THE CEYLON BOAT MAIL HISTORY OF THE INDO–CEYLON (BOAT MAIL) EXPRESS
Somebody might recall this boat mail from the Ashe murder case, which I had written about, for that was the train Ashe and his wife boarded at Maniyachi, after which they were shot by Vanchi Iyer in June 1911. Maniyachi incidentally was a busy railhead junction, at which incoming passengers from Tinnevelly changed for the Boat Mail Train from Tuticorin. But then again it is no ordinary train and has quite a history.
The Boat mail express, also known as the Indo-Ceylon Express, was operated by Southern Railways. At first it plied between Egmore and Tuticorin, then it was between Egmore and Dhanushkodi but now runs between Egmore and Rameswaram. Why was it called the boat mail? Because the passengers changed over to a boat ferry from the Indian end of the route in order to cross the seas to Ceylon. Until around 1914, steam mail ships plied between Tuticorin and Colombo constituting a 16-18 hour voyage across the 170 miles separating the two countries. So it was indeed an arduous trip, 22 hours by train (443 miles), then the changeover to the ship, covering in total two days.
Just imagine the scene in those early days at the turn the 20th century – Tuticorin had a three Brahmin hotels at Melur, as well as a number of other hotels and choultries for the travellers. Special trains took upper class passengers from the station to the pier. Spencer’s & Co provided refreshments and fresh copies of Madras Mail & Madras times and travel goods. If the incoming ship was late, Spencer’s served breakfast in the train. The BISI steamer left daily at 5PM after the passengers were taken from the pier on an AMC launch, a 45 minutes journey. Plantation labourers incidentally had to do their emigration checks at Tataparai before boarding the steamer.
This also is where a character named VO Chidambaram Pillai or VOC steps in – As the Swadeshi movement picked up steam, VOC established Swadeshi navaai sangam (Swadeshi steam navigation company) in the year 1906 to put an end to British monopoly in shipping and to help the Indian merchants who were treated unfairly at the hands of British India Steam Navigation company. He leased vessels from the Shah Line Shipping Company but the arrangement failed after a while. Later he tried to work with a Ceylon based company and as
that also proved unsatisfactory decided to buy his own. To this end some 4000 company shares were sold and purchased the S.S. Gallia which was delivered in May 1907 and the second, S.S. Lowoe in June 1907 (The ships were designed to carry 1400 men and 4000 gunny bags of load). All this affected the BISI and repressive measured were initiated. A fare war started and this destroyed the SSNC, which was liquidated in 1911. The SS Gallia was acquired by the BISI and VOC ended up in jail for sedition. All this was perhaps due to the new move to open up the Adams bridge link proposed by the tea estate owners.
Years passed by and with the intent to reduce the vagaries of the sea voyages, attention was focused at the Adam’s bridge or Ram Sethu and trains were planned to run until Dhanushkodi, the end point near the Palk Strait. But this successful alternative was chosen after a deliberation over two. In fact at that time, the South Indian Railway considered constructing a 12 mile bridge across the shallow waters (3-6 feet) and sand shoals and reefs known as Rama Sethu (Adam’s Bridge) between India and Sri Lanka.
That story about the Adams Bridge (tombolo) sounded interesting, so I checked it out. It appears that the gap was passable on foot up to the 15th century, and local tradition affirms that the link was above sea level until it broke in a cyclone in 1480. Geological as well as flora and fauna survey also attest to a historic land link, even after the landmasses had separated and a point to be noted is that this strait was not used by the ocean going Chinese Ming (and earlier) ships, which sailed around Ceylon.
But let’s get back to the train link and we note an 1898 proposal from Donald Ferguson which vaguely alluded to it – To connect the Ceylon railway system with that of India by way of Adam’s Bridge and the Pamban-Madura extension, a line will have to be constructed from Madawachchi (north of Anuradhapura) to the western point of the island of Mannar. The connecting-link over Adam’s Bridge, a very costly work, will, however, only be made if the Imperial, Indian and Ceylon Governments come to an agreement with regard to the share of the expense to be borne by each.
The formal proposal to extend a railway line up to Pamban was made in 1899, following which the line from Madurai to Mandapam was opened in 1902. In the second phase, the line from Pamban to Rameswaram was opened in 1906. The gap between Mandapam and Pamban was traversed by sea Boats. Later, the line between Rameswaram and Dhanushkodi covering a distance of about 11½ miles was completed and the link finally reached the Indian mainland’s end by 1908.
Around 1908 the Egmore station was constructed – Quoting Saritha – Distinct in style and structure, the Madras Egmore Station, completed in 1908, in Mughal style – an ornate structure in brick, rimmed with granite and sandstone, with several towers capped by domes in the shape the Mughals had brought with them from Persia and Central Asia.
By 1914 the clamor from the rich and powerful Lankan estate owners, for a faster connection had increased. The boat and rail link, not commercially viable, had to be converted to a fast rail link. But the cost was prohibitive. Neville Priestly, MD or the Southern Railway, did not believe they could generate the required amount of traffic on the rail link and decided on for the first phase of linking Rameshwaram – the Pamban Bridge.
The technical complication in acquiring a rolling lift drawbridge was dealt with by an experienced American company the Scherzer Rolling Lift Bridge Company of Chicago which manufactured the bridge based on a Cantilever Scherzer Rolling Lift technique. The local contract was with Head, Wrightson & Co. Ltd. of Thornaby-on-Tees, UK. Most of the workforce were Moplahs from Malabar, presumably Khalasis.
Carter records – The workmen were Moplahs—natives of the Malabar Coast, Western India— who had had little, if any, experience in bridge building, but what they lacked in knowledge they made up in main strength and activity. The pneumatic riveters rather stumped them at first, and much of the early work had to be done over; but the Moplahs soon got the hang of it and then they did good work at the rate of two hundred and fifty rivets a day for each squad. Other labour consisted of Eurasian and Tamil foremen, engine men, mechanics, rivet inspectors, painters, and boatmen. The labourers consisted of both women and men, for when it comes to hard work the Hindu believes in equal rights. Everybody worked ten hours a day, Sundays as well as week days, except when an occasional Mohammedan feast caused
an interruption. During the Mohammedan fast of thirty days, the Moplahs knocked off at four o’clock. They had to do it because they abstained rigidly from eating, drinking, smoking, or chewing from sunrise to sunset. Under these conditions eight hours’ work was all they could stand. Hindu feast days didn’t count, for the Moplahs paid no attention to them.
In the history of railways in South India the year 1914 was therefore a landmark. The Boat traffic at Pamban was done with and trains could take pilgrims and passengers all the way to Rameshwaram and beyond. However the link from Tuticorin was not done with and an agreement was reached to divide the traffic – where all traffic from stations south of Madurai to Colombo and vice versa would continue to be routed via Tuticorin (from where B.I. steamers would take them to Colombo) whereas the new route via Dhanushkodi and Talaimannar (in Ceylon) was to get the traffic from all other stations of the South Indian Railway to Colombo and vice versa. One should also note that Colombo was the starting point for many ocean going steamers destined to European ports, so the Tuticorin link was still needed.
The second phase of linking Dhaushkodi with Talaimannar was dropped and the railway engineer finally concluded – The gap between India and Ceylon could, therefore, be bridged, and the Indio-Ceylon Railway connection could be provided at a cost to India of $9,333,334, or in round figures for a sum well within $10,000,000, as compared with $100,000,000 under the scheme for a viaduct across Adams Bridge.
Can you believe that there was a kind of unregulated service even before this? Small boats and steamers used to take passengers to Mannar from Rameshwaram. The men then walked from Mannar to Matale (all of 150 miles), the nearest train station on the Ceylon side. In 1885 the British nationalized the route and banned all light vessel passenger traffic. Anyway let’s get back to the second decade of the 20th century.
Three steamers (Curzon, Elgin and Hardinge, named after three viceroys) were employed on the ferry service, built on the Clyde with Parsons Turbines and Yarrow boilers, in Scotland to steam through in an hour and a half. They were later replaced by the Irwin and Goschen. Electric light was installed in these vessels and electrically-driven fans assisted in ventilation. The accommodation for a large number of third class Indian passengers was well arranged and a cabin for them is provided on the lower deck aft. Provision for carrying cattle and sheep was available 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…As people of repute and foreigners travelled by this train, the boat mail was equipped with a canteen on wheels. It also was the first train to have a vestibule.
AC Ardeshir writing for the Indian Motor news in 1920, summarizes – The Ceylon Boat mail journey appeared rather dull till we arrived at Mandapam Camp at 5 p.m., where all the passengers to Ceylon were examined by a doctor and given a passport. Here the mainland of India practically terminated, being connected with the Island of Rameshwaram by an exceedingly pretty roller bridge, a mile and a half long constructed by the South Indian Railway over the Pamban Channel. The views hereafter were glorious—the magnificent ocean sights, the soft sandy beaches, and the clusters of babul, tamarind and palm trees mingled with the distant glimpses of the tall gopurams of the great Rameshwar Temple. At about 6 p.m., slowly the train reached Dhanuskhodi, the terminus, going right up to the pier, where a few yards off, the boat was awaiting our arrival. We alighted and our luggage was transhipped free of charge. Within fifteen minutes the boat steamed off, leaving the melancholy shores and speeding onwards towards Talaimannar. We covered the short distance of 22 miles within two hours. The sea was very calm. The Customs officers pestered the visitors with a scrutiny of their luggage. We were again transferred to the train which awaited our arrival on the pier. This route must be considered a great blessing as compared with the old Tuticorin- Colombo route, which necessitated a sea journey of twelve hours.
Trimurti provides an Indian perspective in his book ‘Chennaivasi’, emphasizing the messy parts, the coal soot that settled over passengers, the number of pilgrims amongst the passengers and the eagerness to visit the temple at Rameshwaram. They record the ferry journey to Talaimannar as a two hour torture of sailing through choppy waters, alighting there and then the wait for the overnight train to Colombo. By then Ceylon had become Sri Lanka and India had become independent.
In 1952 the train was to figure in a murder mystery – that of businessman Alavander and this was the much written about and talked about Alavandar case. That my friends is another fascinating forensic story involving Prabhakar & Devika menon, the people responsible for his murder, to be retold another day…
And so that long rail journey to the lands’ end continued on for decades until nature’s fury destroyed the clackety clak routine. That was in 1964, when the great Rameshwaram cyclone occurred and a Dhanushkodi passenger train was swept off the tracks by giant waves killing all of its 110 occupants. Ironically the first survivors of the cyclone in the island took shelter in the railway station! Prior to the cyclone, Dhanushkodi had a railway station, a customs office, post and telegraphs office, two medical institutions, a railway hospital, a panchayat union dispensary, a higher elementary school and port offices. But after the cyclone, nothing was left and Dhanushkodi was turned into a ghost town. The connection to Sri Lanka continued by ferry between Rameshwaram and Talaimannar till the early 90’s after which traffic was again disrupted due to the LTTE affair. On the Sri Lankan side the Mannar line was out of service after the Mannar Bridge was demolished by the fighters.
In 2011 the ferry service between Tuticorin and Colombo was restarted, this time on a grand scale with a modern ferry ship named Scottia Prince, owned by Flamingo Liners. But after a few months, this ran into financial difficulties, low traffic, high operating costs etc and ceased operations.
A bridge across the Palk Strait is still a pipe dream, and there are many obstacles to the plan, supposedly objections from religious groups coupled with a doubt over its financial viability.
Meanwhile, IRCON were entrusted with the contract to rebuild the tracks and infrastructure on the Lankan side and that part has been completed. Nowadays we have train 6701 up and train 6702 down, plying between Rameshwaram to Madras, restored. The ferry service to Talaimannar is yet to restart, but that could happen soon after the piers are repaired, and then we would have succeeded in re-establishing the vintage 1914 boat mail route…
Colonialism and modernisation; history and development of southern railway a case study – SR Saritha
Chennaivasi by T.S. Tirumurti
Southern India: Its History, People, Commerce, and Industrial Resources by Arnold Wright The Technical World Magazine, Volume 22 Pg. 60-65