The Kolkata Rickshaw – Relic of a Best Forgotten Past?

18 Jan

So today, we consider the humble rickshaw that has been a feature of Kolkata streets for over a century. But are they a part of the heritage that should be celebrated, or do they just provide an inhumane occupation for the downtrodden? We are of course talking man pulled rickshaws here – bicycle rickshaws and the motorised versions are a subject for another day.

City Streets

On Busy Streets

First of all, where did rickshaws originate from? Well, there are differences of opinion on this but it is generally accepted by most that they originated in Japan, and more specifically Tokyo, in 1879, where they were known as jin riki shaw. Their appearance on the streets came out of the newly invented ball bearing system that made wheels turn more easily than was the case in the horse and cart era. They were preceded by the palanquin or sedan chair which required two people who carried the chair, with passenger of course, on two poles, one walker going in front and one behind the chair.

In Kolkata, use of pulled rickshaws dates back to the Colonial age when at Shimla, the summer capital for officials from the East India Company, these were used by men and women back as far as the 1880’s. In those days though, the rickshaws were made of iron and required four men to pull them, such was their weight. These were eventually replaced by the lighter wooden rickshaws emanating from Japan and China, but they still remained a status symbol, being used by the more affluent residents to stress their felt ‘importance’.

Rickshaw Puller

A Pulled Rickshaw in Kolkata

Over the years, the humble rickshaw has morphed. It started life as a means of the more aristocratic asserting their upper class status over the poorer Indians, but has become a form of livelihood for poverty stricken immigrants who come to the city from surrounding states. These poor people, unable to make a living in their own area, come into Kolkata to earn a few Rupees by pulling rickshaws.

Neither are they now used to service tourists and holiday makers. You are much more likely to see perhaps lower middle class Indians who live in the very narrow lanes using these, or their children being taken to and from school. Perhaps women being taken to market, or little corner shop owners using them to collect their supplies. They can even be used to save lives, forming emergency ambulances on occasion. They particularly come into their own during the monsoon season when roads flood so that motorised transport cannot get access. It is only at this time that the pullers can charge even half decent rates as they plough through knee deep water, keeping their passenger dry.

Rickshaws themselves have changed too, with the addition of cycle rickshaws, and rickshaws for carrying goods rather than people. Towards the end of the 20th century, it was estimated that there were some 4 million cycle rickshaws in the world. But that’s a subject for another day.

Finished for the Day

The Cycle Rickshaw

The hours for a rickshaw puller are long, probably from first light until nightfall, with perhaps a ‘siesta’ in the middle of the day. The work is hard! The pay is low! They will earn perhaps 100/150 Rupees a day on average, that’s less than £2, and since the majority don’t own their rickshaw, they have to pay around 30/50 Rupees a day to hire it. Most come from the state of Bihar and have nowhere to live – usually they sleep on their rickshaw or on the street, although some will pay to stay in a dera, a kind of rickshaw garage/workshop with some sort of sleeping space, or in a cheap bunkhouse. A study carried out some 15 years ago showed that ‘rickshaw wallahs’ stand just slightly above rag pickers and beggars on the economic hierarchy!

The debate is, are these an inhumane instrument of ‘class distinction’, or are they a way that poverty stricken migrants can keep themselves, and perhaps their families, alive? Are they seriously bad, or do they actually help people?

Well, you cannot escape from the demeaning nature of this form of transport, the fact that the passenger is sat higher up than the puller who is at his feet level, nor from the fact that the passenger is right at his back as he labours and sweats. It is one human being used like an animal to pull another along rough, hot lanes in bare feet to save the passenger walking, for just a few Rupees. You could say this is slave labour!

Resting

Waiting for a Fare

In most places, this form of transport has now been banned as being inhumane and degrading. In Kolkata itself, since the 1970’s, statements have been made by the powers that be, that hand pulled rickshaws will be taken off the streets. In fact, in 2006 legislation was proposed to ban their use in this city, but they are still here. Why is this?

Is it because they are part of the heritage of Kolkata? Is it because despite their inhumanity, they do provide some employment for poverty stricken migrants? It was in fact the rickshaw pullers’ own union that opposed the new legislation to ban this form of transport! At that time, there were said to be some 35,000 people involved with pulled rickshaws in Kolkata – to take away their livelihood might seem even more inhumane unless some alternative can be offered to them. Of course, one problem with this is that many rickshaw pullers, probably around 25%, operate without a license, plus, many are older! Is it because of their value when streets are flooded? Is it just down to a romanticising of an ancient form of transport? Certainly many older people, resistant to change, may see these as part of their history, and over the years, artists, poets, writers, photographers, film makers etc have been inspired by them.

The more I read up on rickshaw pullers, the more I realise that it is not as simple as it first seems. Did I use this form of transport while I was in Kolkata? No, I didn’t! To me, it would have been totally wrong and offensive for me to be pulled by another human being. It would have meant my colluding with an evil relic of Colonial days when passengers saw themselves as better than their pullers, when human dignity counted for nothing. Should I have though, bearing in mind that often these are sat around waiting for a fare? Had I used them, the puller would at least have earned a few Rupees that might have bought him some food that day.

Is it more humanitarian to ban this inhumane form of transport from the streets, or is it more humanitarian to keep it because it provides an income for the poverty stricken? Well, I’m very much with the former, but something needs to be done to provide alternative acceptable employment for those who currently rely on the pulled rickshaw for their income because they can’t afford to lose that income. And that is a challenge which faces the Indian government if the 2006 act is to be passed.

Time itself may well provide a solution, because no new licences have been granted since 2005. This means, in theory at least, that as rickshaw pullers grow old and die, this ancient and degrading form of transport will die with them!

And one final thought – what happens to a rickshaw puller who is taken ill or becomes too old to pull any more?!

Thanks for stopping by.

Until next time,
Your friend
The Dorset Rambler

If you would like to contact me, my email address is terry.yarrow@gmail.com – comments and feedback are always welcomed.

All words and pictures in this blog are the copyright of The Dorset Rambler and may not be reproduced without permission.

 

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At the Flower Market, Kolkata

9 Jan

If you have been following my blog, you will know that I have just returned from an amazing trip to Kolkata and Bangkok and if you missed my first blog post from the trip, you can find it here. This was my first time in Asia so the initial ‘culture shock’ was marked, even though I knew what to expect.

One of the places I visited whilst in Kolkata was the Mullik Ghat Flower Market, a vibrant and colourful place. As you would expect, this place was full of…….flowers! But for my visit I wanted to focus more on the people as there were many colourful characters there – in fact, in many ways the characters were more colourful than the flowers!

At the Flower Market

Mullik Ghat Flower Market

Mullik Ghat Flower Market has been in existence for well over 100 years and it is said to be the largest in Kolkata and one of the largest in the whole of Asia. It is a hive of activity from dawn to nightfall as the wholesalers arrive first thing in the morning to auction their flowers to the stall holders who then sell those flowers throughout the day, creating arrangements and strings at their stalls. I say stalls but in reality, most consist of just a patch of ground.

The other thing that takes place here in the early morning, and perhaps somewhat incongruously, is wrestling! A sandy area has been set aside so that local wrestlers can practice their craft. I visited in the afternoon so there was no action to photograph.

Sitting Up

Threading Strings of Flowers

Kolkata is a city that thrives on flowers, with these being a seemingly essential and major part of every temple ritual, wedding, and festival. The sellers weave flower heads into garlands, strings, bouquets and other floral displays with patience and deftness. Orange and yellow marigolds are everywhere, but there are all kinds of blooms on display. This is much more than a market though, it is a community, a way of life and for me, was much more about the people.

At the Flower Market

Happy Sellers

At the Flower Market

Standing

Many of the sellers live on site in makeshift homes, more like shacks really, and they wash themselves and their clothes in the River Hooghly which runs alongside the market. This market and the Mullik Ghat area is therefore their home and livelihood. The word Ghat, incidentally, refers to steps leading down to the river.

Tragically, it was all but destroyed in 2008 when a fire swept through the area but fortunately it was rebuilt, albeit still as makeshift shacks.

Sitting Up

Precariously Perched

It was really interesting just walking around looking at the sellers and the different way they set up their ‘stalls’, some spread on the ground, some in baskets, some on makeshift tables. Some under cover and some out in the open. Some sellers perched seemingly precariously on stools, some sat cross legged on the ground, whilst others were much more active!

Come and Buy

Come and Buy

In amongst the melee of sellers and buyers lining the busy walkways, porters weave their way in and out carrying heavy baskets of flowers and other paraphernalia on their heads. Rickshaws wind their way slowly around too. There is just so much happening constantly in this thriving and wonderfully vibrant place.

Porter

Busy Porters

At the Flower Market

A Resting Porter

Two

Two

Even in this busy place though, there has to be time for some rest, perhaps to read the paper, or maybe to just sit! In the heat of the day, people will even sleep despite the constant noise, hustle and bustle all around.

Reading

Reading

Resting!

Resting

Oh, and of course, time for a shave from one of the barber’s stalls amongst the flowers!

Shave?

Time for a Shave

The faces here are often craggy and characterful, they are faces that seem to say, ‘we’ve had it tough but we are still here, and we are still smiling’! It was a privilege to be allowed to wander amongst them and take their pictures.

At the Flower Market

Characterful Faces

All the portraits you see here were willingly given and were taken in situ, without any ‘setting up’ or posing by me, and they were all taken using available light. Any attempt at posing would in any event have failed since I was unable to communicate with any of them – they spoke no English and I spoke no Bengali, Hindi or Urdu.

At the Flower Market

Late Afternoon Light

My policy was always to ask first by simply indicating my camera – sign language tends to be universal 🙂 ! Actually, even more universal is a simple smile which breaks down any barriers quickly! For the most part, the sellers were very willing to be photographed although a few indicated either ‘no’ or that they wanted money in return. My policy always was just to respect them as individuals and to respect their wishes. And also to show them the pictures afterwards.

Come and Buy

A Lady Seller

As you will know, landscapes are much more my normal subject because I spend a lot of time in the countryside of Dorset, but I love photographing people too. In a different culture and on my first visit to Asia, I have to say that I was somewhat out of my comfort zone at first and was really glad to have a friend with me who currently lives in Kolkata. He was a great help as I found my feet in this unfamiliar environment. I discovered, though, that it actually didn’t take long to gain confidence and feel at ease and this is certainly in part down to the friendliness of the people.

At the Flower Market

Beside the Bamboo

I found this visit and the challenge of doing something different, really rewarding, and I met some great people even if I was unable to converse with them. It was fantastic to see a different culture close up and to connect with the people, albeit briefly. Their lives are very different to mine but we all live on the same earth and are all ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’.

At the Flower Market

Packing

Mullik Ghat Flower Market is just an amazing place. Colourful, vibrant and bustling, so much to see and take in, and so many characters to photograph. I would love to have gone back for a second visit but unfortunately time did not allow, but one day……!

I hope you have enjoyed walking through the market with me today and meeting some of the characters there.

Thanks for stopping by.

Until next time,
Your friend
The Dorset Rambler

If you would like to contact me, my email address is terry.yarrow@gmail.com – comments and feedback are always welcomed.

All words and pictures in this blog are the copyright of The Dorset Rambler and may not be reproduced without permission.

 

Kolkata, City of Joy

5 Jan

I have just returned from an amazing trip to Kolkata and Bangkok and I thought we would start off the new year with something a little different, and something that is not Dorset. This was my first visit to Asia and the contrast in cultures was something of a surprise, bearing in mind that I knew what to expect before I went. The thing is, I knew about Indian culture but I didn’t really know it at all! These are my first impressions, written after being in Kolkata just a day or two.

City Streets

City Streets

Leaving the airport, the first impact was the HEAT, even though it was winter there. Having come from the UK’s winter temperatures, it was a shock to the system despite the preparations for it. It was like a wall of heat that hit you as you left the air conditioned airport behind. Day time felt temperatures in the 30’s and night time temperatures of nearly 20 degrees Celsius, compared to zero degrees in the UK.

Never a Clear Sunset

Never a Clear Sunset

The somewhat heavy and mist filled atmosphere hanging in the air – we could see this from the plane before we landed. This of course was not so much mist as polluted air that at times gets in your throat. To me, it seemed like it lifted slightly in the heat of the day but came down again as the day wore on and the temperature dropped. I never saw a clear sunset while I was there!

Crowded city streets

Busy, Busy, Busy!

The noise, hustle and bustle, of the city streets. The crazy rush hour traffic, horns constantly and continuously being blown. Cars, buses, trucks, auto-rickshaws, cycle-rickshaws, walking-rickshaws, all fighting for every inch of road and squeezing into the tiniest gap in traffic – if there was a gap 1 mm wider than the vehicle, you just know someone is going to drive into it! I should say here that horn blowing in Kolkata is a requisite – in the UK, a horn probably means anger or aggression, but in Kolkata it simply says, ‘Hi, I’m here’. In fact many vehicles have the phrase, ‘sound your horn’ written on the back.

The constant chopping and changing of lanes. To a westerner from a culture of giving way, it seems a crazy and even dangerous way to drive and yet, it felt safe because everyone drives that way and everyone is alert to the fact that vehicles could come from any direction at any time and they react accordingly.

The state of the roads, humps, bumps and potholes everywhere.

The state of the vehicles, dirty, damaged, dented and scratched from many scrapes.

Heavy Loads

Heavy Loads

Rickshaws of all kinds, some loaded up with huge piles of cargo!

The seeming deprivation – I say ‘seeming’ because that is what it appears to be to a westerner’s eyes although it is hard to separate deprivation from what is simply cultural. This applied straight from the airport. Certainly there are many slum areas and great poverty in this city and it is sad to see! It makes you realise how much we really have!

Unfinished! A strange choice of word but everything appears to be ‘unfinished’. Houses in an incomplete state by UK standards where everything has to be neatly finished off in order to be acceptable. One wonders who has got it right. Does plaster have to be perfectly smooth or is it ok to have things slightly rough around the edges? Does it really matter in the grand scale of things? The roads are similar, not neatly edged with kerb stones and grass verges but mostly left ‘rough and ready’. Everything seems higgledy piggledy rather than neat and orderly. Oh, and there are few flower beds in Kolkata!

City Streets

At the Roadside

People often seemingly doing nothing, living a slower pace of life, being much less slaves to the 21st century’s demands for instant response. There always seem to be men just standing around, although of course this is a city that comes alive at night.

Dirt and rubbish all around, even in the river which is a tributary of the Ganges, a holy river. Mind you, the rubbish provides an income for some as there are constantly litter pickers sifting through it looking for things to recycle/sell for a few rupees – such is the level of poverty.

Wires! So many overhead cables!

Motorbike Repairs!

Motorbike Repairs!

 

Little ‘shanty shops’, made up of anything that was at hand, corrugated iron, sheets of plastic, tarpaulins etc. Some of these are bike and motorbike repair shops, some sell food which of course leads to another major part of Kolkata…….Street Food!

Shack Shops

Street Food

Stray animals. I had expected cows of course but there were goats, sheep, monkeys in places, and of course dogs – so many wild dogs wherever you go. For the most part, these animals are skinny and find food wherever they can, mostly from rubbish dumps.

Bamboo Scaffolding

Bamboo Scaffolding

Bamboo scaffolding poles. Strange but I noticed this straight away, bamboo is used for lots of things including the ‘shanty shops’, scaffolding, even ladders, such is the strength of this natural resource.

People washing outside, either in the river, beside a bucket, or by one of the stand pipes along the city streets.

Men peeing in the street. Whatever you think of this, it is just an accepted part of city culture.

Rust! There seems to be so much rust caused probably by the constant wet/dry of the monsoon season. And dirty buildings too – things don’t stay clean very long in a polluted atmosphere.

Nice and not so nice buildings all in the same area. A comparatively nice, up-together building can stand next to a ramshackle one. This is a city of contrasts.

Mosquitoes!

Count-down traffic lights – these count down the seconds to the time they change.

Beggars – especially in the touristy parts. Really sad! Heart breaking! Children, very young children, coming up asking for money. It seems that teams of these work for adults and they have to deliver their takings at the end of the day.

Happy

Happy People

The people, friendly and content.

If you follow my blog, you know that I love to walk in the open countryside, the lanes, and the coast of my beautiful county of Dorset. I love to breathe the clean, fresh air. I love to photograph the landscape. I love the quiet tranquility of the rural areas and to listen to the wildlife. Kolkata offers none of this so you might think that it wouldn’t be my kind of place but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. I fell in love with this city and the people almost immediately. It is hard to define why but it has a wonderful atmosphere, it is vibrant and alive, it is gritty and real with lovely people, it has community.

In fact, it truly is a City of Joy!

This blog entry has been just a snapshot of first impressions of Kolkata. Over the coming weeks I will post more and perhaps relate something of the deeper impact that this city had on me. It is not a place that you can visit and leave again without being changed in some way.

I hope you have enjoyed walking the streets with me today.

Thanks for stopping by.

Until next time,
Your friend
The Dorset Rambler

If you would like to contact me, my email address is terry.yarrow@gmail.com – comments and feedback are always welcomed.

All words and pictures in this blog are the copyright of The Dorset Rambler and may not be reproduced without permission.

Happy New Year!

1 Jan

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From your friend The Dorset Rambler.

If you would like to contact me, my email address is terry.yarrow@gmail.com – comments and feedback are always welcomed.

All words and pictures in this blog are the copyright of The Dorset Rambler and may not be reproduced without permission.

Happy Christmas

24 Dec

Is this my best side?

Just to wish you all a very happy, blessed and peaceful Christmas season. Thanks for all your interest, likes and comments during the last year.

Lots of new posts coming in 2018, with perhaps a different twist 😉 !

From your friend The Dorset Rambler.

If you would like to contact me, my email address is terry.yarrow@gmail.com – comments and feedback are always welcomed.

All words and pictures in this blog are the copyright of The Dorset Rambler and may not be reproduced without permission.

It Seems Only Yesterday…

18 Nov

– – – Exploring The Countryside and Lanes of Dorset – – –

Fallen

It seems only yesterday that he was just a bud, forming slowly as the winter days grew longer. With the coming of spring and that oh so slight increase in temperature, he started to plump up more, as a pregnant creature might, and ultimately he broke free like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. Just a tiny thing at first, growing almost imperceptibly and with that beautiful lime green colour that heralds the arrival of spring.

His siblings broke out all around him and together they adorned the tree that was their host, bringing a freshness of tone and shade, and bringing new life to the woodlands. As spring progressed and summer arrived, his colour deepened into a darker, richer shade of green and creatures regularly used him as shade and shelter……some even used parts of him as food, nibbling his edges. Sunshine, winds and rain came in turn, attacking him constantly. The wind beat him crazily against the surrounding branches, it was like a fairground ride, both exhilarating and scary at the same time. He wondered what the health and safety leaf would say about it. The sun attempted to burn him! But he stood his ground, proudly enhancing the woodland and living out the purpose for which he knew he had been born.

People came and went below him, he could hear their voices, and their pleasing praises for his colour. Children climbed through the branches, scuffing against him as they did so, almost crushing him with their feet. But still he held firm!

Summer passed and autumn arrived and gradually his deep green started to take on a warmer hue. His friends all around him were changing too, turning ever so slowly to shades of orange, brown and red until the green had disappeared completely. He was tired now, and as the autumn winds came, he struggled to maintain his grip on the twig which had been his home. Little by little he began to lose his strength until finally, one fateful day, he could hold on no more and he gave himself over to the mercy of the wind. He let go!

He drifted softly to the ground below the tree where he formed a part of an ever growing carpet that covered the earth. He had lived his life well, played his part in beautifying the countryside, and now his time was over…….but not completely. Even now, his usefulness continues as he lays decaying and in that very decaying he provides a feast of leaf mould that will feed the tree and bring out another generation of fresh new growth when spring comes around again. His children and his grandchildren will follow him.

His life on the tree is over and it seemed so short. He was once a new leaf – it seems only yesterday!

Thanks for stopping by.

Until next time,
Your friend
The Dorset Rambler

If you would like to contact me, my email address is terry.yarrow@gmail.com – comments and feedback are always welcomed.

All words and pictures in this blog are the copyright of The Dorset Rambler and may not be reproduced without permission.

Ode to Dawn

13 Nov

– – – Exploring The Countryside and Lanes of Dorset – – –

River Stour at Dawn

Ode to dawn

Dark, like a mantle, has covered the ground,
But the first dregs of morning have come,
Driving away the black with no sound,
And bringing new life and the day.

The mist as it rolls o’er the meadow and lea,
Covers each leaf with its dew,
The duck on the stream have stirred from their sleep,
And the owl has gone to his roost.

But man has not stirred to spoil this scene,
It is left to the wildlife and me,
To gaze on the beauty of God’s earth of peace,
Ere the noise of the day break the spell.

The sun has now risen far away in the east,
And the hustle and bustle of day
Comes all too soon, but , oh, may that peace
Remain in my heart always.

(Copyright The Dorset Rambler)

The wonder of the early morning when there is that distinct stillness, peace and solitude. Just the gentle whisper of a light breeze that caresses your face, the gentle trickling of the stream making its unhurried and winding way to the coast, the faintest rustling of reed on reed, the intangible hint of mist that drifts past your eyes like a gossamer that is almost invisible, the near silence and wonderful aloneness. These are the joys of the early morning till gradually and distantly, the first light noises of man’s stirring drift into earshot, slowly increasing as the sun rises in the sky to drive the magic away.

Oh to be able to capture that mysterious and un-capturable dawn specialness, to be able to carry it into the day to ward off the hustle and bustle of normal life, to have a mind in the early dawn meadows even whilst in the heat of the mid-day.

Thanks for stopping by.

Until next time,
Your friend
The Dorset Rambler

If you would like to contact me, my email address is terry.yarrow@gmail.com – comments and feedback are always welcomed.

All words and pictures in this blog are the copyright of The Dorset Rambler and may not be reproduced without permission.