Disclaimer: All photographs in this post are the work of Buddhika Jayawardana and Asher de Silva, two of our group. My hearifelt gratitude to them for their amazing photography
Standing atop a mountain, looking about the massive trees that you passed on your way appear nothing but little toy trees, one feels a sense of wonder – and in my case utter humbleness and a stark reminder that we are nothing but insignificant details of the colorful tapestry that is the universe. Looking up at a massive construction that undoubtedly consumed blood, sweat and lives of our ancestors, one feels nothing but wonder and bewilderment at the remarkable feats our insignificant bodies are capable of. And that, is how Nine Arches Bridge made me feel.
The Sinhala term for the bridge “ahas nawaye paalama”, which means “the bridge of nine skies” is a true portrayal of the essence of this bridge. Standing at the foot of this larger than life construction, one does indeed see nine skies as they look heavenwards.
Nine Arches Bridge is a construction of about 300ft in length and 25ft in width. It was fascinating to learn that this bridge was constructed without using a single piece of steel. The story has it that the around the time the bridge was constructed, World War I broke out and thus, all the steel that was allocated for the bridge construction had to be used for war. And like the remarkable and innovative people that we are, the British consulted one local Appuhami and built this massive construction which stands over 3100 feet above sea level using rocks, bricks and cement – all locally sourced.
As fascinating as the tale of the bridge construction is, its involvement in the modern day village life was fascinating too. This uncle we met on the bridge had quite a few stories to share with us.
The arches are home to infamous wasps of Sri Lanka, as we witnessed. As many as three or four nests would hang from each arch, thankfully silent during our visit in the evening. However, the uncle told us, during day time it is not possible for a person to stand on the bridge as the wasps irritated by the heat attack whoever is in the vicinity. (On a side note, I would be very interested to know if the wasps attack passengers of the train during daytime or if they have learnt to stay away from the metal monster) And yet, these fearless men of the village make it a habit to extract honey from wasp’s nests, we heard. The adventure, of course, has to take place at night when the wasps are considerably dormant. This means that the extraction has to be done in pitch dark, as there are no lights on the Bridge of Nine Skies. Men of the village would tie ropes on to the railway track, and then climb over the side of the bridge to reach the nests. The haunting image of flames dancing mid-air on a dark night was destroyed, however, by the uncle’s jovial response that they use electric torches because “why bother with flames when there are easier things to hold”.
The bridge that gives sustenance has also aided destruction, we heard, as this bridge is quite infamous for those wishing to plunge to a painful death. We were told that numerous people had jumped off the bridge to their death, and in all cases but one, the body was “found in pieces”. The exception to the norm had been a young boy in his hormonal teens, who lives in a little house overlooking the track. On the day of Sinhala and Tamil New Year 2015, the boy had had a fight with his parents and had run to the bridge, and jumped off of it while his lamenting and helpless family watched from their house. And yet, miracle of miracles, this boy lives to date. Adding more mystery to the tale is the uncle’s strong declaration that “there was not even a scratch on the boy who lived”.
The lives of these people fascinate me. The Bridge of Nine Skies is so interwoven with their lives that it is nothing but another component of life to them. While we trek miles in mud, rain and rock to get to this spectacular view, they live with this right in front of them – never forgetting in their routine the people who expended their lives – be it literally or metaphorically – for and on the bridge.
There is hope for the future too. This little one, the proud grandson of a proud grandfather is a bundle of pluck, wit and brawn at the ripe old age of four (he did not know how old he was, and had to consult his grandfather for the answer). While we teetered on the steep descent to the bottom of the bridge, this little tyke was jumping from one sleeper to the other (railway ties), begging and cajoling the grandfather to let him walk down to the foot of the bridge.
And this is where we bid adieu. Adieu to the determined humans – both Sri Lankan and British – who did not let a mere inconvenience as a war deter them from building a bridge; adieu to the memories of the melancholy souls who took their lives when things were too tough to handle; adieu to the wasps who keep building what us humans keep breaking, and pursuing us in a justifiable vengefulness; adieu to the generation of yore, whose tales of might sing songs of wonder; adieu to the generation to come, who has inherited the same pluck as that of the remarkable humans who realized this construction; and adieu, to the Nine Arches Bridge, that of Nine Skies – standing tall and impassive as eras, lives and landscape changed all around it – speaking wordless stories for ages to come.