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Malabar Manual Vol 2
William Logan

Position and Extent.—The island of Kalpeni lies about 44 miles due south from Androth In Lat. 10° 7' N. and Long. 73° 55' E., and is thus the most southerly of the northern group or Laccadives proper. The coral shoal upon which it stands is very extensive, being about 8 miles in length and 3½ to 4 in width. Besides the main island (Kalpeni proper), which alone is inhabited, there are two small rocky islands to the southwest, called respectively, Thilakka and Pitti, separated from the mainland and each other by narrow channels and a long narrow island called Cheriyam, about 1½ miles to the north of the main island.

These four islands together form a figure resembling a bottle with an elongated neck (Cheriyam and the north of Kalpeni) running from north by east to south by west. The extreme length from the north point of Cheriyam to the south point of Kalpeni is about 7 miles, and the greatest width about three-quarters of a mile. The total area of the group is 650 acres or just over 1 square mile.

Kalpeni 494½

Cheriyam 1291/8

Thilakka 123/4

Pitti 13½

Total 649 7/8

On the east, the reef forms the shore line of Kalpeni and Cheriyam and on the south lies but a short distance from the beach. On the west it trends outward so as to enclose a magnificent lagoon of still water over 7 miles in length and from 2 to 2½ miles broad at its widest point. The entrance, distant some 4 miles from the landing place, is good ; but although the lagoon attains a depth of over three fathoms in many places its navigation is rendered very intricate and difficult by numerous coral rocks that rise in many instances to within a foot or so of the surface at low-water.

As there are no waves, no breakers disclose their presence, but in daylight their situation is easily discernible.

On the east the coral shoal slopes rapidly away. On the west beyond the reef, the slope is so gradual that the bottom can be seen for a considerable distance. The channels between the various islands are at low water very shallow, and the islanders can easily pass on foot from one to another, and it was from these shoals (particularly that between the main islands and Cheriyam) that cowries, of which this island used to export the largest quantity, were usually gathered.

The main island is about 3 miles long. For the first two miles of its length from the north it consists of a long strip increasing in width from about 50 yards at its northern extremity to about 400 yards at the termination of the big north Pandaram, after which it suddenly bulges out, attaining its greatest width in a few hundred yards. Only this southern portion is inhabited, as it is only here that good drinkable water is procurable. No drinkable water is found in the other small islands. All the uncultivated portion of the main island and the attached islets are covered with a dense jungle of screwpine, etc., in many parts of which scattered coconut trees occur.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature in the topography of the island, the general level of which is very low, is the natural sea-bank of coral stones along the east and south-east shore. This bank is supposed to have been cast up by the sea at the time of the great storm in 1847. As it is about 12 feet high and 60 feet in width at the base, it forms a grand natural barrier against the recurrence of such a disaster. It is a peculiarity of this island that the coral substratum is wanting, or at least not so solidified into a layer of limestone rock as in the other islands.

Soil and Products.—The soil appears to be very good in the central and southern portions of the main island, but the smaller islands of the group are very rocky and though covered with luxuriant vegetation, the coconut trees growing in them are not very productive. Along the east shore of the main island also there is a long strip about 50 yards wide, so stony that its cultivation would be very difficult and probably unproductive.

Besides land suited to the cultivation of the coconut palm, this island contains, like Androth, a considerable plot of low arable land adapted to the cultivation of a few coarse grains. In the tottam (as the arable ground is called) the same coarse grains are cultivated as in Androth, but the area devoted to the cultivation of plantains is more extensive than in the latter island. The plantains are very productive and are stated to require no watering.

The bread-fruit also appears to grow more luxuriantly in this island than in any other, and whole groves of it occur everywhere throughout the inhabited portion of the island. A few areca palms, one tamarind tree, lime bushes and betel vines are also cultivated. The wild almond tree and punnan (a tree used for masts), found occasionally in the jungle, furnish fairly good timber, but the islanders usually import what they require.

On the whole, Kalpeni may be said to be one which nearly produces the food supply necessary for the support of its inhabitants, and this is clearly shown by the fact that they export a large quantity of the produce of the tottam (grain, plantains and sweet potatoes), fish, oil and dried fish to the other islands (mainly Kavaratti) getting in exchange coconuts, young plants, jaggery and coir.

The three islets mentioned above, as well as the greater portion of the main island, which together comprise about three-fourths of the entire extent, are claimed by the Pandaram. Cultivation is most backward in these parts. The inhabitants are extremely lazy and a considerable portion of the islands is, therefore, covered with jungle. The tottam alone is well cultivated.

Disaster of 1847.—On the 15th April 1847 a violent hurricane visited the island of Kalpeni and caused most woeful injury to life and property. It commenced at about 8 P.M. at the season of spring tides and passed on to Androth which it reached between 12 and 2 A.M. of the 16th. It then arrived at Kiltan, one of the islands attached to the South Canara district, and after that gradually subsided. The following extract taken from the Proceedings of the Board of Revenue, dated 2nd August 1849, gives a clear idea of the dreadful catastrophe : —

"The sea rose and flooded the whole but across the narrower part of the mainland ; it seems to have had tremendous velocity. All the trees, with the very soil, and between 60 and 60 houses, were washed into the ocean with upwards of 200 persons, while along the whole length of the shore a flood of loose coral has been deposited over the island which will render a considerable tract quite unserviceable until it has decomposed and become soil.

Across the broader parts of the island, the water was not so destructively rapid, but so complete was the inundation that the first impression of the islanders was that the whole shoal was sunk. The water filled the tottam with salt water, killing all vegetation and drowning many persons.

"It was, in consequence, last year quite waste. Over the eastern bank of the tottam, a flood of loose coral stones was poured, which has filled up and destroyed a part of this useful land. Many wells and tanks were filled with sand and stones, and fresh water in all of them was spoilt. The inundation was probably more destructive than the wind, and has shaken the confidence of the people in the stability of the island greatly. The storm lasted for about an hour in all its violence.

"Then a sudden lull and the wind soon sprung up briskly from the westward and the flood subsided, leaving the island in the most perfect state of desolation.

"Of the 348 houses standing before the storm, not one escaped. Many were so entirely washed away as scarcely to leave vestiges of their foundation. All were unroofed and otherwise damaged. All the mosques, 29 in number, were injured, and nearly the whole of them at the time of Mr. Robinson’s visit were lying in a state of ruin.

"The population of Kalpeni, prior to the hurricane, is reckoned at 1,642 souls. Of these, 246 were drowned or washed away during the storm, far the larger proportion being women and children. One hundred and twelve perished in the ensuing five months from famine or from the diseases engendered by unwholesome and insufficient food, 376 escaped to the coast during the monsoon, thus leaving in the island 908, of whom nearly four-fifths are women and children.

"The plantations in the island have been entirely destroyed ; out of upwards of 105,000 full-grown coconut trees, the number before the storm, 768 only are now standing ; the total number of trees, young trees and plants which have survived, scarcely exceeds 10,000. This is only the main island Kalpeni ; the state of the adjoining islets, Thilakka Pitti and Cheriyam, is even more disastrous. The other trees—bread-fruit, banana and betel-nut are likewise all lost. More than a third of the trees destroyed are Pandaram or the Beebee’s property.

"The hurricane reached Androth between 12 and 2 A.M. of the 16th April, filve or six hours later than at Kalpeni. The tide was then happily low, so that only a small part of the island was inundated, and the results of the visitation, though sufficiently deplorable, were less disastrous than those experienced in the latter islands."

Animals.—The domestic animals that existed in the island in 1880 consisted of 94 cattle and 64 goats and the usual fowls and cats. In sea products, Kalpeni is peculiarly rich. The ayacura (seer fish), tarandi (skate), shark, appal (Bombay duck), flying fish (paramin) of two sorts, sword-fish and many other large fish are caught in abundance. The turtle, killed for oil but not for eating, is very common, and the tortoise pretty frequent. As might be expected from the great extent of the coral shoals and of the lagoon, shell-fish of many kinds are most abundant. One or two sorts are occasionally gathered for food, but the cowries are what we chiefly gathered formerly for export and are much more abundant in this island than in any other.

People, their Customs and Occupation.—In physique, the inhabitants of Kalpeni appear decidedly inferior to those of the other islands. They are also the most ignorant and superstitious, the most bigoted and the dirtiest, both in person and habits. The men are the laziest, and it was with great difficulty that they were got to do some cooly work during the periodical visits of the officers to the island. Nearly all the work is done by the women, and, besides their usual work, the women of the Melacheri class have, on the return of the odams from the coast to carry the bags of rice, etc., from the vessels to the houses of the consignees receiving one seer per bag as cooly.

The sailor class arrogate to themselves the reputation of being the best malumis (pilots), but this pretension is ridiculed by the other islanders.

The generality of the people are poor, all the wealth and influence being confined to a few of Karanavar class who keep the others well under subjection. The Karanavar class claim to have derived their descent from the Nambutiris or Brahmans of Malabar, and their houses are generally distinguished by the word illam—the appellation in Malabar peculiar to the houses of Nambutiris.

The other islanders are considered to be of Sudra or Nayar extraction and the distinctions of caste still survive amongst them.

Every one, male or female, over about 10 years of age, carries a pouch containing betel, tobacco, etc. The superstition of the islanders and their fear of ghosts is such that they hardly venture out of their homes after dark.

Population, Sanitary Condition and Medical Aspects. - The population of the island had been reduced by the storm of 1847 to about 450. In 1876, it numbered 1,029 and at the census of 1881 it amounted to 1,222, of whom 604 were males and the rest females. The sanitary condition of the island is most defective. The bad smell emanating from the accumulation of refuse matter is so powerful that no stranger can pass through the house-yards of even the wealthiest without his olfactory nerves being grievously offended.

The dwelling houses are constructed differently from those in other islands for want of building stones. To form the walls, two parallel rows of stakes are driven into the ground about 6 inches apart and the intervening space filled in with suitably sized stones obtained from the beach. When this space has been well and tightly filled up, the wall so formed is plastered on both sides, and when this plaster dries the stakes are removed. A second and thicker layer of plaster is then applied which completes the outside wall upon which the roof is placed.

As in Kavaratti, all the houses are enclosed with fences and the entrances secured by tatty screens. In the yard of each, also, there is usually a small shed in which the women, who are more secluded in this island than in the others, work. Some houses have also two out-houses, used as kitchen and room for receiving visitors, attached to them.

There is no native physician in the island, but the gumasta has the credit of being the best. He only uses castor oil and some made-up medicines he gets from the coast, and has never had any training.

Education.—A school was established in 1880 at the desire of the islanders. It is hoped that it may improve. The number of persons capable of reading, according to the census of 1881, is 221.

Religion and Mosques.—The people are exclusively Muhammadans. There are 16 mosques in all, of which 7 are supposed to belong to the Pandaram. The number of mosques in 1847, according to Sir William Robinson, was 29.

Manufactures and Trade.—The coir-yarn is the chief manufacture of the Island. It is generally of an inferior quality. The number of boats belonging to the islanders in 1880 was 16 large vessels and 70 small boats. The corresponding numbers in 1876 were 15 and 68.

Survey and Cowles.—The survey and demarcation of the island have been completed. A portion of the Pandaram lands has also been granted on cowle.

Sub-divisions of the Island.—The island is divided into 4 sub-divisions or cheris, viz., (1) Vadakkancheri, (2) Tekancheri, (3) Kicheri, (4) Mecheri. The islets attached to it have already been mentioned above.

General Remarks.—There is not in this island the same amount of ill-feeling between the Karnavan and the Kudiyan as exists to a greater or less extent in the other islands. It appears that only 10 per cent of the Kudiyan's produce is deducted as freight. Probably this explains the absence of disputes between Karnavar and Kudiyans. Eight Ipecacuanha plants were planted by Mr. Tate during his visit in 1884.

A large English steamship, named the "Amelia" was wrecked upon the reef of Kalpeni in April 1880.

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