One of Kolkata’s quintessential experiences for a history buff is to take a ride on the city’s charming and rickety old trams. The eastern Indian metropolis is home to the country’s latest tram system. In the first half of the 20th century, trams were an important mode of public transport in India, with eight cities having tram networks. While no town in what is now Kerala had a tram system, the forest districts of Thrissur and Palakkad had a freight tram line nearly 80 kilometers long.
The cable car line that linked Chalakudy to the Parambikulam forests was put into operation in 1907 and was called Cochin State Forest Tramway. It was the brainchild of the British who sought to transport teak and rosewood to the port of Cochin from where it would be exported to Britain and Europe.
Of course, a significant portion of the revenue from forest products went to the Maharaja of Cochin Rama Varma XV, as the forests were in his kingdom.
A marvel of engineering
Rama Varma XV, who was advised by Alvar Chetty, a forestry official from Madras, hired a number of British specialists to help build the line in the early 1900s. The first investigations were carried out by the British authorities at the end of the 19th century, some of them roaming the wild forests to see if such an idea was feasible. When the plans were finalized, the experts decided to divide the line into three sections.
The first 33 kilometer section from Chalakudy to Anapantham traversed relatively flat terrain, although there was a gradual increase in elevation throughout the stretch. A guide published in 1938 by the government of Cochin entitled Cochin Calling describes the ascent from Anapantham:
“On reaching mile 21, however, there is a steep climb of 1,000 feet in a mile and a half. The locomotive is left behind, and a single van or single empty truck or two is taken. The climb is made by a series of double-track, self-acting wire rope inclines, three of which are between miles 21 and 21½, known as the Kavalai inclines.The ascending van is hoisted on the end of a wire rope, at a inch in diameter, which passes over a horizontal wheel fitted with two independent rim brakes at the upper braking station, the downward load attached to the other end of the cable serving as a counterweight. a slope of 1 in 15; the second , 2,640 feet long, 1 by 7; and the third, 1,380 feet long, 1 by 3. The summit of the third slope, Kavalai, is about 1,400 feet above sea level.”
The third section of 36 kilometers 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 tram is the labor required to build it. Members of indigenous communities like the Kadar tribe did the heavy lifting, clearing forests and hauling heavy equipment.
The tram was intended to transport goods and not people. His wagons were empty when they left Chalakudy and filled up at Parambikulam with the bounty of the forest for the return trip. Passengers were only allowed to board the tram with special permission. Most of those who undertook the journey without commercial interests were British and European travellers, some of whom stayed in rudimentary rest homes along the way. They had to carry their own provisions (and servants!). Among the few notable Indians who traveled on the tram were naturalist and ornithologist Salim Ali and Rama Varma XV, who wrote of the “magnificent scenery” he saw on an uncomfortable journey.
While the project initially made a lot of money for the Cochin government and helped it build educational institutions, roads, bridges, the modern harbor and Willingdon Island, it started to become financially unfeasible. in the 1920s. Calls to close the line by Cochin government officials were ignored by P Narayana Menon, who was Cochin’s diwan from 1922 to 1925, as well as his successor TS Narayana Iyer.
To cope with 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 region have gained very little from this project, having to content themselves with 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 of the 2000s featured articles on the two-day “Tramway Trek” organized by the Forest Department. This guided walk was discontinued in 2013, as much of the area fell within the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve. It is now off-limits to tourists and trek permits are difficult to obtain from Forest Department officials, who are responsible for protecting the region’s endemic species.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, mainly based in Mumbai)