Aluva is no stranger to floods. In my research on the history of Aluva eight years ago when we decided to make it our hometown to be close to the Kochi Airport, the final leg of my 15-year journey to be a professional without borders from where I grew up, two floods stood out.
One, which created Aluva and Kochi, the Queen of Arabian Sea and another, a manmade one to save the Aluva palace and the kingdom of Kochi. The first one was a massive flood in the 14
th century when river Periyar, which literally means the biggest river, split in Aluva and created the natural port in Kochi.
Until then, Periyar touched the Arabian Sea only at Kodungalloor, or Cranganur in ancient maps, creating the richest port and kingdom, Muziris — which literally means a cleft lip. It is the largest opening on the lip of Kerala coast that led ancient merchants to its aromatic spice mountains.
Muziris was part of the Jewish trade route and Apostle St. Thomas reached Kerala through this port. During that flood, Periyar destroyed almost everything on its way to Muziris and the Jewish Rabbi had to flee in the middle of the night with his wife on his back and built the oldest synagogue in this part of the world at the newly created port in Kochi.
Slice of History
The second flood that intrigued me was the shrewd manner in which Kochi Kingdom prevented an attempt of conquest by Tipu Sultan of Mysore. Tipu and his army swept aside every kingdom on the way and reached the border of Kochi in Aluva. The summer palace of Kochi Kingdom is on the banks of Periyar where Periyar splits. The causeway between the fork is the famous Aluva Sivarathri Manappuram, which witnesses the largest human gathering in India after the Kumbh Mela on a night in mid-February, to pray for their ancestors. The scene is similar to the ancient Mexican ritual shown in the movie Coco.
Tipu reached within a couple of hundred meters of the Aluva palace crossed one arm of the fork and camped at Manappuram. The Aluva palace didn’t have a fort and was only protected by the river. Before Tipu arrived, Kochi did two clever things — created a mud fort reinforced with palm fibre mat and a dam upstream in the river.
Tipu’s most powerful weapon was his cannons which penetrated and crumbled all the forts on his way. The cannon balls fired from the causeway went through the mud fort but didn’t crumble. A frustrated Tippu camped at Manappuram in the night to fire more cannons next day. But in the night, Kochi opened the dam they created upstream and the causeway got flooded killing a lot of his men and horses. Tippu survived with a broken limb and his horse saved him to cross the river and retreat.
That is history. I live in a 10-story building diagonally opposite the Aluva palace on the other bank of Periyar. The river forks between us and the Aluva Manappuram starts in the middle. On a normal year, we see at least one flood during monsoon covering Manappuram and the Siva idol inside the temple, which is considered an auspicious occasion. The temple architecture includes a tunnel, which brings water inside the innermost yard as water rises and clears when it retreats without much effort.
Some Telltale Signs
This year I was expecting higher than normal levels due to an unusual summer we had in March to May. After I moved from Microsoft to my own venture to promote the mostly wasted Jackfruit, I pay special attention to the summer season when we get jackfruits of the highest quantity and quality. This year was a tough one as we had continuous rain in Kerala throughout the summer season, which was very pleasant compared to the usual sultry heat.
Jackfruit season was late. We still got higher yield towards the season end but had excess water in the fruits as the earth underneath the trees had excess water. By the time monsoon arrived, the earth was already soaked up from the summer rain. So I expected higher levels but not as high as the first flood I had to face in 2013 when we were caught unaware like Tipu, as the authorities opened a dam in the night without notice.
That time I woke up to a surprise with water level already touching our building above our basement parking. In two hours of firefighting, we could save all cars and reduce damage as much as possible before the basement got fully submerged within the next two hours. The disruption was minimal to the residents and the water level receded within 24 hours.
It took us days to clear the water but we made investments to avoid future flooding to the basement and disruption even if the level increased another five feet from 2013, the same level as the time-tested Aluva Palace. This time as soon as the water reached normal monsoon levels, we installed our flood defence shutters from 2013.
As I expected, the first warning arrived on July 29 as a WhatsApp message from PH Kurian, additional chief secretary of Kerala and the chief of Disaster Management Agency with instructions for the public on how to prepare for a flood and an assurance that no dams would be opened in the night to avoid a repeat of the 2013 surprise. The public would be warned in advance, of the dam’s opening.
Kurian was IT Secretary while I was at Microsoft and knew my location. That’s why he included me in his update along with the official communications so that it reaches people around me through social networks. This helped me immensely to prepare for an event even he didn’t anticipate. On July 30 and 31
, we saw higher water levels but they were not so alarming. Soon enough, the levels dropped by August 1 and life was back to normal. Though dam levels were near alert levels, the water showed no signs of rising. We even had a week of sunny spell relieving everyone, but this was a crucial window of opportunity I will return to later. A Warning
On the evening of August 8, I received a second alert saying the dam, which was opened during midnight in 2013, had reached red alert level and would be opened in the morning on August 9. But the quantum of water being released through one shutter would only be a fraction of 2013, in cumecs, a new unit of measure everyone in Kerala had to get used to as a reference for their safety. The river was expected to contain it within the banks.
Our family had taken a day off on August 9 to attend a family wedding and my brothers had already reached from as far as San Francisco. The rains continued all night and even before the dam water reached Aluva, the river had already crossed its banks by 8:00 am. I felt it was too risky to leave and that I should personally review the flood defense before the dam water reached us.
I was forced to cancel our trip. I fixed all the gaps, got extra diesel to run the generator continuously for 48 hours. I filled drinking water in cans for all residents as a backup. I moved all cars from the basement to the ground level and took spare gas cylinders to a higher level. The water level only reached two feet below 2013 but touched our compound wall and retreated.
By this time I learned the speed of flow of water in the river is another factor to keep track. It is an indication on the tide levels in the sea. If it is low tide, the sea will take away water faster and a high tide will push back water reducing flow speed and will cause water levels to increase faster.
We were lucky to have a low tide on August 9 and the water level dropped by two feet by August 10 morning. Cars were taken back to the basement level.
However, by then, there was another pattern emerging. All shutters that opened for trial for four hours on August 9 stayed up permanently and a new red alert was issued from the mother of all dams in Kerala — Idukki dam — with a clear warning to expect water levels above 2013 on the 10
th night. I was in a business meeting when this alert arrived and on my way back stopped at our local grocery store and stocked up nuts, dry fruits and milk, milk powder and lots of pomegranates, which I felt had longest shelf life among fruits. Rising Water Levels
Water level did rise on the night of August 10 but not as high as on the 9
th noon. August 11 was the black moon day of the last month in the Malayalam calendar. It is another special occasion known as Karkidaka Vavubali, where thousands of people gather in the morning at Aluva Manappuram to pray for their ancestors and take a dip in the water. Manappuram and the temple stayed under water and it was not safe to take a dip in the water.
vavubali got disrupted the high tide usually expected during the black moon day didn’t happen and the sea was generous to accept the extra water from Idukki dam. Everything began to look under control by the 11 th noon and we could join the second function of our family wedding in our hometown.
We were rather relaxed and I even joked about my experience of shopping for the flood to notice that almonds from California were cheaper than cashews from Kerala in the nuts category. (Being in the food business, I am impressed by the growth of California Almonds in India, which is also in the news lately as part of the tit for tat tariff war started by Trump.)
Everything was calm until the 14
th afternoon but to our surprise a bigger alert was issued in the evening. Both dams releasing water into Periyar were receiving more water than what was being released. And to make matters worse, a third dam further upstream controlled by Kerala’s neighboring state Tamil Nadu had reached its peak and would be releasing water into Idukki.
th night, it was clear Aluva could be receiving five times more cumecs of water than what we got in 2013. The level started rising in the night and we had to call back our maintenance staff to repeat the drill we did on the 9 th morning. On August 15, Independence Day, water crossed 2013 levels by 7:00 am. The shutters we had installed gave us seven hours to prepare for the worst flood I had seen in my life.
All cars were parked up and water was pumped into all overhead tanks till they overflew. We switched to generator electricity and cut off power in basement and ground floor to avoid any short circuit. The water level kept on increasing and Abhilash, a reporter of a leading Malayalam news channel who had interviewed me several times at my residence, knew we were in ground zero for Aluva and he could get the best visuals from our place.
His crew had to wade through water above knees to reach us and took the visuals from the terrace while I was going through the drill. Abhilash later turned to be my most reliable source on weather warning.
We had seven families in the apartment — mostly senior citizens including my mother in law who is on a wheelchair after a stroke. We had enough food, water, cooking gas and diesel to hold the fort for at least 48 hours, which we felt was good enough. The water level kept on increasing and by 5:00 pm we knew it could cross the five feet from the 2013 level we had set as our safe limit for the generator power.
We all agreed to stay back without power as the flooding was not isolated to Aluva. Almost all the 30-plus dams across Kerala were opened and all rivers were overflowing flooding most highways. Some towns north and south of us were worse than Aluva.
We bought candles for all families and decided to turn off power by 9:00 pm or when the water level reached closer to the generator level, which it reached two minutes before 9:00 pm. We went to bed without the faintest idea of what was in store for us for the next six days…
James Joseph is the founder of Jackfruit365.com and the author of God’s Own Office. This is the first of a three-part series of articles on the Kerala floods. Read the second one