Mist and mystery

By The Kanan Devan Hills | 27 May 2003


T Damu 27 May 2003

Kochi: History sleeps on the lap of Mother Nature in the Kanan Devan Hills; lulled by the factors forgotten by the present generation.

Geographically, bio-geologically, mythologically and historically the Kanan Devan Hills has carved a niche of its own in the Western Ghats. The highest peak south of the Himalayas, the Anamudi, is here. One of the significant National Parks in India, the Eravikulam National Park that has half the population of the world''s one of the endangered mountain goats called the Nilgiri Tahr, is here. The hills are also a rich part of the world''s few bio-hotspots identified so far. More, and much more...

The part of the High Ranges in the Western Ghats in Kerala that is known by the name Kanan Devan Hills has a juicy history that dates back to the first millennium AD. The moment one hears this name, the lush green tea plantations along the slopes of undulating mountains come to the mind. Well, there would have been no Kanan Devan Hills, as it is so well known today, without the efforts of the three major players — the Muthuvans, the Poonjar Kingdom and the Pioneer Planters.

The original inhabitants of the hills are believed to be the Muthuvans, the docile hill tribes of the area. They are said to be the descendants of the Pandyan king in Madurai who, fearing the wrath of Kannaki, fled to these hills. That was second century AD. Some among the tribes have a different story to tell us. They say that they are the descendants of the founder of the Poonjar principality of the 12th century AD.

However, some historians hold the view that the Muthuvans probably came into the Travancore hills at the time of the upheavals in Madurai due to the Mohammadan invasion in early 14th century under Malik Kafur or they were driven to these hills in the later part of the 14th century when the Telugu Naickers took possession of Bodinaickanoor after overthrowing the Mohammadans by the Vijayanagar kings.

There are many more theories, one of which states that the present Muthuvans are a mix of the above-said Tamil refugees over the years and the already existing pre-Dravidian hill folks. Thus, the conjectures about the arrival of the Muthuvans could be multiplied almost indefinitely.

The Kanan Devan Hills bear the name of the 19th century headman (zamindar) of the Anjanad called Kannan Thevar (which became anglicised later as Kanan Devan). It is said that the travellers from Madurai to the West Coast in those days gave the hills its name as a mark of respect to this headman of Anjanad. Anju plus nad in Tamil means five countries.

It is said that Pallanad, Marayoor, Kanthaloor, Vattavada and Koviloor constituted Anjanad, for which Kanan Thevar was the headman. However Muthuvans say the hills are named after two Muthuvans, Kanan and Devan, who helped the pioneer planters in establishing the plantations in the hills. Of these two stories, the true story as per the official records is the former one.

The name Poonjar is the mutilated form of the word punya aar, meaning sacred river. The Hindu mythology depicts that this river, which starts its course from the Kudamurutti hills near Thodupuzha of Idukki district, had emanated from the water-pot of Saint Agasthiyar in response to the entreaty of his pupils to sanctify this place.

The history of Poonjar dates back to 1157 AD. The Pandya king Chirayu Varman of Madurai after the humiliation he faces in a battle against the Chola king Kulothungan, hands over the kingdom to his younger brother Maravarman Sri Vallabhan and retires to Gudalur with his family, carrying with him enormous wealth and the Meenakshi Sundareswara idols.

There he establishes a small state with Gudalur as the capital, christening it as Pandyamangalam. He then purchases a 500-sq mile area around Poonjar from the Thekkumkur raja in Kottayam. He also constructs temples for Sasta and Meenakshi Sundareswarar. He adopts all Keralite customs and mores and fully amalgamates himself with the society, which accorded him a warm welcome.

Slowly Pandyamangalam expands by leaps and bounds. The Anjunad and Kanan Devan Hills in 1252, the Vandiperiyar region in 1419 and sometime later the Kothamangalam and Neriyamangalam areas are all annexed to the dynasty by proper means. Thus, we see, the entire land of 4,000 sq miles lie under the Poonjar dynasty by the end of 1425.

The territory is said to be spreading over the linguistic states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The boundaries of Poonjar extended in the east up to Surulimala across the Kerala state border into Tamil Nadu, in the north up to Pazhani hills and Dindigal district, in the west from Kothamangalam to Kanjirappally and in the southern tip up to Sabarimala.

The dynasty was left without heir during 1625 and thereafter adopted some members from the Saarkara Kovilakam of Venkidangu near Guruvayoor. They were also supposed to be the descendents of the Pandya kings of Madurai migrated in an earlier era through Palakkad. It is stated that by the beginning of the 19th century the Poonjar Kingdom, due to unforeseen financial constraints, lost its sovereignty and the Poonjar chief became a subordinate prince owing allegiance to the Travancore maharaja.

In the modern era, the first European to set foot on the Kanan Devan Hills was the Duke of Willingdon. That was in 1790. He was there with a master plan to annihilate Tipu Sultan. However the duke''s camp on these hills was short-lived as he got a tip-off that Tipu Sultan gave a slip off the rugged terrain to Coimbatore. More than two decades later, in 1817, Lt Ward and Conner of the Madras army seconded to the Great Trignometrical Survey visited these mountains but could not make a detailed survey of the wild country.

In 1862, General Douglas Hamilton was sent to these hills by Sir Charles Trevelyan, the Madras governor, to find suitable convalescent homes for troops. Later in 1877, a commission of two representatives was appointed to determine the unsettled boundary between Travancore and the Madras presidency.

The Travancore representative of the commission, John Daniel Munro of Peermade, an officer of the independent kingdom of Travancore and designated superintendent of the Cardamom Hills, described the area, which was owned by the then Poonjar chief, a subordinate prince of Travancore, as "much of this is worthless land, but there is a good deal fit for cultivation."

But, impressed by the extent of land, J D Munro made an application to the Poonjar chief for the grant of the ''Kanan Tevan Anchanattu Mala'' on payment. Two deeds were signed — one in 1877 and the other in 1879. These were later ratified by the Travancore maharaja, since the law of the land had it clear that if a foreigner had to possess any land in the state it could be done only with the official consent of the Travancore kingdom, which held the governance of the state. The grant was thus "a permanent and perpetual grant with heritable and transferable rights." This land later came to be known as the Kanan Devan Concession Land. It was completely underdeveloped, largely unexplored.

The following year, H G Truner of the Madras Civil Service and his half brother, A W Turner, founded with Munro the North Travancore Land Planting and Agricultural Society. In the later years, small plantations started by other Europeans in the region were grouped under this society. In 1888, the first tea was planted by Sharp, a pioneer planter, on 50 acres of land at Parvathy, in Sevenmallay Estate.

In 1890s, Finlay Muir and Company Ltd''s interests in tea was extended to the High Ranges with the visit of Sir John Muir, who was accompanied by his son James, P R Buchanan, and W Milnes. And on 5 May 1897 South India saw the birth of the Kanan Devan Hills Produce Company and other sterling companies like the Anglo-American Direct Tea Trading Company in the Kanan Devan Concession Territory — growing cinchona, coffee, tea, sisal and rubber. By the early part of the last century the planters decided to go only for tea as it was found more suitable for the terrain. These companies owned an extent of 1,29,569 acres of land in the Kanan Devan Hills (KDH) Village.

As plantations developed and the workforce grew, this serene litter plantation pueblo in the Idukki district, namely Munnar, inevitably expanded into a bustling business township, further attracting outsiders with trading interests. Today the plantation companies in the Munnar region have given employment to more than 22,000 people and support more than a lakh population. The business establishments in this little town solely depend on the purchase power of the plantation workers.

In the previous century, when elsewhere in the country such remote and rustic regions were still lagging behind in many infrastructures, this plantation region was fast developing, thanks to the European planters. In 1892, the first post office was established in Devikulam under the title, Anchal Office. All letters were sorted out under the control of the then reigning general manager.

The planters had the practice of mailing letters to each other in the district in order to keep the post office from being closed down. The same year, the first motorable road was constructed as the Northern Outlet Road linking Munnar and Coimbatore. Construction was commenced on Thulam 1103 Malayalam Year (ME) (1928) and the Munnar-Neriamangalam Road was opened by Her Highness Sethulakshmi Bai, the maharani regent of Travancore, in Meenam 1106 ME (1931).

The first hydroelectric project in the country was started in 1900 in the KDH Village at Pullivasal, which is near Munnar. However, the powerhouse for this project is now in ruins and is located further down the river in the Athukad division of Pullivasal Estate. In 1902, the first road from Munnar to a station called the Kundale Valley cart road was constructed under the supervision of the Gorden Brothers.

A ropeway of about 14 miles long was also established and mail and supplies were sent to and fro along it. To travel by road it took only two hours. To travel by the ropeway it took five hours. A monorail was later installed along the route and the vehicle was pulled by oxen, and later by ponies. Then with the advancement of technology, steam engines were used under the KDHP Conveyance.

On 16 July 1924, one of the greatest calamities befell Munnar. The cyclone and the resultant floods caused severe damages to life and property. This catastrophe changed the face and way of life in Munnar. The telephone system was started in 1929 with connections to just 16 essential stations. Today there are sufficient telephone connections with a very sophisticated system installed under the High Range Telecommunication Network.

Munnar is India''s largest panchayat, which was formed in 1962. Prior to that a local body governance was in vogue. Till that time, the KDHP Co Ltd played a very major role in keeping the town tidy under its administration.

One other major milestone in the history of these hills is the Kanan Devan Hills (Resumption of Lands) Act, which was brought into force in 1971 for the purpose of agrarian land reforms. At that time the KDH Village had an extent of 1,37,431 acres of land. Of which, the KDHP Company and the other sterling company, Anglo-American Direct Tea Trading Company, possessed 1,29,569 acres. After the Act, 70,994 acres vested with the government and the balance land of 58,575 acres was restored to the Kanan Devan Hills Produce Company Ltd.

One of the noted features of the Kanan Devan Hills is the Eravikulam National Park, once part of the KDHP Company, which was managing this ecologically sensitive area beautifully for more than eight decades. Later the company handed over this region with a recommendation to the government to declare it a sanctuary and further upgrade it to a National Park in 1978.

Thanks to the efforts of the Wildlife Officials and the High Range Wildlife and Environment Preservation Association, this National Park even today remains intact with its pristine glory, having in its folds of lovely grass lands and sholas, the world''s some of the most precious flora and fauna. It is a model for voluntary joint ventures in nature preservation in this hilly terrain.

Today the inevitable winds of change in the name of tourism and infrastructure development sweep through most of the hill stations, and the Kanan Devan Hills also feel the impact of this change. But unlike other hill resorts that have already been degraded to an irretrievable level, the Kanan Devan Hills do preserve their identity and withstand the onslaught. But how long?

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