Their own worlds: the quirks of life in Railway colonies

The history of the railways contribution to the design of residential colonies in India

A church at Dhanbad Railway ColonyHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

Railways were pioneers in setting up large residential colonies. Even today, the very mention of the words 'Railway Colony' conjures up images of small, quaint townships of brick red  houses, spacious tiled bungalows, creepers climbing over their walls. Railway colonies are indeed a world of their own!  

Temporary ResidenceHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

The earliest railway colonies were built to a systematically designed lay out. One of the first major colonies to be built was the one at Jamalpur by the East Indian Railway. This colony developed around the Locomotive Workshop that was opened in 1862, i.e. more than 150 years back.

The Jamalpur colony served as a model for many railway colonies that came up later all over India. Even today, this rail colony is distinct from the town and once you enter it, you are in a different world.

Hostel of the Special Class Apprentices at JamalpurHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

"to each house its just share of gardens, its brick red path, its growth of trees and its neat little wicket gate...".

Rudyard Kipling, the well known author and Nobel Laureate, visited Jamalpur towards the end of the 19th century and left a detailed account of the layout and administration of the town. We can best describe the same in his words: “Crotons, Palms, Mangoes, Wellingtonias, Teak and Bamboos adorn it and the Poinsettias, Bougainvillea, the railway creepers and Bignonia Venusta make it gay with colours. It is laid out with military precision, to each house its just share of gardens, its brick red path, its growth of trees and its neat little wicket gate...".

The Special Class Railway Apprentices Hostel (known as 'Gymkhana')Heritage Directorate, Indian Railways

Though much of Jamalpur was destroyed in the 1934 Bihar earthquake, one can still find many fine buildings including the extremely well designed 'Gymkhana' building, where young apprentices reside before they graduate as mechanical engineers on the railway.

St. Joseph’s Church – one of the many churches at JamalpurHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

Numerous churches were also built within railway colonies. Many of them, like the Jamalpur church, still stand and some are over a hundred years old.

Residence of the Divisional Rail Manager at Waltair, VisakhapatnamHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

Aesthetics and beauty apart, the architecture of many of the buildings in the old railway colonies was also of the highest order.

The Divisional Rail Manager's Bungalow at VadodaraHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

Residences of the General Managers, those of the erstwhile Divisional superintendents (now Divisional Rail Managers), the Heads of the Workshops, etc. are not only grand in appearance but also superb pieces of architecture.

The residences of the General Managers of Western and Central Railways in Mumbai and those of the DRM Vadodra are a case in point.

BOMBARCI, the residence of the General ManagerHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

Bombarci, the official residence of the General Manager of Western Railways, has an architectural style typical of buildings in the city built in the early 20th Century.

GM NCR BungalowHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

Official residence of the General Manager of North Central Railway in Allahabad.

Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru at the Kharagpur ClubHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

All the old colonies had a hectic social life. Generally, the focal points of this social life were two places – the Church and the Institutes.

One of the many denominations of churches in rail colonies - an Anglican church at KharagpurHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

To keep their staff morally and spiritually correct, church-going was encouraged by the authorities. Many colonies had more than one church to cater to different denominations of Christianity. All the same, there was a dominance of Anglican churches.

At such of the places where there were no churches within the colonies, the faithful used to visit nearby churches, sometimes a walk of several kilometers.

Colonial architecture on displayHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

Generally, the administration of railway companies did not permit setting up of shrines of other religions within their premises.

One good exception that proves the rule was at Kharagpur. Here, the construction of a Ram Mandir was permitted and a temple constructed in 1920. In the same year, land was granted by the agent for construction of a Kali temple.

Today, one can find churches, temples as well as a mosque in the Kharagpur colony.

The Durand Institute located at AsansolHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

The other focal point of social activity was the Club known more as an Institute. The Anglo Indians had abbreviated it further to “Inster”. The Institutes were the exclusive preserves of the European and Anglo-Indian population.

Later, after independence, when the number of Indian employees started rising, the Institutes were opened for all senior staff who replaced the Europeans. In addition, separate Institutes were also opened for workmen and other junior staff.

The first ever Institute was the Durand Institute opened in 1878 at Asansol on the East Indian Railway. It is now known as Vivekanand Institute. From a distance, it gives the appearance of a cathedral with its tower soaring high like a steeple.

European Institute in KharagpurHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

The better amongst the institutes used to have a card room, a billiards room with one or more table, a ball room, often with wooden flooring, sometimes a bar, a spacious lawn, a playground for kids, and sports facilities like tennis courts, badminton and squash courts along with a swimming pool.

The European Institute at Kharagpur (now known as South Institute) also had a band stand, which has since been demolished.

Two of the most important social events at most institutes were Christmas and New Year eves. In the weeks preceding Christmas and on New Year eve, fancy dress balls used to be a regular feature.

The Railway Institute at the Railway Colony at Liluah, near Howrah stationHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

Sports and games abounded in Railway colonies, with both indoor and outdoor games facilities being made available.

Railway colonies have produced some distinguished sports persons, the most prominent among them being the tennis playing Amrithraj brothers, and the world chess champion, Vishwanathan Anand, and the Indian women's cricket captain, Diana Eduljee.

Residence of the Divisional Rail Manager at BhavnagarHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

Few new railway colonies have come up after the British left, except where they are attached to the railway's own production units.

Many may be surprised to know that in the post independence era, the first planned city of the nation was not Chandigarh but the railway's newly emerging township at Chittaranjan, where one of the first temples of modern India was being built in the form of a steam locomotive manufacturing facility. A colony for officers was also built on SP Marg in New Delhi, which is in use today.

The grave of the luckless foreman in the middle of the Golf Course at JamalpurHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

Since these railway colonies were built at the expense of the forests, encounters with wildlife happened often, sometimes resulting in fatal accidents.

India at the time had plenty of forests teeming with big game and smaller wildlife. At road side stations, appearance of prowling tigers, bears, wild elephants, etc. was a regular affair. Sometimes the bigger animals strayed into the colonies.

In Jamalpur Railway colony, a grave can be seen right in the center of a well-kept 9-hole golf course.

The epitaph on the grave reads: ”Sacred to the memory of James Quilem Roberts, formerly of Vulcan foundry Warrington and afterwards foreman of the locomotive erecting shop Jamalpur who lost his life from the effects of an encounter with a Tiger near this place. Died 13th day June 1864. Age 27 years.”

One of the residential buildings at the SP Marg Railway ColonyHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

Today, with changing operational requirements, many railway colonies have become redundant. Some have virtually even become ghost towns.

However, at many of the new activity centers, particularly production units, the railway colony lives on and life continues to pulsate with activity to remind us of their glorious heritage.

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