From a mere marshland to a key station on the Mumbai suburban railway network, Elphinstone Road railway station and its surroundings have been witness to a fascinating transformation of Central Mumbai. With its renaming as Prabhadevi station, a decision taken by the Maharashtra state legislature on Friday, this little gem of Mumbai history is set to see another round of change and development.
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Like many other landmarks in the city, the railway station — built in 1867 — was named after one of the Governors of Bombay, Lord John Elphinstone, who had ruled the then island city between 1853 and 1860. He was the last governor to serve under the East India Company.
According to historians, when seven islands — all fishermen colonies — constituted Bombay, there were two northern islands that faced each other — Mahim and Parel — both divided by a creek that was nothing more than a marshland. In the late 18th Century, there was a metamorphosis of sorts and many marshlands were reclaimed by the East India Company after it received the islands from a British monarch who had received it in dowry from the Portuguese. All areas between the islands were reclaimed. These reclaimed portions between Mahim and Parel islands were later known as Dadar and Elphinstone, also called Prabhadevi. Gradually, the roadways, bridges and railway stations were built over the next century.
The Prabhadevi shrine, dedicated to one of the seven deities that govern Bombay, was located just a kilometre from the Elphinstone. Bharat Gothoskar, a heritage enthusiast, said, “Prabhadevi is originally the name of this precinct as the shrine is based in a locality named after goddess Prabhavati Devi. While the idol dates back to the 12th Century, the temple was rebuilt 300 years ago and is worshipped by many in the neighbourhood.”
Interestingly, Governor Lord Elphinstone’s palace was located nearby, in the complex that currently houses the Haffkine Institute in Parel, the northern side of Elphinstone station.
Deepak Rao, a city historian said, “Lord Elphinstone was instrumental in the progress of this city. He had done much for the development of basic infrastructure and education during his tenure.”
In the book Anchoring A City Line, authors and city historians Sharada Dwivedi and Rahul Mehrotra said that the city’s progress in the 1850s and 60s was on account of the acumen of this governor and his successor Sir Bartle Frere. Lord Elphinstone was instrumental in demolishing the walls of the fort for the growth of the town and for the commencement of the Vihar water works that solved the city’s water woes.
His uncle Mountstuart Elphinstone was the first Elphinstone to be posted in Mumbai between 1819 and 1827 and the Elphinstone College in Fort was named after him.
The Elphinstone railway station, road, bridge and the circle in the area have all been named after Lord John Elphinstone.
The station itself is a significant point in the network as it connects the western and central suburbs and is located in the heart of the former mill lands. In his book Halt Station India, railway historian Rajendra B Aklekar said, “Elphinstone Road station originally consisted of two stations separated by quarter of a mile with independent issuing and collecting staff. The Up platform was connected with Cadell Road overbridge by a staircase. The Down one led to a road in the west of the track. This was roughly at a site where the railway sub-station stands today. The station’s name is said to have been picked up from the name of the road that led to the Elphinstone Spinning & Weaving Co. Ltd Mills near the station where India Bulls Finance Centre stands today.”
From fishing colonies, marshlands and mills to the bevy of skyscrapers that now crowd this part of Central Mumbai, the area around Elphinstone railway station has been witnessing repeated transformations. As one historian said, “One could say changing the name of the station to Prabhadevi is going back to the roots and reviving its genesis, but this decision is inconsequential; it will not reshape or rewrite history.”