Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Day 6, The Road to the Wynaad.

The Wynaad, as my forebears had spelt it, or Wayanad, as I must learn to write it today, featured strongly in many of the accounts that I had read.

It was the place where Thomas Baber finally cornered the Pyche Raja, but it was also where Thomas appears to have formed some of his strongest bonds with the country.

This was also the place that was described so fully in Thomas report on slavery.

My kind hosts in India had laid on a series of guides and contacts in Calicut and the Wayanad to help ensure that we could visit as many of the locations as possible.

So on this bright and sunny Sunday morning, just like one of the most perfect of English summer mornings, we were setting off to Sultan Batheri to meet Mr. Johnny, a local newspaper journalist, filmmaker and author with a keen interest in the Pyche Raja, who was going to show us the location where the Pyche Raja had been killed.

Driving out of Calicut we were soon climbing up the gently sloping road towards Thamarassery. Soon we had cleared Calicut and were out into paddy fields and palm groves. Small houses, farms and villages lined the road.

On both sides of the road we were met by files and files of young children in their Sunday best off on their way to the Madressa. [1] These children were often only four or five years of age and were usually completely on their own without the least parental supervision, and very largely oblivious to the oncoming traffic, which as so often in India seemed to charge along at break neck speed, often coming within inches of these smarly turned out little kids happily on their way to learn another verse or two of the Koran.

It is so sad that the huge growth in traffic here in the present and coming decades will in time, surely put an end to the freedom to roam that these children have, as the horrendous toll of small lives grows ever higher.

Suddenly just beyond Thamarassery I first became aware of a dark shadowy line of the Ghats rearing up far above the nearby horizon. I knew that the Ghats would be quite high, but I had not realised quite how high or majestic they would turn out to be.

Coming from a "flat" part of the world, it is not often that I get to see such a site, so my sense of excitement was rapidly growing, as the car climbed more and more steeply with every minute.

Soon the shadow had become a firm line, resolving itself into a number of distinct peaks, and valleys, and could no longer possibly be clouds.

Over the preceding couple of years, I had read so much about the various castes and tribes in the old 19th Century accounts of the Waynaad that I was beginning to feel that I was finally climbing perhaps like a Ryder Haggard character into the lost kingdom.

This effect was enhanced by bands of pilgrims on their way to one of the great festivals. These pilgrims, in groups of threes and fours were dressed in black tunics or tee shirts and shorts, and often carried bedrolls on their heads, held in place by the strap of a small “shoulder” bag, slung on their backs by the strap which was passed over their foreheads. These young men with their tousled hair, and extremely muscular calves were walking at a terrific pace down the escarpment.

The determined way in which they travelled and the Spartan way they were living, certainly spoke of great faith. I could only regret that I could not ask them how far they were going, or where they had come from.

They certainly deserved to benefit from their pilgrimage for the amount of effort they were putting into it. I felt a certain fellow feeling for them, being in many ways my own "pilgrimage", and with a passing regret that I had not the time to walk as well.

In the space of a few hundred yards the road suddenly became really steep, and commenced the first of a series of very sharp hair pin bends. Soon we were climbing up into the canopy of the trees. I was extremely pleased that we had chosen a truck drivers rest day for the trip, for we knew that during the week traffic would have been far heavier, on what is rapidly becoming a very inadequate road for the volume of traffic it carries.

From time to time we would meet trucks lurching down around the bends and the pot holes towards us. In every cab, a tiny wiry man was hauling onto the steering wheel with all of his might, working it rapidly from side to side. His foot pumping the brake pedal with all his might, whilst his assistant was leant first this way and then that, looking out for trouble, and hoping for the best. As we neared the top we came across the almost inevitable accident, fortunately in this case causing only bent bodywork, and damaged pride.

The escarpment rang to the sound of air horns as the car and truck drivers signalled their progress, around the blind bends.

As a road builder I could not help but wonder at the men who had first carved these roads out of the jungle. In my western arrogance, I assumed that these roads were the product of some East India Company engineer.

What I have since learned is that these roads were first cut by Indian’s operating under Tippoo Sultan.

For this was originally one of Tippoo Sultan’s gun roads built when he brought cannons down from Mysore into the Malabar in an attempt to capture a route to the sea through the Hindu states of Calicut, Travancore and Cochin.

It is hard to imagine the effort that must have gone into passing two or three tonne brass cannon, with no brakes, down these precipices. The hill sides are scarred by deep gullies caused by the monsoon rains, and in places the road shows signs of having been washed away.

All to soon we were at the very peak, where we passed a sign welcoming us to the Wayanad.

[1] Madressa, Islamic School.

Copyright Nick Balmer, March 2007.

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