The station that was a makeshift bunker


On the night of Independence the last British officials in Lahore arrived at the station. They had picked their way through gutted streets, many of which were still littered with the dead from the riots that attended the Partition of India and Pakistan. On the platforms they found the railway staff grimly hosing down pools of blood and carrying away piles of corpses on luggage trollies for mass burial. Minutes earlier a last group of desperate Hindus had been massacred by a Muslim mob as they sat waiting quietly for the Bombay Express. As the train pulled out of Lahore, the officials could see that the entire Punjab was ablaze, with flames rising from every village. Their life’s work was being destroyed in front of their eyes.
The massacres of Partition brought the Raj to a cataclysmic close. Now, only half a century later, that period can seem as distant as that of the Romans. But the buildings- like this extraordinary station- still survive. They are the keys which can unlock the history of a period- a history which, though it may seem impossibly foreign, is as much part of our heritage as that of the Indian subcontinent.
With its great round bastions and tall machicolated towers, Lahore Station may look as if it is the product of some short lived collaboration between the Raj and the Diney Corporation, but it was in fact built in deadly earnest. The twin towers look as innocent as Swiss cuckoo clocks, but they were designed to be bomb- proof, while the loop holes across the facade are not the mock arrow slits they appear to be, but placements for Maxim guns, which were drawn down carefully designed lines of fire. Even the cavernous train sheds could, in an emergency, be sealed with huge sliding metal doors, turning the whole complex into a colossal fortified bunker.According to its architect, William Brunton, the whole station had a “defensive character” so that “a small garrison could secure it against enemy attack”.
Straddling the Grand Trunk Road leading south to Delhi and Calcutta, Lahore is marching distance from the North West Frontier. At the time of the Great Game the Victorians saw it as an important defensive post against a Russian invasion through the Khyber Pass. Moreover the station was built in the immediate aftermath of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. So the building was deliberately designed to function both as a station and as a fort. Brunton was particularly pleased with the masonry, which he called ‘the best in the world’ and which he felt confident could survive even full-scale howitzer fire.
In the event, Brunton’s extraordinary architecture was never put to the test. Instead, in the course of the nineteenth century, the station became a symbol of the profitable partnership Britain developed with its greatest colony. For India took to the railways in a way that could not have been imagined by the British engineers who first drew lines across the plains of the subcontinent. Just as India has always seduced and transformed its conquerors, so in the same way India slowly took over the railways. The stations were inhabited by whole villages of people washing, sleeping and cooking in the ticket halls, arriving days early for a train and building encampments on the platforms. Within a few years something quintessentially English had been forever transformed into something quintessentially Indian.
Then there was the bureaucracy. Somehow the idea of multiple forms, triplicate permissions and strict codes of practice- ideas that originated in Crewe perhaps, or maybe Swindon- took on a new lease of Indian life in the plains of the Punjab in the hands of Hindu bureaucrats, brought up from birth with gods who had multiple incarnations, three faces and the strictest of codes of practice regarding their representation and worship. The hierarchy of the railways seemed directly to echo the Hindu caste system, with a pyramid that rose, rank after rank, from the lowly armies of sweepers through the Parcel Clerks, Goods Clerks, Booking Clerks and Special Ticket Examiners to the twice-born apex of Station Master and General Manager. For the Muslims too, there may have been something appealing in submission to a railway timetable at once as merciful, omnipotent and loftily inflexible as the great Koran itself.
Moreover the railways were the ultimate symbol of all the Raj prided itself in being: pioneering and up to date, intrepid and impartial; on the cutting edge of the industrial revolution. Even today harrumphing Home Counties colonels will point first and foremost to the railways as a symbol of everything they like to think the British ‘gave’ to India. Yet the railways were not works of charity. They were sound commercial enterprises, and the private investors who put up the initial capital saw their money returned many times over. Nonetheless, the Railways did inspire a feeling of esprit de corps among those that worked for them, a spirit which survived until very recently.

From the travel writings of William Dalrymple.