Published in The Times of India Lucknow edition dated June 5, 2011
Vijay Chopra | tnn
Lucknow: Shareefjaat stands listlessly under a blazing sun, unmoved by the honking vehicles passing by. In between it raises head and stares with longing eyes at the tourists coming out of the Asafi Imambara, hoping to take them on a jaunt. But the fast-paced visitors, perhaps lacking the patience and temperament for a lazy ride, opt for a faster mode.
This is the sad tale of tongas on the Avadhi soil. Once a majestic mode of transport, tongas today stand in abject poverty. About 50-odd tongas left in Lucknow are fast galloping towards the sunset.
Till a decade ago, more than 500 tongas plied on the roads of Lucknow. But now they exist only at three spots --- zoo, Cantonment and Bada Imambara – and with no facilities of a stand. The last route where tongas plied was Kaiserbagh to Sadar. “The route was shut for tongas in 2003 and that accelerated our economic decline,” says tongawallah Shakeel Ahmed.
“We barely manage to earn Rs 200-300 per day. The expense on the horse is Rs 150. So, you can imagine the meager income we earn,” Shamsher, another tongawallah, said. “Now we are mainly confined to taking tourists on the Imambara circuit which includes Bada and Chhota Imambaras, Picture Gallery, Clock Tower and maximum till Chowk,” said Shakeel, signs of fiscal strains writ large on his face.
In its heyday, however, tonga was a prized mode of travel and tongawallahs were known for their etiquette, refined language and quick wit. While ekka was a smaller and cheaper mode, tonga was more spacious, decorated and a little costlier. A parallel example could be the difference between present day buses and autos. But the advent of cycle-rickshaw in mid 60s blew the bugle of decline.
City-based litterateur KP Saxena recalls that tongas stood out for their decoration. “Two brass-coated rods, called ‘bum’, tied the horse to the cart. The horses were decorated with velvet flowers while seats were made of shining leather. To produce the sound of a horn, tongawallahs would touch the horsewhip to the moving wheels. The horses were trained in two types of speed – ‘dulki’ (slower) and ‘sarpat’ (galloping). Dulki produced a rhythmic sound of “tap tap” while in sarpat it was “jhanak jhanak”, mainly because of the ghungroos tied to horses,” Saxena reminiscences. Though tongawallahs wielded horsewhip, it was never used on the animal. “They only moved the whip in air to stir the horses but never hurt them with it,” says the prolific writer. “Tongawallahs were a major attraction for tourists as they would converse in chaste Urdu and crack witty jokes, he says.
When thespian actor Ashok Kumar visited Lucknow in 1940s, he expressed a desire to go round the city in a tonga. Kumar along with writer Amrit Lal Nagar went past the city and was almost mobbed at various spots,” says Saxena, who has penned dialogues for Bollywood blockbusters Lagaan and Jodha Akbar.
But today, problems galore for horses and their masters. “We no longer have the facility of charai (an artificial small pond where horses drink water. Earlier, there was a charai at every short distance but now there are hardly 2-3 in Hussainabad. If we take horses to charai, then we lose out further on money and if we don’t, then the animal remains thirsty,” Shamsher, a tongawallah, said. “The only tonga stand left was in Daliganj, but a few years back that too was removed to make space for a power station,” rues Shakeel. Tongawallahs say that until they plied on Kaiserbagh-Sadar route, they managed to earn Rs 700-800 per day. “Lucknow has abandoned us; we are surviving only because of tourists. But they too don’t want to go beyond a short distance in a tonga and so fail we fail to earn more money,” said Shakeel. They claim getting no help either from the government or any organization.
Nawab Jafar Mir Abdullah, a descendant of Avadh nawabs, terms the decline of tonga culture as “inevitable”. “Tongas are a slow mode of transport that cannot keep pace with modern times. When a distance can be covered in 10 minutes, why would anyone prefer a tonga which would take 30 minutes,” he says.
Tongawallahs may soon have to explore greener pastures, since the revival of this travel mode appears bleak. But even if they slip into the pages of history, the musical gait of tongas would continue to resonate on the streets of Lucknow.