Remnants of a pier built in 1825 discovered by a marine research team at Valiathura

Remnants believed to be of a 19th century sea pier have been discovered a few metres underwater near the Valiathura sea pier, itself a piece of Kerala’s coastal heritage, by a marine research team here.

The ruins of the old pier, constructed in 1825, and destroyed when a steamer crashed into it in 1947, were discovered by a team led by marine researcher Robert Panipilla, his U.K.-based researcher-friend Paul Culvert, and his team from the Valiathura-based ‘Friends of Marine Life’ forum. The forum had been documenting the history of Valiathura for eight years. But it was only recently that Mr. Panipilla and Mr. Culvert went underwater near the existing pier, built in 1956, and obtained proof of the old pier’s remains.

Fishes tell a tale

Mr. Panipilla, while preparing a marine biodiversity register as part of a project for the State Biodiversity Board, was interacting with fishermen near the present pier, when he was told that fishes caught from the southern side of the pier were different from those found on the northern side.

Nets cast on the southern side often came up with deep sea species. The northern side yielded more common shoreline species. Getting Mr. Culvert to snorkel along with him, Mr. Panipilla went underwater. Visibility proved to be a dampener many times. But he finally obtained photographs of beams and parts of the steam crane. The diverse fish species could be due to the ecosystem formed around the pier relics, he says.

He says that authorities should document the discovery and ensure that the old pier is made part of the State’s port heritage. Mr. Panipilla quotes Mathilakom records (old palm leaf manuscripts of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple) to say that the port was constructed by the British on the initiative of the then royal family here.

“We have other evidence to show that steam engines and cranes, believed to have been used first in the 1860s, had reached Travancore quite soon. In fact, they were used in the construction of the old block of the Secretariat building and also in 1872-73 for the cleaning of the Padmatheertha pond. This substantiates the possibility of the steam-powered crane at Valiathura and that what we found underwater are its components,” he says.

The end and aftermath

The pier, made of iron with rail tracks and wooden planks with steam cranes at the pier mouth, was destroyed after a steamer, SS Pandit, crashed into it around 5 p.m. on November 23, 1947, Mr. Panipilla says. Evidence for this was gleaned from the elders in Valiathura and from other documents, some of which were from the St. Antony’s Forane Church, built in 1530, at Valiathura.

He has with him a printed pamphlet from March 24, 1950, which calls local people for a meeting the next day at the Valiathura grounds, to “demand a new pier and to protest the delay in opening the port after the pier was damaged, leading to unemployment among the port workers.” About 20 persons were killed in the accident. Some went missing. The villain steamer was towed away a few weeks later by another ship from Tuticorin, according to Mr. Panipilla.

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