Monuments of Modern India: The first half century of railways architecture

Indian Railway buildings from the late 18th till late 19th century

A sketch of the old Kanpur StationHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

The contribution of the Indian Railways in the rich architectural heritage of the country has been significant.

The different styles of these railway buildings can be divided into four major time periods and categories. Read more about the other styles of Indian Railway architecture here :


1. Monuments of Modern India: When European and Indian influences merged at railway stations

2. Monuments of Modern India: Railways architecture in the early 20th Century

The charm of mountain railways and their picture-perfect buildings

In the early days of introduction of the railway in India, the builders, sponsors and their architects were primarily British.  It is thus a natural corollary that the architectural styles they adopted were a reflection of the genres prevailing in Europe at the time. Broadly, the schools of architecture that colonial railway architecture falls into are ‘Neoclassical’, ‘Romanesque’, ‘Italianate’, ‘Gothic Revival’, ‘Indo-Saracenic’ and ‘Modern’ schools. The very first stations were designed in the Neoclassical style. The old Kanpur station, shown in the image, is a perfect example of that simple, geometric stryle of architecture. 

BNR House, overlooking the Hooghly RiverHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

Neoclassical architecture

The Neoclassical school of architecture began in the 18th and early 19th centuries as a reaction to the extravagance and ornamentation of the earlier styles. It was a revival of the classical architecture going back to the simplicity of geometric forms used in ancient Greek and Roman styles. Since this style was on the way out by mid-19th century, the number of buildings conforming to it is few and covers the early years of railway construction in the country.

Neoclassical buildings are characterized by their magnificence of scale, the prominent use of columns, the use of geometric forms and symmetry, predominantly blank walls and the triangular pediment.

Neoclassical buildings are characterized by their magnificence of scale, the prominent use of columns, the use of geometric forms and symmetry, predominantly blank walls and the triangular pediment.

Royapuram Station, the first station in the erstwhile Madras Presidency, opened in 1856Heritage Directorate, Indian Railways

The first station built in Madras (now Chennai) by the Madras Railway at Royapuram in 1856 when the first train in Southern India was introduced, also falls in the Neoclassical category.  Its distinctive features include fluted columns, the ‘Corinthian’ capital, classical balustrade on the roof and blind door cases. The neoclassical influence may also be seen in the original Kanpur Station built in 1867 by the East Indian Railway, now a Training establishment.

The Divisional Office at AjmerHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

Romanesque-Italianate architecture

This was the next prevalent architectural style after Neoclassical. Romanesque architecture had its origins in the medieval ages in Europe and the style was fairly widespread particularly in churches and other structures such as abbeys and castles. Many buildings built after 1870 have characteristics of this design. The distinguishing features of the style are round arches, thick walls, large towers, decorative arcading, a symmetrical plan and overall simple design. 

Madras Central (now Chennai Central)Heritage Directorate, Indian Railways

Perhaps the most outstanding building in this category is the Madras (Chennai) Central station opened in 1873. Its defining elements are its round arches, attractive arcade on the ground and first floor and its prominent central and corner towers.

Howrah StationHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

The Italianate architectural style was popularised in early Victorian Britain and subsequently became an attractive form adopted in India in the later parts of the 19th century.The main characteristics of this style include imposing cornice structures, prominent cornice and corbels, roman arches, arch headed or pedimented windows, flat or ‘hip’ roof, and windows with distinctive moulded caps. The one outstanding building in this class was the East Indian Railway Head Offices at Calcutta built in 1884.

Philip Davies in his book ‘Splendours of the Raj – British Architecture in India 1660-1947’ described it as “a marvellous Italian palazzo ..... Structurally it is quite extraordinary, pioneering a combination of iron and concrete. The floor trusses and columns are made from worn out rails, the floors from bricks carried on concrete arches ..... to create a structure both cheap and fireproof.”

Bombay V.T. (now Mumbai CST)Heritage Directorate, Indian Railways

The next genre following the Romanesque – Italianate trend was Gothic Revival, also described as Victorian Gothic Revival.

The Gothic Revival design’s distinguishing features include the use of the pointed or ogival arch, the ribbed vault, flying buttresses, emphasis on verticality with the help of pinnacles, towers and spires and the use of ornate carvings such as gargoyles.

The front facadeChhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus

In England, the celebrated Victorian Gothic Railway Station, St. Pancras in London, was said to be the inspiration for the most outstanding Victorian Gothic Building in India, the Victoria Terminus, now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. The building included the station as well as the Head Offices of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway (now Central Railway).

It was built over a 10-year period starting in 1878, to become the centrepiece of the Victorian Gothic central district of Bombay and is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The station has been designed by architect Frederick William Stevens, according to the concept of Victorian Italianate Gothic Revival architecture. But on a closer look, one can find elements from traditional Indian architecture as well.

GargoylesChhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus

Built in polychromatic stone, its unique architectural features include the placing of a dome on a Gothic building, never done before! The Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus is its own kind of Bombay Gothic architecture. The architect has also taken local influences for the ornamentation of the building.

Some other memorable features of the building are the magnificent spiral staircase, stained glass windows and its many gothic elements of pointed arches, turrets, gargoyles, finials and pinnacles.

The porchChhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus

Rich in sculptural ornamentation, with coloured glasswork and polychrome masonry including column clusters of Italian marble, the covered porch of the building offers a stunning introduction to the building's interior.

The spiral stairsChhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus

A view of the spiral stairs from the top.

Take a look around the 'Star Chamber', the booking hall within the building, with its sky high arched ceiling. Zoom in on the golden stars decorating the ceiling and the intricate ornamentation on the pillars.

Different arch on each floorChhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus

Fredericks has masterfully adapted his design to suit the local climate and aesthetic, with deep open verandahs for ventilation and a blend of polychrome masonry and elaborate sculptural ornamentation executed by local builders and craftsmen using familiar materials.

Jabalpur StationHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

There were other Victorian Gothic Revival buildings constructed like the original Jabalpur Station and the Colaba Terminus Station in Bombay.

Colaba StationHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

In this image of the erstwhile Colaba Station in Mumbai, one can notice the pointed minarets and arches. It was a very mportant station of its time but was later was closed down when Bombay Central became the new terminal.

A recent photograph of Delhi Junction StationHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

With its arcade of pointed arches, slender octagonal towers with emphasis on the vertical, the Delhi Junction station also falls within the category of Victorian Gothic

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