Kandy Colombo road in mid nineteenth century
In mid nineteen century foremost means of goods transportation, in then Ceylon, was bullock carts and the busiest thoroughfare that conducted most of this transportation was Kandy Colombo road.
Apparently there were close to 10000 bullock carts plying between Kandy and Colombo carrying coffee from Kandy to be shipped to other parts of empire. Theses carts on the return journey brought rice for the consumption of people in the interior and utensils for the coffee plantations in Kandyan areas.
Down the hills the carts could carry more weight and the usual load was 50 to 60 bushels of coffee. On the way back it was 20 bushels of rice if the consignment didn’t have any other cargo.
The average speed was 20 miles a day; that’s 1.3 km an hour.
Imagine about 25 million kgs of coffee being brought for shipping , in an year , 60 bushels a cart, in a single lane road. The road would have been bursting with carts moving either way.
This would have been an industry by itself, by any standard; About 20000 bullocks, 10000 carts, about 12000 directly employed and perhaps another 5000 living off this mammoth transport business indirectly. These numbers don’t do justice to scale of this operation now ,because at the time our population was only 1/12th of current population.
Logistics to support this massive operation would have sprung up along the thoroughfare to cater for this industry. Eateries, sleeping quarters, water holes, courier services, gambling dens and so many other things must have thrived.
In fact one of our national heroes, Gongalegoda Banda , the leader of the 1848 rebellion , was a product of this business. He. it appears had run a resting place for carts at Udunuwara, almost at the entrance to Kandy city ; hence Gongalegoda, corral or park for bullocks.
In 1869 coffee plantations and in turn the whole industry was devastated by a fungal disease known as coffee leaf rust. The whole transport empire would have collapsed too, within an year or too , wrecking havoc among thousands of families connected with transportation of coffee and the new class of local entrepreneurs who were the transport contractors for coffee merchants in Colombo.
Kandy Colombo road has seen many improvement to it since then; it has been widened, carpeted, bypassed in some places and many bridges have been built, but one conspicuous feature from those era still remains.
That is the bends ;hairpin and lesser ones , the roads that were built circular to avoid steepness, even tiny ones, because bullock carts cannot climb, are still being retained, even though present day vehicles are much more powerful than carts and there is no need to keep those bends to avoid climbs, at least the minor ones.
And most of the traffic slowdowns; painfully slow ones, these days, take place at these bends, especially if you are stuck behind a overloaded lorry or container trailer.
Probably they are being retained , because our engineers and planners are nostalgic about the coffee era or for some reason longer the roads happier they are.