Bombay and its Railway: Celebrating the Origins

Halt Station India: The Dramatic Tale of the Nation’s First Rail Lines by Rajendra B. Aklekar;  Rupa Publications India Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, 2014;  pages 205;  Rs 395.

IT HAS BEEN REMARKED that the history of a railway can be a meaningful account only if it goes beyond stating the bare details of how the railway came to be built and which fleet of locomotives were utilised at the start; it must go on to acquaint the reader with the people and places and events of the time thereby recreating to some extent the general social milieu and atmosphere of the period.

If this statement be accepted as a guideline, then Shri Rajendra B. Aklekar's bold venture titled "Halt Station India" can be said to be a genuine history, and one that is a splendid success too. True, he dwells on just a slice of India's rail history, chronicling the very first railway built on the island city of Bombay in 1853, but his account is set within the context of the growing city, its trade and burgeoning population, its development as a major commercial center of the country.

Here is a work that is more than a mere chronological account of the arrival of the railway in Bombay. While dwelling on history, the author enthralls the reader with a large selection of tales, some related to, others remote from the trains he documents. The resulting work is a canvas that brings alive the Bombay of the day in relation to the railways, a magnificent tale that brings to light for the first time many hidden facets of the island city as it was a century and a half ago. 

When about a decade ago, Shri Aklekar sent out invitations asking friends to join the 'Bombay Rail History Group' he had founded, it was not entirely clear what he had in mind when he began to document railway relics of the past. I was tempted to think here was a man who was interested in documenting old station buildings and yard machinery. And a good deal does lurk out there, for despite their constant efforts to rebuild and renew, the railways have not yet discarded as scrap everything that is unserviceable. A visit to any of Bombay's stations reveals that the past still lives on in the form of 'faint but firm footprints'.

The most striking demonstration of the antiquity of a railway may be found in the sight of a burly old steam locomotive lying stabled besides ancient carriages and other such things. A good number of these artefacts may be seen in museums across the country, while some may be found proudly displayed in station courtyards. But Aklekar had set his sights on something else when he set up his rail history group. While heritage locomotives in museums held his interest by all means, Aklekar was keen on unearthing all by himself heritage dating back to the earliest time when the railway had newly arrived in Bombay. And to this end, he set himself the stupendous task of walking, in segments, the entire stretch of the railway line from Bombay Victoria Terminus to Thana, looking for remnants of the country's first commercial railway.

So then what may we expect this intrepid adventurer found along this 34 kilometer long stretch of track? It would be marvellously splendid if he could have reported sighting one of the earliest Vulcan Foundry engines lying abandoned and rusting away in a corner of a forgotten siding along the way. That luxury was denied to him, for those early engines are now all lost to us. Having served their term they were converted to tank locos or put to use in workshops as stationary engines ere they were butchered and sold off as scrap. 

Aklekar therefore set his sights on whatever else that remained. It has been more than ten years since he first began exploring the line, keeping aside special days when he would visit stations along the route, noting down, filing, photographing, taking notes. His explorations were supplemented by extensive research in libraries, looking up early documents, histories, and treatises, trying to piece together the jigsaw that was early Bombay.

Aklekar's account of his walk along the railway begins at chapter two and we are invited to share in the discoveries he made. The very first thing he discloses to a spellbound audience is the astounding fact that Bombay's Victoria Terminus station is built over the site of an ancient medieval gallows, a place of punishment for offenders next to a pond that was named Gibbet Pond, or Phansi Talao. Nearby were native bazaars with crowds milling around throughout the day. From the bazaar one could spot the sea to the east, its waves lapping the shore. The place was known as Bori Bunder where a wharf was built to enable ships to unload merchandise. Standing at the native bazaar one could look up at the towering ramparts of Fort George to the west which housed the English town of the day. Mighty Fort George was a landmark of Bombay in those times; built in the mid-eighteenth century, remains of the fort can be found to this day.

The location of Phansi Talao is important for the historian for it marks the place close to which the tiny wooden station called 'Bori Bunder' sprang up in 1853 serving as the terminus of the earliest railway running a distance of 34 kilometers to Thana. Quite obviously, Bori Bunder was only the beginning, the 'ground zero' as the author calls it. As the railway network grew, it became necessary to have a more commodious station to serve the needs of Bombay, and after a good deal of planning and forethought, the magnificent station called Victoria Terminus designed by F. W. Stevens arrived on the site of Bori Bunder in the year 1888, a true symbol of British grandeur and supremacy. Historian and researcher that he is, Aklekar is as concerned with the humble Bori Bunder station that stood at this place, as he is enamoured of the Victoria Terminus itself. The site of Bori Bunder station has been identified by the author with near exactness: it lay somewhere close to today's electric loco shed north of the terminus, where one still finds vestiges of two abandoned cobble-stone platforms.

Following an extensive survey of the VT which includes a trip to the remote basement treasury which once held strongboxes and railway documents, and a peep into the innards of the 10 feet 6 inch diameter Lund & Blockley clock high up on the edifice of the station, we move down the line exploring what comes our way. "Tracing the original blueprint of the lines is like looking for a hidden treasure..." says the author. And as you walk down the line with the masterguide beside you, in fleeting peeks and glimpses the Bombay of the day opens up before the eye like a view through a peepshow device: the docks on Bombay's seafront, the early cotton trade, Parsi contractors and the bridges they built over the line, an early foundry that supplied the railway with steel, the plague of 1896, land reclamation to extend the frontiers of the city. We read of the Parel Government House and how its gardens charmed Lady Charlotte Canning, at one time one of its distinguished occupants; a Hindu temple next to Byculla station documented by Lady Falkland; the building of the Sion Causeway; the origin of the Parel and Matunga railway workshops; the Tansa pipeline project that brought water to a thirsty city. 

Many of the narratives the author relates have been accessed from remote sources and taken together constitute a dynamic account of the growth of early Bombay. But Aklekar's original object in the solitary walk he undertook was to identify remains of the railway, and this he does with the thoroughness of an archivist. He is delighted with the sight of fire buckets at Bhayandar station (he has covered in his walks both the BB&CI and Harbour lines in addition to the GIPR); he tells us of an old, disused locomotive turntable lying abandoned in Bandra railway yard; he is forever stumbling upon platform pillars carrying plaques bearing names of long forgotten British engineering firms. Bombay's stations still hold a large stock of leftovers from the British Raj to charm any heritage enthusiast, from Stevens' original furniture and rusting old semaphore signals to decorative iron work and wooden brackets on stations and old style benches and station bells found on railway plaftorms. 

Many of these stations themselves are examples of Victorian style architecture, each a heritage structure we would do well to preserve with care. And we are not speaking of the VT alone. Stevens' masterpiece is a work of genius, leaving one aghast in wonderment and delight, but there are many other stations equally charming with the quiet look of a Victorian villa. Bandra station on the BB&CI railway line (today's Western Railway) is a good example. Opened in 1888, this station is remarkably quaint with its old style sloping roof with tiles and a pretty looking tower reminiscent of old Colaba station down south along the line. Indeed, we are told that the roof for Bandra station was pre-fabricated in London and despatched by steamer, to be placed in position over pillars erected at the site of the station.

Bombay's Harbour line, then and now, taking off on a
gradient to reach Sandhurst Road
and other stations beyond. 

Shri Aklekar's exploration along Bombay's railway lines comes as a breath of fresh air, but would have been quite incomplete in itself had he not meticulously researched the genesis of the Bombay - Thana railway link. The results of his labors are presented in the very first chapter of his work where we are acquainted with the engineering mastermind behind the first train, James Berkley, who oversaw railway construction in India till as far as the completion of the Bhor and Thal ghat inclines. Other names associated with the first ever railway are George Thomas Clark and John Chapman, men who had a vital hand in getting the railway to India, and William Frederick Faviell and Henry Fowler, the enterprising contractors who actually built the line.

India’s first passenger train was flagged off with great fanfare to a 21-gun salute on 16 April 1853 from Bori Bunder station to Thana. The inaugural run carried 400 distinguished invitees seated in 14 carriages with three locomotives named Sahib, Sindh and Sultan at the head of the train. Bhatwadekar, the Marathi scholar, documents the opening vividly: "...Exactly at 3-30 pm the cannons boomed from the Dongri Fort and the governor’s band that was in one of the wagons started playing the national anthem... This was a wonder, and men, women and children from the town had gathered to watch the spectacle from their terrace or roofs..." Lady Amelia Falkland, wife of the governor, who rode on the train on the eventful day seemed to enjoy every moment of the ride and has left behind in her memoirs a charming description of the view through the window "... Here and there a religious mendicant standing with his eyes wide open, staring at the puffing, blowing engine thinking it might be another avatar of Crishna! .... The palms appeared more majestic than usual and to look down upon us with contempt and disgust, while the monster of an engine sent forth an unearthly, protracted yell as it tore over the flats of Bombay...."

Further on in the text the author traces both the Harbour and Port Trust lines, as well as the former BB&CI railway, charming us with accounts of Colaba and Ballard Pier Mole stations (the latter was the starting point for the Frontier Mail), stations that are now extinct and forgotten, but an indelible part of Bombay’s railway history.

The concluding section of the book delves into a history of Bombay's tramways. Shri Aklekar comes across as a person who passionately cares for Bombay's heritage and its railways—a historian, archivist, railway archaeologist, heritage conservationist, and explorer, all rolled into one. His work documents the country's first public railway with precision and exactness, but more than that, it is a celebration of nineteenth century Bombay. Never before has the history of the country's first railway been explored in this manner. Never need it be done again, for there is nothing left now that could be said any further.

Ravindra Bhalerao


A journalist for 20 years having worked with many of Mumbai’s newspapers, Shri Rajendra B. Aklekar has always had two things on mind—railways and Bombay. Presently, senior assistant editor with the Times of India Group’s Mumbai Mirror newspaper, Aklekar has been keen on all things old about Mumbai and has trained himself in museology to document and save those vanishing old relics. Starting his career with The Daily, a newspaper started by the firebrand journalist Rusi Karanjia, he used to run a weekly column on the history and heritage of railway stations in Mumbai. He has also helped Mumbai’s railways to set up heritage galleries and worked on projects to document and conserve heritage structures in Mumbai.