Tram Cars Of Kolkata: A Journey Through The Heart & Soul Of The City Of Joy


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It would be wrong to say that I grew up reading Ruskin Bond, but it is true that his writings and thoughts had inspired my way of thinking a lot over the years. In one of his visits tof Kolkata , a city where he had stayed for some time in his younger days he had famously commented about it as a LARGE city with the heart of a SMALL town.

In my years of growing up in Kolkata and subsequently finding my feet in the metropolis starting from education to kick starting my professional career to enjoying the favourite hangouts, I had always felt the essence of what Ruskin Bond had tried to convey but never had taken any time out to actually experience that soul of the city which was being spoken about. The actual heart that is, still needed to be experienced by me and explored with a free mind. Well to be very honest Kolkata was rich in its small and unique snippets all of which could have constituted to the unique experience but I had to choose something out of all and finally decided to zero in upon one of its famous icons.. the TRAM.

The year was 2014 and the month June. I had just satisfied a long time desire of mine of getting myself a DSLR and though I was not a photographer by any length of imagination but still decided to get a start with it at some stage in life. It was a Saturday afternoon and my office getting over by afternoon me and some of my colleagues decided to venture out on that tram ride along with the DSLR which was to be used for the first time. Some of the initial clicks have not been that great as we kept on experimenting with it and resulted in increased exposure. So excuse the novice in me.

The journey in the Tram through the Soul (and should I say lungs) of Kolkata coming up but let me upload some random pictures of the once so bustling but now almost extinct beauties of the City.

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Stay tuned for the journey to commence..
 
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An evocative piece, Chandranath! Indeed, the tram is as intrinsic to Kolkata as was "Anadi's cabin" (have I got it right?) for its moglai porotha! Unfortunately that venue went the way of all flesh and has not recovered....
I am not a dyed-in-the-wool Kolkatan, being a probashi from UP (Lucknow, Allahabad), but I spent the most nostalgic period of my life there. For 4 years (1969 to 1973) I studied at the DMET/Marine Engg. College on Taratolla Road and wallowed in the flavours of this glorious city! The flavor still lingers - so much so that today (I am 68+ now) we are the happy owners of a home in Kolkata too!
And even tho' we (the Taratolla Road merrymakers) did not have the opportunity of using the tram (the private bus or the mini bus were the choices available) during our weekend furloughs to the city (usually Esplanade when travelling with a group or to Gol Park when calling on my favourite aunt - yes in those days it was still de rigueur for junior members of the family to make regular calls on their elders), I recall the trams with great affection - for what most of my generation feels - is a lost era.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the movers and shakers of this grand old city do the needful to keep this icon alive.
 
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The Kolkata Trams as a company was registered known as the Calcutta Tramway Company in 1880 in London and had its first origins in the city as horse driven car from Sealdah and then steam locomotive driven. It was electrified later and the first electrified tram in Kolkata started plying in 1902 which makes it the oldest electrified tramways of Asia.
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My office was in Dalhousie Square and it was a lazy Saturday afternoon when we four of us stepped out on a sunny afternoon and took a leisurely walk up to Esplanade which was less than a km away. Esplanade from where we got up on a car is also deeply entrenched in the history of the tramways as this is from where the first electrified tram of Asia started its journey in March 2002. The route up to Kidderpore still exists. We took the tram with route number 24 which had its destination to Tollygunge. The reason was we were to get down in Rashbehari a few stops before Tollygunge and take another mode of transport back to my home in Gariahat. There used to be and also currently is a tram going all the way to Gariahat also but around 2014 the track was getting repaired and the trams were not operating on this section.

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It was mostly an empty car and we found our seats to be comfortable with. The trams (except for a handful ) have two cars joined together. In our school days the first car used to be the first class and marginally pricey than the second compartment which was called the second class. The difference was the first compartment had ceiling fans and the seats were placed facing the front in the direction that the tram was going.
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Esplanade was a terminal point so we needed to wait a little more than 10 minutes for the driver and conductor to arrive and take control of the car and set it rolling and quickly the noise pollution of it moving on took over and compensated for whatever air pollution it was minimising.
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The ride continues..
 
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Esplanade was not just in the history pages for being the first terminus of Electric Trams of Asia. It also holds the distinction of having India’s first Metro Station (that too underground). The Kolkata Metro inaugurated in 1984 (from Esplanade to Bhowanipore) had held on to being the only Metro in India for a long 18 years till the Delhi Metro got commissioned as the second metro line of India.

It can be said that the Kolkata Metro in a way has hastened the downfall of some very strategic routes of the Tram ways. For instance the trams used to earlier directly ply between Esplanade to Hazra without detouring via Kidderpore and Alipore. But with the start of the construction of the Metro in 1972 all the tramlines were removed in this route as the metro was to be going underneath this and the construction was based on the cut and cover method as opposed to the tunnelling system as practiced in most metros in other cities. The tram lines were removed with the promise of being reinstated after the metro work was over. But the construction went on for more than a decade and by then a new era had evolved. The era of faster communication and the metro was offering that as well as surface transport which in the absence of the tram tracks were getting the entire width of the road. So sadly the tracks never returned, the trams never came back, the promises were never honoured but except for few the City never bothered and moved on.

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Our tram also silently but “grudgingly” moved past the station..

Just across the Tram terminus lay the Govt and private long distance bus terminus. This is one of the bigger terminus for inter state and long distance buses. The buses for North Bengal like Siliguri (gateway to Darjeeling and Sikkim) originates from here. Eve a bus to Bhutan (Phuntsholing) runs daily from here. The iconic yellow Ambassador taxis could be found in plenty here as they come to drop or pick up passengers from this busy stand.

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Quite a few years back this terminus used to be famous for the Rocket buses which used to run overnight from Kolkata to Siliguri (some of them onwards to Cooch behar, Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri). These Rockets used to be very popular set of buses which usually used to run in convoys and were known for their speed and punctuality. The buses were non ac, rattling with sounds. Seats were 2*2 pushback. But they used to be immensely popular and used to command a premium over other normal buses. Red in colour with a blue beacon light on the top they used to be from the Ashok Leyland stable with the model name as Viking. Since then the Volvo and some multi axle Mercedes Benz have taken over and are more comfortable and stable at the same speeds but the aura of the red convoy of the Rocket has been lost forever.

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As the tram wriggled out of the congested bus stand area it went past the well known Dr. B.C.Roy Market popularly known as the Maidan Market. Maidan Market was set up around the 1950s mainly to give permanent settlements for pavement hawkers. A lot of cloth merchants from Bangladesh had initially set up the shops here but today it is more known as one of the largest if not the largest sports goods markets of Asia. Starting from carom boards to cricket, football, hockey, basketball gears to jerseys, shorts, swimming trunks all are available at very reasonable prices and available in bulk quanity. Kolkata is a sports loving city (specially football) and the Maidan is the epicentre of its activities. The Maidan Market hence assumes a very strategic importance due to its location.

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The tram now made its way out of all the busy and hectic life all around and was starting to enter the most idyllic of the settings the city has. Known as the lungs of the City, the Maidan is a vast stretch of open space dotted with trees and the green grass which offers a much needed greenery and breathing space in the heart of the business district and shopping centres of Kolkata. It is dotted with temporary tents of various clubs most of them being or having a link to some or the other sporting activities. The famous Kolkata trio soccer clubs East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting are also situated here and it is said that the passion of their rivalry is a matter of folkfare and unparallel even by EPL/ Serie A/ La liga standards.

We went past the tent of Kolkata Mounted Police battalion. Kolkata boasts of such an elite force from a long time. As a city police force on horses, only Chennai and now Mumbai again has such a force. State units which have it are Gujarat (the largest) and the southern states of Karnataka and Kerala. The stables of the horses are slightly off the Maidan in S.N Banerjee Road and its a force which was originally deployed to handle the city traffic too. But gradually with the increase of vehicles they are now restricted mainly to maintain the law and order around the Maidan area only and for the sports events. This force is good in covering the vast expanse of the Maidan effortlessly and also in crowd control management. The horses are so well trained that they will not harm the crowd but will intimidate them by its sheer height and meaty muscles. The horses originally used to be purchased from foreign lands but over the years they are getting acquired from the country mainly from the farmhouses of Pune and Gujarat area. Even the retired race horses from the Calcutta Turf Club are pressed into service after the necessary training.

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We now are ready to delve into the soul of the Maidan. Read on..
 
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The tram got its dedicated track over the greenery of Maidan already and sped through the small stretch of Dufferin Road and crossed the road crossing with Fort William, Red Road on one side and Outram Road on the other to get into the other longish part of the green.
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Dufferin Road was the one which connected the Maidan to the Park Street regarded as one of the most happening places of India. It has a long and impressive line up of eateries and watering holes, book shops, auction houses (now not functioning) and a lot of other things. Park street tough alive throughout the year comes particularly to life during the Christmas / New Years time. It is decked up with lights and special food stalls and bursts out in a celebration which prompted a famous Travel Magazine to say – On 31st Dec night if you are not in Goa you have to be in Park Street. The tram however earlier used to run past it but now has shifted a km away and this Road was the one leading to it from the tracks.
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As said earlier Maidan is home to a lot of Sports and recreation Clubs who serve good food starting from the basic tea and bread toast to the upstart oriental and fashionable continental dishes. Some of them have provisions of a bar too. RCGC or the Royal Calcutta Golf Club is one such tent here. It is regarded as the Oldest Golf Club (presently an 18 hole course) outside the United Kingdom. Set up in 1829 it was initially in Dum Dum the Northern most part of the town which now is the location of the International Airport of Kolkata. It shifted to the southern fringes of Golf Green around the end of that Century and was bigger than its current size but had to give out some land to the Govt. Of Bengal post the Independance of India.

RCGC original club pavilion, structure, course is far away from here but it had a tent in Maidan which served as a bowling alley which had a good restaurant and bar.
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Just past the RCGC tent stood the Patton Tank. The American built tanks used by the Pakistan Army in the 1965 and 1971 wars was said to be formidable and most advanced of its times. But they proved to be no match in front of the Indian forces and huge number of them were destroyed or captured. This is one of the captured tanks gifted to the State of West Bengal by the army which is proudly displayed in the Maidan since 1971 war. The picture and tram journey was undertaken in 2014 June and the tank was moved from here to its current location in St. George’s Gate Road near the Vidyasagar Setu (Kolkata side) in Dec 2014. The relocation was made because the tank had to be cleaned regularly of bird droppings due to their increased presence in the Maidan Area. Plus the idea was to create a war memorial in the St. George’s area with contribution of exhibit items from the Navy and Air force too.
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The Kolkata skyline never boasted of tall skyscrapers like Mumbai. Though it had its fair share of 10 to 15 storey buildings it never had too many structures reaching out to the sky. For long the Chatterjee International (the structure in blue) had the distinction of being the tallest Calcutta structure at 24 floors at almost 300 feet. The Metro Railway Bhavan can also be seen alongside jostling for some space in the sky.
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The TATA Centre has been a landmark building also lined up along Chowringhee Road with Chatterjee International slightly down south. This is the seat of the Tata s in East and houses offices of their various divisions. Built in 1957 it is an 18 storeyd structure at about 260 feet and was the tallest building in Calcutta till the Chatterjee International came up in 1976. Of course today the 65 floor building called “42” stands just beside the Tata Centre and changed this skyline view from the Tram Track forever.

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The contrasting lifestyles are the most evident which came to my imagination as the tram gently made its way through. The buildings in the back ground were all commercial establishments housing their offices and represented the daily busy life where one struggles to cope up with the grind. Whereas the Maidan in the foreground with all its greenery, vastness and openness is the symbol of that much needed respite from the daily mundane.
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Tried to sneak peek through the Pilot’s cabin even as the rest of the passengers had quietly settled down and enjoying the greenery all around.
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The track which lay ahead appeared to be coming straight out of the woods like a haunted path. The trams were coming from the opposite direction.
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While on one side was the laid back Maidan the other side was the 6 lane busy road connecting Southern part of Kolkata and also the Salt Lake/ New Town with the business district of Kolkata called Dalhousie Square. But even these busy roads were not without the share of entertainment. These horse driven carriages are extremely popular out here and many a weekend revellers were enjoying the ride getting in the fresh oxygen.
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Some livestock were also making their way probably to New Market near Esplanade area supposedly the only market in India where it is said everything is available under one roof.

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Very nostalgia evoking, Chandranath! Specially the shots of the tram meandering through the soothing greens of Kolkata - takes us to a different world in the midst of this lockdown I must say!
 
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Very nostalgia evoking, Chandranath! Specially the shots of the tram meandering through the soothing greens of Kolkata - takes us to a different world in the midst of this lockdown I must say!
Thanks for your kind appreciations. Good to know your nostalgia for the Kolkata trams.

Yes Anadi still exists and I do like the Mughlai Parantha from there though a lot of people have the habit of saying it has lost its past glory.

Please read on as the tram will take you past Kidderpore and Diamond Harbour Road. [:)]
 
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Anadi Cabin still there? That's terrific news - in between during the last 15 years or so I had been to Esplanade (the Lighthouse Cinema lane specifically where it used to be located) to check out Anadi Cabin and was disappointed to see it missing. Its certainly good news that its alive & kicking - where is the present location?

Will follow the thread - lead on!
 
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Anadi Cabin still there? That's terrific news - in between during the last 15 years or so I had been to Esplanade (the Lighthouse Cinema lane specifically where it used to be located) to check out Anadi Cabin and was disappointed to see it missing. Its certainly good news that its alive & kicking - where is the present location?

Will follow the thread - lead on!
Anadi Cabin right now is in S.N. Banerjee Road. If you enter S.N. Banerjee Road from Esplanade/ Shahid Minar area going towards Elite Cinema Hall then it will be immediately to your right.

I never knew it was in Lighthouse Cinema road. I have been having here for last 10 - 15 years it was always here. Prior to that I don't know.
 
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Thanks Chandranath,
Must be my mistake - I must have meant Elite and hazy memories have juxtaposed Lighthouse instead! But one thing is certain - that in-between for several years, Anadi Cabin was shut down and we (a few friends and I) returned disappointed more than once!
 
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Thanks Chandranath,
Must be my mistake - I must have meant Elite and hazy memories have juxtaposed Lighthouse instead! But one thing is certain - that in-between for several years, Anadi Cabin was shut down and we (a few friends and I) returned disappointed more than once!
Yes I also checked and got the information that it was closed for sometime. But fortunately for me every time I went found it open.
 
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The horse driven carriages are available in many cities across the country including some smaller towns. Some are for joy ride some double up as a commuter. But rarely do you find somewhere the carriages as celebrated as the ones one find in Kolkata. While all are decorated to the full and offer you that dreamy sequence it is said that one of them has an air conditioned fitted into it also. The touch of modern amenity blended with the ancient flavour.

The history of the horse driven cars go back to the British era when the Royals were known to be owning and using the decorated stuff powered by the most powerful of the horses. It used to be a fashion statement even after the motor vehicles started appearing on the roads. The famous Zamindars (Babus) of Bengal were no less and they too had their own such carriages stacked up in the Zamindar houses. The famous periodical story called “Saheb Bibi Gulam” (famous Hindi and Bengali movie was made from here starring some greats as Uttam Kumar, Guru Dutt, Meena Kumari and Chabi Biswas) of celebrated author Bimal Mitra has very generous references to these carriages (termed as Landau) being used by the Babus of the generation. It represented a very vibrant history of Bengal and British India. Today it is still carefully preserved somewhat in the Maidan area.

As the Tram car sped through the greens the horse carriage pulled alongside and it was an un announced race to out run each other in the fast paced city of Kolkata. Not that the vehicular traffic busy commuting from one place to the other was particularly bothered about this small race going on but between the tram and the carriage it was the fight to still stay relevant in the city. It was of no consequence as to who out ran each other but the point was of being treasured in the heart of a city willing to be caring of its past even on the face of rapid modernisation.
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A few 100 meters ahead the tram took a stop for few passengers to alight and we took the chance of jumping out and run 30 meters to get a grand view of the Victoria Memorial. The view from the tram was sort of getting obstructed and hence this adventure of hopping out and in for 30 seconds even as the conductor and more importantly the very few passengers waited patiently.
The Victoria Memorial which is easily one of the most recognised landmarks with which Kolkata is identified was built between 1906 to 1921 in memory of the then Empress of India Queen Victoria. It is constructed with full marble and when was started Calcutta was the capital of British India but when it got completed the Capital had already shifted to Delhi. Today it stands as a museum and a symbol of a grand architecture from the Colonial India.
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It was a Saturday afternoon and tourists were making their way to the Memorial and so were the numerous food vendors.
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The tram tracks do not run exactly past the Memorial but from a distance. This is the road which directly connects both..
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As the tram deviated on its way towards Kidderpore the Victoria started moving away in a distance and only appeared beyond the fence of what is another Royal Club of Calcutta called the Royal Calcutta Turf Club (RCTC).
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Set up as early as in 1847 it was a premier horse racing organisation in India and was the Governing body of almost all the courses in the sub continent at one point of time. During its glory days its races used to be one of the most sought after and prestigious social event. Even today specially during New Years time the place becomes alive with activity.
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The race course today has three viewing galleries with the main pavilion itself having three tiers. Except for the members stand the other stands are open to public against a ticket. Luckily as the tram sped past one of its field / maintenance gates we found it open and that allowed us a good glimpse of the pavilion which did appear Royal enough.
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The tram car was now ready to leave the greens of the Maidan and once again rejoin the chaos of Kolkata..
 
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Thanks Chandranath,
Must be my mistake - I must have meant Elite and hazy memories have juxtaposed Lighthouse instead! But one thing is certain - that in-between for several years, Anadi Cabin was shut down and we (a few friends and I) returned disappointed more than once!
Hi, clarified with some old timers. Anadi indeed never was in Lighthouse cinema road (main side being Humayun Place and the back side being Lindsay Street). It always was in S.N. Banerjee Road. Their seems to be another similar sort of eating joint called Anarkali which too still exists in that area.
 
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Even as the tram was running past the last stretches of the Maidan we came across this solitary horse mindlessly grazing itself. Whether it was retired from the race course having seen its glory days (unlikely) or was one of the horses of the horse carriages was not known. But from the frailness of its physic it was clearly in the autumn of his career and quietly enjoying the pace of its life now.
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The tram hit the road again and was immediately greeted with some chaotic traffic.
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The many arms of the approach fly over of the Vidiyasagar Setu (2nd Hooghli Bridge over the river Ganga) came up and the tram needed to negotiate through its various arches. The Setu (Bridge) connecting Kolkata to the twin city of Howrah was open for the Public in 1992 and took almost 22 years to complete. Today is has the distinction of being the longest cable stayed bridge in India and handles more than 60,000 vehicles a day. But the tram was not going to cross its path with it. Instead the Tram would be going under and alongside some of its many approach bridges. When the bridge was constructed to facilitate smooth flow of traffic at both ends a maze of flyovers from all directions were built crisscrossing each other like a maze and if one is not on the right lane one would take at least half an hour to get back into the right one.

Even as the tram was passing through the pillars we could see a whole civilisation having been sheltered under the sprawling length of the bridges. It was ironical that the fast moving traffic zooming over the bridge on the smooth road had little idea of the struggle which existed just below the tarmac. How man and animal were coexisting maybe with a lot of fight but surely with a smile. The dark contrasts of a metropolis.
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The tram now was ready to roll into the belts of Kidderpore and Ekbalpore area which has its own small history of being the bastion of the last Nawab of Awadh (Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh).

Read on..
 
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