The Daily Star, Bangladesh
Sept 1 2008


Luxury tomtoms on last legs

400 Years of Dhaka
by Shahnaz Parveen


A quaintly decorated tomtom on a city street. Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain


Gani Mia, the 20-year-old kochoan (coachman), was feeling quite
blissful sitting on his newly decorated carriage tomtom, though yoked
to two malnourished horses. Compared to the dreary look of other
tomtoms standing nearby, Gani's one was shimmering amidst the hustle
and bustle of Gulistan.

The red rexin hood with yellow tassels is hanging from four corners
over the red seats while the rest of the tomtom's body has spotless
white decoration.

`This is my dream job. I only wish I could ride my carriage in a more
open road. This horrible traffic jam ruins all the fun,' said Gani,
oblivious of the fact that he has been carrying on with a 200-year-old
heritage of the city.

Gani, who has been a kochoan for the last eight years, said during
weekends he usually stands near places where people spend leisure time
such as Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban or Dhaka University campus. `Many people
still admire horse carriage and hire it for a brief joy ride on
weekends or special festival days,' he noted.

However, during weekdays the carriages become passenger carriers
plying from Sadarghat to Gulistan. The route starts from Sadarghat
launch terminal and ends at Gulistan near Golap Shah Mazar via English
Road, Johnson Road and Nababpur Road.

Although designed for six, these vehicles are usually crammed with as
many as 12 persons in every trip. The fare for a trip from Sadarghat
to Gulistan is Tk 12. To hire the carriage for a special occasion it
will cost about Tk 400 to Tk 500 per hour.

The owner earns around Tk 1500 of which Tk 500 is spent on feeding the
horses.

Usually run by young boys the carriages make six or seven trips
daily. Most of them stay at the carriage owner's place. Their job also
includes taking care of the horses and the cart.

Gani said most horses are brought from Bikrampur and Mymensingh area
and they can run till the age of 11 or 12. However, most of these
animals and the carts are in an appalling condition. Good breed of
imported horses are very expensive, he said.

According to eminent historian Prof Muntasir Mamoon horse carriage was
on the only mode of transport in Dhaka city back in the 19th century.

The first horse carriage landed in Dhaka from Kolkata in mid-19th
century. According to Prof Mamoon, it was brought in by the Armenian
community who used to live in Dhaka at that time and played an
important role in trade in Bengal.

"By the end of 19th century horse carriage became the main mode of
transport in Dhaka. Following the colonial culture, local zamindars
and the elite started using it to flaunt their status," he said.

After the arrival of horse carriages the roads of Dhaka had to be
redesigned and renovated with materials suited to its need.

According to Prof Mamoon, there were various designs of this carriage
available in Kolkata. In Dhaka, however, the palki style became very
popular. As the name suggests it was designed following another
traditional transport, palki.

The horse carriage of today is a slight modification of sedan, used
mostly by the zamindars and rich of that period. Palki was more
popular among the middle class.

The palki gari had four wooden wheels and was usually pulled by two
horses. The sitting area had wooden roof and was covered from all
sides just like a palki. Unlike the ones we see today it was designed
for six passengers.

The driver of the horse carriage is called the kochoan or
sahis. Besides, the zamindars always had one attendant standing at the
rear of the carriage.

Tomtom is the carriage pulled by one horse. The carriages have
different names in different areas such as tanga, jurigari or
ekka. These were mostly two-wheel without roof.

Painter and cartoonist Rafiqunnabi (Ranabi) lived for many years at
Narinda in Old Dhaka from 1950s. Nabi described the horse carriage he
saw during his childhood.

"I was a student of class three when my family arrived in Dhaka in
1953. I saw this fascinating transport for the first time when we got
off from the train at Fulbaria station. Outside the station stood the
four-wheeled gorgeous ride," Nabi recalls.

He said the horse carriage was a common mode of transport at a time
when motorcars were very few in Dhaka. From Gulistan to Sadarghat the
fare was Tk 1 in the 1960s.

Prof Mamoon said until 1950s horse carriage was the main transport of
Dhaka. After that the city gradually became modern. With the arrival
of motor vehicles, horse-drawn carriages could not compete
anymore. Its usage died out with the passage of time.

Today only 20 to 30 horse carriages are left in the city to carry on
with the century-old heritage. The owners have to take licence from
the wheel tax department of Dhaka City Corporation for running the
carriage in the street.