Yal Devi: princess of the Northern line | Sunday Observer

Yal Devi: princess of the Northern line

Yal Devi
Yal Devi

Every railway journey is laden with beautiful scenery and a long line of railway stations. Seeing clusters of palmyrah trees rising into the skyline is only a snapshot of the long journey from Colombo to Jaffna. For decades the Yal Devi has been a cultural bridge, fostering ties between North and South. Even after enduring a terrorist attack that left her crippled and out of active duty for almost 25 years, this indomitable iron princess continues to be the vital artery connecting Jaffna to Colombo.

One of three sisters

Ever since the British realised the importance and economic benefits of the railways there had been consistent development of rail tracks. In 1877, British administrators and engineers established a commission to explore the possibility of extending the railway line to Jaffna from Polgahawela. After years of surveying and intense labour, the track was laid. The Jaffna Station was built in 1902. The first train reached Jaffna in 1905, to the delight of the Tamil citizens. It is said, they came in their hundreds to see the locomotive. Soon, the serene rural landscape would grow accustomed to the sound of the locomotives.

During these early stages of the Northern Line the entire journey covering 256 miles took 13 hours and 20 minutes. There were 83 stations on this line. On this long journey the trains stopped at Anuradhapura and Vavuniya where passengers could get off and have their meals at ‘refreshment rooms’. Unlike today, tobacco was a crop much in demand and the Northern peninsula yielded almost 10,000 acres of tobacco. The dried leaves were sent by train. Mankulam Station permeated with the odour of dried fish, brought in bullock carts from Mullaithivu, and transported on the goods wagon. Chavakachcheri Station was once a loading hub for thousands of eggs from local poultry farms, and dispatched to Colombo.

Almost 50 years after the inception of the Northern Line, the railway genius B.D.Rampala (General Manager Railways) decided that the CGR must reduce the travel time. It was this dynamic engineer who introduced the concept of express trains to Ceylon. Using the Canadian gifted diesel locomotives he launched three express trains Yal Devi, Udarata Menike and Ruhunu Kumari in 1956. On April 23, 1956 the Yal Devi, painted in blue and white, completed her maiden run to Jaffna clocking exactly 7 hours. The previous 13 hour journey was now reduced to almost half its time. B.D.Rampala was very satisfied and so were the people of the Northern Province, who could now travel much faster to their destination. The late Prime Minister W.Dahanayake would travel on the Yal Devi to visit his friend Subramaniam, the Principal of Skandavarodaya College, Chunnakam.

Catalyst for social change

During the 1950s Jaffna was the second largest town in Ceylon, with Colombo retaining first place. Yet, due to the long distance, the Northern folk were somewhat isolated from the vibrant changes and happenings of Colombo. But, the launch of the Yal Devi express train would change the social and cultural fabric forever. CGR records indicate that during the 1970s there were almost 6,000 people who travelled to Colombo and Jaffna daily on the Yal Devi, netting highest revenue to the railways. Colombo residents were now able to visit their Tamil friends. The typical rail journey on the ‘night mail’ from Colombo was filled with a spirit of adventure. The train reached Jaffna early in the morning. Passengers were able to witness the sunrise in its celestial splendour as the beams of sunlight penetrated the paddy fields and other cultivationS. At the Jaffna Station, Morris Minor cars stood ready at the taxi stand, and porters clad in khaki shorts would carry the baggage to the waiting taxis. From here the train reached Kankesanthurai (KKS) its terminus station.

One of the delights for Colombo travellers was to indulge in a meal of thosai, spicy sambol and a red hot prawn curry. I have had this meal myself while visiting Jaffna and captured the succulent Northern essence.

The meal was ‘cooled’ down with a refreshing glass of Nelli crush, from the Rosarian Monastery of Tholagatty. After sightseeing and a bath at the Keeri Malai tank, located at the Naguleshwaram Kovil, folks would return to the Jaffna Station. They would carry delights such as the Karuththakolumban, deep fried prawns, bottles of nelli crush, thal hakuru (palmyrah jaggery) and a bottle of thal ra (toddy derived from palmyrah). Likewise, the Jaffna folks visited their friends in Colombo. The Jaffna youth got down bicycles transported on the goods wagon, where the charge was one cent per mile. Many Tamils came to Colombo on the Yal Devi for their first job interviews- at the Police Department, Sri Lanka Customs, Prisons Department, Railway Department and the Bank of Ceylon. Others rode the train to Colombo to sit the examinations of the Ceylon Administrative Service. The Yal Devi also brought patients to Colombo seeking the advice of medical experts. This happens even today. The bonds between Colombo and Jaffna culminated in joyful marriage for some people as their partners came from the North.

A dark chapter

Every beautiful story is often marred with a black spot. As we know, the Yal Devi suffered her own moment of grief when she was ambushed and bombed by terrorists. In an interview prior to his death in 2015 retired engine driver Norbert Perera recounted the experience of that event with his colleagues. On the morning of January 19, 1985 he was the assistant driver on board the Yal Devi, under engine driver Raphael Liyanage.

The train had left Colombo Fort at 5.45am. Norbert and Raphael were tasked with taking the train from Anuradhapura to Jaffna. This was a routine run for both men. They began the second leg of the journey. However, on reaching the 216 milepost the train was flagged down by soldiers. An army officer had instructed them to reverse the train to Paranthan. Having complied they waited there for some time and proceeded. On reaching Murunkan, Norbert remembers hearing a massive blast as the locomotive shuddered. Secondary blasts followed, and as he looked back he saw smoke. Eight of the eleven compartments were destroyed. With the help of some soldiers the locomotive was able to drag its way to Mankulam Station where the injured were transferred to hospital. This incident would once again isolate the Northern people for another 28 years. It was a severe blow to the Tamil citizens who depended on this train.

The people of Jaffna have been resilient for centuries. They would not give up on their beloved iron princess. During the tenure of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, steps were taken to reconstruct the damaged Northern Line. The Indian engineering company IRCON was tasked with the project, and 4,000 men worked day and night to instal the tracks and the signal systems.The Jaffna Station was restored to its former splendour.

The project was completed in October 2014, and when the Yal Devi reached Jaffna Station, jubilant Tamils had gathered to witness her arrival. In the months that followed thousands of Tamils, domiciled in Europe and other foreign countries visited Colombo with the primary purpose of travelling on the Yal Devi, the train of their childhood. Entire family reunions were organized as families booked seats to relive the memories of travelling to Jaffna.

The activation of the train continues to give good competition to the AC buses plying to Jaffna. Many Tamil seniors living in Wellawatte have happy memories of travelling on this train since childhood. The Jaffna Chief Station Master Manoharan Pradeepan said, “I assumed duties a month after the Station was reopened in 2014. We serve many passengers daily. On an average, 1,300 people travel to and fro Jaffna. The Station has all facilities, including family rooms for rent. We are happy that people are visiting Jaffna by train. At present we have 33 staff. In addition to the Yal Devi we have the ‘Uthara Devi’.

Since 1956, the Yal Devi has become more than a passenger train. Today, she is a global cultural icon. The train is a uniting bridge that fosters reconciliation and peace. While travelling on the train I remembered the words of poet Rabindranath Tagore,‘You can’t cross the sea by standing and staring at the water’- thus to sustain harmony people must venture to visit Jaffna, and understand the ancient culture of her people.

Yal Devi carries Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers enriching the beautiful Sri Lankan identity. She is the gateway to the Northern Province for hundreds of foreign tourists. The Yal Devi will continue to dominate the Northern Line for decades more.