The alluring mystery surrounding the origin of the rickshaw, its history and the humanity, humility and grace of the men in this vocation are what inspired this photo essay. Over the past three years while researching and conducting interviews in Varanasi, Allahabad, Kolkata, and Dhaka, I have photographed over 100 rickshaws and the men who pull them.
I first encountered rickshaws in 2007, while photographing the Sadhus, or saints of the Juna Akhara at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad. The Kumbh Mela is the largest gathering of human beings for a common purpose in the world. Hindu pilgrims gather on the banks of the Ganges River to wash away their sins on an annual and semi annual basis.
I took a few snapshots of the rickshaws during this time and upon returning home was further struck by the possibilities of the rickshaw as a subject. I found very little information on the rickshaw and the life of the “rickshaw puller,” so I decided to return to Allahabad in 2008 to begin my own research and photograph the wooden, hand painted rickshaws that are unique to Allahabad. In the process I came to discover the tana (man powered, hand pulled) rickshaws, still in use in Kolkata and the cycle rickshaws of Dhaka, in Bangladesh. These discoveries inspired a deeper curiosity of the life and history of the Rickshaw and its current place in modern India and Bangladesh.
I took many rickshaw rides in the various cities I visited and spoke with countless pullers. I was struck by their difficult street life. Some of these men sleep under their rickshaws at night, warming themselves by burning rags and tire rubber. Some live without shoes or any comfort beyond the clothes on their backs. Not all rickshaw pullers live this way. Some stay in dormitories with other transient pullers and some have a home that they share with their family. Most of the rickshaw pullers I met had a pleasant disposition despite the hardship of their life situation. When asked why he pulled a rickshaw, one puller in Kolkata said, “it is my duty to pull the rickshaw, so I pull it.” This acceptance of one’s place in life permeates Indian culture. Through interviews and conversations I learned in detail what the average experience of a rickshaw puller is. It is a hard life, full of perpetual poverty. Often separated from their families in the countryside, to whom they send what little money they earn. The puller lives isolated from the society he works in. This vulnerable man is often taken advantage of. The police tax, fine, physically abuse and sometimes confiscate the rickshaw itself. In this case, the rickshaw is impounded until the owner pays the fine for the offense, real or manufactured. Like taxi driver’s, few rickshaw pullers own the rickshaw they work with. Almost all pullers rent from a license holder who collects a daily rental fee. It is only after this rental fee is paid that the puller can earn a profit. With the constant threat of damage from cars and buses in traffic, abuse from patrons, police and extortion from organized crime, all of which I have witnessed, the rickshaw puller’s life is fragile, at best. They are an anachronistic underdog in a society desperately trying to modernize. Empowered by the knowledge of their plight I decided to focus on the beauty of the folk art. I felt that this was a positive way to draw attention to them, and perhaps help in some way. What was equally compelling as the plight of the rickshaw puller was the detailed enamel paintings that decorated each rickshaw. The uniqueness of the paintings, the vivid color of the saturated and ornate lacquer, the plastic and cloth embellishment’s that decorate each vehicle is inspiring.
Through further investigation I discovered that the rickshaw had a fascinating history and there is a great deal of speculation about its origin. It makes a good mystery to solve and has had quite an evolution.
Why the rickshaw in India and Bangladesh instead of China or Japan? First, Bangladesh is, as I came to find out, the rickshaw capital of the world, with nearly half a million rickshaws on the streets of Dhaka, the capital. There are no subways or busses in Dhaka, so the rickshaw has become the backbone of public transport. Dhaka rickshaws have a unique decorative style that involves elaborate paintings of wildlife and landscapes. These scenes often represent the area the driver or rickshaw owner comes from. The other two popular themes are the Taj Mahal and even more often, Bangla film stars and heroes of the revolution that won Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in the 1970’s. For me, Bangladesh stands out for these reasons, and this year I spent some time photographing there.
India is where the hand pulled or tana rickshaw, is still used as an everyday vehicle of transportation. This is unique, as Kolkata is the only city in the world that has not banned their use beyond boardwalk tourist attractions. The hand pulled rickshaw has survived in Kolkata out of necessity. The tana wallah’s take goods to and from market in various districts it is vital to many domestic workers running household errands. They serve as a taxi for schoolchildren as well. Some rickshaw wallahs I spoke with have worked for the same families for more than 20 years. The rickshaw wallah knows the streets well and can navigate them safely, avoiding the many potholes and missing manhole covers. Business and government officials, even some that lobby for the banning of the hand pulled rickshaw on grounds of human rights, eventually succumb to its necessity during the monsoon months when the streets of Kolkata are flooded and impassable by car.
As for the mystery of its origin, there is certainly no definitive answer to the question “who invented the rickshaw?” An American blacksmith, two Japanese craftsmen and the French, all have some evidence to support a claim on the idea. It is not a huge leap from a pushcart to the hand pulled rickshaw. There is some relation to the chariots of ancient Rome as well as to the sedan that was used by many cultures including Japanese, Chinese and The Turks, to carry the wealthy and powerful. I imagine the rickshaw to be something that developed over time simultaneously in different cultures as a result of technology and economics. The one thing we do know is that the name stems from the Japanese word, Jin-riki-sha, which roughly translates to man-powered-vehicle. The tana rickshaw, almost exclusively found in Kolkata, India, is probably the direct descendent of the Japanese Jinrikisha. It follows the iron rickshaw built by Massachusetts’s blacksmith, Albert Tolman, for an American missionary’s invalid wife to use during their mission in Yokohama. The two-wheeled wooden chariot is probably the most recognized model. It has the classic, lightweight wood body and wooden spoke wheels with two parallel wooden handles for the puller to hold.
I am currently working on a book that will include an in depth look at the history of the rickshaw. My photographs will highlight the folk art and architecture, while honoring the pullers and cyclists. Many Indian city governments have begun to acknowledge the cycle rickshaw as a green answer to the congestion and pollution problem. There is even a competition in Dhaka to design a way to incorporate rickshaw lanes into the cities roadways. I hope this will provoke discussion of how to better organize and protect the rickshaw worker and his family to keep the tradition and history alive. What I love most about the rickshaw is the beauty that exists within the profession, the beauty of the rickshaw as an object and the beauty inside the men who ply this trade. That is my subject.