History, Politics & International Studies

Once upon a time, a train that linked India, Lanka

Once upon a time, a train that linked India, Lanka
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Until 1964, the Boat Mail continued to be a prominent reminder of shared Indo-Lankan heritage and Hindu-Buddhist unity.


Arup K Chatterjee, Professor of English, Jindal Global Law School, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana, India.


The inauguration of the ferry route between Nagapattinam (India) and Kankesanthurai (Sri Lanka) demands to be understood as much more than a nostalgic throwback to the memory of the Boat Mail, an express train that once used to connect Madras and Colombo (originally via Tuticorin or Thoothukoodi and later via Dhanushkodi).

The latest infrastructural move, on the back of the high-speed craft, unassumingly named ‘HSC Cheriyapani’, does not merely signal the renormalisation of bilateral trade-and-traffic ties. It also represents a mutually favourable ongoing cultural reconciliation between the neighbours while shadows of global geopolitical unpredictability loom large in the Indian Ocean region.

The Boat Mail belonged to times when Indian and Sinhalese legacies enjoyed pluralistic harmony. In the 1880s — when the combined exports of Indian and Ceylonese teas eclipsed Chinese tea exports to Britain, before tea companies such as Lipton’s began buying Ceylonese plantations and hiring Indian Tamil labour — the South Indian Railway and the Ceylon Government Railway were eager to develop railway linkages between the two administrations.

On January 1, 1880, a new train was inaugurated between Madras and Tuticorin (a journey of less than 22 hours) — on the route of the present-day Pearl City Express — with a day-long steamer connection to Colombo. In February 1914, the Pamban Bridge, designed by American engineer William Scherzer, was inaugurated. Following this, a new train route was started from Madras to Dhanushkodi, with a 22-mile ferry route connecting Dhanushkodi with Thalaimannar, thus leading to the birth of the Ceylon India Boat Mail Express.

Published in: Financial Express

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