Back in time ferries used to transport passengers from Talaimannar to Dhanushkodi on the southeastern Indian coast as part of the railway service that connected Ceylon and India, and back again. Today, this service has ceased to operate, a casualty of the keenly watched, deeply fraught, and highly militarized maritime boundary between India and Sri Lanka. The building and policing of borders – and the means to traverse them – operate at the behest of governments that interested in faster, better, and cheaper itineraries to control, move and resettle people.
These ambitions often form the stuff of colonial archives. Few accounts survive of those forced to navigate complicated legal and bureaucratic regimes set up in the brief moments when there is a tantalizing glimpse of what homes and lives could be like on the other side, or of those who risked “illegal” crossings. The same holds true for the Dhanushkodi-Talaimannar crossing.
These accounts are, of course, not in the colonial correspondence relating to Ceylon and India. As with other histories of infrastructure and transportation in South Asia, the ferry service (as well as the immigration facilities and quarantine camps that served them) was set up in an effort to link the two colonial economies of Ceylon and India.
It began operations in 1914 as a joint effort between the Ceylon Government Railway and the South Indian Railway. This was not the first means of traveling across the Palk Bay, nor did the ferry service eclipse older means of traveling across the Bay by means of country boats and catamarans. In other words, people had been traveling between the two countries for centuries, but the volume of travel greatly intensified beginning in the mid-nineteenth century as cheap labor was recruited primarily from Madras in British India to work on the tea plantations and rubber estates in Ceylon.
Efforts to link Ceylon and southern India by rail officially began at least as early as 1895. The Planters’ Association of Ceylon, a powerful association of tea plantation owners in Ceylon, was particularly interested in finding an alternate route for the transport of laborers (“the cooly traffic”) from southern India to Ceylon. Before the Talaimannar ferry service, laborers recruited for Ceylon traveled by sea from Tuticorin (present-day Thoothukudi) to Colombo, which took about fifteen hours across the choppy waters of the Palk Strait.
Tuticorin was not a convenient port of call. Ships had to dock nearly seven miles from the shore owing to the shallow water. Some official reports noted that women and children were thrown from the tugboats that took passengers to the steamers that could not approach the shore. Moreover, during the southwest monsoon, it was particularly difficult to navigate the Strait. Officials worried that this harrowing experience would no doubt create a negative impression of Ceylon in the minds of those being recruited to work there.
Over the first decade of the twentieth century, several different proposals were made to entice the Indian government to invest in the railway link. In exchange for the investment in the railway link, the Ceylon Government Railway offered the South Indian Railway limited rights to carry people and goods to and from Trincomalee, arguably Ceylon’s most prominent harbor on its eastern coast.
On another occasion, there was a proposal to connect Negapatanam (present-day Nagapattinam) on the Indian coast to ports in the Jaffna peninsula in Sri Lanka. But the most extensive proposals concerned the viability of building a rail link over Adam’s Bridge, the line of shoals and rocks that lay just below the water’s surface, which was ultimately deemed too expensive. If the railway companies in eastern India could carry railway cars across the Ganga and Hooghly rivers, officials argued, the Indo-Ceylon link across a much smaller distance of twenty-one miles would surely be possible.
Although the Ceylon Government was not initially enthusiastic about the project, it became clear over time that a rail link would improve trade and passenger revenue, allow for better quarantine facilities for the imported “coolies” and make for a better – and shorter – sea voyage for laborers, traders, pilgrims and holidaymakers to travel between India and Ceylon.
Ultimately, both the Ceylon Government Railway and the Southern Indian Railway signed on, and the Talaimannar Pier was completed and opened for goods and passenger traffic in 1914.
Shipping Corporation of India specifically acquired Ramanujam ferry for service in the Talaimannar – Rameswaram service. The distance between Rameswaram and the nearest Sri Lankan Island of Talaimannar is quite abysmal and boats have travelled between the two nations for centuries.
There used to be a passenger ferry service operating as well. To reach Colombo from Rameswaram and back. Passengers were supposed to go through immigration, be in Ceylon in a couple of hours and take the train to Colombo, which also had a restaurant car serving beer!
All services continued until 1983, when the violence associated with a long-simmering ethnic conflict between the majority Sinhala and minority Tamil communities on the island escalated.