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The South's first station

There is no building of the Railways more worthy of being called a heritage building than the Royapuram Railway station. And that is because this was not only the second major railway station built in the country, but is the oldest one still surviving and, no matter its decrepit state, displaying vestiges of its former splendour.


JUST BEYOND where the old Town Wall ran and where Clive Battery was sited is a bit of heritage that survives in a sorry state, completely neglected over the years by those who should know better and have the wherewithal too. As I end my journey along North Beach Road at this building this week and start off along what was called Poonamallee High Road next week, it is coincidental that what's a sad end here in Royapuram is a new beginning in Park Town - and both are buildings owned by the Railways, which has proudly been announcing its 150th Anniversary this year but has done precious little for the wealth of heritage buildings it owns.

There is no building of the Railways more worthy of being called a heritage building than the Royapuram Railway station, my focus this week. And that is because this was not only the second major railway station built in the country, but is the oldest railway station in the country still surviving and, no matter its decrepit state, displaying vestiges of its former splendour.

A couple of years ago, a few senior officials from the Southern Railways called on the Indian National Trust for Architectural and Cultural Heritage's Chennai Chapter and told us that the Railways, looking forward to its 150th birthday, had formed a major Heritage Wing, with Heritage cells in each zone, to list the Railways' hundreds of heritage buildings, constructions and artefacts, and that it would slowly begin restoring and preserving the best of them. INTACH Chennai, welcoming the step, had pointed out that the top priority should be the Royapuram Railway station, which remains in limited use.

In suggesting this, INTACH presented what I summarise in gist here and also showed them that famous line-cut from The Illustrated London News of September 6, 1856, depicting the regal inauguration of that palatial station in Madras and the journal's description of the second railway line in India. History, illustration and description all fascinated the Railway team. But to what end? Just look at the state of that once magnificent building today! And there are now even rumours that the Railways want to pull it down!

India's first railway line, 21 miles long, opened for traffic on April 16, 1853, its route Bori Bunder (later Bombay Victoria Terminus) to Thane. Neither the Bori Bunder nor the Thane stations survive in the original. Royapuram, from where India's second railway line started, does to an extent. Work on this line began in 1853 and linked Madras (Royapuram) to Arcot, the titular capital of the Nawab of the Carnatic, that station now Wallajahpet, near Ranipet. The line was opened on July 1, 1856. But the idea of a railway in the South long predated not only that inauguration but even thought of a line in the Bombay Presidency.

It was in the early 1840s, barely 15 years after Stephenson's steam engine undertook that historic Stockton-Darlington journey with its coach-load of passengers, that laying of a railway line in South India was discussed in London. In 1845, the Madras Railway Company was formed, four years before the Great India Peninsula Company which built the Bombay line. However, the assessment that the GIP, no sooner it was incorporated, would start work on a railway line from Bombay led to the moribund Madras Railway Company hurriedly reconstituting itself the same year (1849) and getting down to drawing up plans for a railway line in the South. Work on that line began in 1853 and was opened for traffic once the main terminus, the Royapuram station, was opened with great fanfare. Royapuram was to remain Madras's main station till 1907, when further route extensions made Madras Central the city's premier terminus. That station and the neighbouring Southern Railways headquarters will start my journey down Poonamallee High Road next week.

The Royapuram station, Ionic-pillared and looking for all the world like a Regency Mansion, was declared open by Governor Lord Harris on June 28, 1856 in his speech, congratulating the Madras Railway company, its manager Major Jenkins and all who had worked on the railway, Lord Harris said that the cost of 5,500 a mile was well worth the investment and looked forward to equally expeditious completion of the additional 450 miles of track to the west coast, a little south of Calicut. Two trains, each with coaches made by Simpson & Co., the leading coach-builders of the day, inaugurated the service. One carried the Governor and 300 Europeans to "Am(b)oor", where a magnificent "dinner" had been laid out for them. Another train, with the Indian invitees, followed and traversed a shorter distance, to "Triveloor", but whether they got dinner is not known.

Captain Barnett Fort, whose drawing appeared in The Illustrated London News, described the rooms in the Royapuram station as being "very elegant and most superbly furnished with handsome punkahs & c." In its derelict state today little of this is recognisable. In fact, with modifications over the years, just a few of the original pillars are left and the station is only a faint echo of its original handsomeness. An adjacent building, built around the same time as the headquarters office of the Madras Railway Company, was pulled down a few years ago.

The inaugural runs were as colourful as they were sensational, for the thousands who had gathered along the way had never seen a train in their lives. A brief glimpse of the setting on a never-to-be-forgotten occasion is provided by The Illustrated London News in these words:

"As the train proceeded across the arid plain of the Carnatic, it brought to view the counless number... who thronged the route... The train dashed by the masses of colours, here clustered by a bridge, there collected under the deep shade of a tope, crowded round a station house, or fringing the edges of a cutting, cheering loudly as the train flew by them. Now and then too, a hearty laugh broke forth when in passing some pasture ground, the lazy cattle, startled by the rushing shriek of the train, flew frantically away, sometimes followed by the scared herdsman himself, who, thinking that the fiery-fiend whom he saw approaching might crush him also, took to his heels with all his speed."

What caused that excitement is surely worth remembering through the restoration of this historic building in Royapuram. If the Railways meant what it said when it established its Heritage Wing, its time to put into practice what it promised at the time.

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