The Extension of the Railway from Matara to Kataragama

Kataragama has been a place of religious worship buried deep in history. According to Mahavamsa, God Skanda or God Kataragama is one of the four Gods entrusted by Sakra to protect the island and the Buddha Sasana. This was the wish of Lord Buddha conveyed to Sakra just prior to His Parinirvana. God Kataragama is the Guardian Deity of Ruhuna or Ruhunuta Adhipathi. Hence God Kataragama is venerated by Buddhists and Hinduus alike who travel up there all round the year. For Buddhists there is further reason why Kataragama has special significance: the existence of the Kirivehera temple, built in the 2nd century BC. In recent times, due consideration has been given by successive governments to extend the railway line from Matara to Kataragama to provide a more comfortable journey to this sacred city for the millions of Buddhist, Hindu, and even Muslim devotees who visit there.

Even though Kataragama was situated a hundred miles away from the nearest rail head at Matara, the terminal station on the Coast Line, and one would have thought there was no justifiable reason for the department to show its presence in Katatagama, it had links with the department for all of the last six decades. For, the department provided, along with the Central Transport Board, a well coordinated rail cum road service for pilgrims from Matara to Kataragama every year during the Kataragama festival season. Hence it set up a booking office in Kataragama to issue common tickets for the journey which helped passengers to travel to Matara by bus and continue their journey by train up to their final destination. This arrangement to issue a common ticket was dispensed with in the nineteen eighties, but the coordinated service is continued where passengers could travel up to Matara by train and transfer to a bus just outside the Matara railway station, and proceed to Kataragama without interruption. In anticipation of a railway extension to Kataragama in the future, the department utilized a plot of land that had been allocated by the government at Kataragama to construct a circuit bungalow.

The first indication of any evidence of a trace of a railway extension beyond Matara was seen by me as a child in the nineteen forties. It was in the form of rail stumps planted on ground demarcating boundaries of a railway reservation in the village of Kekanadura off Matara. Days after the Colombo harbour was bombed by the Japanese at the time, my parents joined many others fleeing from Galle on advice that the next target for the Japanese would be the Galle harbour and temporarily shifted residence to Kekanadura for a short period. The British who had done those initial surveys, however, do not seem to have proceeded beyond that at the time. Almost fifty years later, the project was revived in the 1980s during the tenure of Mr M H Mohamed as the Minister of Transport, due to agitation both by the people and politicians of the South. It was then that we found the survey sheets indicating the reservation for the railway extension for some distance beyond Matara.

On the instructions of Mr Mohamed, a fresh proposal to extend the railway beyond Matara was prepared by the department at that time. The conceptual trace was finalized joining Matara through the villages of Kekanadura, Dickwella, Walasgala, Deduwela, Beliatta, Tangalla, Ranna, Nonagama, Ambalantota, Hambantota, and Weerawila to Kataragama. Tissamaharam was tentatively picked as a terminal station and regional headquarters from where the proposed second stage of the extended railway line was to commence taking it all the way to Badulla. The proposal was thereafter included in the departmental programme of capital works to be put up for foreign funding.

In response to the government request, the Japanese Internatioanl Consultancy Agency (JICA) showed interest in the project and offered their services to conduct a study and to prepare a pre feasibility report. JICA was awarded the consultancy. They submitted their report in September 1989 outlining the details of the field study carried out by them, the basic parameters assumed by them for the proposed service, the estimated cost of construction, and their evaluation of the profitability of the venture.

Although no foreign donors came forward to fund the project, the government of the day began work on it on the 27th December 1991 with the usual fanfare of an opening ceremony befitting such an occasion. The bridge across the Nilwala ganga about a mile beyond the Matara railway station has since been completed. Beyond Nilwala the track formation has been done up to Walasgala. It is further reported that this inordinate delay in carrying out the project is due to lack of funds (it has taken all of 18 years to substantially complete the bridge across the Nilwala galga), and that funds are yet being awaited to continue with the balance work.

With regard to the benefits that the project would deliver, initial investigations revealed that Hambantota has been one of the most neglected districts in the whole island since independence. Grave unemployment that prevailed in the district at the time was put down as the reason for the insurgency of 1971. The JVP leaders came from the South and at the height of the insurgency, Southern outposts turned into hot beds of insurgent activity. The Youth Commission chaired by Prof. Lakshman Jayatillake set up by President Premadasa to look into the grievances of youth in the island confirmed the view that Hambantota and Matara were in fact the two districts with a continuing unemployment rate as high as 20% and 28% against a national average of 17% for a long period of time. Hence one perennial problem that the new railway line is bound to solve was that of unemployment among the youth of the area.

At the time of the JICA report on the railway extension, however, the ‘Hambantota reawakening’ project was not in sight. It was in the mid nineteen nineties, that a Presidential Task Force was set up to formulate a master plan for development of the Southern Province. Among the seven Mega projects considered by the team then were the Hambantota harbour and the extension of the railway line from Matara to Hambantota. During the deliberations of the task force it transpired that the proposed Hambantota harbour project would enhance the economy of the country appreciably, as it had such potential to serve as the hub for sea traffic through the direct sea route South of the island, and that if the port could tap even 10% of the sea traffic, the earnings there from could easily beat the total current output of the Colombo harbour. As it stands today, the development of Hambantota alone would justify the extension of the railway line beyond Matara.

The other mega projects in and around Hambantota now going on or due to be undertaken ,that would be served by the proposed railway line are the Kirinda Oya Irrigation and Settlement Project, expected to provide enhanced facilities for 4,500 existing and 8,400 newly settled farm families, covering an area of about 13,000 hectares of land. Associated with this project are several other feeder projects such as the development of an additional 4,000 hectares of irrigable land, development of feeder roads and water supply systems, support of wood lot and hamlet development, establishment of dairy development projects, and agricultural support services. This project has the potential to produce 64,000 ton of paddy per year in a total targeted irrigable area of 240,000 hectares. In addition, the salterns in the island situated in Hambantota which are being rehabilitated to deliver sufficient quantities of salt commensurate with their true potential will undoubtedly become a continuous source of bulk cargo ideally suited for transport by rail.

The revitalized tourist industry which is bound to expand as a direct consequence of the expansion taking place South of Matara would be supplemented with additional room facilities in cities such as Tangalla and Hambantota. This in turn would have a ripple effect attracting more tourists prompting tour operators to organize package tours by rail. There are other tourist attractions left to be exploited in the event the railway line becomes a reality. They are: the Yala National Park, the Uda Walawe National Park, the Sanctuaries at Bundala and at Lunugamvehera, the tallest standing statue of the Buddha at Weherahena in Matara, and the underground paintings of Wevurukannala Temple in Dikwella. Each of the above sites would become instant attractions for foreign tourists in case organized and chartered tours are arranged in the future

As important as all the above factors taken together is the annual Esala Festival at Kataragama every year that draws around half a million pilgrims in addition to the nearly one million pilgrims throughout the year. All of them without doubt would prefer the comfort and convenience of a train to a cramped journey by road bus. It would also, as always, be the cheapest mode of transport. One cannot discount the time saving by rail from Colombo to Kataragama with the proposed train taking only five hours (estimated) as predicted in the JICA report, compared to nearly seven and a half hours by bus. Such a well organized passenger train service with the degree of comfort, speed, safety and economy associated with it would be a boon to pilgrims and a source of additional revenue to the railways.

In many countries the world over, new railway lines are known to have opened up fresh frontiers of development that, in the course of time, brought economic prosperity to those countries. In the case of the Kataragama railway extension, the timing couldn’t be better than now. As stated above, the Hambantota district is being put through a completely new phase of development. The mega projects described above are coming up fast. Most of all the Hambantota harbour now nearing completion, and the new railway extension to Hambantota and Kataragama are bound to feed each other with the enormous amount of freight traffic that the harbour would generate. The potential for transshipment traffic also cannot be overlooked.

So much for the Hambantota district; as for Kataragama, when a pilgrim takes a train he would complete the journey from Tissamaharama to Kataragama in just fifteen minutes! This certainly would be a far cry from a journey by a pilgrim just fifty years ago! A bus trip to Tissamaharama from my hometown of Galle took nearly three quarters of a day then and from there onwards taking the only available means of a cart or proceeding on foot all the way along a jungle track to Kataragama took a whole night. We did that trip once in the 1940s.

I would have been about ten years old when my parents, uncles and neighbours organized such a pilgrimage to Kataragama way back in time when we were living in our ancestral village of Galwadugoda, Galle. Up to Tissamaharama we traveled in a hired bus with what was called a ‘Nelson’ body which was open on the two sides with rows of parallel seats across the bus from the front to the rear. The elements were kept at bay with a canvas tarpaulin hung from either side of the roof. The driver had to make do with gadol brakes (mechanical) and a hand operated blow horn (a bigger version of the the type carried by an ice cream man on bicycle).

On arrival at Tissamaharama, my uncle arranged three double bullock carts for that part of the journey to Kataragama which was a pilgrimage in the truest sense of the word. Beyond Tissamaharama at that time there existed only a jungle track along which only carts were used for travel during the two weeks of the festival period coinciding with the Esala full moon. There were only traces of a cart track every now and then. These carts were exclusively for passenger use and hence clean and well kept with well thatched roofs. Most carts doing this journey would travel in a convoy for mutual safety. For not only did we have to venture into the thick forest cover for the eleven miles, but keep away the wild beasts using the flaming torches that we were to carry, and making as much noise as possible on the way. If one cart was to get stuck, the other carters wouldn’t move until it was helped out. Despite the relative danger, night travel over that stretch was preferred to avoid the intense heat during the day.

The carters became virtual Nade Guras (the leaders for the group) because of their experience doing this trip regularly. They were equipped for any eventuality. Lanterns, improvised flame torches to be lit on the way, a knife, a sword, an axe etc to cut and remove foliage and branches if necessary on a detour, were ready at hand. All baggage - pots, pans, mats and dry rations were secured in the underbelly of the carts which also carried straw for the bulls. The roofs of the carts were well thatched with cadjan and the sides were decorated. The bulls had a row of bells strung round their necks that would be tinkling all the way. Women and children along with the elderly men sat inside the carts. All others would walk the 11 miles. The younger men were ready with tools to clear the way ahead or to help the tired bulls to negotiate humps, protruding rocky surfaces and similar difficult spots on the way by putting their hands on the cart wheels and levering them.

We left Tissamaharama after dinner. We had a brief stop at Bogaha Pelessa, somewhere midway for hot hoppers off the fire and katta sambol topped up with a plain tea while the bulls would also be untied for a well deserved rest. We reached Kataragama late in the morning of the next day. Though an uneventful journey, we were kept in suspense all the way.

The scene at Kataragama at the time was calm and tranquil, befitting the environment of a holy religious place. Even talking to one another was in subdued tone. All pilgrims on arrival could set up camp in the vast expanse of land on the right bank of the Menik ganga in a place of their choice. The carters knew exactly what to do. They kept the three carts to form the three sides of a square with the fourth side free for access. The enclosed

space was employes as best as possible for our short stay. Mother spread out the mats, pots and pans brought from home. We relaxed while the ladies got started cooking the mid day meal. The men helped with scraping coconuts etc.

Once the cooking was done, we walked down to the water’s edge of Menik ganga. The river was meandering along, quiet and slow as if to pay homage to the holy abode of God Kataragama. The water looked pure and clean. The river left pools on water along its course, ideal for children and the elderly to safely take a dip and join others in washing away their sins ‘spiritually’ and their dirt ‘physically’, before crossing over to the sanctified atmosphere of the holy place on the opposite side of the Menik ganga. As we immersed our tired selves in the cool waters of the river, thereby also dissipating the midday heat as well, we felt as if it was the magic of the water that made us feel so refreshingly fit thereafter to spend the remaining hours of the day in the scorching heat.

We worshipped the Kirivehera which had been newly colour washed for the occasion to a brilliant white, walked up to the kovil of God Kataragama in time to participate in the pooja and returned to have late lunch at the improvised open air camp. We spent the night at Kataragama and resumed our journey the next morning going back to Tissamaharama through the bear infested Katagamuwa and the historic Sithulpahuwa where some twelve thousand Arahats are supposed to have lived during the time Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka, and finally to Kirinda where we met our bus to return home.

Since those early days, visitors to Kataragama could witness the gradual deterioration of the city, both spiritually and physically. With increasing numbers of pilgrims who began visiting Kataragama outside of the festival period all round the year, and more settlers who began living there, the first victim of pollution was the Manik ganga. The pure and clean water of the river that was once believed to be fit enough to wash away the ‘sins of pilgrims’, began getting so polluted that it lost its purity, significance and its role. The water became so unclean that visitors would rather go without the wash for fear of disease. Unlike the pilgrims of yesteryear who would sit besides the river bank in peaceful contemplation, we see merry makers dancing baila to the raucous strains of the accompanying music.

(The writer is a former General Manager of Railways)

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