An architectural wonder

Published : Jul 29, 2005 00:00 IST


Indeterminately beyond the traffic in Hornby Road, Bombay, there looms an edifice which seems to be rather blurred than clarified by the burning sunlight - something vast, fretted, ornate, with a tower like Wren's Tom Tower in Oxford on top of it, and multitude of galleries, loggias and elaborate windows all around. The structure does not much elucidate itself when we get nearer, tangled as it is in the turmoil of the city, but at least the effect of it, as we enter its railed forecourt between two great lions couchant, is altogether explicit. It is a statement of pride. It bespeaks the incomparable power and beauty of steam, and the uncountable blessings of empire too. It is Victoria Terminus.

WITH a few changes, the quote from Stones of Empire: The Buildings of the Raj (1983) by Jan Morris and Simon Winchester would read the same if the authors were to write it again now. The changes are superficial - Hornby Road is Dadabhai Naoroji Road and the "edifice" was renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) in 1996. For Mumbaikars, it is still V.T. The building has retained the innate character gifted to it more than a century ago by its architect, the celebrated F.W. Stevens.

It was the original headquarters of the erstwhile Great Indian Peninsula Railway (GIPR). Work commenced on CST in 1878. Although it was completed in May 1888, the building had already started functioning as a station in 1882. It was named Victoria Terminus in 1887, the jubilee year of Queen Victoria's reign.

A magnificent structure built in the Italian Gothic style, CST was chosen as a world heritage site by the World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in July 2004. With this prestigious membership CST joins the ranks of 788 other sites including Macchu Pichu, Angkor Wat, the Elephanta Caves, Ajanta and Ellora and the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. But even in this august company CST retains its individuality. It is the only administrative and functional building to have this honour.

Indeed this is CST's greatest advantage from the point of view of conservation. Sunil Jain, Chief Public Relations Officer, Central Railway, points out: "The fact that the building continues to be used for the purpose for which it was built has meant that the originality is intact and it always got full attention being the seat of administration." The changes and additions made to the building were made mainly to accommodate an increasing staff strength rather than for any other reason. The additions were done as part of the expansion and reorganisation of the Indian Railways in the 1960s and 1970s. "Those were the days of expansion and since this building has such enormous space, heritage was not at the top of the list," says Jain. Many of the damages inflicted on the building have been rectified. The number of staff, for one thing, has been reduced from 2,500 in the 1980s to 1,100.

The need to preserve CST's grandeur was felt in 1987-88. "It was the centenary year of the building," says Jain, "and it was at this point that the building was seen as a living monument and the thinking started that something had to be done about it. We began to see it as more than just a transport terminus." The Associated Cement Companies (ACC), the consultant, submitted perhaps the most comprehensive report on the building in 1997-98. As a result, many long-term conservation programmes have been initiated.

Although the UNESCO recognition is prestigious, the monument's protection is the responsibility of the local authorities. In this regard the CST's future seems secure. The building is special not only to Mumbaikars but, clearly so to the Central Railway also. It has earmarked Rs.4.8 crores for phase one of the restoration and conservation process.

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