The 50 something man who sat in the lavishly appointed waiting in the brand new train station, looked tired and haggard, but not beaten. He had been struggling to see his dream through for the last decade. Much of his time was spent in conceiving this project and bringing it to fruition, and the workload of handling the family and other responsibilities were bearing heavy on his shoulders. He had struggled, toiled and spent reams of paper corrrsponding with the new authorities of the land or what it was today. He had begged and cajoled with them and he had dug deep in augmenting the finances to complete the project. He thought wryly, sometimes, about how he, the king of the land, had to wait and beg permission from the new lords of the state - the British foriegner, to do something benifitting his own subjects.
The king was none other than the erstwhile maharajah of Cohin, Rama Varma XV. Soon the train arrived at the spanking new Cochin terminus, chugging along the shiny grey rails, all the way from Shornaur. The first railway in the Cochin kingdom had been completed, not by the powerful British rulers, but by the Cochin Raja himself. As the king waited in the royal waiting room, his heart swelled with pride, his eyes brimmed with tears. Sadly he spared a thought for the glorious ‘gold nettipattams of 14 royal elephants’ and the family land and jewels he had to sell and sacrifice for this project. But it was done, he had brought in the very first railway to his land, all by himself. It would hopefully benefit trade and help the many merchants who had been calmoring for connectivity to the trade systems. They wanted to get the materials across the ghats and from Malabar to the sea port that was being planned in Cochin. Today, looking back, they got not just one, but three passenger stations in the course of time Ernakulam North, South & Cochin Harbor.
However as I researched this story, I found it quite difficult to separate fact from fiction as I did not have a very important source, the autobiography of the King. This king, the Rajarshi Rama Varma of Cochin is mentioned in many places, but not many details could be gleaned even in the Cochin state manual by Achyutha Menon, inspite of the Rajah being a very modern thinking individual who should at least have been written about after the British left. In fact there is quite a bit written about the next project of the same king, namely the quaint Cochin state tramway, thanks to a railway enthusiast & historian Devan Varma.
He is also known as Ozinja Vallia Thampuran (Note that the king is typically mentioned in contemporary times as Kochi Valiya Thampuran, not as Kochi Rajavu as we know today).
This is the story as I first heard it - The British had already built the railway line from Madras to Malabar. Kochi was largely isolated from Malabar by the Western Ghats and it was very important to have a railway link to further its goals. The Kochi raja approached the British bureaucracy and requested them to connect Kochi too by rail but the British were not interested. He tried again by traveling to Madras and meeting the British officials there also but was told that they weren't interested. So he decided to build a meter gauge rail from Shoranur to Ernakulam, by himself. As he started construction, he ran out of money. So he sold most of his land and continued. Still the funds weren't sufficient, so he sold the "nettipattams" (caparisons of solid gold) of all the elephants except for a lone elephant maintained at their temple in Trippunittara and somehow managed to complete the construction. Of course the British didn't take lightly to the fact this small king managed to complete the railway line and managed to influence his brothers and relatives and declared that he was mentally unstable and forced him to abdicate. Since then, they ensured that there was no mention about him in historical references other than a fleeting reference to the ‘king who abdicated’. And the king walked out of the palace with just one trunk containing his and his wife's clothes and settled down near Wadakkanchery. He made sure that his house was close to the railway line and spent all his time watching out for trains. Later he was supposed to have moved to Cheruthuruthy and again found a house near the railway line so that he could watch trains go by!!
Was that how it was? Well it appears that the first railway ideas were conceived in 1861, after Malabar got linked to the British Southern railway system. Private businessmen mooted the idea of connecting Cochin, but none of them took off. The Madras government was not very forthcoming in support, until finally the king found able support from his Dewan P Rajagopalachari in 1892. Mr Frederic Nicholson was presented with a detailed plan which stated that the entire expenses would be met by the Cochin state. The state had at that point of time, a surplus reserve of 44 lakhs. The project was eventually sanctioned in 1899. After difficult period of project work involving bridges and tough terrain, the first goods train found its way on those tracks to Cochin on June 2nd 1902 and passenger traffic started in July 1902. Of the 65 miles, 18 ran through the territory of Travancore. The net investment rose to around Rs 70 lakhs by the time the project was completed. The railway was run by the Madras railway company until 1907 after which the lease was sold to the South India Railway Co.
British Library records stated thus - “The durbar promptly met the requirements on the revised and enhanced estimates of the Madras Railway Company who are constructing the line from Shoranur to Ernakulam and the line has been completed, so that a ballast train from Shoranur ran into Ernakulam on March 31st, 1902. But the delay on the part of the English manufactures in supplying locomotives and carriages prevents the opening of the line for passenger traffic.”
But what about the finacial difficulties the king had? British reports state that there was indeed a deficit in the Cochin state budget during the project and that loans from temples, sale of government paper at discounts etc were resorted to. At one point of time things got so bad that there was just 2 days worth of reserves in the Cochin treasury. The debt of over 13 lakhs crippled the king. “The boldness with which the Cochin durbar has not hesitated to borrow in order to complete the construction of the Shornur-Ernakulam Railway and has at the same time undertaken the construction of a forest tramway, startled the old fashioned officials of this coast, who were accustomed to seeing a surplus added to the hoard of the State. A British official wrote “It must have been difficult for His Highness the Raja thus to act against the solid mass of conservative opinion which surrounded him, and I think His Highness was enabled to do this only by the support given by Mr. P. Rajagopalachri, of the Madras Statutory Civil Service, who was Dewan from 1896 to 1901. Much of the blame lies with the British suppliers and contract execution. The construction of tramway supplied by a German firm was on time and within budget while that of the railways by English company was both over cost and behind schedule”.
But now let us see what the press has to say – Quoting Hindu - Records at the archives reveal that the Maharaja had a prolonged, detailed correspondence with the Resident of the British Empire since 1862 on the ways and means to establish the railway line. Finally, the State was asked to bear the entire expenditure involved in laying the lines. The State then was not rich enough to bear the substantial investment. But the Maharaja would not give up. He was bent on completing the dream project at any cost. He took the bold decision to sell a part of the valuables in his custody. Mr Raman Namboodiri, who retired from the Archaeological Department, says that the treasury records substantiate the fact that the Maharajah sold 14 gold elephant caparisons that belonged to the Sree Poornathrayeesa Temple and other ornaments to fund the project. Once the fund was sanctioned the project ran into another hurdle. About 18 miles of the railway line, between Angamaly and Edappally, passed through the erstwhile Travancore state. In October 1899, the Travancore state was requested to hand over the land required for the laying of the railway line. Construction began in 1899 and was undertaken by the Madras railway authorities, on behalf of the Cochin state.
The final shortfall of some 3.5 lakhs in 1902-03 resulted in the Raja taking a loan from thr Chidambaram temple. Another question people used to pressure the king was perhaps - Was using the Chidambaram temple funds for constructing a railway sacrilegious?
And so here is where we see the palace politics coming to play. The British certainly had allies in the Cochin Royal family. Why where those relatives upset? The sub story in the story related to the many members of the royal household who did not work and were living off the state subsidy of some Rs. 3.5 lakhs. The King and the Dewan felt that the allowances to the male member should be reduced and that to Amma Raja be increased. In 1899/1900, the suggestion is that the system of providing allowances to all princes after upanayanam be abandoned and allowances be restricted to the senior-most few.13 princes of ranks between 3rd and 18th objected to the proposed cap of 3.5 lakhs and to the suggested changes in distribution of the Royal family finances. The Raja Rama Varma decided that, “the only way I can thing to get out of this difficulty is to try and make them earn their own comforts. I do not think they can be employed in this state. I have no objection whatever of them entering service.
So there you see some rumblings here, 13 princes revolting against the reigning king. The royal house was in disarray. The king was fighting with the British resident at Madras on one side and struggling to hold his ship on even keel and trying to do some good for his people. It was a painful situation, one that his mind could not accept. I guess these relentless pressures eventually made him abdicate in favor of a life amidst scriptures and scholarly pursuits.
But let us get back to the railway tracks…for now – TK Sadasivan, in his Hindu report, states - JULY 16, 1902. Exactly 100 years ago, on this very day, the first train whistled its way to Kochi. Hundreds of people crowded on the narrow platform to welcome the first ever passenger train. Also waiting with them were the members of the Cochin royal family. They lingered around the exclusive waiting room, aptly called the `Kottaram', built for them beside the platform at the Ernakulam Terminus Station. The State band kept playing the popular hits of the day. As the enthusiastic crowd watched with bated breath, the steam engine, belonging to the Cochin State Railway Service, chugged in majestically, pulling in a few passenger bogies on a pair of parallel rails that originated at Shoranur. It was the fulfilment of a long cherished dream for the people of Central Kerala. For this rail track ushered in development to Kochi.
Tail note: This is an ongoing project due to a personal connection and so I will continue to provide updates on this subject and the Raja now and then. Anybody who knows more on this story are welcome to provide detailed comments