3 March 2009

History's Tracks

An informer on the history of the Old Delhi Railway Station, published in Time Out Delhi, 2009. 

Why was Old Delhi Railway Station built in the heart of Shahjahanabad? Trisha Gupta looks back at Delhi’s rail history.

The building known today as the Old Delhi Railway Station was, when first built, the most powerful symbol of newness that Delhi had yet known. Part of that power lay in the inherent technological marvel of the railway: that iron beast that moved faster and made more noise than anything human beings had ever seen. But the other part of its power lay in its timing – its position as both harbinger and engine of the changes that would transform the city after 1857.

For several months after the British regained control of the city after the Revolt, they had debated whether to keep the city or destroy it completely. There was a suggestion that Jama Masjid be replaced by a cathedral, for example. Even after such drastic plans were abandoned, European troops continued to occupy much of the walled city, Daryaganj and the Palace (the Lal Qila), which was now called the “Fort”. Further, as historian Narayani Gupta lamented in her 1981 study, Delhi Between Two Empires 1803-1901: Society, Government and Urban Growth (Reprinted as part of The Delhi Omnibus; OUP, 2002), the military decision to clear a 500-yard space around the Fort “led to some of the loveliest buildings of the city being destroyed – Kucha Bulaqi Begum, the Haveli Nawab Wazir, the Akbarabadi Masjid, the palaces of the Nawabs of Jhajjar, Ballabgarh, Farrucknagar and Bahadurgarh”.

Alongside this planned urban destruction, however, came a spate of construction at the core of which was the railway. The railway embankment created in the 1860s divided the city in half, cutting right through the central residential areas. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, in a fascinating study of the impact of the railways on nineteenth-century life (The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century; University of California Press, 1987), argues that railway stations were, and were perceived to be, a commercialising, disruptive force. Railway stations in European cities were usually built at the periphery of the well-to-do areas, so as not to arouse too much opposition from “respectable” citizens.

Delhi’s history reveals that railway construction in colonial settings worked in a manner analogous to the poorer sections of Western cities. When originally proposed, the railway line was expected to go from north-east to south-west, through the cantonment on the Ridge. The old Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, had been unhappy even with this, wanting it to be built even further north so as to preserve the tranquillity of the city. In the wake of 1857, however, the British were able to put through a proposal for the railway to cut right through the city. When so many had been killed and so many displaced, a few hundred more could be dislodged with impunity.

And so the railway was built along an east-west axis, distorting the concentric structure of Shahjahanabad, but by running between the now-military bastions of Salimgarh and the Fort, providing the British complete assurance of security and military access in case of a rising in the city. As supplements to the railway line, two straight, 100-foot-wide avenues were driven through the most densely populated parts of the walled city: the Queen’s and Hamilton roads (currently, SP Mukherjee Marg and the Grand Trunk Road). Between the military clearances around the Fort and the land cleared for the railway and these roads, writes architectural historian Jyoti Hosagrahar (Indigenous Modernities: Negotiating Architecture and Urbanism; Routledge, 2005), the habitable area of the old city had been reduced by a third.

The entry to the city, which had until then been either by river or from Ghaziabad, after crossing the bridge of boats, changed completely. Where travellers until the mid-nineteenth century were greeted by a view of minarets, the post-1870s traveller got off the train and emerged through the Italianate arches of a railway station into a new Victorian-style city centre, including a Town Hall, a Clock Tower and soon after, a Fountain. It was hard to visualise the crowded mohallas that had once stood in their place.

With the railways, too, came a steady tide of commercialisation. Already an established distribution centre for Punjab, Rajasthan and the North West Provinces, by 1877 Delhi was drawing trade away from Amritsar (Narayani Gupta, as above); after the railway line was extended towards the south-west in the 1890s, Delhi became the largest railway junction in India. The rise in wholesale trade had a huge impact on the character of the city. On the one hand, as writer and civil servant Pavan Varma suggests (Mansions at Dusk: The Havelis of Old Delhi; with Sondeep Shankar, Spantech, 1992): “with dwindling or non-existent sources of income, [the remnants of the feudal elite] welcomed developments which allowed them to rent out parts of their havelis to mechanised workshops, or to warehouses”. On the other, acres of land from estates and gardens were earmarked for railways and sold for factories. The railway was thus responsible for the relentless erosion of Shahjahanabad’s residential character.

Culturally, too, the migration of many well-known families to Hyderabad, and the lack of a court, with its patronage of art and literature, created a vacuum. In place of the old Mughal elite, the British built up a new class of loyalists: carefully chosen men from established families who had displayed their support for the British during the Revolt. Many were rich merchants or bankers: Jains and Khatris like Lala Chunna Mal, Sahib Singh, Ramji Das and Mahesh Das. The rise of this new commercial elite in the Delhi of the late-nineteenth century was a reflection of the city’s altered economy: from ten karkhanas in 1885 to 20 cloth mills that employed 20,000 people in 1900 (Narayani Gupta; as above). By 1910, there was no village in Delhi district that was more than 12 miles from a railway station.

Published in Time Out Delhi, Vol 2 Issue 24, Feb 20 - Mar 6, 2009

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