UPON arriving in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, a visitor immediately notices something different. Amid the sea of people is an army of cycle rickshaws! Endless streams of these conveyances flood the streets and alleys, carrying people and goods.
In Dhaka, the rickshaw remains a popular means of transportation. While the number of registered rickshaws is about 80,000, most feel that there are many more than that number on the roads every day. In fact, Dhaka has been dubbed the rickshaw capital of the world!
While earlier versions of a mobile chair were in use during the reign of Louis XIV of France (1638-1715), the invention of the original human-drawn rickshaw is sometimes credited to Jonathan Gable, an American missionary in Japan in the 1870’s. It is said that he designed an innovative vehicle for his frail wife and that it was the first one called in Japanese jinrikisha, meaning a vehicle pulled by human power. The word eventually developed into “rickshaw” in English. Over time, various styles of rickshaws became prevalent throughout Asia as an inexpensive means of transport. When Charles Taze Russell (right), who took a zealous lead in the work of the Bible Students (as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then called), visited Japan in 1912, his delegation used rickshaws in their travel within the country.
In Dhaka, three-wheeled rickshaws made their debut in the late 1930’s. Unlike the rickshaw drawn by a man using two poles attached to the body of the vehicle, these looked similar to a big tricycle. The rickshaw wallah, or driver, pedaled the cycle at the front of the rickshaw. This allowed him to take his passengers or cargo farther, steering more easily through bustling traffic and congested roads.
The rickshaws in Dhaka appear to have every square inch covered with decorations. Where did the tradition of decorating rickshaws come from? When rickshaws first appeared in Dhaka, they had to compete with tomtoms, horse-drawn wagons that carted passengers and goods. Perhaps to lure customers to the new means of transport, rickshaw owners began decorating their vehicles. The paintings and advertisements were eventually turned into distinctive art.
The overall effect of rickshaw art is spectacular. This is art on wheels. In fact, Syed Manzoorul Islam, a Bangladeshi art critic, describes rickshaws in Dhaka as “moving picture galleries.” Every possible surface of the vehicle is decorated with colorful designs, pictures, and patterns. Twirling tassels, tinsel, and shiny beads hang from its sides or on its folding canopy.
Individual artists have their own styles and favorite subjects. Some artwork looks more or less like a billboard, with scenes from the Indian and Bangladeshi cinema, past and present. The art reflects nostalgia for village life and rural landscapes and, at times, social and political issues. Animals, birds, hunting, and lush country scenes are common themes.
In the 1950’s, only a handful of rickshaw painters existed. Today, between 200 and 300 artisans produce these unique pieces of art. The rickshaws are assembled piece by piece in specialized workshops, with parts often made from recycled materials. For example, taking a piece of tin cut from a drum of cooking oil or some other discarded item, the artist uses enamel paint to create a spectacular scene in full color. Rickshaw art is the folk art of Bangladesh. It has assumed an identity and a charm all its own.
The Rickshaw Driver
As you can well understand, the rickshaw driver leads a strenuous life. Imagine spending your whole day cycling with heavy loads of people or goods. The customers may include housewives, schoolchildren, businessmen, or shoppers with packages. Often, two, three, or more individuals are crowded onto a rickshaw. The rickshaw may also be used to carry sacks of rice, potatoes, onions, or spices for a merchant to sell at the market. Sometimes a passenger will be perched high up on top of his mound of possessions. To a bystander, it may appear impossible for a driver to pull such heavy loads. Yet, in the heat of the sun or in the rains of the monsoon, the humble rickshaw driver is hard at work without complaint.
The majority of drivers have come to the city from poor rural areas where they are unable to eke out a living as farmers. Not able to find higher-paying jobs, many leave their family behind to become rickshaw wallahs. Using their physical strength and energy, they may earn the equivalent of a few dollars (U.S.) each day.
A Unique Means of Transportation
Rickshaws continue to flourish in Dhaka because of the flat terrain and countless alleys and lanes that defy other forms of public transportation. Many people consider this nonpolluting mode of travel to be both beneficial and enjoyable.
In most Asian cities, rickshaws have become an “endangered species.” There, the desire for mass transportation and a modern lifestyle has made the rickshaw almost obsolete. However, while many people may view them as out-of-date, there is an effort to preserve the rickshaw through improved designs.
When traveling in Dhaka, you may choose from many forms of public transportation—bus, taxi, motorbike, auto rickshaw, or the colorful cycle rickshaw. But you will never forget it if you experience a leisurely ride through the crowded streets of Dhaka on a cycle rickshaw!
[Full-page picture on page 23]