Mysteries of a Defunct Ropeway

by R Sivaramakrishnan, 2007-07-13

An examination of the map of South India (Railways and Inland Navigation) in the Atlas to the Imperial Gazetteer of India (1909): throws up some fascinating facts:

The narrow gauge line from Tiruppattur to Krishnagiri was operating as of 1909 and also one from Morappur to Dharmapuri, subsequently extended to Hosur.

The metre gauge line from Salem to Cuddalore via Vriddhachalam was not yet there, but a broad gauge line is shown as under construction from Salem up to Attur, with an extension proposed up to Chidambaram instead of Cuddalore.

A line, gauge unspecified, is shown as proposed, from Erode to Nanjangud via Satyamangalam, Killegal and Chamrajanagar, to link up with Bangalore.

The Coonoor Ootacamund extension of the Nilgiri Railway was under construction.

The Dindigul Palani Pollachi Podanur MG line and the Pollachi Palghat Town Olavakkot Jn. MG were not yet in place. But a BG branch was operating from Olavakkot to Palghat Town.

The Madurai Bodinayakkanur MG line had not been envisaged. But shown as "IN construction" a narrow gauge line taking off WSW-wards from Ammayanayakkanur (later renamed Kodaikanal Road) on the Trichinopoly Madura MG line to Periakulam then SW to Theni and Karuvanuth along the Cumbum Valley. Periakulam would be the junction for a short NG branch NW to Krishnamanaik's Thope near Genguvarpatti which is at the foot of the ghat road to Kodaikanal. If these had been laid, Kodaikanal would have been readily accessible for the white sahibs to escape the fiery summers of the southern plains.

I am not able to locate Karuvanuth (-ooth, -uth in Tamil denotes a spring) in the AMS topographical map ('Rajapalayam'),

The place was near the hills all right, somewhere past Gudalur at the end of the Cumbum valley, just below Kumily on the high ranges, bustling with spices including cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.

Further shown as "in construction" another NG branch W out of Theni to Kottugudi. This place can be located (marked 'Kottagudi') on the AMS 1: 250,000 topographical map ('Dindigul'),

as being about 16km NW of Bodinayakkanur (353m), right at the bottom of a cleft surrounded by the high ranges rising to over 5-6000 feet within 4-5km in all directions - to NE, NW and SW. The tea estates of Munnar (1700m), the largest in the world producing some of its finest tea, are just 20km to the W of Bodi, but up the Western Ghats. As researched by Jimmy Jose and posted in IRFCA with photographs in

the 40-km long, 2' 0" Kundala Valley Railway, opened in 1890, was employed to transport the tea from Munnar to Top Station (also 1700m) to the ENE and thence by a ropeway down the steep slopes of Pambadi Shola to Kottugudi, just 5km below as the crow flies. Thus Kottugudi would have been an ideal location for a railhead on the plains for the plantation products. Though the Kundala railway was washed away totally during a heavy downpour in 1924, Jimmy Jose states that an electric ropeway took its place to transport tea from Munnar to Top Station and functioned till 1969. Top Station is on Kerala Tamilnadu border, on the Munnar Kodaikanal road which is in a very bad condition and closed to traffic between on the Tamilnadu side, but with a decent road to Munnar with frequent bus service.

Well, the narrow gauge lines to the foothills of Kodaikanal, Munnar and Kumily did not materialize. As the corresponding map in the Gazetteer of India (1931),

shows that the 90-km long MG line westwards from Madurai to Bodinayakkanur via Theni had been constructed instead of those grandiose plans. (It is now due for gauge conversion).

I made my first trip to Bodinayakkanur by train in June 1967. Stopping at my mother's cousin's there, I enquired him about reaching the ropeway terminus that brought tea from the hills above; he told me that it was at some distance up the hills; that though there was a road, buses were not frequent and that I would not be able to return before it was dark. So I did not proceed there, regrettably because the ropeway was closed a few years later. Now from the AMS map of "Dindigul" I see that the lower terminus of the ropeway was situated probably at Kottugudi, the intended terminus of the NG line initially "in construction" around 1909, at a height of about 2,200' (or 700m) the contour interval in the map is 200' which makes it about 1,000m and five kilometers below Top Station; in fact, the map shows a trail ascending the hill, while the ropeway is not marked. Bodi (1,158') is another 15-16km away down gentler slopes to the S-ESE from Kottagudi. I guess that the ropeway did not go all the way to Bodi as Jimmy Jose presumes, but only downhill to Kottagudi from where the tea was transported on a fairly good road to Bodi and then to the rest of India and the world. The distances from Munnar would have been 40km by the Kundala Valley Railway (or later, the electric ropeway) to Top Station, 5km descent by ropeway to Kottugudi and 15km by road to Bodi totalling 60km. Now that the ropeways have ceased operation, the tea must be transported by trucks to Bodi on the new NH 49 from Ernakulam to Madurai, the distance from Munnar to Bodi, via Devokolam, Pooppara and Bodimettu (on Kerala Tamilnadu border) being 90km the extra 30km would not matter since there is saving on two 'transhipments'. More likely the trucks pass further E of Bodi to Madurai, 180km, or may be to Ernakulam to the W in the opposite direction. Bodi however remains the center for trade in cardomom and nutmegs, as most of the plantations of these spices are found on the rain-shadow region of the Cardomom Hills, as this area of the Western Ghats are known.

Jimmy Jose has expressed (IRFCA message no. 148563 dt. 20 Feb., 2007) a desire to return to Munnar to pursue his investigations. I strongly recommend to him to devote considerable attention to the defunct ropeway downhill from Top Station whether it reached just down to Kottugudi as I reason out. Kottugudi is readily accessible by road from Bodi. A climb of 3000 feet but he cannot fly as a crow for 5-6km and must be prepared for up to 10km of strenuous climb to Top Station - must be well within his physical abilities. Along the trail he must be able to see remnants of the ropeway. He must of course enlist some locals to guide him. There must be enough men around in Bodi, aged 60 and above, who must have had first-hand knowleage of the ropeway - after all it ceased operation only in 1969 or 1970.

But the mysteries do not end there. The AMS topographical map of 'Dindigul' shows the Madurai Bodi MG line, laid before 1931, operating only up to Usilampatti on the plains, just 37km west of Madurai. The rest of the line, 63km up to Bodi, is shown as a dashed line and marked as "dismantled railroad"! So, sometime between 1931 and 1947 (the AMS maps incorporated information from quarter-inch Survey of India maps up to 1947), the Usilpampatti Bodi section had been dismantled. Most likely around 1942-43 when many failing/failed lines, including the Tirupattur Krishnagiri, the Morappur Dharmapuri and the Tiruchendur Tisianvilai NG lines, were closed and the tracks pulled out.

Initially I used to fantasy that the steel was taken away for melting to make bombs and shells which to drop on the dreaded Japs who had overrun China, Malaya, Burma and were threatening Eastern India. Being a chemist I should have known better most rails are made of 'pearlitic' steels, which contain up to 0.8% carbon, 0.2 0.7 % silicon, 0.75 and 1.5% manganese. Special grade rails contain, in addition, 1% chromium. Such compostions, when achieved under most carefully controlled production conditions, ensure extreme toughness besides corrosion- and wear-resistance. It would be foolish to convert rail steel into shells for bombs; they should be just used as rails elsewhere. That is what they should have done with the rails pulled out of the closed line transported them to the launching pad near Pandu on the Brahmaputra to lay rail tracks for receiving/transporting men and materials to the fronts in the Burma-China War Theatre (1943-45).

The Bodi line being relatively important must have been restored to its full length sometime after 1947. It is a pity that we are not able to access information on such matters easily. There must be records of all openings and closures of railway lines in the zonal offices and also in Delhi, but God alone might know how one can get at them, if at all. Perhaps it would be much easier to get the pre-independence records from the India Office or British Library in London!

A few further points to notice from the Imperial Gazetteer Map of 1931, with regard to the railways in the extreme South, are:

1. The MG line from Mysore to Nanjangud had been extended to Chamrajnagar but the idea of the line between Chamraj Nagar and Erode via Kollegal and Satyamangalam had been given the go-by.

2. The Salem Attur line had reached only up to Salem Town; Attur Chidambaram dropped.

3. The Nilgiri railway had been extended up to Ooty.

4. Dindigul Podanur and Podanur Palghat m.g. lines are in place, but Palghat Olavakkot still remained BG

5. The Villupuram Trichinoploy chord as well as the Vriddhachalam Cuddalore MG lines had been constructed.

6. The following lines had been laid:

(i) Trichy Pudukottai Manamadurai 'chord' (MG);

(ii) Virudhunagar Shencottah 'chord' (MG);

(iii) Quilon Trivandrum (MG);

(iv) Tinnevely Tiruchendur (MG);

(v) Tiruchendur Tisianvilai (NG, private);

(vi) Tiruturaipundi Vedaranyam branch (MG);

(vii) Mayuram Tranquebar branch (MG);

(viii) Nidamangalam Mannargudi branch (MG);

(ix) Mysore Arsikere (MG);

(x) Bowringpet (Bangarapet) Bangalore (NG)