By Kanishkaa Balachandran/NIA
Kadugannawa appears like any nondescript town in Sri Lanka as you approach it on the Colombo-Kandy highway. Paddy fields and coconut trees on either side make way for little shops in tin shacks and a series of garages selling automobile spare parts. As you drive down the town’s two-lane thoroughfare, tuk-tuks and tourist vans pay little heed to lane discipline and zip past recklessly. However, you soon realize you are not in an ordinary town when you slow down at the sight of a steam engine relic on display by the side of the road. Kadugannawa rarely, or never, gets a mention in tour itineraries, nor is it on the tourist map. Yet, the National Railway Museum in town is a convenient excuse for an unscheduled stop en route to either Kandy or Colombo.
The two-storey heritage-style building that houses the museum adds to the old-world touch. Behind this is the Kadugannawa railway station, open to fully functional trains and modern air conditioned coaches. Engines, coaches and rail cars are displayed on railroads either side of the building.
The museum was opened in December 2014, to mark the 150th anniversary of the first train journey in Ceylon, between Colombo and Ambepussa. Foreign nationals have to shell out Rs 500 for a ticket while locals are charged a tenth of the cost. That shouldn’t be a deterrent, though, for visitors as the experience makes up for it.
You can explore the rustic interiors of wooden coaches from bygone eras, the driver’s controls, take a seat at the restaurant car and watch the traffic go by. The steep climb to the door is an adventure in itself so if you’re looking to ‘selfie the moment’, watch your step!
The first thing that strikes you as you enter the building is an ancient wooden rail car. Truly colonial. The main hall has several commemorative plaques denoting the opening of new rail lines at various stations in Sri Lanka. There’s several memorabilia for train geeks – the narrow gauge locomotive axle, guard lamp, hand signal lamp, the Gledhill-Brook Time Recorder used to record attendance of staff in Ratmalana (near Colombo), a fire extinguisher on wheels, siren clock, movable bench grinder, a giant sundial and more. If you ever wondered what the toilets were like, they saved a few relic commodes and a soapbox too for you to see.
A fascinating workable exhibit is the Tyer’s Electric Train Tablet instrument. Devised by a British engineer Edward Tyer in 1874, this system uses a tablet – a form of token – that acts as a physical guarantee to the train crew that they have exclusive right of way on a single line section. Operators at the source station and the destination station need to work simultaneously to ensure that the line is clear. The operator from the source station produces the tablet from the instrument and hands it over to the driver, who later hands the tablet to the operator at the destination station. Newer, simpler methods using advanced technology have rendered this system obsolete, but some lines in Sri Lanka still use this system. Some old habits never die.
This seemingly elaborate system needs a demonstration and an explanation from guides, but this is probably the biggest drawback of the museum. There is no available literature explaining each exhibit and its history, save for labels merely mentioning what it is. The guide who explained most of the exhibits to us spoke very little English and instead he explained everything in Tamil, his preferred language. Those familiar with the language, like us, would be better off, but foreign tourists would be completely handicapped. Some exhibits are fairly self explanatory but if you want to learn more, you would have to reach for your phone and start googling.
For a brief history of the country’s rail network, there’s a 10-minute video screened inside an air conditioned wooden coach at the end of the museum, adjacent to the main railway station. Fortunately, this has English subtitles.
You can’t leave without gazing at the train model, with an entire chamber dedicated to it. It isn’t as spectacular as the model I had seen at the Transport Museum in Coventry, but any train model, irrespective of its scale, is enough to bring out your inner child.