For safety in the wilderness, both from wild animals, as well as rival cultivators, the gatherers lived together in thavalams (base camp). The settlement of Kanavakkuzhi, the nearest to Mayapott, is one such. Every morning they would venture out to gather cardamom from the plants growing wild. Perhaps they might carry out some judicious management, but usually just picking, and some transplanting to increase the plant population. They would return each evening and lay out the cardamom they had gathered to dry. Every few weeks, a small group would leave for civilization, to sell the cardamom they had collected and to buy provisions like rice, ghee, tobacco, salt and sugar. This was the pattern of life in the thavalams in the Cardamom Hills, and this way of life lasted well into the days of Malayali settlement in the 50s. Malayalees (people from Kerala) started moving here in large numbers only after the First World War, in the 1920s and after. The large scale immigration of people into the region, however, came with the “Grow more Food” program of the early 50s, when they would assign land to just about anyone who was willing to cultivate it, and pay tax on it!

The Pottamkulam family has had the plantation at Kanavakkuzhi (now Kadamakkuzhy) since five generations now; they were a landed family, and in the late forties and early fifties, the young scion of the family was looking to acquire more land. The east of the Periyar had just been clear-felled, and the coupe roads now made accessible, what used to be the forest beyond. He set out along with many of his retainers to claim and farm some forest. (I don’t know if they could be called retainers, because they weren’t really employed. One could call them followers, or supporters, or whatever — there really isn’t an apt word in English; the malayalam would probably translate into something that implied ‘dependents’). They were assigned 250 acres of land, which the young entrepreneur allotted among his people. In addition, he staked claim to 35 acres of grassland, which he planted with coffee, and took another 20 acres on permanent lease from the Sircar to grow cardamom. This was the start of the family’s foray into cardamom cultivation. In those days, farming in the hills meant either hill-paddy or black pepper; these pioneers must have been thinking ahead of their time to plant coffee and cardamom along with the (practically mandatory) hill-paddy.

These areas were then mostly owned by Rawthers, Labbais and Chettiars from Tamil Nadu. Much of the region used to belong to one Pulavar Rawther who had sold it to others, mostly from Tamil Nadu, but a few from Kerala as well. When the initial venture met with success, the estate-founder purchased a further 80 acres from Pappikkunju Ninan, one of the Malayali land-owners who had purchased it from Pulavar Rawther. He and his retinue initially camped in the thavalam called Kanavakkuzhi (since metamorphosed into Kadamakkuzhi). Every morning, large groups would go out to various sections of the vast extent they had claimed, to carry out whatever farming operations needed to be done. In the evening they would all return to the thavalam. The thavalam was a rocky knoll which the wild elephants couldn’t easily get to; surprisingly however, the first plantation-house was built just below this, where the elephants could. So there used to be a huge trench all around to keep the elephants out.

The founder’s son and present family-patriarch lived here when he took charge of the plantation in the sixties. By then things were more civilized, and everyone didn’t have to live all crammed up together. All the retainers had developed their own claims, and most of them moved out from the thavalam to live on or near their lands. The thavalam lost its importance, but it still has a few vestiges of its former glory in the few shops (even a tea-stall or two) that still survive. The old plantation-house next to the thavalam is still in use; “plantation house” sounds very grand and brings to mind magnificent mansions with collonaded verandahs and the like, but this first one was really very basic accommodation. At the time it was built, though, it must have seemed like the lap of luxury to the pioneer entrepreneur, who was then living with his entire retinue in a very crowded (and I suspect, very dirty) camp.