The tonga, a horse-driven carriage, is more than a means of transport. It is the torch bearer of our rich cultural heritage. It is now extinct and obsolete due to modern transport and the massive use of motor cars by people. We fear that our coming generations may not know much about tongas and that knowledge may be restricted to books only. The tonga stands, which were once abuzz, are now occupied by autos and Sumos.
The tonga was once owned by the elite and royalty of society, as a luxurious mode of transport. The general public also used it, in a less luxurious form, as a means of transport mainly plying along the Jhelum valley cart road and the Banihal cart road, where their caravans going in a row were a sight worth seeing. These caravans were run by a particular community called “Markabans”. Tonga was part of social life, whether in merriment or sorrow/ crisis. A marriage party was incomplete without the bridegroom coming on a decorated tonga to fetch his bride. Same was the case with all other social functions, when people derived much pleasure and fun out of this enjoyable ride. It being absolutely pollution free had a spiritual and exalted feel attached to it.
The tonga has now left our roads and lanes, but it did reach Bollywood. It was a much sought-after entourage for any film shot in Kashmir and the scenes filmed on tongas were a necessity for being a box office hit. Great film personalities would visit the narrow lanes of Zaina Kadal, which were once famous for tongas, beseech the small-time tongawallas to rent out their tongas against hefty sums. Tongawallas earned quite a buck by renting out their tongas for film shootings, as also for social functions and marriages.
A joyride on the tonga is a wonderful experience. Riding a colourful, well-decorated tonga, one experiences a sense of royalty. The sense of being driven by a well-groomed magnificent horse with a crown-like flower on its head, the sound of bells, and the environs which its interior provides to the passenger, is unmatched by anything else. Thoughts of Rajas and Maharajas riding on tongas flash in the mind, and make one nostalgic. While driving the tonga, the tongawalla at times sings some popular ghazal and the rhythmic galloping of the horse accompanied by sound of bells attached to the neck and head of the horse provides the music for his ghazal and the ecstasy for our ears. The horse being familiar with the route and being intelligent enough to follow the pattern of his run, the driver needs little effort to control him. With the galloping of the tonga, a cool breeze ruffling our loose clothes and the hair on our heads is a joy to remember.
Our history is replete with events when the tonga has rendered yeoman’s service during periods of crisis like wars, disturbances and natural calamities. The horse, which plays a pivotal role in the running of the tonga, should be of good breed. It needs proper feed and fodder and necessary veterinary check-up, even when not at work. The trade of horses was a profitable one and the people connected with this business were known as Markaban and Galwan. The horse also provided manure and biogas in the shape of dung and urine. It could work in the sun, rain, and in rough road conditions.
The dirty mess created by the horse in residential areas and on roads was cited as its main demerit, for which it is being written off from our cultural milieu. However, viable solutions can be found for overcoming such demerits so that this precious cultural heritage is saved from extinction and preserved for posterity. When not at work, the horse can be unshackled at the forelegs and let out to fend for itself in pastures and open fields.
There are many other professions and trades which are connected with the tonga business. Metallic horse-shoes are fabricated to protect the horse hoof from wear and tear. The horse shoes are attached to the bottom of the hooves. This handicraft still provides livelihood to a chunk of the population. One large mohalla in Srinagar is named after this handicraft, called “Nalbandpora”, naal meaning horseshoe.
Yet another wonderful trade connected with the tonga is its wheel fabrication. It is made of several spikes or wooden rods put diagonally. An iron rim, equal in length to the circular wheel, is heated for about 600 degree C, put on its circumference, and then cooled by pouring water on it. This ensures a strong grip of the rim on the wheel to give it strength. People connected with this craft earn their livelihood from it.
The main body of the tonga consists of one front seat and one rear seat, separated by a common cushion. The driver of the tonga usually occupies the front seat while the passengers reach the seat from the rear. footholds (paidaan) are also provided to facilitate easy ascent and descent and these form an essential apparatus of the tonga. Standing on these footsteps while the tonga runs is itself a joy. Some space is available below the carriage between the wheels. This space is often used to carry hay for the horse. A pair of parallel horizontal shafts (poles), one along each side of the horse, balance the load and are supported by the saddle on the horse. They are then further attached to an axle and yoke. To allow the rider to control the horse, long reins made of raw hide are provided. The tongawalla held also a long and thin wooden rod in his hands. The other end of this rod had strings attached to it. This was called Chhanta or Kamcha. This would make the horse gallop and also served as a horn when the running wheels were touched by it. The tonga had a canopy on top of it.
The tonga has a unique feature: the horse pulls in the forward direction while the passenger seated at the back faces the opposite direction. The tongawalla once called a passenger on the roadside and told him not to have a ride on a rickshaw as it was pulled by a man, which undermined the dignity of man. He should, instead, ride the tonga, which is a royal conveyance of Rajas and Maharajas and is driven by majestic and decorated horses, and so on and so forth. To this the rickshaw walla retorted that riding on the tonga was uncivilised as the face of the horse was in the forward direction while that of the passenger was in the backward direction. This, he said, was a humiliating posture in which the passenger was forced to sit. He asked the passenger to come and ride his rickshaw instead. The taunts between the tongawalla and the rickshaw walla continued for some time and the poor passenger was in a fix, unable to decide which mode to take as his ride. He finally boarded the tonga. And away galloped the tonga with the song of the tongawallah.
It is well said, “A Tonga is poetry in motion”.
The writer is a retired telecom engineer. [email protected]