Column | When a railway line first sliced through the heart of Kerala

Shoranur on the banks of the Bharathapuzha houses the largest railway station in Kerala. Photo: Sibu Bhuvanendran / Manorama

After the Konkan Railway began operations in the 1990s, the Shoranur Junction railway station became particularly important for members of the Palakkad diaspora living in Bombay (now Mumbai). The duration of the journey ‘home’ was significantly reduced when travelling through the west coast of India, and the long trip on the Jayanti-Janata could be avoided. The quiet town on the banks of the Bharathapuzha, which houses the largest railway station in Kerala, has long been an important place in the history of rail travel in the state.

It would take almost half a century after India entered the railway age before the 104-km Shoranur-Cochin railway line became functional. Now referred to as the lifeline of the state’s economy, the project was the brainchild of Rama Varma XV also known as Rajarshi of Cochin.

The line that would link British Indian territory and the princely state of Cochin was fully funded by the latter. It cost Cochin Rs 70 lakh to construct the line, according to the brilliant Maddy’s Ramblings blog. This was at a time when the annual per capita income in India was Rs 196! To raise the money for the construction, 14 of the 15 gold caparisons of the Sree Poornathrayeesa Temple at Thrippunithura were sold. This was in addition to selling personal jewellery of the royal family.

In his final approval letter, dated June 15, 1899,  Britain’s Secretary of State for India, George Hamiton, wrote, “I presume that if the matter of jurisdiction is included in the subjects thus reserved for settlement by the Local Government, it will be disposed off in accordance with the usual rule under which jurisdiction over a line that passes through two territories under different states is exercised by the British Government.”

This essentially meant that British law was applicable throughout the journey even when the train entered Cochin.

The Madras Railway Company was tasked with building the metre-gauge railway in 1899 and by June, 1902, the freight trains began to move on the line. Passenger traffic commenced a month later.

A rare early account

Launched with much fanfare, the railway line became immensely popular with both local residents and international travellers.

One of the first accounts of travel on the line was written by a woman (who chose to remain anonymous) during the 1902 monsoons. The article, titled On the West Coast of India: A Lady’s Description was attributed to one “V.R -J” and was published by The Evening News, Sydney, Australia, on December 13, 1902.

Her article mainly focussed on Cochin, which she said was a “somewhat out-of-the-way place to arrive at” but the said “reward” was great.

“At Shoranur, a little wayside junction, you move with your goods and chattels - and in India their name is legion - out of your luxurious first class carriage into a narrow gauge train, where the compartments are comparatively small and stuffy; but the view is such as to make one forget any small discomforts,” she wrote. “The country changes very much if one has come from the scorching plains round Madras. Perhaps the most striking feature is the vivid green of the landscape, so refreshing to weary, dust and glare stricken eyes from the plains.”

The anonymous paid close attention to the countryside of central Kerala. “Running almost parallel with the railway line is the old trunk road, lined with lovely jungle trees, an old banyan here and there, stretching its weird fantastic arms, as if in protest against the strange puffing monster let loose in their midst.”

The sight of the train must have been equally fascinating for the local residents, who may have heard stories of its existence in other parts of India. “The train is quite a recent innovation in Cochin, and the line from Shoranur to Ernakulam was only opened a few months ago.”

According to her account, local residents at little wayside stations collected in crowds and stared at her as they had not had seen a person with European features. Interestingly enough, she said they stared in “silence,” something she didn’t experience elsewhere during her journeys in India.

The traveller also seemed impressed with the thatched huts she saw on the journey. “They look very picturesque, peeping out of clusters of coconut trees: and the feathery bamboo with its delicate traceries outlined against the deep blue of the sky, adds greatly to the general effect.”

The account of the train journey is not free from colonial and racial bias. She comments on how Malayali women are “rather good-looking,” adding, “both sexes are cleaner and more picturesque than the average Madarasee.”

Another thing that caught her eye was the water bodies on the route. “There is so much water about - canals, rivers, backwaters, and paddy fields growing in veritable ponds - and there is certainly no excuse for dirt; not that the view appeals in the least to the native.”

She summed it by saying that in the rural areas, everything looked “smiling and prosperous.”

Since 1902, millions have used the Shoranur-Cochin line that became a reality thanks to the vision of Rajarshi of Cochin. There isn’t a finer way of observing the beauty of Kerala than travelling by train in the state.

(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)

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