“Don’t be a fool, Girigoris” said Weerakoon, the foreman of the tunnel gang, Way and Works department, to his Minor Supervisor. They were getting down from the special service train near the tunnel No. 18, Pattipola, to unload the men, material and equipment from the train brought along with them for the purpose of carrying out repairs to the tunnel.
“The successful completion of this work will depend on us and our performance and not on any poojas, spells or mantrams,” he continued.
Tunnel No. 18 is situated just a few meters away from the highest point of the railway network at 6,226 feet above Mean Sea Level in Pattipola. Its proximity to the Summit point earned itself an alternative name – the Summit Tunnel. Weerakoon was admonishing Girigoris for suggesting that the leak was the work of angry gods. Girigoris wasn’t encouraged to carry on with his narrative.
The Summit Tunnel is one of 43 in the Upper District. Tunnels are an unavoidable feature when constructing railway networks in mountainous regions. In the case of the Main Line of our railways, it seems remarkable that as many as 43 tunnels exist in a length of just 137 miles of track from Rambukkana to Badulla. At the time these tunnels were constructed by the British, during the latter half of the nineteenth century, it was unlikely that any mechanical equipment – even the first generation models of those available today for earthwork and rock blasting – would have existed; for by 1894 the construction of the railway line up to Bandarawela had already been completed. This would have left them with no choice but to use only hand tools for earthwork.
Even explosives were invented only towards 1867 and there is no indication that blasting material was commercially available during the period the bulk of the track work in the upcountry was being carried out. There was no doubt that large gangs of cheap labour would have been used for the construction.
Despite Weerakoon’s dismissive remarks, Girigoris was determined to give his boss another chance to listen to his story when the former would be in a better mood after dinner that night. Accordingly, having completed the day’s work of unloading and stacking all the materials and equipment brought along in the train and having had his dinner in the temporary abode erected for the staff near the tunnel entrance, Girigoris made certain that Weerakoon was relaxing in his saloon and was more amenable to listen to him when he walked up to meet his superior. .
Having clambered into the saloon, Girigoris started his narrative thus:
“Sir,” said he, testing the ground first.
“Yes, Girigoris, what is it this time?”
“Sir, I want to bring to your notice what the villagers in my colony have been hearing about this tunnel and the reasons that caused the tunnel to ‘weep’.
“During World War 11, I heard it being said in the village that an officer serving in the British Admiralty stationed in Trincomalee had wandered into the hill country and found the cool climate at Pattipola well suited him. He next went looking for a house to live in whenever he found an opportunity to do so. On these trips he was accompanied by his young and beautiful wife and they spent their leisure from time to time in that area.”
Weerakoon was beginning to be impatient.
“What has all that got to do with a tunnel that belongs to the railways, Girigoris?” he asked.
“I am coming to that, Sir” continued Girigoris.
“Then cut it short!”
“To cut it short, Sir, it was their subsequent conduct, unbecoming of any individual in this Saman Deviyo’s adaviya, that angered the God Saman the guardian deity of this land. It is his wrath that has caused the tunnel to ’weep’. Before we commence work, we should have a pooja to invoke the blessings of the God Saman, and drive the evil spirits away.”
It is recorded in the Mahawansa, the great chronicle of Lanka, that the Buddha, on the day of his Parinibbana, summoned Sakra and handed over to him this island of Lanka, and the Sinhala race. Sakra (continues the record) on receipt of this command, appointed Vishnu as the guardian deity of Lanka. To this day, Vishnu, along with the other deities have been the protector of this Dharmadveepaya ushering peace and prosperity among its peoples. Legend has it that evil effects of men have unhesitatingly brought the wrath of God upon himself and the land on which he lived. This was what Girigoris too had heard from the colonists the day he and his staff moved to the Summit Tunnel way back in 1951.
Folklore abounds in villages sometimes stretching the facts – that God Vishnu entrusted regions of the island to other Gods such as Sri Pada and the upcountry to God Saman, the Ruhunu Rata to God Kataragama etc. Villagers believe that Gods are angered by evil acts of men. Sayings such as – ‘Denagena giyoth Kataragama, Nodena giyoth atharamaga’ for pilgrims trudging up to Kataragama (if you guard your tongue you will reach Kataragama, otherwise you will be lost en route) warning them against uttering gibberish, and ‘kata varadda ganna epa, kata karunawayi’ as a warning to pilgrims climbing the Adams Peak (guard your tongue, may God help your tongue, as otherwise you will be punished) and weather gods have been angered when it rains incessantly Vesi valaka deviyo tharaha vela – are quite common among village folk. Similarly, the Gods will impose punishment for evil acts of men, they believe.
Girigoris was a village rustic through and through. Although he had been employed on jobs with a technical bias, he wouldn’t bother to even understand simple laws of physics such as gravity that would make anything fall vertically down, such as the ground water that seeps through the tunnel lining, and that a tunnel cannot ‘weep’. He would rather believe mythical stories such as what he narrated and place his faith implicitly on the mood of Gods rather than on stark facts. He had been recruited to the railways on the only qualification required at the time – of being a son of a railway employee. Thereafter he had risen through the ranks to become a Supervisor.
Weerakoon, also nicknamed “Half Charge Weerakoon”, on the other hand, had been a city lad. He had studied science and entered service in the railways with the requisite qualifications. He had followed technical training in the department, and was trained to look for rational explanations for a problem of this nature. He would therefore have none of what his Supervisor wanted and ordered him that work should commence early the next day without resorting to poojas and attempts to drive away non existent evil spirits.
This time round, he was more amused than angered when Girigoris tried to talk him into a pooja. He wished Girigoris good night which was another way of getting rid of him and getting to bed himself.
The existing lining of this tunnel had been disintegrating over a period of time, causing a heavy leak of water through it and endangering its structural integrity and therefore the safe passage of trains through it. The repairs had to be undertaken urgently in January 1951 and hence the gangs were ordered to proceed to the site by the District Engineer to carry out the earmarked repairs on the tunnel. They were experienced men who had successfully carried out many such repairs previously.
At dawn the next day, January 5, 1951, the repair work commenced in earnest, exactly the way it had been planned by Weerakoon in consultation with the District Engineer. Girigoris complied, though reluctantly, as he could not perform the rituals during the previous evening as he very much wanted to.
The repair to be undertaken was pretty straightforward. The affected portion of the existing lining of the inside face of the tunnel, all the way from the ground level up to the crown on either side, and any protruding parts of the rock face infringing with the loading gauge had to be either chipped off if possible or carefully removed by other means making certain that no part of the lining beyond what was really necessary should be affected. The ‘other means’ was ‘controlled’ blasting using the right amount of ‘charge’ (blasting material) necessary to remove only a specific portion of the existing concrete lining. There was no doubt that Weerakoon had the knowledge and experience to handle this work on the basis of such work carried out by him previously. His competence with regard to this aspect of the job was never in question.
As a matter of fact, both Weerakoon and Girgoris were employed in the tunnel gang whose task was to focus exclusively on the large number of tunnels that existed in the Upper district. They were involved in inspecting the tunnels annually, preparing and submitting to the department a report of such inspections drawing attention to the physical condition of each of the tunnels, the areas of deficiency in each of them and the suggested remedies. Any tunnels that were in imminent danger of collapse or were otherwise unsuitable for normal speeds had to be highlighted in the report or separately if and when there was such a danger. It was on such reports that the program for repair to be carried out subsequently was also prepared.
The only unusual circumstance in the case of the Summit Tunnel in January of 1951 was the excessive leak of water and the larger than usual overburden of about one hundred and ten feet of earth above the tunnel. The day was gradually ending and work was proceeding well when Weerakoon had to decide on the exact amount of explosives needed for the ‘charge’ that was to be used to facilitate the removal of a portion of the crown of the tunnel. On closer examination under lights, Weerakoon was somewhat taken aback by the extent of the disintegration that had occcured at the crown of the tunnel by the combination of the leak and other factors. For once in his life, a shiver ran down Weerakoon’s spine when he remembered Girigoris’s story.
The overburden of earth above the tunnel to a height of one hundred and ten feet seemed to now bother him. He didn’t seem to have heeded the warnings of his faithful subordinate when he summarily dismissed the suggestion made the previous evening. . He was determined nevertheless to see an end to the preliminary work of removing the existing lining by evening so that he could commence concreting the next morning
The time was getting close to 4 pm. There would be another two hours of work possible that ran into overtime, which he had planned to do. The gang had returned after their evening cup of tea. The inside of the tunnel was getting darker by the minute. They were ready with carbide lamps if needed. Weearkoon was now becoming impatient about some delay to the work and he shouted to Grigoris who at that moment seemed rather lethargic.
By Daya Lelwela
Source: The Island
Tags: badulla, bandarawela, employee, explosives, gangs, inspections, kataragama, mahawa, main line, performance, pilgrims, railway, railway line, railway network, sea level, service train, summit, trincomalee, tunnels, upcountry, water