The Britishers' yearning to conquer helped them build a vast empire spanning the globe, triggering a saying that the sun never sets on the British empire. They always scouted for new shores around the world and also came to Indian coasts to hoist the flag of colonialism. The British colonists included those who annihilated and those who gave a new lease of life to people. And some others lost their lives midway through their journey.
The colonizers had also set foot in the verdant forests of Wayanad, which is known for its pristine natural beauty. The Wayanad woodlands started to echo with the sound of British boots and horses galloping circa 1800. The cool weather, intermittent rains and magical mist had attracted the English to Wayanad.
It is believed that Britishers had reached the nook and cranny of the forests in Wayanad and had scaled the Chembra Peak and the Banasura Hills. Ferreting out new places was a passion for them, to say the least. When the British people couldn’t cross the Chenkuthaya forest and stayed put at Thamarassery, it was Karinthandan, a tribal person, who showed them the way to reach Lakkidi. But by subsequently killing Karinthandan, the English ensured that they stamped their authority.
It is noteworthy that at that time only tribal people lived in the thick forests of Wayanad without disturbing the ecological balance and hurting the wild animals of the region. The tribals got food from the forest for sustenance and they strictly followed the sacrosanct laws of nature.
But the serenity of the woodlands was disturbed by the sound of pounding boots of the Britishers. The foreigners realized that the Wayanad hills were suitable for the cultivation of tea if they were cleared of natural vegetation. They felled scores of centuries-old trees and slaughtered wild animals to make the region conducive for tea cultivation. The tribals, who always thought that others were superior to them, toed the line of the Britishers. When there was a labour shortage, the Englishmen brought workforce from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
It is interesting to note that Wayanad houses the grave of one of the earliest British settlers. One has to drive through the steep muddy path, which is on the Meppady-Puthumala stretch, bisecting the tea plantations to reach the grave near Puthumala. The drive is pretty treacherous as there are big stones and sharp turns on the way. On both sides, one could see workers plucking tea leaves in the plantations and after driving for 2km one could reach the Puthumala bungalow, which is situated on the tabletop of a hill.
The foreground of the bungalow is covered in thick grass and vegetation. The structure is surrounded by mountains and the hilltops are shrouded by heavy mist. The bungalow is currently under the control of Harrisons Malayalam Limited, producer of rubber and cultivator of tea. Private entities have taken the bungalow on lease and have constructed huts on its premises.
The more than 150-year-old bungalow made of granite stones hasn’t lost any sheen a bit and boasts of expansive verandahs and rooms. The roof of the bungalow is layered with tiles but a portion of the ceiling is in a dilapidated state. It is incredible to build a bungalow as big as this on a flat top of the hill more than 150 years ago. It must have been a laboured job to bring the granite stones and other building materials to the tabletop of the hill in those days.
The bungalow had been a mute witness to all the changes in Wayanad. The edifice silently watched the forest being converted to tea plantations and the thatched houses making way for concrete buildings. It also saw swanky SUVs replacing horses as a means of transport in the high ranges. Earlier, foreigners used to make merry on the bungalow premises and now the natives are having all the fun.
The grave of the Britisher is not near the bungalow in a valley. One has to walk through a narrow path, which is 200m short of the main road, passing through the tea estate and entering the forests. The pathway finally ends at the final resting place of the Englishman. A floor, which is 4m long and 4m wide, is laid amidst thick vegetation and a huge cross is placed at the centre of the floor. On the right side of the cross, the following information is etched: ‘GEORGE BAUMBACH’, ‘DIED 10TH JUNE 1875’, ‘AGED 27’.
George Baumbach died at the age of 27 in June when the monsoon was at its peak. The young man’s cause of death is not clear but it is believed that Baumbach might have contracted malaria which was rampant in those days.
The huge cross kept above the grave is made of stone and it is said that the more than 6ft-long cross was brought from abroad as the stone with which the cross is made was not found in or around Wayanad. The efforts to locate Baumbach’s relatives were in vain as he might have been unmarried and there were no details about his ancestors too. Even the history books are silent about the whereabouts of Baumbach, and he might have been a youngster whose life was cut short in search of new shores.
There were rumours doing the rounds that Baumbach’s body was buried along with gold and precious gems. According to local residents, some people tried to break open the grave but no one knows who did it and whether they got anything valuable from the grave, which forms the boundary line between the Puthumala forests and tea plantations.
The purpose of Baumbach’s visit to Wayanad is not clear but as he was buried in the tea plantation it could be inferred that he came to this mountainous region to start a tea estate.
No one has an answer to how Baumbach died in Wayanad or why he was buried in Wayanad. Everyone is also clueless about where the cross was brought or how it was brought to the high ranges of Wayanad. But one thing is sure. Baumbach had a great connect with the tea plantations and wilderness.