Over the past week, I have been able to think of little other than Royapuram station and its probable fate. And in the course of my researches, have found several fascinating nuggets about the place.
The choice of Royapuram as the terminus for Madras was criticised quite a bit when plans for the train service were unveiled. And given that the terminus on the west coast – Beypore was equally obscure, the Madras Railway Company (MRC) was often described as beginning nowhere, going through the midst of nowhere and ending nowhere!
But once it became fact, everything else in Madras aligned with it. The prominent business district developed in a straight line from it and became First Line Beach, today’s Rajaji Salai. The first attempt at a harbour, in the 1860s, was a breakwater 6,250 ft. long, from the “northern side of the station at Royapooram.”
It also became the venue for civic welcomes to governors, viceroys and royalty. It was customary for newly-appointed governors of Madras to land in Bombay, travel up to Raichur, board the train there and make it to Royapuram via Adoni, Guntakal, Tadipatri and Arakkonam. At Royapuram, they would be received with military honours.
The arrival of the Viceroy, Lord Mayo, was a much bigger occasion. On January 2, 1869, the viceregal train steamed into Royapuram at 5 p.m., Lord Mayo and the Governor of Madras Lord Napier standing on the engine and waving to the crowds.
“On the platform, the Commander-in-Chief and Heads of Departments were assembled, Military Officers being in full uniform, and Civilians in morning dress. Immediately after the train stopped, while a Royal salute was being fired from the Fort, Lord Napier conducted his guests to the station’s portico where the party were saluted by a Guard of Honour. The procession went down Thumboo Chetty Street, an unsavoury but characteristic Madras artery, which was lined with troops.”
Royapuram was at its grandest on December 17, 1875, when the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII visited. By then it was the old railway station and was transformed into a vast theatre to host a civic reception for the prince. Expert Indian hands had “sheathed the interior roofing with sparkling tinsel” so that the bright illumination made the “graceful curves and rafters look jeweled with rubies, sapphires and emeralds.”
From the ceiling drooped immense chandeliers, a particularly large one being just above the prince’s seat of gold. “The hall, being 200 yards long, was filled with princes, Madras officers and hundreds of ladies.” The prince was late, arriving at the station only at midnight for an event billed for 10 p.m. The Corporation of Madras presented him a welcome address in a gold casket.
The most enchanting portion of the event, according to those in attendance, was the performance of devadasis, accompanied by musicians, on a specially-erected stage. It was a spectacle, “the strange beauty of which could not be eclipsed.” Who would believe all this now?
This article appeared under the Hidden Histories column of The Hindu dated 25th June 2013