top of page
Authored by
Of the London Missionary Society



Manufactures being few and insignificant, agriculture is the principal industry of Travancore, one-third of the able-bodied population being engaged in it. Almost every one secures for himself a small area of land, sufficient at least for the site of a dwelling, and small garden around it. Indeed, in some parts of Malabar there are scarcely any compact towns, each house being separate, and situated in its own grounds.

Agriculture is carried on with some measure of practical skill and success derived from lengthened experience, but with most primitive instruments, and needing much improvement as to manuring, rotation of crops, and the preparation of produce for the market. With a view to national progress in these respects, two students have been sent by the native Government to the Agricultural College at Madras, who, it is hoped, will be able on their return to introduce more scientific methods of husbandry. A beginning has also been made in holding Agricultural Exhibitions of cattle and produce, which may be expected, in time, to improve and encourage native agriculture.

The principal native agricultural products are rice, cocoanut, and other palms, and farinaceous roots for food, besides coffee, which is cultivated by European planters, with the aid of native labour. Fruit trees also are grown, more or less, by every one, and invariably planted as the beginning of an estate when waste land is cleared.

Rice is grown chiefly on irrigated or swamp land, though dry or “hill” rice is also grown wherever the soil is sufficiently rich to give a crop, and the rain sufficiently abundant to bring it to perfection. Most of the landed wealth of the country consists of rice or “paddy” lands, which vary greatly, however, in quality and produce, and consequently in value.

On account of the uncertain and varying character of the land and grain measures in use in various parts of the country, it is difficult to give exact estimates of cost and returns. The common measurement is the para : “100 paras of land” is the area which requires a hundred paras of seed sown. The para grain-measure itself differs throughout the country, but properly speaking, a para contains 920 cubic inches — a little over two-fifths of a bushel.

The para land-measure is smaller for the valuable rice lands than for common dry or unirrigated land. In the case of government grants during the last fifty years, the para is taken at 4,000 square feet, which is a little over one-eleventh of an acre. The older estimate, applying to the greater portion of the rice lands in Travancore, is one-eighth of an acre = 5,445 square feet; but in the northern districts the para measures somewhat over this. For the present we shall assume the para to be equal to one-eighth of an acre.

The price of “paddy” lands varies according to the soil, facilities for irrigation, distance from the centres of population, and the returns they are capable of yielding. Some are worth only 30 rupees to 40 rupees per para; others cost up to 70 rupees (say, 24 l. to 56 l. per acre). The Government compensation for rice lands taken for public purposes is only 14 rupees per para. Land may be said to be worth generally about 15 years’ purchase.

The proper soil for rice is found in valleys or plains irrigated by water-channels, often with a supply for the dry season in a tank at the head of the valley. The varieties of rice suited to .different soils and seasons are numerous.

The produce of rice lands in Travancore ranges from so low as five-fold, and usually ten to fifteen-fold, up to thirty- fold occasionally. There is a popular complaint that the land is deteriorating, and the return less than in former days, which the old people ascribe to diminished attention to sacred rites and duties, but which appears to have some foundation in fact, and to arise from exhaustion of the soil through want of proper cultivation, sufficient manure, or regular fallows.

Rice is a slow growing grain, of low nutritive value, and its cultivation prevents a rotation of crops. In the southern districts, where tillage is more careful, and manuring better attended to, and the sun hotter, the clouds and rainfall being less, the increase has sometimes been known to be forty-fold; but farmers think they are well off with fifteen-fold at each harvest — i.e,, twice in the year — and throughout the greater part of the country seven or eight-fold, or in the south twelve to fifteen-fold must be put down as the usual return. Of course, in unfavourable seasons the crop may be almost nothing.

As it costs at least two paras of grain in wages to sow one para of seed, a return of at least three times the seed sown is necessary to repay expenditure. A ten-fold increase would be 80 paras, or 33 bushels, of “paddy,” or rice in the husk. When cleaned of the husk, this is reduced to half the quantity — say 16 bushels — weighing on an average 64 lbs. per bushel when raw. Old rice would be lighter, down to about 59 lbs. The produce, therefore, of an acre of good rice land may be averaged at 1,044 lbs.

Mr. Caird estimates that the present average produce of grain throughout India is below 10 bushels per acre. In a recent experiment at Saidapet Farm, near Madras, the average out-turn per acre was, grain 1,594 lbs., and straw 4,033 lbs.; but few of the native rice growers can show such results.

Paddy is usually sold at 12 chuckrams per para. The Government rate for commutation of taxes payable in kind is 7 chuckrams. When slightly boiled and beaten from the husk, the price is 32 chuckrams per para, or about Rs. 2¾ per bushel.

The total acreage of rice land under cultivation in Travancore is not exactly known, but a fresh survey and re-assessment are about to be undertaken. The survey of eighty years ago places it at about 400,000 acres; but since then much waste land has been brought under cultivation, and the total acreage cannot probably be taken at less than 500,000 acres.

Whereas at the beginning of the century, Travancore exported large quantities of paddy and rice (in 1843 no less than 281,000 candies of 654 lbs. each), and imported but a small quantity, the case is now totally reversed — exports being only about Rs. 70,000 to Rs. 80,000 in value, and imports (duty free) having risen from 4½ lacs of rupees seven years ago to 9¾ lacs in 1881. The produce of the country is, therefore, not sufficient for home consumption at the present time. This arises not only from the diminished production already referred to and from increase of population, but also from the general improvement of the circumstances of the lower castes, who can now afford to eat more rice in place of, or in addition to, fruits and vegetables, coarse roots, and inferior grains.

Supposing the cultivated area of rice to be 500,000 acres, and the joint produce of the two crops fifteenfold, or 1,566 lbs. per acre; this divided amongst a population of 2 J millions would give 312 lbs. of rice per head per annum for consumption. Imported rice to the value of 10 lacs of rupees would give (at a chuckram per pound) 1 1 lbs. per head additional. The consumption in Ceylon of rice (and fine grain) is estimated at 5 bushels, or over 300 lbs. per head, besides fruits, vegetables, and roots; and in Burma, “where the peasantry have enough and to spare,” 507 lbs. per head.

The quantity required for an adult living wholly upon rice is usually reckoned at 3 nari, about 1½ lbs. per day, or rather more. The Famine Commission compute that for a working adult male i J lbs. of flour or rice is sufficient, and for children, from half to a fourth of the quantity according to age. Twenty- six ozs. of rice daily is allowed in Trevandrum Gaol for labouring male prisoners.

The cultivation of the Cocoanut extends over the whole State, which has hence been facetiously called Cocoanut-core. At the survey of some forty-five years ago, the total number of these trees was 11 millions; and the increase since has been so great, much waste land having been planted with this valuable palm, that the present number cannot be estimated at less than 15 millions. These are almost invariably too closely planted to obtain full advantage of sun and air : but supposing they stood at the moderate distance of 20 feet apart (which is 109 to the acre) the area covered would amount to 137,000 acres.

The soils best suited for the cocoanut are the seashore, the banks and alluvium of rivers, and level lands exposed to the sea breeze; these conditions abound in Travancore. Inland, on the mountains, the cocoanut will grow, but not bear fruit, deteriorating as it recedes from the coast. The young plants generally require watering for the first two or three years, and must be protected from the inroads of cattle until they rise some feet above the ground.

Ashes are applied as manure at the beginning of the wet season, and the ground opened about the roots of the trees, which come into bearing some eight or ten years after planting. To natives this is one of the most easily-managed and most remunerative products of the country — perhaps, as in the South Sea Islands, almost too easy for enforcing habits of industry and perseverance. They have but to put down the nuts and guard the trees, more or less, while attending to their other employments, and in due course a permanent and profitable plantation is created. Europeans, however, seldom attempt such an investment, and few who have done so have succeeded in it.

For new plantations, waste lands are usually taken up. Within the last twenty or thirty years much land, otherwise worthless, has been reclaimed along the sandy sea-coast, and many trees have been planted on either side of new roads opening up into the interior. To purchase a plantation, however, is a more costly undertaking. The value of such property, of course, varies greatly according to situation and productiveness. The price of 100 ordinary trees in the southern parts may be stated at about 400 rupees.

These would produce, at a low estimate, say 2,400 nuts, value 34 rupees, annually. The produce of the tree is very much dependent on soil and climate. The average of good trees in full bearing has been stated at 120 nuts in the twelve months, while in low and sandy soils it will amount to 200, and in gravel or laterite, be under 60. Ripe cocoanuts are quoted in the Trevandrum market list at somewhat under 2 rupees per 100.

The kernels are dried into copra for the manufacture of cocoanut oil. The copra is largely exported to other parts of India, as well as the “ coir” or fibre surrounding the husk, which is sent to Europe and America.

The annual value of the products of this palm exported — nuts, dried kernel or copra, oil, and fibre — amounts to 46 lacs of rupees, besides oil, nuts, timber, and leaves for home use. It has been estimated that 60,000,000 of nuts and 15,000 candies of oil are annually consumed in the country. The timber is not exported, but split up and used for rafters, and the leaves are in great demand for thatching.

The trees are sometimes tapped for a few months to procure the sweet juice, which, boiled while fresh, gives a palm sugar, and kept a day or two till it ferments and becomes toddy, a slightly intoxicating drink, somewhat like beer. The toddy also is distilled into arrack or native spirits.

Other palm-trees are also cultivated. Next to the cocoanut comes the Palmyra, which is grown only in the drier districts towards Cape Comorin. Farther north they appear to flourish fairly well when planted; but there are none of the class of people who climb and collect the produce of this palm, and the great rainfall would doubtless hinder such work; the tree, also, is of extremely slow growth, so that only rare specimens are found in those parts.

The palmyra, with its sweet sap and sugar, leaves, timber, and fruit, furnishes a living to a great number of the Shanar caste in Travancore, and in Tinnevelly. The number of trees in the former survey, was about 6,000,000. It is probable that no considerable increase has taken place since, as old trees are in demand for their timber, and the slow growth of this palm discourages planting. The export of jaggery, the sugar of this palm, has considerably increased of late, amounting in M.E 1056 to 50,741 cwts., valued at 180,000 rupees.

The beautiful Areca palm is planted in damp, clayey soil on the banks of tanks and rivers. Unlike the cocoanut it will thrive at a distance from the sea and on the hills. It is grown very largely in North Travancore, whence the nuts are carried to the South by Syrian and other traders. The trees will grow two or three feet apart. The areca begins to bear in five years, and continues to produce for twenty-five years. The nuts are sold wholesale at six or eight chuckrams per thousand, and retail in Trevandrum at from eight to thirty-two for a chuckram, according to season and demand. Last year exports to other parts of India amounted to 3,866 candies, valued at nearly 5 lacs of rupees, say £ 50,000.

Roots, vegetables and fruits form a considerable proportion of the food of the population, especially of the poorest classes, who have little besides when rice is scarce or dear. The forest and hill people dig out wild, stringy yam-roots from the jungle as food in the hot season. Every native grows something, if he can, around his own dwelling for home use.

The principal cultivated root-crops are yams (Dioscorea) of various sorts, the small tubers of which are planted out in the beginning of the rainy season and dug again within a year. Some of these roots grow, under favourable circumstances, to a large size, up to four feet in length and one in diameter. Sweet potatoes, the root of a convolvulus, give good returns within three months after planting, and quantities of esculent arums (Amorphophallus and Colocasia) are grown in fields, furnishing a large supply of food.

Tapioca, introduced from South America, is now largely cultivated in Travancore, and admirably suited for still more extended use. As the price of rice has risen of late years, tapioca has become the more essential as an article of food.

Within the last forty or fifty years, the growth of tapioca has rapidly spread; and now a large proportion of the population in the South live upon this root during the hot season. It will grow in any soil, and needs but little care except to preserve it from the depredations of cattle. After the roots are dug, the stem is cut into pieces about 4 inches long and planted some 3 feet apart, with a little ash or other manure.

The root requires occasional weeding and earthing, and arrives at maturity in nine or ten months. Well boiled, it is eaten with fish curry. It is sometimes given to cattle. In a green state the root does not keep long, but it can be sliced and dried in the sun, or grated and made into farina. A field of this valuable and nutritious root is planted at but little cost; its yield is very large, and its cultivation highly profitable.

The produce has been estimated in Ceylon at 10 tons of green roots per acre : this weighs one-fourth when dried, and, if the dried roots gave half their weight of flour, it would amount to 2,800 lbs. per acre. With some care and attention any amount of the granulated flour might be prepared for home use and export; but, though this plant grows all around us, European residents find it more economical to send to London for the prepared tapioca, as the people do not take the trouble to prepare it.

Arrow-root (Curcuma angustifolia) might be grown much more largely than at present. In an experiment with this root at Saidapet the produce was at the rate of 3,944 lbs. of tubers per acre, which would represent an outturn of one-eighth of that quantity of flour. The culture of this crop is very simple, so also is its preparation by reducing the tubers to pulp, mixing it with water, washing out the starch, and drying it in the sun.

The flour could be sold profitably at 4 annas per pound. Last year 3,515 cwts. were exported, valued at 29,600 rupees. Other culinary vegetables are Amaranthus, cucumber, brinjal, peas, &c. Fruits commonly grown are the jack, of which there are two or three million trees in the country, the guava, papaw, Anona, pine-apple, and plantains in great variety. The spices grown are pepper, ginger, turmeric and chillies. The exports of ginger amount to about 4 lacs of rupees; of tamarinds, 2 lacs; of turmeric, nearly 1 lac; of pepper 3 to 5 lacs; and of coffee, from 6 to 8 lacs. Good crops are often obtained from sesamum and horse gram, and much might be done in the production of fibres for cordage and papermaking.

‘The size of farms is various; three or four hundred acres is an estate of considerable magnitude, which not two in a hundred will possess. The lesser farms do not exceed from seven to fourteen acres, and are often considerably smaller; indeed, taking the average as given in the Sirkar accounts, we should only have about two acres as the extent held by every farmer.

A farmer with three hundred paras of paddy land four hundred cocoanut trees, fifty areca, and twelve jack-trees, with vines yielding five or six tulams of pepper, will be in very easy circumstances; but scarcely twenty husbandmen in a hundred will have such a property; indeed, the lower classes rarely possess sufficient rice land on which to support their family; they trust, however, to the produce of their garden lands to make up the deficiency.”

The following description of a Syrian Christian farming community near Quilon was furnished, in substance, by one of their priests : —

Though the Syrian Christians often complain of their poverty, they have fair houses, rice-fields, cattle and sheep, some of them possessing two or three native ponies. They are better off than formerly, and little oppression from government officials is now complained of. They cultivate rice for home use, reaping generally tenfold, of which a tenth is paid as tax to the Sirkar.

Some will have rice to sell over and above what is required for domestic consumption. Then they have roots, plantains, and other fruits, &c., some of which are sold to boatmen and trading coolies, who carry their purchases to the town of Quilon for sale. Milk is procured from the cows. Sheep are occasionally sold at from 2 rupees to 3 rupees each — only the weakly or less valuable ones are killed and used as food.

A well-to-do Christian farmer may have twenty-five or thirty persons in his family, including sons with their wives and children. His annual income in money, derived from the sale of rice, sheep, cocoanuts, roots, and other produce, in addition to food of his own growth for all, may amount to from 500 rupees down to 50 rupees per annum.

Out of this the purchase of clothing is almost the only expenditure in cash, excepting for marriages and festivals. The clothing may cost 70 rupees. The minimum expenditure here for marriage is 25 to 35 rupees, but sometimes extravagant sums are wasted in this way.

‘There is not much hiding or hoarding of money in these days. The farmer invests his savings in additional paddy-land, which costs about 70 rupees per para, or less if the land be inferior or at some distance towards the hills.

A native friend supplies the following account of the life of a cultivator of the humblest class :—

A young man begins agriculture at the age of fifteen or so. Residing with his parents till the age of twenty, he may be able to save on his own account from 100 to 150 rupees, during this period. Then he gets married.

After marriage, still diligently labouring, he may earn 65 rupees a year; his expenditure will be 1 fanam (1/7 of a rupee) daily for food, and 40 fanams per year for clothing. Thus he may manage to save a few rupees a year. Then he builds a house and purchases some land. At the age of thirty he will be possessed of some property, and his annual income rises to 100 rupees, while his expenditure amounts to 70 rupees or 75 rupees.

The cultivator invests his savings in a lottery, to accumulate for the marriage expenses of his daughters. Then he may spend more than he has saved, and fall into debt and difficulties. But if his land be fertile and trees productive, he will recover ground again.

Taking the expenditure as 4 chuckrams (3½d.) a day, it may be apportioned as follows : — For rice, 1 chuckram; salt, ¼ chuckram; fish, 4 chuckram; cocoanut, ¼ chuckram; curry spices, 1/8 chuckram; oil for light, 1/8 chuckram; tapioca roots, 1 chuckram, oil for the head, 1/8 chuckram; and the remaining 5/8 chuckram for the noon meal, for which sweet potatoes, or peas, or jack, or mango fruits, or tender cocoanuts, or palm juice,’ or jaggery, are used.

About 40 fanams will be required for cloths, washing, and barber’s hire in the year. The annual expense for earthen pots will be 10 fanams; for mats, 3 fanams; for hospitality, 30 fanams; which, however, will be returned by others, as occasion offers.

The poorer class of cultivators generally go to their work at six o’clock in the morning, and return at the same hour in the evening. Only when the work is unusually difficult or pressing do they take solid refreshment at noon. They get food warm and abundant in the evening only.

bottom of page