Modern Asian Studies

Research Article

‘A Railway to the Moon’: The post-histories of a Sri Lankan railway line*


a1 Department of Anthropology, The New School for Social Research, 6 East 16th Street, 9th floor, New York NY 10003 Email:


This paper takes as its subject the 1905 opening and 1990 closure of the Northern Railway Line, the major Sri Lankan railway which ran the length of the island from south to north. It argues that it can been seen as a social compact in which the life of the individual, the community, and the state became integrally intertwined. It focuses on two dimensions of what the Northern Railway Line enabled in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon): first, a physical and symbolic representation of stateness, and, secondly, the pursuit of mundane everyday life. These are embedded within Sri Lanka's landscapes and histories of colonial and post-colonial rule, and the ethnic conflict, riots, and war which inextricably shaped the railway's journeys and passengers. Railways are more often thought of as large-scale, high-tech artefacts rather than the smaller everyday technologies that are the themes of other papers in this special issue. However, this paper highlights the ways in which railways also make particular kinds of everyday life possible and how, in being woven into routine daily and weekly journeys, the Northern Railway Line came to intertwine the changing circumstances and histories of its mainly Tamil passengers within an increasingly ethnicized national landscape. In the aftermath of its closure, the railway has now come to symbolize a desire for a return to the normalcy of the past, an aspiration to an everyday experience that younger generations have never had, and which has, in consequence, become a potent force.

. . . the Northern Railway Line to be opened tomorrow would be a great boon to the Jaffnese in and out of Jaffna. . . it has become possible to travel to Jaffna in a single day. . . At last the railway which was characterized as a ‘tantalising vision’ by a previous Governor and ‘a railway to the moon’, by a quondam Colonial Secretary, has become a fait accompli.

This line has been completely destroyed between Vavuniya and Kankesanthurai (KKS) a track length of 160km. . . The Northern Railway Line is the main line connecting Colombo with Jaffna. . . the third largest town in Sri Lanka prior to the conflict and the Northern Railway Line was in high demand from both passengers and freight. There is a great sentiment amongst the people of the north for restoration.


p1 Currently Department of Anthropology, Stanford University, Building 50, 450 Serra Mall, Stanford CA 93405 Email:

* This research was made possible by an Economic and Social Research Council Postgraduate Studentship (2001–06) and an Economic and Social Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship (2006–2007) at Edinburgh University. I wish to thank my Edinburgh colleagues and participants at the ‘Everyday Technology in Monsoon Asia’ conference who heard and commented on earlier versions of this paper. Jonathan Spencer, Lotte Hoek, Naveeda Khan, Thomas Blom Hansen, David Arnold, and my anonymous reviewer all gave me very incisive comments on drafts and ideas on different versions. In particular I wish to thank N. Senthikumaran who replied to a stranger's email many years ago and generously shared his knowledge, photographs, and love of the Northern Railway Line with me. I also benefited immensely from the help of staff at the National Archives in Colombo where much of this material was gathered. This paper is dedicated to Abi Rasaratnam and I hope she will one day ride the railway with me from Colombo to Jaffna.