Sunday, 14 October 2007

The 40 Foot Road, Day 7.

At Mananthavady we had made enquiries of the people in our hotel to see if they could recognise the location of the following painting supposedly of the Periya Pass by Thomas Cussans.

Click on the picture for a larger view, or visit the following url for an even larger and a zoomable view.

This powerful watercolour had been drawn by Thomas Cussans,(1796 to 1870) and is one of nineteen by this Madras Artillery Officer preserved in the British Library showing Cannanore [Kannur] and the surrounding area. I had found it on the Library's fantastic Collect Britain website, which can be accessed at and its strong draughtsmanship had caught my imagination.

Collect Britain has over two thousand five hundred similar paintings and drawings dating from the East India Company period in its collection. One particular section Svadesh Videsh which can be found at is devoted entirely to images of India and Indians images.

The hotel owner and several guests had joined in an animated discussion at breakfast over the print I had shown them, and a consensus had developed on its being down one particular road. It was not however the Periya Pass Road which was the main road towards our destination Thalasserry. I couldn't really understand which road it was however, but Ramesh our by now trusted driver, thought he knew the correct one, and assured us that it was a very beautiful one, and so it turned out to be in ways which we hadn't quite expected.

Leaving Mananthavady by the bridge to the south east we were soon motoring along a country road full of people going about their daily business. As I watched out of the windscreen, a curious thought suddenly struck me. The road was behaving in just the same way as the 18th and 19th century enclosure roads in my native Rutland did as they passed across the countryside. They seemed to be the same width as well, forty feet.

As the road passed through the villages, it curved around the very oldest properties, before plunging off in a straight line directly towards the next bridge or settlement.

The road looked as if it had to have been laid out by a British surveyor, or one working in a 19th Century way.

But how to test this theory?

Calling on Ramesh to stop the car, I jumped out and started to pace across the road from the boundary to the crown. It was exactly 40 foot, just as an enclosure road would have been in England. Next step, to try a side turning to an accommodation road. This should be twenty feet wide between boundaries, and ten feet in carriageway width exactly if my theory was correct.

As always in India, within moments of our stopping a small crowd had formed of puzzled farmers, besides the nearest side turning. Walking up towards them, I could only imagine with what puzzlement they must be viewing my antics, as I paced foot by foot across the road.

Trying "hello", it was obvious that they either had no understanding of English, or they were temporarily struck dumb by my appearance. So sadly leaving them to their puzzlement, I turned and paced out the side turning directly in front of them. It was exactly 20 feet wide.

It fitted exactly.

I do hope that they were not to alarmed by my measuring up their front lane. Did they think me some property developer?

What must it have been like being that English surveyor in the 1820's?

At regular intervals along this road were small farms laid out in exactly the same way that one might to have expected to have seen at Whittlesey Mere or similarly recovered land dating from the 1770 to 1820 period in Britain.

These cottages even looked as if they were designed in a fairly regular manner, and were not unlike Regency farmer's cottages in England, with just an added touch of an Indian style. Yet they still retained a hint of a Regency cottage orné adapted for India's sun and monsoon.

As we drove further along the road it began to become steeper and and to climb, and eventually a range of mountains began to come into view towards the south west. Was this this range going to hold the peak shown in the picture? One certainly had the distinctive twin peaked notch in its crest.

By now the trees in the plantations were becoming higher with tall canopies of palm oil trees, often festooned with pepper vines or under planted with coffee bushes.

A pepper vine running up a tree

Tantilisingly the mountain peaks kept coming into sight, before once again disappearing again behind yet another ridge or belt of trees.

Eventually as we crossed a small river, the mountain came back into view, very clearly and immediately to our south.

Moments later we entered a village, [11 degs 44' 42.28" N 75 degs 55' 30.31" E] and crossed a bridge over a stream. Here the view opened out to the south over the stream clearly opening a vista to the peak. It had to be, and was clearly the mountain in the painting.

Soon another group of villagers had formed around us, but this time ably helped by Ramesh translating we were soon getting lots of advice and help from the men.

We were clearly looking at the mountain in the middle of the picture, which I learnt was called Banasura. [11 dgs 42' 02.86"N 75 degs 51' 35.87"E]

What was a bit puzzling was that some of the villagers were however also pointing south east and south back down the road and where suggesting that the village in the picture was another village to the south, whilst one man was arguing just as strongly, and very insistently that it was not here at all, but further along the road.

Something in the man's demeanour made me think that perhaps he was right. So thanking the others we climbed back into the car, with our new found guide. Soon we had driven perhaps three miles, and I was just beginning to doubt our guides knowledge, when he waved to the left up a side road to a steep little conical hill with a large building on its summit.

As we drove up the hill the road narrowed to a steep bendy track, which was not at all unlike the bends at the right hand end of the picture by Cussans in alignment.

The building at the summit turned out to be St. Joseph's Benedictine Monastery at the village of Makkiyad. It is a modern building probably only twenty or thirty years old, but occupying a very commanding site.

As we set off back down the hill I walked in front of the car, and looking up towards the twin peaked mountain, I suddenly realised that the image nearly matched. I just needed to move back a bit. As I moved backwards, my feet suddenly struck a large smooth topped boulder, and I realised that I had literally stumbled over the artists seat. He had used the boulder as a perch as he drew the scene.

My son sat on the boulder that Thomas Cussans used to draw part of the image. The larger stone behind has only been bulldozed up in the last year or so

The scene looking south from Cussans boulder

The modern view, but with the road widened out and surfaced

What Cussans had done was to merge a series of sketches together. The first sketch was probably made from a hill to the north of the road about one mile east of the first village in which we stopped. It looks due south, into the large valley shown.

He had then stopped further along near the river crossing, probably also on a hill directly north of the actual crossing, and had drawn Banasura, over the top of the intervening trees around the village, before moving on to the west to stop at Makkiyad.

Since my return research suggests that the site of St. Joseph's Monastery may have been one of the fortified posts that East India Company troops had garrisoned in the Wayanad during the struggle with Pyche Rajah, and it may be the track leading to this camp that is shown in Cussans drawing. Perhaps Cussans had stayed in the fort on the summit of this rise.

One last puzzle remained, where is the cliff in the picture?

It doesn't appear to be visible from any of the view points.

I believe it was an invention by Thomas Cussans to fill in a gap between the separate drawings on the page of his sketch book, in order to provide a unified design for the finished watercolour.

From Mayyid we descended the Pass of the Eleven Bends, as Ramesh described it to us. This is not actually the Periya Pass, which is some miles to the north, but a subsidary pass up the ghats. It is a much more pleasant route, than the main Periya Pass road or the Kozhikode to Kalpetta road, because these carry heavy trucks on their way inland. Both roads are hopelessly inadequate for the sheer volume of commerce that daily needs to cross the Ghats, and are therefore not for the faint hearted.

Our approximate route to Thalasserry is shown on the map below.

Click on the map for a larger version.


india-awake said...

excellent article and insight into British road construction practices.

If you have more information on this, I would be most interested in knowing about the road width norms as well as practices related to city squares and sizes of railway stations of that time.

The query arises as I am simply amazed at the wide roads and huge rail stations built in cities like Bombay at that time, when the traffic was absolutely minimal.

Unknown said...

"In one town, our driver told us that this particular area was known to be strongly Muslim, and that it was therefore potentially quite dangerous for him, and indeed any Hindu driver. In the event of an accident, it would be quite likely that he would be pulled from the car and badly beaten, if not worse."

This is completely wrong.Though the area is dominated by muslim there is no any threat for Hindus at all.Am a Hindu from Makkiyad - the place some where you referred.

1234wayanad said...

Thomas Cussans Painting of Wyanad. Dated 1820. Only available image of Wayanad of pre 1900 Era. Location is not identifide. This is a ghat road. Not Thamarassery churam(Non Exist then). I think it is probably Peria Churam. I understand Nick travelled through Kuttiadi (cotiot) Churam instead of Peria churam, in his travelogue. Please go for his excellent blog here.

He described the Banasura Hills in background, and tells that it may be from Makkiyad area. May not be correct in my opinion.
I will visit the same site and make a comparative photo.

source:blog of Nick Balmer

Wayanad, own land in green paradise

chakkara said...

if it is not periya then it might be the irrity- wayanad ghat road(paal churam) road through kottiyoor temple, i am having a strong feeling about it, beacuse you told about the missing cliff.. you can find this cliff there