roads (en route from Wayanad to Perinthalmanna) characterized by trying monsoon induced conditions; suppressed road rage and frustration; harangued by incessantly sounding horns the beckoning estate gates were an absolute heaven-sent. The ascent to the hilltop homestead, through skirted rubber trees pirouetting in the swirling mists, was therapeutic in itself as Kumaragiri began working its magic on senses awry and knotted tension. Swimming in a soundless sea of solitude, the estate’s island nature has the ability to ‘transport’ one, for the briefest time, to another ethereal place and time.
|Skirted rubber trees pirouetting in the swirling mists of Kumararigi|
Enter the larger than life character and the man at the center of Kumaragiri - Mr CA Kumar. In another lifetime and career (both highly successful) Ashok Kumar went by the name and professional designation of CA - Chartered Accountant Kumar (Bangalore). Years later in semi-retirement and as part of a significant, self-imposed sea change the designation has taken on new and equally impressive meaning - challenger and champion in the face of adversity. In short, Ashok together with some incredibly valuable 'assets' at his disposal including the bejeweled Kumaragiri Estate and some exceptional staff, has re-invented himself as an eco-tourism entrepreneur of note.
|Kumaragiri Estate accommodation|
|The A-team (L-R) CA Ashok Kumar, Kunjapa, John Johnson and Anu Johnson|
|The communal dining and recreation area adjoining the estate accommodation|
|Comfortably appointed accommodation|
At our first fortuitous meeting (courtesy of Lotus Destinations Pvt Ltd - a reputable, efficient and highly recommended Cochin-based tourism enterprise www.lotusdmc.com) described by Ashok as one destined and 'fated' to happen, I was particularly taken by his vision and determination to not only ‘reinvent’ himself but to also succeed at it. Tack onto that his passion for the environment and nature, at times, assuming eco-warrior proportions. His quest for sustainable stewardship for ‘God's given’ Kumaragiri burns brightly as does Ashok's humility, especially to learn more about this new industry, hospitality and his hands-on approach to most things. The estate, over 1000 acres in land area and nestling near the hills of the Western Ghats, has been in the Kumar family for half a century and nostalgia is rich and heavy in his narrative of those adventure-filled and carefree days spent with his siblings on the estate.
|Peppered profusion - one of the estate's agro-forestry crops|
It's not all plain sailing though as Ashok relates the countless challenges associated with running a ‘marginal’ agro-forestry business (rubber and coconut plantations together with pepper vines) on a parcel of land that is not exactly economically viable in this day and age. Throw in bureaucratic and contentious land ownership/management issues imposed by government and siblings alike; contract labor peculiarities; the constant summertime threat posed by potentially catastrophic wildfires; dangers of over-capitalization in an emerging enterprise with little or slow return on investment and its clear that Ashok’s vision and niche tourism product – low key and low impact eco-tourism for discerning nature lovers, is a diversified lifeline for Kumaragiri. Guests are accommodated in four comfortably appointed double rooms with an adjoining dining and recreational area. Surrounding verdant canopy views, of planted plantations or natural forest, catch the eye especially when teased by errant tendrils of twirling mist.
|Kumaragiri Estate - an island swimming in a sea of solitude|
|Ashok, a large than life character, together with Kunjapa at the cafeteria preparing pre-dinner snacks|
Whereas Ashok refers to our chance meeting as ‘predestined’, serendipitous is perhaps a better coined phrase also encapsulating the romance, beauty and mystique of Kerala state - God's Own Country - as portrayed in the global branding of this southern Indian state as a premier tourism destination. Kumaragiri, with its natural beauty, is every bit of that and boasts some interesting recreational and educational opportunities including birding, hiking, herping (for budding or seasoned herpetologists), mountain biking, outdoor camping, working rubber and coconut plantations, swimming and lazing around at the estate’s centerpiece water feature. A stroll around the area reveals countless, unexpected monsoon watered falls and streams – sights to behold and symphonies to the ears.
|Fractured granite domes provide courses for countless monsoon watered falls|
The pièce de résistance is the Malabar cuisine prepared by the estate cooks, not forgetting some of Ashok’s own inspired signature snacks including freshly roasted cashew nuts and a spicy cassava-sambal. Guaranteed to create an olfactory and gastronomic sensation - coconut oil is gently heated on a hot plate (infusing the evening air with its wonderfully exotic, silky and fragrant scent) before fresh, local raw cashews seasoned liberally with chili powder, turmeric and black pepper are slow roasted over an open flame. Grown in Kerala, cashews are a high value, labor intensive cash crop yet the state is acclaimed, internationally, for being the leading importer and exporter of the nut. Cashews are processed and finished before being exported around the world. This delightfully fresh and sumptuous snack is best enjoyed with black tea, ever-so slightly sweetened and flavored with a sprig of bruised lemon grass. Another culinary revelation was simple, boiled cassava served and spiced up with a sambal consisting of coconut oil, finely chopped Kerala green chili, red onion and seasoned with salt.
|Savory snacks - freshly roasted cashew nuts|
A must-do, for adventure-junkies and hard core environmentalists, is a visit to the not so proximate (a full day road and jeep track excursion) UNESCO listed Western Ghats World Heritage site and IUCN category Silent Valley National Park (SVNP). With a mosaic of vegetation types and associated habitats for all manner of life forms; landscapes be it riverine or montane and steeped in anthropological history a trip to SVNP can prove to be highly rewarding and educational.
|Listed by UNESCO as Western Ghats World Heritage site and IUCN as a protected national park|
|The pristine Kunthipuhza River, once the center of a fierce controversy to dam the system for hydro-electric power in the 1970s, but saved as a result of intense environmental lobbying via the 'Save Silent Valley' campaign|
|Jeep transportation into the hinterland of the SVNP|
|Snapped per chance and unexpectedly - the stunning Pompadour Green Pigeon!|
Back at Kumaragiri and at the end of a long yet satisfying day, one has wonderful option of regrouping and reflecting, on the entire experience, at Ashok’s amazing water feature – a natural rock pool with cascading waterfalls designed to soothe, cleanse and rejuvenate. Located in a natural rock amphitheater, that offers commanding and breathtaking views of the valley below, the feature provides an ideal setting complete with nature-surround sounds for any number of trademark Kerala Ayurveda treatments. The highlight, like no other, to an enchanting visit to the Kumaragiri Estate Website: www.kumaragiri.co.in Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
|Cascading waterfalls that feed into the natural rock pool at Kumaragiri's centerpiece water feature and recreational area|
|Kerala Ayurveda available, upon request, to the sound of water cascading into the natural rock pool below|
|Located in a natural amphitheater the Kumaragiri water feature and cafeteria area overlook the green valley below providing spectacular surrounding views|
|Take the plunge - visit the Kumaragiri Estate for a decidedly different, eco-tourism experience!|