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The cardamom hills of Kerala - The hub of world's top quality cardamom

Cardamom is a native crop since prehistoric times in the Western Ghats, especially towards the Southern part of the hill ranges. It was a time when cardamom was found in the forests as a wild plant, and it was the tribal tribes who resided in the forest harvested it during their movement within the woods. These were eventually exchanged with traders who lived in villages near to forest very much under the control of the kingdoms that ruled over the land. Cardamom was, in general, a product that had very high demand due to its scarcity and difficulties in procurement, and hence it was a taxed product since ancient times. Cardamom smuggling was something that was considered to be a crime because of the loss of tax the ruling kingdom had to bear. That was when the concept of cardamom hill came into existence, something later initiated by the Travancore Kingdom who ruled over the present day cardamom hills of Kerala.

Cardamom hills
The cardamom hills of Kerala

The Cardamom HillsThe area was technically demarcated as a land East of the River Periyar and North of the Kumily Ghat and West of the Tamil Country plains and South of Munnar. It was the area considered to be the best for cardamom, and they were called the cardamom hills. The whole idea of the cardamom hills was to encourage cardamom cultivation in the demarcated areas and increase the production of cardamom which could be eventually taxed as revenue for the kingdom. During the reign of Rani Lakshmi Bhai of Travancore, they further divided the cardamom hills into different divisions like Poopara, Udumbunchola, and Vandanmedu. Tahsildars were appointed as local representatives of the ruler to facilitate the growth of cardamom like building roads to interior areas, allow individuals to do cardamom cultivation in government land purely under the control of the administration and provide with the required infrastructure and materials that enhanced its production. Cardamom cultivation was very much the right of the Kingdom, and no individuals were allowed to plant or cultivate cardamom in the Travancore Kingdom.

The Cardamom Department

Things were taking a new curve where cardamom could be produced enough to meet the demand it had which will, in turn, would bring good fortunes for the kingdom. It took some years for the people to realize that it was just thirty percent of the area that could be utilized for cardamom plantation. Even within the thirty percent that was identified suitable for cardamom cultivation, some areas were identified as grasslands and wetlands, which were least favorable for cardamom planting. During the mentioned era, the cardamom hills were fragmented lands that belonged to different classes of power and socio-economic backgrounds. It was John Daniel Munro who was appointed as the resident diwan of Travancore. He introduced a land register relating to records of land possession by individuals and organizations. The forest department still existed during those times, and it was the responsibility of the forest wardens to reach teak wood to Alleppey via Periyar and Achenkovil river, on a later stage it was their responsibility to cardamom to Alleppey which was then a known trade center. It was the Son of John Daniel Munroe, Mr. U V Munroe who implemented these responsibilities for the forest department as forest conservator. As years passed by, the foothills of the cardamom hills were allocated to individuals for the cultivation of coffee and tea, this move burdened the forest department with more responsibilities, and more money started to flow into the treasury. Effectively the forest department was in charge of the produces of the forest as well as the plantations of the foothills. It turned out to be a more significant task to handle and manage, it was decided to form an independent department for the enhancement of cardamom plantations, and hence a cardamom department was established, and U V Munro headed it.

Cardamom hill reserve
Cardamom hill reserve

The Cardamom Hill Reserve (CHR)

In the year 1896, the kingdom of Travancore arrived at a revolutionary decision to leave their complete involvement in cardamom cultivation, and allow individuals to do planting and keep their possession in government lands of the cardamom hills. The prime conditions included the preservation of the trees and forest as a whole, cultivate pepper without affecting cardamom plantation, and they were not allowed to sell their possession to a third person. The whole process was very much within the forest department of the Travancore Kingdom. A year later in 1897, the cardamom hill reserve was announced as part of long visioned planning and execution. The whole idea of the Cardamom Hill Reserve (CHR) was an idea of reserving a portion of the forest exclusively for cardamom plantation. The demarcated Cardamom hills which extended to an approximate of fifteen acres was reduced to an approximate of nine thousand acres, solely to preserve the cultivation of cardamom. The cardamom hill reserve was under the administration of the forest department. However, the area outside the reserve and within the cardamom hill boundary was under the control of the cardamom department. The whole idea was to preserve cardamom, and the cardamom department would enhance cultivation in other parts of the cardamom hills were cardamom plantation was not expanded.

Kerala government
The Government of Kerala

Formation of the Revenue Department

Again a year later, the wetlands and portions that were impossible for cardamom farming within the reserve were given away to individuals to do farming crops of their choice like sugarcane and paddy. As events progressed, more amendments and notifications were sanctioned that allowed individuals to lease and own land, and even build houses for their requirements as collateral security for taxes. In 1910, the revenue department was formed, and the cardamom department merged into the revenue department. The cardamom hills got divided into different taluks (county), and revenue settlements allowed people to hold land in their name with a title deed. Later on, the forest department became a conversation department just for the protection of the forest and its resources and the cardamom hill reserve was something that was limited just in government records.

During the post-independence era in India, Kerala was formed in the year 1956. All of the land detail and records came under the revenue department, and the Kerala state government continued the procedures in place for the hills and the reserve with minor amendments here and there. Eventually cardamom hills and the hills reserve were considered as revenue land which came under the Revenue Department; however, the trees and their protection went under the forest department. This is a brief of the evolution of the cardamom hills and the reserve. We have tried to make it as simple as possible; the real process was a far more complicated and confusing than what you just read.

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