How Kannur's Chathamangalam, once a bustling settlement, became a ghost village in three generations

View of Alakode village from Theruvamala. Photo: Sunny Pathiyil/Special Arrangement

Kannur: Even when the hilly panchayats of Kannur district are reeling under an intense summer with temperature hovering around 38 degrees Celsius, Theruvamala in Chathamangalam – 2,500m above sea level – is enveloped in a March mist. The mornings present Karnataka's Kodagu hill ranges rolling into Kerala in the east. The nights offer a panoramic view of villages such as Thirumeni, Udayagiri and Alakode, their streets aglow with twinkling lights from the countless houses nestled among the undulating landscape.

But Chathamangalam itself, located 1km downhill, is a ghost village with abandoned houses, and a palpable sense of desolation running through it. It has only six families. Its Anganwadi has only three children, one of them is the teacher's child.

Chathamangalam – 60km from Kannur city – was once a bustling agrarian village with around 160 families, two restaurants, tea shops, two grocery shops, and importantly, two arrack shops which contributed to a nightlife. The settlers of Chathamangalam had a Sathyan Memorial Arts & Sports Club that brought professional theatre to the hill village before they built a chapel. And when they built a chapel, they also built an Ayyappa Bhajana Mandir.

Today, there are only six families in Chathamangalam. There is no trace of the club. The Bhajana Mandir is in ruins, and the chapel celebrates the Holy Mass only once a month. Around 40 years ago, there were bus services from Payyannur, via Cherupuzha. The tarred road from Kannur, via Taliparamba and Alakode, still does not reach Chathamangalam.

"When K C Joseph first became an MLA in 1982, he built 1 km of the 3.5km connecting Alakode to Chathamangalam. He was an MLA for 40 years (till 2021) but did not care to do anything for this place. If there were roads, people would not have left," said Raju Parakkadavil (70), who was a teenager when his family came here from Kottayam 56 years ago in 1968. "Everybody left because Chathamangalam is nobody's child," said his wife Elikutty Raju, in her sixties.

Skaria and Raju, residents of Chathamangalam. Photo: Onmanorama

Chathamangalam sits on the border of Kannur's three hill panchayats – Alakode, Cherupuzha, and Udayagiri. Alakode is with the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF). Cherupuzha and Udayagiri are with the CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF). The hamlet is split between two Assembly constituencies – Irikkur (Congress) and Payyannur (CPM); and two parliamentary constituencies – Kasaragod and Kannur (both with the Congress). "Nobody comes here to seek votes. But we walk 3.5 km to cast our votes at the Government (Upper Primary) School at Neduvode (in Parappa). That's the only time we go to Alakode even though it is the nearest marketplace," said Skaria Puthuparambil in his 70s. Their ration shop is also in Alakode. "Thankfully, we can buy from any ration shop now," he said.

The six families now shop at Thirumeni, a downhill marketplace in Cherupuzha grama panchayat. "The work on the road connecting Thirumeni to Chathamangalam was completed only two years ago. Autorickshaw drivers charge Rs 150 to come here," said Skaria.

Daily wage labourers who go out looking for jobs have to shell out Rs 300 to return home. "It does not make sense to live there anymore. There are no jobs there," said Joji Parakkadavil (42), Elikutty and Raju's son who husks areca nuts for a living. He, his wife and two children shifted to Manjakkadu, 12km downhill, in Cherupuzha grama panchayat a few years ago. "We moved out because my children do not have to walk to school," said Joji.

Quarry owners buy up the farmlands
Lack of connectivity was just one of the inconveniences that drove people out of Chathamangalam. Frequent raids by wild animals have destroyed the economy of the village. "When the government did nothing to save our crops and our livelihood, quarry owners took over our place," said Skaria.

Around four granite quarry owners have bought hundreds of acres of farmland on the hills in the past 18 years. "They were giving good prices for our lands that did not have the value of a 'kanthari' (small chilli)," said Raju Parakkadavil. He was offered Rs 6 lakh per acre. "We could have also sold our land and moved out. We were pressing for a higher price when Modi sleep-babbled and banned the notes that November night, and ruined our lives," said Raju. (In 2016, the BJP-led Union government demonetised Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 notes in a failed attempt to end black money and terrorism, and reduce cash transactions. Of the notes worth Rs 15.41 lakh crore that were declared invalid by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, notes worth Rs 15.31 lakh crore or more than 99% returned to the banks.)

Though the quarries bought up land, they are yet to start work. "The crushers are ready and they are likely to get the clearance soon. The panchayats cannot hold them out for long," said Sunil Mathew, president of Congress's Parappa ward unit.

Wild animals take over abandoned houses, land
However several families have left even if they were not able to sell their land to the quarry owners. Their abandoned houses stand testimony to a ruined village. "When a family leaves Chathamangalam, they cede new ground to the wild animals," said Raju. Around 50 metres from his house, a troop of monkeys jumped from one cashew nut tree to another, before vanishing from sight. They are not interested in the topless coconut trees in front of Raju's house.

Raju gets fewer than 150 coconuts from his 2 acres of coconut grove, destroyed by diseases and wild animals. "Monkeys and wild boars won't leave anything for us," he said.

An abandoned house in Chathamangalam. Photo: Onmanorama

Mundakkal Baby (70) and his wife Lucy Baby (69) had to abandon their large house on an 18-acre family farmland at Chathamangalam and shift to Cherupuzha for the sake of his 97-year-old mother Sosamma.

When Onmanorama called on the family, they were busy packing to shift to another rented house because their landowner put them on short notice. But Sosamma, who is barely able to walk, was in the distant past. "When I was a kid in Pala, I was taught by Alphonsa Amma," she said, referring to Saint Alphonsa of Bharananganam.

Baby, struggling with the present crisis, said they were being pushed around because their farmland had become a liability. "We had 250 coconut trees and 250 areca nut trees. Monkeys don't leave even one tender coconut for us," he said. His 400 'njalipoovan' trees used to give him 300 kg of bananas every month. "Now I don't have one tree to cut leaves," he said.

Biju Mathew (54), known as Kuriachan, came to Chathamangalam from Kottayam's Erattupetta 35 years ago in 1989. He and his four brothers have 18 acres on the hilltop, on the Cherupuzha side of Chathamangalam.

His wife Beena Kurian said the family had 200 coconut trees and 700 arecanut trees when she married Kuriachan in 2002. "Now we have only 100 coconut trees and 100 areca nut trees," she said. The family also used to harvest 15 tonnes of pepper. "Now we get around 15 kg," said Kuriachan, a CPM worker.

He said monkeys steal almost all his coconuts. The nuts that fall are eaten by wild boars which do a neat job of husking, breaking the coconut and eating the kernel. "If we had not seen the boars at work, we would have assumed that someone scooped out the kernel with a knife," said Kuriachan.

Kuriachan, a CPM worker and resident of Chathamangalam. Photo: Onmanorama

Last year, the couple planted 100 coconut saplings and 100 areca saplings. Wild boars snouted out the entire crop. "I don't think anyone will buy our land for farming," Kuriachan said.

The abandoning of farmland is not unique to Chathamangalam, he said. "We have seen a similar exodus from Thabor, Josegiri and Allumbumala," he said. All these hills are around Theruvamala.

"We cannot abandon farming because that's what we know and that's how we feed our children," said Kuriachan. The government should help secure the farmlands by subsidising barbed wires and labour, he said. It should also waive farm loans up to at least Rs 5 lakh, he said.

Sons encouraged to fall in love
Many families are leaving the hills because their sons are not getting brides, said Kuriachan. "I know at least 50 families in Thirumeni with unmarried men. There are unmarried men above 50 years too, Kuriachan said. Of late, the Archdiocese of Thalassery takes a count of unmarried men and women in its parishes and promotes mingling of youths, said Sunil Mathew, the local Congress leader. "Daughters often take up professional courses and their lifestyle and preferences change once they get jobs abroad. Sons are stuck with the farmlands," he said.

Nowadays, parents encourage their sons to have affairs in schools or at least they look the other way if they have affairs, he said. "I have three young sons and I know," he said.

Memories of the past
The settlers started moving into Chathamangalam and other hill villages of North Malabar in the 1950s. They kept coming till the late 1980s. They were escaping poverty in Central Travancore.

The settlers named the hilltop Theruvumala after 'theruva pullu', the lemongrass that covered the hill. After farming, distilling the lemongrass to extract perfume and oil was the largest job-generating business on the hills. "The women used to reap the grass in the day and men used to distil it in the night," said Elikutty (85), who was a neighbour of Raju Parakkadavil and Elikutty.

Chathamangalam used to mill with crowds in the night, she recalled. "Every evening, men of all religions gathered at the junction. They smoked, drank, played cards, and exchanged banter. Very few places used to have two arrack shops next to each other," she said. When in need, all came together and helped one another, she said. "By the time religions started dividing people in our country, most of the families in Chathamangalam had left," she said. She sold her 4.6 acres to a quarry owner and moved out several years ago.

Shibin Jose (37), who works as a healthcare assistant in Ireland, said there were around 160 families in Chathamangalam when he was a little boy. "The ground where the chapel stands now was the casino ground of Chathamangalam. Groups of men sat and played cards every night. It was a relief from the hectic morning life," he said. But the men and women earned enough from the fields to build good houses and educate their children, he said.

In 1971, when Malayalam actor Sathyan died, the residents of Chathamangalam established the Sathyan Memorial Arts and Sports Club, said Shibin's mother-in-law Molly Jose. "Our fathers and grandfathers were all Sathyan devotees," she said.

The club brought professional theatre to Chathamangalam in the 1980s and 1990s. "By the time we got the reins of the club in the new millennium, it was past its prime. But we did raise some money and renovated the building," said Shibin. Now, even the building is not there. "From around 160 families, the numbers fell to around 60 by 2010. Now, there are only six families in Chathamangalam," said Shibin, who was picking jackfruits for his little English-speaking son.

St Jude Chapel. Photo: Onmanorama

In the 1990s, the people of Chathamangalam raised money and built St Jude's Chapel on the ground where they used to play cards, opposite the club. "We also raised money and built an Ayyappa Bhajana Mandir near the chapel," said Kuriachan.

The 85-year-old Elikutty and Kuriachan recalled how Hindus and Christians would sing hymns in praise of Lord Ayyappan at the Bhajana Mandir during the 'Mandala Kalam', which marked the beginning of pilgrimage to Sabarimala. The 41-day period falls in December and January. Back then there were around 15 Hindu families. "Today, there is no one to even light the lamp at the shrine," said Kuriachan, regretting the decline of his village.

Reviving Chathamangalam
Joji, who moved downhill, said Chathamangalam could be repopulated only if tourism takes off. "It has the potential to be a great trekking and outdoor camping site," he said.

But the government should improve the accessibility, said Reji, a house painter from Kannur. He and his girlfriend parked their motorcycle at Alakode and were walking up to Theruvamala because the road was not motorable.

Joji said if the quarries become functional, residents would also face a drinking water crisis. "As of now, we are dependent on the springs on top of the hills for drinking water. They have water round the year. The quarries will dry up those springs," he said.

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.