How the Railways Came to Batticaloa

Shirley W. Somanader, from The Island, 6 September 2014

Travel Before the Trains: A measure of the efficiency of communication between a place and the outside world is the ease of accessibility to the Capital city. In terms of this measure, the isolation of the Batticaloa district, as late as the first quarter of the Twentieth century is expressed, by a person who had lived through the better part of those times thus: “A journey to Batticaloa was something of an adventure. It was long and tiresome and often risky. Before the introduction of the train service in 1928, there were only two means of communication with the outside world. One by sea, at first by sailing vessels, replaced later on by coasting steamers, which called once a week either from the south or north: The other by land across rocks and precipices of the Uva Province. The journey was done on horseback or bullock carts.”

A Journey by Land via Badulla:The following story illustrates the hazards and delays encountered on the land route to Batticaloa. The first Anglican Bishop of Colombo was James Chapman. He was appointed in 1845. In writing to his brother–in–law, the Rev. E. Coleridge, he said that his first duty would be to his Diocese True to his word he travelled to every part of Sri Lanka frequently encouraging his church in every nook and corner of the island. He did so in spite of the great hazards and difficulties of travel in his day. Here is a description of his travel to Batticaloa. In February 1850 he left by road to Badulla. From there he left for Batticaloa on horseback on the 28th with a guide, an extra pony and some luggage carriers who preceded him on foot. He spent the first night at Taldeniya in an open shed. Rising at 5 am the next morning and was on his way before dawn. His stopping places are mentioned as Bibile Paddycoombera and Alliagoda. On March 1st he tells of his accosting three wild elephants: Fortunately they crashed through the jungle and only crossed the traveler’s path! But they broke up the party, separating him from the baggage carriers. When he arrived at Batticaloa he was met by Mr. Atherton, the G.A, and two catechists and was rowed three miles up the lagoon in the Government Agent’s canoe.

An Alternative Route:

The way by sea was the more ancient route. In 1873, the Government Agent at Batticaloa was J. W. W. Birch. He describes how he traveled to attend a Conference of Government Agents at Kandy by order of the Governor. On 28th May, he left by the S. S. Serendib to Colombo. From there he left by train to Kandy. After the Conference he returned to Colombo and took the steamer back Batticaloa and arrived on the 19th of June. The G.A was away from the station for nearly month to attend a Conference of GAs. He says he paid for the steamer both ways Rs 190 and the train fare to Colombo and back was Rs 12/=

Batticaloa during this time had two ports for steamers and coasters. The summer port was the Dutch Bar; about two kilometers from the town. This port was called so, because on May 29th 1603 the Dutch Admiral Spilbergen anchored at this point at Batticaloa. He was the first Hollander to visit Ceylon. The other port was Kalkudah Bay about twenty kilometers away which was used during the winter months. The landing jetty at Kalkudah was built in 1903. Since GA Birch was traveling to Colombo in May he is likely to have embarked from the Dutch Bar. The Prince Wales visited Batticaloa in 1875 using the sea route.

Need arises for faster mode of transport: Social changes do not happen without sufficient motivation. A need is often the catalyst for change. The rail road to Kandy happened because of the demand of tea and coffee planters to transport their products easily to Colombo. Similarly we witness a need arising in the east too

The cultivation and export of paddy: In ancient times Batticaloa with its numerous tanks and network of irrigation channels was an exporter of rice. But the British abolished the practice of Rajakaria from the beginning of their rule. This had an adverse effect on paddy cultivation. Though this act was done with good intention, paddy production dramatically decreased due to the lack of proper maintenance of the irrigation system. Paddy fell to the status of a subsistence crop. Government Agent R. Atherton (1839 – 1854) was the first to identify this problem. But it was left to his successors like J. W. W. Birch (1860 -1869) and others to take the necessary measures to rectify the problem and restore Batticaloa to its earlier position as the ‘granary of the east’ and exporter of rice. Paddy was transported by a train of bullock carts via Badulla to be sold in the local markets. Many of the owners of these carts were Sinhalese. They brought down products like vegetables to Batticaloa and took back bags of rice. These carts were halted and the animals rested in the western part of Batticaloa town. And this part to this day is called as ‘Sinhalawadi’ although there no Sinhalese now. Paddy was also exported to South India by ocean- going sailing ships.

Commercial scale cultivationof coconut: The other export crop from Batticaloa was coconuts and copra. Between 1846 and 1924 hundreds of acres on the east coast between Vakarai in the north and Pottuvil in the south were opened by British planters as flourishing coconut estates. Estates with names such as Easter Seaton, Hyderabad, Springfield, O’Grady and Rockwood Estates were landmarks in the east. Cargills, Athertons, O’Grady and Sortain were well known owners of them. The commercial importance of the coconut industry at this time could be gauged from the G.A’s. Administrative Report for 1907. On 10th March 1907, Batticaloa was hit by a severe cyclone The G.A reported that 371,005 coconut trees valued at Rs. 3,440,070/= were destroyed. The products of these estates were transported by coasters to Colombo and from there shipped to England or they were carried by a procession of bullock carts by land via Badulla to cater to inland markets.

The third important reason for the introduction of faster communication between Colombo and Batticaloa was Tappal delivery. The perilous and pathetic state of this link is illustrated by an inquiry held by the GA, Batticaloa in July 1969 on delays in the mail service via Badulla The Tappal service was provided by contractors who employed a relay of ‘runners’ to deliver the mail. The accusation was that the contractor took an inordinate time to deliver letters. The defense the contractor put up makes interesting reading. He said that runners took following times to convey the letters: From Badulla to Lunugala, a distance of 26.52 miles – 13.5 hours,; Lunugala to Bibile (10 miles) – 6.5 hours; Bibile to Moneragala (18 miles) – 16 hours; Moneragala to Batticaloa (38 miles) – 23 hours. He pleaded that he cannot dismiss the present set of ‘coolies’ or employ new ones because he hasn’t been able to pay them during the last six months.

In the light of these facts, it is not surprising to read the mention in the GA’s Administration Report for 1869 that the Batticaloa Planters had suggested the following steps to improve transport. Either cut a channel from the sea into Batticaloa lagoon at the point of the Dutch Bar or alternatively connect Batticaloa by train service to transport their goods. The subject was again brought up in 1903, when during his visit to Batticaloa Governor Sir West Ridgeway proposed the extension of the railways to Batticaloa.

Plans for Extending the Railways to Batticaloa: The First Plan

For well-nigh 50 years the idea to bring the railways to the east had been just a proposal but now, near about 1920, serious plans began to evolve. There were two distinct possibilities. Both had its advantages and disadvantages. The earlier and first plan was to extend the railways through Badulla to Batticaloa. Because the first rail line had been laid from Colombo to Ambepussa in 1854 and the rail road was moving gradually in stages across the central hills towards the Uva Province. It had come up to Bandarawela by 1894 and the next station would be Badulla. So, many in Batticaloa believed the railways would come to Batticaloa via Badulla. The likely route would be Badulla – Passara- Lunugala- Bibile – parts of Moneragala and then to the western shore of the Batticaloa lagoon. Hence we read of speculators on land in the Batticaloa town buying acres of land at cheap rates on the western shore or ‘Padduavankarai’ in the hope that land prices will escalate soon.

The advantage in this first plan was there were no fords or rivers to be crossed; hence there was no necessity to build rail bridges. Besides the distance was short there were only 92 miles of rail line to be laid. The disadvantages were: The route was through rocks and precipices. Though the distance to travel was short the route was winding with sharp curves over rocks and precipices. The travelling time to Colombo would be nearly 24 hours, taking a whole day and a night. Whereas at this time even with chugging steam engines in little Sri Lanka a destination was reachable within 12 hours.

An Alternative Plan:  However, there was a second plan in the offing. This was to extend the rail line from Maho eastwards to Polonnaruwa and then southwards to Batticaloa and Trincomalee This plan became a distinct possibility after the Northern line was opened via Maho in 1905. The main disadvantages of the route via Maho were: First, two wide rivers had to be crossed hence the need for long steel bridges: One at Manampitiya and the other at Oddamavadi. Further at Manampitya there was not only a need for one large bridge but a network of small rail bridges on raised reinforced bunds because at this place when the Mahaweli was in spate it overflowed its banks and created a wide outlet for itself before it reached the sea at the coast village of Verugal. The bridge at Oddamavadi would be over the Vandeloos Bay. Also the heavy wrought iron parts of the bridges had to be fabricated to specification in factories in England and transported by sea across oceans. Another disadvantage was the greater distance along which rail lines had to be laid – a distance of nearly 160 miles, almost double the length required for the Badulla line. There were however many advantages in laying lines to Batticaloa from Maho. The line would run all through along undulating plains, avoiding mountains. Hence, though the distance was longer, the journey would be quicker. Extension of the line up to Gal-Oya junction would enable another line to be laid to Trincomalee with its important harbour. It would also help connect Jaffna and Anuradhapura to the east. Besides, the route would connect other paddy growing regions such as Polonnaruwa.

The final decision and the laying of the railway line from Maho to Batticaloa:

These latter advantages probably outweighed all other rationale in reaching the final decision to lay the rail line to Batticaloa via Maho. But it was not without the urging of two prominent Tamil politicians of the day. The prime mover was the Hon K. Balasingham member for the North in the State Council in the 1920s. Besides his word had greater weight because he was also a Minister in the Executive Council. In some of his speeches in the States Council Mr. Balasingham mentions his indebtedness to Mr. J.A. Setukavalar, Proctor of the Supreme Court, in this venture. Mr. Setukavalar was at this time an elected member of the Urban Development Council of Batticaloa. Hon. K. Balasingham said that it was Mr. Setukavalar who motivated and supported him with maps, facts, figures and cogent arguments to bring forward his proposal to bring the Railways to Batticaloa via Maho.

The six- span Kalladi Bridge over the Batticaloa Lagoon, a rail cum road way, was built primarily to extend the railways south from Batticaloa to Kalmunai and beyond to Pottuvil. It was constructed in 1928. The details on the logistics of assembling such huge bridges with enormously heavy wrought iron parts, some pieces weighing as much as 4.5 tons, at a time when there were hardly any facilities either for manufacturing or moving these parts is tale of human ingenuity. The parts of the Kalladi Bridge were manufactured at the workshop of the West Midlands bridge builders firm of Patent Shaft and Axletree and transported by ship from England. The parts were then rail loaded to the point of the site. At this time only the trains could have carried these heavy railway pieces. And it would have been another engineering wonder to lower these parts over rushing waters of rivers and lagoons in order to establish the bridges. If the Kalladi Bridge was built in 1928, it would have at least another five or six prior when the longest rail bridge in Sri Lanka was constructed at Manampitiya over the mighty Mahaweli River at its widest expanse: followed by the another bridge over Vandeloos Bay at Oddamavadi. So was enabled the first train to arrive at Batticaloa in 1924 amidst great rejoicing of the people.


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