India is utterly callous about its history and heritage.
Long years as I walked along the little lanes of Paris or Madrid or Amsterdam or anywhere else in Europe, I could not help noticing the care history and heritage received. I was amazed at the way frail old ladies tended to their ancient homes, decorating them with flowering plants and even giving the walls a fresh coat of paint.
Paris and Madrid among so many other other cities have an abiding passion for old edifices, and as one strolls through these metros, the zeal of the people (and of the administration) to protect and preserve especially their architectural history has to been seen to be believed.
In contrast, India is utterly callous about its history and heritage. If the ordinary man on the street has little concern for the country’s invaluable architecture, most of which date back several centuries, the government is almost brutal in the way it deals with history.
Many years ago, I remember beginning a feature on the Taj Mahal with a sentence which read: Shah Jahan must be an unhappy man, wherever he is. For, the mausoleum of love he built for his beloved queen, Mumtaz Mahal, was being vandalised by tourists, and almost smoked out of existence by a nearby state-owned oil refinery. Several of my editorials in The Hindu then were countered with sheer lies by the oil company’s public relations department.
It is another story that the Taj was ultimately saved and the yellowing of its gleaming white marble stopped.
But, for every Taj in India, there are hundreds of other historic structures which are decaying and will soon disappear into dust.
The latest to draw attention is the Royapuram Railway Station in North Chennai. This is the third oldest train station in India after Mumbai’s Bori Bunder and Thane. Both were opened in 1853, when the country’s first train service began.
Since the original structures at Bori Bunder (which is now Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus or Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) and Thane no longer exist, Royapuram is the oldest existing rail station in India, maybe in South Asia. The original building still stands.
In 1856, Royapuram saw its first steam-engine-driven trains begin theirs run to Ambur and Thiruvallur, and the station remained the only one in southern India till Chennai’s present Central Station was inaugurated in 1873. By 1907, Royapuram lost its eminence when Central became the city’s focal point of the railways. And therein began its slide to oblivion.
Royapuram, built in the quasi style of the Renaissance period, still has a regal look, though the station and its environs today are somewhat a pale self of their once glorious past, when as the headquarters of the southern train network, they spawned a colony of workers, mostly Anglo-Indians. Their association with India’s railways is legendary, and there are many tales of their valour and sense of duty.
Today, although Royapuram is the halt for a dozen trains, plans are afoot to demolish the station building, despite the fact that it is over 150 years old and is a heritage site according to the laws of the land.
But who cares? Like hundreds of architectural splendours in India, Royapuram may disappear.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is India Editor of FMT, and Chennai-based author, columnist and movie critic. He may be emailed at [email protected]