Column | A rail journey on the Malabar Coast in 1926

Muthalamada Railway Station, Kollamkode, Palakkad. Image used for representational purpose. Photo: Manorama

In December, 2022, when Kozhikode was still in the midst of ecstatic celebrations over Argentina’s win in the FIFA World Cup, a close Russian friend and I boarded the Coimbatore-Mangalore Intercity Express for the southern Karnataka coastal city. The melancholy of leaving behind what was easily our favourite place in India gave way to the excitement of enjoying the scenery of the Malabar coast and slowly saying goodbye to Kerala.

The train definitely follows one of the most interesting routes in the country - from Coimbatore through the Palakkad Gap and north through places that are embedded in the soul of every romantic Keralite. As the train crossed places like Thalassery and Kannur, we wondered about how old the route was and thought of how it would have felt travelling in the same train a century ago.

The answers to this are available in a 1926 book published in what was then Madras. The Illustrated Guide to the South Indian Railway was mainly meant for British and other Western tourists who were considering a holiday to India. It basically aimed to get more such tourists to visit the often-overlooked southern part of the subcontinent.

“Some tourists visiting India occasionally make the error of commencing and finishing their tour at Bombay, a practice which has either resulted in the exclusion from their programme of a tour of Southern India, or a visit at the expense of needless travelling, due to the mistaken impression that there is no port of embarkation in the South,” the guide said. “A comfortable route from Ceylon to India via Adam’s Bridge and Dhanushkodi, with a sea journey of under two hours duration, was opened on the 1st March, 1914. Tourists will find it advantageous to embark or disembark at Colombo, at which port ships from all parts of the world call at very frequent intervals.”

The guide particularly recommended modern-day Kerala for tourists. “A most interesting part of Southern India from a scenic point of view is undoubtedly the West or Malabar Coast, where the numerous rivers and lagoons, the verdant greenness of the landscape and the innumerable coconut trees combine to form a picture that is generally only found in the South Sea Islands, while the people are a fairskinned, clean race with well kept, picturesque houses and gardens.” One simply cannot help but cringe over the skin colour of the fetish of the colonisers, even while keeping in mind that the guidebook was written almost a century ago!

Description of towns & stations
The authors made it a point to mention railway facilities as well as sport that was on offer in many stations. The first station in Kerala on this route is Walayar and the guide, as expected, made mention of the fact that the station was by the jungle: “Walayar, 316¾ miles away from Madras (Central Station), is situated near the government reserve forest, which was formerly noted for the number of tiger, elephant and other wild animals to be found therein; and even now such animals are to be met with, and are at time a menace to the station staff.” It added that a special shooting licence had to be obtained from the government to hunt big game. 

Palakkad, then Palghat,  and its outskirts seemed to be an area that the authors particularly liked. The guide said, “From Olavakkot, which is about 800 feet above the sea, the railway line descends into a level country, prettily wooded with frequent hills and very neat and picturesque villages.” The book even had a festival recommendation for Palghat: “Of numerous Hindu temples in the suburbs of Olavakkot, the most important and famous is the Siva temple at Kalpathi, about a mile from the station. A car festival, lasting for three days, is celebrated yearly in November and attracts large crowds, not only from the various parts of Malabar, but from the neighbouring State of Cochin and the Coimbatore district.”

Another place on the journey that the guide’s authors seemed to like was Ferok. “Close to the station on a slight elevation are the ruins of Ferokabad commanding the two beautiful branches of the Beypore river, which flows close under the hill,” the guide said. “It was planned by Tippu Sultan, whose intention it was to make it the capital of Malabar, but his troops were driven out in 1700, before his design was fully carried out.” This was an obvious error, given the fact that the ‘Tiger of Mysore’ was only born in 1751. “The ferry at Ferok, a little above the railway, is known as Mammalli Ferry; 2 miles above the ferry on the south bank of the river like Chattamparamba, a laterite hill containing numerous tombs of a long forgotten generation,” the guidebook added.

An aerial view shows visitors at the south-eastern tip of Pamban Island in Tamil Nadu state, in Dhanushkodi. Photo: Arun SANKAR / AFP / File

The book notes that Kozhikode, then Calicut, was an important sea port and a port of call for the steamers of the British India Steam Navigation Company. The city, which then had just 82,334 inhabitants, was also a popular destination for tourists. “There is a dak bungalow and chuttram near the station, and eating-houses for all classes of Hindus are situated in the town,” the book said. “The European club is situated on the sea front.”

One had to look hard for it, but the guidebook did have some humour neatly tucked away. When describing the St Angelo Fort in Kannur, then Cannanore, the book said, “Its building was commenced in 1505 by Don Francisco de Almeyda, the first Portuguese ‘Viceroy of all the Indies,’ a title for which there appears to have been little to show.”

There is a mention of the multi-religious character of Kasaragod. “There are several mosques and Hindu temples. In the Malikarjuna temple, dedicated to Siva, a festival is held in February or March each year, during which period many pilgrims attend,” the guide said. The only Muslim festival that the book mentioned in the Malabar region was one that was held in Tanur in February.

The authors were also fond of Mangalore, which they called “picturesque, clean and prosperous.” Writing that the city was buried under groves of coconut palms, the guidebook said, “the houses are laid out in good streets, and the European quarter is particularly pleasant.”

For us, travelling to Mangalore in 2022, it was a sad feeling to wave goodbye to Kerala as our train crossed the bridge over the Netravati, but Mangalore - still beautiful - was a place that we took a liking for almost immediately. 

It would be great to go on a longer journey from Coimbatore to Mangalore, on the same tracks, but using passenger trains and sampling many of the small towns one at a time.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)

The comments posted here/below/in the given space are not on behalf of Onmanorama. The person posting the comment will be in sole ownership of its responsibility. According to the central government's IT rules, obscene or offensive statement made against a person, religion, community or nation is a punishable offense, and legal action would be taken against people who indulge in such activities.