In the Star Chamber of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) booking office, with its dozen busy ticket counters, clattering coupon machines and its tall pillars holding up delicate domed ceilings, millions of suburban commuters begin and end their journeys on India’s oldest passenger railway route without letting history weigh too much on them.

But it is difficult to maintain commuter ennui, or indeed journalistic objectivity, when you find yourself looking down at the station from the gallery on the floor above the ticket counters for the first time in your life. You don’t have to be a railway official or invitee any more. On 28 December, the Central Railway authorities opened the wrought-iron gates of their “Headquarters Building", the administrative wing, to casual visitors. For possibly the first time in 125 years, visitors to the building formerly known as Victoria Terminus can buy a ticket, not to Thane or Asangaon, Vashi or Panvel, but into the building’s own history.

The fire bell outside the atrium. Photo: Gopal MS/Mint.

It was the dream of an empire yet to be born, willing into being a cardiovascular system that would carry cotton, coal, mail, Britons and their servants to and from the most vibrant port on the Arabian Sea into green, mineral-rich central India. It would all begin at Bori Bunder, where the GIPR would build headquarters to rival any industrial monument back home in England. The tropical sun would turn the yellow Malad stone gold in the evenings, and in daylight, the sky would blaze white above its domes and turrets.

Now a Unesco World Heritage Site, CST, Mumbai’s busiest railway station, has evidently lived up to planners’ promises. The quiet administrative wing, once the GIPR headquarters and the lever of its enormous influence on Indian railway history, lies a short passage behind the ticket counters. Here divisional cashiers, senior section engineers, customs vigilance offices and secretarial desks are tucked under Venetian Gothic arcades, perched on mezzanine floors atop wrought-iron staircases, watched by the stone reliefs of men like Mountstuart Elphinstone and Donald Mackay, Lord Reay, who once governed Bombay for the British crown.

“We wanted all of Mumbai to get acquainted with the heritage of the city, and thought it would be a good gesture to open a heritage gallery and other features of the building for public viewing," says Vilas Malegaonkar, chief public relations officer. “For anyone interested in industrial history, the railways or architecture, it should be quite useful."

It should also be a joy for anyone interested in what is frankly a fiesta of masonry, in balusters and gargoyles, in the profusion of animals, birds and human beings immortalized in stone, much of the work carried out in the department of architectural sculpture at the neighbouring Sir JJ School of Art, under John Lockwood Kipling.

Anyone interested in snooping around the offices of a government behemoth will be gently dissuaded by the staff who helpfully shepherd tourists around on weekday afternoons, steering them clear of closed doors and office elevators. But the building has a life of its own, quite separate from the movement of files and the budget meetings that take place behind doors, which is why it works beautifully as a tourist spot. Visitors entering from the south gate encounter the heritage gallery first. The signage here is indifferent; poor old Wilson Bell, M.I.C.E. (first chief engineer of GIPR), becomes “Wilsom Bell Mice" in one of the text boards, and a set of photographs on key moments in Indian railway history includes, improbably, a photo of Mohandas Gandhi being thrown off a first-class carriage in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The gallery includes old GIPR paraphernalia. Photo: Gopal MS/Mint.

The building itself is more eloquent. As we drift from the heritage gallery towards the central atrium, a large, elegant fire bell welcomes us into the past. Portraits of the only Indian directors of the GIPR, Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy and Jagannath Sunkersett, flank the bust of Chhatrapati Shivaji, after whom the station was renamed in 1998. Like Doctor Who’s Tardis, it is bigger on the inside. You have to bend your knee, compress your neck muscles and flex your ribs, craning upwards, for your naked eye to encounter the domed ceiling. As several first-time visitors around us wander in, open-mouthed, P.B. Thakur, a railways employee who walks through with visitors, chuckles. “Paisa vasool, this sight," he says. “And it’s your yoga exercise for the day as well."

This part of the building, as Thakur and his colleague Raghavendra Singh Rathore tell us, is in transition. Originally built for 13 railways departments, it became, over the years, host to many more. Its wide corridors once held desks and files, and on the eastern side of the building—familiar to anyone who comes to the long-distance passenger platforms—you can still see remnants of annexes, like a toilet block currently being demolished. Over time, though, other departments have been shifted out, and in a few years’ time only the original departments—the general manager’s office, for example, or accounts and audit—are likely to remain.

The domed ceiling: Photo: Gopal MS/Mint.
The domed ceiling: Photo: Gopal MS/Mint.

The complex itself is a creature of two parts. The newly opened wing bears the imprimatur of a time gone by. But below that airy viewing gallery, beyond the quiet walls of the section engineer’s offices, the station itself continues to belong to the present, as state-of-the-art as it must have been in 1887, when it loomed over Bori Bunder, a symbol, as Prof. Dalvi says, “of the optimism people of the city must have felt, seeing large, modern buildings come up on their skyline".

As a lifelong commuter on the Western Railway, with its efficient, fluorescent-lit terminus at Churchgate, I have always felt a bit like a bumpkin when I take CST station, with its giant wooden doors, stained-glass frontage and carved arches, flooded with light and energy. These coexist beautifully with the contemporary life of a railway station—electric lines and German rakes, newspapers and samosas, subways where you can buy mosquito bats and Tendulkar T-shirts. It belongs to the present. The cool, dim Victorian interiors of the office next door demonstrate just how of-the-moment it is.

The CST headquarters building is open to the public between 3-5pm on weekdays. Entry, 200, or 100 if you are a student.

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