When you stare into a jungle the jungle stares back at you

We walked out of the Star Chamber of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT to all of us time-starved people) to admire the decorations outside. When you look up at the capitals of the columns around the station, you see a veritable jungle. The monkey in the featured photo seems to have been startled by the camera peering at it. The rough chiselling of the stone probably shows that a very large amount of stone carving had to be finished in a short time. The artistic innovation is delightful: the texture of the animal’s fur is evoked by the chisel marks.

Inside the ticketing office I’d admired this panel where two mongooses faced off against each other between swirls of Attic vines. Dear Rudyard, east and west do meet, again and again, to produce such wonderful works as these, just a few steps from your childhood home.

I looked up at the tower at this corner of the building. There was a whole line of heraldic devices carved into the stone. They included the cross of the Great Indian Peninsular Railways, compasses for navigation, a sailing ship, animals, a cherub and a steam locomotive. Very much a high-Victorian mish mash of symbols. The Family and I looked up at the beautiful facade where four colours of stone are harmonized. This reminded me faintly of Mughal monuments. The jali also seems to be inspired by the similar structures.

Looking up further, we spotted a very decorative peacock above an open window. On closer look I was quite taken aback. It is hard to capture a peacock in stone, since its main attraction is the shimmer of colour in the male’s raised plumage. The artist has done a rather good job of capturing the general idea in monochrome stone.

Closer above our head I admired owls and sundry birds, dense foliage below the paws of a stone lion about to leap on to unsuspecting passers-by. Below the owl I admired a line of ferns, their delicate leaves and spirally unfolding fronds giving the owl a perfect toe-hold.

The foliage in this jungle on the pavement is so completely different from that inside the ticketing hall that I found it useful to compare the two. Inside, animals from an Indian jungle cavort through this southern European flora. Outside, the\ese vines are often relegated to the edges of decorations, when an Indian jungle takes over the main pictorial space.

But not always. In the panel you see above, eastern fauna meets western flora again. Artists will mash up what they have spent years perfecting. That’s part of the reason I think that the work of decoration was done by students of the J. J. School of Arts and not by local artisans. The repertoire of classical western decorative motifs would not be available to Indian artists who had not studied them.

Outside, I took a closer look at the part of the structure which holds the offices of the Central Railways. This part of the building has been restored, and it is possible to visit during office hours. We will have to go back to see it from inside.

Victorian Gothic you say? Where are the gargoyles then? You have to look far up, where they jut out of the turrets, puctuating the sky, looking down on the huge stone lions holding steel banners to the wind.

When you stare into a camera the camera stares back at you

Things look different when you point a camera at them. I can’t count the number of times I’ve passed through the ticketing office of the downtown station of central railways, the one called the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus now and called Victoria Terminus when it was opened in 1853. Imagined as an Indian palace in the then-current Gothic Revival style by its architect, Frederick William Stevens, the building took ten years to complete. It doesn’t seem long by today’s relaxed standards, but then it was cause for many agonized letters to editors of newspapers. The featured photo shows the recently restored ceiling of the suburban ticket counter.

The odd heraldic bearing that you can see in the photo here caught my attention. Could it belong to the company which built this station, the Great Indian Peninsular Railways? Apparently not. The lower half of the shield makes up the complete arms of the company (a further inscribed shield into the upper left quadrant of the cross has been chiselled away). The upper half of this strange device, the railway and the steam locomotive, threw me. Could it be the bearing of the terminus building? I’m sure someone out there has the answer.

The station is aligned north-south and the ticketing counters are to the east of the road passing in front of it. Just in case you are lost, you could orient yourself by the compass roses in the floor of the hall. The Family and I had walked into this place on a Sunday to avoid the massive crowds which we would have found otherwise. We’d wanted to explore the restored building, but found that it is open to visitors only during working hours of the week. As a result we explored this part of the structure, both familiar through long use, and unfamiliar because we usually hurry through it without looking.

The stained glass windows, in particular, are not things we have paid attention to. Nor did I know that this was called the Star Chamber, and that the marble used here was shipped from Italy. The building was renovated in 1888, on the occasion of the golden jubilee of the coronation of the British queen after whom this station was then named. I couldn’t find a record of who made the stained glass. However, since much of the ornamentation of the structure was done by the faculty and students of the Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy School of Arts, it could be that the glass is also due to them. There are some pieces here well worth one’s time.

The doors are not grand, but in keeping with the place, they are ornate. I’m not sure whether the ones that you see here are original or whether they have been replaced. Unfortunately I hadn’t taken photos before the restoration, so I can’t check now. Maybe one should take photos of the doors of historic public buildings every ten years or so. It would be an interesting project.

As we exited to the pavement outside, I took one last shot of the interior. I’ve tried many times to imagine the events of 26 November, 2008, when two armed terrorists entered the station from the north and killed 58 people. Panicked commuters ran away from them, and many would have exited through these doors. They are always open.

Urban Jungle

It is hardly possible to walk far in south Mumbai without passing by the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. This example of Victorian Gothic was designed by the architectural firm of F. W. Stevens, and completed in 1888 CE. The mosses and algae covering it have been cleared off in recent years, lights installed, and the carvings restored. As we walked past, The Family asked “Have you noticed that cat before?” I hadn’t, nor did I recall meeting its unfortunate prey, the rat.

When you pause to look at the building it is hard to tear your eyes away. I looked at the dressed stone, checking whether each piece in an arch was different, and it seemed that it was. There’s such a profusion of detail in and around the sandstone pillars and Gothic arches: animals peer out from the stone foliage dense with leaves, flowers and fruit. This is as good a jungle as a city can get