As a resident of Calcutta, I was always bemused by the Howrah bridge, the name so familiar to me and perhaps to the millions who visit this 300 plus years old city. Built by British engineers around 1935-43, a cantilever construction type stretches over the slow-flowing river the Ganges or the Hooghly river is by far one of the busiest man-made structures on this planet.
Be it early morning or middle of the day or deep in the night, Howrah bridge continues her duty to connect the twin cities of Calcutta and Howrah.
We saw people of assorted trade and interests walking over her sidewalk. Hundreds of cars, trucks, buses of all shapes and sizes raced over her asphalted road.
What I missed from my childhood days was the Tram which used to cross the bridge at a snail’s pace. Now the tram tracks are removed from the bridge and the tram no. 26 which I still remember ferried people from Ballygunge to Howrah; unfortunately in present times she can go as far as the base of the bridge and stops. When we were young and traveled to Delhi by train, my grandfather always had a face with concern written all over it…’ Hurry up, do not waste time, children, get into the car…you have to cross the Howrah bridge fast otherwise you will miss catching the train.”
Right after we crossed the bridge, we used to take a sharp left turn and parked in front of a Victorian styled sprawling structure which still marks the Howrah area famous, the Howrah railway station…the biggest railway station in eastern India and is the hub for the railways connecting cities and towns far and wide across India. Very few stations, in India, where you can drive inside all the way up to the platform.
This is what we did –
On a bright Saturday morning, my friend and I drove all the way up to the eastern bank of the river and parked my Swift among the trucks that lined up the ancient warehouses, as old as the bridge perhaps and took a walk with our lenses to catch the early morning activities around and underneath the bridge. Our main aim was to visit the famous flower market of Howrah where traders and customers battle out to buy flowers and trust me, the prices we saw were almost half than what we paid in the big markets and malls…never I had seen such brisk business in the wee hours of the morning when almost more than half of the city slept.
Jumping about the potholed roads, the sullen-looking warehouses, we inched our way towards the ghat or the banks where we came across people worshiping, taking bath and few sat there, glued in morning meditation.
As we were moving and weaving our way through the labyrinths of lanes and by-lanes within the small to medium-sized houses that flanked the bank, we came across an interesting small playground, with a cover on top. These are sports club called ‘Akhara‘ or small outfits, very old and they train young boys, the art of wrestling or popularly know as ‘Pehelwani‘. We were pleased to see the dedication with which they fought, body fully covered in mud and oil to slither away from the opponent’s grasp as their motto was to defeat the fighter on the other end. However, we were not allowed to capture moments.
We walked on and saw a large gathering of very polished stones, in a heap. Guess what that was – It was Shiva, the famous deity of Hinduism. The place was clean and so neatly done that anyone visiting the place will approach it with reverence. We too paid our respects and clamber the broken steps.
The first golden lights of the sun started to emerge from the eastern horizon as the day progressed. We stood on the banks, gazed at the beauty of the great Howrah bridge catching the first lights. The silver-white skin over the bridge lit up heralding the long day ahead.
We came across a group of old men, hands outstretched over their heads, uttering hymns and reciting away paragraph after paragraph of Sanskrit. With the cool breeze which blew and the gentle lapping of the river water, these chanting sounded as sweet as a honey, as if acting like a salve over lacerated city minds.
After filling our soul with recitations, we climbed back on the bank and approached the bridge area to look for the flower market. At first, it was a bit bewildering as simultaneously, a lot of things happened..especially the olfactory senses took a hard beating as we walked through a maze of smells… fresh and rotten flowers, heaps of fresh to not so fresh city garbage, and then the fragrance of incense sticks from a nearby stall to top it all.. my brain failed to distinguish which smell came from which direction… we continued on.
All around us, we saw Tagetes or Marie gold flowers, rims of them kept for the customers. In fact, the flowers with their deep yellow colors dazzled us..they looked so fresh and the prices were attractive too..we could not resist and bought a couple of them to satisfy our sudden love for the flower which did not exist even an hour back.
All these years, I have driven over the bridge and this was the first time, I ventured to walk under the Howrah bridge, a small rectangular opening with the cobbled road, made of stones, probably laid down years back stared at me.
After exploring the area, we climbed the bridge itself to get a view of the bank with its flower market.
The bridge was relatively less busy, perhaps because the day just started and being a Saturday. The river was calm and very quiet. A gray haze hung over the river as we panned from east to west to catch the little activities that dotted the entire area.
With hands crossed over the bridge rails, we felt the bridge vibrate as heavy vehicles bumped over her and crossed.
Far away in the distance, we heard the pleasing and deep clanging of the temples, as the worshiping picked up momentum. The heavy fragrance of the incense sticks, met the diesel fumes from the vehicle created an interesting mix that is so typical of the Howrah bridge.
Across the bridge, we could see the Howrah station, painted in red brick color looked ready for the day. Within the next hour or so, the station and the bridge would be swarming with millions, running wild heading for their respective destinations.
The calmness of the morning would be shattered by the blaring horns from the heavy trucks that would cross the bridge.
By the time we crossed to the other side of the bridge, the sun had climbed way up, the cool breeze got replaced by hot winds, we knew that our morning Howrah excursion was coming slowly to an end.
We also started feeling hungry and met a fruit seller, fortunately, selling fresh bananas.
After our fruit-laden morning meal, we walked back the bridge sidewalk and looked at the brilliant construction of the Howrah bridge, very well designed, meticulously crafted by engineers of an era far back in time.
We came down the steps, bide adieu to the fine engineering of Howrah bridge, and climbed back in my car and headed back home.