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.
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.
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?