Calcutta’s river sentinel, Howrah bridge on a Saturday morning

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

The Calcutta 'Taxi' the good old Ambassador proudly drives over the Howrah bridge. Kolkata is incomplete without a ride in this car at Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
The Calcutta ‘Taxi’ the good old Ambassador proudly drives over the Howrah bridge. Kolkata is incomplete without a ride in this car

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.

Brokers and agents unload the flowers, bundles of them to the huts that prepare for the morning flower trade  at Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Brokers and agents unload the flowers, bundles of them to the huts that prepare for the morning flower trade

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.

Bathers walk over the muddy banks of the river, ready to take a dip in the cool waters of the river Hooghly  at Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Bathers walk over the muddy banks of the river, ready to take a dip in the cool waters of the river Hooghly
Men, women, and children are busy in the morning rituals..someone is washing, as another prepares to worship. This part resembles Varanasi indeed

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.

Stones kept in an order under a Peepal tree, to worship Shiva at Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Stones kept in an order under a Peepal tree, to worship Shiva

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.

Howrah bridge flashed golden under the morning sun  at Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Howrah bridge flashed golden under the morning sun

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.

Men chanting hymns on the watery steps leading to the river at Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Men chanting hymns on the watery steps leading to the river

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.

Flower sellers line up for the morning  at Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Flower sellers line up for the morning 
Layers of flowers - Marie gold, roses, laced in leaves, sprinkled with water...up for the grabs at Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Layers of flowers – Marie gold, roses, laced in leaves, sprinkled with water…up for the grabs

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.

Rolls of Tagetes being kept by sellers to woo customers  at Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Rolls of Tagetes being kept by sellers to woo customers

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.  

As my shoes scratched the surface, the ‘cluk’ ‘cluk‘ sound reminded me of Jeremy Brett in Sherlock Holmes walking over the stony roads in the BBC serial.

The road made of stone bricks, under the Howrah bridge..looked sinister with its black and white hues with only the flowers like islands of color  at Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
The road made of stone bricks, under the Howrah bridge..looked sinister with its black and white hues with only the flowers like islands of color

After exploring the area, we climbed the bridge itself to get a view of the bank with its flower market. 

The Howrah bridge flower market, an aerial view atop the bridge  at Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
The Howrah bridge flower market, an aerial view atop the bridge

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.

The Hooghly river calmly flows and patiently awaits the big ferries that will cross her when Calcutta and Howrah want to connect  at Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
The Hooghly river calmly flows and patiently awaits the big ferries that will cross her when Calcutta and Howrah want to connect
Ever busy jetties of Outram ghat await the first whistles of the giant floating people carriers  at Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Ever busy jetties of Outram ghat await the first whistles of the giant floating people carriers

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.

The muddy bank and the river water sweeping over the temples which are standing in unison for not less than 200 years  at Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
The muddy bank and the river water sweeping over the temples which are standing in unison for not less than 200 years

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.

Howrah station over the horizon where the river meets her washed bank  at Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Howrah station over the horizon where the river meets her washed bank
A lone boat loaded with fishing net skirts the river bank as early morning bathers take a holy dip  at Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
A lone boat loaded with fishing net skirts the river bank as early morning bathers take a holy dip

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.  

Fresh bananas catching the sun as the bundle sits on a basket... we could not resist and took a bite.. these small bananas found in Calcutta, are very healthy, tasty and filling  at Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Fresh bananas catching the sun as the bundle sits on a basket… we could not resist and took a bite.. these small bananas found in Calcutta, are very healthy, tasty and filling

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.  

The smoke and fog enveloped the city limits, while the Howrah bridge stood tall and gallant ushers the sun and the new day  at Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
The smoke and fog enveloped the city limits, while the Howrah bridge stood tall and gallant ushers the sun and the new day

We came down the steps, bide adieu to the fine engineering of Howrah bridge, and climbed back in my car and headed back home.   

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