Homes that are over a century old usually exist only in memory or in photo albums or in ruins or displaced contexts. But sometimes, miraculously, some homes survive even through time and shifting contexts to retain their innocence. If not their original function, then their relevance. Years ago, there came an opportunity to visit Polibetta, Kodagu or Coorg and write about a sprawling estate home called the Thaneerhulla bungalow.
It was built over a century ago (in 1870) by British planters but once the plantation lifestyle phased out and Tata Coffee Limited (TCL) took over, a question arose about not just acres of flourishing coffee but also the many bungalows that dotted the estates. What would become of these homes? The homes could not afford their regular upkeep and they were falling apart. But yes, they offered a glimpse of times when leisure was easy and people co-existed with nature instead of erasing it to replace it with concrete jungles. These homes were about simple luxuries like roomy, sunlit verandahs, blooming gardens, window seats, living rooms surrounded by lawns, bird chatter and silver oaks shedding golden light. These were homes where people had not been enslaved by time but relished each droplet of it. And then the answer came. Maybe, if the homes could be restored, they could show people what personal space really means and what architecture created in harmony with nature can do for the human spirit.
And so TCL restored bungalows across Chickmagalur and Kodagu. Thaneerhulla bungalow is their showpiece space of the Plantation Trails experience. Here and in other Tata plantation homes including the Cottabetta bungalow that I visited recently, you instantly reclaim the lost connection with pure breeze, with a clear night sky, with grass and the crunch of leaves under your feet and with trees (clad in lacy pepper creepers) that seem to disappear in the clouds.
All this with narrow trails of uninterrupted green silence.
Over time some of the bungalows have been spruced up, including Thaneerhulla and Cottabetta to cater to people who expect creature comforts, along with escape. A new gabled porch has been added to Thaneerhulla bungalow, its old flooring has been changed but the basic character has not been tampered with.
Homely meals are still cooked in the bungalow’s kitchen by a small staff and served in the dining room. Flanked by twin lawns, the bungalow lazes as always with its high ceilings, long corridors, mirror consoles, teak and rosewood heirlooms in cosy rooms, amid sapota and mango trees and flourishing flower beds. This is inviting you to kick off your shoes, wiggle your toes, sprawl on grass with a book and never leave.
The first glimpse of Cottabetta bungalow is breathtaking. A glass enclosed projectile room with a high conical ceiling welcomes you, anchoring the bungalow above miles of tapering coffee plantations with the hills fading away in the horizon. Here a planter’s chair, a living room setting, board games and the stunning views all around soak in all the stress our frantic city lives breed in us.
The dramatic introduction leads you to the warmth of wooden and terracotta tiles, balconies overhung with flowering creepers, a morning verandah where you can sit and read newspapers with a cup of tea or coffee. There is a courtyard where butterflies and moths flit over potted flowers and plants, a gracious dining room with a long antique table as well as a small table overlooking a picture window, not to mention delicious home cooked meals and rooms swathed in comforting drapes and white linen that remind you of summer holidays at your favourite aunt’s home.
This is not the cold perfection of a hotel but the lived-in feel of a home that is always welcoming and nourishing. Each of these bungalows is unique in its setting and scale and they remain forever contextual in a region that has not yet seen the trampling of natural resources for the mindless sprawl of urban architecture.
Kodagu is still thankfully far away from the culture of impersonal malls, the epidemic of unchecked garbage and traffic snarls. These bungalows and the plantations surrounding them remind us of another way of life. A life where we communicate with the earth and it communicates right back with us.
(Reema Moudgil is the author of Perfect Eight, editor of unboxedwriters.com and an RJ)