Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Rickshaw History

The Photographer's Notes

The mystery surrounding the origin of the rickshaw, it’s history and the humanity, humility and grace of the men in this vocation are what inspired this photo essay. Over the past six years while researching and conducting interviews in Varanasi, Allahabad, Kolkata, and Dhaka, I have photographed dozens of rickshaws and rickshaw pullers.

I first encountered rickshaws in 2007 while photographing the Sadhus, or saints of the Juna Akhara, a Hindu sect, at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad.  I made a few snapshots of  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 2009 to begin my own research and to photograph the wooden, hand-painted rickshaws that are unique to Allahabad. In the process I came to discover the Tana (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 it’s current place in modern India and Bangladesh.

I took many rickshaw rides in Allahabad and spoke with several pullers and was struck by their difficult street life. Some were sleeping under their rickshaws at night warming themselves by burning rags or tire rubber. Some were without shoes or any comforts beyond the clothes on their back. These clothes were often thread bare. To be fair, 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 who work as well. Many of the rickshaw pullers I met had a strikingly pleasant disposition despite the hardship of their station in life. When asked why he pulled a rickshaw one puller in Kolkata said “it is my duty to pull the rickshaw, so I pull lt”. This acceptance of one’s place in life permeates Indian culture. Through interviews and conversations ,I learned in detail what the average experience is of a rickshaw puller. It is a hard life of perpetual poverty. Often separated from their families in the countryside, to whom they send what little money they earn home, the puller lives isolated from the society in which he works. This vulnerable man is often taken advantage of. The police tax, fine, physically abuse and sometimes confiscate the rickshaw itself which is impounded until the rickshaw stable owner pays the fine for whatever the offense, real or manufactured. Like taxi drivers in the U.S. , few rickshaw pullers own their own rickshaw. Almost all pullers rent from the license holder who collects a daily rental fee. It is only after this rental fee is paid that the puller can turn 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 they endure, 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 felt that to focus on the beauty of the folk art was a positive way to draw attention to and perhaps help them in some way.

What was equally compelling as the plight of the rickshaw puller was the detailed enamel paintings that decorated the rickshaws. The uniqueness of the paintings, the vivid color of the saturated and ornate lacquer, the plastic and cloth embellishment’s that decorate each vehicle were 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.

Bangladesh, as I came to find out, is the rickshaw capital of the world with nearly half a million on the streets of Dhaka, its capital, making rickshaws the backbone of public transport. There is no subway or public transportation in Dhaka. Dhaka rickshaws have a unique decorative style that involves elaborate paintings of wildlife and landscapes. These scenes often represent the area the rickshaw owner comes from. Other popular themes are the Taj Mahal, being the jewel of the Muslim art world, Bangla film stars and heroes of the revolution that won Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in the 1970’s.

Many Indian city governments have begun to acknowledge the cycle rickshaw as a green answer to the congestion and pollution. There is a competition in Dhaka to design a way to incorporate rickshaw lanes into the city's roadways. This part of the narrative I hope will provoke discussion of how to better organize and protect the rickshaw worker and his family and keep the tradition and history alive. At present they are a vulnerable and marginalized worker often taken advantage of by unethical people who prey on this vulnerability. The marginalization allows for unsavory industry practices and makes the profession accessible to be abused by organized crime. Most rickshaw pullers are honorable hardworking people with little option for income.  As told in the 1953 Bimal Roy film, Do Bigha Zamin, the rickshaw wallah often comes to the city from the country to make a wage to support his family because opportunity to survive in the country has been taken from them by flood or industrialization of farms. Others are lifelong residents of the city in which they work and many have taken up the trade of their fathers. Very few rickshaw wallahs are fulfilled by this work as many of them will tell you it is a poor man’s profession and a hard life. What I love most is the beauty that exists within the profession, the beauty of the rickshaw as an object and the beauty of the men’s spirits who ply this trade.

History and Development

The physical design of the rickshaw was not so much an original concept as much as it was a derivative conglomerate of the ox cart, the sedan chair, the wheel barrel and the palanquin, even traces of the roman chariot can be seen in the silhouette of the rickshaw. What made the rickshaw so different from a wagon or an ox cart and in the eyes of many, so cruel, was the idea that it be pulled by a man instead of a farm animal. That cruelty has continued to be a part of the rickshaw's legacy and remains the main point of contention for its critics. This is especially true in Kolkata India where the hand pulled rickshaw is still in use. Kolkata aspires like all major cities today, to be seen as modern and yet it stands alone as the only city in the world that has not banned the hand pulled rickshaw.   The image of thin, shoeless men in lungi’s pulling wooden wheeled rickshaws on Sudder Street past the tourists at New Market has the opposite effect.  Every few years members of the city government propose a ban. However, business and government officials alike, even those that lobby for the ban eventually succumb to its necessity during the monsoon season when the streets of Kolkata are flooded and impassable by car.  For this reason the hand pulled rickshaw survives in Kolkata. 
  ActionAid India estimates that there are approximately 18,000 rickshaws on the streets of Kolkata today. The rickshaw survives out of necessity and its unique ability to keep passengers above the floodwater during the monsoons. These rickshaw pullers also carry goods to and from market in various districts and are vital to many domestic workers running household errands in the narrow lanes of the old city. They serve as a taxi for schoolchildren. Several pullers I spoke with have worked for the same family for more than 20 years. Despite the longing of the city elite to steer its perception away from images of Mother Theresa amidst throngs begging children and those of the haggard, marginalized rickshaw wallah in their threadbare lungis, the city continues to struggle with the reality of necessity.  Beyond one's personal feelings toward the inhumanity of the hand pulled rickshaw there is the simple reality of employment. For many rickshaw pullers, the rickshaw is perhaps their last resort. It may very well be the only type of employment they can find. To deny them this opportunity would in effect make homeless the 18,000 pullers and their families in Kolkata.

Hopefully in time, a way can be found to transition, through job training, the rickshaw pullers in Kolkata to another type of work. It seems just as inhumane to take away their only means of supporting their family. Until that time, as long as the monsoons continue in Western Bengal, I think we will see the hand pulled rickshaw on the streets of Kolkata.  Although Kolkata may now serve as the only true living illustration of how the rickshaw once functioned throughout Asia,  Kolkata is far from being central to the history or the development of the rickshaw.

In researching the history of the rickshaw I came across some early visual records of the rickshaw in Japan. There are many Japanese woodblock prints that date around 1870 and show the rickshaw in use on the docks in Yokohama. I also found photographs from Felice Beatto, who photographed in Yokohama beginning in 1863. 

The Beatto images of rickshaws are from 1875  and if there were any made earlier they were probably destroyed in a fire that consumed his studio in October of 1866.  Predating all of these are the 1707 painting  "Les Deux Carrosses" by Claude Gillot, possibly the earliest visual document of what is certainly a precursor to the Asian rickshaw.  Also from the 18th century is a 1756 etching by Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin, titled La Brouette, which shows two butterflies navigating a vehicle similar to the one in Gillot’s painting.  It is quite possible that the Age of Enlightenment put an end to any further cultivation of the idea of a man pulling another man around as if he were somehow less significant than the passenger. The rejection of this idea may have lasted in Europe as it applied to Europeans, but once on foreign soil it did not seem to bother the colonialists. In fact it was the exploitation of cheap and plentiful indigenous labor that helped the rickshaw rise to prominence so quickly. Looking at rickshaw images in the Library of Congress, I came across an illustration from a New Jersey newspaper from 1844. In it there is a small cart at the rear of the train that looks very much like a rickshaw. This image could bolster the Burlington County Historical Society's claim, which recognizes carriage maker James Birch as a rickshaw creator and has a rickshaw of his in their museum that dates back to 1867.

American blacksmith Albert Tolman from Worcester Massachussettes is also credited with creating a rickshaw type vehicle in 1848.  However all of this “proof” of invention scattered along the rickshaw timeline concludes little about who if anyone actually invented it.  The rickshaw being such a logical progression of the cart and wagon was most likely created in several places around the same time which is what the evidence on record indicates. However, there is a key moment that is central and most significant in the history and development of the rickshaw. It is the arrival of American missionary Jonathan Goble, in Yokohama Japan in 1854. Goble's presence in Japan would ultimately lead to the manufacturing of the rickshaw on a large scale and lead to its rapid spread throughout Asia and the world.

Les Deux Carrosses Claude Gillot 1707

1756 Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin (French, 1721 - 1786 ), La Brouette, in or after 1756, etching,

New Jersey, 1844

Japanese Woodcut, 1870 Utagawa, Hiroshige

 Yokohama, Japan 1863-1884, Photograph by Felice Beatto
Tokiyo, Japan 1875 photograph by Felice Beatto

 James Birch Rickshaw at The Burlington County Historical Society.

In March of 1854 Commodore Perry sailed his flagship The Mississippi into the port of Yokohama literally and figuratively opening Japan's society to the west for the first time.  Goble who arrived with Perry on this initial voyage is credited with introducing the rickshaw to the Japanese in  1869.  But Jonathan Goble was not an inventor, a carpenter nor a blacksmith,  he did however accordring to Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr's interviews with his Uncle, Alderman Gleason of Keuka Lake NY, make the acquaintance of a carpenter on that first trip. This Carpenter's name was Frank Pollay.  Pollay was from the town of Pulteney, New York and had impulsively joined the marines to escape his unsatisfactory situation at home.  Pollay returned to New York not long after that initial voyage most likely discovering that life at home was not quite as bad as he thought. Goble's wife Eliza, who was suffering from a disease in her hip needed a more comfortable way to get around Yokohama than the Kago or palanquin, a sedan chair that was in use at the time.   Years later their friendship still intact, Goble wrote Pollay,  who was home in New York and asked him to create a type of cart that could carry his wife around the narrow lanes in Yokohama.   According to Herbert Wisely Jr's Uncle, it was Frank Pollay who designed the cart that Goble introduced to the streets of Yokohama.

Goble's rickshaw hit the streets and was soon after improved upon by a trio of Japanese.  Izumi Yosuke, Suzuki Tokujiro and Takayama Kosuke, together began manufacturing their improved design in 1870 and were awarded a patent for the "Jinrikisha" in Tokyo in 1871.  There is a detailed account of these events in F. Calvin Parker's book "Jonathan Goble of Japan, Marine, Missionary, Maverick". 

Jonathan Goble arrived in Japan during one of the most significant historical shifts in Japanese history. The Bakumatsu period (1853-1868) which saw not only the opening of Japan to the West but also the transition of power from the Tokuga Shogunate to the Meji. The shogun were suddenly without power and without work. As the port began to grow and trade expanded there was a need for the transportation of people and goods to and from the Docks.  Although Goble is said to have created his rickshaw not to carry goods, but to carry his invalid wife around town it soon became a vehicle of necessity.

The rickshaw then made its way south and west to Korea, Shanghai, Bejing, Hong Kong through southeast Asia and into the Indian subcontinent, down to Sri Lanka, Ceylon at the time and eventually into Africa. There are images of rickshaws in Egypt, Zanzibar and Durban that appear before the turn of the century. The speed and ease of carrying goods and passengers in this wheeled cart made it an immediate replacement for the sedan chairs & palanquin in use all across Asia. The rickshaw may very well have been an American invention but it was most likely the British Empire that was responsible for it’s rapid spread and growth. It was most certainly the Japanese whose improvement and patent made its proliferation possible. But the British occupied most of the cities where the rickshaw first appeared in Asia and Africa so it seems likely that they had latched onto the idea in Shanghai or in Yokohama and carried it with them all around their empire.

Ceylon, 1875 

  Hong Kong 1880

 India 1885

1890 Durban, South Africa

Japan, Spokes and rubber tires.


The rickshaw is thought to first have appeared in India, not in Kolkata but in the hill town of Simla in 1880.  This rickshaw, either imported or built by missionary Rev J. Fordyce, is the one that plays the title role in Rudyard Kippling’s The Phantom Rickshaw.  Set in Simla and published in 1888, it is one of the rickshaw's earliest literary references.  How the rickshaw arrived in Simla is not documented but what is most interesting about the Simla rickshaw is that it was not the wooden version patented in Japan but was an iron vehicle that was heavy and cumbersome and required 5 men to navigate. There were two men in the front, two in back and one to run alongside and rotate out as the others were exhausted. This rickshaw may have been the one designed by Massechusettes blacksmith Albert Tolman, also credited with it’s invention. The fact that this iron rickshaw showed up in Simla 20 years before the wooden Japanese model appeared in Kolkata gives some weight to the theory that the Tolman rickshaw had made its way into Asia ahead of Jonathan Goble and his rickshaw in Japan. However, it could only have been referred to as a rickshaw after knowledge of Goble’s model as the name itself is from the Japanese “Jin-ri-ki-sha” which translates roughly to “man powered machine”. Eventually the wooden wagon wheel would be first wrapped in rubber then replaced altogether by the metal spoked bicycle tire.  The cycle rickshaw that is most common all across Asia today would not become common place and used widespread until 1929 first appearing in Singapore.  Although the bicycle had been around almost as long as the rickshaw it was far too expensive in the late 19th century and not easy to come by in Asia. Once the bicycle became more commonplace and the price lowered considerably it would all but illuminate the hand pulled rickshaw.

  Simla, India, 1946 The iron rickshaw much heavier than the wooden Tana required 4 men to pull and guide it.

The urge to decorate the rickshaw with art is as old as the rickshaw itself. The tradition dates back to its beginnings in Japan. The Japanese employed a technique called Maki-e, in which they painted designs with lacquer then sprinkled gold and silver dust to create illustrations of dragons, various flowers and scenes from Japanese mythology. The governing powers found these decorations to be in poor taste and the Ministry of Home Affairs banned the Maki-e on rickshaws in 1886. The body of the rickshaw was required to be a solid color and only the license was to be displayed. The rejection of this folk art did not end in Japan. The hand pulled rickshaws of Kolkata to this day are solid black and only display the license.  In their book Chasing Rickshaws, Tony Wheeler and Richard I’Anson travel to 12 Asian cities and only in Dhaka did they find this ornate style of folk painting. When in India they did not visit Allahabad, which is the only other city besides Dhaka that I have found to have a tradition of artists painting rickshaws with any regularity and uniformity. The rejection of the folk art may have had something to do with the fact that the British ruled most of the cities where rickshaws first appeared in Asia and as Rob Gallagher speculates in The Rickshaws of Bangladesh, the British “certainly didn’t tolerate flamboyant styles”. The traditions in Dhaka and Allahabad are relatively modern. Some of the oldest and most well-known rickshaw artists in Dhaka, R.K. Das and Alauddin Ahmed had only started painting in the early 1960’s.  Luckily The British were long gone by this time and the traditions took hold. The Rickshaw art of Dhaka and Allahabad are the focus of Rickshaw Wallah.
Visit the Ricksaw Wallah  pages and see decorated rickshaws photographed by Greg Vore 

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