Every time I’ve passed the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) I’ve looked up at the magnificent building, trying to spot something I haven’t seen before. Honestly, there are so many details on the façade that it isn’t a hard task. I’ve often been bowled over by a grimacing gargoyle while zooming past in a cab, or been captivated by a griffin-like mythical bird holding a standard atop one of the building’s wings. Formerly known as Victoria Terminus, CST was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site over a decade ago in July 2004, and ranks, rightfully so, as one of the most beautiful train stations in the world. It is currently the headquarters of the Central Railways.
Like most people, my images of CST have been restricted to its exterior. It took the CST’s weekday heritage tour inside the belly of the beast to make me realise just how much of the building’s beauty escapes us even though we may pass it every day.
When plans for CST were being drawn around the late 19th century, one of the hotly discussed topics at the time was architectural styles for civic buildings across the British Empire. Although the Industrial Revolution was in full flow at the time, its designs and styles weren’t great favourites. “In the early stages, the Industrial Revolution was looked upon as a blight on the landscape of England,” said Mustansir Dalvi, a professor at Mumbai’s Sir J. J. College of Architecture. Since the goal was to build grand, timeless buildings, officials chose to emulate England’s grandest cathedrals and thus chose the Gothic style of architecture for CST, Dalvi explained.
Considered a prime example of Gothic Revival architecture, CST was built over a 10-year period from 1878. Designed by noted British architect F. W. Stevens, the building seamlessly blends trademark Gothic features with Indian motifs.
Listen to Dalvi talk about the hallmarks of a neo-Gothic building, all of which are amply showcased at CST.
CST’s gargoyles spring to life during the monsoon, spitting out water from their lofty perches. The building is covered with a menagerie of stone animals jutting out from its walls. On our visit, we spotted crocodiles, lizards and dogs, decidedly less fantastical than the gargoyles that usually adorn cathedrals. Gargoyles constituted a major part of Christian imagery and symbolism in Gothic cathedrals, Dalvi said. The inside of a cathedral is considered a sacred space, completely removed from the evils of the outside world, Dalvi explained, so these grotesque stone creatures at the entrance of a church were a warning to purify and prepare yourself to enter holy ground.
Most of us make a beeline for the booking counter at CST before rushing to catch a local train, often forgetting that we’re in one of the world’s most beautiful settings for buying a train ticket. For a few moments, we stand under a wooden, vaulted ceiling covered with hundreds of gold stars painted on an azure background. To the right, above the arched entrance, are several crests, including that of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway (GIPR). We’re surrounded by marble columns and intricately carved stone arches, and there above the ticket counters are the gorgeous Minton-tiled floors of the Chamber’s gallery.
If you look at CST closely, you will notice a lot of Indian themes in the detailing, from stone peacocks spreading their tails over windows to the subcontinent’s flora and fauna sprouting down corridors and a gigantic tiger keeping guard at the building’s main gate. There are also stone portraits of the first Indian directors of the GIPR, the British Raj-predecessor of Central Railways.
Stevens incorporated Indian elements in the design not just as a hat-tip to its setting, but to also fill in for the religious imagery of Gothic architecture that was traditionally employed in churches, as CST was meant to be a secular, civic structure.
In addition, the fact that a lot of CST’s stonework was sculpted at the Sir J. J. School of Art across from the station, played a big part in bringing an Indian element to the building. Much of the stone carving took place under the guidance of Lockwood Kipling, principal of the art school and father of Rudyard Kipling.
Listen to Dalvi explaining the J. J. connection here.
The octagonal, ribbed dome is the crowning glory of the terminus. The stone feature “is the only stone dome of its kind on any station in the world,” states the nomination documents submitted by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) to UNESCO. The documents add that it is the “first octagonal ribbed masonry dome that was adapted to an Italian Gothic Revival style building, and is the first on any public building in Mumbai. ”It isn’t very common to find domes on Gothic buildings, Dalvi pointed out. The dome at the CST is placed on a high drum that has two levels of stained-glass panels that depict the coat of arms of the GIPR, among other patterns.
We found ourselves craning our necks to take in the immense scale and grandeur of the central atrium, fitted with a gorgeous spiral cantilevered staircase.
Sitting pretty atop CST’s dome is the Statue of Progress, with a rather exciting past. This 16.6ft-tall woman holds a flaming torch in her right hand and a spoked wheel in her left, and was struck by lightning in 1969. The statue was restored at the J. J. School of Art before being returned to its pedestal.
The one aspect of CST that probably doesn’t get noticed much is the decorative ironwork and structural steel elements that can be found on the main railway concourse. When the terminus opened to the public, this metalwork was the most impressive and state-of-the-art aspect of the structure; the stonework had been around for a few centuries. Dalvi said that many of CST’s railway contemporaries had a fancy facade but a very industrial-looking train shed. But the marvel of these sheds was that they created an immense holding space for trains with barely any columns for support.
There are daily tours of CST’s heritage wing; Monday-Friday, 3-5p.m.; ₹100 for students, ₹200 for others.
is Features Writer on National Geographic Traveller India's web team. She's partial to places by the sea and desserts in all forms. When she isn't raving about food, she's usually rambling on about the latest cosmic mysteries. She tweets as @kamakshi138.
has a passion for travel and photography. His life goals include capturing as much of the world as he can through his lens before he is 20.
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