Victoria Terminus: Mumbai’s Grand Old Railway Station
I first saw Mumbai’s historic Victoria Terminus railway station in March 1973. The city was in the grips of a severe drought, water restrictions were in force, and the station offered a way of escape.
I was at the start of my first visit to India, a backpacking trip. Bombay, as it was then called, was a fascinating and astonishing city but the crowds and noise were exhausting, and the water rationing gave the city a frazzled feel.
Keen to move on after a few days, I made my way to the station to buy a train ticket to Delhi. The place was packed. After waiting in a slow-moving queue, a friend and I bought two third-class tickets for 42 rupees each (around US$5 at the exchange rate of the time).
This did not guarantee us seats, and a station official told us that unless we arrived one and a half hours before the train was due to leave, there would probably be no room.
We returned to the station the following afternoon, pausing only briefly to look up at its Gothic spires, gargoyles and domed central tower. We walked down the platform where the train was waiting, found two seats and began a journey that would eventually lead us to Kathmandu.
It wasn’t until 36 years later, in 2009, that I saw the station again. By now it had been renamed the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, in honour of a 17th century warrior king. This time I was there not to buy a ticket but to take a closer look at the grand old building. I had forgotten just how impressive it was.
Symbol of Mumbai
The 130-year-old terminus is one of Asia’s great railway stations. It’s as much a treasured symbol of modern-day Mumbai as it is a monument to the British Raj. It has featured in many Bollywood films as well as the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, whose final dance scenes take place on its platforms.
It’s one of the world’s busiest railway stations, handling at least three million passengers and 1,250 local and long-distance trains a day. It connects Mumbai to all parts of India, as well as operating commuter services.
It’s true that some of Tokyo’s massive railway stations handle more passengers, notably Shinjuku (which is actually five stations in one) and Shibuya. But they surely can’t match Victoria Terminus in terms of its architecture and history. It’s one of Mumbai’s most recognisable and iconic buildings.
Designed by the British architect Frederick William Stevens in Victorian Gothic style, with many Indian touches, it took 10 years to complete. It opened in 1888 and was named after Queen Victoria, who had marked the 50th anniversary of her reign the previous year.
More platforms were built over the years but the original building is still in full use, handing thousands of passengers a day. It’s also the headquarters of India’s Central Railway.
UNESCO declared the terminus a World Heritage Site in 2004, describing it as “an outstanding example of Victorian Gothic Revival architecture in India, blended with themes deriving from Indian traditional architecture”
The station saw its bloodiest day on 26 November 2008, when two gunmen opened fire in the passenger hall, killing 58 people. The attack was part of a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in the city that left 164 people dead.
Two luxury hotels were among the other targets but it was perhaps the attack on the famous railway station, used by so many, that had the greatest effect on the people of Mumbai. It was an assault on the soul of the city.
One of the two gunmen at the station was killed during the attack. The other was captured, convicted of murder and other offences, and hanged in November 2012.
In 2015, the station’s name changed again, with the addition of the word ‘Maharaj’ to make it the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus. It’s popularly known as CSMT, CST or even simply VT.
Even if you’re not planning a train journey, it’s a rewarding place to visit – not least for senior travellers who love colonial architecture. Like all the best public buildings, it’s not simply functional but designed to be a lasting attraction in its own right.
Daily heritage tours of the building, including its museum, are available each weekday, or you can simply stroll in and wander around.
Parts of the three-storey building are closed to the public and protected by armed guards but it’s fascinating to stand in the concourse watching the trains depart and arrive, carrying thousands of passengers to and from central Mumbai.
The vaulted ceiling above the main ticket hall in the north wing looks more like a cathedral than a typical railway station. Hundreds of gold stars are painted on the ceiling; the ticket hall is called the Star Chamber. The ornate stained-glass windows above the ticket counters, and the intricate steel and iron work, are wonderful to look at.
Even more impressive is the view from the outside. The symmetrical north and south wings stand on either side of an open courtyard, beyond which is the central area of the building, with its spectacular tower and dome. The building’s turrets and arches bring to mind the architecture of Indian palaces.
Stone gargoyles jut out from parts of the building, including the central tower. They seem mainly to portray creatures found in India: monkeys, dogs, rams, owls, crocodiles. They spit out water during the monsoon rains.
On top of the dome stands a 5 metre female figure symbolising Progress; she holds a torch in her right hand and a spoked wheel in her left. She was designed to portray the benefits the railways were bringing to Indian commerce.
The station is in the Fort area of south Mumbai. Just to its north is one of the city’s best-known markets, Crawford Market, now called Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Mandai Marathi.
It too is housed in a colonial building, constructed in 1871, that includes friezes of Indian rural life designed by John Lockwood Kipling, father of the writer Rudyard Kipling.
The market sells everything from fruit and vegetables to toys, cosmetics and household items.
About two kilometres south of the station is the Gateway of India, a massive arch built in the early 20th century to mark a visit to India by Britain’s King George V and Queen Mary. The station, market and arch can be combined in a half-day trip.
Header image: PDPics