NEW DELHI // With its high ceilings, graceful arches and fluted pillars, the handsome red-and-white structure of Royapuram station stands out as a testament to the architectural heritage of India's railways.
But South Asia's oldest surviving station may soon be history, unless railway historians and heritage activists can halt a demolition plan in its tracks.
The Southern Railway - a branch of the Indian Railways - has asked civic officials in Chennai to remove the 157-year-old Royapuram station, in the north of the city, from a list of heritage structures so that it can be razed.
Although the Southern Railway's plans for the station's 72 acres remain unclear, railway authorities have indicated that they may construct a third major terminal for Chennai.
"But if they want to do that, why does the station building have to be demolished?" asked V Sriram, the convener of the Chennai chapter of the non-profit Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach). "The station occupies only 5 per cent of those 72 acres. Surely it can be incorporated into the framework of any development."
The Royapuram station building was constructed in the early 1850s and inaugurated in 1856.
"You'd have thought that such a building's heritage value was so obvious that nobody would want to touch it," Mr Sriram said. "But clearly that doesn't seem to be the case."
Royapuram station, however, is valuable not only for its antiquity but also due to its role in the history of the railways in India.
cIt was a terminal on only the second railway line in South Asia, running 100 kilometres to Arcot, a town north of Chennai. Work on the line began in 1853, the year that South Asia's first railway track, between Bombay and its suburb of Thane, was inaugurated. None of the stations on that line has survived.
The Royapuram-Arcot line was opened in 1856, but Royapuram station's importance waned after 1922, when the headquarters of the Madras and Southern Mahratta Railway shifted to Egmore, another station in Chennai.
Long-distance passenger trains had grown longer, to 18 or 24 or 26 coaches, whereas Royapuram's platforms could accommodate only nine coaches.
These days, only shorter commuter and suburban trains stop at Royapuram.
"It used to smell dank and musty, and there were rats and dogs roaming about inside the building," Sridhar Joshi, a Chennai-based member of the Indian Railways Fan Club. "But around 30 or 35 trains still halt at Royapuram every day, so it is still very much an operational station."
The building's classic red-brick facade peeled and decayed, and scrub grew over its disused areas.
In 2005, however, the station received a new lease of life after it was restored at a cost of 3.5 million rupees (Dh215,000). A committee set up by the government of Tamil Nadu, of which Chennai is the capital, named the station as one of the state's 800 heritage structures.
"The exteriors of the station now look wonderful," Mr Joshi said. "But indoors, it is starting to run into disuse again."
On behalf of Intach, Mr Sriram has been trying to secure a meeting with Southern Railway officials, to plead for the conservation of the Royapuram station. But he said he had little hope. "Going by the past record of city officials, I think they will tell the Southern Railway that they can go ahead and demolish the building."
Chennai's heritage conservation authorities, Mr Sriram said, have been cool towards similar pleas. When the upcoming metro rail network applied to knock down part of a 120-year-old watch factory in April, permission was granted.
Since then, Mr Sriram said, metro rail crews have ploughed through other heritage properties as well.
"The problem is that the heritage conservation committee, which has the power to remove Royapuram from the list of protected buildings, is staffed with just government bureaucrats, and not historians or cultural experts or heritage experts," Mr Sriram said.
"So their thinking is completely one-dimensional, and even if we appeal these demolition plans, I'm not sure how much success we will have," he added. "It's a sham. It's a complete sham."