Friday, November 20, 2009

Deluge: The floods of ’99

A few decades back if you asked an uneducated person in Kerala his age, the answer might have been that he was born two years after the flood, or something like that. Events were linked to the flood of ’99. For two generations, that was a reference point in time.

Now, the ’99 refers to 1099 ME (Malayalam Era or Kollavarsham; see Mallus, Happy New Year). That calendar is 825 years behind Christian Era. This year is 1185 ME. There is an overlap between the two calendars.

What perhaps was the worst floods in the recent history of Kerala happened in July, 1924. It is said that heavy floods in the Periyar River or some geophysical phenomena in the Arabian Sea, silted or closed the flourishing Kodungalloor (Muziris) port and opened up Cochin in 1341. That appears to have been a localized occurrence.

But the floods of ‘99 covered the erstwhile Travancore and Cochin States and parts of Malabar. (The present Kerala consists the two former princely states mentioned and Malabar area which was under direct British rule. Most of the land was submerged in the three weeks (one account says nine days) of heavy, incessant rain.

Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai (1912 – 1999), the famous Malayalam novelist (Chemmeen, Coir etc.) has written a beautiful short story titled ‘In the floods’ which describes the havoc. The author was 12 years old at the time of the disaster. The details would have been etched in his memory. The story starts with the words explaining that the highest point in the village was the temple and even the deity was submerged up to the neck.

The catastrophe resulted in heavy loss of life and property. I have not been able to locate the details. The references are to hundreds of people and thousands of animals perishing. Surprisingly, even the High Ranges were flooded. Munnar, the tea country, which is about 6000 feet above sea level, was one of the worst affected areas.

There was a short light railway from Munnar to Top Station that was set up in 1908. The floods caused severe damage to the tracks and the line was subsequently abandoned. The High Range Club lost its newly built library and the golf course and tennis courts were damaged.

But the Club did gain in one way. After the railway became defunct, the First Class compartment was shifted to the Gymkhana grounds as a bar!

Here is a family anecdote: Just before the floods, Appan (my father) went to Palai for pennukanal (ceremony in which a potential bride is visited) in an improvised houseboat.

Our house is on the highest ground in the area. The boat landing is about half a kilometer away. When Appan returned, the boat had to be tied to the pillars of the gatehouse. The land up to the gatehouse had been submerged. The family shifted up to occupy the first floor of the house and all the local people were accommodated in the ground floor.

Appan. and Ammachi. were married an year after the Floods..

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