Tales from Tranquebar: Requiem for a Railroad

A train arrives at Tharangambadi station in this still from the 1980 movie “Oru Thalai Raagam”

(Author’s Note: A version of this piece originally appeared in the 2020 edition of ‘Covering Deprivation’. The story has been updated since then to account for recent developments. You can access the issue here.)

In a song sequence from T. Rajender’s acclaimed 1980 romance Oru Thalai Raagam, the protagonist Raja (played by Tamil actor Shankar) croons, “Koodayila karuvadu, koonthalile pookadu” (dry fish in the basket, flowers in her hair). Shot on the erstwhile Mayiladuthurai-Tharangambadi railway line, the lyrics remind Tharangambadi resident Veronica Raphael (63) what the train compartments always smelled like.

“They were shooting [the movie] here when I first came to Tharangambadi from Chennai in 1979. I remember taking the train to Mayiladuthurai so that I could go home for Christmas,” she said.

More than three decades since the Southern Railways shut down the Mayiladuthurai-Tharangambadi line in December 1986 citing unprofitability, many old residents in the former Danish colony have been petitioning the government to restart the 28-km long service that was started in 1926.

Today, nothing remains of the railway line except stretches of bushes, sand, and marshlands.

The original site of the Tranquebar Railway station is now a stretch of bushes, sand, and marshland

M.A. Sultan (70), who owns the popular Danish Shop in Tharangambadi, initiated a campaign back in 2011. Collecting signatures of residents from places like Porayar, Thillaiyadi, Thirukadaiyur, and Sembanarkoil which were stations on the railway line, he has been vocal about the need to revive the train service.

“We formed a citizens’ group and wrote to everyone, including the President of India and the Railway Ministry, of course. We even received responses that they had arrived at an estimated project cost,” he said, as he flipped through the pages of a folder with copies of petitions, official responses, and cuttings from newspapers chronicling the progress made.

Earlier this year, the Madras High Court disposed of a writ petition by former MLA P. Kalyanam Kuttalam for restoration of the railway line, directing the Central Government and the Railway authorities to consider the matter and take an appropriate decision. But Sultan was not too optimistic.

“All these letters over the years, they have been of no use. Every year, we hope that there will be an announcement in the Railway budget. But it never happens,” he said.

According to P.A. Maria Lazar, a retired professor who lives in Porayar and has written a short history of Tharangambadi called Tales of Tranquebar, the closure of the line has had a deep impact.

“There were 10 services (six passenger trains and four cargo ones) throughout the day. It was very convenient for students, as well as for moving rice, fish and cottage industry products. With a fishing harbour being built here, resuming the line would make things easy for people here,” he said.

L. Amuljothi (31), who works at the Maritime Museum here, was born after the line shut down. But she remembers her mother talking about transporting dry fish to the weekly market in Mayiladuthurai using the train.

“The train should be started again so that many more people could come here. Right now, the museum sees only 50–55 visitors daily but that would increase if we had a train service,” she said.

Shankar Renganathan (50), the curator of the museum, felt that trains were more convenient than buses as far as attracting international tourism was concerned. “We need a direct train to Chennai. Then, definitely, more people would come to Tranquebar,” he said.

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