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Santhithadam: Kerala’s Brave New Frontier

Remote Indian valley is now home to a band of Christian pioneers

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.”

Varkey went on to describe the difficulty they have getting their crops to market. Although the villagers built themselves a rough trail leading to the village, it is negotiable only by four-wheel drive. First, they must travel by foot the four miles to the market village of Karara, where they hire a jeep whose driver comes back to Santhithadam to pick up their goods.

The children too must walk four miles in each direction to school five days a week. The nearest health clinic is two miles away, staffed by a nurse on most days and a doctor who visits once a month.

Clean air. Lissy, 34, lives in the village with her husband. Married for six years, they have no children. While her husband has lived in Santhithadam for 30 years, Lissy moved there when they married.

When complimented on her attractive house and garden, the pure environment and clean air, she laughingly said, “Yes, but clean air is all we have.” She said the absence of shops, electricity, running water, schools and proper roads made everyday life a challenge. Lissy explained that they have about one acre of land and grow coffee, pepper, plantains, coconuts and rice. Like most families, they own a cow to provide their dairy products.

Another major problem the villagers must contend with is the wild animals that damage the crops. They are especially plagued by wild boar and the occasional elephant. Tigers are also known to prowl the plantations. Santhithadam is located on the edge of a state forest reserve and the villagers are not allowed to kill the animals. The area is patrolled by forest rangers, who intimidate the villagers and arrest them if they are caught killing an animal.

The plight of the villagers is further complicated by an ill-defined boundary between Santhithadam and the state forest. The forest department now claims the old boundary was inaccurate and that much of the land the villagers “bought” 30 years ago is not really theirs, although they can show documented titles. There is an uncomfortable stalemate, whereby they can remain living on the land for now, but are not allowed to cut down trees or hunt animals.

“They are living in a terrible situation,” explained the local Syro-Malabar Catholic Bishop, Mar Jacob Manathodath of Palghat.

“The people of Santhithadam are insecure and in many cases cannot fully develop their land because they are not allowed to clear the land to grow more crops. Also, because of this dispute they are not able to take out bank loans,” the Bishop said.

“And the wild animals are forever spoiling their crops. The people are trapped, unable to return to where they come from, unable to sell the land where they now live. They are suffering.”

Frank but friendly. Syro-Malabar Father Thomas Arisseriyl is the village priest. He lives in Karara and walks to Santhithadam each Sunday for the afternoon Divine Liturgy. Responsible for building a new church, he comes to the village on most days while work is in progress, although things are now at a standstill for lack of funds.

A CNEWA grant for the new church has been a big help, as are the hard-earned pennies given by the parishioners. The new church should be completed by 2005 if all goes well. Farmer Varkey has donated two of his 10 acres for the site and many of the villagers give their labor for free under the guidance of professional builders.

Meanwhile, the community celebrates the Divine Liturgy in a shed near the new church. The makeshift shed is mostly open to the outdoors and some of the 300 worshipers spill into the outlying fields. Men stand on the left and women in colorful saris gather on the right during the hourlong liturgy. Shoes were left outside the shed as a sign of respect.

Two candles in green globes burned on the altar, but there was no incense. A few babies gurgled happily while toddlers moved around contentedly. Everyone knew everyone else. They chanted in a rhythm rich in traditional Indian melodies. The cool breezes of the temperate village blew through the open windows.

Apart from their obvious isolation, privations that include no easy access to water or electricity, wild animals and the simmering threat from the state, the villagers are living the life they have freely chosen. They have done well away from the chaos of India’s cities, away from ever-encroaching globalization.

The villagers are frank, open and friendly. They seem very healthy, thanks to their clean air and water, abundant exercise and diet. They have opted for a better life and seemed to have found it.

Sean Sprague travels the globe for CNEWA WORLD.

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