Restoring ferry service will rewrite history of India-Lanka ties

Restoring ferry service will rewrite history of India-Lanka ties

By R. R. M. Lilani

The ferry service between India and Sri Lanka, as well as railway connections, have all but vanished since the turn of the 19th and the 20th centuries, and the use of a comfortable Singaporean passenger vessel ‘IndSri‘ to sail between Karikkal (KKL)Port in South India and Kankesanthurai (KKS) Port in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province next month (Mid-May), will rewrite the history of sea connections between Indo-Sri Lanka.

There was formerly a regular ferry service between India and Sri Lanka that served as an important mode of transportation for both people and cargo. However, with the collapse of the British Raj, severe cyclonic weather, and the civil war in Sri Lanka that began in 1983, the train and boat service were eventually rendered obsolete.

With the intervention of the governments of India and Sri Lanka, IndSri Ferry Services will begin operations between KKS and Karaikkal (KKL) on May 15, and the Indian government has approved says  operator Niranjan Nandagopan, Managing Director of Indsri Ferry Services Pvt Ltd. He is a Singaporean who moved there from Jaffna in the early 1980s.

There are four other operators who have approached both the governments. They are: Infinity Harbour Services, Mumbai, Drishti Curise and Ferries Pvt Ltd, Goa, MOH Marine Transport Pvt Ltd, Chennai and KKL Terminal Operators Pvt Ltd, Bangalore. They are also waiting for approvals now.

The IndSri passenger ship will however, transport approximately 150 people between Kankesanthurai (KKS) and Karaikkal (KKL), with daily ferry services from Monday to Saturday departing at 8 a.m. from KKL and arriving at KKS at 12 p.m.

On the return journey, the ship will leave KKS at 2pm and arrive at KKL at 6pm, with each passenger carrying 100kg of free baggage allowance.

Ceylon is still the moniker given to southern Indians, and in the 1970s it was the land of opportunity, since the British assisted in the establishment of several tea plantations on the island, which just lacked the labor to run them. So, in the late nineteenth century, British authorities began examining the notion of joining the railway systems of the two colonies in order to facilitate the transportation of people and products between peninsular India and Ceylon.

History of the sea connection

Ajay Kamalakaran writes in 2021 the history of the railway and steamer connections between Indo-Sri Lanka in his article titled: “Boat Mail: Remembering the train and steamer service from India to Ceylon”. He writes thus:

The first stage was to operate a train between Madras and Tuticorin.   Passengers would then board the steam ship bound for Colombo. This arduous journey, begun in the late 1800s, would take nearly two days, since the 709-kilometer train ride lasted 21 hours and 50 minutes, while the ship linking the two ports would take somewhere between 21 and 24 hours.

In order to connect India and Ceylon, the British decided to construct a bridge over the Palk Strait in the 1870s. The plan was to connect peninsular India, Pamban (Rameshwaram) Island, Mannar Island, and the remainder of Ceylon with a series of bridges over the Adam’s Bridge or Rama Setu, establishing a continuous railway link between Colombo and India.

The longest bridge in this chain, according to a research report by Delphine Prema Dhanaseeli, would have been roughly 24 kilometers long and would have connected Thalaimannar at the edge of Ceylon’s Mannar Island to Dhanushkodi at the tip of Pamban Island. The British Raj largely rejected the project, but gave Rs 70 lakh to build the Pamban Bridge, which would link Rameshwaram on the mainland with Mandapam.

The bridge’s construction began in 1902 and was planned by renowned American engineer William Scherzer, who is best known for developing the rolling lift bridge. For the bridge, which needed 2,000 tonnes of steel, manufactured materials were brought from England. The 65.23-meter long rolling type lift span, which can open up when vessels pass, was designed and built by Scherzer because engineers wanted to have a rail link without interrupting the ferry service, according to Dhanaseeli.

Natural disasters like cyclones and cholera epidemics played down construction. In 1913, the 2,065-meter-long bridge was completed. The bridge was opened on February 24, 1914. It was the first sea bridge in India and the longest until Mumbai’s Bandra-Worli Sea Link was erected in the 21st century.

The inauguration is believed to have been grand for the British Empire, with the foreign press invited to a ceremony presided over by John Sinclair, governor of Madras, and Robert Chalmers, governor of Ceylon, as well as Neville Priestley, managing director of South Indian Railways. The railway and steamer service between the two countries, known as the Indo-Ceylon Express, was widely publicized on a global scale. It was known as the “Boat Mail” service.

From Egmore, the Boat Mail would travel to the Dhanushkodi port. As soon as the passengers exited the train, immigration procedures were followed. Passengers from India and Ceylon would receive passports for the steamer after undergoing a basic health examination. For those going from Talaimannar to India, the formalities were the same.

In the beginning, the British held a monopoly on the steamer service, transporting passengers on ships named after viceroys like Irwin. However, Indian rivals later entered the market, and Sri Lankans who traveled on the ships in the 1940s and 1950s remember fondly of the ‘’Madras Maru’’ steamship.

The train held 300 passengers and had 12 cabins in 1914. The train ride from Talaimannar to Colombo used wide gauge, whereas the portion in India used meter gauge. Along with the three-class system of train travel in the subcontinent, the Boat Mail also included a separate wagon for Buddhist monks. Tickets were printed in English, Tamil, and Sinhalese. With time, Sinhalese Buddhist travelers started taking the train to Madras before continuing on the wide railway network of India to Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, and other locations significant to the life of the Buddha. Additionally, Tamil pilgrims from both nations would board the train to travel to Rameshwaram, to connect to other cities where Hindu temples were.

The train service persisted after British authority in South Asia ended. In the 1950s, it took just over 19 hours to travel the 675 kilometers from Egmore to Dhanushkodi. The train would leave Madras at eight o’clock at night and get there at three the next day. Within an hour, the immigration procedures would be through, and after that, the three-and-a-half-hour trip to Talaimannar would start. Those traveling to Colombo would then board the Talaimannar Fort Night Mail, which departed from the pier, traversed the causeway, and wound its way through the northern regions of Sri Lanka with a preponderance of Tamil people into the center and southern regions of the island, crossing across picturesque waterways like Deduru Oya and Maha Oya.

The Indo-Ceylon Express kept running routinely well into the 1960s, but on the evening of December 22, 1964, Dhanushkodi was devastated by a cyclone that was believed to have winds of 280 kph and tidal waves as high as 23 feet.

The No. 653 passenger train left Rameshwaram towards Dhanushkodi that very same evening. A typhoon was wreaking havoc on the town, but its loco pilot was unaware of it. The train, which had 110 passengers and five railroad employees on board, was hit by a powerful tidal surge and sank into the ocean as it approached the Dhanushkodi railway station. On the train, not a single person made it out alive.

The cyclone wreaked havoc in both Mannar and Dhanushkodi, with an official death toll of 1,800 in the latter. The railway line, as well as all of the structures in Dhanushkodi, were completely destroyed. Dhanushkodi, once an important transit town between India and Sri Lanka, has become a ghost town. The cyclone altered the route taken by travellers between Madras and Colombo. Passengers traveling between Tamil Nadu and northern Sri Lanka shifted to the Rameshwaram-Talaimannar ferry route, which remained popular until 1983, when the Sri Lankan civil war broke out and it ended the ferry service of all time.

The Kariakkal Port:   

Karaikal port is located on India’s eastern coast, roughly 300 kilometers south of Chennai, in the Karaikal District of Puducherry state. It is now taken over India’s business tycoon Adani Group.

The port is located in Vanjore Village, Karaikal Taluk, Puducherry. Karaikal Port Private Limited (KPPL) is an all-weather deep water port constructed as part of a concession granted by the Government of Puducherry. Karaikal Port, which launched in April 2009 and covers an area of 600 acres, is located near the town of Karaikal in the Union Territory of Pondicherry, India.

Nandagopan, a ferry operator, also discusses ferry services between South India and Sri Lanka. He is descended from a family that operated ferries between Kytes and Vedaraniya in Tamil Nadu. He stated that his forefathers ran ferries between the two countries about 120 years ago and had three boats.

He went on to state that one ferry sank and that two ferries were sold, with settlements made for those who lost property on the sunken ferry. In Kytes there is a place called Madaththadi and a century ago when my ancestors were operating ferry service people gather at that place. They carried goods to Tamil Nadu and brought goods for trading he said.

Because his ancestors were involved in boat operations, he has chosen to finance the ferry service today.

There are numerous hotels available for travelers to stay in before taking the ferry, and KKK is just 20 minutes from Jaffna Town, according to Nandagopan. The Karaikal District, on the other hand, is one of the four divisions of the Union Territory of Puducherry. It is around 135 kilometers east of Pondicherry (two hours) and 300 kilometers south of Chennai (about eight hours). The Union Territory of Puducherry consists of the former French colonies of Puducherry, Karaikal, Mahe, and Yanam.

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