During the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, was to southern India what the Persian Gulf states were to become in the 1970s: a land of opportunities, where fortunes could be made. In order to satiate the global appetite for tea, the British helped set up several tea plantations on the island, which simply did not have the labour to man them. So, to facilitate the movement of people and goods between peninsular India and Ceylon in the late 19th century, the British administrators started exploring the idea of linking the railway systems of the two colonies.

The first step to connecting the countries was a train from Chennai (then Madras) to Tuticorin, from where passengers would alight and take a steam ship to Colombo. This tedious trip, launched in the late 19th century, would take almost two days, as the 709-kilometre train journey lasted 21 hours and 50 minutes, while the ship connecting the two ports would take anything between 21 and 24 hours.

The British, however, had plans as early as the 1870s to build a bridge over the Palk Strait to connect India and Ceylon. The idea was to build a series of bridges over the Adam’s Bridge or Rama Setu that would connect peninsular India, Pamban (Rameshwaram) Island, Mannar Island and the rest of Ceylon, creating an unbroken railway link between Colombo and India.

“A project proposal was presented to the British Parliament towards the construction of a rail bridge from Mandapam to Pamban and from Dhanushkodi to Talaimannar at an estimated cost of 299 lakhs of rupees, after conducting a feasibility study,” Delphine Prema Dhanaseeli wrote in a research paper. The longest bridge in this chain would have been about 24 kilometres long, connecting Dhanushkodi at the tip of Pamban Island to Thalaimannar at the edge of Ceylon’s Mannar Island. London rejected the proposal for the most part, but granted Rs 70 lakh to build the Pamban Bridge that would connect Mandapam on the mainland to Rameshwaram.

Construction of the bridge, designed by renowned American engineer William Scherzer, who was famous for inventing the rolling lift bridge, began in 1902. Fabricated materials were imported from England for the bridge that required 2,000 tonnes of steel. “As the engineers wanted to have the rail link without obstructing the ferry service, the railways approached Scherzer who could design and build the 65.23-metre long rolling type lift span, which can open up when vessels pass,” Dhanaseeli wrote.

The construction was slowed down by natural disasters such as cyclones and cholera outbreaks. The 2,065-metre long bridge was finally ready in 1913. The bridge, India’s first sea bridge and the country’s longest until the Bandra-Worli Sea Link was built in Mumbai in the 21st century, was inaugurated on February 24, 1914. The inauguration was considered a grand occasion for the British Empire and the international press was invited for a ceremony presided over by John Sinclair, governor of Madras, in the presence of Robert Chalmers, governor of Ceylon, and Neville Priestley, managing director of South Indian Railways.

Little information about the construction of the Mannar railway bridge is available in the public domain. The island was separated from the rest of Ceylon by a very narrow strip of land, and the railway link from Colombo was ready in time for the inauguration of the Pamban Bridge in India. The British would eventually build a causeway to Mannar.

Boat Mail Is Born

The Boat Mail or the Indo-Ceylon Express, as the railway and steamer service between the countries was called, received a lot of fanfare and international publicity. In its April 4, 1914 edition, The Boston Evening Transcript said, “The misery and sea-sickness of the long sea journey between Colombo and Tuticorin will be a thing of the past.” The report, which made many references to the Ramayana, compared “the great new seagoing railroad” with Florida’s causeway to Key West. There were also indications that the colonial administrators still harboured a wish to connect Dhanushkodi to Talaimannar. “The question of carrying a railway over this reef, which consists of corals and sandbanks, intersected by small channels, was considered by two competent engineers – one for the Indian and one for the Ceylon Government, and both have decided that the undertaking is quite feasible,” the newspaper said.

The idea was shelved after the outbreak of the First World War, but the rail and ferry service was a commercial success.

The Boat Mail would depart from Egmore and terminate at the Dhanushkodi pier. The British had a monopoly on the steamer service initially with ships named after viceroys such as Irwin ferrying the passengers, but Indian competitors eventually entered the market and Sri Lankans, who took the ships in the 1940s and ’50s, speak with affection of the Madras Maru steamship.

The steamer service at Dhanuskodi pier circa 1950.

In 1914, the train had 12 compartments and a capacity of 300 passengers. The Indian leg of the train journey was on a meter gauge railway, while the trip from Talaimannar to Colombo was on a broad gauge. Tickets were printed in English, Tamil and Sinhalese, and along with the three-class system of train travel in the subcontinent, the Boat Mail also had a special wagon for Buddhist monks. Over time Sinhalese Buddhist pilgrims began to take the train to Madras and then travel onwards on India’s vast railway network to Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and other sites associated with the life of the Buddha. Tamil pilgrims from both countries would also take the train to visit Rameshwaram, long considered to be one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites in India. Before the construction of the Pamban Bridge, the only way to access Rameshwaram from the rest of India was by boat from Mandapam.

Only Europeans were allowed in the first class compartments of the Boat Mail, while South Asians, including affluent businessmen, at best could use the second class.

Since the South India Railway operated the train, passengers from different parts of southern India could buy tickets to Madurai and connect to the Boat Mail. The Quilon-Shencottah (Kollam-Sengottai) meter gauge line was the preferred route of choice for Malayalis who would travel to Ceylon.

Seeking Fortune In Ceylon

The train was also used by traders to transport pulses, vegetables, fruits and other goods to Ceylon, which remained highly dependent on India for most of its supplies. While the British kept sending labourers from Tamil Nadu to work in the tea plantations in Ceylon’s Hill Country, fears began to grow in Sri Lanka of the population balance tilting in favour of the Tamils, who were a minority in the Sinhalese-majority island.

Thanks to lax border controls between the two British colonies and easy access for people from southern India, many a Tamil and Malayali made their fortune in Ceylon. This caused a great deal of resentment on the island. According to Indian government estimates from 1944, 90% of wholesalers, 60% of medium dealers, and 40% of retailers on the island were Indians. This domination of the economy by Indians alarmed Solomon Bandaranaike, who would become the island nation’s prime minister in 1956. In comments to the local media in 1941, he said, “All trade and business, from the smallest village boutique – village store – to the biggest business in our towns is controlled to a very great extent by outsiders, chiefly Indians…lands are also fast passing into the hands of big Indian capitalists…unemployment is rampant…it is really becoming a matter of stark survival.”

By the time both countries attained independence, visa requirements were introduced at the behest of the Sri Lankans. It would no longer be that easy to travel across the Palk Strait in search of a better livelihood.

Passengers changing their mode of journey at Dhanushkodi Pier. Credit: Staravindan/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0]

The train service however continued after the end of British rule in South Asia. In the 1950s, the 675-kilometre journey from Egmore to Dhanushkodi took just over 19 hours. The train would depart from Madras at 8 pm and arrive at 3 in the afternoon the next day. Immigration formalities would be over within an hour and then began the three-and-a-half-hour journey to Talaimannar. Those headed to Colombo would then take the Talaimannar Fort Night Mail that began at the pier and crossed the causeway and snaked through the northern Tamil-majority areas into central and southern Sri Lanka passing over beautiful water bodies such as Deduru Oya and Maha Oya.

Tragedy Strikes

The Indo-Ceylon Express continued to function normally well into the 1960s, but a natural disaster would change that. On the night of December 22, 1964, a cyclone with an estimated wind velocity of 280 kilometres per hour and tidal waves as high as 23 feet wreaked havoc on Dhanushkodi.

The very same night, the No. 653 passenger train left Rameshwaram for Dhanushkodi. Its loco pilot had no idea that a cyclone was ravaging the town. As it approached the Dhanushkodi railway station, the train, which had 110 passengers and five railway staff on board, was struck by a massive tidal wave and got submerged in the sea. Not a single person on board the train survived.

The cyclone caused immense destruction in both Mannar and Dhanushkodi, with the death toll in the latter officially listed at 1,800. The railway line and all the structures in Dhanushkodi were totally destroyed, some of them swallowed by the sea. Once an important transit town between India and Sri Lanka, Dhanushkodi became a ghost town. The cyclone changed the route that passengers took between Madras and Colombo. Passengers travelling between Tamil Nadu and northern Sri Lanka switched to the Rameshwaram-Talaimannar ferry service that remained popular until the outbreak of the Sri Lankan civil war in 1983.

The Boat Mail still runs from Chennai to Rameshwaram. In 2019, the Indian government announced plans to rebuild the 17.2-kilometre-long railway line between Rameshwaram and Dhanushkodi, but the latest media reports indicate that nothing but survey work has been done on the project since Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone two years ago.

Over the last few years, there have been indications both from Sri Lanka and India to explore a railway and road bridge connecting the countries over the Adam’s Bridge, but nothing has come out of this idea, as domestic political compulsions on both sides of the Palk Strait come in the way of connecting these two countries that have a shared history and strong cultural ties.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2021.