The region today known as ‘Idukki’, of which the Cardamom Hills form a part, was in the kingdom of the Cheras, who ruled on both sides of today’s state border. The Chera kings of the Sangam age practiced koottuvazhccha, where the several branches of the royal family had equal rights to the throne, with the oldest male member among all of the several branches reigning over the kingdom, from wherever his branch had its seat. Thus the capital changed from place to place, with each change in the monarchy, and one of such capitals of the Chera kingdom during that age – Kuzhumoor – is believed to be the present-day town of Kumili, at the eastern edge of the Ghats, where it drops off steeply to the flat lands of Tamil Nadu.
Within memory, the region was under the Thekkumkoor Rajahs, who were since subjugated by Maharaja Sri Marthanda Varma of Travancore. The Travancore kings granted the fief to their vassal, the tamburan (lord) of Poonjar, who controlled much of the region at the end of the 19th century. This was the heyday of Empire, and the British were everywhere making inroads into the hills. They bought or leased the rights to the land from the feudal lords or from the princely state, to log the vast stretches of hardwood forests, and set up plantations of tea, coffee, rubber and spices. This sparked interest in the hitherto unnoticed forest ‘wastelands’ as a source of revenue to the state coffers, and the princely state of Travancore took an active part in the opening up of the region. Several dams, and all of their ensuing infrastructural network – roads, electricity and the like, came into the district at the beginning of the twentieth century.
A colourful story relating to the region goes that Maharaja Sri Mulam Tirunal of the Travancore royal family once came to Kumili to personally observe the construction of the dam on Mullapperiyar river. One day while he was there, he felt thirsty, and a shepherd named Ankur Rawthar gave him milk hot from the udder of a ewe. The pleased Maharaja gave him title and cardamom rights over extensive forest lands, which his descendants in time sold to later land owners. This was probably the beginning of formal title and ownership in the Cardamom Hills area.