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(ARCHIVE) VOL. XXIII NO. 6, July 1-15, 2013
Railways attempt to discard their heritage
By The Editor

The Indian Railways has been the one bright spot in an administration that pays lip service or, worse, just does not care for its heritage – built or natural. Scores of heritage railway stations have been preserved as they ought to be and at least two railway possessions – the Nilgiri Mountain Railway and the Chatrapati Shivaji (Victoria) Terminus – have world heritage status. Closer home, the new wing of the Central Station has been built as a replica of the older one. It is in the light of this that the decision to demolish historic Royapuram Station is a distressing one.

Last week, representatives of the Southern Railway approached the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) of the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority seeking the removal of the Royapuram Station from the list of protected buildings and to allow for its demolition. The space occupied by it, they claim, will be needed for the building of a third terminus for Chennai (after Central and Egmore) and which will help in the decongestion of the city. The HCC it is learnt, is meeting on it on the 26th. There are indications that permission may be withheld. But current legislation can do nothing if the railways chose to neglect the building and allow it to collapse by itself.

Royapuram Station, whose foundation was laid in 1854, can claim to be the oldest railway station today in the entire subcontinent – Pakistan and Bangladesh included. The station at Bori Bunder near Mumbai which was a year older has long gone. It was from Royapuram that South India's first train service, to Arcot, was flagged off on 1st July 1856. The Madras Railway Company (MRC), which in 1907 merged with the Southern Mahratta Railway to form the M&SM, became a part of the Southern Railway in 1950. The construction of Central Station in 1873 reduced the importance of Royapuram which over the years slowly became nothing more than a wayside station catering to a very few passenger services.

The station is a fine example of the early colonial classical style with Corinthian columns, tall archways and a huge portico that welcomed important guests. Till 1873, it was customary for newly appointed Governors of Madras to arrive here by train after reaching the west coast by ship. Royapuram has hosted viceroys and, in 1875, royalty too – the Prince of Wales, afterwards Edward VII – being feted here.

The presence of the terminus here was to play a definitive role in the development of the contours of North Madras. The prime business district of First Line Beach led off to the south from the station. The first breakwater of Madras, the predecessor of the present harbour, was laid perpendicular to it. The northern side developed as an industrial belt and the railway workshop which came up at Perambur played a vital role in Indian labour history – the Madras Labour Union set up in 1921 being India's first trade union.

The large railway workforce in and around Royapuram made it a fertile space for nationalist and, later, political sentiments. Everyone from Mahatma Gandhi has addressed audiences here. The Dravidian movement owes a great debt to the railway workforce and for long was headquartered in Royapuram in the shadow of the station. It was a favourite space for C.N. Annadurai, whose ideologies all Dravidian parties claim to follow.

The Royapuram Station, which is symbolic of all this and much more, has historic value, heritage value, art and architectural value, commemorative value and age value. Fulfilling these criteria is what makes a structure of heritage value as per international standards. If so, why demolish it? The railway reasoning that it needs the space does not hold water, because the Royapuram precinct consists of 72 acres in area of which only a small portion is occupied by the Station. And, moreover, the railways themselves spent a sizeable amount of money restoring the station only recently, albeit after a fashion. The station is in no way a hindrance for modernisation and development of the space as a major terminus. It will only serve to enhance its value. Can we, therefore, hope that the railways will wake up to its treasure and preserve it?

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In this Issue

Railways attempt to discard their heritage
Call to participate in Madras Week-2013
Stormwater drains... mixed responses
A Centre for Excellence in Cancer care
Buddhist shrine in Adyar
The cerebral Army Chief
Regret over leaving him in a subordinate post
The master leg spinner

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan
Madras Eye


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