My Grand-Uncle & the Great Sea-Bridge

Our first engineer
When I was a little boy, my soft-spoken Mama-Thatha # often visited my Grandmother. Yet I hardly knew Sundaram Mama: he belonged to the 19th century, and I to the 20th century, so what could be common between us? Why, I didn’t even know what he used to do for a living!

Many years later, I did find out: this meek man was a ‘Tiger’ during the British Raj! My favourite uncle, Amby Mama#, was Sundaram Mama’s favourite nephew, so he knew all about Sundaram Mama’s life. So here is the Tiger’s Tale from Amby Mama.

Sundaram Mama was the first qualified engineer in the family. His branch of the family came from a southern hamlet called Pattamadai. Since the 19th century, this place produced skilled craftsmen who made fine reed mats —  not engineers. So, he migrated to Madras, where he qualified at the top of the class in the Engineering College.  He then joined the Railways, because bright young engineers of his generation knew that it was the most ‘happening’ place!

The Great Sea-Bridge
He couldn’t have timed his entry any better. The South Indian Railway Company (SIR) was then attempting the greatest technical feat of those times: building a sea-bridge to connect Mandapam in the mainland with Pamban Island. The bridge would exceed 2 Km, in one of the most corrosive sites in the world, vulnerable to violent cyclones. As though this was not enough, they had to build a cantilever rolling span in the middle (on the high sea) to let Ocean freighters to pass through. A German engineer, Scherzer, was the Project Chief. Scherzer chose 2 Indian Railway Engineers to assist him and one of them was our very own Sundaram Mama!

As soon as they joined him, the German said, “forget your drawing board, go study the site”. In other words, study the ocean! The next 2 weeks Sundaram Mama was sailing in country craft and catamarans with the local fishermen. Imagine the orthodox vegetarian riding the waves with purveyors of fish? Yet, it was a productive partnership. They criss-crossed the channel and showed where the currents were strong and where the tide would recede; pointed out shifting sands and shallow waters; spoke of stormy days and calmer times. They bared all that they knew about the Sea Goddess. Sundaram Mama compiled everything and reported to Scherzer, who made the final route-plan of the bridge accordingly.  Scherzer and his boys had fully tapped the entire knowledge of the traditional seafaring community, for free ! In today’s parlance, it would have been lauded as a marvellous ‘crowd-sourcing’ innovation: in Scherzer’s mind, they were merely doing a systematic job! If you have ever wondered why the Pamban Bridge is not a perfect straight line, you know the answer now!


The base construction began in June1911 and got completed in June1913. It took another the 6 months to complete the rolling cantilever bridge and it was inaugurated in 1914! Sundaram Mama was now part of history! Soon he played significant roles in many development projects of the South Indian Railways. It was one of these projects that tested his character.

The investigation
Soon after he completed the laying of Madurai – Bodinayakanur tracks, someone complained of corruption in the project. A senior British Agent from London was sent to the Railway office in Trichy to investigate. The Agent summoned Sundaram Mama (SM) for interrogation.

Agent: “Sit down young man”
SM: “I shall answer your questions, standing, if it is all the same to you”
Agent: “This may take quite a while, so sit down”
SM: “Sir, I know why I have been summoned. In our culture, the Accused never sits down. I can stand all day if required.”
Agent: “Very well, suit yourself”
SM: “But Sir, I have request. If I am proved guilty, or even exonerated by merely giving the benefit of doubt, I shall resign without any retirement benefits. However, if I am proven innocent beyond all reasonable doubt, I request that I be promoted on par with Englishmen of the same seniority in this company.”

The inquiry lasted a few days and the Agent was convinced beyond any doubt that Sundaram Mama was completely honest. And that was how Sundaram Mama rose in a hierarchy dominated by Whites.

What gave him the courage to talk like that to a White Sahib? Amby Mama says that it was Sundaram Mama’s faith in Dharma #. At home, he was a docile Brahmin with a kudumi #; the moment he wore his official dress —Khaki shorts, Turban and Sunglasses — he was a transformed man; when he kick-started his 350cc motorbike to go to office, he was a Tiger unleashed! Nothing could stop the Karma Yogi #. Not even the White Man!

Grand-Uncle ticks off a white man
Early one morning, Sundaram Mama was working in his Saloon in Madurai. (A Saloon was a posh studio apartment on wheels. It was a railway coach which was the living room cum office of a senior railwayman when he travelled on official business). In walked a junior British officer (we shall call him Mr. Smith) with a cigarette in his mouth: “Hello Sundaram, how are we today?”

Here was a pompous lad trying get ‘chummy’ with his boss, the Chief Engineer. He was a White Nabob, while the boss was only a native. Of course, Sundaram Mama would have none of it. In his most stern commanding voice he replied “Mr. Smith. WHY are you here? Didn’t I tell you, I wanted you in Dindigul?” Mr. Smith’s jaw dropped, almost flooring the cigarette. “Yes Mr. Sundaram, I shall proceed immediately”. For Sundaram Mama, an order was an order, never mind the colour of the skin!

An unconventional friend
But Sundaram Mama was free from ethnic bias. His best friend was a Muslim: Ataullah Khan. That was a rare friendship. He would often visit Khan’s house and discuss all subjects under the sun, even confide with him on family matters. Amby Mama, the favourite nephew would often accompany him because Mrs. Khan would stuff him with Jilebis #. Sundaram Mama himself would not touch the Jilebis, because they came from the same kitchen that cooked beef. Khan was a close friend, but rules were rules!

Side-show: How great is the Great Sea Bridge?
When the British proposed the Pamban bridge, their intent was to improve trade in the Indo-Ceylonese sea corridor. Only when they started planning around 1907 did they understand the enormity of the task. Corrosive atmosphere, changing sea-currents, violent storms were all big challenges. Scherzer rose to face them. His design of the cantilever bridge was unique: such bridges are still called Scherzer Rolling Lift bridges in his honour. But his brilliant ‘crowd-sourcing’ exercise — the one that also moulded Sundaram Mama’s scientific temper — is sadly forgotten.


The proof of the pudding, they say, is in the eating. In 1964 a violent cyclone blew away an entire train from the bridge. The official toll was 115 people, though the real loss may have been more due to ticketless travellers. Over half of Dhanushkodi island was submerged. Yet, the bridge itself held, with only ‘minor’ damages. The bridge was later repaired by a resourceful Assistant Engineer named E Sridharan, (Yes, he was the famous pioneer of the Delhi Metro!) who took 5 months to restore it. In 2013, a ship rammed into the bridge; the bridge survived — it needed just a week for repair!

When the bridge was opened in 1914, it was India’s only sea bridge and a technical marvel by any standards. The cost of construction was a princely Rs. 54 million. Until the opening of the Worli sea link in Mumbai, it was the longest Indian bridge.  At the turn of this century, the Railways wanted to build a new bridge to lay a Broad-Gauge track. But the  estimated cost of the bridge was a whopping Rs.7000 million! Hence, they decided to convert the existing bridge itself to Broad Gauge track — at a fraction of that cost. Thus, after a 100+ years, the Great Sea-Bridge lives on!

# Glossary
Mama-Thatha = Grand-uncle, or Grandmother’s brother

Mama                 = Maternal uncle, or mother’s brother
Kudumi              = A tuft of hair or pony tail worn by orthodox Hindus
Dharma              = Righteous conduct
Karma Yogi       = A man of action, a man committed performing his duty
Jilebi                     = A fried sweet made from lentils

Pictures in this article have been sourced from IndiaRailInfo, and The Hindu.


11 thoughts on “My Grand-Uncle & the Great Sea-Bridge

      • Badri, I do not know if wearing helmets on such projects was mandatory or even the tradition at that time. The Solar Topee was common for people working in the field: Policemen, Railway Officers, Forest Guards and even Revenue Officials visiting villages. The Turban was more a head dress of the elite: Teachers, Lawyers and Legislators. The wearing of Turbans & Solar Topees continued well into the post-independence era. My father wore a Solar Topee as a Railway Policeman, and a few of my teachers wore Turbans. I am not sure if Sundaram Mama wore a Solar Topee in the field. I must ask Ambi Mama about this! 🙂

  1. Great story. Brought back nostalgic memories As a Railway kid, I have travelled in a saloon with my dad many times. That was truly the gold standard of Indian rail travel.

    This bit impressed me
    “What gave him the courage to talk like that to a White Sahib? Amby Mama says that it was Sundaram Mama’s faith inDharma #. At home, he was a docile Brahmin with a kudumi #; the moment he wore his official dress —Khaki shorts, Turban and Sunglasses — he was a transformed man; when he kick-started his 350cc motorbike to go to office, he was a Tiger unleashed! Nothing could stop the Karma Yogi #. Not even the White Man!.

    What this tells me is the courage to be true to oneself, to acknowledge, appreciate and respect ones own heritage. When one does that, others will automatically respect you

    My issue with many folks in India today is the way they run down our own heritage, traditions, mythology etc in their anxiety to appear modern, ‘scientific ‘,hip,cool..

    Such folks like Sundaram mama are exemplars of top notch engineers, professional to the core, AND with an inherent integrity to their OWN heritage. They respect both

    • Thank you for your detailed comment. I share your excitement about the Railway Saloon. When I was small boy, my father served in the Railway Police. I have travelled in a saloon with him to many places — truly a royal way to travel! And I have travelled on the train over the Pamban Bridge to reach Dhanushkodi. It was in the late 1950s, well before the destructive cyclone of 1964, when Dhanushkodi was a beautiful village! You are absolutely right, those were marvelous days!

  2. Excellent piece …!
    Such stories … of the extraordinary among the ordinary (seemingly so) … need to be passed on to the generations that follow.

  3. The notifications of new post from your blog were going to my obscure email account. I discovered them 2 days ago and have been reading the old ones. I was trying to be methodical so started from the oldest post, but was itching to comment and thought it may be too late. So I jumped to the latest one so that I can tell you that your posts are informative about various subjects and enjoyable. I used to travel on the Pamban bridge often with my parents and siblings when we traveled from Colombo to Madurai. We used to watch the fish jump out of the water. Our families have similar stories. People like your grandpa are heroes managing to do Sandyavandanam at home and handle ‘vellai kara dorais’ at work.

    • Thank you! As a kid, it was a thrilling experience for me to travel by train on the Pamban bridge. I am so glad you share the excitement!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s