Nine Arches Bridge (Ella, Sri Lanka)

Nine Arches Bridge
Photo by Sadie Ward

The Nine Arches Bridge is a colonial era railway bridge in Sri Lanka built in 1921. It is one of the best examples of the style in the world and is completely built without the use of steel. Technically located in Demodara, the Nine Arches Bridge is between Ella and Demodara railway stations and accessible from either town. It’s most commonly visited from Ella though.The surrounding area has seen a steady increase of tourism due to the bridge’s architectural importance as well as the incredible greenery of the hillsides to and from the bridge.

The construction of the bridge is attributed to the local builder, P. K. Appuhami, in consultation with British engineers. The chief designer and project manager of the ‘upcountry railway line of Ceylon’ project was J. Wimalasurendra, a somewhat distinguished and well-known Ceylonese engineer and inventor was the chief designer and project manager for the bridge, but it was P.K Appuhami, a local builder that was responsible for the actual construction.

The designer of the viaduct was Harold Cuthbert Marwood of Railway Construction Department of Ceylon Government Railway.

Construction of the bridge coincided with WWI, and while Sri Lanka was not involved directly in the war, it caused the reallocation of steel from Britain’s international building projects to Britain’s European war effort. It was this need to use steel at the battlefront that resulted first in the construction coming to a standstill, and ultimately moving forward with only stone, brick, and cement. The structural integrity of the bridge in combination with the beautiful structure itself is a testament to the workmen and architects of Sri Lanka.

The legend of P.K. Appuhami

The famous and infamous story of the Nine Arches Bridge is really the story of P. K. Appuhami.  Appuhami was born in 1870 and lived in the Kappatipola area in Melimada where he was a well-known traditional drummer and devil dancer.  The story goes that one day Appuhami was leaving a local completion dressed in his full costume when he came upon a British official surveying the area in preparation for the project.  At learning that there was to going be a bridge built in the area, the man dressed as a devil offered to provide laborers for the construction. For some mysterious reason (Appuhami was dressed like a devil after all) he was given the job of supplying workmen from the local villages, and eventually became the foreman of the project.

His rise to foreman happened when the British in charge of the railway construction determined that there was no way to finish the bridge because of the soft and unstable soil beneath the expanse.  It was at this time that Appuhami solved the issue by toppling giant rocks into the space until a bed of rocks strong enough to hold up the bridge was formed. He then simply started to build the brick columns that would support the railway bridge.

The British officials were of course shocked that the locals, with no history of advanced civil engineering could build a bridge so quickly, and were certain that it would fall to the ground in a pile of bricks and mortar the first time a train traveled across the length.  So sure of his construction and the craftsmanship of his team, Appuhami told them that he would lie under the bridge as the train crossed to prove it was safe.  Proving to the British that his bridge was safe and finishing the project ahead of schedule, Appuhami was paid the balance of the costs he had saved them.

With his newfound wealth, which is said to have been four carts filled with silver coins, Appuhami hosted an extravagant two day party for all the neighboring villages and gave each person a single silver coin to thank them.

While it lacks a certain amount of historical evidence, it is a nice story and the bridge is beautiful both in its construction, and its stark contract from the jungles and tea plantations that surround it.

Above the Nine Arches Bridge
Photo by Sadie Ward – The view from above the Nine Arches Bridge.

Visiting the Nine Arches Bridge

  • It can be a pretty long hike to get to the bridge from Ella if you don’t have good directions, and if you’re not in decent shape it will feel even longer.  Some of the trails are almost entirely grown over with foliage and if it has recently rained it will be a nightmare.  If you are afraid of the hike or have difficulty walking, it might be best to take a tuk-tuk even though it will be costly (by Sri Lanka standards) to and from the bridge.
  • There are often large bee hives on the underside of the bridge nestled high up in  the arches, and for some reason the bees like to annoy anyone brave enough to cross the bridge.  They don’t usually sting, but it is nice to know that they’re there if you happen to be deathly allergic.
  • There is never a great time during the day to visit the bridge when there won’t be other people there.
  • The Nine Arches Bridge is a popular tourist attraction, and people from all over the world visit to take in the sites and to try and get the perfect photo with their friends and family.
  • If you are trying to get a photo free of other people go in the morning or early evening.  There may still be people there but your chances are a little better.
  • The evening is particularly pretty when the sun is setting because the valley is suddenly bathed in red light for a few minutes.
  • Watching the trains cross the bridge and snapping a few photos is popular with tourists and if you want a good photo location you’ll need to get there 30-minutes before the train.

Nine Arches Bridge Facts

  • A 1923 report titled “Construction of a Concrete Railway Viaduct in Ceylon” published by the Engineering Association of Ceylon has details of all the records including the plans and drawings.
  • The Nine Arches Bridge spans 91 meters (300 ft.) at a height of 24 m (80 ft.).
  • The Sinhalese name for the bridge is අහස් නමයේ ආරුක්කු පාලම (which I can’t read but it sure is pretty).
  • It is also known as the Bridge in the Sky and the Bridge of Nine Skies.
  • The bridge stands at at 3100m above sea level in the Central Highlands
  • The Nine Arches Bridge forms a viaduct between the Demodara and Ella Railway stations.