Demodara railway station a quaint building painted peach could easily be mistaken for a house if not for the rail lines that runs behind it. The third station from Badulla on the main line enroute to Colombo Demodara is notable for the spiral rail line that makes the train loop around the mountain and take the tunnel beneath it. This innovative design was done by one of Sri Lanka’s greatest engineers D. J. Wimalasurendra around 1923 when they discovered that the elevation was too difficult for the constructors to handle. The locals say that the railway engineer, Wimaladurendara was inspired by the Kankany in the tea estate undo his Talappawa (turban) and retie it around his head.
The train blowing the whistle emerges from the tunnel and travels 6 kms down to Ella station. Along this stretch is another phenomenal structure following British architecture of stone viaducts. The Nine Arch Bridge was done two years before the main line reached Demodara. It is nearly a hundred feet in height and spans the gap between two mountains. Viewing from below where the water flows thinly, the nine arches take the form of a child’s drawing of clouds in the sky. Hence the Sinhalese name for the bridge came to be Ahas Nawa Palama or Nine Skies Bridge. The bridge of was done in brick, stone and cement without any use of steel for reinforcement. The arches are purpose built to press against each other spreading the weight equally across the span of the bridge.
Way back in 1921 the construction of the bridge may have seemed impossible as the connection between the mountains was over a terrible quagmire and the builders had no way getting started. The story around the amazing feat is retold by the builder’s grandson. R. M. Piyathilaka to Mawbima newspaper. According to him P. K Appuhamy his grandfather an artisan from Welimada, Kappetipola met the British engineer quite by chance and took upon himself the challenge. He filled the boggy with rocks and started building the bridge with a band of men. According to folklore the construction had taken several years. Once completed the British engineer had expressed his doubt of its stability apparently because the full amount allocated for the construction had not been used. The builder is said to have then laid himself beneath the bridge as the first train took its journey. Impressed of his bravery the British engineer had gifted the balance silver in three cartloads to the builder.
A series of stamps and a first day cover was issued in February 2014 to commemorate the Nine Arch Viaduct and the spiral railway at Demodara.
Once I reached the Ella station I traced the bridge using the inner roads, taking a narrow path uphill. After walking close upon 3 kms I reached the bridge. Here standing with other travelers we waited for the opportune moment to capture the blue train emerge from the tunnel. It is also possible to trail down the slopes to the bottom and check out the girth of the massive columns.
The curious traveler needs one full day to explore these two items on the itinerary. I had reached the first station by road early in the morning and was able to watch the train take the spiral and arrive an hour later in Ella. There I was able to catch a glimpse of the second train from Badulla traveling over the Nine Arch Bridge. It is possible to then take the train back around 1.30 pm to Badulla to experience the ride over the bridge and loop the rail lines set in the shape of a turban. That way you have missed nothing.
At last I come to Badulla – a big building painted white like a local mansion (Walawwa) and surrounded by tall shady trees is the station. In the front of this sprawling building are Anthurims growing in several window boxes splashing brilliant hues of red and orange in dappled light. Before I go chasing water falls (the Dunhinda, Bambarakanda and Diyaluma) I had to see the wooden bridge that everyone was talking about. From there I hired a tuk-tuk to get me to the famous Bogoda wooden bridge that is hidden in a village. The bridge built 400 years ago is done entirely of wood, the columns as well as the roofing rafts and ornate fences is according to Kandian style. This 49 foot long bridge now in disuse, helped people cross the Gallanda Oya linking Badulla and Kandy in an ancient route. The bridge belonging to the 16th century, Dhambadeniya period is said to be the oldest surviving wooden bridge in the country.