The Wheels of Time

August 31, 2010

The Lahore Railway Station made international headlines last year, exactly 150 years since the day its foundation was laid by Lord John Lawrence. Ironically, even as corpulent rodents rule the roost along the tracks running parallel to the station’s platforms, the building was accorded sixth place out of 10 in a list of the world’s must-see travel destinations by Newsweek last year. It sits in the august company of the railway terminals of Mumbai, Antwerp and New York’s Grand Central Station.

Architect William Brunton would have been proud of his own designing prowess for he created an architectural marvel utilised as both the hub of a revolutionary mass transit system and a military fortress. Contractor Muhammad Sultan, who is said to have procured the bricks for its construction from the derelict mosque of post-Ranjit Singh Lahore, deserves equal acclaim — ostensibly, 95 per cent of the original bricks are still in place.

In glaring contrast to present-day Lahore, which revels in its new-found brand-consciousness, the Lahore Railway Station presides haughtily over the cacophony of human and vehicular traffic. Even today, it boasts an ambiance of its own, (wherein the major actors) continue to be an army of red-coated coolies besides, of course, the rehriwalas carting assorted cargo, who give close competition to the food stalls and small restaurants nearby. Pizza Hut and KFC appear as nominal attractions compared to the inveterate small shops on the platforms. As the trains roll in, it’s the tea kiosks with their spicy offerings of bun kebabs and cake rusks that soothe the nerves of weary passengers (see photo gallery below).

Originally built at a cost of Rs 500,000, the station building is a pulsating reminder of the post-1857 assertion of colonial might. The British fashioned the structure in a manner so as to not only bridge vast distances across the subcontinent but also for the prime military purpose of dispatching troops and artillery to trouble spots across the empire. The building offers an intriguing insight into the region’s military history, as can be gauged from the two turrets with their castellated parapets and a galley linking its tall and formidable towers flanking the massive entrance hall. The entire structure and layout of the street adjacent to it are not the only testaments to its militaristic blueprint. The towers were fashioned to withstand bombardment and have a built-in space for stocking guns in cases of disruption of rail services. In the event of an emergency, the towers have served as effective barricades, sealing off the train sheds and much of what in those times had constituted the inner city.

Architect Brunton must have had a tough time drawing the architectural lines between the rulers and the ruled. In those heady days of the Great Empire, the main entrance hall, which is now teeming with the masses, was reserved for the British officers and the privileged few who could afford to travel first class. For the others, waiting halls of decidedly inferior quality, with separate entrances, were provided.

Seasoned train travellers of the earlier days revel in memories of the Lahore railway station of yore: the tracks along the platforms were lined with squatting coolies in battle formation, ready to descend upon disembarking passengers; the majestic entry of the steam locomotives heading passenger coaches; and the rush of vendors competing with the dining-car fare even before the train ground to a full halt. They still remember the exquisite period furniture in the waiting rooms and the solid deodar doors with coloured window panes. As the weary traveller sat on the wrought-iron benches for a moment of rest, their eyes would wander along the overhead bridges connecting the platforms or take in the motley crowd wending its way along the various platforms and weave stories about them. The more erudite would take pride in the fact that the amount of wood used in constructing the Lahore railway station was far more than all the wood ever used in the walled city. They would lament the fact that the priceless wood carted all the way from Burma in the heydays of the Empire was subjected to pillage of the worst order in later times.

A few years back when architect Nayyar Ali Dada’s team was assigned the task of restoring the structure to its original glory, they discovered the original brick walls beneath layers of repainting.

But despite the ravages of time and tide, the station maintains an aura of its own, boasting a peculiar architectural magnificence and a sense of rooted history. These were the platforms on which the Hollywood movie Bhowani Junction, starring Ava Gardner, was filmed in 1956. And on which train-loads of massacred Muslim bodies, piled on top of each other, arrived from India at the time of partition.

The wheels of time have moved on. But the Lahore Railway Station stands as a silent witness to all that — and more.

Click any photo to begin the slide show:

Photography: Ayesha Vellani