August 05, 2012

Howrah Bridge and Railway station, Calcutta

“But immediately afterwards we had to slow down to a crawl as the road grew progressively narrower and crowded. Rows of shacks appeared on both sides of the road now, small ramshackle structures, some of them built on thin slits, with walls of plaited bamboo, and roofs that had been pinched together somehow out of sheets of corrugated iron.”
– Amitav Ghosh, “The Shadow Lines”

Amongst the most impressive edifices that the beautiful old city of Calcutta possesses is the majestic Howrah Bridge that has since its conception become iconic of the crumbling city; a structure which I have traversed numerous times in the past and always eagerly look forward to traveling upon every time I’m in the city – in fact, the massive bridge, the magnificent railway station opposite and the thoughts of availing a ferry ride through the fiercely intimidating deep waters of the river Ganga are among the highlights that keep attracting me back to the erstwhile grand capital of the country and should, I believe, be amongst the most cherished memories of it once I leave it.

The bridge and Calcutta's iconic yellow taxi cabs

The first time I happened to travel over the colossal bridge was also the first occasion I visited the spellbinding city from the small, industrially advanced yet densely vegetated suburban township called Durgapur where I’m doing my Bachelors in Technology from (though I’m on the road so often that my friends have coined a new term for me – Bachelors in Travelling!). I entered the city on a bus which passed over the bridge and awestruck by its enormity, I looked around wide-eyed, trying to squeeze my head through the window bars to glimpse a little more of the confounding visual scene of huge steel bars projecting in numerous directions all around the bus and the near perennial flow of undisturbed traffic above and the unobstructed sluggish deep green waters of the river underneath the bridge. In the parallel distance stood serenely the Vidyasagar Setu (“Setu” translates to “bridge” in Hindi/Bangla) and numerous ferries, rendered miniscule by distance and comparison to the immensity of the river and the bridges, gracefully skirted, nay barely skimmed, the water’s surface. The very same evening, my friends and I returned to witness the bridge in its striking glory when it is attractively lighted up with hundreds of incandescent bulbs as twilight settles peacefully over the vast metropolis and renders the river an inky blue trail of fierce gurgling sounds. Even in the furthest confines of one’s fanciest of dreams, one cannot gauge its enormity looking at its photographs or even travelling over it, but stand close to the superstructure and you realize what it is – the two 270-feet tall vertical towers that support its bulk seem to be rising through the clouds, the line of yellow taxis and red-green buses furiously whizzing in every possible direction appear like mere insects buzzing around its colossal frame and the beautiful Gothic-inspired railway station located adjacent, though itself unimaginably vast, appears like a small palace, its vibrant red tinged with bright yellow conflicting against the uninspiring grey-silver of the bridge. Together, contrastingly and yet somehow harmoniously, both dominate the visual and the figurative landscape, reflecting both in numerous awestruck passer-bys’ eyes and dozens of flawless poems and stories, most notably by the renowned Anglo-Indian author Rudyard Kipling, and portraying altogether the scientific and industrial superiority of the British who once dominated the country militarily, technologically and territorially.

Howrah Bridge - A testimony to human inventiveness

Technically, the iconic 27,000-tonne steel bridge, re-christened since 1965 (at least officially) as Rabindra Setu (after the Nobel-laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore) to reflect the cultural and literary heritage of Bengal, is a combination of suspension-type balanced cantilever (i.e, the central portion above the river is entirely supported upon the two massive end portions) and, as is perceptible from its overall structural design, utilizes steel beams arranged in an ordered manner to support the overall weight of vehicles and pedestrians and to balance the effect of wind and cyclones – it actually feels exhilarating to not just be able to throw around these scientific terms, but also understand them! Hey, I’m not so bad with college studies either! Statistically, the structure, proportioned 705 meters X 30 meters and currently the 6th longest cantilever bridge in the world, bears daily traffic of 100,000 vehicles and 150,000 pedestrians and is therefore the busiest bridge in the world! And surprisingly, the entire structure has been constructed without using any nuts and bolts! Presently, two other bridges – the Vidyasagar Setu and the Nivedita Setu – have been constructed so as to ease the congestion and weight load on it. Culturally, besides featuring in several poems, stories and anthologies, it has also been portrayed in several Bollywood flicks, the most recent being “Kahaani”, starring Vidya Balan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui. It is interesting to note that the bridge expands around 4.8 inches during the sweltering daytime heat and contracts almost an equal length during the cool nights. It also slightly bends when afflicted by strong winds.

Opened to vehicular traffic in 1943 (construction work began in 1937) whereby it replaced an older Pontoon one (which consists of shallow specialized boats connected together across a river with a track attached on top whereby the total weight that can be supported is limited by the buoyancy of the pontoons/boats) that was originally commissioned for 25 years but served for 69 instead, the bridge is presently monitored round the clock by surveillance cameras and police teams to prevent any vehicle or steamer/barge to cause damage to the structure because of reckless driving/shipping. Kolkata Port Trust is its custodian and regularly hires teams of contractual workers to clean it at regular intervals to prevent accumulation of water, human spit, bird droppings and any other organic/chemical materials that might corrode the metal structure. The railway station is much older – designed by British architect Halsey Ricardo and constructed in 1905, it was designated to be a change point for goods trains, but ironically, not a single goods train passes through it now as it is lined full with passenger trains throughout day and night – it also happens to be one of the busiest stations in the country in terms of trains plying across it as well as the number of passengers.

Fairytale setting - Howrah Railway station

In what can best be described in Amitav Ghosh’s aforementioned words (which too mind you can never truly capture Calcutta’s quintessential eternal essence), around the railway station exist a number of makeshift shops and hawkers lined up to sell cheap wares – combs, handkerchiefs, plastic mugs, containers, metal chains to tie luggage with in trains, faux leather belts etc; tea vendors carrying large cylindrical containers cry out for patrons while fruit sellers squat on the footpaths where they jostle for space with passer-bys and beggars. On the roadside between the bridge and the station stretches an extremely long (and unbelievably ordered, unlike the rest of the scene around) queue of yellow taxis ready to take one anywhere they wish to be on either side of the bridge. Across the road unfolds a scene mind-numbingly different and yet essentially same – here happen to be uncountable small eateries serving food that can be described as being cheap while lacking entirely in both hygiene and delectableness! Unsurprisingly, the eatery owners and waiters would quickly discontinue bang in the middle of whatever they are doing to call out to passer-bys strolling by or gazing within to eat at their shop and not at any other.

Unbelievably so, the station’s interiors, incredibly stuffed to the seams with millions of travelers, porters, vendors, police wo/men and tea sellers, appear cavernous compared even to the gargantuan exteriors. Nearly every major train running in any direction and connecting the rest of the country to its eastern sections pass through Howrah. There are three and one score platforms in total, but they always prove to be confusing for the uninitiated as they tend to start, or rather end, from a particular point as if the railway line is only limited to that particular point. In my humble opinion, the Howrah and Old Delhi stations are two of the most perplexing and frustrating railway stations I have ever encountered – and incidentally both were built by the British.

The disabled-friendly station offers food facilities, a guest house, passenger transit facilities, cloak room and a dispensary. Besides vendors peddling snacks, chains (to tie the luggage with), magazines and newspapers, there also are hundreds of shops lined along the station sides selling foods and beverages, books, newspapers and magazines and even electronic accessories like phone chargers and earphones. Notwithstanding that Calcutta itself can be unbelievably chaotic and hassled, the station seems to give fair competition to the city – as serene and fairy-tale like it appears from outside, inside it, with its heady confluence of several languages, smells and accents (at the same time intriguing and harrowing!), turns out to be implausibly strange and baffling. And the most amazing, although security-wise intimidating, aspect is that vehicles are allowed on the platforms and passengers can simply alight from their own car/taxi outside the train coach they are supposed to board and hop into the latter with their entire luggage without the conundrums of security checks and dysfunctional metal detectors.

A newspaper article highlighting the features of the three bridges on the Hooghly river

The palatial station and the humongous bridge have become a fascinating emblem not just for the city, but for the state of Bengal as well, drawing to themselves throes of awestruck onlookers and defining both for locals and visitors alike a most outstanding moment of their time in the timeless city. Oh Calcutta and thy charms unsung!

Location: Howrah
How to reach: Buses, taxis, ferries and trains ply from different parts of the city for Howrah.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 30 min
Other places of interest located nearby - 
  1. Pixelated Memories - Belur Math
  2. Pixelated Memories -Dakshineshwar Temple
Suggested reading - 
  1. - Article "Scheme to save Calcutta's Howrah Bridge from spit" (dated Nov 23, 2011) by Amitabha Bhattasali 
  2. (Official website of the bridge) 
  3. - Howrah Bridge

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