Skip to main content

‘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

Hide All

1 ‘The Northern Railway’, Jaffna Catholic Guardian, 1 August 1905.

2 Asian Development Bank, United Nations, World Bank, Sri Lanka: Assessment of Needs in Conflict Affected Areas, (May 2003), pp. 46–47. Available at: <>, [accessed 27 November 2011] or on request from the author.

3 Freeman, Michael, Railways and the Victorian Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999); Schivelbusch, Wolfgang, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

4 Freeman, Railways.

5 Initially (as in Britain) constructed by private companies, in the 1870s the colonial state assumed direct responsibility for the production and management of the railways. The Indian railways represented the largest single investment by the British empire in any colony. Goswami, Manu, Producing India: From Colonial Economy to National Space (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2004).

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

7 Ibid, p. 656.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid, pp. 656–57.

10 Goswami, Producing India, p. 47.

11 Ibid, p. 103.

12 Kerr, Ian J., ‘Representation and Representations of the Railways of Colonial and Post-Colonial South Asia’, Modern Asian Studies, 37 (2), 2003, pp. 288–89.

13 Ibid, pp. 288–91.

14 See Wilson's account of how road building in the Peruvian highlands was integral to state projects, rendering rural provinces legible and thus governable. Wilson, Fiona, ‘Towards a Political Economy of Roads: Experiences from Peru’, Development and Change, 35 (3), 2004, pp. 525–46.

15 Kerr, ‘Representation’, p. 291.

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

17 These were the Portuguese (1505–1658), the Dutch (1658–1796), and the British (1796–1948).

18 Perera, Niha, Society and Space: Colonialism, Nationalism, and Post-colonial Identity in Sri Lanka (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1998).

19 Jeganathan, Pradeep, ‘Authorizing History, Ordering Land: The Conquest of Anuradhapura’, in Jeganathan, Pradeep and Ismail, Qadri (eds), Unmaking the Nation: The Politics of Identity and History in Modern Sri Lanka (Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association, 1995), p. 115.

20 Perera, Society, p. 45.

21 Munasinghe, Indrani, The Colonial Economy on Track: Roads and Railways in Sri Lanka (1800–1905) (Colombo: The Social Scientists’ Association, 2002); Murphey, Rhodes, ‘Colombo and the Re-Making of Ceylon’, in Broeze, Frank (ed.), Gateways of Asia: Port Cities of Asia in the 13th–20th Centuries (London: Kegan Paul, 1997).

22 Munasinghe, Colonial Economy, p. 24.

23 Goswami, Producing India.

24 See Nissan, E. and Stirrat, R. L., ‘The Generation of Communal Identities’, John Rogers, ‘Historical Images in the British Period’, and Jonathan Spencer ‘Introduction: The Politics of the Past’, in Spencer, Jonathan (ed.), Sri Lanka: History and the Roots of Conflict (London: Routledge, 1990); Wickramasinghe, Nira, Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: A History of Contested Identities (London: Hurst, 2007).

25 R. A. L. H. Gunawardana, ‘The People of the Lion: The Sinhala Identity and Ideology in History and Historiography’, in Spencer (ed.), Sri Lanka, pp. 45–86.

26 Tambiah, S. J., Sri Lanka: Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 8.

27 Nissan and Stirrat, ‘Generation’, p. 28.

28 Spencer, ‘Introduction’.

29 Ibid, p. 8.

30 Planters wanted roads and railways that brought in indentured South Indian labour and took plantation goods out. Murphey, ‘Colombo’, pp. 197–98.

31 Jayawardena, Kumari, Nobodies to Somebodies: The Rise of the Colonial Bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka (London: Zed Press, 2002), p. 203. As she demonstrates, the three dominant non-Govigama castes represented newly rich merchant capitalists, who were freed from service to the dominant agricultural caste by their involvement in non-service activity and new forms of trade (see pp. 168–69).

32 Roberts, Michael, Caste Conflict and Elite Formation: The Rise of the Karava Elite in Sri Lanka 1500–1931 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

33 Murphey, ‘Colombo’, p. 200.

34 Under the British, five different missionary bodies arrived in Sri Lanka and were heavily present in Bastin, Jaffna. R., ‘The Authentic Inner Life: Complicity and Resistance in the Tamil Hindu Revival’, in Roberts, Michael (ed.), Sri Lanka: Collective Identities Revisited (Colombo: Marga Institute, 1997), Vol. 1, p. 406. The census of 1871 showed that between 1816 and 1827 the population of Jaffna increased by 19 per cent and doubled in the next 44 years between 1827 and 1871. In 1921 the Jaffna peninsula was the most densely populated area of cultivated territory on the island. Arasaratnam, S., ‘Sri Lanka's Tamils under Colonial Rule’, in Pffafenberger, Bryan and Manogaran, Chelvadurai (eds), The Sri Lankan Tamils: Ethnicity and Identity (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1994).

35 Arasaratnam, S., ‘Historical Foundation of the Economy of the Tamils of North Sri Lanka’, in Thaninayagam, Fr. Xavier (ed.), Chelvanayagam Memorial Lectures (Jaffna: Saiva Press, [1982] 1986), p. 40.

36 Denham, E. B., Ceylon at the Census of 1911: Being the Review of the Results of the Census of 1911. (Colombo: H. C. Cottle, Government Printer Ceylon, 1912), p. 68.

37 Singam, S. Durai Raja, A Hundred Years of Ceylonese in Malaysia and Singapore (1867–1967) (Kuala Lumpur: N. T. Pillay, 1967).

38 Munasinghe, Colonial Economy, pp. 117–51.

39 The first extension line in 1864 ran to Ambepussa.

40 Munasinghe, Colonial Economy, p. 118.

41 Ibid, p. 126.

42 The Jaffna Railway Committee's 1889 memorial launched in Colombo was signed by ‘thirty-three eminent Colombo men’, and included the Ceylon Observer's owner-editor John Ferguson and Ponnambalam Ramanathan, the Tamil member of the Legislative Council. Ramanathan also debated the railway in the Legislative Council and served on the both the special commissions for the Northern Railway Line. Thus, the non-official world, composed of influential men, either from the new indigenous elite or liberal Europeans outside the colonial administration, was beginning to assert itself with the colonial government and civil service.

43 Annexure No. 6, memorandum by Mr Ramanathan, ‘Railway Extension Northwards’, Sessional Papers 1896, pp. 22–23: Colombo, Sri Lankan National Archives (SLNA).

44 ‘Railway Extension Northwards’, Sessional Papers 1896, pp. 22–23, Sri Lankan National Archives.

45 ‘Enclosure 87a, Jaffna, July 1980', Correspondence on Railway, Sessional Paper 1981, p. 94, Sri Lankan National Archives.

46 Ibid.

47 Jaffna Catholic Guardian, 12 August 1905.

48 Ibid.

49 Denham, Ceylon, p. 70.

50 Tracing by Senthilkumaran, the exact date of the poster is unknown. Subsequently, this poster featured in a 2009 Sri Lankan government campaign video for the planned reopening of the Northern Railway Line: see the video on <>, [accessed 11 October 2011].

51 There are other minorities but they are not involved in the ethnic conflict on grounds of language or ethnicity.

52 Tambiah, Sri Lanka; Spencer, ‘Introduction’; Krishna, Sankaran, Post-colonial Insecurities: India, Sri Lanka, and the Question of Nationhood (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000).

53 Nissan and Stirrat, ‘Generation’, p. 35

54 Ibid.

55 Krishna, Post-colonial Insecurities.

56 Valentine Daniel, personal communication.

57 Interview, July 2003.

58 Krishna, Post-colonial Identities.

59 He, unlike me, was quite unperturbed by the staff's attention to bureaucracy and procedure in the midst of the assault on their passengers.

60 Hoole, Rajan, Sri Lanka: The Arrogance of Power: Myths, Decadence and Murder (Jaffna: United Teachers for Human Rights, 2001), pp. 2238.

61 As the Sansoni Report into the 1977 riots found, a false message was sent from police in Jaffna to others on the radio waves telling of crowds of Tamils waiting to kill Sinhalese passengers arriving in Jaffna. Ibid.

62 Ibid.

63 Tambiah, Sri Lanka.

64 Ibid, p. 12.

65 Stokke, Kristian, ‘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.

66 Ibid.

67 Thiranagama, Sharika, In My Mother's House: Civil War in Sri Lanka (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).

68 Multiple interviews, London, 2004.

69 Ibid.

70 Ibid.

71 D. Sriskandarajah, ‘Forced Migration Online: Sri Lanka’ (2004), <>, [accessed 21 November 2011].

72 Thiranagama, In My Mother's House.

73 University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), ‘The Exodus from Jaffna’, Special Report No. 6, December 1995; <>, [accessed 11 October 2011].

74 McDowell, Christopher, A Tamil Asylum Diaspora: Sri Lankan Migration, Settlement and Politics in Switzerland (Oxford: Berghahn, 1996).

75 Kerr, ‘Representation’.

76 See University Teachers for Human Rights, ‘Let Them Speak: Truth about Sri Lanka's Victims of War’, Special Report No. 34, 13 December 2009, <>, [accessed 11 October 2011]; United Nations, Report of the Secretary-General's Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka (2011), <>, [accessed 10 October 2011].

77 The President donated his April salary, government employees had one day's pay docked, children donated through their schools, and celebratory tickets were sold for prospective journeys.

78 Accessible on: <>, [accessed 10 October 2011].

79 It also shows glimpses of the famous Mihintale Buddhist Stupa and a farmer waving through the window.

80 See, for example, C. Mascarenhas, ‘Robbing from Schoolchildren?’, The Sunday Leader, 16 May 2010; <> and ‘Where are all the funds collected for ‘Uthuru mithuru’ (Northern friends) railway?’, Lanka e-news, 4 May 2010, <>, [both accessed 11 October 2011].

81 ‘Letter to the Editor from Major General A. M. B. Amunugama KSV (Retired), Project Director’, Rebuilding Yal Devi Friendship Track; <>, [accessed 11 October 2011].

* This research was made possible by an Economic and Social Research Council Postgraduate Studentship (2001–06) and an Economic and Social Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship (2006–2007) at Edinburgh University. I wish to thank my Edinburgh colleagues and participants at the ‘Everyday Technology in Monsoon Asia’ conference who heard and commented on earlier versions of this paper. Jonathan Spencer, Lotte Hoek, Naveeda Khan, Thomas Blom Hansen, David Arnold, and my anonymous reviewer all gave me very incisive comments on drafts and ideas on different versions. In particular I wish to thank N. Senthikumaran who replied to a stranger's email many years ago and generously shared his knowledge, photographs, and love of the Northern Railway Line with me. I also benefited immensely from the help of staff at the National Archives in Colombo where much of this material was gathered. This paper is dedicated to Abi Rasaratnam and I hope she will one day ride the railway with me from Colombo to Jaffna.

Currently Department of Anthropology, Stanford University, Building 50, 450 Serra Mall, Stanford CA 93405 Email:

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Modern Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0026-749X
  • EISSN: 1469-8099
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-asian-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score