A wedding to savor

Last month, I was at a house warming, as my classmate and friend who had moved to US from China had finally moved into his new house. It was here that I met Ammal (let me call her that, in deference), and got talking to the 70 plus but perky lady. She was asking my wife where we were from. When she said Kerala, her face changed, and virtually blossomed. She exclaimed that she too hailed from Kerala and would be delighted to talk proper Malayalam after ages. Her offspring were more adept with Tamil, and that she missed conversing in her real tongue. When she heard that I was from Palghat, she was happier, for she hailed from Palghat too. When we zoomed the GPS down to where in Palghat and I said Pallavur, she was ecstatic; she was from the neighboring village Kunisseri. And so we got talking of people, of events and happenings in that part of the world, a very small part, less than a speck on the globe. As we talked, I realized that our small villages were so different from the hustle and bustle of a metropolis, and unknown to many. I had written about the Pallavur earlier, but it has been a while since I revisited the topic. And now there was a reason to get back, so here I go.

Most of the readers in this part of the world and India would associate an Indian wedding to one of the movies they have seen featuring a Bollywood style wedding with lots of events, spread over a number of days, featuring gloriously attired and great looking men and women, lots of food, fun and frolic. Well, I was in India recently, to partake in a similar family affair, featuring my niece. As most of you know, life in Kerala is a little different from the rest of India and for that matter, customs and traditions also differ from the other parts of the country. Maybe it would be a good idea to briefly recount how it went, for those interested. It had most of the above stated elements, but was still distinctly different.

Weddings in a traditional Malabar Tharavad are typically of two types. The boy’s wedding is never one that is considered lavish, because of the matrilineal leanings still existing in Malabar society. So the girls’ wedding is the important one and it is important to note that the wedding costs are mostly met by the girl’s family. The last time a girls wedding took place at our home was when my sister got married years ago. And the next was, interestingly, this one, involving my sister’s daughter. The calls came out by the third quarter, with the dates set in Dec. Tickets were booked, and anticipation of the trip grew. Discussions were held animatedly, as my brother reported, involving my sister, her husband and my brother, the main conductors of the event. My brother’s daughter was roped in as a junior coordinator, which was a surprise, for in the old days the oldies never delegated any authority. Expectations grew further as my sister and hubby flew down from Assam and reopened the Tharavad house and set about getting it shipshape for the wedding. The overgrown shrubs and trees were trimmed and many a branch that grew over many years taking directions and shapes indeterminate, were chopped by workers bearing new trimming machines from Tamil Nadu. I heard over the phone reports that light had reached parts of the overgrown areas after centuries.

Pallavur is a small hamlet, a typical remote Palghat village, home only to farmers. While almost all houses have phones and cable and all that today, the structure of the village has not changed in the last 50-60 years. One end termed Kizhakethara is home to a few shops and a small tea shop. It is also where people board buses to the Palghat town which is some 20 kilometers away. The centerpiece of the old days in the village was the magnificent Siva temple and well regarded by people of the region. Three categories of people live there, the Nairs who own and till the paddy fields, the Agraharams around the temple (some 100 row houses) which once housed many a Tambram (Tamil Brahmins who worked around the temple) but now home to new tenants after the Tambrams moved to Chennai or Bombay to be with their more affluent offspring. The Nairs are the bulk of the people who live in Pallavur and perhaps number some 150 households. The rest is an assortment of people, the support staff of the old times, field workers, migrants, some traders and so on. A remarkable statistic is that like many of the other villages, Pallavur is mostly Hindu. A Catholic Syrian bank, the lone bank of the village perhaps hosts a Christian manager sometimes. The Chinmaya School close to the hills, the pride of the village today, is a popular school which attracts children from faraway places. The post office, sparsely staffed, handles the mail for the homes in the village, the money orders and deposits. The village prospered in agriculture mainly after the Malampuzha water canal was drawn to the place bringing water to the parched fields.

On a fine sunny day, Pallavur is serene, there is hardly a vehicle on the lone road that borders the village which bisects the habited part and the fields, with a backdrop of the tail end of the western Ghats. Look to the east and you will see the Blue Mountains, the Nilgiris, though the closest tea estate is the Nelliyampathy estates. Westwards is Kunisseri, Alathur and the towns of Trichur and Cochin some distance away, through the NH47. Eastwards are the villages of Pallassena, Nemmara and Kollengode, terminating in Chitoor and then hitting the Tamil borders. The people of Pallavur speak the very special Palghat dialect and are also mostly familiar with Tamil. In Dec the Palghat winds start, cool and crisp, and dry enough to chaff lips lasting through the months of January and February. It is still hot though in December, and this year was no different. The mosquitoes were eagerly looking forward to new visitors, and it was as though they were notified that a bunch of out of towners were on the way. Like a motorbike growling to take off, they were waiting…..

The Malampuzha canal water had filled the fields, so the wind heated by the hot granite hills had cooled off by the time it hit the houses south of the road, bringing respite to the hot and weary, but eliciting grumbles from the old and arthritic. Their joints creaked and groaned and painkillers met gastric acids before getting dispersed to the target areas, bringing solace to the suffering. In the old times, visitors would be enthusiastically jumping into the waters of the two ponds we have in the house, but after years of disuse, there are now virtually abandoned, and just serve as repositories of water for washing and cleaning purposes.

Our house is a typical Nalukettu, with lots of sarpakkavus (snake temples), a daivapuura (an in-house temple), two ponds and large back and side yards housing bamboo and many other types of fruits and other kinds of trees. As you train your eyes from the front seating areas, you can see the lush paddy fields, the tips of the rice plants swaying in the wind. The home itself has two rooms cordoned off for various deities, long lost karanavar uncles etc who are worshipped regularly. No sounds of modernity intrude into this solace, unless there is a cricket match or it is evening. In our days, the morning sound waves were rudely interrupted by the loud loudspeakers of the temple belting out Sirgazhi Govindarajan’s Maruthamalai… or MS’s Suprabhatam. The younger ones would not be bothered, snuggling and rolled up in their blankets, while the older ones were twisting and turning due to the relentless assault on their eardrums, and trying to ignore the signal to wake up at an unearthly hour of 5AM. Alas, new legal regulations ensure that the sound levels are turned down, so we do not hear Sirgazhi anymore.

If there is a cricket match, the younger people are crowded around the TV set frequently erupting with screams of 4 or 6 or out or shouts of absolute disgust aimed at a particular batsman, bowler or fielder, Indian or foreign. Evenings are different these days, women are no longer singing Narayaneeyam or browsing the Bhagavatham books, instead they are engrossed with many weepy TV serials lapping the airwaves these days. Nothing will get them to move from their bolted down positions, till the heroine has finished her crying and the serials has ended for the day. You will not fail to notice the stentorian ladies of the house surreptitiously wiping away tears from the corners of their eyes with their sarees before slinking away to the kitchen and berating the maids. But there is one thing that can disrupt all these and bring about total silence to the village, mind you, it is not the demand for a 2minutes silence on Gandhiji’s death anniversary, but the two hours of the day when power fails, in the morning and in the night. Many a house has an inverter, but they drive only lights (these days the LCD TV’s also survive on the meager capacity of those inverters, so it is a different matter) and a fan or two.

As the despatcher at Kalamassery or Trichur goes about his daily plan and flips the switches that would trip the main breakers and start the load shedding sequence around these areas, the village of Pallavur is engulfed in darkness. The people come out of the sultry indoor halls and line up to sit on the steps and start out important discussions about the state of the country, gossips about many a relative, day to day affairs and so on. People are more frank I think, when their faces cannot be seen by others, so men and women are more forthright in their views during a power cut. As the discussions get animated or languid, depending on the situation, the mosquitoes come out with a vengeance.

Without the whirring fans creating havoc on their aerodynamics, they fly with abandon and come with war whoops (the familiar high pitched drone actually) to launch an attack on your body, resulting in much arm waving and slapping and cries of disgust. Somebody would shout out to light a tortoise coil, which would be quashed by another who is allergic to those fumes. The mosquitoes would use their hour wisely, imbibing as much of the red stuff as they could, for after the power returned, the electricity heated chemical fumes and the super strong fans would prove difficult for them to handle. Over the fields, you could hear crickets, and frogs. The birds had all retired for the night, but the mournful sigh of the evening owl would emanate with regular frequency from the large trees above the sarpakkavu. The howls of the supersonic bats that frequented the area were mercifully outside the human hearing range. The end to a typical Pallavur day was nearing….

The temple beats would soon be silenced. Sridharan marar would have gone back and had his supper and commenced with the last lessons in his gurukulam where a number of children were being trained in the art of Chenda drumming. Krishnan Kutty (a portly man, no longer a kid – the son of the erstwhile temple priest) has shut down the temple kitchen and retired. The temple itself stood isolated and shut down for the night. People remained for some time to discuss the politics of the temple and the events surrounding the previous 7am vilakku, and the story of the seven elephants that so irritated everybody. Out in the Kizhakettara area, the temple elephant felt lonely, missing his friends from the Nilambur forest where he grew up. But that was an elephant’s life, and he had learnt to handle his loneliness, meeting some friends only during major festivals like the Trichur pooram when he would come across a couple of his cousins if they came. He stood swaying back and forth, foot chained to the tree, chewing without rancor palm leaves as his mahout drifted to a deep slumber.

Paddy cultivation is as I said, the main past time of most households in the roughly 2 square mile area the village takes. Much of the discussions relate to the price of paddy, the machines that were leased by Tamil owners to till and harvest the fields, the cost of fertilizers, the amount of rain or water from the Malampuzha dam and so on…Mercifully the workers are still local, not the imports from Bihar and Assam that you see everywhere else in Kerala these days (seems Kerala is Bihar’s and Jharkand’s Dubai, since they can get upto Rs 300 per day compared to Rs 40 in their home towns), but then again, I cannot imagine the use of Hindi in Pallavur’s paddy fields. Don’t be surprised, even in Bombay hotel at Calicut, a Moplah hotel, the waiters and cleaners are people from the NE who speak only Hindi. It is wiser telling them what you want in Hindi if you ask me. Same is the case at the salons and barber shops.

You know, I can go on and on, I would still not be done describing my village of Pallavur, a place I so cherish in my mind. But this was where we were headed to, for the wedding armed with a couple of bottles of OFF mosquito repellent (people may wonder why I mention mosquitoes so many times, it is because they are cause for the back breaking Dengue and Chickungunya fevers which are not treatable or well understood in places like USA. So it is not a good idea to contract them from an enthusiastic mosquito which had been hijacked to be carriers by these viruses).

The flight to Calicut was uneventful. My wife had left earlier though her plans had been thrown out of sync by Hurricane Sandy. It was great to meet some of my history friends at Calicut, and I was treated to an audio visual presentation around the 1790 Battle of Calicut by Dr Noone, and I met CKR and Premnath as well. A couple of outfits including a churidar kurta were purchased for the wedding, while the better half was scrambling after tailors to finish up her blouses etc and searching for accessories. Calicut looked even more crowded and driving around was becoming a pain. The skyline was changing rapidly, it seemed, and most of the well-known restaurants had drifted out of popularity. So much so that the only three one could depend on were Bombay restaurant, Paragon and Kingsway. Premnath, my friend (you may be surprised to hear this) has completed a 400 year family tree, no mean feat for people in Kerala who hardly know anything beyond their grandfather. He always has fascinating stories, like the Thampurati’s milk story, which I will recount another day. In the meantime, I read two of Sudha Murthy’s charming books. Strange, I must say for in her collection of 80-100 stories covering most parts of India, not one features Kerala or people of the Malayalam!!

It is great fun to be visiting home after a year and to catch up on matters, each time I hear something that amazes me, like this person in Calicut who had two wives, the elder and younger sister and no problems to boot till his death. I was supposed to meet him (but did not as I found out that he was deceased) or his successors, not to exchange notes or anything, but to see a redone picture of my great grandmother, a real beauty, if you ask me. That was the lady the Zamorin Ettan Thampuran wed in the late 19thcentury (more on that another day), and well, looking at her, I would too, she was a striking beauty.

Regular phone calls with Palghat updated me on the preparations underway. Everything had been arranged, the Trichur hall, the Guruvayoor activities, the three receptions at Pallavur, Nemmara and Trivandrum. The groom was on his way down from New Jersey. Intra family discussions, usually the hot points during a marriage preparation were proving to be healthy and constructive. The Saree purchases had been completed, at Coimbatore. My niece the bride to be, was finishing her project and winding up in time, at Cochin, where she worked. Most of the arrangements were going well and the weather was holding up, no spoil sports like rain. The power cut was a nuisance, but not a big hassle. The D Day was near and it was time to drive out from Calicut to Pallavur, some 150km away. My sister was getting her BP up with all the tensions and BIL smoking away like a chimney to reduce his. Things were looking good.

For me, it was time to switch dialects. As you can imagine, there are so many dialects in Malayalam. The Cannanore or vadakkan dialect, the Calicut dialect, the Palghat dialect, the Trichur dialect, the Cochin dialect, the Kottayam dialect and the Trivandrum dialect. I can do about three or four of them having lived in Palghat, Calicut and Trivandrum, so as I move, I switch to the dialect suiting the locale. My wife never ceases to be amazed at how I can do it, but well, these are all tools of survival for a nomad, I explain.

A number of close relatives were traveling down to Pallavur for the wedding, from Chennai, Mumbai, Bangalore, China, Malaysia and US but not until closer to the wedding date. Many more activities were to be concluded before the event itself, mainly the invitations. In our part of the world, everybody (at least within the confines of Kerala) have to be physically invited, not with invitations by post or phone calls. A man and a woman had to go and invite everybody related. Some are a must must, while all others are must. By the time I had reached, my sister and brother had covered all long distance invites from Trichur, Cochin and Calicut. The local ones were my responsibility as I had experience with some previous weddings. So as soon as I got home, the lists were being readied naming the homes to visit and the type of cards to be given out. Discerning readers might ask about the type of cards, well, you see some (closer relatives & family friends, as well as village seniors) are invited all the way for the wedding at Guruvayoor or Trichur, while all others are invited for the reception.

All the guests would be at Pallavur for a week, so all arrangements for a week had to be carefully planned as the village had neither hotels nor lodges. Primary was food, which had to be varied and good, for that is one aspect people talk about after weddings. So my niece and I set about laying out the menu for the following week, breakfast, lunch, tiffin and dinner for 50 of the family. One may wonder, did all of these people live in the main house or in hotels or what? Well, many were in the main house, some in my brother’s house and others at my cousins in the same compound. The kitchen was opened out only in the main house with two cooks in tow, a senior cook and the junior hired for the event. The major issue always was the distance to Palghat which meant that the three cars made available were always on the road, setting about some errand or the other.

Another glorious morning and the catering agency owner had come in with his voluminous menu. We set about negotiating the menu items and the prices, and the guy seemed very nice and accommodative as most people in those towns are. Before long, the next catering project was underway when Vaithi Pattar and his assistant came in to make the first batch of LMMJ.. laddoos, mysore pak, mixture and jilebi. This mind you was not for the wedding but the pre wedding visitors and the family.

Where would the 50 or so people from the family congregate and sit down to eat? In the old days you lined up on the floor in the cavernous house, but these days knees and joints are not upto such strenuous stuff, so regular seating had to be provided. And key to this is thus the erection of the wedding shamiana or tent. The tent people came and rigged up their outfit, but my brother was miffed at the quality and as you can imagine, this resulted in top of the voice arguments and bawling between him and the shamiana owner. After much berating and threats, the matter was settled and a more modern tent erected, to the satisfaction of all concerned. My concern was if my brother would suffer from a stroke though, he was that animated and furious. Upon quizzing him later as to why he got so worked up, he said that this was the way things are done in the village. It amuses both parties apparently, and is a good exercise to get the blood streaming smoothly through the veins & arteries!!! Anyway the roof was on and the front yard was now under some colorful canvas cover. 50 or so chairs and tables were drawn up on one side and the other side left empty for other purposes.

A western bred person would have been alarmed at the kitchens and the way food was made and served. But in the aseptic environs of a village, nothing untoward happens. Even the water is drawn from wells, so apart from the slightly earthy taste, it is fine, These days the water is boiled with all kinds of herbs and the resulting pale pink water is perfectly potable even for a sterile American gut like ours. The only problem was that the water was always tepid or hot, never cool or cold, due to the continuous manufacturing ongoing to meet demand. Vaithy pattar’s jilebi making was a pleasure to watch and his mixture recipe unrivalled. You see, the mixture has to have the right amount of hing and chillies, otherwise it tastes fairly benign. The laddo has to be the right texture with the boondi held tight, and just the right amount of sugar and camphor. Vaithi added a bit of cloves to give the ladoo a slight kick, which did not meet my favor through. The mysore pak had to look like the Malabar laterite brick and one should be able to bite through without any exertion on the teeth (note that the Palghat MP is not the ghee MP that you get in Krishna stores or grand sweets, it is more crisp and brittle) and the jilebi, yuuum…nothing to beat a Palghat TNVR jilebi. Vaithi’s jilebi was ok this time, though he blamed our purchased flour since the jilebi did not come out that good. In fact he castigated my bother stating that his reputation was being sullied by this lower standard flour. For the main event he insisted that chana dal be purchased and freshly ground, and that we should not purchase readymade flour.

Getting ready to go invite people with my cousin sis
 - geared up for the fierce palghat sun
My sister in law, cousin sis and I commenced the door to door invitations. It was after ages that I was trudging the length and breadth of Pallavur, the nooks and corners of the village, the rich and the poor, the worker and the landlord, the Brahmin and the Nair, the lower and upper classes. We had to recite the invitation and the key days and times, to the male and female representatives of the home we visited. Tradition imposed that we had to be seated while the invitation was read and the cards handed over, while the hosts offered us tea and snacks which we politely refused, as that would have meant ingesting a few gallons of liquid into our guts in little time. Most of the people were being met after ages, so a number of questions about our wellbeing were exchanged, of people coming and not coming and of children and so on.. Sometimes, our entry into a home was at the wrong time, with the women coming out of deep slumber with dress and hair in total disarray and many such interesting situations. But this entire thing is so difficult to describe in words, entering homes of apparent strangers, mansions or huts with equal deference. How they receive us with total respect and how they all (mostly) attend each other’s events to keep the fabric of tightly knit village relations in place, is simply amazing. This actually took us all of three days, morning and afternoons, and you see a lot of Palghat scenery as you trudge through fields and narrow lanes to reach some distant farm houses. A drink of cool well water is about the best reward you get for all the hard work, but still well worth it.

The relatives were starting to arrive, the boisterous Malaysian and Mumbai cousins and children were in and soon the Bangalore & Mumbai crowd. The bride to be reached home after finishing up her projects. The Chennai crowd came only the next day. In fact I was meeting many of them after ages, the children had all grown up to become handsome and pretty young men and women, a couple had become doctors in the meanwhile, others were already gainfully employed. I liked the lively and hangup’s free crowd. Unlike many other weddings we do not indulge in alcohol (except on one day when I donned the role of bartender) in these festivities and I guess that was good, kept it all great and healthy. The food from Thangam catering was really good and well, everybody ate and ate all the time, but evenings were when we let our sleeves down (actually dhotis shorts and salwars were the attire). Speakers were rigged up to a few laptops and music was in the air, lively movie songs from Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi which the youngsters danced to for hours. Games like antakshari took up the space between breathers.

The women drifted away during the mornings to get themselves done up and beautified, the mehendi girl was at work, while the bride and her bridesmaids went to Trichur for more sophisticated bridal make overs. After lunch and gossip, betel leaves were chewed with gusto imparting the familiar reddish hue to everybody’s lips and mouth as everybody caught up on all the lost time, chatting away & joking. My Malay nephew’s days at Manipal for his medical training proved to be hilarious. Some of the stories related to his gynecology rotation were even more interesting and everybody laughed till they cried, especially as he was a fantastic narrator. Once of the nieces was an excellent dancer, so she led the sway. Older people drifted away to corners to discuss family and temple politics while younger ones were into movies and others into more romantically inclined activities.

A slight hitch came up when we heard that the bridegroom’s party size would exceed previously discussed numbers, but a risk had to be taken as the hall was limited in size.

Soon it was time for the wedding, the bride and her parents as well as ourselves went to Guruvayoor the previous day. The place was packed with people, Ayappa devotes from Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala itself and Karnataka. The wedding was to take place at 530 AM the following day, the first of many hundreds. If you did not know the Nair temple wedding , it is pretty simple, just the tying of the thali, the ring exchange and the ceremonious walk around the lamp in front of the temple. All it takes is 5 minutes. Our task was to get that done efficiently and move on quickly to the main venue in Trichur some 30 km away where the formal events were scheduled for noon. The previous day we had got to meet the groom and his family, he proved to be a nice chap without any hangup’s. The event went without a hitch. The morning event done with, the attires had to be changed, for the events at trichur. The bride had to be decked in all finery and the family gold, as is the norm. Professionals were employed for the purpose, and 4-5 girls went to work on the bride.

The Lulu convention complex at Trichur is home to large and medium sized halls, While the main hall is used for mega functions involving 2000+ spectators, the smaller one was chosen for our purpose as some 600 were expected to grace our event. The guests started to arrive soon and it was great to meet many people after so many years. The wedding function itself involved exchange of garlands, pudavas, chains and rings, after which all and sundry fed the bride and bride groom with milk and plantains. A sumptuous lunch, the traditional Kerala thali followed after which time was utilized for chit chatting and catching up on the lost years. While many of the invitees came on their own, the Pallavur (some 50km away) invitees reached by two buses whereas the Trivandrum invites (many hundred km away) came in two buses to the venue. A music troupe provided Carnatic music background throughout the event. After the events and the wedding were concluded at Trichur, it was time to move on to the next, which was the formal arrival of the couple at Pallavur followed by more drinking of milk and eating plantains fed by those who missed doing it at Trichur. A dinner followed (you must be wondering how one can indulge in such nonstop eating – but that is how it is, evident by the many pounds each gained after the event) and lots of dancing and singing. The final ushering of the bride and the groom to their bedroom was the highlight of the day and proved a little bothersome (in a fun way) for the couple since the kids would not leave the nuptial chamber till they were properly compensated monetarily.

The next days were all reception days, dressing, meeting people, more eating, more music and dancing, and talking away, of times of yore. I guess this is when legends and stories pass on from generations and this uncle of course had many a story to tell and pass on to coming generations. Thus came about the conclusion to a nice wedding function. I think this piece of writing has become long enough, not much more to say in finishing off, as everybody soon left, in batches, with a promise to meet every year and recreate the scenes. More weddings are on the way and so there will be much more left to experience, I suppose.

Back home, life has taken no less an interesting course, the kids are home, Christmas eve is here and New Year’s soon after.

So friends, here is wishing you all a merry Christmas and a lovely, prosperous and happy new year.

The Chinese, Tea and the Nilgiris

I was getting deeper and involved in a topic that I was researching on, getting really engrossed tracking the movements of medieval Chinese sailors crossing the China seas to go to places like Quilon and Calicut. The answer I was seeking was elusive and some of the books and material I had at hand were not getting me the answer, and Google results were also not too cooperative. In one of those quirky moments, it directed me to a nice blog by Nina Varghese writing tales about the blue mountains of Nilgiris. The article was about a group of Chinese convicts in Nilgiris. I recalled vaguely about the mention of these people by Edgar Thruston in one of his anthropology books and also Muthaia’s book on the planters. While the latter had been returned to the library months ago, the former was very much at hand and so with a huge load of thanks to Nina for directing me to the story she started, let me get started.

Tea – That was what it was, and just the other day, I had come across two women animatedly discussing the very subject of which Indian tea bag to buy - Tetley? Or should it be Lipton Red label or Green? Or should it be Wagh bakri? I did not quite get to the end of their heated discussion, and at home we stick to red label. Wagh bakri is nice, but then all these things are related to what you are used to. If your home brew was always based on red label, you will stick to it and not venture into some mild stuff like Earl grey (btw that is a Chinese tea which has orange oil added to it!!!) that the haute bourgeoisie imbibe. As they say, not my cup of tea, meaning each has his preference. It is a pity, some of these blue blooded (or so they think) characters believe tea drunk in the western world comes from England, while it is mostly from Ceylon or various parts of India. In America I guess some may even think chai is a Starbucks invention. Interestingly, China has only the light pale green tea whereas dark teas of the 19th century mostly originated from India. Know what, I was at the library the other day and picked up the hefty copy of the book “The history of the Indian tea industry” by Sir Percival Griffiths. The librarian took a good look at me, and at the book, then started turning over the pages with immense interest. I asked “is that the most obscure loaner you have come across?” and he said, ‘not exactly, I was a bit surprised seeing a book like this, as my research subject was Chinese tea’. I had gone through Muthaia’s planters book while researching the coffee story, but anyway this article is not exactly about tea, as you will soon find out, but sort of touches the topic, like a gentle sip off a cuppa..

The topic that Nina wrote about intrigued me, and though I had written on coffee earlier, tea was enticing me today. I set out on a tangent, forgot about the Chinese sailors and went after the Chinese convicts, to get to the bottom of the story, and I tell you, it was not easy. The search turned up umpteen results and all of them were from vested interests, plantation histories and reports which reeled out the same information. They stated authoritatively that the tea at Thiashola was cultivated by Chinese prisoners of war, captured by the British during the Opium Wars. Well, was that right? What were the Chinese doing in faraway Nilgiris?

Let’s get to the opium wars, starting with the first, though I will not dwell too much on it. There were two of them, the first 1839-1842 and the second 1856-1860, all a result of the trade disputes and quarrels between the Chinese Qing dynasty and the British. Around 1729 or so, large scale opium consumption started when the British started selling Indian cultivated opium in large quantities in Canton. As you can imagine, it was a massively lucrative trade for the English and when the Qing banned it in 1729, later in 1796 and 1800, the traders got upset, though consumption ended up increasing. In 1838, Lin Zexu decided to act and took authoritative action by destroying the opium hoards and confining the foreign traders to their homes. The stronger British retaliated heavily with their armed forces, imposed the treaty of Nanking and got Hong Kong in return. Still the situation did not turn out favorable to the British and this resulted in the second Opium war. China called it their ‘century of humiliation’. Peter Perdue in his essay explains that during the wars, a large percentage of the forces the British relied on to impose themselves in China were Indian sepoys identified in reports of the time by such phrases as “Bengal volunteers” and “Madras native infantry,” in addition to substantial contingents of Irish and Scottish troops. Both sides took captives and the impression held at the time was that Chinese often treated Indian prisoners more harshly than their white captives, but there is no proof about that. In any case, both sides engaged in abuse of prisoners, wanton plunder, and other barbarous behavior.

So many prisoners were taken by the British and well had to be incarcerated. Transportation, which we talked about earlier in connection with the Andamans, was a profitable solution for the British. In China for example, it cost them about $36 to maintain a prisoner inland, for a year, and if they were transported to another colony, which took over their care, a one-time payment of $30-$60 was all that needed to be paid. So, many of these poor souls were thus transported to Sind, and to other British colonies and India. The Chinese hated it and equated it to death fearing that they will never again return to their land, and the other punishments were considered in comparison, trivial and bearable. Many committed suicide to avoid transportation. This went on for some time, till shipping costs increased. The government covered the increase with a grant, and so a trickle of various kinds of Chinese and other prisoners from Singapore, Canton and Malaysia hit Indian shores. We see mentions of them housed in Coimbatore & Madras jails and if you choose to look deeper, you will see them mentioned here and there. What their crimes were is not known, but they landed up in environs they were not used to, against their will. With a despondent life ahead of them, what could they do? The Chinese of that time either gave in, or were lost in solitude, thinking about their bad joss. Usually they would have sat like a stone and stared at the distance and infinity, with a cup of green tea in their hand, but what if they had no tea and were in Coimbatore?

One of the things you notice while traveling in China is their absolute dependence on green tea. Wherever they are, they are sipping little amounts of green tea from their thermos flasks. They have their favorite tea pouches or leaves in their handbags for any eventuality. Even in airports, where liquids are not permitted through security, they carry the flasks without tea, but with the leaves. Just after the security and before boarding, there is a counter where they handover their empty flasks, which are then topped up by a lady behind the counter, with boiling water so that they can sip their tea while boarding or on the flight. You see them sipping the liquid in the metro, in taxis and in buses. One thing they would thus have lacked in the 1850’s when they landed up in India was the tea they were used to. Coffee was perhaps available, though not for prisoners. Tea was of course being planted in the Assam regions since the 1820’s and was a popular plantation crop already, but had not found its way south.

As the hoary legend puts it, some of these prisoners were sent for hard labor to the Nilgiris where the British were trying various forms of cultivation, primarily Coffee, Tea and Cinchona. They had some seeds with them and they planted it to provide the Nilgiris tea we know of. Well, it is an interesting story really, but I did not quite believe it. The introduction of tea was of course based on seeds from China, but was first done even before the Opium wars, in the North East. How about in the Nilgiris?

Well, Let us start at the very beginning – it’s a a very good place to start – as the song went from the Sound of Music.. How did tea drinking start? Did it start with the Bodhidharma’s eyelids dropping off to the ground as a Chinese legend goes? As you can see from my earlier article, he lived in the 6th century. But then tea drinking in China may dates even further back, to the Tsin dynasty of 3AD or can more authoritatively be traced to the 4th century. The Chinese were very specific, every tea had to be matched with the water of a particular locality so as to taste correct (not like ours where kannan devan tea is perhaps mixed with the most effluent tainted water from the local river, at the roadside tea shop). By the 7th century it was very popular in China.

The English were involved in the transfer of tea growing to India after problems with Chinese sourcing, though tea could be found in the courts of Mughal kings even before that. Serious efforts started around 1793. It is explained that in 1780, Robert Kyd experimented with tea cultivation in India with seeds, the consignment of which was stated to have arrived from China. A few decades later Robert Bruce discovered tea plants growing wild in Upper Brahmaputra valley around 1823. In 1833 the East India Company's monopoly of the Chinese trade came to an end. Around this time, it also appears that a number of Chinese labor was introduced in Assam to do planting and making tea the right way. Many came on their own to these areas, due to abject poverty in China. In May 1838 the first Indian tea from Assam was sent to England for public sale. It was received with much pleasure even though it was somewhat damaged during transit. But steady supply was not easy, due to the problems in Assam with the opium smoking local labor. Their descendants were to pay a price (1962 war) though, after a century, which can be termed the most unfortunate. When I read about it, I was astounded, and so I will perhaps get to it another day and for sure invoke the ire of many a reader, for my opinion on the matter may be scathing to say the least. Anyway between this time and 1870, it became a cash crop and a tea mania of sorts happened in Assam, kind of like the Teak mania and Manjium mania in Kerala, some years ago. Speculation ran high and many lost their fortunes. But then we will leave Assam and the Chinese of Assam for now. Now let us venture south, and go higher, up the hills, unlike the plains of the Brahmaputra.

We have to go back to 1833 when Asst Surgeon Christie noticed that tea is similar to its cousin the Camelia that grew abundantly in the Nilgiris. So he ordered some tea plants from China, but as luck would have it, he died before they reached him. The plants were promptly distributed and planted. But nobody cared too much and it was later in 1838 that Pondicherry governor Perrotett rediscovered them and brought them to life. The hand cured tea leaves were considered excellent by enthusiasts. Next was Mr Mann who brought a large crop of seedlings from China to the Conoor tea estate. This tea was also considered excellent in London, but Mr Mann had by now got fed up trying to acquire land and so on. Efforts continued until 1869 and the arrival of Commissioner Breeks before it gained popularity. Now I guess all this must have been boring for the lay reader. What has it to do with Chinese? Were there any of them in the plantations?

Now is when the story takes its hoary turn. As the legend goes, around this time, presumably 1839 or so, there was a batch of Chinese prisoners in Nilgiris. As Sir Griffths puts it, it is an improbable legend which stated that these Chinese prisoners were responsible for instructing these planters in the manufacture of tea. Anyway from 1867, there was a steady growth in the manufacture of tea and around a few hundred thousand pounds of tea left these estates regularly. Later on, there were many issues related to workers unrest, bonus issues and so on. However South Indian tea could not quite rate up to Western and Arabian tastes, then. Later the industry was hit by the world wars, communist unrest and so on. But let us leave such discussions to those interested in the tea business and the planters themselves; let us find out what the Chinese were doing in Nilgiris.

For that we have to get to know yet another plant, the Chinchona plant. This came to India from Peru, and involved transplantation by a British subject, like the tea. It was used to produce Quinine important in the treatment of Malaria and was thus a cash plant. Again, it was well known to the Chinese. One Mr Money introduced it in the Nilgiris, around 1860.

From now on, I will thank Nina Verghese and quote from her resourceful blog. I was surprised to see the mention of Vanya Orr, whom I had come across and communicated with during my study of Collector Connolly. For now, let’s go to a place called Naduvattam, in the Nilgiris.

The cinchona bark was the source for quinine and was required in large quantities to deal with the malaria fever which was rampant all over India and many other parts of the world. The cinchona bark was brought to Europe by the Jesuits and was called the Jesuit bark. The demand for the bark soon outgrew the supply. European powers vied with each other to get hold of the seedlings so that it could be planted in their colonies in Africa and Asia. But it was only by the middle of the 19th century that the cinchona seedlings were successfully smuggled out of South America. By 1867, the commercial cultivation of cinchona in the Nilgiris gained popularity. Cinchona was planted in a woody ravine on the slopes of the Doddabetta. Labor was scarce and many of the government and private plantations used convict labor to clear the jungle and to plant cinchona. The convicts were mainly Chinese from the Straits Settlements and some from mainland China. After they served their time, these Chinese men married Tamil women and settled down to live in Naduvattam; making a living out growing vegetables and from dairy farming.

Specifically these Chinese prisoners were originally brought to Madras and were used in the construction and in laying the railway lines. The need for labor both on the plantations and in building construction was great. Chinese prisoners were brought from Madras for this purpose. Some of the prisoners were assigned to the building of Lawrence School, in Lovedale, where they were lodged in temporary sheds.

There are stories of them trying to escape and as the record goes, some of them escaped after killing a police posse that was in hot pursuit. These men lived in the bushed, made a living herding cows, cultivating coffee and vegetables. Ajayan in his article in the Asian age however puts it this way -

History has it that after the Opium War between China and Britain, the Chinese prisoners brought to Kozhikode were forced to trek to Nilgiris with sacks full of tea seeds. They were jailed in the Thiashola forest reserve and made to plant tea. The oldest bush is still preserved in the estate that formally began operations in 1858.

The British House of Commons papers Vol#43 provides the copy of a letter from the Supdt Dehradun Botanical gardens to the Madras conservator of forests where he states that he has no Chinese tea makers to send to Nilgiris, but that he can send native trained people instead, on a 3 year contract. So it must have been common to move these Chinese supervisors who were in great demand. Manual labor was done by small batches of Chinese and Chinese-Malay convicts as we saw earlier to plant tea and Cinchoma.

Were these Chinese convicts used elsewhere in the tea estates? Perhaps they were used in the cultivation efforts in Nilgiris if one were to go by what happened in Maharashtra. We hear of another mention from the hill station of Mahabaleshwar. Mahabaleshwar was a jail with 120 prisoners for Chinese & Malay convicts from 1834 to 1864, and they were sent there due to health issues they had with the heat in the plains. The principal labor in which the prisoners were employed was the construction of station roads. They were also frequently employed in preparing arrow-root for the Commissariat Department. The Chinese greatly improved the station gardens; and it is owing, in great measure, to their industry, that potatoes and English vegetables have been so great a success. They also taught the inhabitants to make cane baskets and chairs. When the Jail was abolished in 1864, the majority of prisoners obtained tickets of leave, and some of these were permitted to remain on the hill, on condition of presenting themselves on the 1st of every month at the Superintendent's office.

According to planter KJ Tanna, who again restates a legend, Thiashola Estate in Nilgiris was opened out in 1859. Chinese prisoners were brought to India from China in 1859, and jailed in the Nilgiris in two camps, one at Naduvattam and one in the Thiashola Reserve Forest. A plaque still commemorates the "Jail Thottam" (prison garden) where the prisoners were housed. The Thiashola Tea Estate, where the Chinese prisoners planted tea is now mistakenly called Thaishola tea estate.

Now let us see what Thurston had to say when he encountered this peculiar Chinese Tamil descendants of the Nilgiris convicts near Naduvattam. Thurston says that while Hindu tribals asked money before they were measured or photographed, the Chinese in Nilgiris subjected themselves to his research willingly, and only wanted a copy of his photographs of them. The Chinese father was unhappy that during his conversion, he had to cut away his tail. The children were distinctly oriental in looks. According to him, the naduvattom Hoooker estate factory was built where they once had a jail which housed Chinese convicts from the Straits settlement. After the expiration of their sentence, they settled in Naduvattam and Gudalaur. According to another writer Mr Rust, they were quite muscular and energetic and were happy with the rice diet in South India and Ceylon plantations. Some were even willing emigrants from mainland China with the English.

Nina’s blog provides pictures of the remnants of these people, the locations where they lived, a temple with distinct Chinese lines of architecture and so on. Interesting isn’t it?

And I remembered my distant country cousin Appan, the tea taster and his stories, but well, I guess you have had too much of tea for today, so lest I drift away, let me make use of the sparingly used punctuation tool of rambling writers, the full-stop or as they call it in the USA, the period.


Nina’s article
Anglo-China: Chinese People and British Rule in Hong Kong, 1841-1880 - Christopher Munn
Nilgiris – W Francis
“The history of the indian tea industry” by Sir Percival Griffiths
Madras presidency - Thurston
Mahabaleshwar – DB Parasnis
Madras district gazetteers, Volume 1
Coffe, Anybody?

Note: I study all these estate stories with a lot of fondness, for that is where my parents lived when I was a child. I have been in all these places during my younger days – Talapoya, Mango range, Murugali, Valparai, Conoor, Ooty, Mango Range, Valparai....and many more. That was a different world, believe me. Sometimes I envy people who live there, like Vanya, Kalyani and Nina...


Kayamkulam Kochunni – The Robin Hood of Kayamkulam

Every place with some history has somebody like Robin Hood in their lore and legends. Kerala had one as well, and the minds of people warm up when they hear and talk about them. As we know, this person has been talked about for the last 80 or so years and one or two movies have been made about his life, not to forget the Amar Chitra Katha comic book that children devour. I myself was lucky, for I heard it first from my paternal aunt with whom I grew up as a child, for she would read me stories from the Aithihyamala. Though she was somewhat stern, and not given to blowing up the account, she would still put flesh and blood to the story, as she read and I would listen carefully and my mind would wander thinking about those locales, the people, the ambience. To this day that wandering mind has not come to rest, I suppose.

The man behind it all spent some 40 years in this world, and was certainly a troubled person to be living a life of crime or a life spent balancing wealth and inequality forcefully, if one were to term it so. A couple of accounts about him in English can be found if one searched, and there is the detailed account in malayalam provided by the great Kottarathil Sankunni, that we talked about previously. In fact it is one of the longest stories in the ‘Garland of legends’ book ‘Aithihyamala’ that Malayalees treasure. I will try to provide a little backdrop and a gist of the interesting life that Kochunni led in the succeeding paragraphs. Perhaps there might be one or two who cannot read Sankunni’s story in Malayalam, perhaps there are thousands who have not seen the movie, perhaps there are many who know more of the person, who can contribute tidbits. So here goes, for some stories have simply got to be retold.

Why you may ask. Well this simple tale was to affect so many people in so many ways. To mention a few, the story became a famous drama or play enacted in many locales pre-independence, a popular movie with, as some explain, a socialist backdrop, a story which fetched actor Aravindaksha Menon a national award, but more than all that a story that many others like me enjoyed, to remember it and retell it decades later.

Many of you have gone to Trivandrum. The heart of the political capital is a junction called Statue junction across the secretariat. In the middle of that junction can be found a statue, of a man who hailed from Maharashtra, a great and interesting man actually, who for sure has his own story waiting to be told, but then again, it is not about him. He was none other than T Madhava Rao. When Madhava Rao came to Travancore in 1848, to take up tutoring the princes and later hold the Dewan’s post in the kingdom, he was filling in the shoes his forefathers had filled, only that this man did it with much aplomb and in the most fearless fashion. I used to wonder, how come Malayali kings always asked somebody from faraway kingdoms to administer his wealth? It was the same in the Calicut and Cochin kingdoms. Must be a matter of trust I believe..

Kochunni was born to a poor family around the time Iryamman Thampi wrote Omana Thingal kidavo and heralded the arrival of the young Swati Tirunal to the throne of Travancore and so interestingly the life of Kochunni runs parallel with that of Maharaja Swati Tirunal. The difference was that while one administered the land with some difficulty and excelled in music, the other excelled in fighting against authority. And of course, Karthikapally - Keerikat where Kochunni was born was a part of Travancore at that time. Kochunni’s father was a robber of sorts, and the life the family led was one of insecurity and abject poverty on most days.

The situation in Travancore deteriorated after Swati Tirunal’s time and the situation was not too nice. As the article in Calcutta Review details, The courts of justice were so many seats of corruption and perversion of justice. Dacoits and marauders of the worst stamp scoured the country by hundreds; but these were less feared by the people than the so-called Police. In short, Travancore was the veriest den of misrule, lawlessness, and callous tyranny of the worst description. We advisedly say so, because the very heart of the administration was tainted. The State vessel was drifting at random amidst rocks and reefs, without a chart, without a compass, with shattered sails and broken cables, and above all, without a pilot. It was at the helm of this vessel that Madhava Rao was placed. He grasped it firmly; full of confidence in, the sympathy of the enlightened public, full of eagerness to earn a noble distinction.

Kochunni, as you will see was a ‘wicked’ man. Now that one word means different things these days. If you have lived in England, you will understand that it is used in different ways today. It is supposed to mean that you are a very interesting, slightly non-conforming and exciting person. That is the meaning most will want the reader to take from the usage, not the old Webster definition which could even mean ‘disgustingly unpleasant and evil’. You see, Kochunni was very much a robber who robbed the rich, was promiscuous and drank at times, living life well, but on the wrong side of the law. Today perhaps that is the norm in most places, practiced under the garb of decency, but Kochunni was openly and unabashedly unrepentant about his non-conformist attitude. But was he a bad man? Why did he do what he did? Why did many love him and an equally good number hate him? What kind of a life did he live? Why is he not accounted for in written history and why is he known only through legends? Let’s try to figure out.

His independent ways started at the age of 10 or 11. Pangs of hunger and misery drove him, a Moplah boy, to seek help from a Tamil Brahman at Evoor (near Cheppad in Kayamkulam). This simple man recommended Kochunni to the owner of the provision shop nearby, the shop belonging to a house called valiyaveedu(Big house). Being a clever boy, he did his work diligently and this as you can imagine, kept his colleagues and boss happy. On top of that, during one of the procurement visits he proved his mettle by helping his boss out of trouble when his boat was caught in swirling waters. The strong lad used the oar effectively and steered the boat to safety, thus earning the trust of his shop owner and from then on, regular wages.

Life was different in those days, and there were no schools and so on for poor people. In fact Kalaris where people of higher social standing learned martial arts were not open to poor Moplah boys like Kochunni. But soon Evoor was to host a wandering mendicant who was well versed in all that. This Thangal collected a set of Moplah boys and started to train them on various methods of self-defense and the use of small weapons like sticks, swords and knives. Kochunni hearing this approached the Thangal to join up, but was refused admission on the grounds that his lineage was not good, his father was a robber and that anything learnt would be used not for good, but for evil. Kochunni was disappointed, but then again, he was not a defeatist like you would believe, for he soon figured a way out of the problem.

He learnt that the Thangal was teaching his students after dusk and that proved quite convenient, for he could secretly watch the classes after his shop work was over. He hid behind a bush and watched, learning the moves and committing them to memory. A perky kid might ask ‘so can you watch a movie and learn tricks’? Well, my friend, perhaps not, but this is a legend, a tale, so I may not have all the answers…..

Now why would a Thangal be teaching arts of self-defense to Moplah boys? To understand that you have to place Kayamkulam correctly in history and understand its checkered past. It was a small kingdom, which was always threatened by the bigger kingdom of Travancore in those periods even though aligned to the kingdom of Quilon for some time. It was also a period when the British had already established themselves strongly in Malabar, but not in certain provinces like Travancore where there was much lawlessness as we read in the beginning. Everybody who was able bodied was doing right in learning to protect themselves.

Onnatukara , nearby Porkha and Kayamkulam or Coilcoiloan was the Kaukammali of Arab-travellers (11th century); the Cacolon of Varthema; the Calecoulang of Baldaeus ; the Coilcoiloan of Hamilton, and the Kayankulam of modern maps. The Kayamkulam port area had been an ancient maritime trading center but of late was more connected with pirates. As is well known, it was a location where pirates of medieval times sold booty. The purchasers in the early medieval times were Bania traders from Gujarat or the Portuguese or English factors on the Malabar Coast. The goods were of course goods of trade or booty from other raided ships. We talked about some of these stories such as those of Captain Kidd, Capt Green and so many people in previous articles. Why it was a popular location for pirates is a question that requires much study before answering, but it is also known that in most cases, the intermediaries in the sale of booty were intermediaries such as Kwaja Kamudi or other ‘Moors of Kayamkulam’. As we read - The suzerainty of the Kayamkulam prince was sought originally by the rulers of Quilon and later by their usurpers the rajas of Travancore. It was finally during the reign of Martanda varma (1729-58) that the Kayamkulam palace was set afire, brought under the kingdom of Travancore and the Krishnapuram palace built. So during the times Kochunni lived, this area was under Travancore rule.

Now let us get back to the young lad and his story, for as you can see, he is soon going to take a leap, literally and factually. As we saw, Kochunni was behind the bush, learning the tricks, and this continued till another espied him doing so. Kochunni was unceremoniously hauled out and brought before the Thangal for interrogation. Kochunni was asked what he had learnt and when he showed what, the Thangal was overjoyed. Soon he took him in as a regular student and as you can imagine became his star pupil. Kochunni thus became an expert in these arts in no time and if these every same legends can be believed, learnt reading and writing Malayalam, Arabic and Tamil, something that was rare for a Moplah boy of that time.

Well, sometimes the most trivial things trigger major changes. It was the same in this story as well. The Evoor temple priest needed some Jaggery (molasses) for the sweet offerings and sent a temple boy to the shop with the money, but as luck would have it, the shop had run out of stocks on that very day. The main stock was in the owner’s house, the valiyaveedu and again as luck would have it, the home was locked and the women had gone for their ritual bath. The requirement was urgent, there was a stock of jiggery just beyond the wall and the locked doors. Kochunni wa sin charge of the shop. What could Kochunni do? Send the boy back and delay the temple offerings, which of course would be sacrilege. So what did he do? He scaled the wall of the valiyaveedu using the tricks he had learnt, clambered over, took the required amount of jiggery and got back, without any problems.

But somebody else had seen this whole exercise and he went and explained to the shop owner that the boy he was harboring had been learning special tricks from the Tangal and had scaled the walls with ease. This troubled our shop owner was in a quandary. After much thought he summoned Kochunni and told him that time had come for them to part, but in the most amicable fashion. He gave Kochunni a gratuity of Rs 1,000/- and terminated his services, but making sure that the boy was not offended in any way, for there was no reason to do so. The boy was 20 years old and had worked all of 10 years in the shop attached to the said Evoor valiyaveedu.

Kochunni’s life after the loss of his aged parents, next took an established turn, and he was quickly married to a very young girl, following which his mother in law also came to live with him. Somebody might wonder why a mother in law has any importance in this story. Well, my friends, you will soon see. She will become the most important part of the story to follow. Perhaps it was to be, anyway, the next 20 years were to prove anything but conforming for the young lad. Soon he was to be termed a brigand and end up on the run, living perpetually in hiding and feared by the rich and held in much affection by the poor.

The jobless lad had no work or regular earnings, had two more mouths to feed and lived among people who mistrusted him. Soon he joined or formed a gang that took to smuggling and robbery. If you recall, I mentioned earlier that the small port of Kayamkulam was always in league with pirates and smugglers. Well, soon, that progressed to breaking into homes of rich people or threatening and coercing them to pay upfront to avoid attacks. Kochunni thus earned a lot, but spent all of it, as soon as he got it or for that matter gave it away to his friends and other needy people.

When one has more than enough money, the next step is to find avenues to spend it. Kochunni spent it apparently on liquor and women. The latter was one of his weaknesses and his biggest problem was going to come from his favorite mistress, a comely woman named Karthiani. As the story goes, his mother in law came to know about it and confronted him, one fine day. The confrontation led to much insults thrown back and forth and eventually Kochunni ended up striking the old hag on the head with a stick, instantly killing her. Kochunni quietly packed her up, weighted the body with a stone and sunk the corpse in the dark waters of Kayamkulam.

Soon news trickled out and the local Thahsildar had no choice but to set the police on the hunt for Kochunii, who was by now in hiding, but on the prowl at nights in Karthikapalli, Karunagapalli and Mavelikkara regions, mainly living off petty thefts and blackmail. That was when the name Kayamkulam Kochunni stuck and became feared. The Tahsildar was vexed, he had to catch the criminal and straightforward methods did not work. This was when he heard about Kochunni’s regular nocturnal trysts with his mistress at Keerikat. He hatched a plan and summoned the woman, to whom he promised a relationship of sorts, if only she would leave Kochunii. The woman being an opportunist, s more interested in money and fame, quickly agreed to be involved in the entrapment of Kochuni with a sleeping potion, during his next visit.

Kochunni was given some tainted milk by Karthiani and he drank the milk unsuspectingly, promptly keeling over. The waiting policemen took him to the Karthikapalli police station lockup. 10 years had by now passed since his murder of his mother in law. The Tahsildar reported to the Huzoor at Trivandrum and Kochunni was to be transported with escort to Trivandrum as soon as possible, but then as you can imagine, Kochunni had other ideas. The shackles were to prove too flimsy for an expert like Kochunni, and he escaped from his prison the following night. As can be expected, he went to the house of the mistress who betrayed him, actually to pick up his dagger, but now found her with another man. The enraged Kochunni promptly hacked both of them to death, then went and confessed to his wife, promising that he would not indulge in such nefarious activities again.

The Thahsildar and the police were back to square one, running after Kochunni and his gang, who were busy with their usual petty thefts and other activities, never sticking to a routine. The pressure from Trivandrum increased, especially after the appointment of the said Dewan Madhava Rao.

Kochiunnis’ gang comprised mainly of Kopparambil Mammad, Kaduvacheri Bava, Kottapuram Bavakunju, Pakolathu Nurahmed, Valiakulangara Kunju Marakkar, Varaveetu Vadekkedath Kochu Pilla etc. All of them were well versed in martial arts and were skilled thieves. But Kopparambil Mammad was a problem person, who stooped at nothing, for he also robbed or attacked anybody at a possible opportunity, even poor people. This Kochunni would not allow and soon Kochunni decided that enough was enough and threw Mammad out of his gang.

Life at Kochunni’s home had meanwhile stabilized, he had stopped womanizaing and was getting along well with his wife. As all this was going on for many years, Kochunni fathered three sons and a daughter with his wife. But Madhava Rao at Trivandrum was getting impatient.

Madhava Rao was insistent on law and order and one of the first things he did was strengthen police powers. Rao appointed the able VP Kunju Panickkar as the new Tahsildar who was also charged with capturing Kochunni at the earliest. Panikkar tried hard, but was not able to catch Kochunni. Finally he too decided on entrapment by deceit, and decided to approach the estranged Mammad. Mammad in turn, bribed some of the others in the gang and incited them against Kochunni.

The scene next shifts to the Ambayil home of Kochupilla, the associate of Kochunni where a party was arranged. Being his friend’s house, Kochunni was relaxed and soon drank himself to a stupor. In that state, the rest of the gang bound Kochunni in stout ropes and waited for him to wake up. Kochunni tried hard to escape using his small dagger, but that was of no avail. Soon the police arrived and shackled him. The next day he was sent to the Trivandrum central jail without much ado. It also appears from Sankunni’s account that Madhava Rao himself takes a good look at Kochunni. Shortly thereafter; Kochunni was sentenced to solitary confinement in the jail. Those who helped capture Kochunni, i.e. Kochupilla, Mammad etc got rewards and the others were entrapped in some cases and sentenced to 14 years imprisonment. In the meantime, the broken Kochunni fell ill and precisely after 91 days of imprisonment, Kochunni passed away in the jail. It was 1859.

Like all tales, Kochunni is also characterized as a tall and handsome, well-mannered gentleman, but one who was doing the wrong things in wrong places at the wrong time. History has been lenient on him, though historic accounts have no records of such a person. Perhaps if one were to check the old records at the Trivandrum central jail, they might find an entry of a Kochunni, but I am not so sure, for he lived more in the minds of people I suppose. For the authorities, he was a nuisance, for the rich, he was a pain and for the poor, some kind of hope. That was Kayamkulam Kochunni.

As Sankunni explains, Kochunni’s elder son also died in jail for some crime or the other. The second also entered a life of crime and was imprisoned, but escaped and vanished. The third became a trader at Ochira and the girl was married off and lived her days in a place called Eruva. The Sankunni account also has many details of his various deeds and misdeeds very similar to those of Robin Hood, but it is perhaps a better idea to get to them some other day.

Madhava rao did well; he brought much order to the Travancore administration, cleaned up the bureaucracy, paid off old debts and put the state on a good footing. The state was thence called a Model state. It is perhaps a good idea to take a look at the situation in Travancore then.

Let us see what he did. One of the main focus areas of Madhava Rao was the Police of Travancore as stated in the Calcutta Review -

The Police has, from the, beginning of his administration, received the best attention of Madhava Rao. In 1861-62, he announced that it was in contemplation "to organise a Police Force somewhat on the plan which has been pursued in the Madras Presidency." The wants of the Police Department were: "1st, increased pay; 2ndly, increased strength; and 3rdly, more method and discipline." These were attended to in due course. We have already seen that the increase of salaries in this department was more than cent, per cent. The salaries of the Tahsildars, which had been shamefully low, were raised to a respectable standard. But no increase of pay could ensure that attention on the part of the Tahsildars to Police duties which was necessary; simply because with the innumerable calls on their time on account of revenue, religious, Civil, Commissariat, and a thousand and one other duties, it was physically impossible. To meet this want Police Amins were appointed in such places, which, for want of a better phrase, may be called the criminal head-quarters. The chief towns in the country were placed under the care of special Police Superintendents. The more heinous crimes have vastly decreased; so much so that in 1869-70, out of 19,736 cases disposed of, during the year only 310 cases had to be committed to the Criminal Courts. Petty offences, as petty litigation, must generally be on the increase as society becomes more and more complex.

Perhaps we need another Madhava Rao now in Kerala, but then again he was also involved in a few interesting scandals and we will get to one of them dealing with covering breasts, another day. After straightening out the princely state, Madhava Rao retired in 1882 and spent his retirement studying Marathi literature, composing Marathi poems and making his voice heard among the Congress moderates

Now to another story - Can you imagine how this story is connected to our great Yesudas with his wife Prabha? Well, let us take a look at the transcript of an interview with Manorama or an article actually by Prabha herself in the Herald as linked. She says

I still remember a line in the advertisement for the film 'Kayamkulam Kochunni' released in July 1966. "Kayamkulam Kochunni -- the film you have been waiting for! Famous singer Yesudas acts in a singing role with the king of acting -- Satyan!"I and my sister Sasi went to see the film 'Kayamkulam Kochunni' with brother Thomaskutty. When I saw a lean and thin young man with a silken cap and a thin moustache singing "Suruma, Nalla Suruma" and dancing shyly, I felt like laughing. I wished I could meet him. Around that time, Yesudas had a concert at Thiruvananthapuram.

I went to see the programme along with my family. Some from the audience would send slips to the stage requisitioning songs of their choice. The singer would sing some of those songs. It was very interesting. Our relative Babychayan also had accompanied us to the programme. He made the requisition slip in an interesting way. He wrote the song's title on the white portion of a five-rupee currency note and sent it to the stage. When he saw the costly slip, the singer smiled and sang: "pancha varna thatha pole konchi vanna penne". After the chorus, he himself altered the lyric and sang "the sight of the five-rupee note has broken my heart, girl", from the original line "your sweet words have broken my heart, girl". It revealed the singer's sense of humour. This intensified my love.

Interesting person, this fellow Kochunni and I guess he can have the last laugh. Just like our Vavar at Sabarimala, there is a shrine at Kozhancherry for Kochunni, where people can come and pray at Kochunni nada. Interestingly, the Valiyaveedu family of Evoor still exists, though not the original house. The Varanapallil house also exists and it was here that Kochunni once executed a challenge very cleverly. Today the locale of Evoor is famous for the large thermal power plant built there.


A Native Statesman – Calcutta Review
Kayamkulam Kochunni – Aithihyamala – Kottarathil Sankunni
Robin Hood Of kerala – Kochunni – Vilanilam

The entire movie is available on Youtube
Pics – From the net - thanks to the owners

When Tomorrow Comes….

I was sitting with my cup of coffee, checking out the latest news on the newspaper and thinking how long I would continue reading the newspaper. The feel of the paper, the smell of ink and all of that is going away soon. Newsweek just announced that their December issue is going to be its last on print. Reading the WSJ, I am wondering if that fine paper too will take the same route. Well, I for one would be sad about it, for there is nothing like stretching back and unraveling the big and wide paper, listening to the crackle and scanning back and forth, top to bottom, side to side. Whatever said and done, you can never get that right on a 10 or 12 inch screen, e-ink or not, even for a tech savvy guy like me. But then you cannot question economics, profit and loss and such things, for they drive decisions, not some longing reader’s mindset…

Before the reader wonders what all this has got to do with the subject line, I better get to the topic. It did have something to do with the first paragraph, for I read about these astonishing advances from the very paper I talked about, the Wall Street Journal, and it set my mind in motion.

I come from a family of farmers, though on my father’s side, there were a few connections to the ancient rulers of Malabar. But at Pallavur, like the rest of the people of the village, we are a farming family, an activity that my brother takes care of these days. Each time I go on vacation, he tells me about some of the new things that have happened and I end up thinking wistfully about days long gone, the days of my childhood, and all those fascinating vacation days spent at my mother’s Tharavad, the harvest festivals, the seeding period, the monsoons, the implements of the farm, the farm animals, the smells, sounds and sights of the village. The sound of vehicles, the gasoline fumes, the glitz and glamor of a city, the steel and glass on the buildings, the many conveniences, they are all nice, but you know how it is, your mind takes you back to your roots, every once in a while…and you wonder….

I think back and see all those days vividly in my mind, of the days when we would wake up early on Vishu day and go to the fields for the festivities, when the gods of prosperity are addressed. I had written about this earlier. This was the day the child of the house always looked forward to, for it was the only successful day in a monetary sort of way, the only time money was given to the children in older days, days when terms like pocket money were not in vogue in Kerala. So when your pocket bulged with coins by the end of the day though not liberal in a value sense, coming from various uncles, aunts and elders of the family, the child had a beaming smile on your face for the next few days. The following days were spent in animated discussions with cousins as to who got how much and from whom and what was to be done with all the money. But then Vishu was more than the ‘kainettam’. It started early that morning and had so much going on for the rest of the day. Starting with the Vishu Kani, then the ‘chal pooja’ at the Chira, the fireworks, the sumptuous lunch followed by all kinds of happenings at home and the temple, the day was a joy for any Malayali, though it differed a bit from location to location..

In Palghat, when you visit places like Pallavur, even today, you can see age old practices of farming, where seeding is done by hand, and sometimes even harvesting and threshing is still done by hand in some homesteads. These days some amount of modernization has taken place in bigger farms, tractors have given way to harvesters and big tilling machines that come from nearby Tamil Nadu, and these things are done in a jiffy. The land that was tilled by bullocks and what took many days is now done by the Tamilian and his big machine in a day or two. Harvesting that took an overseer like our Keshavan Nair and Eacharan, supervising many hunched women with straw hats, who laboriously worked in the fields, with their ari-vaal or the curved rice stalk cutting knife. Finally the paddy was brought to the cement para (a concreted area near the granary for this very purpose) and threshed to separate the stalk from the seed.

Well, as you can imagine, things are slowly changing out there too, and with higher salaries for factory work, better education and the lure of office jobs, you will not have farm hands anymore. Machines will take over and soon the situation will be akin to that of Punjab where the farming will be highly mechanized (out there the water tables are dwindling fast but we in Kerala may be saved by our great monsoons). Nevertheless who will continue with farming, especially when produce prices are regulated and margins are wafer thin? Perhaps it is time to farm exotic stuff or start organic farming, which is more profitable. My brother tries his hand at some of these new ideas at times and complains a lot when they do not find any support among the traditional lot out there. Sometimes he tries new crops like Chinese potatoes (my favorite – Koorka) and comes up with bumper produce, with great taste even appreciated by the likes of our Koorka eating ex-chief minister Achuettan.

In Sweden, and in many other countries they have gone to other extremes. The old methods are fast changing to new ones. The logic is that when production has to meet demands, that too specific demands from far separated places, farming becomes somewhat complex and disconnected from nature. You see, nature determines what crop is produced when, in traditional farming. As an example, what if you wanted to produce something removed from nature, for example, rice in December, due to an increased rice demand predicted in winter? Then you have to reproduce nature, correct? And how would you do it? That was roughly the concept behind what I was reading about in the newspaper. No, it is not about making genetic changes to seeds or organic farming, which again is an interesting topic, but something else entirely. It is not about greenhouses, but connected to a massive greenhouse concept. So let’s take a look at what is going on. Let me give my history mind and history cells and history genes some rest and go activate my farming genes now…

And thus we come to the topic at hand, which is what they call vertical farms…and a time when the future of agriculture as WSJ puts it, is up, and up, not flat and flat. Can you imagine a situation when you grow crops in vertical multi storied high rise buildings in the middle of other buildings? A time, when you look out of your apartment window and see another massive glass and steel building, not full of people but full of plants? That is how it could be, I have no doubts about it, for sooner or later, land will not be available horizontally, and so man will be forced to think vertically!!

The complainers complain about the rains, they complain about all the effluents that are going into the soil; they complain of development and human greed, they complain of our complete lack of environment friendliness. What if you are able to create a situation where you isolate farming from all those environmental issues? Will your food be cleaner, untainted but perhaps not possessing just the right taste? Is it but a wasted thought?

To start with, it a new idea? As the economist article reminds us, perhaps not – Do you remember something from our ancient wonders, something that people still do not have a good idea about? Do you remember the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, built around 600BC? Quoting the Wiki entry - Philo narrates - "The Hanging Gardens [is so-called because it] has plants cultivated at a height above ground level, and the roots of the trees are embedded in an upper terrace rather than in the earth. This is the technique of its construction. The whole mass is supported on stone columns, so that the entire underlying space is occupied by carved column bases. The columns carry beams set at very narrow intervals. The beams are palm trunks, for this type of wood – unlike all others – does not rot and, when it is damp and subjected to heavy pressure, it curves upwards. Moreover it does itself give nourishment to the root branches and fibres, since it admits extraneous matter into its folds and crevices……….. Streams of water emerging from elevated sources flow partly in a straight line down sloping channels, and are partly forced upwards through bends and spirals to gush out higher up, being impelled through the twists of these devices by mechanical forces. So, brought together in frequent and plentiful outlets at a high level, these waters irrigate the whole garden, saturating the deep roots of the plants and keeping the whole area of cultivation continually moist. Hence the grass is permanently green, and the leaves of trees grow firmly attached to supple branches, and increasing in size and succulence with the constant humidity. For the root [system] is kept saturated and sucks up the all-pervading supply of water, wandering in interlaced channels beneath the ground, and securely maintaining the well-established and excellent quality of trees. This is a work of art of royal luxury and its most striking feature is that the labor of cultivation is suspended above the heads of the spectators.

Complainers would now say, well, scientists said the same thing when you started growing chicken and cows indoor in environments they were not supposed to be in, in overcrowded farms set up only for human consumption where the result was hormone enhanced milk or eggs or meat with huge amount of antibiotics and other chemicals in them. Was that done wrongly or was it greed?

My uncle, a great student of history (MA history), and a student of law, left all that and a good job, to come back the village to manage our farm lands many a moon ago. The dear old man is no longer alive, but still prods a nerve in our minds, for he was the person who steered the tharavad along for a long time, with his gentle, but firm and new ideas, though rooted in tradition. At that time we did not quite understand, but thinking back, he was a one great guy. He would have done well in the corporate world, though I am happy he did not. Sometimes I think in the same way, when I am not happy with the terrible ways of the corporate world I am in and long to go back to the simple life at Pallavur, but cannot.

Would these vertical farms produce food which would carry the same problems as meat and eggs and milk? Let’s take a look at this revolutionary concept sooner than later, for it will not be too long in our lifetimes that we will see this germ of an idea taking root and spreading. Spread it must, for man is producing and reproducing large numbers who will need even more space to live and compete with space needed by the very farms that have to feed them. Greed will displace these farm lands as we see on a daily basis, and so where would you go for food? Where would you grow food? This vertical farm concept has to be a way, perhaps the only way.

Can you imagine multi storied buildings where these plants travel in tracks from the top of the building gradually to the bottom, tracking the sun? Well, this is how they are trying it out in Sweden and Canada; and there are quite a few smaller vertical farms in USA, and other countries. Can you imagine vegetables grown on floating rafts in a meat packing plant in Chicago where the waste from the fish tanks enriches the plants? Would you believe it if I told you that there are a number of farms in the USA where plants actually hang in air and the roots are sprayed with nutrients? Well I guess that is the future of farming, not like the farms of Pallavur that I remembered from my younger days.

If these compact farms are right in the middle of a metropolis, do you need those huge trucks to bring the food from farms many a hundred or thousand miles away? Perhaps not! The supporters cite many other reasons to adopt these new ideas, explaining that this can help combat climate change, that this can help reduce the use of chemicals and pesticides. They state that prices can be maintained, is greener than traditional farming and so on. And overall, it provides food security and less dependence on others, for any country.

And that gets me thinking of the bullock cart, the one I wrote about some years ago There was a time when we had a bullock cart at our maternal home in Pallavur. I remember the chap who drove the cart, Eaachran, who was also our supervisor in the fields (I guess only trustworthy positions got the exalted cart driver status). The cart was not used very much though. In our times, it was parked in the shed (yes, it had its own garage) and once a week, our man used to get the two bulls yoked up in front and take the cart to get stocks from the nearby Alathur market. The cart would come back late at night, loaded with sacks of cattle feed, vegetables, oil tins, fertilizer and provisions. The cattle knew the route back and forth; Eaacharan was normally asleep at the wheels (a few bottles of toddy maybe?) on the way back, but no problems….

But is that right? Can you really grow basmati or koorka in a vertical farm? I am not sure, but there is no reason why they cannot be, what I am not sure is if the taste will change, for taste is determined by the soil, by the local methods and so on, and not in any way enhanced by an enclosed atmosphere. Perhaps you can grow technically perfect vegetables, maybe not the tastiest. To get the right tastes, you do make hybrid versions or indulge in genetic modifications, but are they right? On the other hand, will the citizens of the future have a real choice when it comes to taste? Perhaps not! Just like you ruminate about the past, when your grandmother used to hand grind the perfect chutney, and you complain about the blander version coming out of your grinder…these things will happen, while man will adopt, and as the memories fade, the tastes will change. As another writer once wrote, huge companies like McCormick will decide the tastes of the future food.

Look at a typical example - my second son, always states that his favorite is the chicken tikka masala which a connoisseur of Indian food will scoff at, as he may put a lucknowi chicken dish at the top, but for my son, the CTM is the best because he has been eating it all his life, while the other dishes are mainly pictures and words in articles or found only in hotels that he would not normally go to or are many a thousand miles away.

Back to the vertical farm, how do they grow the plants? One of the concepts employed in a vertical farm is hydroponics. Economist mag states There are a number of ways to do it, but essentially hydroponics involves suspending plants in a medium—such as gravel, wool or a form of volcanic glass known as perlite—while the roots are immersed in a solution of nutrient-rich water. A constant flow of air keeps the plants bathed in carbon dioxide. Any nutrients and water that are not taken up by the roots can be recycled, rather than being lost into the soil. According to Dr Giacomelli “You can grow anything with hydroponics.

Light was another issue in glass houses or greenhouses, and while earlier farms had their own power plants to drive these lights, the new ones use energy saving LED lighting, or as I explained earlier, moving tracks which track sunlight and augmented by LED light when needed. So answers are found with developing and innovative technologies.

It is not these buildings will be just vertical farms, but they will use one side of it or two sides where sunlight hits them, with the rest of the space leased to offices so that the cost of building the vertical farm is offset to a certain extent. But these farms are not cheap by any means, they need expensive lighting, they need clean water systems, huge upfront investments on the machinery & conveyer systems and large investments in LED lighting. We still do not have a clear business model available to an entrepreneur.

According to one of the people behind the very idea of vertical farming Dr Dickson Despommier- By the year 2050, nearly 80% of the earth's population will reside in urban centers. Applying the most conservative estimates to current demographic trends, the human population will increase by about 3 billion people during the interim. An estimated 109 hectares of new land (about 20% more land than is represented by the country of Brazil) will be needed to grow enough food to feed them, if traditional farming practices continue as they are practiced today. At present, throughout the world, over 80% of the land that is suitable for raising crops is in use (sources: FAO and NASA).

Agriculture also uses 70 percent of the world’s available freshwater for irrigation, rendering it unusable for drinking as a result of contamination with fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and silt. If current trends continue, safe drinking water will be impossible to come by in certain densely populated regions.

The monsoons of Malabar - yes, without those rains, we would not have any farming in Palakkad. remeber the story of how that happened? The story when the kings prayed for rain in Malabar…In days of yore, there was, at one time, no rain in the kingdoms of Chera, Chola and Pandya, and all living beings were dying of starvation. The kings of the three kingdoms could not find means to mitigate the sufferings of their subjects. They consulted with one another and resolved to do penance to the God of rain. Temporarily leaving the administration of affairs in the hands of the ministers, they went to the forest, and did penance to Indra, the God of rain, who, at the intercession of the great Gods, took pity on them and blessed each of them with rain for four months in the year. Well pleased, they returned to their kingdoms. They soon become discontented, because the first (the Chera king) had not enough of rain, while the other two had too much of it. They again went to the rain god and conveyed to him their grievances. He thereupon directed the kings Cholan and Pandiyan to give two months' rain to the king Cheran. All the three rulers now felt quite satisfied. The king Cheran thus got 8 months' rain for his kingdom, while the other two were satisfied with two months' rain in their own kingdoms.

Or will it be as the Zamorin of Calicut, my grandfather many eons over told the Vasco De Gama (not really, it is just a myth that sounds good) - When asked by Vasco De Gama for some pepper seedlings, the Zamorin, his old leathery face twisting in sarcasm told the Gama, that he could take pepper seedlings back home and wished him the best in growing them, but added that what he would never be able to replicate the monsoons of Kerala and the sun, signifying that Vasco will have to come back to buy the pepper from Malabar.

Perhaps the person who wants to make money in the long run should take heed of humorist Mark Twain who once said: “Buy land. They’re not making it anymore.”

Vertical farm images – Plantagon/Sweco, Farm images, Hindu, thadeus

Note: After I decided on the heading, I found out that there is a song by Eurythmics with the same title. Originally I headed this as ‘farms of tomorrow’, but thought it a little drab and changed it to the new one, signifying what could be in store for us tomorrow. The similarity is therefore a coincidence, though I must admit that the Sidney Sheldon book ‘If tomorrow comes’, was definitely an inspiration.