It was April 2012. I had already readied my itinerary for the northern Kerala exploration. The term ‘exploration’ may sound grand, and you may take it for exploring the wilderness. But in reality there was nothing as such and not exactly related to regular tourist spots. In fact I had something different in mind. For long I was speculating on the lengths of the upcoming railway bridges. As such, our Bogibeel would be the longest followed by Deegha Ghat bridge at Patna which is nearing its completion and already opened Vembanad Bridge in Kerala. So I had set my target, it was Vembanad (also known as Vellarpadam) that time. Already I did my research on that bridge and found the length as 4.62 km.
So, let me begin with a brief description of my journey. That time I was residing in Lucknow. From the mid of March summer heat had started to roast us and in April it generally crosses 40 in Celsius scale. I thought of breaking away with the north Indian heat-wave which is accompanied by dry Loo wind. I made my reservations for the southern sojourn with two intermediate breaks. First I booked from Lucknow to Mumbai by Gorakhpur-Lokmanya Tilak Terminus superfast which would take 22 hours for the first lag of my journey. Spending the whole day at Mumbai and meeting some friends over there, I’d catch the Mandovi Express to Madgaon in Goa. I wanted to enjoy the scenic Konkan Railway during the daytime itself and thus booked in Mandovi which departs in the morning from CSTM station. Spending another two days at Goa to explore the fascinating Dudhsagar waterfall next lag of my journey was to be done by Mangala-Lakshadweep Express till Ernakulam Junction. Trip reports of each lag will be uploaded later.
Arriving at Ernakulam and getting refreshed, I rang up one of my old classmates. And I was quite surprised to find that she was getting engaged on that very day! She directed me to reach her home for the grand event and accordingly I caught a newly introduced Mercedes Benz bus to her place. It was almost 40 km journey. So the first day was spent that way. On the second day I woke up a bit lazily and for a while pondered about executing my plan. I went outside the station building and asked the autowalah there regarding how to reach my target point. They told me that I should take a town bus till Maneka ferry port and from there I can go. From the directions they gave me, it appeared that I should take a ferry from Maneka to Vembanad. So without making any farther delay I hasted towards the bus stop and took a bus to the ferry port. Arriving at the ferry port I enquired about ferry to Vembanad port. There I was informed that no ferry goes to Vembanad from there. I asked again for farther directions, but the guy on the other side apparently had no idea. For a while I walked to and fro the ferry port and then again returned to the bus stop. There was a market area nearby. What should I do now? And more importantly is it going to be a futile visit to Ernakulam? I went to a paan seller and asked for a cold drink to which he responded with a locally produced soft drink. Then only I recalled that Pepsi and Coke products were banned in Kerala. Grabbing a smoke from him I hesitantly stated my problem, expecting least for any satisfactory answer of course. But I had already determined that since I have reached so far from my place and so near to my destination, I’d visit it at any cost. In broken Hindi he pointed me to a bus. I aksed him once gain to confirm, “Vembanad?” “Haan, cheri cheri”. Still I was not convinced and with a frown I went to the conductor and asked, “Vembanad?” “po”. I could guess that to be a gesture to board since he didn’t say anything sounding similar to “illa” (no). I boarded the crowded bus and was charged rupees 2 till Vembanad. What I had guessed was that the distance was almost 3 kilometres. I asked the gentleman standing next to me to tell me where to get down. He asked where I am heading to in Vembanad because there’s nothing except the port. I stated my intention of visiting the railway bridge. After a few minutes we had arrived at a road bridge over the backwaters. He told me that I should get down at the other end of the road bridge I should get down and so did I.
I deboarded from bus at this point. Just in front of Vellarpadam dock. The railway crossing is visible ahead
Getting down from the bus I looked around. Yes, there was absolutely nothing like human settlements. Only the high walled port was at one side of the road and on the other side road was being widened to four lanes which gradually slope down to some mangrove bushes submerged in backwaters. At the point where the existing road bridge ends, there one could see a railway track crossing the road and entering the port. “This ought to be my track for today,” I told myself. I walked down till the railway crossing. I stood facing towards the road bridge, the port was on my right into which the railway track goes and to my left there was the starting pint of my exploration. Both rail and road bridges were almost perpendicular to each other. Another rod bridge was also coming up as part of the four lane project which also avoids the railway crossing by going above it.
A closer look of the two road bridges from the railway crossing
The board says it all. My quest actually starts here
The bridge was only one year old that time. Starting the construction in June 2007 the whole work was finished in March 2010; a feat achieved in less than three years. Yet to complete the tests and finally opening it had to wait till February next year. The bridge passes through three small islands also. Vembanad in fact is the name of the large lake over which the bridge had been constructed. It was an RCC bridge with a fine sidewalk at one side which puts the width at 5 metres, but on the other provisions for doubling the track is kept. There are 132 spans in all out of which 33 spans are 20 metre long and rest of the 99 are of 40 metres. Average height above water level is almost 7 metres. Pillars of the sidewalk were painted in sky-blue and the railings in white. Aha! What a view that was! Till then all the bridges I had seen in Indian Railway network were either painted in silver or in rusty red. But this one was a real bliss to the eyes.
One more glance at the point from where I started
Enthusiasm was quite high in the beginning of the day, but later developments completely made me to forget about water. So armed only with my camera the tracking of the rails started from the end of the bridge. Usually that much of distance is comfortably traversable while trekking the hilly terrain. So even without water that distance is manageable.
As I looked ahead I saw the bridge taking a right angle turn and I could see the apparent end point. But I was wrong. That was the first island beneath the structure. I stopped there for a moment and was in two minds whether to take a photograph or not. I knew that the view I was enjoying at that moment would never enter through camera lens (that’s one of the reasons why a photographer never gets satisfaction from his work). I dialed my phone to home. At the other end my mother picked up and asked where I was at that moment. I told her that walking down the longest bridge in India. She asked again, rail or road? “Obviously it got to be rail”, I replied. She enquired about the length and surroundings and structure etc, I knew worried with the normal perception of a girderlesss railway bridge. Then she passed the phone to my father. Luckily that was a Bohag Bihu vacation in Assam, so both were at home. He asked me gain where I was. Again I replied the same. Then he asked from which end I have started. I said from the tail end. “I thought you’d. That’s easily reachable from Ernakulam. Do you have water etc with you or not? Because from the beginning point of the bridge, which is your apparent end point, Idapally station is quite some distance. You got to reach there to get any conveyance or refreshment or anything. So be careful. Good that you’ve visited that. I cannot think of it now.”
The first island over which the bridge passes appears on the right
After a brief conversation with father I hang up the phone. I started walking again. As I was walking through the surrounding blues, one thought was disturbing me. The spirit of visiting the least visited and unexpected places I inherited from my father and grandfather. Towards the end of his life my grandfather would try to share as much his experiences with me whenever I used to visit him. He studied Hindi in Agra and was quite fond of travelling by trains. During my PhD also, he suggested me many libraries to be visited in Agra, Varanasi and Lucknow itself. I could only try to fathom that longing in his old but spirited eyes, but perhaps could never dip into the bottom. That day father’s voice also echoed the same tune. He knew what kind of bridge it was, terminal points of the bridge and exact stretch of distance it serves; it’s not possible that he’d not want to walk down through the ends. Just for his love of railways in his youth he’d traversed Barpeta to Nalbari stretch of railway tracks and several others outside the state on foot. So this stretch was nothing for such an ardent enthusiast. Yes my old man is a born geographer and he is quite proud of his subject knowledge, of course legitimately. He really knows his Geography!
Felt jealous of the dwellers of those houses
When my eyes were busy appreciating the surroundings and my legs were performing their basic duty, my brain started thinking of a job, quite a queer and unnoticed kind of job. That is the job of a railway Gangman. A railway Gangman has to walk 4 miles up and down a railway stretch checking each and every bolt and clamps of the rails. He is the real unsung hero of the railway system. If the Gangman says to stop, you have to, no matter even if you are travelling by the Rajdhani Express or the President is travelling by the grand Presidential Saloon. They are the safety keeper of the railways. And yet as we travel by a train and see them working on the tracks waiting for our trains to pass by and then continue their work again, do we ever give a single thought on their toil? Or as we sit by the window, and then enjoy our face hit by the fast blowing cool wind and then we eat (rather gulp) our food and throw away the plastic dish outside through window, do we ever give a second thought that our eaten food remains may hit the face of a working gangman who was busy inspecting whether each and every wheel of our train was working properly or not? (I’ve come a long way away from the topic, but couldn’t help sharing the line of thought on those unsung knights of the railways. My request to the readers is that, now onwards please use the wash basin instead of washing your hands out of the window, carry a bag to put your trash and dump it in garbage bin at a station instead of throwing them away through window which would save environment as well as save the little pride those hard working souls have.)
If I were a gangman working on that bridge! But that was just the beginning thought
The bridge had some ladders to climb down to the base of the girders for the convenience of the maintenance of the bottom structure. In the absence of the human settlement those pillars were inhabited by some honey bees! Their home was yet to be built, but seemed like they were gathering there to initiate the laying of foundation stone (or wax perhaps?). It amused me; far from vegetations they were making a nest there? Even to bring pollens and honey they’d need to fly a huge distance over the back waters. Yeah, they are real hard workers.
Oh! Some more dwellers on the bridge!
Gradually I sensed a bit of uneasiness. Everything was perfect till then. I could see more than what I had expected. I had found no pictures of the bridge on internet, so had no idea of it how would it look like. And when I saw it for the first time, it was more beautiful than what I had expected. And yet, I was feeling a bit uneasy. With a sweat drop toppled over eyebrow reminded me of the humid heat. Yes, it was different from the climate I was accustomed to. Summer in Lucknow was dry, and here it’s highly humid. We never used to sweat in North Indian summer, but in a humid place like this sweating is obvious. But in both the cases loss of body fluid does occur. And my present feeling was caused by that. Yet, it was bearable. If you stand by the seashore you’d feel the torrent of wind shaking you. You don’t feel like how hot the weather actually is. Here I also thought of resting upon that comforting breeze. Yes, it was comforting.
As the bridge took a right angle turn, I looked back to gauge how far had I come. It would be a long stretch over the vast expanding blue. Only patches of green isles and islands look like embroidery in that large blue scarf. I wonder how it’d look like in an avian view! By then I had traversed only one fourth of the total length. Another seventy five percent was yet in line. And who knows what sceneries are waiting to surprise me?
When the bridge took almost a right angle turn, I looked back to gauge how far had I come
Concrete mushrooms growing up
Here I come to the first island crossover. Distant skyscrapers looked like small mushrooms. Since I was alone, I found no one to pose for me holding the buildings between his/her fingers! I could hardly count the floors even after zooming my lens into fullest at 144mm. Thickly growing coconut trees appeared just like a dark green ribbon at the edge of the water. It reminded me of Assamese poet Nawakanta Baruah’s He Aranya, he Mahanagar (Oh Forest, Oh City). Our population and our sense of appreciation of beauty and wilderness are inversely proportionate. The former is growing fast. And as I was looking at the huge concrete structure I found no architectural beauty in it. Modern architecture sells each and every inch of a building, but hundred years ago architects would have spent more time in aesthetic design of a huge building rather than putting a clerk’s table at the top floor corner. Thus we had more archs and curves and decorations in 19th Century architecture (watch archaic buildings in Kolkata next time), and now we had more rectangular cubicle based building structures. Earlier people amassed wealth and ordered something to be built, now builders build it and sell later cutting his profit. So investing the money in architecture has also changed, and so is the purpose and aesthetic structure. We have become so used to in living in apartments that we decorate it from inside in best possible way, but from outside we may fail to notice how ugly it looks like.
By then I realised, I forgot something...
Yes, I should have carried at least a bottle of water
As I looked back towards the dock, which was almost two kilometers away, I saw those huge cranes lifting gigantic loads. Perhaps more concrete high rises would come up. Even from that distance their existence could impart a sense of awe in me. Or perhaps my distaste for unhealthy grow of modernity has made me blind to appreciate them.
As I looked down below to the edge of the water of that island, I saw some herons searching for food leaving behind the imprint of their soft claws in mud. They were a bit different from our pond herons and had black beaks unlike the orange ones of ours. Water provides so many life opportunities! Some live aquatic life and some live on aquatic lives! Their cool attitude intensified the feel of heat. Yes our feelings are also highly relative immeasurable in any scale. How did the old steam engine drivers bear the oven they drove? Against all odds and racial cries, Anglo Indian drivers used to dominate trains only because of two reasons: they could bear the heat like Indians and they had the spirit of disciplined working like the Englishmen. Thus Anglo Indian drivers swinging from their locomotive footplates received most of the firebox heat of the steam era in Indian Railways. And yet they were the most punctual defying every odds. (A tribute on them will follow in a later article.)
Buddy, I am a bit thirsty and you are enjoying down there? Can you lend me your wings for once?
Lonely, yet distinct!
I crossed over the road below and soon entered the territory of thickly growing coconut jungle. I guess only the queer most individual would show his/her distaste for tender coconut water. For me it’s always been prioritized over cold drinks. It was season for those tender coconuts, tempted the onlookers hanging from the trees. And each of them were in such a perfect shape, size and colour! I wonder if any Urdu poet had seen them what would have been his labzein. Unfortunately Urdu doesn’t have synonym for it due to cultural dissociation of coconut in Islamic countries. Even we don’t have any piece of good poetry in Assamese that emphasizes on any aspect of the coconut! Seems it’s not a thing of beauty to become a joy forever, rather a thing of religious importance to constitute the paraphernalia of our rites. Not only monkeys, even we don’t value the coconut!
Huh! Could I reach them? I tried, but I couldn't
With earlier impeding thirst I felt more thirsty looking at those coconuts. Well, they were beyond my hands’ reach. By then one third of the length I had traversed. A feel of regret started hitting me inside. How on earth did I forget that basic companion, a bottle of water? That time I felt like understanding Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner properly,
“Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,Nor any drop to drink.”
I looked back to see what I had crossed by now...water...tender coconut...but not at my disposal
I looked forward. Another 5 kilometres to walk till I reach the next station
Wish I had a boat to sail through those all day long!
I felt like riding one and then jump to the water and swim!
So, here endeth the bridge!
Finally I reached the end (actually starting point of the bridge). There from the elevation I could see another two parallel tracks coming down from Ernakulam Junction (ERS) via Ernakulam Town (ERN). But where is Idapally (IPL) station now?
But where is Idapally Station??? Oh! Another 2.3 km???
I had to walk more towards north, another 2.5 km stretch. All the surrounding greenery was hot now in the absence of the cooling effect of water. As I walked down the gradient I heard the honk of an ALCo locomotive and hard chugging. A train was climbing up the gradient from ERN side. Turbo chargers of the ALCo locomotive emitted a nice jiggling sound matching that of the ghoongroos of a classical dancer. Soon I could see the head of the train, and to my luck there were two engines on doing that train! That was a real treat for me, twin locomotives operations are rare these days. I waited to see which train was it, my watch said it should be Netravati Express. And yes! It was Netravati indeed as the train passed by silently and the driver put the notch in idle mode while tumbling down towards IPL.
Ahem! What can be a better delight at the end but to find Netravati with double headed ALCo??? Wasn't I lucky?
Want to what happened at the end? I was too tired to click any picture, so IPL station will not appear in photographs. Well, I reached IPL station and looked for any stall selling water etc. But to my dismay, there was not a single stall at all. Next I enquired about any train towards ERS or ERN which stops at IPL too. But there was none at that time. The booking clerk suggested me to go to the bus stand at a distance and catch a bus from there to Ernakulam. I followed his instructions and reached the bus stand. That was a make-shift bus stand under a banyan tree. Then by the bus stand I found a small shop and that day I appreciated water like never before. 2 litres of water and 1.2 litres of cold drink pacified a little. Body demanded more water, but intestine couldn't absorb that quick. Oh! How can I forget that expedition!