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Travel: In Kudremukh, a homestay in the heart of the forest

Near Karnataka's Kudremukh National Park, a 200-year-old heritage home converted into a homestay is leading an experiment in letting nature take its course 

Life in Mannapaapu Mane revolves around the courtyard.
Life in Mannapaapu Mane revolves around the courtyard. (Anita Rao Kashi)

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The rain was a constant noise, rising and falling, never stopping for long. At its fiercest, it pounded on the Mangalore tiled roof, creating a ruckus. Yet such episodes, though frequent, were short-lived. In between, it fell at a steady pace, its rhythm almost musical, the falling curtains of water riveting to watch. Run-off from the gabled roof fell into the mossy courtyard, adding a steady beat. On the rare occasion that the rain would stop, crickets would fill the silence in a symphony of periodic crescendos.

Perched on a swing at the edge of the courtyard of Mannapaapu Mane, a 200-year-old restored heritage house on the border of Kudremukh National Park, near Karkala in Karnataka, the sight and sound of the monsoon rain was hypnotic.

The house, named after a long-gone mud bridge, sits on elevated land accessed by a steep path paved with flat stones slick with moisture. That wet August, it was surrounded by lush greenery and areca- nut plantations, the ground soft and slushy with absorbed water. Every available surface was covered in moss and ivy.

The stream that runs through the property
The stream that runs through the property (Anita Rao Kashi)

A narrow cemented lane ran in front, moving up into green oblivion, with houses scattered and hidden in the thick vegetation. Beyond the lane was a ravine with a rushing stream, swollen with monsoon rains, tumbling over rocks and boulders. As the lane inclined upwards, the stream levelled out in places; it would have been a ford easy to cross were it not for the rushing monsoon water.

During the monsoon, which lasts four-five months in the Western Ghats’ Malenadu, this is the default mode.

Life in Mannapaapu Mane revolves around the courtyard. Beautifully aged wooden pillars sit around its perimeter, holding up a gabled roof of weathered tiles. In one corner is the kitchen; rooms for guests are tucked away on other sides. Directly opposite the entrance is an old-world wooden swing, suspended from the rafters by iron chains which creaked rhythmically; it could seat three.

Built with mud and lime, and with gleaming red oxide floors, the original house had been extended to integrate seamlessly with the old structure. The walls, corners and shelves display artefacts, traditional board games, musical instruments and knick-knacks from the region, giving it a museum-like feel. Yet the place exudes warmth.

The brainchild of Manipal-based artist Purushottam Adve, Mannapaapu Mane was conceived not just as a home-stay but as a community-based cultural centre with a strong emphasis on nature and the environment. Over the last few years, it has seen music and yakshagana performances, pottery and basket-weaving sessions with local artisans, frog walks in the forest with a naturalist, interactions with visual artists, sessions to preserve traditional skills, like building bamboo bridges across streams and rivulets, workshops and camps for local children.

“We wanted a space where both children and adults can not only be close to nature but also be mindful of how important it is to protect natural resources and traditional knowledge,” says Adve. The well-known musician and activist T.M. Krishna and artist Manjunath Kamath spend time there often.

The meals, helmed by host Manu Nackathaya, focused on the local and seasonal, with produce from the kitchen garden or the local market, or foraged from the forest. Dishes may include patrode (a colocasia leaves snack), hebbalasu (wild jackfruit) chutney, pineapple menaskai (a sweet and sour gravy dish), pumpkin/Mangalore cucumber sihihuli (a spicy sambhar kind of dish with sweet undertones), midi mavinakayi thambli (curd dish with ground baby mangoes), menthya/dhania saaru (thick rasam made with fenugreek or coriander seeds) and saasmi (a thick coconut gravy dish adapted to vegetables like cucumber).

A variety of local dishes
A variety of local dishes

The rice varieties on offer included Alur sanna (red rice), Jyoti kusubalakki (parboiled) and gandhasale (aromatic short-grained). The fruits included rose/water apples, mango, jackfruit, soursop, passion fruit and local berries.

As night fell, the aromas from the kitchen swirled around the house as Manu readily shared recipes, discussing indigenous dishes, local ingredients and preservation techniques such as raw mango and wild jackfruit in brine. The conversation would continue over dinner at the rough-hewn wooden table; meals would be eaten in rustic terracotta plates and tumblers, created by a local potter.

Perhaps owing to the rain, it was slightly nippy. Manu had just the perfect beverage: a hot brew made from boiling gandhari chillies (similar to bird’s-eye chillies), fenugreek seeds, lime and jaggery.

Outside, the inky blackness was like an impenetrable membrane. Within, golden pools of light threw haphazard shadows. The surround-sound seemed not only louder but more varied: the patter of raindrops, the sound of the rushing stream, stridulating crickets and croaking frogs. It was exhilarating, compelling. I thought it would be difficult to sleep through all this but it was strangely soporific.

The next morning, the skies cleared a little, translucent clouds hiding a sun struggling to break free. The rare rainless window seemed ideal for a trek A muddy path snaked through areca-nut plantations and dense foliage, tall trees rising on either side, the leaves still dripping rainwater. The forest floor was packed with fallen leaves, slippery in places. It was difficult to dodge the leeches. Occasionally, the foliage would part to reveal a house in the distance, smoke making its way lazily into the sky.

The path ran along the stream before veering into the thick jungle. An occasional chirp or jungle call broke the silence. The path would widen in places and then narrow again, so overwhelmed by trees and foliage that hardly any light would penetrate the canopy. Suddenly, it opened into a rocky promontory, the stream tumbling over an outcrop into a raucous waterfall. If the stream was ferocious, the waterfall was wild.

The way back, a different route, showed the power of nature left alone. Over the years, Adve has coaxed friends to buy plantations around Mannapaapu Mane, restoring and repurposing existing habitations as home-stays. More importantly, the plantations have been allowed to grow wild. So patches of areca-nut plantations sit next to patches of jungle growth, like uneasy friends. “It’s something we want to try, to let the jungle encroach,” Manu said.

The India State Of The Forest Report, released earlier this year, claimed the country’s green cover had increased by 2,261 sq. km over the last two years. Since it accounts for all kinds of tree clusters, including plantations and fields, as forest, experts have been sceptical. Last year, open-source web application Global Forest Watch’s report, for instance, estimated that the country had lost 14% of its tree cover since the pandemic.

As these numbers sink in, the mind travels back in time to that morning last year—and the hope it offered. On the way back to Mannapaapu Mane, we stopped at the edge of a steep slope. Abutting the drop was a bamboo tree house, with gaps in place of doors and windows. It felt like you were living on the forest canopy. Looking out, there was more jungle and less manicured greenery. That swathe of foliage held hope for the future.

Anita Rao Kashi is a Bengaluru-based journalist and travel writer.

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