Kuttanadu is a region in the Alappuzha, Pathanamthitta and Kottayam Districts in Kerala, well known for its picturesque vast paddy fields and its geographical peculiarities. It's the region with the lowest altitude in India, and one of the few places in the world where farming is carried out below sea level. It's also one of the historically important places in the ancient history of South India.
There is no recorded history on the origin of this land. But the oral history among local people, transferred from generation to generation is a blend of myths and legends. There is reference to Kuttanad in the epic Mahabharata of ancient India. During their exile, the five Pandava princes are said to have traveled through this land. In those days, Kuttanad was part of a dense forest, later destroyed by a forest fire which is also mentioned in the epic. Thus came the place name Chuttanad or the burnt place. In course of time Chuttanad became Kuttanad. One can still see kari or coal if we dig deep into the soil of Kuttanad, pointing to the fact that the place was once a forest, destroyed by wild fire. In Kuttanad most of the place names end in kari. Some familiar place names are Ramankary, Puthukkary, Oorukkary, Mithrakary, Mampuzhakary, Kainakary, Chathurthiakary and Chennamkary. It is also said that kuttanadu was once under the sea. The proof is the land is flourished with seashells.
During the reign of Chera dynasty that ruled over ancient Kerala, Kuttanadu attained an important place in history. One of the powerful kings in the dynasty: Cheran Chenguttavan is said to have ruled his vast kingdom from Kuttanadu, when it was also a famous centre of Buddhism. There is another version for its place name. The Buddhist centre Buddhanad later became Kuttanadu.
A few of the major villages which form Kuttanad are: Kainakary, Ramankary, Puthukkary, Chennamkary, Nedumudi, Niramom, Kaipuzha, Kumarakom, Edathua, Mampuzhakkary, Neelamperoor, Kainady, Kavalam, Pulincunnoo, Kannady, Veliyanadu, Veeyapuram, Vezhapra, Kunnamkary, Kumaramkary, Valady, Kidangara, Mithrakary, Muttar, Neerattupuram, Thalavadi, Changankary, Champakulam, Nedumudi, Moonnatummukham, Melpadom, Payippad, Karichal, Ayaparambu, Anary, Vellamkulangara, Pilappuzha, Pandi,Edathua, Pacha,Chekkidikad,Thakazhy, Cheruthana, Karuvatta, Chennithala, Narakathara, Venattukad, Kayalppuram, Mankompu, Chathurthiakary, Manalady, Koduppunna, Oorukkary, Thayankary, Thiruvarpu, Pullangadi and payattupakka among others.
Backwater Paddy Cultivation (Kayal Cultivation)
The major occupation in Kuttanadu is farming.Their ancestors also did the same. Rice is the important agricultural product, giving Kuttanadu the moniker of "The Rice Bowl of Kerala". Three crops are grown every year now instead of the traditional two per year. Large farming areas near Vembanad Lake were actually reclaimed from the lake. The history of the paddy cultivation in Kuttanad can be traced back to centuries. The evolution of paddy cultivation in Kuttanad was correlated to the technological advancement and changes in the regulatory frame-work existed during the 19th and 20th centuries. In the earlier times, the reclamation was done mainly from the shallow part of the Vembanadu Lake or from the periphery of river Pamba. These reclamations constituted small areas of paddy fields called "Padsekharams".The bailing out of water from those fields were done manually using water wheels named "Chakram". Gradually the manual method used for bailing out of water gave way to steam engines.
Three distinct stages can be identified in the reclamation of kayal lands from the Vembanad Lake. In the first stage it was carried out by private entrepreneurs without any financial support from the part of the government. The 'Pattom Proclamation' made by the Travencore Kingdom in the year 1865, gave a great fillip to the reclamation activities between 1865 to1890.During this period de-watering of the polders were done manually using waterwheels Chakram) restricting large-scale reclamations. Only about 250 hectares of land were reclaimed during this period. Venadu kayal and Madathil Kayal that were reclaimed during this period are considered as the first 'Kayal Nilams' which were reclaimed from the Vembanadu Lake. These pioneering reclamation activity of kayal cultivation was made by two brothers Mathai Luka Pallithanam and Ouseph Luka Pallithanam belonging to Kainady village in Kuttanadu. The period between 1865 and 1890 is usually considered as the first phase of kayal cultivation.
The introduction of kerosene engines for dewatering resulted in the reclamation of wider areas of the lake for cultivation. It made the farmers to think of venturing into the deeper parts of the lake. During the period between 1898 to 1903, reclamation activity was led by Pallithanam Luka Mathai (alias Pallithanathu Mathaichen) who reclaimed the Cherukara Kayal and Pallithanam Moovayiram Kayal. But second phase (1890 to 1903) of reclamation activities came to a halt because of the ban on kayal reclamation imposed by the Madras Government in 1903.Cherukali Kayal, Rama Rajapuram Kayal, Aarupanku Kayal, Pantharndu Panku kayal and Mathi Kayal were the other major reclamations during this period.
In 1912, Madras Government approved a proposal from the Travencore Government for further reclamations in three stages. Under this reclamation scheme kayal land was notified for reclamation in blocks each named by an English alphabet. Out of the total area of 19,500 acres of kayal land 12,000 acres were reclaimed between 1913 and 1920. After the removal of the ban in 1913, Pallithanam Luca Matthai along with some other prominent families in Kuttanadu, reclaimed E-Block Kayal measuring a total area 2,400 acres. This is the biggest kayal nilam in Kuttanadu. C.J. Kurian, Ex MLC and Mr. John Illikalam were his main partners in this venture. The reclamations between 1914 and 1920 are known as new reclamations, which were carried out in three periods. In the first period Blocks A to G measuring an 6300 Acres were reclaimed. C Block, D Block(Attumukham Aarayiram (Attumuttu Kayal), Thekke Aarayiram and Vadakke Aarayiram) and E Block(Erupathinalayiram Kayal) F Block(Judge's Aarayiram Kayal) and G Block(Kochu Kayal) are the major Kayal nilams reclaimed during this period.
During the second period of new reclamation, blocks H to N measuring 3600 acres were reclaimed under the leadership of Pallithanam Luca Matthai, Cunnumpurathu Kurien, Vachaparampil Mathen, Pazhayaparmpil Chacko and Kannathusseril Peious. During the third period of new reclamation R Block Kayal measuring 1,400 acres were reclaimed by the joint effort of eight families led by Pallithanam Luca Matthai, Vachaparampil Mathen and Pazhayaparmpil Chacko.
From 1920 to 1940 reclamation activity came to a halt because of the steep drop in the price of rice.
Pallithanam Luca Matthai who had served as member of Moolam Thirunal of Travancore's Praja Sabha (Popular Assembly) was considered as the pioneer of cooperative agricultural movement in Kuttanadu. His life marked the beginning of the epoch of first generation Kayal Raja's of Kuttanad.(Kayal Raja is the term generally used to refer to the prominent kayal cultivators in the Kuttanadu region).In 1931, in order to strengthen the farming community in Kuttanadu he founded Kuttandu Karshaka Sangham(Kuttanadu Agricultural Association). From the beginning of his farming career in his teens (he was only eighteen years when he reclaimed the cherukara kayal), he brought together like minded people and successfully led the reclamation activity from 1898 to 1940.
Due to the steep decline in the price of rice during 1920 to 1940 the reclamation activities become lethargic, but they gained momentum again in the early 1940s. During this period, in order to increase the agricultural output, Government initiated Grow More Food campaiagn and started providing incentives to encourage new reclamations. The advent of electric motors made the reclamations relatively easier, cheaper and less risky as compared to the earlier periods. The last tract of the reclamations namely Q, S and T block were made during this period by Thomman Joseph Murickummoottil (Muricken Outhachan). He did cultivation in a very large extent of reclaimed area and achieved such a success that he was crowned as "Krishi Rajan" (farmer king) by the then prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. The prominent families in Kuttanadu who were involved in the backwater paddy cultivation are Pallithanam, Vallickadu, Vachaparampil, Pazhayaparmpil, Punnadamvakkal, Chalayil, Kandakudy, Illikalam, Akkara, Ettuparayil, Mangalapallil, Paruthickal, Meledom, Murukkummootil, Puthenpurayil, Pattasseril etc.
As the farming in the area increased farmers felt themselves constrained by the two cycles a year for rice cultivation. The reason for which is the limited availability of potable water in Kuttanadu. During the monsoon seasons, the water from the mountains flow through the rivers to the sea, bringing potable water to Kuttanadu. But during summer, due to the low level of the region, seawater enters Kuttanadu and makes the salt content of the water high making it unpotable.