The man in kingly robes stands alone and unassuming. Though bedecked in crowning glory, he puts on no grandiose. Self-assurance and humility seem written in his posture and persona. Well, indeed, the full-length statue of the ‘Maker of Modern Cochin’ standing near the entrance of the Subhash Park mixes intricately into the garden. People pass by, paying no attention to this ‘People’s Maharaja’, who during the turn of the 20th century, had transformed a sleepy princely state into a dynamic, modern and progressive kingdom. As Kochi celebrates the opening of its Metro Rail, the aspiring city cannot forget Maharaja Sri Rama Varma XV, who brought in a train of social and infrastructure development, including the railways, for the first time to the city. His epic story of implementing the railway project amidst all challenges would surely evoke more awe than the present development saga.
Like the Kochi Metro, by a stroke of coincidence, the Maharaja’s railway also opened in a June. On June 2, 1902, the line was opened to goods traffic. A month later, on July 16, the first passenger train chugged in to the newly-built Ernakulam Terminus Station. Receiving the train as it arrived, was the triumphant Maharaja.
But there was no formal inauguration. Later, recalling those days, he wrote in his memoir: “My idea was to have the railway formally opened by Sir Arthur Havelock (Governor of Madras Presidency), whose pronounced sympathy with the project hastened fruition. Unfortunately, Sir Arthur’s term expired before completion of the project. Inviting Lord Ampthill (Governor who succeeded him) for opening meant delay and loss of revenue, and so, there was no formal opening.”
But the day the first train chugged in was celebration time, just like the inauguration of the Metro. It was a long cherished dream for the Princely State. Railway had come to Malabar, which was then part of the British Madras Presidency way back in early 1860s. However, the dream to extend the line from Shoranur to Cochin had to wait till the accession of Maharaja Rama Varma in ‘to the Gadi’ in August 1895.
Immediately after taking over the reins, the Maharaja, through his new competent Diwan P Rajagopalachari, initiated a reform process in education, revenue, police, judicial department, forest management and excise. The Railway was a special assignment. “After reading through all the previous correspondence connected with the project and carefully considering the question from all points of view, discussing it with railway experts, and consulting the British Resident, the Diwan came to the conclusion that the undertaking would be of immense benefit to state,” recalls the Maharaja in the memoir.
The rough estimate came to Rs 50 lakh. But, how to find funds was the challenge? The Diwan of Mysore, Sir Seshadri, advised the duo to approach British Government for a debenture loan at an interest of 4 percent. He said that if they declined, Mysore could extend the loan with the permission from the Government. Lord Curzon sanctioned the railway, but said no to the loan from the Government as well as from borrowing from another ruling chief.
The next resort was Travancore. “As a portion of the railway was to pass through Travancore, it was thought fair to sound that Durbar whether they would co-operate with Cochin in the business. Travancore refused and we decided to do it ourselves.”
Soon, the Maharaja declared and notified in the Gazette, a loan for Rs 10 lakh on 5 percent. It was collected in a short time. The project commenced in 1899.
However, in the same year, the Boer War started in South Africa and the prices of iron material ordered from England for the railway, went up. The additional burden had to be borne. Since other administrative and social reforms were also progressing, there were financial difficulties. Regarding how he circumvented the issue, the Maharaja says not much in the memoir: “The necessary funds were found and all the reforms, including the railway, went on rapidly and satisfactorily.”
It is said that the selfless Maharaja sold much of his personal jewellery and 14 gold elephant caparisons of Thripunithura Sree Poornathrayeesa Temple to complete the project. At one time, there were only two-days-worth of reserves in the Cochin treasury. “Maharaja Rama Varma was a progressive and pro-people man. He wanted to bring all modern marvels to his state. For that he was ready for any personal sacrifice. There is no doubt that he sold much of his personal assets for the railway. He might not have recorded it. You must realise that he was a King. He might have thought that it would affect his credibility as a King. And, there is no wrong in believing the oral tradition,” says Dr Sebastian Joseph, Head of History, UC College.
The construction through the difficult terrain crossing rivers and marshes also had its challenges. The bridges over Alwaye and Chalakudy rivers “took long to complete.”
By the end of the project, the engines had not arrived. The Maharaja wanted to borrow engines and rolling stock from the South Indian Railway Company. But it did not materialise.
And finally, after all troubles and tribulations, the great day arrived on 16 July 1902. He had a bit of economics about the project in his memoir: “I was very anxious about the Railway earnings, as Cassanders were not lacking to dawn the venture. But the returns from the Railway Company were brighter than my expectations and I was rejoiced to find the Railway a gilt-edged security for the State,” the Maharaja wrote.
I had chanced upon this memoir of the Maharaja through Dr Sebastian Joseph. His recent book ‘Cochin Forests and the British: Techno-Ecological Imperialism in India’ had focused on the second railway project implemented by Maharaja Rama Varma. This was the unique, now forgotten, tramway covering a distance of 49.5 miles from Chalakudy to Parambikulam through thick forests. “The project was conceptualised to make good use of the forest wealth of Cochin. It was a technological marvel. But it resulted in the destruction of substantial forest cover. Finally, the tramway was decommissioned in 1963,” says Dr Sebastian Joseph.
Having studied the life of Maharaja Rama Varma, Dr Sebastian Joseph has no doubt when he says that the monarch was the Maker of Modern Cochin. “He brought the railway. The initial idea of a modern port in Kochi was conceived during his time. He made reforms in all walks of administration. Moreover, he gave importance to vocational and technical education in the State. This made great impact on the lives of his people.”
Viceroy Lord Curzon had said that among the princely states, he had not come upon a more progressive administration as that of Cochin under Maharaja Rama Varma.
The Maharaja had another rare distinction. He is probably the sole Indian ruler who renounced his throne at a prime age. The British Government tried to dissuade him. The Governor of Madras Lord Ampthill wrote: “Surely it is unnecessary for me to remind Your Highness of the duty which you owe to your people seeing that you have always so faithfully observed it, or of the fact that that duty is based upon very different obligations from those which govern the position of official administrations.” The Maharaja persisted on his wish and finally the Government agreed and he abdicated on December 7, 1914.
However, the reason for abdication of the Maharaja is shrouded in mystery. Many theories were doing the rounds at that time. Some had thought that it was because of his closeness to Germans and that the British were annoyed. In fact, the Cochin Tram was constructed using German technology. “In his farewell address, the Maharaja had said he was abdicating due to health reasons. As a king he could only say that. Of course, he had strained relations with the Raj. Moreover, he had a mind of a scholar. The day-to-day administrative role in the 20 years of rule might have drained his energy. We need to realize that he had the mind of a scholar,” says Dr Sebastian Joseph.
The people of Cochin were grief-struck to hear the news of the abdication of the Maharaja, who was also called the ‘Rajarshi’ – the Saint King of Cochin. They had been benefactors of his reforms which saw the revenue of the State growing from Rs 19.4 lakh to Rs 47 lakh, with substantial annual spending towards public education and health.
As a mark of love, public collected a fund and erected a statue of the Maharaja on the foreshore of Kochi. The statue stands facing the city with the Kochi shipping channel in the background.
It is an evening at Subhash Park. People walk around the serpentine walkway. Couples sit in the shade. Children run around. The statue of the Maharaja stands unassuming and, in a way, disappears as a garden prop put up for breaking the patterns.
In another corner of the city, the old Ernakulam Terminus Station where the Maharaja stood proudly to receive the first passenger train lay in ruins with leafy vines coiled round the bare remains of a bygone triumph of a land. And, in another part of the city, a new railway chapter in Kochi commences with hundreds thronging to take their first trip in the Metro.