Monday, 7 May 2007

Day 6 Kalpetta to Pulipalli

Arriving at the head of the pass, we found ourselves in a very different country to that which we had been travelling in down below on the coastal plain. Here it was appreciably cooler, and the temperature in the sun felt not unlike that experienced on one of the most lovely of English summer days. I could well understand why Thomas had enjoyed this time here so much, as it must have represented a blessed relief from the sweltering heat on the coastal plain.

The Wayanad plateau is made up of ranges of rolling hills covered in plantations. The occasional peak rears up in the background.

Since the Second World War the area has become very densely populated and is heavily farmed. Thousands of migrant works have settled in the area, developing farms. Until recent months the area had been called the "Kuwait of Kerala", so called for the fortunes being made in the boom in Vanilla prices.

However like so many agricultural booms this one has proved short lived, and many farmers who turned over their fields to this new crop are now driven to dispair by the fall in prices.

What a contrast this must be with the scenes that had confronted the East India Company at the beginning of the 19th Century.

In 1812 Colonel Welsh described the Wayanad in the valleys to the north of Mananthavadi, or Manatoddy, as it was then called as follows:-

This part of the country is strong, wild, and beautiful; consisting of a number of small hills, covered with jungle, and separated by narrow valleys, in which there are neither rivers or paddy fields. Yesterday in particular, we passed through a narrow defile, nearly a mile in length, in which we discovered trees of such enormous height and magnitude, that I am fearful of mentioning my ideas of their measurement, further, than that some of them did not commence spreading from the parent stem, until they had reached the height of the topmast-head of a man of war; the name of these trees is Neer parum, the wood of which is not valuable, and the Ayany, or wild jack, the tree from which the largest canoes are made, as well as the best beams for building.

Sadly these magnificent trees have all long since gone.

In their place are tea, cardoman, coffee plantations and paddy fields. Pepper vines climb up many of the roadside trees.

The change in vegetation and loss of tree cover must have profoundly affected the lives of the plants and animals that had once lived here in large numbers, and must surely affect these new settler's livelihoods in time.

These forests and hills had for centuries absorbed the huge rainfall coming from the monsoon rains which sweep up the Malabar Coast. Piling up against the Ghats, these storm clouds rise up, and drop enormous amounts of rainfall onto the Wayanad and Coorg, which then runs down the eastern watershed all the way to the East Coast of India.

The forests of Wayanad, Coorg and Mysore had acted as a huge sponge and reserve, delaying and prolonging the flows of these life giving waters to the myriad farmers in the thirsty plains of Mysore and the Carnatic.

Some of the remaining canopy must have been lost in very recent times, judging by the forlorn looking isolated canopy trees left scattered amongst the tree bushes.

Soon we were past Kalpetta, and on our way to Sultan Batheri. This town is named after one of Tippoo Sultan's batteries and was built to enforce his control over the Wayanad. In British times this town was called Sultan's Battery, but like so many other place names they are slowly mutating into completely new versions.

The road we were driving along was originally one of those built by Tippoo Sultan in order to transport his cannons down to the Malabar coast in support of his wars with Travancore, the Zamorin, and the other petty Rajah's.

The battery was built by Tippoo's men in the grounds of a Jain Temple to the south of the existing town.

We had arranged to meet a local journalist, Mr Johnny in the town, who was going to take us onto the site of the final battle with the Pyche Raja.

Sultan Batheri turned out to be a long straggling town, and of fairly recent construction. Very few of the buildings appeared to be more than fifty years old, and it very much reminded me of the rural towns I had visited in New Zealand and Australia out in farming districts.

Soon Mr Johnny, arrived, a short, dark and deeply bearded man, he was obviously a very determined and knowledgable man. Unlike most Indian's I had met, who had a polite but quite limited knowledge of the history of their districts, Mr. Johnny was obviously completely immersed in the history of his area.

Some we were off into the area north of Sultan Batheri running up to the Mysore Border at Pulpalli.

Copyright Nick Balmer, May 2007.

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