A vast majority of the tourists on the scenic route to the hill station of Munnar have no idea that they are passing a road that came up in place of a railroad. In the early 20th century, a monorail was used in tandem with a ropeway to satiate the almost unquenchable demand for Indian tea in Britain.
The raison d'etre for human settlements in Munnar was tea. In the 1870s when the British sent officials from the Madras Presidency to the hills around Munnar to settle the boundary with the independent kingdom of Travancore, John Daniel Munro, an English officer of Travancore, said much of the land was “worthless,” but added that there “was a good deal fit for cultivation.” By the late 19th century, the area became one of the main tea growing centres in southern India.
In 1902, a cart road was cut to transport tea and subsequently India’s first monorail was built. The Kundala Valley Rail connected Top Station and Munnar. A January, 2006, article in Sands of Time, the newsletter of the Tata Central Archives, wrote, “the goods carriage was a simple platform with a small wheel running on the rail and a larger one on the road, which was pulled by bullocks.”
The tea from Munnar was transported from Top Station to Kottagudi by ropeway. Packed in “Imperial chests,” it was then sent to Tuticorin and shipped to Britain.
The monorail was used for only six years, after which it was replaced by a light rail. Several archival photographs show the process of the construction of the railway on the hills. The two-feet light rail, which was powered by a light steam locomotive, would not live to see its 18th birthday.
Great Flood of ‘99
In a scene that is all too familiar for those in Kerala who witnessed the floods of 2018, the Malayalam year 1099 (1924 CE) reaped destruction on the Kannan Devan hills. Three weeks of incessant and non-stop rains caused the Periyar River to swallow everything in its vicinity and beyond. The light rail was one of the many casualties of the massive flood. The Tata archives said the 1924 deluge “played havoc with the rails and left only relics which were beyond repairs.” What was left of the railway was dismantled and vanished by the end of the Second World War. Slowly modern roads came up to connect the plains with the tea estates.
History-lovers and railway enthusiasts will be happy to know that many of the relics of the Kundala Valley Rail are still visible in and around Munnar. There is a signboard to the Munnar Ropeway station, which is used as a store. Tata Tea’s regional office in Munnar is housed in the former railway station. Visitors to Munnar cross the Aluminium Bridge, which was once a railway bridge. The Kannan Devan Hills Plantation’s Tea Museum has a wheel of one of the trains used on the route. The gates of some heritage buildings in Munnar have also been decorated by portions of the rails. In addition to this, several remnants of the ropeway can be seen by those daring enough to trek in the forests that lead to the plains.
A potential revival?
The Idukki District Tourism Promotion Council is exploring the idea of reviving the railway. Of course, the purpose of restarting the train would be to transport tourists, not tea. The initial idea is to construct a five-kilometre long monorail. The Kannan Devan Hills Plantation has reportedly agreed to give land for the project, which would be built using the public-private partnership model. The final call, though, will be with the Indian Railways.
While so much of the country’s railway heritage is lost, the story of India’s lesser-known railway lines needs to make it way to documentary films and books. Whatever the motives the British Empire had for constructing the railway infrastructure of this country, their success is indeed a joint achievement, given the sheer hard labour that was put in by nameless, faceless and forgotten Indians.