The King's Railway

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.

Readers would have recalled my love for the Indian railways, I had written a couple of articles on it some years ago. This one is thanks to a tip with background info from my friend Venu. As I thrashed my way through the historic alleys and all the dust and bushes and twigs that prevented easy passage, the story that emerged was quite fascinating. While most of the historic aspects are known to very few enthusiasts, the story behind the story and the personna of the king came from the memories of Venu’s uncle.

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.

First let us get an insight into the illustrious raja. HH Maharaja Sri Sir RAMAVARMA XV 1895/1914 (abdicated a.k.a Ozinja Vallia Thampuran) , Maharaja [cr.1921], G.C.I.E. [cr.1911], G.C.S.I. [cr.1903], K.C.S.I. [cr.1897], born 27th December 1852, died in 1932 at Trichur. It is said that he ruled Cochin during crucial times and was not only a legendary figure but also one of the greatest rulers of modern times. An erudite scholar in Sanskrit and English, and was considered to be ‘A scholar among princes and a prince among scholars’. Lord Curzon once remarked that among the native Indian States, nowhere had he seen a more progressive administration than in Cochin after meeting him. This Raja brought permanent reforms to the department of Revenue and Accounts. The Village Panchayath Bill was a valiant attempt to get the people at the grassroots involved in administration. The Tenancy Act was a personal triumph of Rajarshi. But after all these decorations and sucesses, he abdicated his throne in 1914. There are many versions for his abdication. One of the very talked about version is that he had differences with British Empire because of his proximity with Germans. There is also another version in his biography which says he resigned due to ill-health. Some mentions can be found about his disputes with the resident at madras and his high handed attitude and treatment of the monarch. He died in January 1932 (1107 Makaram 16th.)

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.

"There were only three or four trains that plied on this route regularly. They used to stop at Chalakkudy where the steam engines were refilled with water," recalls Capt. Kerala Varma. "There were exclusive waiting rooms for the royal family at Chowara and Trichur also," Mr Varma added. Incidentally, the Maharaja used to spend the summer in the palace on the banks of the Periyar, near Chowara. The Shoranur-Kochi metre gauge railway line, that was about 62 miles long, ended at the Ernakulam Terminal Station. Initially, there was only one track. A circular track was put up nearby to enable the engine to turn. Buses and rickshaws used to come up to the station to pick up the passengers. There was an exclusive saloon for the Maharaja that used to be attached to the train only when the Maharaja travelled. Admission to the royal, lavishly furnished waiting room was restricted to members of the royal family and VIPs. “The train comprised of only six or seven coaches, mostly made out of wood with steel frames. There were three separate classes and had a total capacity of around two hundred passengers. The third class was always crowded since they were cheaper than the rest", says Mr. Muralidhara Marar, former member of the interim Legislative Assembly (1948-1951), who was a frequent traveller by this train. When the Cochin Port developed, it became imperative to extend the railway track right up to the harbour. By 1929 the present station, south of Ernakulam, came up. The track was later extended to the Harbour in 1943.

Thus the Ernakulam terminus finally lost its significance. "Till the early sixties, the old railway station catered to passenger trafficThe Ernakulam Terminus Station, later renamed Ernakulam Railway Goods Station or the remains thereof, are located behind Rammohan Palace, near the Kerala High Court. This location was originally selected because it ran close to the market. A boat jetty was also situated close by from where people could travel to Mattancherry and Vypeen. It was a station that once played host to Mahatma Gandhi, Lal Bahadur Sastry, Lord Irwin, Curzon and a host of other personalities. It remains mostly unknown to the public even today, possibly because it is hidden from public view, though located in the heart of the city behind the High Court. A wall separates it from Mangalavanam, home to hundreds of migratory birds. It appears that N Class 0-6-0 locomotive was used before its conversion to Broad gauge.

When it was a popular haunt for people, "There was a coffee shop run by Spencer's at this railway station. There was no electricity those days, so the shop and platform was lighted up by petromax lamps," recalls Mr Joseph to the Hindu reporter. Nothing is left today but for some rusted track and moldy walls, a run down structure open to elements. Now it is home to animals and various anti social elements as Jimmy’s pictures document.

What was the German connection mentioned in the abdication rumors? I belive it was related to the purchase of the locomotives from the German firm and the fact that the German executed tramway project was concluded in time and within budget. The British resident could not stand that, especially at a moment when the axis powers were building up. However I have still not found enough details on the abdication.

Of course, there was one other person who was strongly behind this plan and who helped execute the project ably. It was none other than the clever Dewan, P Rajagoplachari. The book Madras rulers mentions thus: When he boldly launched the Shoranur Cochin Railway, he was met with opposition not only from the Conservatives in the Cochin State, this we can understand, but from such well-known advocates ot political reforms and advancement as the Hindu. Mr. Rajagopalachari knew what he was about, and his greatest advantage was that he had a highly educated and polished people, who after their first suspicions were calmed, rendered them a source of strength to him. If today Cochin is the advanced state that it is, it is not only due to Mr. Rajagopalachari, but it is the remarkable result of one man's work, in the face of unrelenting, though uninformed, critcism. He had, of course, the support of his ruler, without which he could not have done anything. It was also a time when Cochin had a population of 21,195 people out of which 11,000 were Hindus, 8,600 were Christians, 950 were Muslims and 500 were Jews. Lord Curzon visited Cochin, alighting from a train that traveled this route.
Curiously Rajarshi Rama Varma XV was also the man in charge during the Kuriyedath thathri smarta vicharam. Though people mischievously say he stopped the vicharam to prevent his name being spelt out, he was he first king who meted equal justice by ensuring that the guilty men were also punished in a Smarta Vicharam. Did all that result in more pressure on his throne? Or was he in some other way connected to the sordid episode? Ironically, it was probably on this railway and this very train that Kuriyedath Thathri left Cochin state and Kerala….

The story might have a happy ending - The 107-year-old Ernakulam Railway goods station located behind the High Court building could well be converted into a museum, if the Railways respond positively to a recent proposal by the District Tourism Promotion Council. The station which fell into disuse in the 1960’s is now home to a decrepit station building and remnants of the broad-gauge railway line that linked it with Shornur. Though Devan Varma, a Railway historian, had made a presentation a couple of years ago on how the precincts can be converted into a rail museum, the Railway Board and National Rail Museum did not go ahead with the project.


Nostalgic photos of the Ernakulam terminus by Jimmy Jose
Cochin state Manual – Achyutha menon
Anglo-Indian studies - Siddha Mohana Mitra
Hindu report 1
Hindu report 2
Hindu report 3

During the annual Cochin Royal Family Historical Society symposium in Dec 2003 Prof. Ramachandran presented some data from his research which I have used, thanks.

The Abdication
The abdication was a result of ongoing acrimony between the independent thinking Raja and the British government – Murali Rama Varma writing about Dewan Banerji opines –

It is very interesting to go through the reasons that led to the Maharajah Rama Varma XV of Cochin abdicating the crown on the 7th of December 1914. He used to have independent views on the administration and about his duties which often adversely affected the relationship with the Madras government.

For example, the British Resident took exception to the Maharajah addressing the Viceroy as "My Esteemed Friend" in one of his letters sent in AD 1913.The Resident reminded the Maharajah that the Viceroy should be addressed as "My Lord". This led to much unpleasantness in the letters exchanged between the Madras Government and the Maharajah. This was only the spill over of a continued dislike of the Maharajah by the Madras Government.

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

The picture of the building by Jimmy shows the Royal waiting room or Kottaram. The other picture is the HQ complex of the CSR.

Thanks and acknowledgement for all the picture posters..The Pic of PR comes from Sharat,  reader, referring it to History of Travancore by Narayana Panikkar



nomad said...

Great read, especially being a railway history buff. Thanks for sharing.

I hope you don't mind I share this post with my fellow Railway enthusiasts.

Reshmi said...

Good one, as all your earlier ones...I have been a reader always, a bit lazy to comment most of the times..
Btw, a small thread...I am from Thripunithura, brought up there and spent most of my life so far there...A link from one of my posts...

harimohan said...

that was a delight maddy
i really admire your fact collection methodology ,lot of hard work over every post and it shows

Unknown said...

Very interesting article. I am also curious as to when the "Island Express" started and what was the original terminus of the train. Did they actually have a station on the island?

Anonymous said...

Hi Maddy,

what i love about your blog is sometimes you let your imagination run loose and that makes every post of yours vibrant and not merely a collection of Historical facts.Keep writing and i will keep reading.

Thanks and Regards


Anonymous said...

Hi Maddy,

what i love about your blog is sometimes you let your imagination run loose and that makes every post of yours vibrant and not merely a collection of Historical facts.Keep writing and i will keep reading.

Thanks and Regards


Maddy said...

Hi Jitu_Vishy- The original Island express to Bangalore started out from the Wellington island. This island station is the Cochin harbor terminus. It started out in the 60's

Check this article

Calicut Heritage Forum said...

Excellent post! By the way, there is an interesting biography cum autobiography of the great ruler entitled 'Rama Varma, Rajarshi of Cochin (1852-1932) edited by Sri I.K.K.Menon (1994) and published by the Kerala State Archives, Trivandrum. It gives a lot more information on some of the issues you have mentioned. The Kerala Archives have also published in 1993 a compilation named 'Archives Treasury' which contains some very interesting documents such as the Raja's discussion with the Viceroy on the railway project, his confidential note about the Dewan's administrative lapses and most touchingly of the advice that he gave to his successor who had sought his counsel a year after the abdication.He was indeed a great ruler and a determined reformer.And when he found that he could not implement his ideas due to interference by the British resident and the Governor, he chose to quit rather than cling on to power.

Maddy said...

Thanks Nomad, hari & Reshmi..

Thanks CHF - I had been trying to get the book but was unsuccessful.Maybe i will find the archives treasury as well somewhere..
Maybe I will get them someday..& then there will be more from me on the Rajarshi & the railway

Anonymous said...

Maddy, The book is available in Ernakulam in Book marketing Society. This is very next to Boat jetty on the side of Boat jetty.
When you come from Park side, before boat jetty entrance on the left side yo will find a shop which do not look like a shop.
Anyway great atricle

Kamini said...

Fascinating! I see I have a lot of catching up to do on your blog!

Ashvin said...

Dear Mads, it's been ages since I logged on here as well as the other blogs I used to read.

Sorry to be pedantic, but once the GCSI is awarded the KCSI becomes irrelevant/redundant and is not mentioned.

Maddy said...

Thanks anonymous - My BIL checked for the book at that shop - it appears out of print. so if you know of another source, pls let me know..

Maddy said...

Thanks Kamini and Ashvin...

I guess you are right - I have not much of a clue on these awards, actually.

sunny said...

Great... Thank you
I am a regular reader of your both Historic and this blog. This is my second read by interest. My native story by V.V.K Valath

sunny said...

Unknown said...

Thanks again.As part of 3year Traffic Apprenticeship of Southern Railway,s Madurai Division between 1962-'65, I used to visit Ernakulam South or Jn Railway Station,fairly frequently,even though technically,the station was part of the then Olavakod division,Madurai Division extended upto Tripunithura.Eucharistic congress,Pope,s visit to Bombay,Exposition in Goa were notable events in early 1960s,warranting running of a number of special trains,to clear the heavy rush of pilgrims.During those days,Quilon- Ernakulam section west meter Gauge.Broad Guage trains ran from CHTS- Cochin Harbour Terminus to Madras.The line between Ernakulam Jn and Cochin Island was of mixed gauge- BG and MG.An area Officer called ATS- Assistant Traffic Superintendent- a Gazetted Officer,a rarity in those days held charge of the section upto Trichur.Thanks Maddy- you have taken me not on a walk down memory lane- instead a race through the express highway,Kanakasabapathy.

Maddy said...

Thanks Mr kanakasabapathy
you have given me yet another topic to research on, the popes visit. I have also been planning to write about the history of the olavakkot station but could not find enough material to work with

Ramachandran said...

This is Excellent.I have read all the stuff mentioned here & has used rajarshi ramavarma in my story,Napoleon Thampuran(see my short story collection,Ee Kadavile Muthala,published by DC books).Now from your blog the poltics behind the abdication is very clear.Ofcourse,there is an appendix,Story of an abdication ,in the book, The Rajarshi of Cochin.I am from Tripunithura.


Maddy said...

Thanks Ramachandran,
I will pick it up next time I am in India.
Yes, I read the book Rajarshi finally and I will be writing about the abdication event soon

Ramachandran said...

Excellent.I had read all the stuff mentioned here.I have used Rajarshi in my story,Napoleon Thampuran(see my short story collection,Ee Kadavile Muthala,published by DC books).The politics behind the abdication is very clear now though there is an appendix,Story of an Abdication, in the book,The Rajarshi of Cochin.I am from Tripunithura & had been with Malayala Manorama.

Ramachandran said...

I had written on 1905 & 1918 smartha vicharams in Malayala Manorama long back.MGR s dad belongs to 1903-This was confirmed to me by AMN Chakyar (of 1918)in an interview to me.I had interviewed actress sheela in 1987 & she had confirmed that she is the grand daughter of Thathri of 1905.She is latin catholic,not anglo indian.

rockjoh said...

Your posts are a joy to read. Well researched. I am reading this after the Chinese Nets blog you had posted. Thanks for sharing.

Maddy said...

Thanks rockjoh