From being a village, Waltair flourished to become Visakhapatnam, the City of Destiny. Visakhapatnam aficionado John Castellas charts the city’s journey through photographs and historical information.
Valteru, Walteero, Wattair and finally anglicised to Waltair; this was the select area of old Vizagapatam. This was a place where the weather was degrees cooler, the water pure and the hills verdant with vegetation and wildlife. The local population also called it ‘Chalavalu’ because of the excellent bleaching properties of the water. Officers of the East Coast Battalion lived in bungalows that commanded the high spots across the hilltops of Waltair.
Earliest maps and routes
The earliest map, of the mid-1800s, shows four carriage tracks providing access from Vizag. Additionally, Bradshaw’s Handbook to the Madras Presidency (1877) records the routes from Vizag, via Waltair, to Bhimlipatam as ‘…from the Arsenal pass the Cemetery 1 5/8 miles and then proceed along the beach at low water but which is flooded at flood-tide, then pass a rocky ridge that juts into the sea and over which carts cannot pass without great difficulty, except at ebb tide and proceed to Old Waltair 1 ½ miles, the Military Station of the Northern Division of the Madras Army; cross four nullahs… pass an encamping ground amply supplied… cross a nullah … brings us to the seaport town of Bhimilipatam.’
The railway line
In 1883, European officers, of the East Coast State Railway Company, established themselves in Waltair. Their objective was to begin the construction of the railway line that joined Madras to Calcutta. This was the last of old Waltair and the marked its transformation to a bustling railway junction. The Madras Railway Company took over the railway services, of the East Coast Railway, from Madras to Waltair in 1907. The Bengal Nagpur Railway then took over the Waltair to Calcutta services.
A traveller’s destination
Waltair’s climate and beaches, as well as the promotion of tourism by the railways, spurred the growth of the area. Postcards depicted its beach scenes, travellers’ guides listed its hotels and guesthouses, and beachfront bungalows became the attraction for those with carriages. Growing as a tourist destination, guesthouses and hotels, like the ‘Seaview’, were the accommodation for visitors. The proximity to the sea and coolness of a beach walk, on a summer’s evening, became one’s favourite pastime. The Waltair Club expanded as an exclusive venue for the European administrators, local businessmen and community leaders.
Summer residences for the royalty
As Waltair grew, it witnessed Maharajahs and their summer residences, while some Europeans also constructed bungalows on the beachfront. With bicycles and motorcars came better roads and public transport. The ubiquitous rickshaw made Waltair more accessible to the general population and so did the property developers who promoted beachfront residences. Waltair became increasingly popular as shops lined its various streets. The Collectors Office, Andhra University, the High Court, King George Hospital, Waltair Convent, and the Waltair Railway Station became new landmarks for the town.
Developing the harbour
The Bengal Nagpur Railway was the largest employer of Waltair residents and was about to become even bigger. Waltair had grown in population and was the focal point of a new vibrant community. Modern, prosperous, bustling, and brimming with confidence, it seemed to compete with Madras and Calcutta as a commercial center for booming exports. This led to a demand for a new harbour for the steamer traffic, which further catalysed growth for the region. The Bengal Nagpur Railway, with its Waltair Engineering infrastructure, was entrusted with building the new harbour at Vizag and soon the Port Quarters were built in Waltair.
The community and people
The vintage landmark, Scandal Point, became the meeting place for Waltair residents. There were amusements on the newly built Beach Road where bands played and refreshments were sold to visitors. Popular legend had it that local gossip circulated from Scandal Point with the magic swiftness of the wireless telegraph and no man had a secret from his neighbour!
The village of Waltair slowly grew into Visakhapatnam, a city that continues to expand in diverse ways. As new industries come in, along with new changes, the city continues to endear all those who are a part of it. These rich stories of the past, remind us that despite being tucked in a corner of India, Visakhapatnam has flourished, and will continue to surprise us in the days to come.
Written by John Castellas whose family belonged to Visakhapatnam for 5 generations. Educated at St Aloysius, he migrated to Melbourne, Australia in 1966, where he worked as General Manager Engineering at Boeing & Qantas Airways. Now retired, he conducts lectures in Aviation Management at Swinburne University and keeps his love for the city alive through a collection of rare photographs and paintings.