THE 112-year-old Central Railway (CR) headquarters at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) celebrated its heritage week a few weeks back to commemorate the architectural splendor and significance of the building. However, unknown to many and preserved by the CR officials is an equally ancient underground passage, beginning from the CST building and believed to be leading all the way to the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), also in south Mumbai.
In this UNESCO-recognised World Heritage Site, the cashier’s office on the ground floor of the building holds a secret to an ‘unknown’ basement, considered to be in use by Great Indian Peninsula Railway (GIPR), predecessor of the Central Railways. The basement would be used to secretly transfer amount collected by railways to the RBI.
“Until about 15 years back, money collected from booking offices and reservation centres at CR was kept here before being deposited at the RBI the following day. However, when the RBI refused to take unsorted money, it was decided that the money collected would be directly deposited at the nearest bank. Since then, the strongroom has been in disuse,” a senior CR official said.
The basement — considering its importance — stays sealed with a grilled iron door, keys to which are only given to officials in case of an emergency. “The basement has an iron door weighing over 1,000 kg that can be opened using two keys — the male and female keys — set in a copper ring. The keyholes are integrated into the door design in such a way that strangers can barely locate them. The door leads to a second door that has another set of lock-and-key mechanism,” the official said.
It then opens up to a flight of 23 steps fashioned in a zigzag manner, helping in descending one to the strongroom. In the extreme interiors of the basement, to the right is a lift, 4×4-foot high, which used to at least bring in three coffers inside. Till 1967, the lift was operated manually which required a strength of two to pull the rope for the operation of the lift. Later, it was powered by electricity.
Though no longer in use, officials claimed they have maintained everything with care, including the caged lift which is still functional. To the left side of the basement is a long iron pipe fitted with a broad mouth complemented with a container fitted at its base.
Officials confirmed that transaction of coins (the currency then) from the office would be facilitated through the pipe into the container which would then be taken to the bank for preservation.
The place, though now lies vacant was once the treasure trove for the railways. Weighing 145 kilograms were the heavy black coffers filled with cash or valuable documents relating to railway transactions. These coffers, which hold the record of never being broken into, is a model which fails to get replicated even today.
What remains a curiosity even among the CR officials about this place is the engineering with which it has been designed by the Britons, when in India.
“Descending to the basement is like entering a well, but the architecture of the place is done in such a manner that the space is always well-ventilated. There are four iron windows at the base of the ground floor level. We are yet to figure out how this ventilation works,” the official added.
“We are looking at better utilisation of the basement which lied idle till now. A shifting of cashier’s office from the present spot and extending the space for the use of railways would be looked into,” said A K Srivastava, Additional General Manager, Centra Railway.