Has Kerala hill town Munnar learnt from the flood that obliterated its British version a century ago?

Then a famed plantation town, the old Munnar had world-class facilities that were on par with many European cities.

ByK A Shaji

Published Jul 28, 2023 | 11:00 AM Updated Jul 04, 2024 | 12:35 PM

Munnar monorail Munnar flood 1924

It has been almost a hundred years since a massive flood that lasted for three weeks wiped out the then-British plantation town of Munnar.

Back then, it matched many European cities in terms of modern infrastructure facilities. These included a light railway, a post office network, footpaths, a drinking water supply, and roads that facilitated the easy movement of private cars.

While annual extreme weather events — ranging from flash floods to cloudbursts — have turned into a new normal for the rest of Kerala since the 2018 deluge, Munnar’s collective memory remains occupied by the Great Flood of 1924 that left the mighty Periyar rtiver and its many feeders in spate.

“The extreme annual weather events since 2018 indicate that Munnar is highly vulnerable to another round of devastation if we allow the illegal constructions to continue,” said social observer and Munnar resident MJ Babu.

“A repeat of 1924 could not be ruled out, and the devastation would be many folds higher if it occurred now. Irresponsible tourism and resort lobbies are killing Munnar,” Babu told South First.

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Still fresh in memory

“Last week, we completed 99 years of the massive deluge, often identified with Malayalam Calendar year 1099. We have now entered the centenary year of the floods, which wiped out the whole old town of Munnar,” said veteran trade union leader AK Mani.

“Now you see a different Munnar, built away from the original spot. The old one was not congested, as you see here now. That was a plantation town with global standards,” Mani, whose family settled in the new Munnar after the flood as labourers hailing from Tamil Nadu, told South First.


Flood waters ravage Munnar town in 1924. (Supplied)

According to him, records available with Kannan Devan Tea Company testify that the floods, which caused large-scale destruction in what is now central Kerala, were extremely severe in Munnar, where the whole light railway infrastructure was washed away and numerous lives were lost.

Such was the devastation that it forced a Mahatma Gandhi to generate ₹6,000 as relief funds by writing articles about it in Young India and Navajivan.

Despite repeated efforts later to revive the rail facility, Munnar still remains off India’s railway map.

The old rail route was replaced by a main state road that brings in tourists now to the famed hill tourism location known for its salubrious climate.

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Destruction and the remains

According to social worker A Nallamuthu, the postal service was introduced in Munnar hardly 34 years after it was launched in selected metros by the British government in 1854.

The buildings destroyed in the flash floods include the iconic wooden building that housed the then-post office. The town, though remote, had schools and hospitals as well.

Munnar Nilgiri Tahr

A Nilgiri Tahr, an endangered species and icon of Munnar, runs over a hillock. (KA Shaji/South First)

A few landmarks that survived the floods include a grand church built in 1917 exclusively for the British.
Documents say the church was built close to a cemetery that existed for a long time.

The first tombstone in the cemetery used to carry inscriptions about an English woman named Eleanor Isabel May, who landed in Munnar accompanying her husband Henry Knight, who was assigned to set up tea plantations in the high ranges.

Moved by the beauty and tranquillity of Munnar, she preferred the hill town where her mortal remains were to be buried.

Old documents say Kannan Devan Company officials used to travel by car between Munnar and Anamudi through a well-maintained road later destroyed in the floods.

In 1921, Munnar had three cars and one truck, a rarity in most Kerala towns of that time. There was a very good telecommunication network in Munnar as well.

While many Indian metros were still struggling to implement monorails and light railways, Munnar had four light rail trains until the deluge. They were named Anamudi, High Range, Kundala Valley, and Bukkanan.

Kannan Devan Company manager KR Bukkanan inspired the rail facility, so the fourth one was named after him.

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The deluge and its havoc

A building destoyed in 1924 Munnar flood. Photo: Supplied.

A building destoyed in 1924 Munnar flood. (Supplied)

“Continuous rains, which lasted for three weeks, resulted in the river swallowing everything in its vicinity and beyond,” recorded the archives of Tata Group, which later took over the Kannan Devan Hills Plantation Company and became the largest land-owner in Munnar.

“The light rail was one of the many casualties of the massive flood (which) wreaked havoc on the rails and left only relics that were beyond repair,” it added.

“What was left of the railway was dismantled and vanished by the end of World War II. Slowly, modern roads came up to connect the plains with the tea estates,” noted the records.

During the height of the deluge, an imposing hill named Karinthiri was completely washed away, and the main road to Munnar was also submerged. Later, a new road was laid through a different alignment via Mannankandam (Adimali) and Pallivasal.


A destroyed portion of Munnar rail. A 1924 post-flood picture. (Supplied)

The then-queen regent Sethulakshmi Bai of the Travancore princely state inaugurated the state highway on 31 March, 1931.

A memorial stone named Ranikallu (Queen’s Stone) was established at Neriyamangalam on the city’s outskirts to mark the occasion. That memorial stone is still a reminder of the enormous destruction in Munnar due to the floods, and the subsequent rebuilding.

Historians say the floods destroyed not just Munnar but also many towns downstream on the banks of the Periyar river, apart from several regions of the then princely states of Travancore and Cochin and the Malabar portion of Madras Presidency.

Over 1,000 lives were believed to have been lost in the Munnar region alone, and there was extensive loss of crops and cattle downstream, up to the Kochi coast.

At that time, Munnar received 485 mm of rainfall and witnessed widespread landslides.

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Monorail and after

The first monorail in India was built in Munnar due to the growth of the tea business and the development of a marketing chain. They carried processed tea to packing centres.

The monorail was used for only six years, after which it was replaced by a light rail. Several archival photographs show the process of the construction of the railway on the hills.

The two-foot light rail, powered by a light-steam locomotive, existed for 18 years until the floods.

Tourists can still see many of the relics of the Kundala Valley Rail in and around Munnar.

There is a signboard to the Munnar Ropeway station, which is used as a store. Tata Tea’s regional office in Munnar is housed in the former railway station.

Visitors to Munnar cross the Aluminium Bridge, once a railway bridge. The Kannan Devan Hills Plantation’s Tea Museum has a wheel of one of the trains used on the route. Portions of the rails have also decorated the gates of some heritage buildings in Munnar.

In addition, those daring enough to trek in the forests that lead to the plains can see several remnants of the ropeway.

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Lessons from history

Kerala’s history books harken to a massive flood in 1790 that thwarted the attempts of Tipu Sultan to overrun Travancore.

In 1957, a year after Travancore and Kochi merged with Malabar to form what today is Kerala, another flood caused massive damage.

However, the 1924 floods of Munnar are still known for the enormous damage a region of the state suffered.


A landlside in Munnar following 2018 floods. (KA Shaji/South First)

A breach in the Mullaperiyar dam, barely 29 years after its construction, has been cited by some as the main reason for the sudden surge of water in 1924 and the resultant heavy damage, but there are not too many authoritative accounts supporting this version.

The land-use patterns in Munnar and other parts of Idukki underwent a massive transformation in the subsequent years.

The 2018 floods turned out almost a repeat of the 1924 floods in Idukki, with widespread destruction and casualties.

Large-scale squatting and encroachments in environmentally fragile Idukki, and the mushrooming of buildings — many constructed illegally — heightens the risk of landslides.

Encroachment on the riverbanks and the riverbed has been so rampant that the river has turned into a narrow ribbon.

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Munnar over the years


Flood ravaged Munnar in 1924. (Supplied)

Going by legends, Munnar was first occupied by Muthuvans, a tribal community that claimed to have migrated from Madurai after being persecuted during one of the Pandya-Chola wars.

By 1512 CE, the Poonjar dynasty in central Kerala had taken control over the Munnar-Anchunad region.

British planters’ experiments in Munnar began in the 1870s when Engish officer John Daniel Munro found it ideal for the cultivation of tea.

By the end of the 19th century, Munnar had become South India’s tea hub.

The planters named the region Kannan Devan in memory of two tribals — Kannan and Devan — who helped them find locations suitable for tea cultivation.

Munnar means the land of three rivers, and it emerged because Munnar is a confluence of Muthirapuzha, Nallathanni, and Kundala rivers.

Healthcare facilities were once excellent in Munnar, and the first hospital was built in 1898 in Periavarai Estate under the leadership of Scotland-educated Dr Kher.

In 1904, Kerala’s first hydel electric power project started functioning at Pallivasal in the vicinity of Munnar.

Now, Munnar and its surroundings are known as the hydel-power destination of Kerala, with several powerhouses and dams.