Legacy of First Railway Station of South India

Royapuram is a locality in the Northern part of Chennai City, Tamil Nadu, most known for the Royapuram Railway Station, the first railway station of south India opened in 1856, and is today the oldest surviving railway station of the India, slated for demolition to accommodate Chennai Metro shortly.
Original Station Scene

History of Royapuram Railway Station

Royapuram is the place where the first railway station of south India was constructed. The second railway line of the South Asia was commenced from here in the 1850s. This railway line extended from Royapuram (Madras) to Arcot, the then capital of the Carnatic region. This station was inaugurated on 28 June 1856 by the then Governor Lord Harris and the railway line was opened for traffic on 1 July 1856. The first train, manufactured by Simpson and Company, started its journey with 300 people from Royapuram to Wallajabad. The station covers about 76 acres. Royapuram railway station building, which was previously in a dilapidated condition, has now been refurbished. It is believed to be one of oldest surviving railway station structures of the Indian Railways.
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Royapuram has a deep history inculcated within itself and has been part of the Chennai (Madras) city for centuries. It is just in the face of the recent developments that Royapuram got edged out to the periphery of the Chennai.

Location

Royapuram stretches from Clive battery (old Northern Rampart of Black Town Wall) at one end to Kasimedu at the other end.
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Demographics

It is primarily a fisherman community area migrated from Chepauk village in 1799 during East India Company’s government. It has a fine blend of people from various ethnic groups as well. Royapuram retains its specialty as the principal suburb of the Parsi community of Madras. Previously Royapuram was a home to many Anglo Indians. But today their numbers are very low since people migrated to other parts of city or to other countries.

It has a beautiful church known as St. Peter’s Church built in 1829 by the boat people of Christian Community migrated from Chepauk in 1799, the Customs House and Master Attendants’s Office were shifted to Black Town from Fort St. George in 1799. In consequent to the removal of Customs House and Master Attendant’s Office to Black Town, the then Marine Board which was under the control of British East India Company, alloted lands to Christian boat people who were staying at Chepauk village, 300 yards away from the North Black Town Wall to settle in the new villaage. They built a small chapel in the year 1780. The boat people regularly paying toll to Marine Board. The Boat people withdrawn money from the Marine Board and built the present church in the year 1829 This church is popularly called as ‘Madha Kovil’ by non-Christians.

The Chennai’s Port Trust located on the shores of Royapuram. The legendary Robinson Park renamed as Arignar Anna Poonga after late chief minister of Tamil Nadu Arignar Anna is located here. This park has witnessed various historic activities such as the birth of DMK and lot of public rallies during the early part of 1950s and 1960s. Now it has been transformed into a green park with lot of facilities for walkers.

Today it may be a mere shell of its former self, but if its surviving grand pillars and walls could speak, they would tell us of a time when this was a busy railway terminus.

Built essentially as a single platform with access through a Corinthian-pillared porch, it originally had a fully-functional first floor from where the sea breeze could be enjoyed before embarking on a stifling train journey.
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A second and humbler portico was meant for passengers who travelled economy. The railways has restored the station periodically, but never put it to good use. In any other country, it would be a tourist attraction.

The Madras Railway Company (MRC), founded in London in 1845 and reconstituted in 1849, took up the task of laying railway lines to connect the east and west coasts of the peninsula. The work began with much fanfare.

According to ‘Royapuram Railway Station Kadaikal Kummi’, an undated dance piece composed by Nathar Sahib, the then Nawab of Arcot cut the turf with a golden shovel while the governor, Sir Henry Pottinger, collected the soil in a basin. The arrival of six 13-tonne locomotives by ships was the next sensation. A public holiday was declared so people could swarm to the beach to see them being offloaded in the face of a stormy surf, in the complete absence of any port facilities.
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On August 11, 1855, The Illustrated London News reported that Governor Lord Harris, ‘accompanied by a party of gentlemen who represented nearly all the interests in Madras, made an experimental trip on the railway to Chinnamapettah, about thirty-five miles distant. A large body of natives was also invited. Vast crowds were assembled to witness the departure of the train; the ramparts and tops of houses adjacent were densely crowded with spectators. Some were observed making reverential poojah to the engines. The carriages are capitally finished and fitted, and the whole of the arrangements reflected the highest credit upon the railway officials.’

At the destination, everyone proceeded to a grove where tents had been erected to serve ‘capital tiffin.’

The line was thrown open in 1856, with the who’s who of Madras in attendance at Royapuram. The Illustrated London News covered the event, accompanying the story with a series of hand-drawn illustrations. From then, till the 1870s, Royapuram was the terminus for Madras. With the construction of Central station in 1873, it became the terminus for east-bound trains alone. Later, it slowly yielded to the growing importance of Central and became a wayside relic.

The establishment of the railway headquarters at Royapuram created an Anglo-Indian enclave in the area, several finding employment in the service. It was that community which first struck work, protesting poor work conditions in 1913, long before India could boast of an organised labour movement. That was exactly 100 years ago. From there to demolition in the name of development has been a quick journey hasn’t it?

The lantern at Royapuram – an account

As a child – when you are still not old enough to understand what your parents have in mind for you – you often nurse the simplest of ambitions.

Sometimes you want to be a police inspector, sometimes a soldier, sometimes a bus driver or railway motorman, sometime a ticket-checker – depending on who catches your imagination for the moment. And then, one day, engineering or medicine takes over.

One of my ambitions, as a little boy, was to stand at a tiny railway station in the dead of the night and show the signalman’s lantern to a passing train. That the faint glow of the lantern could make a train proceed or come to a halt – that made the job seem very powerful and fascinating at the time. My ambition came true, but only at the age of 40, that too only for a few moments – but it did come true. In the summer of 2010, when I was researching Tamarind City, the book I wrote about Chennai, I spent an afternoon at the Royapuram station.

I had to go there because like every other modern institution in India, the railways too – at least on paper – had originated in Madras. The Madras Railway Company was set up way back in 1845, but it was the Great Indian Peninsula Company, founded only later, that ended up running India’s first train from Bombay to Thane in 1853.

Royapuram, which could have become India’s first station, was eventually inaugurated in June 1856, when one train took about 300 Europeans on a joyride to Ambur (near Vellore), and another train carried a similar number of natives to nearby Tiruvallur. But since the original stations at Bombay and Thane no longer exist, Royapuram remains the oldest surviving railway station in the subcontinent.

But it may not survive for long, considering that Southern Railway finds the structure an obstacle to ‘development work’. It may survive a little longer because of campaigns by heritage lovers, but the fact that the railways can even think on these lines shows how dismissive we, as a country, are of heritage and it may be just a matter of time before the Royapuram station joins the graveyard of other historical buildings. It is the mindset that is killing heritage.

The station would have collapsed on its own had it not been restored in 2005, thanks to columns that appeared in this paper. But during the restoration, the expensive Burma teak furnishings, which had managed to survive the neglect, were stolen.

Much of the structure – along with some of the Corinthian pillars – remains intact. There is even an old wooden bench, engraved on whose backrest are the letters ‘M.S.M.R’ – Madras and Southern Mahratta Railway (the company formed in 1908 after the Madras Railway Company merged with the Southern Mahratta Railway).

It was at this station, in the station master’s office, that I had found an old signalman’s-lantern. I had picked it up with childlike joy and asked the station master if I could ‘play’ with it for some time. When he agreed, I rushed out to the platform – along with the friend who was accompanying me – to play signalman.

Precisely at that moment, a goods train happened to pass by. Since a goods train, being long and slow-moving, takes forever to get out of your sight, my friend and I had ample time to pose with the lantern against the passing train – for Facebook. Today, I regret not having asked the station master if I could take the lantern home. He would have said no in all probability, but what if he had said yes? I could have preserved it at home, in memory of a childhood ambition that never came true.

If the station is demolished, I can still buy the lantern from a scrap dealer, but where will the railways shop for the lost piece of its own childhood – should realization strike later?

Heritage Committee Meeting scheduled – CMDA officials to attend
chennai-metroThe highest decision-making authority of the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) will meet on Wednesday to decide whether permission could be granted to Southern Railway for demolition/modification of Royapuram station, which is a heritage structure.

Though a CMDA official said on Saturday it was unlikely that its heritage conservation committee was going to permit partial or complete demolition of the railway station, the risk of the structure being pulled down runs high.

Owing to the exemption given to ‘operational structures,’ from the purview of the Tamil Nadu Town and Country Planning Act and the Chennai City Municipal Corporation Act, the railways can demolish the heritage building ‘in the interest of public service.’

The station figures among 19 structures classified as Grade-I heritage buildings in the draft list prepared by the CMDA earlier this month, but since the State government is yet to notify the list, Southern Railway is not legally bound to protect the station and is free to pull it down.

According to the special rules for the conservation of heritage buildings under the Second Master Plan, Grade-I buildings have national or historical importance, embodying excellence in architectural style, design, technology and material usage. They may be associated with a great historical event, personality, movement or institution. No interventions would be permitted either on the exterior or interior unless it is necessary in the interest of strengthening, and prolonging, the life of the building.

CMDA is empowered to give development permission for the changes on the advice of the heritage conservation committee, appointed by the State government.

The CMDA meeting on Wednesday is likely to answer the concerns of citizens on the conservation of nationally-significant heritage structures in the city. The member-secretary of CMDA is now the only ray of hope in saving the Royapuram station.

According to development regulations for Chennai metropolitan area, the member secretary of CMDA ‘shall act in consultation with the heritage conservation committee to be appointed by the government, provided that in exceptional cases for reasons to be recorded in writing, the member secretary may overrule the recommendation of the heritage conservation committee, provided the powers to overrule the recommendation shall not be delegated by the member secretary to any other officer.’

The CMDA member secretary will give an opportunity of hearing to Southern Railway and to the public before taking a final decision.

The Royapuram station, whose construction began in 1853, was designed by William Adelpi Tracey like a regency mansion in the quasi-classical style of the Renaissance period.

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