Santhithadam: Kerala’s Brave New Frontier

Remote mountain village is home to Indian Christian pioneers

text and photographs by Sean Sprague

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Santhithadam means “Valley of Peace” in Malayalam, the language of Kerala.

Located at the end of a nearly impassable dirt road, Santhithadam is indeed a peaceful valley hidden away in one of the most remote corners of Kerala, in southwest India. While much of Kerala is overcrowded, its many people competing for limited farmland, Santhithadam is an exception.

Not far from the border with Tamil Nadu and set on the high Attapaddy plateau, the area was thinly populated by scattered tribes for centuries. Then, about 30 years ago, 76 families settled in Santhithadam from the crowded south, including 40 Syro-Malabar Catholic families from Kottayam, Kerala’s Christian heartland.

New frontier. The families who settled in Santhithadam were like pioneers arriving at a new frontier. These economic migrants had given up their former lives, knowing there would be no turning back. What tiny plots of land they had owned in Kottayam were sold and replaced in Santhithadam with larger plots, ripe for development and cultivation. But at the time, many of these hard-working people did not know what they were facing.

Varkey is a small, muscular, balding man of 75 with skin the color of walnuts. He is one of the original settlers and lives with his extended family in an attractive, simple mud house. Coconut trees shade the house, pepper plants spiral up the trunks. Coffee bushes with ripening berries, arica nut trees, bananas and a plot for vegetables cover the steep hillside at the back of the house. Red hibiscus and a host of other flowering shrubs surround the front courtyard. Fifty yards away at the base of their steep valley, a series of stepped rice paddies have been shaped by Varkey; they now glisten emerald green in the afternoon sun. Natural year-round irrigation runs from a spring through the rice plantation ensuring three harvests a year. When told the place looks like paradise, Varkey gives a snorting laugh and says it wasn’t easy.

“This land used to belong to a rich Muslim,” Varkey said. “Many years ago my brother worked for him. He heard that the man wanted to sell some land. Seven families – all related – all lived near Kottayam, trying to eke out a living on one and a half acres of land.

“We sold that land, came up here and were able to buy 110 acres, which we divided among the families. It was hard work developing the land – there was no road at all, but everyone pitched in to help. I have seven children, two boys and five girls, most of whom still live here.”

Varkey’s family eats the food they grow, and earns some cash by selling crops of pepper and coffee. But like poor farmers in most of the developing world, they find they are victims of globalization. Pushed by the International Monetary Fund, the Indian government has opted for free trade and Varkey’s family has been hit badly by the fluctuating prices of commodities on the world market, an effect he feels but does not really understand.

“The price I can get for my coffee goes up and down,” Varkey said. “Right now, it is worth 13 rupees (about 28 cents) a kilo (2.2 pounds). A couple of years ago I could get 22 rupees. It is even worse with pepper. Now I get 72 rupees a kilo, when four years ago it was fetching 250 rupees.”

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Tags: Kerala Village life Syro-Malabar Catholic Church Farming/Agriculture