January 11, 2020
January 12, 2020


Training to be arch

or looping the loop

Every now or then – actually, as often as time and tides allow it – I go round the bend. Not quite aligned to the lunar cycle, as some maniacs are every calendar month like clockwork cuckoos! But as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ such as the lunatic, lover and poet who inspired that outrageous description would be permitted to be.

And one of the best places to seek some solace would be on Sri Lanka’s widening railway system: for travel is therapeutic. Quite a lot has been essayed of late about the iconic Nine Arch Bridge in Demodara. So I won’t waste any ink here that’s been spilled over that and there already. But suffice it to say that this ingenious viaduct in the vicinity of touristy Ella – a veritable ‘bridge across the sky’ with nothing to suspend it but the engineering genius of colonial era Ceylonese constructors – stands testament to creativity with ce-ment, stone and brinks; but not steel, which was evidently in short supply in the time of a Great War (1914-1918).

Even today, as a kaleidoscope of social media posts and feeds show, the nine spanned railway bridge from 1921 attracts the eye and per-sonal presence of a spectrum of aficionados from railfans to professional photographers. At a little over 90 metres long and a tad under 25 metres high, the 7.6 metre wide edifice towers over its surrounds like an architectural and aesthetic colossus. And the only thing of comparable beauty known to travellers and train buffs alike is probably the Ribblehead Viaduct train run on Britain’s Settle to Carlisle line. But there is artifice of equal if not greater virtuosity on the same stretch of track as the Nine Arch Bridge in this other demi-paradise – that other Eden of Sri Lanka. And it is known as the ‘Demodara Loop,’ being some 290 kilometres from Colombo Fort Railway Station on the main line to Badulla. Of spiral complexity from the midst of a sharply winding track – or simplicity, depending on your perspective especially from above where an eagle’s eye view of this mechanical marvel will leave you breathless – the loop is essentially the railway line doubling back on itself to pass underneath its previous incarnation as the down track, to emerge from under the Demodara Railway Station in a new avatar as the up line to the nearby Uva Province!

Legend has it that the Ceylonese engineer who conceived of it as a solution to the steep gradient that British rail builders had found chal-lenging was inspired by watching a tea estate superintendent tie his turban around his head with a winding motion, which looped the looped around that quite unaware worthy’s cranium. If the folkloric account of that island genius D. J. Wimalasurendra – a member of the then State Council of Ceylon and a statesman-engineer wide-------ly reputed as the ‘Father of Hydropower’ in the isle – isn’t true… well, I’ll eat my hat!

So Demodara – the name itself being suggestive of twice its reputation – is a double attraction that’s both an engineering marvel two times over in addition to being a tourist and train travelling enthusiast’s dream locale. If you’re ever in the vicinity of scenic Ella, which has become an Indian Ocean mecca for pocket backpackers and budget Marco Polos alike, the twin attractions of a vertiginous bridge across the blue-green landscape and Möbius strip of a looping railway line are a must-see. One more thing while I’m at it…

If you’re on board the world-famous ‘blue train’ (en route to Badulla, Haputale or Demodara) and happen to be arrested by a strong de-sire to perch perilously on the footboard for a precarious selfie or lean recklessly out of a moving train to showcase your athleticism, well, don’t be mad, bad or dangerous to your fellow travellers!

Do behave, there’s a nice little visitor to our isle… it would be an ’Ella-va calamity if you fell into the yawning valley or were lost under the loopy loop, wouldn’t it?

BY Wijith DeChickera
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