Four Cauvery Delta Branches


The Cauvery Delta, in the south Indian state of Tamilnadu, has been the granary of the state. As the river enters the old Thanjavur district (now trifurcated into Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam dts.), past a barrage, it fans out into numerous canals, many of them dug by a Chola king 1800 years ago, forming an irrigation system which was modernized by the British Indian Government early in the 19th century.

The base of the delta is along the E coast of Tamil Nadu facing the Bay of Bengal just above the Gulf of Mannar which separates India from Sri Lanka. The northernmost point is where R. Coleroon (Kollidam), the main distributary of R. Cauvery flows into the sea and the southermost, 110 km. below on the E coast, is Point Calimere, though another distributary, R. Pamani, reaches the sea through a lagoon near Muthupettai, some 40 km to the west of the Point. The main river, nearly a km. wide as it enters the district, and flowing in the N-ENE direction close to an edge of the delta than through its middle, is worn thin after feeding so many canals, and is less than 25 metres wide just N of Mayiladuthurai Jn., looking like a drain. Rightly, the river is venerated as 'Mother Cauvery'. By contrast, R. Coleroon, that flows NE deviating ever so slightly from Cauvery, remains wide throughout, acting as a buffer to discharge the excess water whenever there are very heavy inflows of it in the Cauvery, as happened in Oct. - Nov., 2005.

Thanjavur (or Tanjore as the British called it), the historical capital of the Cholas, is near the head of the delta on the W at an altitude of 57 m and the land slopes down towards Nagapattinam (Negapatam) 78 km to its E on the Bay of Bengal coast by a gentle 1 in 1400 on average. Two crops of paddy (rice), the principal produce, can be raised in a year on the fertile, alluvial lands when there is an assured supply of water; also grown are sugar cane, some pulses and oilseeds. Coconut and plantain (banana) trees abound the fields, painting them a verdant green from June to January.

The greater Thanjavur district had a hoary past and has always been densely populated. The principal language is Tamil, with some Telugu and Marathi spoken. The towns and villages on both the banks of Cauvery and its distributaries are dotted with Saivite and Vaishnavite temples, built by the Cholas, each associated with a touching story. For the presiding deities of these temples, wandering saints, known as Nayanmars and Azhwars, composed hymns, which are priceless gems of devotional Tamil literature. About 1000 years ago, Saivism and Vaishnavism were at loggerheads and to bring about peace between the two Hindu sects, the Chola kings built temples for both Siva and Vishnu, but the Delta is predominantly Saivite and so Siva temples outnumber those for Vishnu.

Buddhism and Jainism were evident in the Delta in earlier times but did not thrive for long. The Muslim invasions from the North did not affect the district much in political terms, but Arab traders had reached the delta's coast over 1300 years ago and some locals were converted. Their descendants are the marikars, "the sailors of wooden ships". There is a sprinkling of Muslims all over the district, engaged in agriculture, trade and, of late, providing manpower to the Middle East. Nagore and Karaikal have famous darghas of Muslim saints, venerated by the Hindu population as well. Protestant missions, arriving early 17th century onwards, contributed much to the cause of education in the district. Velankanni, 10 km S of Nagapattinam has a church to Our Lady of Succour, held in esteem by the Hindus too, as the Lourdes of the East.

The Great Southern of India Railway, formed in Britain 1859, was the last of the eight companies to which the Govt. of British India had guaranteed a 5% return on the invested capital, to encourage the construction of railways in India. The GSIR was to exploit the densely populated southern part of the then Madras Presidency. Opting for the broad gauge, in 1861 it laid a 78-km line in the delta from Nagapattinam on the coast to Thanjavur in the W, extended next year by 50 km to Tiruchchirappalli (Trichinapoly) further to the W., and subsequently by another 142 km upstream to Erode in WNW to meet the Madras Railway.

GSIR merged with Carnatic Railway to form the South Indian Railway in 1874. Since the mainstay of SIR's strategy of expansion was the cheaper metre gauge, the Nagapattinam - Tiruchchrappalli line was converted to metre in 1875. It was also extended by 8 km. N of Nagapattinam along the coast to Nagore. The railway workshop, initially located at Nagapattinam, was shifted to Golden Rock, next to Tiruchirappalli, the headquarters of SIR. The process of (re-)conversion of the Thanjavur - Tiruvarur section of this line to broad is nearing completion.

The "main line" of the metre gauge in SIR connected Chennai (previously, Madras) with Tiruchchirappalli via Villupuram, Cuddalore, Mayiladuthurai (Mayuram) and Thanjavur junctions, the line running 1 - 10 km south of the main river from Mayiladuthurai to Tiruchchirappalli. As on date, the Villupuram - Mayiladuthurai segment remains to be converted into broad.

Taking off from Mayiladuthurai in the north of the delta, a m.g. line runs S, parallel to the coast some 20 km inland, to Tiruturaipundi Jn., then SW, up to Arantangi in the adjacent Pudukkottai Dist. This 160 km. long line was constructed and for a time owned by the Tanjore District Board, but operated by the South Indian Railway. Later it was extended 26 km to SW to link up with the Tiruchirappalli - Rameswaram m.g. line at Karaikkudi.

The N/S Mayiladuthurai - Tiruturaipundi line intersects the W/E Thanjavur - Nagapattinam line at the temple town of Tiruvarur, the birthplace of the three greatest composers of Carnatic music.

Three m.g. branches took off towards the coast of the Bay of Bengal from the N/S Mayiladuthurai - Tiruturaipundi line:

  1. The Mayavaram Jn - Tranquebar (Tharangambadi), 30 km - closed since 1987;
  2. The Peralam Jn - Karaikal line (23 km), running E - also closed since 1987; and
  3. The Tiruturaipundi - Point Calimere (Kodikkarai) line, running first ESE up to Thopputhurai (32 km) and then, S, close to the coast to Point Calimere (46 km). Traffic remains closed on this line since 1987 over the last 9 km stretch from Agasthiyampalli to Point Calimere.

To minimize construction costs, the companies laid their trunk lines as straight as the topography of the land permitted, often bypassing major population centres. The "Sepoy Mutiny" of 1857 had spurred on the construction of a network of railway lines, deemed essential for the quick movement of troops in order to maintain law and order in such a vast country; the next major consideration in the laying of railway lines was the movement of goods - freight movement still remains the major source of revenue for the Indian Railways in the 21st century. This was particulary accentuated by the famines in Bihar and the Deccan in the 1870's, leading to the extension of railways into famine-prone areas for providing quick relief. Passenger traffic was the last in their reckoning, as they did not expect the poor, illiterate, native population to become mobile. But the natives, except for a few diehards, took to the trains with alacrity and started visiting distant religious centres in great multitudes.

Before the advent of the railways, an Indian would try to find a bridegroom for his daughter only in the immediate vicinity of his own village or town, so that he and his family could visit her frequently. With the railways providing reliable and quick means of transport, daughters were married off in distant districts and in even other provinces. Boys left for higher studies in far-off towns and sons to cities to earn a better livelihood.

The passenger traffic increased beyond expectations and the railways were forced to construct branches to reach the major population centres that had initially been bypassed. The W/E Tanjore - Negapatam line passed some 10 km N of Mannargudi, in the heart of the delta, with a considerable trade in paddy. The claims of this important town could not be ignored for long and a metre gauge branch was laid.

  1. (IV) Nidamangalam Jn. - Mannargudi (13 km), running almost straight S; it was the first of the four m.g. branches to be closed, in 1975.

Lines (1), (2) and (4) are typical examples of the branches which were forced to close in the 1970's or thereafter due to stiff competition from the roadways which started gaining momentum from the sixties onwards. For some time a valiant attempt was made to keep them going for goods traffic but that too became a losing proposition, particularly with agricultural production dipping sharply in the district after the state of Karnataka built dams in the upper reaches of R. Cauvery and its tributaries to impound water for its own increasing agriculture, greatly diminishing the availability of water to the delta. The vexatious dispute between Tamilnadu and Karnataka, on the sharing of the river waters, remains unresolved till date.

There was/is nothing spectacular about these plainly utilitarian branch lines. Running across very flat paddy fields and crossing a few irrigation canals, they required minimal earthwork and just light ballasting. The stations were/are also plain and utilitarian. The trains had just 2-4 carriages and were hauled by relatively light, yet hardworking, engines. The last nine km. stretch of the Point Calimere branch, however, traversed tidal swamps with a bird and wildlife sanctuary, but, sadly, that stretch is gone now.

The following four parts of the report are based on my travels on the four branch lines in 1967-68, when steam traction still held sway in SR.

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