There are bridges, and then there are some more. There are bridges that have been immortalised in countless classic movies; The Bridge on the River Kwai instantly comes to mind. There are bridges that connect countries and people, like the Oresund Bridge that links Sweden with Denmark. And then there are bridges, that, in this age of social media, have shot into the limelight. One such bridge is the Nine Arch Bridge.
Also called the Bridge in the Sky, the Nine Arch Bridge lies between the small-town stations of Ella and Demodara in Sri Lanka. For those who continue their train journey on the fabled Kandy-Ella train to Dambulla, which is the last station, it’s another opportunity to click that ‘Instagram’ moment. However, plenty others simply make the trip to come down and see the bridge and walk along the tracks. And yes, there are plenty of ‘Instagram’ shots that everyone indulges in, including yours truly. Of course, the highlight is to catch the train as it slowly chugs on the bridge. And it’s a beautiful sight, wherever you may have positioned yourself.
A bit of history
However, there is more to this bridge. It is perhaps, among the best examples of colonial-era rail construction. A popular story that has gained currency, especially among the locals is that, when the First World War broke out, all the steel that was originally meant for the construction of the bridge was diverted to war-related projects back in Great Britain and Europe.
Rather than let the bridge be left half complete, a team of Sri Lankan engineers and builders decided to proceed with its construction. They chose to not use steel at all, and instead focussed on building it with stone bricks and cement. Their efforts finally came to fruition in 1921. As you gaze upon this bridge, towering 24m high and 91m long, that is when you begin to appreciate the ingenuity of this team.
Not all plans go according to plan
When we were planning our trip to Sri Lanka, Ella was always going to be the last leg of our journey, before a final night in Colombo. During my research on things to do, I had chalked up several things, including perhaps a couple of trips to see the Nine Arch Bridge. That way, depending on where I had positioned myself on the first day, I could always try for another angle, perhaps on the other side.
Sadly, all those good plans of mine came a cropper. Travelling from Kandy to Ella, I had a momentary lapse of concentration. With my feet dangling from the footboard, I misjudged the distance and height of the platform a few stations before Ella. By the time I had reacted, my feet were getting squeezed ever so tightly between the platform and the footboard. A few frantic pushes and pulls later, I managed to get both of my feet out of further harm. But harm was done. When I had it checked back in Mumbai a week later, the x-ray revealed a couple of broken toes and a fracture at the base of the foot. So much for over-confidence. So much for planning.
After resting the foot for a day, we hired a tuk-tuk for a tour of all the interesting sights in and around Ella. The Nine Arch Bridge was our first stop. Initially, the driver stopped by a small restaurant and assured us those were the best possible view. I don’t disagree. But having seen umpteen photographs on various travel blogs and Instagram, I wanted to at least, attempt to see the bridge from any one of those spots. That’s when the driver agreed to take us a little ahead, where he assured us, was a path that led down to the track. From there, it would be a bit of a walk along the track to the bridge.
Having come so far, the last thing on my mind was protecting the foot. Instead, using my friend’s shoulder, I hopped down and groaned, and fumbled forward and groaned some more. One step at a time, we finally managed to reach the bridge, with enough time to catch my breath and wait for the train that was expected soon.
An honest impression
Is it the most beautiful bridge? I’m not sure about that. I’ll partly blame the state of my mind and body. However, more importantly, the number of effusive compliments I had read on various travel blogs is also to blame. I don’t know how others would react, but in my case, the more a particular destination or sight is hyped, the higher my expectations. I then go ahead and build this romanticised image in my head. And if it doesn’t live up to that, then it becomes a bit of a disappointment. Here’s looking at you, Bali and Venice.
However, what does gives Nine Arch Bridge a heads up over others is the lush green tea plantations and thick forests on either side that connect the two hills. Whichever side of the hill you position yourself, what you are guaranteed are spectacular views, with the bridge taking centre stage in each of them. And that I will give it.