A farewell to ferries

Tissa Devendra recalls his days in Anuradhapura when water transport was the only form of trans-riverine crossing

Almost 60 years ago when I took up duties as a District Land Officer in Trincomalee, it was truly a backwater where the daily newspapers arrived from Colombo by the evening train. Although my boyhood had been spent in Kandy, Nawalapitiya and Ratnapura, I had never lived in a town so remote from Colombo where I had been an undergrad and where my parental home was. This posting gave me the much desired ‘thallu-start’ to living on my own.

My work was to take me to distant villages on inspection, travelling on rutted roads which played havoc on the spring blades and shock absorbers of my new car, or by jeep along jungle tracks and dry stream beds. But what really fascinated me were the ferries which crossed the district’s estuaries and lagoons and had to be forded to reach faraway villages.

Trincomalee District was about 80 miles from north to south and was criss-crossed with the many outlets of the Mahaweli and lagoons that drained to the eastern sea. A pot-holed travesty of a road linked Pulmoddai in the north via Trincomalee town, to Verugal in the south. However, it was no easy trail as eight waterways, of varying width, had to be crossed to reach one’s destination. No bridge ever spanned these pristine waters. Ferries were the only form of trans-riverine crossing.

There was another, very different, inland ferry, the only one, on the extraordinarily rough road from Kantalai to Allai[of this, more anon]. Travellers in a hurry to go south, and pilgrims to Seruvila, had the alternative of sailing on Alwis’ ramshackle launch. But this dubious ‘luxury’ was not for us field officers who to inspect remote villages had to use a ferry closest to our destination

Boat building

I believe I should describe this, now endangered, mode of water transport before it goes the way of the dinosaurs – whom it rather resembled in bulk and clumsy movement. Strangely enough the manufacture, maintenance and repair of all ferries that serviced PWD roads was the preserve of the Government Factory in Kolonnawa.

‘A ferry Loaded with farmers’ families and my car’

I learnt this fact from the crew repairing a damaged ferry, upended on the shores of a distant lagoon, looking like a beached whale. This was a job they loved to do – a holiday in bucolic surroundings, hardly supervised and working at their own pace, evenings of “wine and women” [rather kasippu and \kellas’] and, best of all, earning a fat packet of out-of-station ‘batta’.

The ferrymen were a sturdy breed, government employees selected for their toughness and provided with a hut near the ferry beach-head so that they were ‘ready for action’ whenever there was a load of passengers on this shore or there was ‘hoo’ cry from the opposite shore. Now that bridges are beginning to span these rivers and lagoons, I hope this sturdy breed will be retired as comfortably as the catapult wielding chap whose ‘job description’ read chasing monkeys away from the roof of the ramshckle Kachcheri in Anuradhapura ’s Old Town .

The bus that sailed

The classic ferry was basically a sturdy wooden platform joining two large dug-out canoes. Railings on either side kept passengers from falling into the water. Two hinged ramps, fore and aft, enabled vehicles to mount and dismount the platform. It was this exercise that instilled in me cautious clutch and brake control to avoid the, probably apocryphal, story of the driver who confused accelerator and brake and plunged headlong into the lagoon’s murky depths. Traction was provided by ferrymen slowly poling these cumbersome craft. This was, generally, a trouble free operation in quiet inland waters. But it was another story where the waterway emptied into the eastern sea not too far away. Manoeuvring the ferry when monsoon was blowing and currents ran strong was a sinew-straining exercise for ferrymen and a hair-raising scare for panicky passengers.

There is yet another apocryphal yarn of a bus- loaded ferry swept out to sea by strong currents and gale-force winds. For many months after this event, it is said that fishermen from Bangladesh and Burma reported sighting a mysterious bus sailing the Bay of Bengal. The tale of the Floating Bus briefly overtook that of the Flying Dutchman.

Reservation for posterity

May I, at this stage, address the tourist hotels that dot the rivers and lagoons of our southern and western coast to consider rescuing one or more of these Trinco ferries from a fate worse than death. This would preserve a historic mode of transport and as well provide tourists with an exotic ‘voyage’ in our waterways.

Waiting for the ferryman

Travelling by ferry inculcated the virtue of patience in its passengers. No ferry began its crossing till the ferrymen were satisfied that it was adequately loaded with passengers , their baggage and a car or two. A lightly loaded ferry was not manoeuvrable. This wait seemed interminable if you were, God forbid, ever in a hurry. An even longer wait was inevitable if the ferry was on the further shore awaiting a ‘hoo’ cry summoning it. I whiled away these waits in ‘post-mortems’ of the day’s work with my officers, or quietly observing the quaint (to me) dress and demeanour of the simple farmers and fishermen in this fairly isolated area.

The mangroves that bordered the lagoon shores were also an unfamiliar sight – as were the little amphibian pop-eyed fish that crept out of the water to bask briefly in the sun and snap up insects.
A unique feature of these ferry crossings is that no fares were charged. This was a utility provided by the ‘nanny state’ to its citizens and the ferrymen were paid employees of the Government.


My most unforgettable ferry adventure was way back in 1953. Landless peasants from Nuwara Eliya district were being settled on newly irrigated lands and houses in the Allai Scheme. An earlier group of them had travelled by train to Trincomalee town and from there to destination by Aleis’ Launch – the fastest mode of travel to the district’s southern reaches. These poor mountain dwellers, who had never been to sea, were spectacularly sea-sick and could barely totter off the launch to mount the lorries taking them to Allai.

It was now decided to bring the next batch to Kantalai railway station and truck them to Allai by the newly built Kantalai-Allai road. I was just a few months into my job when Government Agent McHeyzer instructed me to conduct this operation – obviously convinced that it was best to learn swimming at the deep end. The first few truckloads of settlers bowled along the new, red and dusty earth road till they reached the Mahaweli ferry that was to carry them across to their new homes. This ferry was different from those described earlier. It was guided by a pulley hitched on to a stout wire that spanned the river – fortunately not too wide. The ferrymen hauled on the pulley to guide the ferry across – a back-breaking task.

However, there was a long break after the first few batches. The dark clouds that had built up rained down in thunderous fury, The roads became a quagmire that trapped all the lorries. The poor settlers, guided by my overseers, had to trudge miles through the lowering jungle tremulously chanting ‘gathas’. At last , wet and weary they reached the river bank and the ferry.

Little thought had been given to the capacity of the ferry, or the ferrymen, to handle such a mass of people. Nor to the horrendous prospect of the cable snapping. But the forest gods were compassionate that dark night. The cable held, and the ferrymen, assisted by volunteers, laboured mightily all night till every single settler reached the further shore. This was the finest hour of these tireless heroes and, alas, I have been their only scribe.

Journey’s end

As the ferry fades into history, reverie carries me back to my most unforgettable memory of being on a ferry as dusk fell. The quiet splash of the ferryman’s oar, the plop of a fish into the water, the muted murmur of tired conversation and the haunting cry of a ‘kirala’ winging across the darkening sky and the stars beginning to glimmer..

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