Sensing Landscape: From Ethnographic Walks to Heritage Making in Kodagu

The tactile power of the moist black mountain soil that has nourished the coffee estate for nearly a hundred and fifty years ran deep through the cold veins of my bare feet resting on the earth. An exquisite joy flooded me as I soaked in the verdant Spring amidst the beauty of the wee hour, blending the moonlight and sunlight together. The March sun unmasked the dark veil of the night as it chased the moonlight away. I looked around and saw the sunlight slowly peeking through the tall jackfruit, orange, and cluster fig trees. Then, it lit up a hundred acres of forested coffee plantation. The winds, playing like a thousand violins on the white carpet of coffee flowers, dispersed their soothing fragrance. I absorbed it all: the green, the sun, and the fragrance. I let my ears open to the murmur of the hustling wind and the rustling leaves. It seemed as if the dangling pepper climbers were singing their welcome song just to me, telling their stories and connecting me with the Kodagu landscape. It was my first foray into fieldwork in the Kodagu coffee district.

Kodagu, nestled in the eastern slopes of the Western Ghats in Karnataka, India, is situated at the height of about 4500 feet above sea level and covers an area of about 4102 km2.[1] Kodagu, in the Kodava language, means mountains. The mountainous region is divided into three talukas: Madikeri (anglicized as Mercara), Virajpet and Somwarpet. The main urban centre of Kodagu is Madikeri. The indigenous people, called the Kodava people, inhabit Kodagu. In pre-colonial times, they were hunter-gatherers and forest dwellers with small acreages of land where they cultivated paddy, their staple diet.[2] They have a distinct “natureculture” relationship, and their indigenous identity and traditional belief system are rooted in their forests.[3]

However, the mountainous Kodagu has a colonial history of coffee plantations that significantly destroyed its native biodiversity and uprooted the Kodava indigenous “natureculture” relationship. In 1854, European colonizers started burning the vast forested mountain slopes to establish massive coffee estates. To counter the looming ecological crisis and restore their Anthropocene geographies, since the 1940s, the Kodava people started growing coffee under native shade trees. The 1940s played a crucial role in Indian history because, during that time, the European colonizers retreated to their homelands, selling their Indian properties to the indigenous people. Most Kodava people purchased the European coffee estates and started growing native crops and coffee. I was enthusiastic about the Kodagu creative ecology, where colonial coffee monoculture is replaced with indigenous biodiverse farming methods that transformed plantations into native forests.

Sensing by Walking

Within the first week of my ethnographic experiences in Kodagu, I understood that the indigenous native planting on coffee plantations contributes significantly to the community’s traditional diet, local economy, and socio-cultural practices, making Kodagu a place of great indigenous creativity and resilience.[4] Strangely enough, I understood all this from my long walks on Kodagu’s forested coffee plantations. In my three years of ethnography work at Kodagu, I walked a lot across Kodagu’s landscapes. Sometimes I walked with the community elders learning how their landscape shapes their indigenous belief system and culture. Often, I walked with children who showed me the treasures their landscape offers. At dusk and dawn, I walked alone, sensing the landscape. Most importantly, my work on trails and academia aims to understand and disseminate the community’s indigenous heritage experience through their restoration narratives that link their past with the present for future cultural continuity.

From my walking practices with the community elders, I learned to spot a turmeric sapling by smelling its leaf, locating a jackfruit tree from its fruit’s scent, identifying types of frogs from their different croaking sounds, and recognizing birds from their songs. According to Tim Edensor, a cultural geographer, “looking is particularly multi-sensual, inextricably embedded in the work of all the other senses in the body’s interaction with its surroundings.” [5] Edensor adds that non-visual sensations are stimulated by walking; indeed, walking became my primary ethnographic research method to understand Kodagu’s plantation landscape. The elders showed me how the forest reveals itself in intricate ways through sight, sound, and smell. For example, the gun flower (rajakirita in Kodagu) blooms resemble the beginning of Fall and marks the celebration of the festival of arms, called Kailpodh. This festival celebrates their ancestral hunter-gatherer lifeway. Hence, all ingredients needed for the celebration—flowers, fruits, vegetables, spices such as cardamom and pepper—are collected from Kodagu’s forested landscapes. Similarly, the ripe coffee beans, pepper, and jack fruit herald the harvest season when the Kodava community sings rejoicing songs to praise their land and celebrate their harvest festival, Puthari. This shows that the power of Kodagu’s landscape lies in its ability to draw its human inhabitants into place-based experiences, practices, and environmental heritage making.

Interestingly, environmental heritage making focuses on cultural continuity. The Kodava children, the future culture bearers of Kodagu’s community, live-in-place in a bioregional way.[6] From my long walks with the children, I learned to sense and feel the new Spring from the fragrance of the white coffee flowers. In the process, I began to socialize with the native flora and fauna through my senses. More so, they showed me where to search for the juiciest mulberries and hidden honeycombs in the profoundly forested plantations. This indigenous knowledge of interacting with Kodagu’s landscape is rooted in its “environed ecologies.” [7]

Within a year, I started “knowing the land” from a bioregional perspective and became conscious of the natural processes of the region through sensing by walking.[8] From my ethnographic walks, I experienced that Kodagu’s landscape has its own story, smell, appearance, activities, beauty, strengths and weaknesses. More so, Kodagu’s landscape narrates its story through the processes of the planet, such as seasonal changes, wind direction, water cycle, vegetation, soil type, and topography. These processes produce place-specific smells, sights, sounds, and tactile experiences. And as I interacted with the place, I built a relationship with nature by, quite literally, sensing landscape.

Walking and Heritage Making

In walking, I was engaged in what Kenneth calls doing and performing the landscape.[9] Doing the landscape included knowing, learning, sensing, and understanding the landscape from the Kodava indigenous perspectives. Performing the landscape meant participating in cultural festivities such as Kailpodh and Puthari. Along with the community elders and children, I collected flowers, fruits, and vegetables from the forests, learnt indigenous cooking, and ate traditional dishes. My communal participation helped me to understand how Kodagu’s landscapes play a crucial role in reviving the nature-culture of place. In communal learning, I shared my academic knowledge with the community elders and learned their sustainability science of reforesting. I engaged the children in storytelling and understood that Kodagu’s traditional life was lived on its trails since pre-colonial times.

In this participatory community engagement work, I practiced the Kodagu indigenous knowledge and played a pivotal role in determining their “natureculture” continuity.[10] This approach takes on the cross-disciplinary and collaborative process of forging a bioregional lifeway that contributes to environmental heritage making. According to Rodney Harrison, heritage foregrounds cultural distinctiveness and continuity through tangible and intangible aspects.[11] My tangible experiences were sensory place-based “natureculture” practices. In contrast, the intangible experiences include my deep sense of place, understanding of Kodagu indigenous knowledge and its environed ecologies, my sensual perception of the landscape, and my strong attachment and personal relationship to Kodagu’s embodied environment.


Moving between Kodagu’s environed ecologies and the embodied environments of the growing forests on the plantations, the socio-cultural milieu of the walked environments remains a continuing story in Kodagu. I now better understand the community’s relationship with their landscape and how the ever-evolving potentiality of walking Kodagu’s trails contributes to environmental heritage making.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank the Landhaus Fellows and WIP group at the Rachel Carson Center, LMU Munich and the editors and reviewers at EHN for their constructive feedback. 

[1] Vinutha, D. N., et al. 2014. ‘Landform Studies and Geomorphological Mapping of a Part of Coorg District, Karnataka State.” International Journal of Geology, Earth & Environmental Sciences, 4(1): 23-27.

[2] Poonacha, V. 1997. ‘Rites de passage of matrescence and social construction of motherhood: Coorgs in South India’, Economic and Political Weekly 32(3): 101-110.

[3] I borrowed the term “natureculture” from Donna Haraway, who argues about the inseparability of nature and culture. See, Haraway, Donna. J. 2003. The Haraway Reader. New York, NY: Routledge. Participatory work is a complex term.

[4] In this article, I will not discuss the problems of place; instead, I refer to the indigenous solution that revived their nature and culture.

[5] Edensor, Tim. 2008. ‘Walking through ruins.’ In Ways of Walking: Ethnography and Practice on Foot, edited by T. Ingold and J. L. Vergunst, 135-154. Hampshire, UK: Ashgate.

[6] See Berg, Peter, and Raymond F. Dasmann. 1978. ‘Reinhabiting California’. In Reinhabiting a Separate Country: A Bioregional Anthology of Northern California, edited by P. Berg, 217–220. San Francisco, CA: Planet Drum Foundation.

[7] “Environed ecologies” here refers to a framework where humans become inseparable from surrounding environments and function as environments themselves. See, Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

[8] Sale, Kirkpatrick. 2000. Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press. Living-in-place is a bioregional concept. Bioregional reinhabitation explains how an outsider/settler can become bioregional by knowing the land.

[9] See Ingold, Tim. 1996. ‘Hunting and Gathering as Ways of Perceiving the Environment’. In Redefining Nature: Ecology, Culture, and Domestication, edited by R. F. Ellen and K. Fukui, 117-155. Oxford: Berg; Olwig, Kenneth. R. 2008. ‘Performing on the Landscape versus Doing Landscape: Perambulatory Practice, Sight and the Sense of Belonging’. In Ways of Walking: Ethnography and Practice on Foot, edited by T. Ingold and J. L. Vergunst, 81-92. Hampshire, UK: Ashgate.

[10] I refer to the more-than-human participatory research within the Kodagu socio-environmental context, which involves their community members, nature, and culture. I have used inventive methods, live methods, creative methods, and mixed methods. See Bastian, Michelle et al., eds. 2017. Participatory Research in More-than-human Worlds. London: Routledge.

[11] See Harrison, Rodney. 2013. Heritage: Critical Approaches. New York, NY: Routledge; Harrison, R., and C. Sterling, eds. 2020. Deterritorializing the Future: Heritage in, of and after the Anthropocene. London: Open Humanities Press.

*Cover image: Plantation trails in Kodagu, India (2017). Photo by author.

[*Cover image description: A two-track dirt path through the woods, with native shade trees in a semi-straight line framing the path, covered with green leaves. Sunlight streams in through the trees.]

Edited by Evelyn Ramiel, reviewed by Emily Webster.