Sunrise; near Munsyari, Kumaon (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Sunrise; near Munsyari, Kumaon (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The question launched an expedition in the mind.

Why do I frequent the outdoors?

For a couple of months, the required articulation got bogged down in bad weather. Metaphorically, that is. Then one day, you are gifted with clear skies and off you went for the summit you sought, the high pass you wished to cross or you simply saw the landscape for what it is. The skies cleared the other day as I watched the John Ford classic ` The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.’

We live in times bombarded by media. The bulk of the movies we see have contexts more complicated than a growing settlement called Shinbone and what happens when a lawyer, a violent outlaw and the only man in town the gunslinger avoided, meet. Even with two of those men fancying the same woman, Ford’s movie was still devoid of clutter. Its clarity appeared enhanced by old world black and white. Film making is an aesthetic. I am not going to refer the dictionary to tell exactly what `aesthetic’ is. I will go with my understanding – it is a balance; an elegant equilibrium.

I remember a day in the Upper Rupin Valley. It was 2008, I think. A friend who was veteran of the outdoors and I, someone yet to fathom his need for the outdoors, were camped there. It was just two of us – two human beings in vast mountainous landscape. A nearby trail brought an occasional villager who paused for conversation and tea. Otherwise, it was just landscape and you.

Years ago, after finishing studies (rather, leaving some of it incomplete) I had left home to make a career. I worked my butt off. Over a decade later, I seemed to be doing well. That was the least expected of you – you had to do well. Nobody asked what you did. But you had to do well. Men disappeared to reappear years later, `doing well,’ prerequisite for next step – being well settled. They sported designation; importance, money and were expected not to have time for anything but career. Women, it seemed, liked their men so. It reinforced the urge to do well. My focus was always on several things. Actually, I lacked focus. But then I also knew that while you can’t have a good photograph without focusing, a photograph isn’t everything the photographer saw. The camera misses more world than it captures. Isn’t that true of human focus and life as well?

In late 2006, I was around sixteen years old as journalist and approximately ten years old as outdoor enthusiast. They were definitely two separate schools of thought and experience. Something snapped in me. I resigned my job and stopped `doing well.’ Two years afterwards, recast as freelance journalist and in the Rupin Valley, I was still a Doubting Thomas. What had I done with my life? I was free of the traditional parameters measuring life. But equally, I felt alone. Well settled and majority are brothers in arms. It was lesson well learnt.

My first day in Rupin Valley was a trial. Although I was already years old in outdoor activity by then, I had been trekking to gain a certain fort or pass, climbing rock to accomplish a certain route or mountaineering to reach a summit (in my case, any easy summit). As in the urban rat race, quest in the outdoors too, was an objective. Without objective, there is no conquest. How can you tell yourself you did well if there is no conquest? Life was a minor detail compared to discussions on route, particular climbing moves, gear specifications etc. It was like going to office.

The view from a little used road en route to Lansdowne in Garhwal, part of a 2013 cycle trip-route (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The view from a little used road on the way to Lansdowne in Garhwal, part of a 2013 cycle trip-route (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In Rupin Valley, the biggest challenge that confronted my friend and I was to keep a fire going for it was raining. We were short on fuel and therefore needing some assistance from the twigs and driftwood lying around. Much of it was wet. Without fire, there would be no food. Without food there would be no energy and without energy, no Rupin Pass to cross. Each was an objective no doubt but certainly not the sort of objectives that defined the `doing well’- paradigm.

Back home in Kerala, it was common to say that if you didn’t study and turned loser, you could end up running a tea shop or a hotel in the nearby junction. In the Rupin Valley, exactly those talents mattered. A cup of hot tea in cold weather felt good; if you were a good cook, the talent kept you alive. What was all that `doing well’-thing? – I thought. Eventually when I reached Rupin Pass, walking leisurely through high mountains and snowfields with none of the urgency and panic of doing well-world, I was one happy man. I never forget the cup of coffee I had atop that pass. The 2008 trek stripped my life to the uncluttered aesthetics of John Ford’s movie.

A delicate balance characterizes the outdoors. Much before we enter the frame, we see the scene from far. Right from start, what subconsciously drew me to the outdoors was a simple equation – the vastness of space and the limited supply of people in it. It took camping in the Rupin Valley and a genuine feel of the slow life along with it for the sub conscious to speak above the clamour for outdoors as conquest and apartness, which was how the urban rat race preferred it. In the years since Rupin Pass, the outdoor aesthetic, now no more ashamed of being a voice in me, sharpened further. I now have limited fascination for the politics of human clusters; the money and the competition it can’t live without. I am not a fan of giant population and population laundered to seemingly benign interpretations like `market’ and `tomorrow’s workforce.’

I have come to believe that what we call life is a perception by aesthetic. Life needs space, not the over-crowding we have done in India. Life needs space for our thoughts in the mind, not the daily schizophrenia we unleash with too many people breathing down our necks. Life needs to be felt, not overwhelmed by consumerist excess, competition or the struggle to survive as is the case today.

The outdoors is the refuge of a clarity that is not needed if your objective is to win in the rat race.

I like that clarity.

That’s why I frequent the outdoors.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This is a slightly altered, longer version of an article originally published in the Economic & Political Weekly.)


Teams line up before the football final (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Teams line up before the football final (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

For a fortnight every June, a playground in Munsyari draws crowds of people.

They are residents of Kumaon’s Johar Valley and members of its far flung diaspora. Kumaon is the eastern half of the Indian state of Uttarakhand; Munsyari is in north eastern Kumaon.

June is Johar’s month of annual get together.

The magnet is that playing field.

June 2014, it hosted competitions in various sports. Evenings featured football, coincidentally befitting the times, for as the local competition peaked to final by mid-June, in far away Brazil the 2014 FIFA World Cup got underway. It became Munsyari’s season of football within global season of football.

Munsyari’s football however went beyond the sport.

Over 60 years ago, in 1953, a group of students from the Johar Valley studying in Almora, started the Johar Club. Their idea was to get together, keep the Johar in them alive through sports. Thus was born the tournament. The first sport it featured was volleyball. For the next three years, this annual ritual was hosted in Almora. In 1956, it shifted to Munsyari. It has remained there since.

According to Sriram Singh Dharmshaktu, Secretary, Johar Club, the inaugural tournament in Almora drew half a dozen teams or so. By 1956, this grew to around 20, mostly local; including teams from villages like Darkot, Bunga, Sarmoli, Suring, Dumar and Jalat. The variety of sports also grew to encompass volleyball, football, carom, chess, table tennis, badminton etc. Soon, teams from outside Munsyari started coming; among them – Lucknow, Delhi, Bageshwar, Thal and Didihat. No matter where a team was from, one thing stayed common – its members hailed from the Johar Valley.

This year (2014), the tournament had 16 senior teams and 15 junior teams, including school teams. For the first time the event also featured girls’ teams with four teams registered to play football. These all girl-outfits were named after well known adventurers – Bachendri Pal, Chandraprabha Aitwal, Sabita Dhapwal and Reena Kaushal Dharmshaktu. Further, in what was probably recognition of the growing popularity of running in India, there was a 15 kilometre-run from Munsyari to Darkot and back. There is no age restriction for senior teams. It was visible for example in the volleyball final, where a mix of youth and age fought an engaging match.

In the Himalaya, cricket is popular. If you are frequent hiker, you would have seen villagers playing the game. A good hit typically travels down several terraced fields or tiered slopes of a hillside. The fielder chases the ball and often disappears from view in the undulating, steep terrain. A powerful throw from below returns the ball to frantic teammates on the pitch. The fielder then climbs back up. In a single game, there would be many players repeating this process many times over. In mountains, big, flat spaces are hard to find. Some villages are lucky. They have a playing field. There are regular inter-village cricket tournaments. Shields and trophies find pride of place in a victorious village; I recall seeing a big shield displayed at a village temple in the western part of Garhwal bordering Himachal Pradesh. I also remember youngsters’ sorrow at a Kumaon village, after the nearby river which flooded in monsoon, washed off a portion of their flat field.

Probably because cricket has its own established circuit, the sport wasn’t part of the Johar Club’s annual tournament. Big ticket sport here was football, followed by volleyball.

Volleyball final in progress (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Volleyball final in progress (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Munsyari is small enough for most people to know each other. Well known mountaineer and Padma Shri recipient in 2014, Love Raj Singh Dharmshaktu, hails from Johar. June was his month to be home too. A local hero and chief guest for an evening’s football, he was formally received in town and taken in procession to the stadium. Years ago, Love Raj had been on a team playing football at the same annual event. Ahead of the match, oblivious of the gathered crowd, his little son had fun kicking the football around in the stadium.

On the day of the football final, the two finalist teams walked down the bazaar road to the stadium, with their supporters – one team accompanied by a traditional Kumaoni band, the other by a school band. The small stadium was full of people. Houses nearby had people on balconies and roof tops just as they do for cricket matches in Mumbai. There were people watching from roads uphill and some poised on top of rocks. There was no dearth of flourish either for the final ended in a penalty shoot-out with goal keeper for hero, a trend that would repeat at World Cup matches weeks later. Interestingly, for a long time, the football here couldn’t accommodate teams of 11 players each due to lack of space. In 1970, with help from residents, the playground was enlarged. Team size went up from nine to 11.

Preparations for the annual tournament commence in April-May. People contribute; some financially, others help with the organizing. With so many landing up, it also becomes an occasion to meet friends and relatives. At heart, the tournament is a reunion.

The annual community reunion around sport in Johar, reminded of a similar event elsewhere.

Far to the south, in Coorg (Kodagu), there has been the tradition of an annual field hockey festival. It was started in 1997. In the past, the region has been famous for talented field hockey players and a typical tournament saw people who had played at state, national and international level turn up to represent their families (please visit this link: https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2013/08/22/field-hockeys-family-festival/). A difference between Johar and Coorg was – in Johar, team identity spanned roots in Johar for those from the diaspora and participating as visiting teams, to specific villages and institutions (schools for example) in Johar for local teams. Either way, it was link to a place. In Coorg, the idea of roots went deeper to teams arranged under family names.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. An abridged version of this article was published in The Telegraph newspaper)


???????????????????????????????Alan Hinkes’ book, ` 8000 Metres – Climbing the World’s Highest Mountains,’ should make a fine addition to the library.

Hinkes is the first British mountaineer to have climbed all the fourteen 8000m-peaks.

On the Internet, his achievement is sometimes qualified as “ disputed,’’ the ascent of Cho Oyu being case in point. Hinkes mentions reaching the mountain’s vast summit and walking around to ensure that there isn’t any higher to go. All this is in semi white out condition with reduced visibility. Views of other major peaks, useful to establish proof of summit, remain elusive. Hinkes is also alone at this stage of the climb. “ I did not bother to take any photos. There was nothing to see and I was more concerned with finding my way back before I became trapped in a full whiteout or deadly snowstorm,’’ he writes in his book.

Among the fourteen 8000m-peaks, Cho Oyu is often described as the easiest. Hinkes’ chapter on Cho Oyu begins thus: Categorizing any 8000m peak as `easy’ or referring to an `ordinary’ or ` normal’ route to the summit, is a contradiction in terms. There is nothing easy or normal about any 8000m mountain. Each of the fourteen giants represents a serious undertaking with different characteristics, dangers, difficulties and local weather patterns, and none should be underestimated.

In the eyes of the sport’s high priests, the situation on Cho Oyu may have inspired lack of precision in summit claimed. But it takes nothing away from Hinkes’ book, which strikes a fine balance between coffee table book and account of life in mountaineering, especially that recap of fourteen 8000m-peaks climbed over eighteen years, entailing twenty seven attempts in all. Towards the end of the book, Hinkes says that the fourteen 8000m-peaks are dangerous, that he climbed them for himself and not for money and therefore even guiding on those peaks for money isn’t worth risking his life again. The only mountains from the fourteen that he may consider climbing again are Everest (to which he returned) and Cho Oyu.

The book’s biggest strength is simplicity in the story telling. It is unpretentious. This is complemented by large and beautiful photographs backed by an uncluttered layout. The images give you a genuine sense of place without complicated camera work to distract from what is being shown. Hinkes’ photography is crisp and clean. The book has a nice architecture in terms of written content. Having devoted the introductory chapter to describing his affection for adventure and the evolution of his career in climbing, Hinkes keeps the accounts of his climbs straightforward and bereft of searching philosophy. He speaks matter of fact, mostly devoid of the dramatic, adding a touch of drama only where it seems relevant. Each story of climbing an 8000m-peak is followed by a smaller chapter on an interesting aside. The latter ranges from the photo of his daughter that he carried to mountain summits (it also gave him something to look forward to after the summit and kept him focused on descending safely), to profiles of Jerzy Kukuczka, Kurt Diemberger and Reinhold Messner, the correct clothing for high altitude mountaineering, his food habits on expeditions, ` the death zone’ as extreme high altitude is popularly called and dealing with death in a dangerous sport.

We live in an age, where mountaineering narratives are many. The media gaze has spared no landscape. Some would say – as early victim of media in adventure, the snowy, windswept heights of our planet suffer from a fatigued idiom of expression. If despite that, we still indulge media, then it must be conceded – content matters now more than ever before. Details like perspective, craft and lightness of handling, previously overlooked, have emerged differentiator for our tired senses. This book, at once serious for the subject it handles and enjoyably light in treatment, lives up to that more comfortable aesthetic.

For the average Indian like me, it is an expensive book.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This is a slightly edited version of a review originally written for the Himalayan Club Journal, Volume 69)


???????????????????????????????On the jacket of Wing Commander K.K. Nair’s book: By Sweat and Sword – Trade, Diplomacy and War in Kerala through the Ages, are observations pivotal to his work.

Colonial documents record that war was the natural state of Kerala. The region’s political climate was characterized by a variety of foreign and local powers fighting each other for economic and military ascendancy. Yet despite centuries of foreign contact and conflict, Kerala continued to thrive and retain its independence. The frontiers of Kerala were never redrawn. It did not suffer massive social or cultural dislocations. No foreign order or influence, especially those inimical to the populace, could be imposed until the traditional order was overturned. The influences Kerala absorbed were of its own choosing. The book “ hypothesizes that this remarkable achievement was a direct consequence of Kerala’s unique military, diplomatic, social and economic culture.’’

The book is an investigation of a state of war (internal and external), what that dynamic meant for defending Kerala and what it meant to external powers trying to subjugate the region or gain a toehold. Old Kerala transacted its business amidst a diet of military readiness. Actor across ages in this was a clan – the Nairs. The book isn’t community or clan history. It is what its title says, except, you can’t talk of war in Kerala without also talking about the Nairs. K.K. Nair’s book takes the reader from a likely foreign origin for the clan in tribes linked to the Scythians, their subsequent migration to India, movement within India along the south west coast to Malabar, their role in the wars of South India, wars within Kerala and wars with foreign powers trying to colonize Kerala.

The Scythian angle is founded on a couple of arguments. According to the author, there is no mention of the Nairs in the writings of the Sangam Age and earlier. The first mention in India is in the inscriptions of the Scythian king Nahapana who reigned from AD 78-125. His domain extended beyond the Gulf of Cambay, along the Gujarat and Konkan coast. The inscription talks of assisting the Nairs of Malabar. On the other hand, earlier in Europe, the Greek historian Herodotus (BC 484-425) noted that the Scythians had joined forces with neighbouring tribes, including one Slavic tribe called the Neuri, to stem the attack on Scythia by Darius of Persia. This happened around 500BC. Later as the restlessness of Mongolia and Turkestan took hold, the Scythians were further displaced. They began moving into Indo-Persian lands around 200BC. By this time the Neuri and other Scythian tribes no longer find mention around the Caspian Sea. At the same time, Megasthenes (BC 350-290) in his description of India, positions the like sounding Nareae tribe to the north of the Aravali Mountain. Putting two and two together, the author suggests a story of migration, initially towards India and later, within India.

Unlike North India, the South from ancient times was wrapped up in mutual warfare. The best known of this was the tripartite battles involving the Cholas, the Pandyas and the Cheras. Kerala was predominantly Chera territory. It was hill country; it was also numerically disadvantaged. Invading armies were typically bigger. This was the environment into which the warrior-Nairs arrived. A clan of dedicated warriors to oversee security and their lifestyle revolving around martial culture influenced Kerala. K.K. Nair observes, “ Kerala, unlike most of India, was not divided into Hindu villages but was divided into gradations of military divisions with every division and sub division being designated by the allotted quota of Nairs it was required to bring into the battle field.’’

A fallout of this arrangement was that rulers didn’t maintain large standing armies but they could marshal an adequately large army at short notice. It is possible to trace local customs, building architecture and lifestyle – including the culture of martial arts – to such a militarily styled society. The Nairs’ fighting style associated in martial history with the `Berserk or Mad Warrior’ style (wherein they forgo use of armour), would have got progressively challenged as technology gained currency with opponents. But on many occasions, it also stunned foes. The book explores the warrior mindset, including suicidal contests like `Mamankam.’ Needless to say, some fighting or the other seems to have been always on in old Kerala. Accounts are commensurately bloody. K.K. Nair’s book helped me put in perspective some of the idiosyncrasies of Kerala. History provides a window to understand people. Nair’s book served such purpose.

The book brings us all the way from ancient battles to Kerala’s colonial wars with the Portuguese and the Dutch, Tipu Sultan’s invasion and eventually the onset of British supremacy. We get an idea of the strategies and tactics of invader and defender. We see how frustrated some invaders may have been, weighing their incessant harassment on land and sea against the viability of their spice trade. For lay readers (like me) the book’s central character and its agent of continuity will be the Nair soldier. He is there in every conflict, be it in Malabar, Cochin or Travancore. However, despite being Kerala’s constant warrior through the ages, the Nair goes tad unexplained beyond his image as set in historical accounts of battle. But then, the book’s main intent isn’t investigation of clan or community. It is instead a study of trade, diplomacy and war in Kerala provoked by the curious case of a state that held its shape through the years despite active engagement with the outside world.

To sum up: By Sweat and Sword is an interesting book about a violent past.


The author of the book, Wing Commander K.K. Nair.

The author of the book, Wing Commander K.K. Nair.

Wing Commander K.K. Nair is a serving Indian Air Force (IAF) officer. He is Joint Director, Operations (Space), at Air Headquarters, New Delhi. He replied by email to questions about the book:

Can you describe the circumstances that made you write this book? What attracted you to the subject?

I was coming from Geneva to New Delhi in 2007, when my French co-passenger Valerie, a part time scholar and full time hippie – as she put it, gave me a running commentary on Kerala in ancient times and the Nairs. My interest in the subject was sufficiently kindled. I became curious to know more. Thereafter, when I mentioned the subject to Gen Satish Nambiar, then Director of the United Services Institute (USI), he strongly encouraged me to do an in-depth research. It was the active support and encouragement from Gen Nambiar, Gen PK Singh, Squadron Leader RTS Chinna of the Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research and my colleagues in the military services that enabled me to sustain my attraction for the subject.

How did you go about collecting the material for this book? Would you like to share any interesting moments therein?

Most of my material for research came from the National Archives, the Travancore, Cochin state records, from the USI as also from the University library, Trivandrum and the late Travancore Maharajah’s private collection. Some material came from the Dutch records for which I am particularly indebted to Mr Tristan Mostert, Curator of the Rijksumuseum, Amsterdam. Material on the ‘Mad-Warrior’ style of Nair warfare came from Prof Michael P. Speidel of the University of Hawaii. Overall, a lot of effort went into collecting material for the book.

With regard to interesting moments, one of these was when during a meeting with the late Maharajah of Travancore, he read the draft account of the battle between Tipu’s troops and the Travancore Nair regiment on the Travancore Lines. He got so animated reading the account that he rushed in to get an old `ola’ (palm leaf document) showing grant of lands etc to the Garrison Commander Kalikutty Nair.

The next equally interesting moment was at Trivandrum’s University Library. There was some kind of a strike on and the library was forced to shut. I was returning disappointed when I saw some students striding up to me calling out, “Pattalam Saar, Major Saab” etc. They got the library reopened for me stating that strikes don’t apply to OUR military. I was truly overwhelmed.

You have attributed a Scythian link to the Nairs. How conclusive is that?

I have avoided being judgmental throughout the script. I leave the conclusions to the reader.

Having written this book, can you briefly explain why a state of war became Kerala’s dominant predicament?

An abundance of resources always brings in problems of management. These snowball into rivalries, conflicts and war. Kerala had enough agricultural produce, spices etc to feed itself and the world at large. Little wonder then that its shores attracted the Chinese, Arabs and Europeans. This ability to produce resources, trade resources and sustain prosperity across the ages was possible because a fine balance existed amongst the various communities in Kerala. Thus, though war was daily affair, trade and agriculture never suffered.

Is war and warrior a chicken and egg situation capable of contributing to a state of war?

Yes. Your observation is very apt. It certainly contributes.

(The author of this review, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)


On Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

On Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

This article weaves two narratives – the one in normal text focuses on a trek; the other in italics, talks about tea estates.

It is an old story said in three parts. A lot may have changed since it was first written in 2009. A quick reality check was done through return to context in August 2014, which is appended as `Post Script.’ However, it is a limited update. Readers are requested to keep that in mind.

In the beginning of the nineteenth century, the plantation industry reached Kerala on India’s south western coast.

First in was coffee in Wayanad, the north Kerala district bordering Karnataka. This area used to belong to the erstwhile Madras Presidency. There were three potential sources of manpower for the estates. Of them, the tribal people flatly refused to work on the plantations seeing it as an invasion of their forests. The people from the Malabar region were averse to such work. Imported labor from Tamil Nadu provided the solution.

By 1866 more than 200 coffee estates were operating in Wayanad, two thirds of that owned by Europeans, the rest by investors from the coastal towns. Twenty two years later, news came of blight on the coffee plants in Kerala. It was believed to have arrived from plantations in Sri Lanka; in any case, much of the state’s coffee was destroyed by 1876. Experiments with other crops like cinchona, as replacement for coffee, proved discouraging. Eventually tea moved in; coffee continued to have a presence in Wayanad. Although the British East India Company’s first foray into tea in South India happened in the 1840s, large scale production of tea in Kerala commenced only after the coffee blight. Tea had to be necessarily large scale compared to coffee. As a crop it required regular human intervention. These interventions were affordable only if the scale of cultivation was large. The heart of the state’s tea country then was Peermedu. Later it was the undulating hills of Munnar.

The last major cash crop to reach Kerala and its hills was rubber at the turn of the twentieth century. With this, save the apex portion which was off limit by law, it was theoretically possible to clothe a Kerala hill in estates – rubber at low altitude, coffee at mid altitude and tea at high altitude. One definite casualty of this was the traditional forest aesthetic. From natural and heterogeneous, the idea of greenery became acceptable even if it was manmade and homogenous.

When my cousin Rajeev comes home on vacation from the US, we usually go on a hike. That’s how Agastyakoodam entered the frame.

At Neyyar Dam near Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala I got my first real look at Agastyakoodam peak. The face it presented to Neyyar Dam was beautiful, a perfect triangle. Agastyakoodam had always been there in the backdrop at Thiruvananthapuram, spoken of in hushed tones of respect. To see Agastyakoodam you had to be on the terrace of an ideally located house in the city and have a clear day. Slightly foggy or sky laden with rain clouds – you missed it. For the child in you, that added to the myth. I grew up in Thiruvananthapuram. So the myth was a big deal.

In the late 1980s, I remember listening in awe as a friend who was senior to me, prepared to join the annual pilgrimage up the 6237 ft high-peak. Nobody called it a trek; indeed there was no trekking in popular perception then. You went up a hill for pilgrimage. Then in January 2009, three of us – Rajeev, his nephew Gokul and I – decided to do the Agastyakoodam hike ahead of the annual pilgrimage. Booking the trek through the forest department turned out to be a small expedition. It was a whole day’s trip to Peppara and back; that was where we had to pay the fees and register our names.

Half way along the narrow forest road to the Peppara Dam and its warden’s office, Shahajad who was driving our hired three-wheeler stopped the vehicle to put some money in a box kept in front of a temple. It was one of the most beautiful sights. Besides the small box and a multi-tiered, soot-stained traditional lamp fixed to the ground, there was nothing to mark a temple there. But the atmosphere was exceptionally divine in a quaint, primeval way. It was set by four to five lovely trees called chempakam in Malayalam. They have a sprawling shape, the trunk acquires a silver color and in full bloom, has dainty white flowers. A week later at the botanical gardens adjacent to the Thiruvananthapuram zoo, I could gather the actual name for the tree – Eezhachempakam, Plumeria rubra Linn also called Temple Tree. In that small clearing filled with white sand, by the road in Peppara, the trees had woven a magnificent aura – if one’s gaze turned heavenward in the temples of the plains, then in the temples of the hills and forests, I felt a sensation of being embraced by nature.

The road to Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The road to Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Early next morning, all geared up for the multi-day hike, we met our guides – Binu and Raju; both from the Kani community. They were adivasis; tribal people, initially stiff and quiet but soon warming up to conversation after a round of hot tea at a smoky restaurant opposite the Bonaccord bus stop. That was in fact the end of the winding road. Nearby were tea estates. I knew at least one another similar road, leading to Ponmudi (3609ft), which highlighted a little known dimension of Thiruvananthapuram – you could land in tea country, less than two hours from Kerala’s capital city.

By 2009 (actually earlier), Thiruvananthapuram’s tea estates, likely the southern-most in India, were in trouble. It was a picture of neglect. Bonaccord epitomized it. The resident tea factory was in a state of disrepair and the tea bushes in their neglected condition had reverted to being an extension of jungle.

Bonaccord appeared trapped in a time warp on the peripheries of Thiruvananthapuram. It had sat there while the lands way below went through political upheavals rendering the area likely unviable for commercially successful tea cultivation. Now the tea factory was a ghost of its former self. Three floors high and the length of three tennis courts, it sported shattered glass panes and rusting metal; at one end was a room full of silent machinery that had ground to a standstill long ago. The day I was there, four to five officers sat settling accounts in a sun-lit room on the ground floor. The floor of the adjacent hall featured a spread of freshly plucked tea leaves. The company owning the estate no more worked the processing factory; it simply transported the leaves to distant Vandiperiyar and sold it.

For quite a while on the well marked trail, the plantation culture from the foothills of Agastyakoodam lingered. There were minor trails once used by Englishmen to move around, places where they used to rest and long forgotten horse trails with water halts for the animal. Raju and Binu proceeded at a brisk pace; like a pair of men out on work or going to the market. They had appeared clad in shirt and lungi, rubber slippers on the feet and crucially no rucksack for either. For guides everything else was forgivable but unprotected feet and no rucksack was questionable. So I had taken most of our provisions away from them and put it in my rucksack. In due course the duo laundered my lack of protest at the additional labor into a desire for carrying load. “ Sir likes to carry all the weight,’’ Raju said. Binu nodded his head approvingly. Ever heard that – a paying client who loves to haul load?

This was typical Kerala and the contrast the situation posed with treks up north where clients walked swinging their hands while porters lugged massive loads, was rather stark. But then on the other hand I reasoned, just as cuisine is different from state to state, so had to be the people and their mentality. There was nothing in this duo that betrayed a willingness to genuflect or be servile. Lungi tucked high to keep it out of the way they conversed about the world and set an impatient pace that soon had me, my rice and my vegetables frying in the heat and sweat. The trail, pounded by several years of pilgrims’ passage, was firmly etched into the hill slope. We passed a prominent stream en route – it was the beginning portions of the Karamana River which flowed downstream through the heart of Thiruvananthapuram city. A sole leech made its presence felt on Rajeev’s leg; the blood sucker had quenched its thirst long ago, bloated and fallen off, leaving behind a tiny bleeding wound. In days to come, that wound would itch. A leech bite is like a love affair. It can take a few days to get over the visitation – you bleed, you scratch, you reopen the wound, you scratch, till all that imprints the leech into your memory.

…..to be continued

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)


On Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

On Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The story of these southern Kerala tea estates go back several decades. It showed up on the Internet in a 1914 edition of Southern India: Its History, People, Commerce and Industry; a book compiled by Somerset Playne, J.W. Bond and edited by Arnold Wright. As I found out later the book which details the initial phase of South Indian estates had become essential reference for plantation companies in the Ponmudi region to establish their origin.

According to it, The Ponmudi Tea and Rubber Company Ltd was formed in 1900. The property consisted of three estates – Ponmudi, Bon-Accord and Braemore, all of which were in the district of Ponmudi in the native state of Travancore. The estates spanned an area of 3276 acres with the cultivated portion totaling 1710 acres, featuring tea and rubber. Mr J.S. Valentine, the managing director, had arrived in India in 1875. At that time, the area was planted with coffee but all that coffee was lost in the blight that hit Kerala’s coffee. Subsequently in 1884, tea was planted in Ponmudi and in portions of the other properties. The climate was good for tea; the rainfall of almost 160 inches experienced annually was heaviest in June, July, August, October and November. The yield of tea was highest in Ponmudi followed by Bon-Accord and Braemore in that order. In January 1915, when these observations about the estates were penned, the region had about 1510 acres under tea and 200 acres under rubber at the three estates. There were tea factories at all three properties and the produce was shipped under the company’s brand through the ports of Kochi and Tuticorin for sale in London. Two thousand laborers worked in the plantations; they were drawn equally from Malabar, south Travancore and Tinnevely, the Tirunelveli district of present day Tamil Nadu. Mr Valentine lived in Ponmudi, Mr R. Ross with Mr David Welsh, assistant, was in charge at Bon-Accord and Mr I.R.N. Pryde looked after Braemore. The company’s registered office was at 4 Lloyd’s Avenue, London.

The three estates are now separate. They draw their lineage from the Ponmudi Tea and Rubber Company. When I was a school student in Thiruvananthapuram, the Ponmudi area was identified with tea and as I understood in retrospect from my inquiries, foreign managers were still there. They were present in Ponmudi till the late 1970s. It was also from these parts that I first heard the name Birla. Jayasree Tea, a company belonging to the B.K. Birla group and a leading tea company in India, had come to own a plantation called Merchiston in Ponmudi. But there was trouble brewing, scripted possibly by paradigm problems visiting the tea business in the state. In fact, while I was still living in Thiruvananthapuram and yet to be journalist, reports had commenced of labor problem and slow decay at the tea estates.

Gangs of forest workers were preparing the trail for the upcoming season. Here and there, they had set fire to dry grass in a controlled fashion. Our guides stopped to talk to their colleagues. On one such occasion, we had walked ahead and paused to pick up a hollow plant stem, hacked and lying on the ground. It was a fascinating object, like a green telescope tube. Just then the guides appeared. “ Did you cut it?’’ Raju asked a tad belligerent in tone.

Neither the query nor the tone should have surprised us. The forests around Agastyakoodam have been known for long as a treasure trove of medicinal plants. Years ago, it used to be casually explained; people would link the incidence of medicinal plants in the region to the apothecary traits of sage Agastya himself. But the present day global pharmaceutical industry has no appetite for either myth or nature. For it, the undiscovered potential of the plant wealth of Agastyakoodam posed clear commercial value. Its exploitation could be restrained or properly administered only by the rule of relevant laws, something quite distant to the tribal world of the Kani community. Rumors abounded of plants smuggled out for analysis.

Even the comparatively successful story of the endurance drug Jeevani was not spared controversy. The discovery of its existence or rather that suspicion of something like it which precedes all real discovery, had been in circumstances very similar to what we found ourselves in. A group of scientists were out in the Agastyakoodam forests, their guides like ours, walking briskly ahead mile after mile. The guides were hardly tired while the team behind was getting progressively exhausted. They noticed that the Kani men were chewing something, which on inquiry turned out to be the leaf of a plant locally known as Aarogyappachcha. From it, scientists of the Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute near Thiruvananthapuram created the medicine, Jeevani. Although the Jeevani business model was eventually recognized internationally as a role model in its category, sharing the profits from manufacturing the drug with the Kani community, whose natural home land the Agastyakoodam forests were, there was controversy later when a US company patented the drug in that country. The tribal community – as evidenced by the attitude of our two guides – appeared to have learnt the value of cautious dealings with the outside world. “ We were ignorant,’’ Binu said.

The office of the old tea factory at Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The office of the old tea factory at Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The Merchiston factory near Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The Merchiston factory near Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The Bonaccord factory (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The Bonaccord factory (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

At the root of the tea estates’ problems was Kerala’s entry, some seventy five years after tea plantations reached the state, into an era of turbulent politics and social upheavals. One of the lasting legacies of this trend, ironically a byproduct of increased awareness, has been a level of politicization often deemed excessive for the common good. In this atmosphere, the plantation industry was one of the state’s largest tax payers and also one of its biggest employers. Political parties with their compulsion to cultivate vote banks rarely saw beyond these two obvious attributes – one of the largest tax payers and one of the biggest employers.

The mood in January 2009 at the plantation offices I visited in Thiruvananthapuram was hardly upbeat. Tea prices were down; input costs – a chunk of that labor cost – had gone up and labor productivity was low. Within labor cost, the argument from the planters was that the fixed components had risen handsomely while the variable parts, linked to productivity, moved up sluggishly. Also traceable in the economics was a logic rooted in the very nature of tea and mentioned at the time of its arrival in Kerala – the regular human intervention warranted for its cultivation demanded economies of scale alongside for affordability. The south Kerala plantations were neither very big nor was their produce high on the pecking scale at tea auctions. A cursory inquiry with tea brokers in Kochi in 2009 revealed that in general the teas from Munnar ruled the top in local auctions while the south Kerala estates stayed at the bottom in terms of price and quality. It was not hard to comprehend why the pincer bit hard at Ponmudi.

In 2009, of the big names in the Thiruvananthapuram region, only one tea plantation company seemed to be working normally, free of controversy. Its focus was organic tea, something the others were yet to deem commercially viable although improving end product price through imaginative value addition seemed the only way out from prevailing predicament. But this company too had temporarily run into a glitch courtesy the Forest Department whose office was situated not far from that of the plantation company’s in the city. In rules produced some years ago to define forest lands, the department had drawn survey lines through estate tracts befuddling the owners. For the company it suddenly became questionable to weed its contested plantation for that could amount to deforestation. That was the dilemma in 2009 at what seemed the less troubled tea company of the lot.

About three hours into the hike, we broke free of dense forest into a patch of tall grasses with scattered trees. From here the Agastyakoodam peak towered in the distance; its long flanks made us wonder if the goal of reaching the top by evening was feasible. It was now noon and the sun was harsh. Just then the walk entered open terrain with nothing for shade. It was only after half an hour slogging through the heat and glare that the trail reentered shaded forest. When it did the going was suddenly steep. The combination of heat and steepness was rather dehydrating and it was a tired group that hit the forest rest house by late afternoon. We would be staying here for the night. Right in front of the building, the peak loomed big, that same perfect triangle as seen from Neyyar Dam. Now you could see it in detail and if you were given to climbing, read that rock face for vertical lines to the top.

Bags lightered, we decided to push on and reach the top by evening. Getting back through forest at night may be difficult but we had torches and our guides appeared confident of navigating. You could say that the real climb up Agastyakoodam is the hike beyond the rest house, whatever had been traversed till then was the stuff of foothills. Binu pointed to a distant streak of red on the peak’s rock face. He claimed that the ooze, locally called kanmadam, held medicinal properties. What he said next was hard to swallow – that the king cobra loved to taste it. It was a fantastic image – mysterious red ooze from rock as favored food for the world’s longest poisonous snake. Wasn’t it a bit too fantastic? I left it at that.

Tea gardens near Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Tea gardens near Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The trail was now getting steep and narrow featuring stray deposits of elephant dung. The watchman at the rest house had warned that a few elephants were present in the locality. An hour later, we were at the mountain’s shoulder, its rocky apex sat like a solid hump to the right; it was a sheer drop on the side facing the rest house below. The boundary line separating the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu ran along the mountain’s ridge. It was carved into the rocks, these separate loyalties – the sea shell emblem of Kerala and a sort of arrow mark for Tamil Nadu, which the two Kani men called “ kozhikkalu’’ or chicken leg. Back in Thiruvananthapuram, this arrow mark failed to convince learned people for they said the Tamil Nadu emblem had traditionally been the temple tower; unless the tower got simplified to an arrow mark. From the mountain’s shoulder you could comfortably gaze into Tamil Nadu, the nearest town that side being Ambasamudram. The path up from the shoulder was a mix of rock strewn gully and a steep, narrow path.

Half way up the path, we saw fresh elephant dung. The contrast it presented was hard to ignore. How could such a massive beast pick its way up so small a path? Elephants are capable of some gingerly done walking but this appeared to indicate a truly nimble specimen. Binu however treated it as normal. As we prepared to tackle the rock patches above, we heard some trumpeting in the distance. The rock patch was fun; it is bound to be so for anyone acquainted with climbing. There was a stout rope fixed to a thicket but if you are familiar with walking on angled rock and have a trekking pole for friend, then the rope is not required there or anywhere on the final ascent. On the other hand what you feel while walking up on two legs on that slab is a notion of poise and fresh air, a sense of freedom, a sense of having finally broken through dense vegetation and being able to see unhindered for miles.

The peak here has two neighbors – Athirumala, located in line with the boundary dividing the two states and having a name derived from the Malayalam word athiru, meaning boundary. The other was a fierce mountain with five summits all of them sharp pinnacles. The entire formation stood like an arrogant upward thrust from the forest floor. The Kani men called it Anchilappothi and it reminded me of those spires in Patagonia and Karakorum that the world’s best rock climbers go to attempt. Perhaps a smoother version for these tall pinnacles didn’t seem as jagged or rugged. “ Nobody goes there,’’ Binu said, as we stood looking at those pointed peaks, from the top of Agastyakoodam. There was nothing on the summit of our peak save a couple of more rock engravings to denote the state boundary, a solitary idol of the sage Agastya and items of worship replete with left over offerings. The idol matched the description of the sage in Hindu mythology as a small, stout person. Agastya though, was a powerful sage, one of the most powerful in the list of Indian hermits. Two things characterize his story – a fantastic birth and continued mention across the ages, making him some sort of an eternal being. In between was the tale of him taming a fast growing mountain in central India, the Vindhya. When Vindhya threatened to exceed the Himalaya in height, the gods sought Agastya’s help – so goes the story. The sage who was proceeding south asked the mountain to reduce its height for him to cross and keep it that way till he returned. Agastya never returned; he stayed south. The belief is that he built his hermitage in the forests around the Agastyakoodam hill. As for Vindhya, it remains to date a set of hills, smaller than even the Western Ghats.

…..to be continued

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)


The road to Bonaccord (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The road to Bonaccord (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The Merchiston estate was sold off by the Birlas.

In 2009, its new owner was embroiled in controversy for agreeing to sell a portion of the estate to the Indian Space Research Organisation for the proposed Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology. Away from its newly acquired place in politics, the estate had other interesting angles to offer. If you search for the Merchiston name on the Internet, one of the links would take you to a historical castle in Edinburgh, Scotland, likely built in the 1450s and home to the Clan Napier. Of relevance to Kerala’s capital city, Lord Napier of Merchiston was a title in the peerage of Scotland. The Merchiston castle was the birthplace of John Napier, most famous Napier of the lot, Eighth Lord of Merchiston and famous Scottish mathematician with major contributions to the subject, including logarithm. He was also interested in theology, predicting an end for the world around 1700. The world and Merchiston survived that year. The Tenth Lord Napier was Francis Napier, a prominent diplomat who served as the Governor of Madras Presidency and was for a brief while, acting Viceroy to India. The beautiful museum building at Thiruvananthapuram was named after him. Does that angle matter anymore for anything Merchiston in Thiruvananthapuram? I don’t know; history and heritage rarely count these days.

The Bonaccord estate had been through trying times. According to a September 2007 news report in the local edition of The Hindu, “ the laborers said that the 450 employees of the estate were rendered jobless after the management abandoned the estate and left the state five years ago. ` Following a government sponsored settlement in April this year, the management agreed to resume operations. But they failed to honor the agreement. The leaders of some of the trade unions appropriated the returns from the estate, leaving the workers in the lurch,’ they said.’’ Some degree of activity had since returned to Bonaccord; it was there to see in the few people at work and the tea leaves gathered for transport to the market in Vandiperiyar. Binu who did all kind of casual jobs for a living had occasionally worked on the tea estates. He corroborated the story of unions at Bonaccord demanding a slice from a poor worker’s pay. Pasted on the walls, in a Bonaccord starved of work and income, was a poster demanding contributions for building a brand new trade union office in the nearby city. The starkness of its demand was vivid in that air pregnant with the silence of unemployment.

From the management of the Braemore estate, a more relevant and believable argument on the future of the southern plantations appeared. The young chief executive, having illustrated the ills ailing the industry, chose to work within them for a short term gaze at the future. When I met him in 2009, his tea operations at Braemore had been suspended since 2003 owing to lack of skilled hands and poor economics. With city nearby and educational facilities and better work opportunities to be had, people continuing in estate work, had dipped in that region. Tea, for sure in its non-mechanized form in Kerala, would remain labor intensive and costly. Rubber on the other hand, was easier to grow and required less attention. It can’t go to the altitudes inhabited by tea but certainly its acreage could increase, progressively replacing tea in lower belts. The south Kerala plantations are anyway at lower altitudes compared to Munnar.

Tea bushes seen lost to weeds and undergrowth on the approach to Bonaccord (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Tea bushes seen lost to weeds and undergrowth on the approach to Bonaccord (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The old tea factory at Bonaccord (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The old tea factory at Bonaccord (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

According to Binu, elephants wandered right up to the windy top of Agastyakoodam. I looked astonished at him and then towards the rock slab we had come up by. Was it that king cobra talking again? “ Elephants have their routes for coming up. Reaching here is not beyond them,’’ he said. But there was a catch – it wasn’t the normal elephant; it was a smaller, more compact one. Back in Mumbai, I searched for information on the small, hill dwelling elephant Binu had talked about and was treated to a surprise. Pygmy elephants have been reported from both Africa and Asia. The sole claim in India, unsubstantiated yet, was from the forests around Peppara, exactly where Agastyakoodam stood. The claim had come from the Kani tribe and the animal in question was locally called Kallaana. In Mumbai, a visit to the Bombay Natural History Society [BNHS], which has its team of wildlife experts, served to merely underscore the unsubstantiated nature of the claim. The whole argument about pygmy elephants, an official at BNHS felt, may be a case of mistaken identity. Juvenile male elephants are often kicked out from herds. Seen during their wanderings they would be both smaller in size and seemingly of a different type given their isolated life. Was the nimble kallaana then just a juvenile aana or elephant on its way to being a regular, big pachyderm?

Late afternoon, the next day, we were back in the smoky teashop at Bonaccord. It was tea, bread and omelet for everyone for a three day hike completed in a day and a half. It was also a return with vengeance to urban ways. Raju, searching for his mobile number to give me, got confused with the numbers of three SIM cards that he owned. More than a week later, one quiet night in Kozhikode, over four hundred kilometers north of Thiruvananthapuram, my phone came alive with a triumphant voice from near Agastyakoodam, “ sir, this is my number!’’

Small temple near Bonaccord (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Small temple near Bonaccord (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Post Script: The above was written in 2009. In the months that followed I misplaced the photographs I took during the trek. I have no photo of Agastyakoodam with me. In August 2014, while on a visit home, I decided to revisit the story and the tea estates, mainly for pictures. I didn’t have the time to meet officials at tea companies in the city but one very rainy day in early August (not the ideal time for photography I concede) I did find myself back in the tea estate-foothills. No trek; just looking around. Ponmudi was enveloped by dense fog. In that ambience, the office of the old tea estate emerged like a vision from the misty past. Kutty, who worked at the Merchiston estate and who I met on the road, told me that a new factory was being built at Ponmudi. If so, I never reached that far for up until the old office all I saw was that office and attempted new construction so lost to vegetation that it seemed abandoned. According to Kutty, Merchiston was running well. We stood at a bend on the road and watched its factory. It had a fresh coat of paint and blue sheets for roof. It was easily the most visible building around. I didn’t go to Braemore. The only time I was there was many years ago, when a walk to a beautiful stream found me standing not far from its tea factory.

Bonaccord in August 2014 was old story with new twists. Private vehicles on the road to the tea factory were being discouraged, probably due to the problem of revelers and drunken picnickers, the perennial headache of the Indian outdoors. We are a people with zero affection for solitude. At the old teashop, I met 62 year-old Soman who had commenced work at the estate as a temporary hand when he was 17. He said that years ago itself, some of the heavy machinery at the tea factory was removed and taken off. Work continued in fits and spurts, the whole area steadily sliding alongside to being museum piece. In one of those classical vignettes from colonial stories, Soman said that the daughter of a former European manager had come to visit the place of her childhood. She reached Bonaccord with old photos to locate names and faces. “ They met some of the old timers, took new photos and left,’’ he said. Right then in August 2014, the dispensation was – workers had assumed responsibility for small parcels of land. They plucked tea leaves and brought it to the factory, from where, as in 2009, it traveled to Vandiperiyar. That fetched some earnings. Not far from the teashop, tea bushes stood grossly neglected with thick intervening vegetation. The shop owner served me black tea. From worry over lack of work and entrapment in unemployment, Bonaccord seemed to have drifted to indifferent listlessness. Soman said that hearing of the workers’ condition, people – including those from overseas – had offered assistance. Some came with food, others brought clothes. “ Why should we leave? Here we have good drinking water; there are no mosquitoes, somebody helps once in a while. We get by,’’ he said. Soman claimed he did not own a house. But he could stay at the workers’ quarters. Amazingly he said that he swallows his complaints before the tea factory owners for they seemed to him, a class apart. “ You don’t feel like saying anything,’’ he said.

Outside, the rain fell steadily on that hill side with forgotten tea bushes and equally forgotten buildings, its crowning glory being a tea factory with shattered windows and rusted machinery.

It was quiet, peaceful world.


(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)