At Valiya Pazhampilly Thuruth, memories of floods past and hidden histories

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Landmarks: The ‘ko-thi’ stones on Valiya Pazhampilly Thuruth used to mark the boundary between the erstwhile Cochin and Travancore kingdoms.

Surrounded by the Periyar, Valiya Pazhampilly Thuruth, which boasts a long and rich history, got the name owing to its abundance of bananas. Believed to have been formed in floods centuries ago, the island, inhabited by around 250 families, also happened to be one of the worst hit in the August 2018 deluge

In his seventies now, Babu V.S., a resident of Valiya Pazhampilly Thuruth, says he has witnessed a lot of floods. The island of Valiya Pazhampilly, a portion of it falling within the Chendamangalam panchayat limits and the other within Puthenvelikkara, was itself formed in floods that occurred centuries ago, says the former toddy tapper, who was also the CPI(M) local area secretary.

The Cochin State Manual (1911) written by C. Achyuta Menon, while referring to islands in then Kanayannur-Cochin Taluk, states, “Most of the islands in the backwaters were formed by the deposit of alluvium brought down by the rivers during the monsoons. They are generally low and swampy, and favour the luxuriant growth of coconut palms.”

Surrounded by the Periyar and with the Chalakudy river flowing along its boundary, the 2-km-long Valiya Pazhampilly was prone to flooding during the monsoon before the major dams came up. “I was in Class 9 when the 1961 floods occurred. Our house was waterlogged for 48 days,” says Babu. However, he adds, the water level was not as high as that of the 2018 floods.

Last August, the island of 250-odd families, witnessed unprecedented flooding which caused widespread destruction. One of the worst hit, the building of the Dharma Poshini Sabha Lower Primary School, built in 1926, is on the verge of collapse. The school has been locked up and classes are being conducted in the nearby library space for a year now. The school has 29 students from kindergarten to Class 2. “All the four teachers in the school took part in the government’s salary challenge last year and contributed to the Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund. Yet, no one has come forward to help us,” says T. Sudha, a teacher. School manager K.R. Premji says though they approached the authorities several times, no assistance has been provided. “We cannot risk the lives of little children by going back to that building,” adds Sudha.

The floodwaters have also weakened the protective wall around the island, says Chendamangalam panchayat ward member Rinu Gileesh. Though private individuals have attempted to put up bunds along their properties on the river banks, most of the outer bund is eroding. Gileesh says a memorandum in this regard was submitted to the Irrigation Department last month.

According to Babu, the floodwaters that led to the creation of the island brought with it plantain crops and, even before human habitation, the piece of land had an abundance of bananas growing on its shores. The presence of bananas (‘pazham’ in Malayalam) was what gave the island its name, he believes. There are other accounts that the fertile soil on the island made the cultivation of several crops possible, among which plantains were the most important. The large banana grew so popular that the island itself was named after it. There are two islands lying close to each other — the bigger (valiya) one, over time, became Valiya Pazhampilly Thuruth and the smaller, Cheriya Pazhampilly Thuruth.

Old-timers say the island, with acres of lush green coconut trees, was home to a large number of toddy tappers. But the rot that affected coconut trees and the social stigma attached to the job led to the gradual decline of toddy tapping in the region. “The disease that affected coconut trees also affected the island,” says Babu. There are hardly any toddy tappers left on the island. His neighbour K.S. Haridas was forced to shift to Kozhikode in 1992 to engage in his traditional occupation of toddy tapping. “The coconut tree disease set in somewhere during the 1980s. It spread quickly like cancer,” says Haridas. Coconuts were everywhere on the island. Now, residents have to buy them from outside at a price, he adds.

Another aspect of island life that changed over the years, but for the better, is the mode of commute. Earlier, Valiya Pazhampilly could be accessed only by boats and ferries. The Karippayikadavu bridge that came up in 2006 and the Stationkadavu bridge that came up in June last year gave the islanders an easier connect to Ernakulam and nearby Thrissur district. However, Gileesh demands the operation of more KSRTC bus services on the route, especially during evenings.

The bridges also improved tourism potential, with a couple of resorts making their way here. The island’s proximity to Chendamangalam and the launch of the Muziris Heritage Project further upped the tourism quotient. There remains on Valiya Pazhampilly vestiges of its tryst with royalty. The island was the property of the Chendamangalam-headquartered Paliyath Achans, hereditary prime ministers to the erstwhile Cochin Maharaja for about 150 years. The first residents were believed to be brought to the island by the rulers as caretakers of their vast agricultural properties and to rear cattle. A portion of the island was, however, part of the Travancore (or Thiruvithamkoor) kingdom. One of the many stones that marked the boundary between the two erstwhile kingdoms, with the inscriptions ‘ko’ and ‘thi’ in Malayalam (‘ko’ for Cochin and ‘thi’ for Thiruvithamkoor) can be seen near the Stationkadavu bridge.

Nearby is a rock that locals refer to as ‘Kappithanpara’. Word on the island goes that Kappithan Panikkar, an envoy of erstwhile King Sakthan Thampuran, was murdered at the spot by members of the Paliyam family who found him a great nuisance. Over the passing of time, the lore of Kappithan grew in legendary proportions, and today, he is worshipped by some as the protector of the island and a lamp lit at a small temple on the rock everyday.

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