From devil dancer to chief engineer of the iconic viaduct

Ella has gained momentum as a popular tourist destination and one of the main attractions of this once sleepy hamlet is the iconic “Nine Arches Bridge as it is popularly known. This massive viaduct is built entirely of solid rocks, bricks and cement without using a single piece of steel. One of the most picturesque train journeys in the world starts from the Capital city of Colombo and ends in the hill country city of Badulla crossing a stream of hills and valleys rocks and crevices enabled by some ingenuous craftsmanship of the Colonial British who were the pioneers in building railways around the globe at the turn of the 20th Century. One of the most difficult passages in the construction of this 292.4 km journey was the stretch between Ella and Demodara, where there is a quagmire between two hills and the British constructors who by that time had completed almost 95% of the railway line were now perplexed at finding a solution to this last feat to be successfully completed.   

Construction of the Nine Arches Bridge 

It is believed that when the initial planning of the construction of this viaduct commenced the World War 1 erupted and the solid consignment of steel which was assigned to bolster the structure of the viaduct was diverted for war operations. The British engineers were left stranded not knowing a solution for this predicament.

The circumstances of the introduction of the local savior to rescue this operation is most peculiar. P; K Appuhamy – a Sinhalese native who was a resident of a nearby village was a drummer and devil dancer who used to take part in local healing rituals and on one such occasion he was beaten by a competitive devil-dancer in a performance and he was so disappointed regarding this that he forgot to remove his costume and was returning back home. One of the chief British engineers at that time saw Appuhamy in his devil costume and got the fright of his life. slowly a firm relationship started to build between Appuhamy and the British engineer making it possible for Appuahmy to offer his services and the laborers from nearby villages  in the construction of the railway.

[blockquote align=]Just to prove his point and to restore his integrity, he has slept under the viaduct when the first train journey occurred at the time of the commissioning in 1921.[/blockquote]

Gradually with the help of Appuhamy and his native villagers the railway line continued its long and winding path towards completion. Then came the biggest obstacle in the path – the quagmire between Ella and Demodara. Around this time the World war was beginning to erupt and the steel consignment which was initially assigned for the task of building the bridge was diverted for war operations. Securely anchoring the columns of a bridge to the ground was the main issue.  Appuhami by this time has secured the trust of the engineers by then and requested to hand over the construction of this massive bridge to him. After rejecting the first time, they finally agreed to hand over this mammoth task to Appuhami.

He had commended work around 1914 and got his men to topple large rocks to this gap until they filled up the bottom and then built the brick columns on this rock bed. He has completed the work within about an year and the cost of construction was so low, that made the Colonial masters question the strength and safety of the structure.

Just to prove his point and to restore his integrity, he has slept under the viaduct when the first train journey occurred at the time of the commissioning in 1921. there is folklore in the nearby villages that Appuhamy had charitably shared his earnings with all the villagers who had helped in the construction of the railway line and subsequently the viaduct.

Today the Nine Arches Bridge as it is poplar known stands proudly against the backdrop of the green hills of Ella and visitors wait patiently (sometimes for hours) till a train crosses the viaduct and takes photos and videos for the Sri Lanka mementos. The railway construction continued and the engineers encountered another problem where they discovred the elevation of hills were too far apart for the track to negotiate from one side to the other so the ingenuous engineers possibly with the involvement of Appuhamy resolved this issue by building a spiral loop in the railtrack. however, this is s story for another blog article.

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