Sunday, June 3, 2012

RDA museum, Nanuoya, Pilimathalawa

Copyright © 2012 |

An Ancient Road Roller And A Series Of Road Signs At The Highway Museum
Along the Colombo-Kandy main road designed and built first by the British over a century ago, now stands an exceptional memento dedicated to their inspirational efforts. It is a unique little ‘Highway Museum' that displays age-old machines and diverse tools used for road building in the bygone era of the British colonialists.

As our vehicle slowed down at the first railway crossing just after passing the small town of Pilimathalawa on our journey to Kandy, something distinct and colourful on the roadside caught my eye. Parked on a small plot of land were a few large contraptions that seemed to have travelled through time from a long ago era. Curious, we entered this spectacular open air Highway Museum of Sri Lanka eager to explore what was in store for us.
In ancient precolonial times, the Central Hills of Sri Lanka being a natural fortress covered by mountainous terrain had no connection with the surrounding plains. With the advent of the British and their capture of Kandy in 1815 they had begun clearing up land and setting up tea, pepper and cinnamon plantations in the hill country. Soon afterwards, addressing the need to send their produce into Colombo, they had begun the gargantuan task of designing and constructing the first proper road of Sri Lanka that ran from Kandy to Colombo. This miniature roadside highway museum is home to some of the vehicles, equipment and tools used for constructing this primary Sri Lankan road during the British reign.    
The enormous road rollers were among the most interesting exhibits displayed and had been used by the British in the early 19th Century. They were powered by steam, we were told; with thin black pipes attached to their engines to let out the smoke that somehow reminded me of train engines of long ago. The fine inscriptions made on their bodies gave out manufacture details of these vehicles. 
Taking a closer look we admired the intricate details of these old fashioned machines; the wheels, knobs and chains that together helped these devices work. They stood still, trapped in a forgotten past like giant figures almost foreign against the fast modern moving vehicles on the road nearby.  
I moved on to take a look at what seemed like a man-sized scale to learn that it was actually a scale, used to measure up the coal for the steam engines of the road rollers and sometimes for wood. As I stood taking in these devices: the rollers, the scarifiers, the barrels, the tar boilers, the carts pulled by bullocks, the ancient looking shovels and mixers I tried to imagine the days without fuel, without electricity, of men boiling tar in large tin barrels and laying the narrow but steady road.
In one corner of the museum, standing in a row were some road signs used in the country at various times and beyond was a long wooden structure with a roof and a series of columns. Edging closer, we realised that this was a bridge and learned that it was actually a replica of the historical Bogoda wooden bridge located in Badulla. Built in the 16th Century, this bridge is said to have been completed with the use of only wood, even its nails being wooden. Standing on this ancient looking bridge we could see another, smaller stone bridge right next to it. Narrow, like a slate these stone bridges have also been used during the precolonial era.
Uniquely, on one side of the museum lies the modern Colombo-Kandy road eternally alive with its incessantly rushing automobiles; this stretch of the road was constructed in 1984. On the other side, behind the museum and almost invisible to the passers-by lies a stretch of the original road cleared and constructed by the British. Walking along this narrow stretch now resembling a foot path, we shortly came across another significant landmark in the Sri Lankan road history. This is the arch bridge constructed in 1826 with the expertise of engineer Captain Brown during the period of British Governer Sir Edward Barnes. Its once red bricks were now old and faded into a pinkish grey and plants grew out from its midst; and yet, sitting there in the stillness at the end of a forgotten road it seemed solid and strong enough to bear the burden of another century.
As I turned to leave this ancient piece of engineering and traced my steps back into the fast moving world beyond, I took one last look at the 
old brick structure and the giant machines of the Highway Museum with admiration, before stepping on 
to the modern tar road to continue
 our journey.