Kayal Raja or the ‘King of Lake’ is the title lovingly bestowed on Murikkummoottil Thommen Joseph for his herculean contribution in transforming Kerala’s marshy Kuttanad Vembanad Lake region into the prolific ‘rice bowl’ while concurrently offering employment opportunities to numerous natives.
Joseph was a native of Kuttanad’s Kavalam. A devout catholic, the responsibility of fending his family compromising of two sisters and widowed mother fell early on in his life after his father’s demise.
He was a visionary who believed in conducting social work to uplift the lifestyles of the marginalized sections of the society ravaged by the vagaries and vicissitudes set in after World Wars I and II. The food scarcity afflicting the area greatly pained him and he set out to reclaim the marshy area for rice cultivation on a mammoth scale. He achieved impressive success in his endeavour and his economic vision was appreciated by the then Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru who conferred upon him ‘Krishi Rajan’ title.
He took the consent of Sree Chithira Thirunal, the Maharaja of Travancore before embarking on the venture of lake reclamation. To express his gratitude to the Travancore Royal Family, he named the 1958 acres of reclaimed paddy fields after members of the imperial family i.e. 716 acres were christened Chitthira, 568 acres Rani and the rest 674 acres as Marthandom. He breathed his last on 9th December, 1972 at Trivandrum Medical College and was subsequently laid to rest at Trivandrum’s St. Mary's Church Cemetery. The first rice production was harvested in 1935. Post this, he had ensured a sustained rice production of 4000 tonnes each year while offering employment to around 3000 persons. He used to cultivate on the lake bed lying below the sea level. Kuttanadu has never succumbed to the throes of the famine since Kayal Raja’s novel initiative. Raja was instrumental in spreading the word about Christianity and had gotten constructed seven churches across Kerala. On 6th June, 1960, Raja had a dialogue with the Pope in his private retreat. His indefatigable attitude and entrepreneurial spirit combined with uncompromising commitment and allowed him to convert fertile low lying land into the rice bowl of Kerala.