Malabar Manual Vol 1 Chapter 1. The DISTRICT
Section A. - Its Limit's and Physical features.
The name by which the district is known to Europeans is not in general use in the district itself, except among foreigners and English-speaking’ natives. The ordinary name is Malayalam, or, in its shorter form, Malayam (the hill country).
The word Malabar is therefore probably, in part at least, of foreign origin; the first two syllables are almost certainly the ordinary Dravidian word mala (hill, mountain) and bar1 is probably the Arabic word burr (continent), or the Persian bar (country). From the time (A.D 522-547) of Cosmas Indicopleustes down to the eleventh or twelfth century A.D., the word “ Male ' was applied to the coast by Arab navigators, and the seafaring population, who flocked thither subsequently for pepper and other spices, called it Mulibar Manibar, Mulibar, Munibar, Malibar.
The early European travellers followed suit, and hence come the other forms in which the name has been written Melibar (Marco Polo), Minibar, Milibar, Minubur, Melibaria,
Malabria etc, Malabar may therefore be taken to mean the hilly or mountainous country, a name well suited to its physical characteristics.
1 “Bar signifies a coast, in the language of the country,” p. 10(a) of Renaudet’s translation of “Ancient Accounts of India and China by two Muhammadan travellers in the nineteenth century A.D.”—Lond., 1733.
Malayalam is not, however, the only indigenous name for the district. The natives love to call it Keralam, and this and other names will be found treated of in the historical chapter.
The district is very widely scattered and consists of the following parts:
(a) Malabar proper extending from north to south along the coast, a distance of about one hundred and fifty miles, and lying between N. Lat. 100 15’ and 120 18’ and E. Long. 75° 14’ and 760 56’.
The boundaries of Malabar proper are north, (South Kanara district; east, Coorg, Mysore, Nilgiris, Coimbatore; south, the Native State of Cochin; west, the Arabian Sea.
(b) A group of nineteen isolated bits of territory lying scattered, fifteen of them in the territories of the Native State of Cochin and four1 in those of Travancore, but all of them on or near the coast line between about N. Lat. 9° 36' and 100 10' and E Long. 76° 14' and 76° 25'. These isolated bits of territory form the taluk of British Cochin.
(c) Two other detached bits of land imbedded in Travancore territory and also on the coast line, namely :
Tangasseri, N. Lat. 8° 54', E. Long, 76° 38', and
Anjengo, N. Lat. 8° 40', E. Long. 76° 49'.
(d) Four inhabited and ten uninhabited islands of the Laccadive group. The positions of the inhabited islands are notified below:
Agatti, N. Lat. 10° 50', E. Long. 72° 9', with four uninhabited islands, viz., (1) Parali, (2) Bangara, (3) Tinnakara, and (4) Kalpitti;
Kavaratti , N. Lat. 10° 31', E. Long. 72° 35', with three uninhabited islands, viz., (1) Pitti, (2) Valiyakara, and (3) Cheriyakara, the two latter islets forming together the Seuhelipar reef, thirty-seven miles south-west of the main island. Pitti, on the other hand, lies fifteen miles north-west of the main island;
Androth , N. Lat. 10° 47', E. Long. 73° 40', and
Kalpeni, N Lat. 10° 6', E. Long. 73° 35', with three uninhabited islands, viz., (1) Cheriyam, (2) Thilakka, and (3) Pitti.
(e) The solitary island of Minicoy (Menakayat) lying between the 8° and 9° ship channels. Its position is
N. Lat. 8° 18', E. Long. 73° 1'. Attached to it is the small islet of Viringilli, used for quarantine purposes by the islanders.
The Malabar Collector’s charge therefore lies scattered over four degrees of latitude and over more than four degrees of longitude. It embraces an area of six thousand and two square miles with something more to be added for the islands and out-lying parts, and, as may be easily imagined, it presents a vast variety in the conditions of its many parts.
1: Since this was sent to press, an agreement has been arrived at with the Travancore Government to transfer Tangasseri and the four bits of territory belonging to the Cochin Taluk to Travancore in part exchange for the site of the Periyar dam designed to turn for irrigation purposes a portion of the waters of the Periyar (great river) across the ghats into the Madurai district. The agreement has not yet been carried out.
On the ghat range some of the mountain peaks rise to very nearly eight thousand feet with bright frosty nights in the cold season, and at the opposite extreme may be placed the radiant lagoons, the perpetual summer, and the coral reefs of the Laccadive Islands.
The coast line of Malabar proper trends from about north-north- west to south-south-east, and, at a distance inland from the coast of about twenty increasing as it goes southward to about fifty miles, rise the western shoulders of the great Mysore and Nilgiri plateaus and the Western Chats. The lowest points in the ridge of the Mysore plateau approximate invariably to about three thousand feet, while in the ridge of the Nilgiri plateau it would be difficult to find a point under six thousand feet.
The mountain line does not, however; present an even aspect when viewed from a distance on the west. It seems to approach and then to recede from the coast, and the reason of this is at once apparent to a traveller from the south who skirts the mountain bases and passes buttress after buttress thrown far out into the plains.
They form a magnificent array in echelon of mountain heights, with their front , facing southwards and with their loftiest ponies like grenadier companies protecting the right of the line. The district does not rise above this mountain harrier except at two points. The Wynad taluk, which lies above the ghats, is simply a portion of the great Mysore plateau. Behind the ridge of ghats forming the southern slopes of the Nilgiri range there also lie two forest-clad valleys—the Silent Valley and the Attapadi Valley—which likewise pertain to Malabar.
One of the most striking features in the country is the great Palghat gap, a complete opening some twenty miles across in this great backbone of the peninsula. Here, by whatever great natural agency the break occurred, the mountains appear thrown back and heaped up, as if some overwhelming deluge had burst through, sweeping them to left and right.
On either hand tower the giant Nilgiris and Anamalas, over-topping the chain of ghats by several thousand feet, while through the gap the south-west winds bring pleasant 'moist air and grateful showers to the thirsty plains of Coimbatore, and roads and railway link the Carnatic to Kerala. Through this the thousand streams of the higher mountains find their way to the sea, and the produce of the eastern and western provinces is exchanged.
The unique character—as a point of physical geography—of this gap in an otherwise unbroken wall of high mountains, six hundred miles long, is only equalled by its great economic value to the countries lying on either hand of it.
Stretching westward from the long spurs, extensive ravines, dense forests and tangled jungles of the ghat mountains lie gentler slopes, rolling downs and gradually widening valleys closely cultivated, and nearer the sea-board the low laterite tablelands end abruptly in cliffs and give place to rice plains and cocoanut-fringed backwaters.
Numerous rivers have hollowed out for themselves long valleys to the coast, where, backed up by the littoral currents, they discharge into the line of backwaters. These backwaters and the streams which flow into them and the canals which connect them afford a cheap means of communication to the inhabitants, and the rivers, backwaters and canals are crowded with boats conveying produce to market and huge unwieldy rafts of timber being slowly poled downstream to the timber depots.
The coast line, trending, as already said, from about north-north-west to south-south-east through a length of nearly one hundred and fifty miles, bears evidence throughout its length to a slow but steady encroachment of the sea upon the land.
The prevailing littoral current is from north to south. It is one branch of the might ocean current which sweeps across from Madagascar and the east African coast and impinges on the Malabar coast at a point a little to the north of the northernmost part of the Malabar district whore it apparently divides into two branches, one going northwards and the other, and perhaps the main branch, flowing southwards down the coast. Its action is to be seen in the long sand-spits stretching from the north across the mouths of the rivers,—sand which in the wash of the waves travels slowly but most persistently from north to south—and in denuded headlands where the primeval rocks jut up and form barriers to the encroachment of the waves, which sweeping round the obstructions gradually hollow out bays to the southward of them.
The sea-board may be considered pretty open except to the north, where stand the island, hill, and wind-swept ruined fort of Mount Deli (eight hundred and fifty-five feet), a bold eminence of laterite and gneiss, and a conspicuous and well-known landmark to mariners. Further south and as far as Calicut the coast line is fringed alternately by low cliffs and long reaches of sand.
Beyond Calicut to the southward the shore is one long unbroken stretch of sand. The littoral currents, though persistent in their action, are nowhere strong, and hence deep water close in shore is nowhere to be found and there are no natural harbours suited for modern tonnage. The bottom of the ocean shelves very gradually, and so uniformly that experienced mariners have no difficulty in telling their distance from land at any point of the coast by the number of fathoms they find on sounding with the lead.
The coast does, however, afford some refuge to small craft with shallow draughts of water enabling them to cross the bars of some of the backwater outlets, and where the backwater is extensive and the scour on the bar is great (as at Cochin) comparatively large vessels do enter the estuaries and load and discharge in smooth water.
The Laccadive Islands and Minicoy are islands composed for the most part of coral sand, and limestone formed from it. The highest point of any of the islands is probably not more than thirty feet above sea-level. The islands are small and as a rule long and narrow, and within a few yards of the shore the bottom sinks abruptly beyond the reach of any ordinary sounding tackle.
In form the islands generally lie north and south in a crescent-moon shape with a more or less ample lagoon enclosed by a coral reef on the western and north-western sides.
These lagoons are shallow as a rule, and on a calm, clear day the dazzling whiteness of the coral sand at bottom, the rainbow-coloured tints and diversified shapes of the living coral rocks, the intensely brilliant colours — cobalt, green, yellow and crimson—of the fish which dart out and in among them, and the exquisitely buoyant crystal clearness of the water on which he is floating, strike the visitor with surprise and leave indelibly impressed on his mind a picture of radiant, beauty such as few spots on earth can produce.
The islands themselves, however, are intrinsically uninteresting and are usually covered from end to end and down to within a few yards of sea-level with a dense mass of vegetation, consisting of cocoanut trees and a few bread-fruit and lime trees in the cultivated parts, and elsewhere a dense mass of impenetrable scrub and screw-pine (Pandanus odoratissimus) with here and there a few cocoanut trees towering above it.