In the early 1930s, John Mahieu, an impressionable student from Belgium, could not get enough of the press coverage given to Mahatma Gandhi in Britain. The Indian independence leader was in England for the Round Table Conferences, and Mahieu was so much in awe of what the Mahatma stood for that he made it his mission to one day live in India.
Flash forward to the mid-1950s and the young man became a monk with a new name - Father Francis. He found his way to the idyllic hill station of Vagamon, one of many places that boast of being the ‘Switzerland of India.’ This was at a time that migration of people from the lower ranges of the Travancore state was encouraged to the forested hills of the Idukki district.
The internal migrants who came to the area because of food shortages in Thodupuzha and Kottayam were encouraged to cultivate the land, but generally lacked the required expertise.
Father Francis’s vision
The Belgian monk, who along with Father Bede Griffiths, an English Benedictine monk, wanted to build an ashram on the hills, was enamoured by their natural beauty. He described them poetically:
“This joyous site of rocks and hills,
The sparkling jewels of the highlands of Kerala,
A land of grassy slopes with flowers of many hues,
With glades where fair trees dance in the wind…”
A small community built the ashram from scratch and carved out vegetable beds and flower gardens. They also raised a herd of cows and had an operational dairy farm that met their needs and those of poor families in the area.
According to the Kerala Livestock Development Board, Father Francis was keen on promoting a dairy-based mixed farming system in the high ranges. “He visualised the vast area of empty grassland in the Peermade area as a future milk shed and shared this vision with his friend Jacques A Cutat, the then Ambassador of Switzerland in India,” according to the board’s website.
Switzerland, at that time, was keen to build goodwill in newly independent countries in Asia and Africa, and sent teams to the high ranges of the Idukki district. Finally a recommendation was made to use vacant land in Mattupetty, near Munnar.
The proposals from Switzerland were studied by the Indian and Swiss governments and in 1963 the Indo-Swiss Project was born. This was the first project from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation in India. An experimental station was set up in Mattupetty for crossbreeding experiments and pasture improvement trials.
A new breed was created using the Brown Swiss breed and local cows. In a first for India, artificial insemination using frozen semen was used to expand the programme. Such was the success of the project that the Kerala government extended the programme and technology across the state. Another success of the project was the breeding of the sought-after Sunandini breed.
The project’s farm in Mattupetty with its lush green grasslands and rolling hills and strong grazing cattle would definitely remind a traveller of Switzerland, minus the snow-capped peaks. To add to the ambience of the farm that is spread over 191 acres, its gardens have a variety of roses, dahlia and a variety of seasonal flowers that grow well at an altitude of 1,700 metres above sea level.
Cattle breeders look at it as some kind of pilgrimage spot. The centre runs courses in cattle breeding and also offers training for veterinarians and para-veterinarians, and technicians.
Father Francis, who became an Indian citizen in the late 1960s, lived out the rest of his life in Vagamon, and passed away in 2002. His ashram is now an oasis of calm and tranquillity that is mercifully not on the package tour itinerary for domestic or international tourists.
Kerala of the 2020s is a place that is in dire need of new ideas and fresh thinking. With shrinking opportunities outside the state, it needs more visionaries like the Belgian-origin monk to provide the kind of opportunities that would balance environmental concerns with the need for gainful and productive employment. The breathtakingly beautiful Idukki district was among the worst sufferers of the 2018 floods and continues to face the danger of reckless development. Maybe the Swiss, who helped Kerala become a dairy powerhouse, and are now at the forefront of the battle against climate change, could be roped in to suggest sustainable economical and environment-friendly solutions for Kerala.
(The writer is the author of 'Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’ and 'A Week in the Life of Svitlana’)