It must probably rank as one of the few railway stations across the world, which has, and continues to fascinate not just the tourist but also the average passerby who sets his/her eye on the structure for the first time. We’re talking about the Victoria Terminus, renamed after Chhatrapati Shivaji that remains one of the most definitive landmarks to grace the city.
We are in the 125th year since the terminus came into operation. No mean feat, this what with millions passing through its stately hallways, breathtaking ceilings and Gothic styled pillars, even as stone-faced gargoyles and an artistic menagerie of tropical flora and fauna stare down at the human sea beneath them. Designed by visionary and ambassador of the Bombay Gothic style, Frederick William Stevens, back in the 1870s, it must have surpassed any conceivable plan in its expanse, precision and detail that might have reached the tables of the city’s administrators till then. The exhaustive knowledge, willpower and foresight of Stevens and his team who took 10 years to complete this magnificent structure requires a reminder to the rushed citizen who passes through its arched doorways or its grand outer façade ever so often, if not on a daily basis.
Yes, we tend to take these things for granted — lifeless, dated city furniture that simply happens to be. After all, how many of us have the time to stop and marvel at this Gothic spectacle when the window seat in the 6.23 fast is all that matters after a harried day in the office? Besides, there isn’t any obvious signage, reading material, forget about guides at any point to provide interested folk with nuggets of information about this grand landmark, an architectural triumph, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. How often has one spotted scores of curious first-timers and foreign tourists appear lost and eventually, frustrated at hitting dead ends due to lack of any literature or valuable data about this great structure. The positioned constabulary and ticket collectors aren’t exactly the kinds you’d bet your money on to provide this sort of information. Unlike several other important sites that are unlucky to find mentions on tourist itineraries, this railway terminus is a permanent fixture, and yet, the neglect in terms of public information is abysmal. The lesser said about the prevalent civic sense within and outside the station, paan stains and grafitti eyesores et al, the better.
A while ago, one was thrilled to hear about the public heritage walks that commenced inside the building. A museum was also set up, to showcase original drawings by Stevens and other rare treasures from the time including railway advertisements and vintage photographs of smoky engines and railroads being built; another welcome sign, this. However, it’s a miniscule step. As Christopher London, researcher and author of Bombay Gothic, shared in an interview to this journalist while on a recent trip to the city: “People of Mumbai have been shortchanged. For one, there is zero access to these buildings.
Secondly, there is no guided system to take them around. In the absence of guides, audio tours should be provided, where people can take off on their own; this will increase interest.” We couldn’t agree any more.
In this 125th year since its completion, the best and possibly, most timely tribute to this heritage structure could be the start of an awareness creation programme thereby instilling a sense of pride among Mumbaikars about this world-famous terminus. Schools and college field trips to this site might be a logical point to begin such initiatives; after all, it doesn’t hurt to start out with the young. Information kiosks set up by the State Tourism department can provide a basic knowledge of the site in the form of brochures or touchscreens. With awareness, develops interest and eventually, respect, as the wise will tell you.
A serious rethink by our city powers about this structure’s importance to the city’s identity is a must — which in the 19th century, was the second most photographed landmark in Asia, after Agra’s Taj Mahal. What better time than now to bring back the glory days, we say.
— The writer is Features Editor, MiD DAY