Ghosts of the colonial era | Sunday Observer

Ghosts of the colonial era

25 August, 2019
OLD CHARM: The old double-storey granite building of the Getahetta railway station
OLD CHARM: The old double-storey granite building of the Getahetta railway station

When I walked into the sprawling British built abandoned railway station, an imposing colonial heritage building greeted me. While I was photographing the remnants of this century old building a couple of weeks ago, a middle aged trishaw driver approached me and asked why I was doing so. I replied him that I am from a newspaper and was going to write a story on this heritage building. He then said they had planned to build a Buddhist shrine near the station premises with the help of the Pradeshiya Sabha of Getahetta, and it was stopped by the Sri Lanka Railway Department (SLR) which owned the property. Now a massive hole has been left there after the removal of soil from the ground close to the crumbling building.

The Ceylon Government Railway (CGR) started the boom in rail transport in the region by constructing the first line from Colombo Fort to Yatiyantota via Avissawella in 1909. With the rapid expansion of the railway into the southern hinterland, the CGR shifted its third operations permanently from Avissawella to Opanayaka via Ratnapura to transport rubber, tea and coffee from the plantations in 1912.

The Kelani Valley Railway Line (KVRL) (Opanayaka section) came into existence in 1919 with ten stops of which the main stations were set up in Ratnapura and Op anayaka.

There were ten railway stations, and adjoining goods sheds were built on the railway line between Avissawella and Opanayaka. The 87 mile (140 kilometres) long narrow gauge railway line from Colombo to Opanayaka lies in a scenic route south east of Colombo. The steam locomotives ran more leisurely at a speed of just 12 miles per hour and it probably took around 10 hours to reach Opanayaka. In fact, there is a satirical Sinhalese poem which describes how a couple that got into the train from Colombo delivered a baby at the end of the journey!

Since the KVRL from Avissawella to Opanayaka shut down, many stops on the way are now ghost stations. Some structures are overgrown with flora and are crumbling fast but some stations are used as government institutions such as rural banks, health clinics, police stations and community centres.

Among the ruins that survived are old granite built station buildings, stone bridges, iron telegraph posts and old water sheds. One can get a glimpse of these remnants from some places on the road from Avissawella to Opanayaka.

Built in 1912 to serve the railway station in Getahetta, the first station on the Opanayaka section from Avissawella on the narrow gauge KVRL is one of the surviving landmarks. It is now on the verge of collapse due to neglect and disuse. Today, it is a ghost building overgrown with weeds. A majority of the tiled roof structure has given way, with water seeping in through the roof. This has led to the rotting of walls, floor and wooden rafters. The building, not surprisingly, has been left unused for over a decade, worsening the dilapidation.

The walls of the double-storey building were constructed using unique granite-built masonry – and offer spectacular views. The damage to the walls was less because granite does not retain water unlike cement, but releases it after absorption. This ensures that the walls do not swell with water. This is one of the primary reasons the walls in heritage buildings continue to remain strong, though wooden door frames, latexes and windows quickly rot with water absorption.

Although the roof tiles had broken and given way in many places, a significant number of the tiles were still in good condition. As for the wooden rafters, not much could be salvaged as most were rotten with the water seepage.

Interestingly, the cast iron columns and their wooden brackets were completely rusted. The wooden lintels and the flight of steps leading upstairs have been completely destroyed due to prolonged neglect.

“The dilapidated structure not only brings back a bit of our heritage for the people, the space also offers an opportunity to be used as a community hub and a library or rural bank for students and residents around this village,” says an elderly boutique owner near the station.

“We planned to build a Buddhist shrine here with the help of the Pradeshiya Sabha in Getahetta just off the old railway station. While digging the hole, the officers of the Sri Lanka Railway Department came and stopped the construction,” a trishaw driver at Getahetta told me. Another youth Thilina joining in the conversation said, “You can see the Kalu Palama (Black Bridge) on the old railway line over there. The Anguru Kanda (Coal Mountain) nestles a few yards away from the Kalu Palama.”

Thilina related a story about ‘Anguru Kanda’ that his grandfather had narrated him when he was a little boy.

When the steam locomotive reached the higher elevation of a hill known as ‘Anguru Kanda’ near Getahetta, Thilina’s grandfather helped to remove burned coal from the train and dispose it on either side of the track and pack fresh coal to give additional power to the train engine to climb the hill. So people in the area used to call this hill ‘Anguru Kanda’. Even today, people use the name ‘Anguru Kanda’ where the old train track was located, which has now been converted to a road used by the villagers daily. With Sri Lanka having no coal, this is perhaps the only place named in this manner.

Eventually, due to the high cost of maintaining the line, the Government decided to close down the railway line in 1975. The last steam locomotive was reported to have run on the line on April 14, 1975 (Sinhala and Hindu New Year Day).

The railway line was removed the following day and people had encroached the railway property and built houses during this time with the help of the local politicians. Though the locals led a campaign and demanded the return of the steam locomotives, they were helpless.

However, it is the duty of the Sri Lanka Railway to renovate these abandoned colonial period heritage buildings on the KVRL, dotted along the route from Avissawella to Opanayaka. It is also necessary to punish the culprits who have left a gaping hole underneath the colonial railway station at Getahetta.

It may be a lucrative business if these buildings could be leased to local government bodies as community centres to carry out their businesses. At the same time, the ancient glory of the colonial era would be preserved for posterity.