Mock Invincibility: Railway station, Lahore

by Salman Rashid, 2013

Mr Rashid is a travel writer and Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society. Website

When civil engineer William Burton designed the railway station in Lahore in 1859, he had before him the precedence of railway architecture from Sindh. While the stations were all straightforward buildings, major river bridges in that province were designed with strong fortifications on both ends. Rail river crossings usually being in remote places, these defensive arrangements were manned by soldiers or police, a practice that continues to this day on some strategic bridges.

A view of Lahore station
A view of Lahore station

Now, it was understandable for remote bridges to need protection but to design the station of a major city with elements of a strongly fortified place was rather odd, especially in times of peace. Not strange then that it was assumed the design was purely defensive. Closer study of the "fortifications" shows that despite their formidable appearance, they are merely decorative.

Nevertheless, visually at least Burton created an English castle in the heart of Punjab. At either extremity of the wide frontage, separated from the main building by extended wings, sits a combination of two thickset towers topped by embrasures. The porch of the foyer is commanded by two slimmer towers with pitch-roofed garrets. Two similar arrangements with clock faces oversee the surrounding areas from a higher setting above the foyer. The parapet of the entire roof is loop-holed to add to the general effect of an impregnable castle. But other than the massive turrets on the sides and loop holes, the garrets are merely decorative and do not serve any defensive purpose.

The great upheaval of 1857 was over with peace restored in the country and the British firmly in control. Burton may have felt that a similar uprising was unlikely in the future. Yet, a strong statement of power and authority was necessary to keep the "natives" bridled. The fortress-like layout of the railway station was testimony he deemed necessary.

On completion in 1861, standing as it then did in a wide open space, the red brick building would indeed have struck awe in the hearts of the masses. As they regarded it from a distance, many would have wondered if the station was meant to keep them away and serve only the white sahibs.

Though soldiers may never have trained their rifles on anyone from the railway station, anti-aircraft guns were placed in the bulky embrasures at the two extremities of the building during the wars of 1965 and 1971. Other than that, the impressive fortifications have only been the empire's statement of might and authority.