Sunday, May 1, 2011

Life in Ruins!

Life, they say for an archeologist is in ruins. In my case, it seemed true in-spite of not coming anywhere close to an archeologist! 

Over the past, I have had an opportunity to camp in abandoned houses, schools and even stay in Ghost villages amidst forests. Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger reserve is home to many such abandoned sites. Large areas were under tea and cardamom plantation during the British raj but were later abandoned as the cost overshot the profit. The estate of “Chinnamanjolai” on the eastern face of the mountainous hill range is one such abandoned estate. This place was active till about 1990’s but was later abandoned due to lack of access and also because of the restrictions of the forest department. The estate has two access routes, one a 20km undulating path from Sengaltheri via Netterikal and another 8 km path which goes right up from the plains at Thirukurangudi. This path gains 1100m altitude in just 5 km!  It is not hard to imagine the steepness of this trail!
Drs Patrick and Madhu on the trail
 A wide bridle path starts at the plains and narrows down on the higher reaches. A lot of stream cut across the paths and there is enough water to quench the parched throats during the hot days climb. This path was extensively under use during the active estate days and was quite a highway with people abuzz from what I have heard. People had to come down to the plains for every small thing and it is only logical that the path was regularly used. Mules, cattle and horses were the only vehicles to carry goods, and of course head loads were common. 

I had heard a great deal about this place from my colleague Chetan who studied regeneration of forest in these abandoned tea and cardamom estates. Studying how regeneration happens is an important aspect in conservation biology as large areas of forests are degraded and abandoned. Some of them need to be actively restored for them to reach the original undisturbed state. The experiences of his and the adventures always made me want to make a visit there once. It never happened with him as he finished his study before I could join him. Following this, I was quite elated to know that I was to be going to Chinnamanjolai as part of the Tiger census by the forest department. What and how the tiger census is done is another story.
Our team with 6 people started the arduous journey up the hill. There was a lot of learning to do from Dr Ganesan an expert plant taxonomist. His knowledge on plants, the history of the places and his own adventures in these places was always intriguing and we spent a lot of learning to identify plants, photograph them and listen to the story behind each tiny snippet. Eventually we reached Chinnamanjolai at 6 in the evening! Needless to say all of us were exhausted. The forest department watchers had overtaken us and had started to cook "Linder"(Lunch+dinner!) for us. The food though yummy did not go down the parched throat for me atleast!

The nostalgic feel of the small remaining bits of this once elaborate estate haunted me. It was a ghost town with no people and bits and pieces of remaining buildings and junk.  The head office was the only stable building to stay in and that was a regular camp site for anyone who went there after it was abandoned.  It had a clear stream next to it. The building had a cozy loft and a porous ground floor room which was maintained by the forest department watchers. There was also the factory building which was now converted into a kitchen. Night drew up fast and the chill winds began penetrating the building. We hit the sleeping bags real quick and woke up to a cold and misty morning. Morning ablutions were to be done downstream and drinking water was to be taken upstream as was the logic.  We packed up and started another 8 km walk to Venganayakan area. This trail passes through Netterikal which was an abandoned cardamom estate. We witnessed the ruins of Netteriankal bungalow which was a classical British building complete with a porch and fire place with separate workers quarters. The walls and the roof stood strong. There was no trace of doors or windows; the floor full of dirt, ash, bat dropping and other litter. This place had once housed Somerset Maugham and the like who came for spending the summers here on horseback from Sengaltheri. There was also a check dam made during the British raj called Netterikal dam which is on the way to Sengaltheri. 
The living room in Neterikal bungalow
 Walking further, we reached Venganayakan range. It was named after Venganayaka, a local leader in the then Travancore (During the chera dynasty?) who came up all the way to this place and built a mud wall which turned the course of a stream to Tirukurangudi region instead of its original course to Kerala. Stone scriptures in old world tamil and symbols of Travancore and the British Raj were on a demarcation line atop the hill. 
Arrow is the British raj and the Conch is the Travancore raja
Inscriptions on venganayakan check dam
 A disappointing thing in all these dilapidated buildings was unnecessary vandalism. These once important buildings were standing there and getting mutilated with markings made by people writing “I was here” on every wall and on every visit. “So was I”! Is that the point? 

Such elaborate were these set ups deep inside forests that due credit must be given for what it was worth. I agree that they cause disturbance and are against the inviolate area approach of conservation but there is beauty in these ruins. I can only imagine the tough conditions under which the explorers came to the place and built such extravagant setups from bungalows to check dams to a small scale tea manufacturing factory. They had carved out huge mortar and pestel to grind and intricate network of water supply canals chipped out on the rock faces. Almost everything in setting up the buildings came from the forest. The fact they stand strong to this day is an example of its quality. People put up bridle paths on the undulating terrain, risked encounters with animals and established and maintained plantations, grew spices and sold them in the parched plains. The survey of India topographic maps epitomizes the human effort put it gathering information. and making it useful. As Dr Ganesan says, it is indeed a great service to the nation.
One of the locally made chairs
 All this was in the pre-technology era and areas like Chinnamanjolai and Netterikal was completely isolated from the sea of humanity outside the forest. A mere snake bite or major injury would mean the person was pretty much dead. Today, however, one can sit on the footsteps of this estate and talk on the most modern cellphone.

The story was the same in an abandoned wireless repeater bungalow on the banks of Kodayar dam. I could not comprehend the fact that Kodayar was once a town abuzz with 30,000 people working in the area and now it is a major human effort to spot a mere 30 people in the whole settlement! The project is a magnanimous idea of building series of dams and pumping water down the hill to the plains to generate electricity. The building we stayed in was built like any other bungalow and was used during dam construction before being abandoned. The concrete roofed building has stood strong for over 40 years and is now occupied by a few hundred bats, an occasional wild cat and a bear had made a visit to the building. With all the windows and doors gone, life was quick to make a comeback. Fungus and ferns have colonized the building and the forest had overgrown all around. The walls needless to say were with the same “I was here” graffiti.

Witnessing each of these ghost settlements was a heart wrenching feeling for me. These once elaborate and essential set ups are now standing there to rot. The history is slowing getting erased from the memories as one by one, those who made a living there are reaching their “permanent address”. On the other hand, forests have to be inviolate and free of people but still, coffee, tea and spices are the common mans elixr of life and are continued to be cultivated. 
The survey team
 All this leaves me with mixed up feelings. Shouldn’t we as the present custodians of such treasures do something to preserve it? or is it fine to let the history erase itself in front of your eyes? I get stuck up. Part of me says its important and the other says not.


  1. Great write-up...and I agree with your balanced view of how hard people worked in the old days, too.


  2. completely agree on the fact that we should do something to stop history from being erased right in front of us... but dont you think Preservation in India still hasnt reached a point wher it truly means preserving... all we mite do is end up sending more people up there and while trying to preserve the buildings and their history, we just might erase the remaining forest!!!

  3. that exactly is the problem. we want to preserve things and not conserve them. there is a lot of diff between the two...

  4. Sesha.. stop being a pessimist.... we want to conserve and also we want to preserve...

  5. Hi Shesha,

    this is a great post. I am in the process of compiling an essay on Somerset maugham on India. THis information you have is quite priceless. I as wondering if you would have these original pics. Would be great if u can leave your email id, so i can write to u