“THE highest point in the village is the temple. There, the deity stands in neck-deep water. Water! Water everywhere! People have all gone in search of land…”
Thus begins the short story “In the Flood” by Malayalam’s celebrated writer Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, known by the name of his native village and also as the chronicler of Kuttanad, the unique area in central Kerala prone to floods.
Except for the changes in the social setting, Thakazhi may well have been describing Kuttanad after the floods that ravaged Kerala in August this year. The well-known story written in the mid-1960s is believed to have been inspired by the Great Flood of 1924 in the State, when the writer was a boy of 12.
The similarity between the two floods is not confined to fiction alone. The deluge of 1924 (Malayalam era 1099, in the month of Karkidakam, during the south-west monsoon season) still has space in public memory as “the Great Flood of ’99”, with reports of “engravings on walls” and “nails on trees” surviving in yellowing newspaper pages as proof of the unbelievable height to which the flood waters rose at many places then. The flood entered the area around the Siva Temple at Vaikom, even as the historic “Vaikom Satyagraha” (1924-25), the pre-Independence movement for entry of all classes of people in the public roads surrounding the temple, was going on. One report says that the satyagraha participants chose to continue their struggle, even though “only their necks could be seen above the water level”.
The “Flood of ’99” occurred at a crucial moment in Travancore’s history, barely four months after the death of its ruler, Sree Mulam Tirunal (1885-1924). As one of the greatest natural disasters struck the kingdom (and the whole of the region that is now Kerala, including those then in the princely States of Cochin and British Malabar), the unimaginable suffering of nearly five million people under her became the first major political and administrative challenge faced by the young Regent, Sethu Lakshmi Bai, who began ruling Travancore on behalf of her nephew Chithira Thirunal, then a boy of 12.
By August 1924, thousands of refugees were in relief centres in Alappuzha, Kottayam, Ambalapuzha, Changanassery and many such places where there are camps functioning for the same purpose today.
In The Ivory Throne , his chronicle of the House of Travancore, Manu S. Pillai writes about the sagacity of the then Dewan in “involving the public” in the relief efforts and his announcement that “through the efforts of private citizens and government officers, nobody was allowed to suffer from starvation” and about the ameliorative measures undertaken by Sethu Lakshmi Bai’s nascent regime.
The most striking similarity between the two catastrophic events is that the same locations were devastated by the floods almost in the very same manner and were caused by the same rivers. Munnar, located 1,500 metres above sea level; Kuttanad, where paddy is cultivated in land below sea level; Peermedu, Aluva, Perumbavoor, Kothamangalam, North Paravoor, Pandanad, Mannar, Pandalam, Ranni, Konni, Aranmula, Omallur, Tiruvalla—all were affected, both then and now.
Official records speak of “an awful night in the town of Aluva, especially its low-lying suburbs”, on July 19, 1924: “Cries of help were heard from all sides. The limited number of boats, public and private, could hardly cope with the rescue of lives, not to speak of property. The current set up by the river overflowing its banks was so powerful that many boats engaged in rescue work are reported to have capsized. The roll of casualty is also said to be considerable but the exact number of casualities and the magnitude of the destruction and challenge caused by this unprecedented flood could not be known until the flood subsided. The flood reached its zenith on the afternoon of the 17th, it having risen nearly six feet above the recorded M.F.L. at the local railway bridge (at Aluva). Nearly a foot of the deep railway girder was also submerged. The flood began to subside from the evening of the 17th.”
Other reports talk about the innumerable “uprooted trees, roofs of thatched houses and carcasses that came down the (Periyar) river”; that the “Aluva-Perumbavoor road was submerged”.
Unconfirmed reports say that “Peerumedu (in Idukki district) recorded 120 inches (3,048 mm) of rain in July 1924.”
A feature on July 24, 1994 in the century-old Malayalam newspaper, Deepika , published on the 70th anniversary of the “Flood of 99”, quotes several accounts by local correspondents about “boats that were cruising along the roads of the coastal towns like Noah’s Ark”; “transport and mail services were disrupted”; “all high places on land were brimming with refugees”; “Ernakulam, Ponjikkara, Venduruthi, Njarakkal, took only a few hours to reach ocean-level”; “the rail bridges at Chovvara, Edappally, Aluva, Chalakkudy had water flowing over them that could let a boat pass through”; “many rail bridges were washed away”; “the Broadway grounds in Ernakulam became an ocean” and “very quickly boats conquered the streets of Ernakulam”.
In central Travancore, “there were 8,000 refugees in Tiruvalla, Tirumoolapuram, Tookalsseri in two days”. Among the places “from where people fled with their lives” were Pandanad, Manippuzha, Niranam, Mannar, Karakkal, Perunthuruthi. Bodies were seen “floating by” and on Karkidakam 1 (July 26, 1924), “the streams in Alappuzha looked like oceans” and “water rose up to three feet in the night and the salt and sugar stocked in Travancore’s main trading centre of Alappuzha all dissolved and disappeared in the floods”.
Many refugee camps were flooded, the reports said. On the fourth of Karkidakam (July 30, 1924), the Pamba river, too, experienced a “huge flood”. Buildings in the Ranni market tumbled down; a house was washed away with 12 people on the roof. At Manimala, Mundakkayom, “houses were tied to trees with ropes” and “150 buildings floated by in two hours”, the paper’s Manimala reporter said.
Accounts also talked about “men and elephants flowing by”, of “carcasses of elephants”; “a live tiger”, and a leopard being washed down from the forests.
At Kothamangalam, “the 9,000-acre Periyar rubber estate was under water”; “floods came at night taking away whole buildings”. In the high ranges, landslips occurred in “all the hills from Peermedu to Vandiperiyar”; “40 people died as a hill crashed on a building at 44th mile”; the road from Kottayam to Kumily, in Idukki district, was destroyed by a huge landslide.
South Malabar, too, went under water “after the 17th of Karkidakam”. The report said that “three-fourths of Kozhikode town was under water; about 2,000 houses were destroyed; Ponnani taluk was under water for two days and dead bodies were floating around there; at Kozhikode’s famed timber trade centres, Rs.15 lakh worth of timber was washed away”.
In many accounts, people also have talked about the “blood red colour” of the rivers in flood at that time, of the “torrential rain” that accompanied it, and how those who were fortunate to finally return to their homes, found many of them submerged in mud or not there at all.
Newspaper reports from August 14, when the rains lashed this year, will only startle readers with a sense of awe and wonder that the collective suffering that their ancestors experienced close to a century ago has come back to haunt them.
The difference one would notice, perhaps, is that because of the alarming loss of forest cover in the Western Ghats, live tigers, leopards and carcasses of elephants drifting down to scare floodplain victims have been conspicuous by their absence in this year’s flood.
And, in 1924, the entire region had just one dam, Mullaperiyar. The rest, 57, were built later in the century.
[Note: There are accounts of a cataclysmic event in 1341, a “cyclone and floods in the Periyar”, which entirely altered the geography of the Ernakulam region. But they are, at best, sketchy. This event is believed to have opened up the present harbour at Kochi and the Vembanad backwater system to the sea and formed a new deposit of land, the Vypeen Island near Kochi (see “Muziris, at last?”, Frontline , April 10-23, 2010).]