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‘A Railway to the Moon’: The post-histories of a Sri Lankan railway line*


This paper takes as its subject the 1905 opening and 1990 closure of the Northern Railway Line, the major Sri Lankan railway which ran the length of the island from south to north. It argues that it can been seen as a social compact in which the life of the individual, the community, and the state became integrally intertwined. It focuses on two dimensions of what the Northern Railway Line enabled in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon): first, a physical and symbolic representation of stateness, and, secondly, the pursuit of mundane everyday life. These are embedded within Sri Lanka's landscapes and histories of colonial and post-colonial rule, and the ethnic conflict, riots, and war which inextricably shaped the railway's journeys and passengers. Railways are more often thought of as large-scale, high-tech artefacts rather than the smaller everyday technologies that are the themes of other papers in this special issue. However, this paper highlights the ways in which railways also make particular kinds of everyday life possible and how, in being woven into routine daily and weekly journeys, the Northern Railway Line came to intertwine the changing circumstances and histories of its mainly Tamil passengers within an increasingly ethnicized national landscape. In the aftermath of its closure, the railway has now come to symbolize a desire for a return to the normalcy of the past, an aspiration to an everyday experience that younger generations have never had, and which has, in consequence, become a potent force.

. . . the Northern Railway Line to be opened tomorrow would be a great boon to the Jaffnese in and out of Jaffna. . . it has become possible to travel to Jaffna in a single day. . . At last the railway which was characterized as a ‘tantalising vision’ by a previous Governor and ‘a railway to the moon’, by a quondam Colonial Secretary, has become a fait accompli.1

This line has been completely destroyed between Vavuniya and Kankesanthurai (KKS) a track length of 160km. . . The Northern Railway Line is the main line connecting Colombo with Jaffna. . . the third largest town in Sri Lanka prior to the conflict and the Northern Railway Line was in high demand from both passengers and freight. There is a great sentiment amongst the people of the north for restoration.2

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Manu Goswami , Producing India: From Colonial Economy to National Space (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2004)

Chandra Mukerji , ‘Intelligent Uses of Engineering and the Legitimacy of State Power’, Technology and Culture, 44 (4), 2003, pp. 655–76

Fiona Wilson , ‘Towards a Political Economy of Roads: Experiences from Peru’, Development and Change, 35 (3), 2004, pp. 525–46

Thomas Blom Hansen and Finn Stepputat , ‘Sovereignty Revisited’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 35, 2006, pp. 295315

Kristian Stokke , ‘Building the Tamil Eelam State: Emerging State Institutions and Forms of Governance in LTTE-controlled Areas in Sri Lanka’, Third World Quarterly, 27 (6), 2006, p. 1022

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Modern Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0026-749X
  • EISSN: 1469-8099
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-asian-studies
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