By June every year, Travancore would be soaked in the seasonal showers of the monsoons. The rain was always quite incessant, drizzling gently when it wasn’t pouring in all its tropical luxury, adding nonetheless to the pretty charm of the coast. Rivers flowed with a majestic gush, emptying themselves lavishly into the sea, and the landscape adorned itself with the richest foliage. The jungles, lagoons, and backwaters appeared more idyllic than ever, and even the rich paddy fields of North and Central Travancore would fill out into small lakes.
Neat little boats dotted the horizon as people went about their business, rendering the scenery picture perfect. The whole geography would reflect a natural abundance, every bit worthy of that appellation of “god’s own country”. “A land of beauty! A land of plenty! A land of peace!” an English aristocrat appropriately pronounced, enchanted by nature’s liberal indulgence of this state.
But the monsoons of 1924 would come to be recalled not for their romance as much as for the veritable terror they stirred.
It seemed as if the skies had been ripped apart as the waters burst out endlessly, transforming the bountiful scene into one of violent catastrophe. “Water! Water everywhere!” rued the famous writer Takazhi in his In The Flood recording how in his village, crowded together at the highest point in a temple, stood sixty-seven children, three-hundred-and-fifty adults, and a number of pets and domestic animals, awaiting rescue. The deluge turned much of Travancore into a massive swamp and even portions of the high ranges were submerged.
For weeks the heavens poured with vehemence, and homes, livelihoods, and lives were washed away in its fury. Pregnant mothers and children were found adrift in massive urns, floating alongside the bloated corpses of livestock, scarring many with trauma and trepidation. Panic gripped Kerala as a whole as hundreds of human lives and thousands of animals’ were lost. It was one of the greatest natural disasters to occur in South India. That year became a landmark in local history, and grandmothers would for long tell grim tales of the collective sufferings of 1099 ME (Malayalam Era).
Relief works had commenced as soon as the crisis began, with a Flood Relief Committee being urgently set up by the government. The Dewan T Raghavaiah, an accomplished civil servant deputed from British Madras, demonstrated tremendous initiative and promptly wired large amounts of money to the affected regions of the country for preliminary assistance. In defiance of conservative opinion, while the Maharajah lay dying in Trivandrum, he chose to reach out to the people by travelling to every ravaged locality, boosting public morale and personally overseeing relief activities.
By early August, thousands of refugees and displaced families were being fed at different relief centres; 4000 at Ambalapuzha, 3000 at Alleppey, 5000 in Kottayam, 3000 in Changanassery, 8000 in Parur, and so on.
Mr Raghavaiah also had the sagacious sense to involve the public and it was announced to general appreciation that “through the efforts of private citizens and Government officers, nobody was allowed to suffer from starvation”. The administration was doing everything it could to ameliorate circumstances during this last major, and traumatic, event of Maharajah Mulam Tirunal’s reign.
There were substantial losses, however, and that year’s crop was utterly destroyed. The report of the Mannar Flood Relief Deputation, which was one of the many-hundred village committees constituted, noted, for instance, that 500 houses, 200 coconut gardens, 1000 acres of land, and 6,40,000 kilograms of grain had been lost in the vicinity of that one Central Travancore hamlet alone. Woeful information came in from the most fertile parts of the state and it was clear that the only way ahead was to facilitate a good harvest the following season.
So, by early August it was announced that in the worst affected regions, taxes would be remitted for that financial year, and a sum of Rs 4 lakh was set aside to provide agricultural loans.
House reconstruction funds were also constituted and the Forest Department was asked to freely supply bamboo and other rudimentary materials to the poor, at least for temporary residential arrangements. Price stability was maintained in the market, and the government was prepared to substitute tapioca for the diminished supply of grain to prevent inflation.
It was at this stage that Sethu Lakshmi Bayi came to power. Normally when a ruler passed away, for three days the government would cease operations at every level. But in the circumstances at hand, she agreed with the Dewan that this should not be practically done; everything was declared closed but work continued behind the scenes. Indeed, even though for twelve days the royal family was supposed to be in isolated mourning, the Rani remained in touch with Mr Raghavaiah constantly. The management of relief was left entirely to him, owing to her inexperience, but she did issue some policy directions of her own.
By the 28th of August it was announced that at the Rani’s orders the amount proposed for agricultural loans was increased to Rs. 5.5 lakh and all district officials were commanded “to deal with the utmost celerity and sympathy with all applications” for assistance. In due course she would also prune the rate of interest charged on these loans from 6.25% to 6% and less, and 10,000 applications were disposed of, with each person being granted a maximum of Rs. 500 to get back on his productive feet.
Physical reconstruction activities were launched successfully, with the Public Works Department (PWD) allotted several lakhs of rupees to repair roads and other infrastructural facilities. By the time Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’s reign was formally inaugurated in early September, people had started to return to their homes and ordinary vocations, and normalcy was restored for most part.
Excerpted with permission from The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore by Manu S Pillai, HarperCollins India.