What's the deal with Hand Pulled Rickshaws of Kolkata? - A sad as well as exciting parts of this stunning experience from West Bengal State of India

When I saw these hand pulled rickshaws in Kolkata city, I was not comfortable with the thought of sitting on this rickshaw which would be pulled by a human being. But later I realized that my thought is just doing loss to their business. These folks are happy doing this work and we should appreciate that. These Hand pulled Rickshaws definitely make Kolkata different from other cities of India. Finally I took a ride and it was worth an experience. It's bit costly as compared to other mode of commuting in Kolkata, but it's not fair to compare. This experience made me read more about these hand pulled Rickshaws of Kolkata and that's when I realised how complicated it is in terms of origin of these rickshaws, how Britishers started using them for status and then gradually it became part of India society. And these days, there are different theories behind their existence in Kolkata city of West Bengal.   Since the end of the 19th century, hand-pulled rickshaws have been running on the streets of Kolkata city of India. These hand pulled rickshaws of Kolkata have seen city evolve on various fronts like social, economic & political way. In the post-independence era of India, the hand-pulled rickshaws were introduced by the British to show their authority and establish their supremacy over the poor Indians. Lot of folks from Bihar and Odisha used to run these hand pulled rickshaws in Kolkata city and even today lot of these rickshaw owners are from Bihar state of India. Immigrants from Bangladesh have also entered into it to make money in a different city/country.   The British were the dominant in Asia and the usage of a humans to pull another human definitely served their purpose of reinforcing the master-slave power hierarchy. Post World War II, colonialism declined in Asia and the hand-pulled rickshaw faded out of use from British colonies. Strangely, the legacy of rickshaws continued in Calcutta long after the British Empire was gone and long after the communist government in China banned (1949) the use of rickshaws.

When I saw these hand pulled rickshaws in Kolkata city, I was not comfortable with the thought of sitting on this rickshaw which would be pulled by a human being. But later I realized that my thought is just doing loss to their business. These folks are happy doing this work and we should appreciate that. These Hand pulled Rickshaws definitely make Kolkata different from other cities of India. Finally I took a ride and it was worth an experience. It's bit costly as compared to other mode of commuting in Kolkata, but it's not fair to compare. This experience made me read more about these hand pulled Rickshaws of Kolkata and that's when I realised how complicated it is in terms of origin of these rickshaws, how Britishers started using them for status and then gradually it became part of India society. And these days, there are different theories behind their existence in Kolkata city of West Bengal. 

Since the end of the 19th century, hand-pulled rickshaws have been running on the streets of Kolkata city of India. These hand pulled rickshaws of Kolkata have seen city evolve on various fronts like social, economic & political way. In the post-independence era of India, the hand-pulled rickshaws were introduced by the British to show their authority and establish their supremacy over the poor Indians. Lot of folks from Bihar and Odisha used to run these hand pulled rickshaws in Kolkata city and even today lot of these rickshaw owners are from Bihar state of India. Immigrants from Bangladesh have also entered into it to make money in a different city/country. 

The British were the dominant in Asia and the usage of a humans to pull another human definitely served their purpose of reinforcing the master-slave power hierarchy. Post World War II, colonialism declined in Asia and the hand-pulled rickshaw faded out of use from British colonies. Strangely, the legacy of rickshaws continued in Calcutta long after the British Empire was gone and long after the communist government in China banned (1949) the use of rickshaws. 

Shimla was the summer capital for East India Company in British India & Britishers has introduced rickshaws there, which were iron vehicles. These Rickshaws were so heavy that four men were required to pull it in those hilly terrains of Himachal Pradesh. This medium of local transportation used to be favourite of the British ladies in India.  Later on wooden version of the Japanese rickshaw came to Calcutta city, which used to be capital of British India during that time. That was the time when city’s rich families and zamindars (landlords) used to ride in palanquins, which used to be managed by 4 people. These  palanquins were also a symbol of the elite’s socio-economic status. Soon after that hand-pulled rickshaws became popular amongst middle class as palanquins were still for the rich.  The East India Company was deeply involved in facilitating the opium trade with China and Calcutta already had a significant Chinese population, who arrived in Calcutta throughout the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century from British colonies like Canton, Shanghai, Hong Kong and they introduced the rickshaw to Calcutta. The hand-pulled rickshaw had already been introduced a couple of decades earlier in Shimla.

Shimla was the summer capital for East India Company in British India & Britishers has introduced rickshaws there, which were iron vehicles. These Rickshaws were so heavy that four men were required to pull it in those hilly terrains of Himachal Pradesh. This medium of local transportation used to be favourite of the British ladies in India.

Later on wooden version of the Japanese rickshaw came to Calcutta city, which used to be capital of British India during that time. That was the time when city’s rich families and zamindars (landlords) used to ride in palanquins, which used to be managed by 4 people. These  palanquins were also a symbol of the elite’s socio-economic status. Soon after that hand-pulled rickshaws became popular amongst middle class as palanquins were still for the rich.

The East India Company was deeply involved in facilitating the opium trade with China and Calcutta already had a significant Chinese population, who arrived in Calcutta throughout the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century from British colonies like Canton, Shanghai, Hong Kong and they introduced the rickshaw to Calcutta. The hand-pulled rickshaw had already been introduced a couple of decades earlier in Shimla.

In Kolkata, a rickshaw start early in the morning at around 5am and then ends by late in the evening. That thought make me wonder how tired these people would be by end of the day. On positive note, probably their bodies are much stronger and they are physically fit in comparison to some of us who sit for long hours in offices. Even those morning runs and gym may not make us as stronger as these rickshaw pullers are. I have seen many of them running these rickshaws bare feet, although I don't know the reason for that. These rickshaws deliver goods from one place to the other, carry children to schools and take them back to homes, and carry women to nearby local markets. After a short rest in the afternoon, these rickshaws continue running on the streets and lanes of north/central Kolkata till late evening.  Hand-pulled rickshaws of West Bengal are mentioned in various literary books and featured in films of different languages. When you see them for the first time in front of your eyes, you wonder why do we need this transportation system in 21st sanctuary and I don't understand those reasons because of which these hand pulled rickshaws are still operational.

In Kolkata, a rickshaw start early in the morning at around 5am and then ends by late in the evening. That thought make me wonder how tired these people would be by end of the day. On positive note, probably their bodies are much stronger and they are physically fit in comparison to some of us who sit for long hours in offices. Even those morning runs and gym may not make us as stronger as these rickshaw pullers are. I have seen many of them running these rickshaws bare feet, although I don't know the reason for that. These rickshaws deliver goods from one place to the other, carry children to schools and take them back to homes, and carry women to nearby local markets. After a short rest in the afternoon, these rickshaws continue running on the streets and lanes of north/central Kolkata till late evening.

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Hand-pulled rickshaws of West Bengal are mentioned in various literary books and featured in films of different languages. When you see them for the first time in front of your eyes, you wonder why do we need this transportation system in 21st sanctuary and I don't understand those reasons because of which these hand pulled rickshaws are still operational. 

Tourists from other countries identify Kolkata City with the Victoria Memorial, the Howrah Bridge, Yellow Taxis, Trams and these hand-pulled rickshaws. Lot of tourists and even locals regard it as a cultural icon of the city. What do you think about that argument?   If you are in Kolkata, a ride in hand pulled rickshaws is must and if you feel for these rickshaw pullers, pay them extra. I was not able to decide if I should get on to these rickshaws and ask folks to pull. Somehow I felt bad by having this thought, but finally planned to have a ride. At last, they are into this business and avoiding a ride will only hit their business. But are you thinking about reverse thought? - would that encourage these hand pulled Rickshaws? Let folks involved in this profession make their choice.

Tourists from other countries identify Kolkata City with the Victoria Memorial, the Howrah Bridge, Yellow Taxis, Trams and these hand-pulled rickshaws. Lot of tourists and even locals regard it as a cultural icon of the city. What do you think about that argument? 

If you are in Kolkata, a ride in hand pulled rickshaws is must and if you feel for these rickshaw pullers, pay them extra. I was not able to decide if I should get on to these rickshaws and ask folks to pull. Somehow I felt bad by having this thought, but finally planned to have a ride. At last, they are into this business and avoiding a ride will only hit their business. But are you thinking about reverse thought? - would that encourage these hand pulled Rickshaws? Let folks involved in this profession make their choice.  

During our trip to Kolkata, we saw these rickshaws everywhere and they look very interesting. At times, I felt like holding one of them and dragging in the streets.

During our trip to Kolkata, we saw these rickshaws everywhere and they look very interesting. At times, I felt like holding one of them and dragging in the streets. 

Throughout my trip I was wondering that why these folks are still running these rickshaws and why don't they migrate to cycle rickshaws. And as per commute cost in Kolkata, these rickshaws are expensive. So I was wondering how many people use these rickshaws. But most of them seemed busy. At places, we also noticed cycle rickshaws which can be a tough competition for these hand pulled rickshaws.   The hand-pulled rickshaw was invented in Japan in 1869 and was introduced in China by 1874. The following decades witnessed a boom of hand-pulled rickshaws in Japan, China, Singapore, India, Indonesia and Malaysia. They served as cheap means of transportation and provided employment to millions of poor working-class families living in cities.

Throughout my trip I was wondering that why these folks are still running these rickshaws and why don't they migrate to cycle rickshaws. And as per commute cost in Kolkata, these rickshaws are expensive. So I was wondering how many people use these rickshaws. But most of them seemed busy. At places, we also noticed cycle rickshaws which can be a tough competition for these hand pulled rickshaws. 

The hand-pulled rickshaw was invented in Japan in 1869 and was introduced in China by 1874. The following decades witnessed a boom of hand-pulled rickshaws in Japan, China, Singapore, India, Indonesia and Malaysia. They served as cheap means of transportation and provided employment to millions of poor working-class families living in cities. 

After coming back from Kolkata, I tried to search more about hand pulled Rickshaws and it seems that hand pulled rickshaws were invented in Japan and then adopted by most of the other countries in Asia.   There are another disturbing things for me. There were many of the rickshaw pullers were bare feet. I don't know the reason, but it must be difficult especially in summers.

After coming back from Kolkata, I tried to search more about hand pulled Rickshaws and it seems that hand pulled rickshaws were invented in Japan and then adopted by most of the other countries in Asia. 

There are another disturbing things for me. There were many of the rickshaw pullers were bare feet. I don't know the reason, but it must be difficult especially in summers. 

When we spent more time around the city, we realised that rickshaw pullers have good business in the city and since the charges are also high, they must be making reasonably good money on daily basis. We had less than 2-3 minutes ride for 30 rs, although I am sure that mathematics would not be as simple :).

When we spent more time around the city, we realised that rickshaw pullers have good business in the city and since the charges are also high, they must be making reasonably good money on daily basis. We had less than 2-3 minutes ride for 30 rs, although I am sure that mathematics would not be as simple :).

These hand pulled rickshaws can be seen narrow streets  as well as wider roads around North & South Kolkata.

These hand pulled rickshaws can be seen narrow streets  as well as wider roads around North & South Kolkata.

At various moments, especially during elections, lot of discussions happen about removing these Hand pulled rickshaws from roads and replace them with Electric rickshaws. Some of the parities promised it in the past but nothing significant was implemented. Let's see how it goes in future. But if you are in town and these rickshaws are operating, take a ride, pay some tip and experience something which may become history soon.


At various moments, especially during elections, lot of discussions happen about removing these Hand pulled rickshaws from roads and replace them with Electric rickshaws. Some of the parities promised it in the past but nothing significant was implemented. Let's see how it goes in future. But if you are in town and these rickshaws are operating, take a ride, pay some tip and experience something which may become history soon. 

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Comments

Sunita Sriram said…
It is indeed sad that we still have animal and man drawn carts, even.the palanquin still exists in many temples such as Sabarimala temple where men carry pilgrims who cannot do the arduous climb!
It is disheartening to see people earn a living this way in the 21st century!

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