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VOL. XXIII NO. 21, February 16-28, 2014
An Indo-Ceylon dream of the 20th Century

  • February 24th, being celebrated as the inauguration day of the Pamban Bridge, is really the opening of the Indo-Ceylon rail connection with the Boat Mail. But that was only the beginning of what had been planned as a permanent link between the two countries. It was a dream never fulfilled.

The Scherzer Bridge.

The proposed rail link.

According to mythology, Lord Rama, when he wished to invade Ceylon to recover his consort Sita, who had been carried away by Ravana, the Demon King of Ceylon, crossed the Pamban Pass from Mandapam on the mainland to the large island on the Indian side and got as far as Dhanushkodi only to find his further progress barred, but – so the story goes – a causeway known as Adam’s Bridge came into being, making it possible for Rama to cross the sea and reach Mannar Island and from there the Ceylon mainland where he recovered his queen. Such a crossing has been discussed often in more recent times.

The possibility of connecting India and Ceylon by a railway across the bank of sand extending the whole way from Rameswaram to Mannar was explored from time to time in the second half of the 19th Century. It picked up momentum from 1895 and various schemes were suggested.

In 1907, Sir Henry Kimber, the Chairman of the South Indian Railway (SIR), on an inspection trip to India, received a deputation of Ceylon planters who urged that improved means of communication should be provided, to enable Indian labour to reach the plantations safely. Sir Henry later met Lord Morley, the Secretary of State for India, and Lord Elgin, the Colonial Secretary, in London. As a result of these discussions, the Ceylon Government Railway (CGR) agreed to construct a 67-mile branch railway track from Madawachiya on its main line to Talaimannar on Mannar Island. On the Indian side, the Madurai-Mandapam railway was to be extended across the Pamban Pass by a bridge to Rameswaram island and thence to Dhanushkodi.

When these two extensions were completed, the two countries were only about 21 miles apart across a narrow and shallow strait. The project was again investigated with the idea of connecting the two terminal stations by a railway constructed on a solid embankment raised on the sand bank known as Adam’s Bridge, to supersede the ferry steamer service which was to be established between the two points.

In 1913, the SIR made a detailed survey and a project report was prepared. The report contemplated the construction of a causeway from Dhanushkodi to Talaimannar, a length of 20.05 miles of which 7.19 miles would be on the dry land of the various islands, and 12.86 miles in the water. The sections on dry land consisting of low banks of sand pitched with coral presented no difficulty. The section through the sea was to be carried on a causeway constructed on a double row of reinforced concrete piles driven into the sand. The piles were then to be braced together longitudinally with light concrete arches and chains and transversely with concrete ties, struts and chains. Behind the piles, slabs of reinforced concrete were to be slipped into position, the bottom slabs being sunk well into the sand of the sea bottom. Lastly, the space enclosed by the slabs was to be filled in with sand.

The top of the concrete work was to be carried to six feet above high water level, and the rails were to be laid at that level. The causeway was to cause the suspended sand brought up by the currents to settle on either side, bringing about rapid accretion and, eventually, making one big island of Rameswaram and Mannar Islands. The total cost of the causeway and work at the two terminal points was estimated to be about Rs. 111 lakh.

This scheme was given up in favour of a simpler one. At Dhanushkodi and at Talaimannar two piers were built, one on the north side for use during the southwest monsoon, and one on the south side for use during the northeast monsoon. Between these two points a steamer service was to be provided. This was originally intended to be a train-ferry, whereby the trains were to be conveyed bodily, without transhipment, from Rameswaram to Mannar, and, so, provide through carriages between India and Ceylon. A modified scheme was, however, agreed on, whereby the sea passage was to be made with passenger-carrying steamers. On February 24, 1914, the Indo-Ceylon connection was opened. The opening ceremony was attended by the three Governors of Madras, Ceylon and Pondicherry and other dignitaries.

Of all the work on the Indo-Ceylon connection, probably the most interesting was the spanning of the Pamban Pass. Commencing from Mandapam, the railway extension follows for about 2 miles the narrow sandy promontory, on which this township is situated, to its end at Thontiturai Point, and then across the sea on a viaduct, about 1¼ miles long, constructed on the sandstone reef connecting the mainland with the island of Rameswaram. Although a portion of the reef is awash, yet there is an average 6 or 7 feet of water over it. The Pamban Channel is an artificial channel, used by coasting vessels having a draught not exceeding 12ft.

The viaduct that was built is 6,776 ft. long and consists of 145 openings, 143 of 40 ft. span, one of 43 ft. and one of 44 ft. There are 113 spans on the west side and 32 spans on the east side of the Pamban Channel, and the latter is spanned with a two-leaf Scherzer rolling lift bridge. This bridge is 289 ft. between the piers and leaves for vessels a clear way 200 ft. wide and 14 ft. deep. The bridge was designed by the Scherzer Rolling Lift Bridge Company of Chicago, and was constructed by Head, Wrightson & Co. Ltd. of Thornaby-on-Tees, UK.

The piers of the viaduct are of granite masonry in cement, with cement concrete foundations enclosed in steel cribs or caissons, the tops of the cribs being fixed at mean sea level. Much of the work on the cribs was done by skin divers who had to contend with rough seas from time to time that caused damage and subjected the work to interruptions.

For the sea service between Dhanushkodi and Talaimannar three fine steamers were specially designed. They were built on the Clyde by Messrs. A & J Inglis from the designs of the late Sir William White and named the Curzon, the Elgin and the Hardinge, after three Viceroys of India. (Editor’s Note: They were later replaced by the Irwin and Goschen)

The Indo-Ceylon connection completed in 1914 gave rise to competition between the South Indian Railway Company and the British India Steam Navigation Company that offered regular sailings between Tuticorin and Colombo. There were also country boats, that offered passage, but the inconvenience and risks attendant on transport by such means were great.

The Indo-Ceylon connection was open for quite a number of years. The South Indian Railway and, later, the Southern Railway continued operating the 1 Up/2Dn Ceylon Boat Mail from Madras to Dhanushkodi Pier, where passengers were transhipped to a ferry steamer to cross Adam’s Bridge for Talaimannar and thence to Colombo. The crossing used to take 1½ hours.

Alas! This rail route is now no more, tragedy having overtaken it in 1964. Amit Garg, in an article ‘Journey to Death’ published in a Southern Railway Women’s Welfare Organisation publication in 2002, gave this vivid description of the tragedy:

“The six-coach Pamban-Dhanushkodi Passenger (No. 653) left Pamban at 11.55 p.m. on December 22, 1964 with 110 on board, including a party of school students and five members of the railway staff. The signal at Dhanushkodi Outer went dead and the train stopped for a while. The driver then gave a long whistle and decided to take the risk. A giant 20-foot wave rose from the turbulent sea and smashed the train. Though the initial reports put the casualty figure at 115 based on the number of tickets issued at Pamban, it was suspected that the toll would be around 200 as more passengers were said to have travelled ticketless on that night.

“The tragedy came to light only on December 25th when the Southern Railway issued a bulletin based on the information received from the Marine Superintendent, Mandapam. It said: ‘The train was caught in the cyclonic storm and was presumably hit by high tidal waves as a result of which the whole train got submerged in water while entering Dhanushkodi station. Information has been received that a portion of the engine is visible six inches above water.’ There were reports that huge pieces of the train’s wooden carriages had been washed ashore on the Sri Lankan coast.

“Another major victim of the cyclone was the Pamban Bridge, built by an Irish engineer exactly 50 years before it was washed away by the tidal waves... As many as 126 girders collapsed. Only 19 girders and the lift span, named after its designer Scherzer, were spared.

“The restoration work began immediately. Almost all the girders were salvaged from the sea. ‘Emergency girders’ were brought from as far as Assam. The work was completed within three months.” The metre gauge line now has a terminus at Rameswaram.

The Scherzer Bridge is a very special steel structure. It opens from the centre, the two arms lifted up from the huge mechanical devices at the two piers. The Bridge has always been a very special structure of the South Indian Railway and later of the Southern Railway.

(Excerpted from: Southern Railway – A Saga of 150 Glorious Years 1852-2003, by R.R. Bhandari).

The steamers for the 21-mile crossing

s. s. Elgin (left) and s. s. Hardinge at Dhanushkodi Pier.

The South Indian Railway had a major marine department headed by a Marine Superintendent posted at Dhanushkodi. For the Indo-Ceylon connection, they ordered as ferries three turbine steamers, which the Railway Gazette of May 9, 1913, described as follows.

“The vessels have a length overall of 260 ft. a breadth of 38 feet, and depth to promenade deck of 18 ft. 9 in. and a mean load draught of 6 ft. and are built of steel throughout, the registered tonnage being 688 gross, 562 under deck and 278 net. They are about 800 tons load displacement.

“They are fitted with 40 ft. top-gallant forecastle and promenade deck extending nearly the whole length, and affording good accommodation for passengers. At each end of the promenade deck is a light sun-deck of teak and amidships a portable awning is fitted. On the promenade deck is placed the chart house with navigating bridge overhead. Under the promenade deck forward of boiler casing a large deck saloon or lounge has been constructed for first class passengers, with convenient lavatory accommodation, and below this is the first class dining saloon. Both of these apartments are fitted in teak. The promenade deck above the saloon, sheltered as it is by a light sun-deck and fitted with side screens, will furnish a valuable supplement to the other accommodation for the first class passengers. The Officers’ cabins are situated on the upper deck aft of the first class deck saloon.

“The details of lighting and ventilation have been carefully studied in connection with the locality and climate in which the vessels are to be employed. Electric light has been installed throughout the vessels, and electrically-driven fans assist the ventilation. Suitable provision is made for Indians as well as European first class passengers; the accommodation for a large number of third class passengers, who will usually be Indians, is extensive and well arranged. A cabin for their exclusive use is provided on the lower deck aft.

“Provision is made for carrying cattle and sheep on the after part of the main deck, and arrangements are made forward on the main deck for the carriage of motor cars...

“The lifting appliances have been so arranged that motor cars can be lifted on board by the ship’s own derricks and carried on the fore deck...

“The leading condition with regard to speed was that the vessels should start from rest and reach the end of their journey 20 nautical miles distant, in about 72 minutes; instead, the journey was completed in 65 minutes during trials.”

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In this issue

The sorry state of our Fort
What the Law proposes the hawkers duly dispose
A mistress-maid case of long, long ago
An Indo-Ceylon dream of the 20th Century
Tales from History to Degree Coffee
The Early Days of Koothu-p Pattarai
The Mylapore Fest

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Readers Write
Quizzin' With Ram'nan
Dates for Your Diary
Madras Eye


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