Calcutta Tramways, the sweetened thunder

The rattle of iron wheels, the sound of cloudy compressed air kicking dust billowing out through the wheels, shook the mother earth. The squealing metal brakes did its job perfectly well to stop the tram. Yes, the tram had come to a dead stop inches away from the rear bumper of my car.

Respect born out of pure love for these wooden and metal carriages made me turn the car to the left so that I can ease out of the rails that ran through the concrete sections of the roads of Calcutta. The rails, perhaps planted by the British regime, some seventy or maybe eighty years ago still shine under the hot humid sun. She rumbled on beside me to occupy the space I stood on. The tram shuddered and came to another halt. The mechanical foot horn clanked on as the tram driver impatiently stepped on it. She looked old, rusty, her sides all used up by advertisements of all sorts. Trams have been an integral part of my growing up. 

My family and I used them extensively. I went to the school or college and my first choice was always a tram. In today’s fast world, the Calcutta tram is looked upon as a relic of the past. They are slow, look decadent and you can hardly see people using them. 

A Calcutta Tramways tram taking a turn at Esplanade, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
The two carriage tram takes a wide arc just off Esplanade to start a journey to head back to its terminus

It was in my school days, the summer vacation had just started and my face glowed with the excitement when I requested my mother to have a joy ride in a tram. Life was so simple in those days and our want as a kid was limited to just a ride in a tram and my heart filled with the happiness with the mere thought of it. 

So, what was so unique? 

To get on to a tram with my sister, occupy a window seat, sway like a leaf as the tram lurched side to side as it made its way from Ballygunge to Esplanade; was a feast for my eyes and senses.

The world around me was all about that three hours of up and down journey from Ballygunge and back again. The sound was immense as the iron wheels went over the rail grooves reverberating across the houses that lined up the road on either side. Felt so special as if everyone stared at me riding the noisy self-propelled carriages. The forty kilometres per hour speed causing enough air to pour in through its windows and swept back my hair. The tram touched various sections of the city, some very congested with heavy traffic, others less crowded.

A Calcutta Tramways tram on Rashbehari Avenue, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
A thirty-year-old tram overtakes a modern day automobile as she makes her way through Old Court House Street, Calcutta in the early hours of a Sunday morning

A specific section of my memorable journey was just beyond the city limits, for a short spell though, before the rails went right back into the city. They winded through the long unkempt grasses on the Maidan fringes. On one side the Calcutta skyline showed the tall and ever-increasing corporate houses and on the other, the greenery-laden Fort William of the armed forces. The clouded sky with the far-flung city limits flew past the little boy’s scanning eyes. The ride was about an hour and a half. Every bit of it is etched in my memory. 

Trams have always been the favorite choice for retired ladies and gentlemen. In one of my rides, I remember an octogenarian, clad in dark pleated trousers went on talking to another old man, both were talking about events, fifty years ago. They sounded so content, and the faces beamed with smiles that stretched from one ear to the other. Hardly youngsters were seen boarding them. However, very recently, a singular event caught my attention and I visited to join in the revelry.

A group consisting of millennium generation or X-generation kids, characterized by toying mobile handheld devices, wires of all kinds sticking out from their ears, short cropped hair, large tattoos adorning their bare skins, bunched up to dig into the history of Calcutta trams.

A Calcutta Tramways tram parked at Ballygunge tram terminus, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
At the Ballygunge terminus, a no. 25 route tram is being painted by youngsters to commemorate the tram’s birthday

Some hundred or so in number wanted to fall in love for two days, the world of Calcutta trams. They unearthed fascinating antiquity which dates back to 24th February 1873.

A Calcutta Tramways tram parked at Ballygunge tram terminus, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Characters from Sukumar Ray’s book, Abol Tabol (funny claptrap) being painted by artists

More artists painted the discerning sides of another tram to their heart’s content.

A Calcutta Tramways tram parked at Ballygunge tram terminus, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Brushes, ladders, poems and story books; all were seen from where historical characters were emblazoning the trams

The Ballygunge tram depot which is about five minutes walk from where I stay was opened to the public. School children, young and old with bursting enthusiasm queued up to get a glimpse of where the trams stay for the night after making fifteen to twenty sorties across the city every day.

How they are serviced and maintained. Few trams were neatly decorated with lights and historical anecdotes being shown via big screens. Octogenarians were being interviewed to recollect their memories of trams. The young ones listened to them with bated breath.

Shall I take you on a pictorial journey that I loved so much and wanted to share…

Series of old Calcutta Tramways tram parked at Ballygunge tram terminus, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
The southern end of the tram terminus where trams lined up side by side waiting for the next day sun rays to appear. They will make their rounds helping the citizens to commute
Series of old Calcutta Tramways tram parked at Ballygunge tram terminus, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
The scooped up bunkers between the rails where the trams drive over to be repaired

As I was panning my camera, interesting historical facts were decoratively kept on the tram windows. I captured a couple of them for your reading pleasure.

Calcutta Tramways history exhibition at Ballygunge tram terminus, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Trams were torched during the struggle for independence as they were seen as British objects
Calcutta Tramways history exhibition at Ballygunge tram terminus, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
The Howrah bridge which is another of the fascinating structures of Calcutta saw last of the trams in 1993
Calcutta Tramways history exhibition at Ballygunge tram terminus, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Calcutta tram services were started by Viceroy Lord Curzon way back in 1902
Calcutta Tramways history exhibition at Ballygunge tram terminus, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Unfortunately, trams were taken off from the city of Kanpur in the 1920s’
Calcutta Tramways history exhibition at Ballygunge tram terminus, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
The world over, concrete is used around the tramlines to protect the asphalted road from the iron wheel vibration  
Calcutta Tramways history exhibition at Ballygunge tram terminus, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Esplanade in Calcutta was the tram terminus in Asia from where the first electric tramcar rolled from Esplanade to Kidderpore in 1902 is now made as a tram museum
Calcutta Tramways history exhibition at Ballygunge tram terminus, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Trams were deployed to ferry police troops and materials to the East India offices from the Calcutta ports

As I was loitering in and around the parked trams, I hopped into one and explored the interior, which included the passenger sections, the driver’s cabin, and the frugal controls with which a tram is driven.

The first class compartment of a Calcutta Tramways Tram by Gautam Lahiri at Kolkata, West Bengal, India
The first class passenger carriage. The blue door you see in the distance is the driver’s cabin. Big fans hang from the ceiling which provides serene comfort to the passengers on a hot summer day
The first class compartment, ladies section of a Calcutta Tramways Tram by Gautam Lahiri at Kolkata, West Bengal, India
The rear section of the first carriage is exclusively for ladies; however, children are merrily allowed to sit and jump around
The driver's cockpit of a tram of Calcutta Tramways by Gautam Lahiri at Kolkata, West Bengal, India
This the cockpit of a Calcutta tram. A rheostat principled speed lever which travels from left to right and the speed increases. The right short lever is the brake which stops the tram. The mechanical and engineering controls you see here are of 1920s’ to 1930s’
A old 1925 dated metal almairah of Calcutta Tramways at Ballygunge Tram terminus at Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
An iron cabinet which is still in use by the staff since 1925
A Calcutta Tramways decorated tram parked at Ballygunge tram terminus, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
A tram cafe offering refreshments to the visitors

After braving a midday sun for about two to three hours, I was parched like one of the overhead corrugated sheets and needed a drink to quench my thirst. The help came again in the form of a tram turned into a mobile cafe.

A cup of freshly brewed coffee with some munchies helped me to revive my spent strength.

A Calcutta Tramways decorated tram parked at Ballygunge tram terminus, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
College and school children, students, professors, everyone jostled around the tram terminus as a local rock band started spewing out old English numbers like, “Strangers in the night“, “Hotel California“. The parked cars, effervescent mood made the tram terminus environment decidedly electric
A Calcutta Tramways decorated tram parked at Ballygunge tram terminus, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
A tram carriage doubled up as a souvenir shop, well decorated and was able to attract the younger population
A Calcutta Tramways decorated single compartment tram parked at Esplanade tram terminus, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
A newly made, air-conditioned single carriage tram which one can hire today for a day for family functions. You can hold parties and the tram will take you around the city at your convenience for a full day

Next day, I drove in the early hours of the morning to visit the tram museum.

The story of Calcutta Tramways. My loving experiences as a boy when I first saw her. I still feel excited when I get into a tram at Kolkata which brings beautiful memories.
The entrance to the tram museum. A beautifully ornamented tram stands to welcome the visitors to tell the tram stories of a bygone age

I reckon you are now familiar with few slices of Calcutta tram’s history. It still fascinates me as much it did when I was very young.

A Calcutta Tramways decorated two compartments tram parked at Esplanade tram terminus, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
The route no. 1 tram rolls once again at 6 am, on a Saturday in 2017 which it started in 1902. She remains most trusted, loved by all even at a speed of forty kilometres per hour

The tram has not changed much and it still keeps the pace with the twenty-first century four to six-wheeled competitors with its rich history and past. She may not be as fast as them, have wooden benches to sit on but provides a strange sort of sublime comfort which slightly surpasses what a modern-day technologically superior, and ergonomically designed sedan offers 🙂

And of course, she is the most eco-friendly transport with zero emission which none of the automobiles till date has been able to match other than the handful of electric vehicles.

Long live, Calcutta tramways !!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s