Punalur – A (road) trip down the memory lane (guest post)🚂

So far our road trip from Bangalore to Kerala was uneventful; we sped along the empty highways crossing Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and finally arrived at the borders of Kerala. After 8 hours of non-stop driving and a ½-hr pitstop, it was the Tamil Nadu-Kerala interstate check post at Aryankavu which was proving to be a formidable challenge.

We had earlier registered a short visit travel pass to visit relatives and property in our native village for 8 days. At the Corona Cluster Resource Centre, we were forced to queue up, take tokens and repeat our purpose and destination of travel irrespective of the fact that they were detailed in our registration. All this was done sans discipline and protocols.

Corona Cluster Resource Centre, Aryankavu

There was little evidence of social distancing and governance at the resource centre. The check post test left us even more anxious considering the risks that travellers pose among themselves and to others in crowded places. There were nearly 50 travellers seeking permits at the centre.

At the Aryankavu check post test centre

This was a period (November 1–15, 2020) when the contact transmission of the disease within the state was more concerning than that propagated by interstate travellers (1–2%). Being a busy entry point to the state, a simple temperature and verification of travel documents would have eased the long delay at the check post of 1½ hours. If this process occurred on a regular basis, the Aryankavu check post would possibly turn into an epicentre of the virus, that distributes, multiplies, and transmits the disease to several districts and locations. We appealed to the authority to ease the entry procedures but with little success. An elder citizen’s status didn’t help either. Feedback was posted to the District Collector and Medical Officer which did not elicit a response.
Out destination town, Punalur, a small hilly hamlet in the southern district of Kollam, has enjoyed historical importance. The Quilon–Shencottah meter gauge railway line, the first one in the erstwhile Travancore state and commissioned by the British in 1904, becomes mountainous from Punalur as the border town to Madras and beyond.

Thirteen-Arch Railway Bridge on the Shencotta-Punalur route

For a trading centre and transportation corridor to the bordering state of Tamil Nadu, the precipitous route across the Western Ghats (runs along the north-south parallel of Kerala State bordering Tamil Nadu and Karnataka) was the key. It is now completely converted to broad gauge and is operational. The landscape along this route is refreshing and delightful that both road and rail travellers enjoy.

The Quilon–Shencottah railway line

Punalur has other sights to offer. The Suspension Bridge (suspended-deck across the Kallada River) is the oldest motorable bridge in the state and was erected under the supervision of Albert Henry in 1877 by then Travancore Government. The 400-foot-long bridge is now a heritage monument.

Suspension Bridge at Punalur across the Kallada River
The suspension bridge at Punalur is now a heritage monument

Punalur is also home to the paper industry and the first mill in the State, Travancore Paper Mills (later, Punalur Paper Mills Ltd.), was established by a British industrialist T.J. Cameroon in 1886 as directed by the King of Travancore Kingdom Sree Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma which operated for a century. The economy was at its height during this period. Other industries like agro-fruit, State Farming Corporation, Rehabilitation Rubber Plantations, etc. make this a thriving commodity center. Hill products, such as pineapple, pepper, cashew nut, honey, plywood, rubber and timber are very popular and abundant.

Cashew apple

The Poomkavil Family was one of the earliest settlers of Punalur in the beginning of the twentieth century. Its patriarchal head, Chacko Koshy Oonnunni Pillai served as a teacher first and later, became the manager of the Cooperative Bank in this town. His children earned many scholarly accolades: the first BA graduate in Pathanapuram Taluk (Annamma O. Mathew, 1924), the first MBBS graduate enlisted in the Indian army medical services (Col. Dr. V.O. Sundaram Pillay, Military Medical Service, 1930), and first engineering graduate and (O. Muthachen Koshy, Indian Engineering Service, 1937) formed part of the first-generation family clan.

The visit to Punalur is necessarily accompanied with a trip to a nearby agro-organic farm (KMR farm; kmrhoneyprocessingunit@gmail.com) that integrates bee-keeping, poultry, nursery (fruit and plant species, flowering and decorative), and fish culture. The fish farm is conceived as a variant aquaponic cycle wherein varieties of fish (pearl-spot, a delicious freshwater fish found in local regions, gift tilapia, carp, katla, etc.) are bred in a natural pond that is flushed with pure mountain water and are later segregated and transferred to a compartmentalized cement tank for harvesting. Fish waste and effluents are used as manure (by gravity-drip irrigation) which is both productive and economic (waste-to-resource).

The fish farm at the KMR farm

Honey is harvested and processed indigenously. This integrated farming model is worthy of emulation as it has minimum impact on the environment and it’s compliance with sustainable development goals is systemic. There are multiple benefits envisaged, in line with a wholly sustainable ecosystem. Fish, farm produces, poultry, and dairy adds nutrient (food) value to the dietary needs. Intangible returns are entrepreneurship, scalability in a decentralized environment, food and health security all of which as adaptable by village communities with prospects for self- employment and income generation. A viable tool for rural development.

Once home, there was so much to be done and the days flew past. Soon, it was time to return. A sumptuous breakfast waited for us as we prepared to leave home. Orotti (a tawa-fried rice flour-based pancake, sprinkled with spinach, drumstick leaves, carrot, onion flakes, and green chilli), chammanthi (a tasty condiment made up of a concoction of fried and coarsely ground legumes – split black gram, chick peas and pigeon peas laced with red chilli powder, asafoetida and coconut oil), omelette and a classy homemade beef pickle. The prospect of the beef pickle alone served as an adequate incentive for the long drive home. It had the signature of a connoisseur. 

Scrumptious breakfast : Orotti with chammanthi and omelette
Beef pickle

Later, as I settled in the passenger seat, fleeting thoughts enveloped me. Was the virus on a soul-searching mission and more so, an eyeopener? Did the pandemic evolve to teach many life lessons? I had become very familiar with jobs that I never got accustomed to such as buying vegetables and groceries, sweeping and washing, cooking, and most of all, perceive and survive. The willingness to battle it out became intense. I also made a resolution. Treat friends and foes alike; respect everyone the same way. After all, a lifespan is limited and is likely to be cut even shorter without notice. I relaxed. My partner-driver had other priorities. A safe return.

“Nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it.” – Lucy Maud Montgomery, Canadian author


The author Saji can be reached at sajisalk@gmail.com

Till next post, take care !!


2 Comments Add yours

  1. The orotti luks amazingly tempting


    1. Miles and smiles says:

      Yes, it does. And knowing the chef, it tastes equally amazing. Appreciate the comment. Thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

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