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A king who sold gold caparisons of temple jumbos for the railway line

Not just now, the massive budget of an infrastructure project had even left a royalty worried here a century ago and the visionary king had generated funds by disposing of the gold caparisons of his palace elephants to turn his big dream into reality.

When the first ever passenger train whistled its way to Kochi on July 6, 1902 through the newly built Shoranur-Cochin railway line, it was the result of sheer hard work and pains taken by the king, who had dreamt of seeing a train chugging into his princely state. The progressive king was none other than Rama Varma XV, the then Maharaja of Cochin, who was said to have been mocked at even by the Britishers when he approached them with the proposal of a railway line connecting his tiny kingdom with Shoranur, which shared border with the then princely state of Malabar ruled by the English collector.

The Britishers did not take the King and his proposal seriously as they believed that a princely state like Cochin could not afford the budget of the railway line construction that would run into lakhs of rupees during the late 19th century. But, Varma had stunned the Europeans by raising adequate amount by selling 14 of the 15 ‘thanga nettippattams” (gold caparsions) of the palace jumbos kept at the famed Sree Poornathrayeesa Temple at Tripunithura here, according to a souvenir published by the Kochi City Corporation.

Sree Poornathrayeesa was the family deity of the erstwhile Cochin royals. The determined ‘Raja’ (king) also sold the jewellery of some nearby temples and donated the monetary reserves of the palace to make the railway line a reality. “There was a railway line from Madras to Shoranur during that time. The people of Cochin also loved to hear the whistles of the train. But, what to do? There was no money,” said an article in the souvenir, brought out over two decades ago.

The souvenir said the Maharaja of Cochin, who had always given prominence to the welfare of the people, came up with a solution for the paucity of funds. “The Sree Poornathrayeesa Temple had 15 thanga nettippattams (gold caparisons) during the time. Of them, 14 caparisons, jewels of some nearby temples and the palace money were used for the railway line. Thus, the first ‘kari vandi’ (steam train) reached Ernakulam with passengers on July 6, 1902,” it said.

The old railway station of Kochi had come up in a place between the High Court building and the Tata oil mill later, the book added. As the historical records, detailing the episode of the Maharaja of Cochin’s visionary deed, are not much available, the article in the Corporation souvenir has great relevance.

Eminent historian M G Sasibhooshan said the construction of the railway line had demanded huge investment and Kochi’s treasury could not afford it. Compensation had to be given for the acquisition of land for laying of railway tracks and that was the responsibility of the state, he said. “The accommodation of workers also had to be managed by the princely state itself…There were many such provisions in the agreement which he had signed with the Britishers. To meet all those demands, the king had sold 14 of the total 15 gold caparisons at the temple,” he told PTI.

In his biography “Sir Sri Rama Varma Rajarshi”, compiled by his grandson I.K.K Menon, it was stated that the king had given 50 lakh to make the railway line a reality without mentioning about the caparison episode. The episode also had not found place in “Kochi Rajya Charithram” and Cochin State Manual, which are considered authentic records of the erstwhile princely state’s glorious history, he said.

The historian pointed out that nearly a decade ago, a case was filed in a local court here in connection with the management of the remaining gold caparison at the Poornathrayeesa temple. In the affidavit of the case, filed by an individual against the temple management body, the historical episode of the selling of 14 gold caparisons was mentioned. “King Rama Varma XV was actually an unsung hero. He was the person who paved the way for the Chalakudy forest tramway constructed for the transportation of lumber and passengers.

He was also the architect of Chalakudy town,” Sasibhooshan added. Rama Bhadran, a royal family member who did some research about Raja’s contributions, said though the king had approached the British rulers with the proposal of railway line for their technical support, they did not take him seriously and even viewed it in a sarcastic manner.

The king was shrewd enough to realise the commercial potentials of Kochi and able to sense the significance of a railway line in his kingdom, he said. “To make it a reality, he made several communications with the British government. But, the foreign rulers never ever believed that the administrator of a small state, which didn’t have much budget or any other support, could bring a railway line,” he told PTI. But, as per the available documents, the king, known for his mental power and determination, took up the task as a challenge. Initially, he tried to raise money by introducing a hike in taxes, but could not pool enough amount and as a last resort decided to sell the gold caparisons of jumbos at the temple. He went through physical and mental strain to make the railway line a reality, Bhadran added.

Senior Congress leader and MLA K Babu, who represents Tripunithura constituency in the state Assembly, said the Cochin royals have been known for their humility, simple lifestyle and moreover for the welfare measures implemented for people. Cochin royals were not as wealthy as their contemporary counterparts in other princely states, he noted. “Yet, they tried their best to ensure people’s welfare and development. Rama Varma’s action of raising money for the railway line by disposing of the royal properties including caparisons was one of the best examples for that,” he told PTI The King, who reigned over his kingdom from 1895-1914, had also built the museum and zoo in Thrissur and the famous Hill Palace here.

A scholar in English and Sanskrit, he had abdicated the throne in 1914. Unfortunately, the old railway station of Kochi, which played a vital role in the face-changing growth of Kochi, was abandoned gradually following the commissioning of the South Railway Station here after a few decades. Facing sheer neglect of the authorities, the humble redstone edifice of the first railway station is lying in ruin and the unused railway lines running to the station are buried under weeds and creepers at present.

The old railway station and the first train service came up for discussion again in the wake of raging debates over silver line, the massive infrastructure project which envisages to cover a 530-kilometre stretch from Thiruvananthapuram to Kasaragod, A whooping 64,000 crore is estimated as cost for the flagship project of the Left government.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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