One of the quintessential Kolkata experiences for a history enthusiast is to take a ride on the city's old, charming and rickety trams. The eastern Indian metropolis is home to the last surviving tram system in the country. In the first half of the 20th century, trams were an important mode of public transportation in India, with eight cities having tram networks. While no city in what makes up Kerala today had a tram system, the forests of the Thrissur and Palakkad districts had a freight tram line that was nearly 80 kilometres long.
The cable railway line that ran from Chalakudy to the Parambikulam forests was commissioned in 1907 and was called the Cochin State Forest Tramway. It was the brainchild of the British who were looking to transport teak and rosewood to the Cochin port from where it would be exported to Britain and Europe.
Of course, a significant amount of revenues from the forest products went to the Maharaja of Cochin Rama Varma XV, as the forests were in his kingdom.
An engineering marvel
Rama Varma XV, who was advised by Alvar Chetty, a forest official from Madras, hired a number of British specialists to help build the line in the early 1900s. Initial surveys were conducted by the British officials in the late 19th century, with some of them trekking through the wild forests to see if such an idea was workable. When the plans were finalised, the experts decided to divide the line into three sections.
The first 33-kilometre section from Chalakudy to Anapantham ran through the relatively flat terrain, although there was a gradual rise in elevation throughout the stretch. A guidebook published in 1938 by the Cochin Government titled Cochin Calling described the ascent from Anapantham:
"On reaching mile 21, however, there is an abrupt rise of 1,000 feet in a mile and a half. The locomotive is left behind, and a single van or one or two empty trucks alone is taken up. The ascent is made by a series of double-track, self-acting, wire-rope inclines, of which there are three between miles 21 and 21½, known as the Kavalai Inclines. The ascending van is hauled up at the end of a wire-rope, one inch in diameter, which passes over a horizontal wheel fitted with two independent rim-brakes at the brake-house at the top, the descending load attached to the other end of the cable serving as counterpoise. The first incline, which is 2,910 feet long, has a gradient of 1 in 15; the second, 2,640 feet long, 1 in 7; and the third, 1,380 feet long, 1 in 3. The top of the third incline, Kavalai, is about 1,400 feet above sea level."
The third section of 36 kilometres led to a place called Chinnar, which is now submerged under the Parambikulam dam. The line, which had 254 bridges and culverts, was an engineering marvel.
What is not mentioned in older articles about the tramway is the labour that was required to build it. Members of the indigenous communities like the Kadar tribe did the bulk of the work, clearing the forests and carrying heavy equipment.
The tramway was meant to move goods and not people. Its wagons were empty when they left Chalakudy and filled in Parambikulam with the bounty of the forest for the return journey. Passengers were only allowed on the tram with special permission. Most of the people who undertook the journey without commercial interests were British and European travellers, some of whom stayed in basic rest houses on the way. They had to carry their own supplies (and servants!). Among the few noted Indians who travelled on the tram were naturalist and ornithologist Salim Ali and Rama Varma XV, who wrote about the "magnificent scenery" he saw on an uncomfortable journey.
While the project initially made the Government of Cochin a lot of money and helped it build some educational institutions, roads, bridges, the modern port and the Willingdon Island, it began to become financially unfeasible by the 1920s. Calls to shut down the line by Cochin Government officials were unheeded by P Narayana Menon, who was the diwan of Cochin from 1922 to 1925, as well as his successor T S Narayana Iyer.
To address the financial burden caused by the continued operation of the line, the area used for timber extraction was expanded. This led to both deforestation and the establishment of plantations by European settlers. The indigenous tribes of the area gained very little from this project, having to settle for selling turmeric, honey and cardamom to traders.
The Cochin State Forest Tramway was finally closed in 1963. The abandoned line remained popular with trekkers who took photos of its bridges, tracks and culverts. Travel magazines from the 2000s featured articles about the two-day "Tramway Trek" that was conducted by the forest department. This guided-walk was discontinued in 2013, as a large part of the area came under the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve. It is now off limits to tourists and permissions to trek there are hard to obtain from forest department officials, who are tasked with protecting endemic species in the area.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)