Deep inside Parambikulam Tiger Reserve in eastern Kerala stands an enormous tree. The official website features photos of awestruck tourists linking hands to approximate its girth. Kannimara Thekku or the Virgin Tree, nearly 40 m tall and 7 m in circumference, is among the world’s oldest and largest teak trees. The tourists’ excitement was understandable, but I chose not to visit it. My guide Manoharan was puzzled at my lack of enthusiasm. To venerate a teak tree, I explained, was to insult the biodiversity of the Anamalais.
Forty years ago, Manoharan came here as a boy with his parents who migrated from Manarkkad, 128 km to the north in the lee of Silent Valley National Park, to work as labourers on the Parambikulam dam. When it was completed in the 1960s, the reservoir submerged a great part of the valley. The young man with him, a Kadar tribal named Aadhan, listened intently as I spoke. The Kadar, Malasar, Mala Malasar and Muthuvar are indigenous tribes that inhabit the Anamalais. Aadhan said, “Our people worship trees but teak has become a ‘money tree’. Forest creatures are not very fond of it. Dry teak leaves crackle under the tiger’s foot, giving away its presence. Only humans are crazy about it.”
Tectonia grandis is not alien to the Anamalais, the Western Ghats range that straddles Kerala and Tamil Nadu. In the late 1800s, enterprising British loggers discovered the commercial value of Parambikulam teak. They cleared tracts of natural forest and replaced them with teak monocultures. Much of the original forest was irredeemably lost.
Forestry, to the British, was primarily an economic pursuit. Although they sponsored botanical and zoological surveys, their zeal for forestry centred on selecting trees of commercial value. Their Indian successors continue to embrace that legacy. Foresters extol the utility of trees in revenue terms — the quality of the wood, the fineness of the grain, its durability and the price it fetches. Forgotten is the intangible value of the magnificent living entity that battled great odds to rise from the forest floor to the canopy.
After the primary forests were stripped, Parambikulam’s teak plantations became a treasure trove of precious timber. This loot was sent to Britain to build ships and railway sleepers and the income bankrolled Cochin’s development into a sea port.
But how was the timber transported from this rugged terrain to the port nearly 120 km away? The answer lies in that old chestnut about necessity and invention.
The approach road to Parambikulam from Pollachi in Tamil Nadu’s Coimbatore district curls through a densely forested hillock called Top Slip. The curious name holds the key to the unusual machinations of the timber harvesters. The logs were allowed to slip from the top of the hillock down to the Parambikulam river, which carried them downstream to its confluences with the Kuriarkutty and Chalakudy rivers. This plan ran into practical difficulties due to the inconsistent flow of the rivers and the uneven terrain.
The forests of Parambikulam fell in the territory of the princely state of Cochin, then ruled by Maharaja Rama Varma XV. A visionary in his own right, he had envisaged the conversion of Cochin port into a safe harbour. He wished to build inland connectivity to the port by extending the extant railway line from Shoranur in British Malabar. Railway historian Devan R Varma wrote that the Maharaja sold the golden caparisons of the royal family’s temple elephants to fund this effort. In 1902, the first steam locomotive huffed into Cochin. Word reached the Maharaja of the untapped timber wealth in the highlands. The British suggested building a rail link from Cochin to transport it. The Maharaja bought into the idea. The 50-mile (about 80 km) Cochin State Forest Tramway, a marvel of railway engineering in its time, came to be in 1906. It began operations in 1907 with German Orenstein and Koppel locomotives, British bridges and culverts built by P&W MacLennan, and Indian engineers and labourers. Wealth from the timber sold fed the state coffers, catalysing Cochin’s transformation into an affluent princely state. After the Maharaja, the cost of maintaining the railway became burdensome. Following Independence, Cochin and Travancore were merged and in 1956, after incorporating Malabar, the state of Kerala was formed. The tramway, reviled as a white elephant since 1926, was abolished and dismantled in 1963. Today, little material evidence survives of its 56-year legacy. The locomotives and iron rails were scrapped, the reservoir swallowed the loading point at Chinnar. Only the pathway vacated by the tramway remains, along with skeletal bridges and scattered relics.
Until 2013, visitors could enjoy the Tramway Trek, a two-day guided walk arranged by the Kerala forest department, to explore a section of the remnant tramway. With the forest declared a tiger reserve in 2009, pressure mounted to stop the trek as parts of it fell in the core area. I was fortunate to visit it in 2011 just before it was discontinued. Driving past Tamil Nadu’s Top Slip, our group of four crossed the state border into Kerala, where the forest staff allowed us in after an exhaustive search for contraband.
That evening, we stayed deep in the forest at Sambar Machan, a rustic tree-top hut that overlooked a meadow where elephants and deer were grazing. In the morning, we walked to Kuriarkutty, where a surviving tramway bridge crosses the confluence of the Parambikulam and Kuriarkutty rivers. A short walk leads to the cottage where ornithologist Dr Salim Ali stayed with his wife Tehmina in 1933. Ali, who wrote of how they enjoyed their romantic tramway rides through the forest, stayed here several times after his wife’s death in 1936. An interpretation centre and dormitory stand at the site.
The walk was long and tiring, but the rewards made it worthwhile. We saw tiger and leopard pugmarks, sloth bear scat and pagodas of elephant dung. Along the trail, which skirts an energetic forest river, startled sambar and gaur bounded off emitting high-pitched alarm calls. Birds abounded — orioles and trogons, drongos and hornbills. At one point, Aadhan raised his hand for us to stop, motioned us to keep quiet, and led us off the trail through the forest. After 10 minutes of ducking under lianas and enduring insect bites and thorns, we rejoined the road. A hundred metres behind us, a lone tusker stood brandishing a tree trunk. Without Aadhan’s keen tracking sense, we would have been pulp.
Late in the afternoon, we reached Orukomban, the final point of our trek. The tramway continues for several kilometres further to Chalakudy in the plains but access is limited to forest staff. We were hot and tired, and the river looked inviting. Instinct, sharpened by the day’s experiences, prompted us to scan the banks for beasts that might be enjoying the cool waters. Finding none, we waded in, grateful to enjoy the forest for the trees.
Venugopal is a journalist, travel writer and cartoonist