Thursday, 25 October 2012

The Angel of Munnar

Munnar is a tiny hill station which lies at the border of Kerala & Tamilnadu. What with the beautiful weather - never above 20 degree celscious - & fertile hill soil the British identified it as an ideal place for tea plantations. Even today the plantations stand, some in bad repair, some state owned & some still in private owner ship. Most of the infrastructure was put in by the British in the late 1800s, roads & bungalows & post offices....

In the past decade or so tourism picked up & Munnar became one of the hotspots for the Indian tourist. Amenities for tourism were set up, most with little thought to design or environment and the landscape of Munnar changed for ever, for much worse.It is the story of most Indian hill stations, only in the case of Munnar it happened much later, by when we should already have learned from the past.

The road to Munnar offers so many fascinating views one can not resist taking pictures. The taxi driver, Mani was more than willing to stop frequently. He even pointed out many sights I would have missed otherwise. We reached Munnar late, too late to see  places  outside the town.  So I decided to walk around the town a bit.Mani offered to get food for dinner at  the bungalow where the stay was booked.

Nothing could be seen from the road, concrete buildings ensured it. May be the irritated nature forced them to wear ugly  tin sheets over their roofs. Peeping through a gap in the row of buildings,the old church on the hilltop looked most becoming. The winding road to the church, passed near the  the vicarage. "money,money, money......." the hit tune by ABBA could be heard from far. 'The vicar likes the song' I mused,  listening closely it turned out to be a Tamil devotional song, probably composed by him.
image courtesy :
Inside the church the choir practiced English hymns about the love of God. Their faces seemed to be wearing an 'Outsiders not welcome' sign. I stood for a for a few minutes while the interiors of the church told my heart, stories of the lives and dreams of the old British planters.
Out side, in the grave yard, the latest joint free ceramic tiles covered the graves. Arokkya Swamy, the late supervisor  was a great man. The tiles on his grave was sufficient to clad the walls of four large bath rooms
I walked up the hill. At its summit lay Eleanor

                                                        ISABEL MAY
                                      THE DEARLY BELOVED WIFE OF
                                         HENRY MANSFIELD KNIGHT
                                       AND YOUNGEST DAUGHTER OF
                                          BEAUFORT BRABAZON. M.D

                                  DIED 23RD DEC 1894 AGED 24 YEARS
                                     LORD ALL PITYING JESUS BLESS
                                   & GRANT HER SOUL ETERNAL REST'

said the head stone
Interiors CSI church Munnar
Image courtesy :

A hedge of azaleas, red and orange, enclosed the grave. Though withered and dry  it was still  flowering. The few  old trees  provided a sense of shade and the grass had some how managed to stay green. May be to please Eleanor.

The walk on the motor road had taken more time than I thought and I was not aware of the time I had spent at the grave. I saw Mani waiting near the car on the main road with a large parcel.

The  short cut to the main road brought me to a barbed fence with sufficient space to pass under . I raised the wire while crossing.
'Thodathingal'  (Dont touch)  I heard  Mani screaming, looking back, I found  strands of brown hair on the barbed wire. 

In the car Mani looked agitated,
'What happened Mani?' we had become friendly  after the long six hour drive from Kochi
I waited for his answer. The tin roofing sheets were  rattling in the wind.
'payee's(evil spirit) hair Sir' again he paused for a while, deciding whether to continue ' you touched it on the barbed wire.'
'Anything wrong?'
'Here people believe by touching the hair you are inviting the payee to your home'.

'But it looked more like human hair to me. Long, may be a woman's'.... I said.

 Mani did not answer for a long time. He seemed to be devoted to the road. 
Then slowly  he said 'It cannot be'. He had ruled out the possibility after a lot of thinking.

Hidden by trees big and small, the bungalow was not visible till we almost reached it. It really deserved the name Hidden Bungalow. The bungalow was an imposing sight, The large garden, garage for four cars & the tennis court all told stories of the bygone era. The old broken road roller which might have been pulled by men and later by 
tractor,which maimed it beyond repair, was the only bridge that connected it to the present.

It was a tiled building with tall trees all around. They stood there whistling in the wind. Stephen in his old Khaki safari suit stepped out of a Hitchcock movie and stood at the door. Inside the Bungalow the tape recorder sang in a female voice 'Alayamaniyin osai nan Ketten'. (I heard the church bell ringing.)

All the five  bed rooms were unoccupied.  The Master's bedroom, perhaps the largest of them all, had furniture from the colonial times. The cat on the dressing table jumped down, looked at me and walked leisurely in to the bathroom. Portrait of a young European lady hung on the wall behind  the table. She looked beautiful.My sixth sense told me the portrait was of Eleanor.

Dinner was on the table in no time. The table was set in British style. I smiled at Stephen who told me that he was the forth generation butler of the Bungalow. I could not resist asking Stephen about the lady in the picture.

"In those days there were no roads to Munnar. Railroad up to Trichi  and horse drawn wagons to Bodhinaykkannoor. The whites rode horses and locals walked all the way from Bodhinayakkannoor to Munnar. The lady just married, was with her husband, the group manager, He lived here, at the H idden Bunglow. My great grand father Selvan was his chokra (Boy). Dorai (Master or Sahib as the English planters were called then) called him Stephan. We became Christians later.' He  stopped for a minute to get air into his lungs

'The Lady arrived here sick. Something she ate on her way. You know Cholera and Malaria were very common in those days. She did not care about her condition  she wanted to see Munnar and was enchanted by its beauty. Three days before she died she and Dorai spent a lot of time on the hillock over the church'.

'But the church was not there at that time' I pointed out.

 'Yes the church was built after her death' he answered. 'She liked Munnar better than her home. She wanted to stay here for ever.
"Henry if I die  please see that I am buried right here" 
And she was buried there within three days. The church was built a few years later'.

Look up pictures of the Munnar church & vicarage here
Also look up this, Monu's photoblog, a bit more on the church & Eleanor

End of first part
read part two here

1 comment:

  1. An excellent picture of Munnar, both old & new. makes you want to go back in time!