Indo-Ceylon connection

From the 1930s to the 1950s, I regularly used to travel between Ceylon and India by train, with a rather sickening 1½ hour sea crossing in between. It was only recently I discovered that this route was finalised a 100 years ago this year, when there was signed an agreement between the South Indian Railway Company and the British India Steam Navigation Company on rights of business. Under the agreement, “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). 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.”

The Indo-Ceylon railway connection was formally opened for the Madras-Dhanushkodi Boat Mail in February 1914. By 1918, BI began to phase out its operations and, before long, the rail line was the only link between the two countries, if you don’t count the rather unsafe coastal country craft.

Before it was decided that ferry steamers would make the 21-mile sea crossing that linked the two railway terminuses, a causeway based on Adam’s Bridge – 7 miles on land and 13 miles on water – was discussed, plans worked out and a Rs.11.1 million cost was estimated. This plan was, however, soon shelved and a train ferry was looked at, the carriages being bodily carried by steamer from one point to the other. This plan too was abandoned and piers were built at either end for three 688 tonne, 260 feet-long turbine steamers designed by Sir William White and ordered from A.J. Innis Ltd., Glasgow. They were called the Curzon, Elgin and Hardinge, and were launched in 1912-1913. By the time I was using this route in the 1930s, they had been replaced by the Irwin and Goschcn.

But before the sea crossing, another hurdle had to be crossed. And that was the 1¼ mile-long Pamban Channel linking the Indian mainland with the island of Rameswaram at whose eastern tip was Dhanushkodi. To cross the channel, a 6776 feet long, rail-track-bearing viaduct was built with 113 spans on the western side and 32 on the eastern. Linking them was a 289-feet long rail-track-bearing, steel bridge which had a mechanism that enabled its two halves to lift in the air and provide a 200 feet wide space for ships that needed less than 14 feet depth to pass through. The Pamban Bridge, as it was popularly called, was described as “a two-leaf Scherzer rolling lift bridge”, taking its name from the Scherzer Rolling Lift Bridge Company of Chicago that designed it. The bridge was built by a Scottish company, Head, Wrightson & Co. Ltd.

On December 22, 1964, the six-coach Pamban-Dhanushkodi Passenger was crossing the viaduct in a cyclonic storm when a 20 feet high tidal wave smashed into it and washed it into the sea. The death toll was estimated to be anywhere between 115 and 200, a variation on account of the inability to put a number on the ticketless travellers. The Dhanushkodi track and station were also washed away, putting an end to the service to this terminus. The Scherzer Bridge was also badly damaged, with 126 of its 145 girders collapsing. But with most of them salvaged from the sea and with the Scherzer lift span barely damaged, the Pamban viaduct was make operational again in three months. But the terminus was shifted to Rameswaram. This service continued for about 20 years more but came to an end with the worsening ethnic conflict. I wonder what happened to the two ships after that.

As long as it lasted, the steamers carried passengers, goods, cattle and cars, so you could effectively motor all the way from Colombo to Madras as four of us once did in the 1950s to watch a ‘Test’.

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The Justice from Ceylon

Still working on that history of the Anglo-Indian community, I’ve been looking for information about any in the community who served on a High Court Bench. The community had several I.C.S. men who had served as Magistrates, one of them with Madras connections having been Ralph Stracey who graduated from Presidency College and, while in the Service, was Howrah Magistrate at the peak of the communal troubles in the 1940s. Lawyers too there have been, Frank Anthony, once the leader of the community, being perhaps the pre-eminent one; he defended Indira Gandhi. But on any High Court Bench, there was none that I could trace.

The closest I came to finding one was Justice Elmar E. Mack who moved from the I.C.S. to District Judge and was elevated to serve as a High Court judge in Madras from 1948 to 1956. Justice Mack was a heavily built Burgher (the Ceylon equivalent of the Anglo-Indian) and came from a well-known family in Ceylon.

Of him it was said, “Mr. Mack often behaved in court as if he was on the golf course, intensely human every minute of his life.” Informal in court almost to a fault, his sympathies always lay with those he thought had been charged wrongfully or were not wilfully guilty of the crime charged with. For lawyers he suspected of being helped by touts, he had little time. On the other hand, lawyers he respected would often find him debating with them on the finer points of law.”

Before being elevated to the High Court, he had spent most of his years in Bellary where he had been such a popular figure that a stadium the public raised was named after him.

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Language has the answer

I seldom watch television, the occasional film or sporting event being the only occasions I switch on a set. Most of the other occasions are when I pause for a few minutes to see what others are watching.

It was during one such moment I saw a sweet young thing struggle to answer a question: What was name of the warship that bombarded Madras in 1914? She was quite candid in stating that she was not aiming for a crore, but would be happy with a few lakhs. And here she was, likely to miss out on even that, full of doubt as she was to the answer of what I thought was a rather simple question.

Eventually, after much hesitation, she got it right, sticking with s.m.s.Emden despite all the Quizmaster’s attempts to shake her. But what got me interested was her response to the question he asked her after she had got it right. She told him quite frankly that she had never heard of the Emden or the shelling of Madras, but she had stuck by her answer because she was sure that reference to an emden in Tamil was to a particularly tough person, one daring and unafraid, and that she felt the Tamil word might have derived from the only name from among the four options that seemed familiar as a word she knew.

Bright girl! But it was saddening to find how little such young persons today know about the city’s past. For years I’ve been trying to get Madras history introduced as a subject in colleges. Some institutions now offer it as an optional subject. But surely all of us should know something about the past of this city and capital of ours?!

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When the postman knocked…

Several readers have enquired about the date of the map of the Adyar Estuary this column featured last week. Regrettably, the printer’s devil had dropped it; it was 1755.

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The old ThomianOctober 21, 2012