Review of Vinoo N. Mathur’s Indian Railway Buildings – Heritage, History and Beyond: Romancing the railways

The author, with long service in the railways and retiring as a member of the Board, was actively involved in the proposals that resulted in both the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (VT) and the Kalka-Shimla Railway line being declared UNESCO World Heritage sites.

We had a ball room in the railway bungalow,” said grandmother.

I must have been seven and she was telling me about the time her husband was one of the bosses of the South Indian Railway (SIR) Company.

“Did you dance there?” I asked, having visions of grandmother in her diamonds and nine yards doing the waltz.

“Oh, stupid. That was meant for the European officers. We used the room for Navaratri Kolu.”

I grew up on stories like that. With both grandfathers in the railways (rather one in SIR and the other M&SM, which together became the Southern Railway), I came to love the railway stations, the platforms, the echoing stairways and the magnificent office buildings. The railways were full of heritage.

If you were of a generation before India got a plethora of airlines, chances are that your holidays involved long train journeys. And these were punctuated by railway stations — large and small, but each with an architectural stamp of its own. Calcutta’s Howrah, visible from the eponymous bridge, Bombay’s VT, Madras’s Central and Egmore, Lucknow’s Charbagh — they were all unique.

Jamalpur Station, on the East Indian Railway, in the early days.  It is one of the few stations where the two platforms had separate covered sheds.  The station was severely damaged in the Bihar earthquake of 1934.

Jamalpur Station, on the East Indian Railway, in the early days. It is one of the few stations where the two platforms had separate covered sheds. The station was severely damaged in the Bihar earthquake of 1934. | Photo Credit: Postcard: Author’s collection

The British paradise, whatever its many faults, and no matter for what self-serving purpose it developed a railway network, gave us many railway stations to be in awe of and delight in. And if you add the numerous railway institutes, hospitals, workshops, yards, and of course bungalows, there is a huge architectural heritage out there; one that deserves documentation.

Malerkotla Station, built in 1905. The Nawabs of Malerkotla were rulers respected by people of all communities.  The pointed arches, slender paired columns supporting the arch, the turrets and crenellations make it a charming small station.

Malerkotla Station, built in 1905. The Nawabs of Malerkotla were rulers respected by people of all communities. The pointed arches, slender paired columns supporting the arch, the turrets and crenellations make it a charming small station. | Photo Credit: National Railway Museum, New Delhi

It is in answer to this need that we now have an excellently written, designed, and printed book, Indian Railway Buildings, Heritage, History and Beyondby Vinoo N. Mathur. The author, with long service in the railways and retiring as a member of the Board, was actively involved in the proposals that resulted in both the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (VT) and the Kalka-Shimla Railway line being declared UNESCO World Heritage sites. He clearly had a keen interest in the architectural and engineering heritage of the railways and that probably resulted in this book.

A view of the platform at Dehradun with a horse being loaded in a horse box while spectators look on.

A view of the platform at Dehradun with a horse being loaded in a horse box while spectators look on. | Photo Credit: National Rail Museum, New Delhi

Journey from Royapuram

The narrative begins with the Royapuram Railway Station, now India’s oldest, and from there progresses via the early railway companies, tracing their development and the construction of their principal railway stations. It then goes on to deal with the railway lines and stations of the various princely states. The headquarter buildings of the various private railway companies of India that eventually merged post-Independence to form the Indian Railways, are dealt with in detail. The book has a separate section on the mountain railways in the country. It concludes with a rapid survey of the other kinds of buildings that comprise the railway heritage — residences, health facilities, training and recreation centres.

The large domes and long handsome porte-cochère are distinctive features of this magnificent building.

The large domes and long handsome porte-cochère are distinctive features of this magnificent building. | Photo Credit: Postcard: Author’s collection

The author is clearly familiar with architectural terms and the book deals with each station and its features in that language. This is of great interest to a like-minded reader but may seem forbidding to those not similarly oriented. But to facilitate their understanding, there is an extensive glossary of terms. The book also has a detailed section on various roofing styles used in railway buildings. There are plenty of interesting nuggets in the narrative that help break the architectural focus as well.

Asansol was located in the heart of the colliery area of ​​the East Indian Railway, which provided a major source of its revenue.  It was, therefore, appropriate that the Railway built a large impressive station building here.

Asansol was located in the heart of the colliery area of ​​the East Indian Railway, which provided a major source of its revenue. It was, therefore, appropriate that the Railway built a large impressive station building here. | Photo Credit: National Rail Museum, New Delhi

Apart from the excellent narrative, the book scores greatly in the quality of its visuals. The author seems to have spent a lifetime collecting picture postcards of the various railway stations of India. These black and white images, all of late 19th and early 20th century vintage, supplemented with those from the railway’s collection give a very clear idea of ​​how the stations were in their prime and how the urban landscape has changed over the years.

This famous photograph by Raja Deen Dayal, taken in 1892, brings out the understated grandeur of the Hyderabad Station building.

This famous photograph by Raja Deen Dayal, taken in 1892, brings out the understated grandeur of the Hyderabad Station building. | Photo Credit: Ministry of Railways and South Central Railway, Secunderabad

Some quibbles

The lack of commentary on what the railways have done with their built heritage in more modern times is jarring. For instance, there is no mention of how though the Royapuram station is pointed out as being the oldest with some pride, the railways were keen to demolish the building just a decade back and were prevented from doing so by court action. The building of extensions not in harmony with the main structure and the covering of facades with modern and incompatible material have been a continued menace as far as railway buildings are concerned. While it is true that the VT station has been successfully awarded UNESCO status, the upkeep in many other equally historic railway structures is poor and to be fair to the authorities, not easy either given the passenger load they face on a daily basis. None of these get a mention. The author could have also given some additional space to railway bungalows, which are mentioned almost in passing. Today, with pressure on housing, many of these face an uncertain future or have already been demolished for high rises.

Notwithstanding the above, the book is a collector’s item for the railway, history, and architecture enthusiast.

All along the watch tower

Both the Egmore and the Howrah stations had drive-in platforms — you swept up in your car and just got into the carriage. Ideal if you were a provincial governor or a Viceroy.

The Lahore station was built like a fort — for shelter in the times of strife.

Though not an architectural feature, the bodo ghodi or large clock, which hung at the entrance of Howrah was and is still a meeting spot for travellers.

Like platform 2A in Madras Central, the Churchgate suburban station has all platforms designed so that people can board and exit from the trains on both sides.

Kharagpur for long held the record of the longest station platforms in the world, 1.07 km, now beaten by Gorakhpur at 1.3 km.

Many of the station towers have clocks and some such as the Central, actually chimed the hour and these could be heard for quite some distance. Now they are all silenced.

The refreshment rooms of many of the railway stations had bars at one time. Hard to believe, isn’t it?

Indian Railway Buildings Heritage, History and Beyond; Vinoo N. Mathur, Niyogi Books, ₹2,500.

The reviewer is a writer and columnist.

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