Udaya Devi: Empress of the East | Sunday Observer

Udaya Devi: Empress of the East

The railway service has enriched every Province of Sri Lanka, as an important medium of transport, connecting people.

The Eastern Province has its own unique identity with an abundance of natural scenery. As the railway lines progressed under the British, these wise administrators extended the tracks, creating the Batticaloa Line. With the onset of the

Northern Line the Maho Railway Station was opened

in 1903, which was a boon to the people

of that area.

As the demand for rail travel increased the Northern Line was extended to Anuradhapura in 1926, and the Maho Station upgraded to a Junction Station, which took on a significant position in railway history. From then on, progress was made to construct a line to Batticaloa by 1928, covering a distance of 212 kilometres with 31 stations. Since the 1950s under the systematic planning of B. D. Rampala, General Manager, Railways, the light rail tracks were enhanced to strong single gauge tracks.

Birth of the Batticaloa Line

For decades the Eastern Province was an isolated part of the island, with limited access and communication. Those travelling from Colombo to Batticaloa had only two choices - to travel by steam ship or journey by bullock cart carrying food and cooking utensils, as it took many days to reach the destination. Prior to this, these regions were really remote.

There is an old Anglican Church record that shows how the first Bishop of Ceylon, Rev. James Chapman travelled to Batticaloa on horseback in February 1850. He had to take the route via Badulla. On reaching Batticaloa the Government Agent Atherton had to take him a further three miles by canoe to the GA’s residence.

By the 1870s there was a steam ship SS Serendib which charged Rs 190 for a return ticket by sea from Colombo to Batticaloa. The vessel came only once a week. The east had two sea ports one at the Dutch Bar (where Admiral Spilbergen landed) and the second at Kalkudah Bay.

In my article on the Udarata Menike, mention was made on how the planters of Kandy demanded a railway line to transport their coffee to the Colombo Harbour. Likewise, there was a need in Batticaloa to transport top quality rice and coconuts. Blessed with rivers and lagoons these were fertile lands.

The famous coconut estates were Easter Seaton, Rockwood and Springfield. In the early days bullock carts had to haul the rice sacks on the long journey. The hard working cart men were Sinhalese. They rested in a part of Batticaloa which to this day is remembered as Sinhalavadi. It was shocking to realise that paddy was exported to South India! In 1907 a severe cyclone unleashed its fury on the coconut estates of Batticaloa. The planters continued to ask for a railway line. During this time there was another crisis in communication. Letters were delivered by human courier (runners to be precise).

The thapal was delayed. For example, a man had to walk or run an exhausting 38 miles from Moneragala to Batticaloa with the letters, which took 23 hours to reach the destination. Hence, official letters were received late, to the dismay of the Governor. In 1903, Governor West Ridgeway urged the initiation of trains to Batticaloa. His arguments were supported by Balasingham, a member of the State Council and J. A. Setukavalar, eminent proctor of the Supreme Court.

There were two routes proposed for the train to the east. The first was from Badulla, which would be a distance of 92 miles. But the route was along winding rocky roads, that required new bridges.

The travelling time was calculated at 24 hours, an entire day! The alternate plan was to extend the rail line from the Maho Station. The new distance, though longer - nearly 160 miles, travel time was faster and safer. The plus point was that the route lay on flat, open plains. However, there were two rivers to cross, one at Manampitiya and the other at Oddammavadi, over the Vandaloo Bay.

In addition, the new line from Gal Oya would facilitate the rail lines to Trincomalee.

Thus, in 1928 the first train arrived at the Batticaloa Station to the joy of thousands of onlookers.

Udaya Devi

In the early days, the train began at Colombo Fort and then proceeded to Maho Junction Station. From here she journeyed past Yapahuwa, Konwewa, Morogollagama, Siyambalagamuwa, Nagama, Awukana, Kalawewa, Kekirawa, Palugaswewa, Habarana, Gal Oya Junction, Minneriya, Hingurakgoda, Jayanthipura, Parakum Uyana, Polonnaruwa, Gallella, Manampitiya, Welikanda, Punani, Valaichenai, Kalkudah, Eravur and finally reaching the terminus point at Batticaloa. Today, the Udaya Devi is pulled by an M-4 Canadian diesel electric locomotive.

This train journey unfolds a variety of scenes that include lush green patches of jungle, dry and parched terrain, contrasting with lakes and grasslands.

Yapahuwa is a town that was once a regal city. The regal citadel rising majestically from a granite rock was once a formidable defence.

The ornamental stairway leading to the citadel is truly awe inspiring. As the train moves forward one can see solitary elephants meandering, a herd of sambur disturbed by the approaching train or a lazy buffalo bathing in the mud to cool off the intense heat.

These visuals begin at Habarana passing through Minneriya. The latter is home to a wildlife sanctuary where elephants gather, attracting tourists.

The Udaya Devi then passes the ancient kingdom of Polonnaruwa. This area was once the most productive land of rice cultivation.

Paddy fields are visible today, with men and women working the fields sustaining a beautiful tradition of rice planting. Before reaching Valaichchenai large electricity towers are visible.

The town of Valaichchenai was once the vibrant centre of the Eastern Paper Mills Corporation, which was established in 1955. Senior citizens recollect that in the 1970s there were almost 3,000 staff engaged in the operations of this Paper Mill.

Being employed at the mill gave the men an elevated level of status in society at that time, even increasing their matrimonial prospects. Since the 1990s however, paper production levels began to drop.

Kalladi Rail Bridge

Passing through this town the train heads to Eravur and then to Batticaloa. The town is a popular tourist destination with people coming to enjoy the serene Passikudah beach.

Decades ago the towns people used to claim that they heard the sound of ‘singing fish’ near the Kalladi Bridge.

A retired person told me that in 1954 an audio recording was carried out near the Kalladi Bridge with the help of a Catholic clergy named Fr. Lang attached to St. Michael’s College. Apparently, this recording was aired over Radio Ceylon in 1960. The sound of the singing fish remains an aquatic mystery to this day.

The Kalladi Bridge (old bridge) was erected in 1928 and named, Lady Manning Bridge after the wife of Governor William Manning. Taking the form of a truss bridge it is said to be one of the oldest iron bridges in Ceylon, primarily built to extend the rail line from the south of Batticaloa towards Kalmunai. Building this rail bridge was a daunting task at that time, as some steel components weighed around four tons.

The bridge was prefabricated in the factory of Patent Shaft and Axletree, and transported by steam ship from London. On reaching Ceylon the parts were taken by rail to the desired site. Work crews had a challenge to secure these heavy iron parts into the moving waters of the Batticaloa Lagoon.

At that time this was the longest railway bridge in Ceylon, before the building of the bridge across the Mahaweli River close to Manampitiya.

For those passengers interested in maritime history, Batticaloa also has another secret from the Second World War submerged under the deep sea. During the war the British Admiralty had stationed many ships in Trincomalee.

One of these was the magnificent aircraft carrier HMS Hermes. She was berthed with her escorting destroyer HMAS Vampire (Australian Navy). When the Japanese began their aerial dive bombing they targeted both vessels, which had begun to sail. HMS Hermes was hit repeatedly and she sank nine nautical miles off the coast of Batticaloa. She remains in these deep waters since then. The Batticaloa Station is a busy place, like any large station.

There is a captivating ornate structure at the entrance to the station. The Udaya Devi continues her journey to and from Batticaloa, bringing hundreds of rail commuters. She is a vital link in the country’s overall rail network. 

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