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Gambhiri-River-Bridge

Chittaurgarh’s 700-year-old bridge

For at least a thousand years, people have been building large structures out of stone in northwestern India. The modern Indian state of Rajasthan is full of the remains of these monuments. Most of the monuments—fortresses, palaces, tombs, cenotaphs, and the like—have no real use anymore, except maybe as tourist attractions. There are plenty of pre-modern temples still in use, although many of them have been altered beyond recognition over centuries of use. And then there are some pieces of infrastructure that, with proper maintenance, still serve their original function hundreds of years after they were built.

One example is a bridge over the Gambhiri River in the town of Chittaurgarh in southern Rajasthan. The bridge is located on the main road into town. It is built entirely of stone, with nine slightly-pointed arches and one semicircular arch. (The river flows through eight of the arches, while the remaining two are on the shore. There are also two additional arches on each side of the bridge, but these are made in a different style and seem to have been added later.) The piers founded in the river have triangular projections on the upstream side, to help the river water, and any debris that might be floating in it, flow smoothly around the bridge.

The Rajasthan state Department of Archaeology and Museums has set up a Hindi interpretive plaque on the western side of the bridge. According to the plaque, the bridge was built early in the fourteenth century by Khijra Khan, after his father Alauddin Khilji captured Chittaurgarh in 1303. The bridge is built partly of stone blocks appropriated from other buildings. Inscriptions of Tej Singh and Samar Singh, two late-thirteenth-century rulers of Mewar, are still visible on the bridge. There are also some surviving architectural flourishes from the original structures, including designs of flowers and leaves. (None of this is visible to the casual observer from the shore, but I trust that the state archeologists know where to look.)

The Gambhiri River Bridge has been modified a little over the past seven hundred years. Although it was designed for horses and carts, it is strong enough to support motor vehicles. In modern times, a three-foot railing was added to the side of the bridge; when this proved inadequate for whatever reason, an eight-foot fence was also added. The bridge also carries several pipelines and some cables. Just downstream, a newer bridge has been built for eastbound traffic. The medieval bridge now just carries westbound traffic away from Chittaurgarh.

For readers who aren’t familiar with Chittaurgarh: The place is famous for the fortress by that name, a massive structure stretching five kilometers along the top of a ridge. The fortress was defensible, thanks to its position, but it was also a highly sought-after strategic prize, and it was captured and re-captured several times throughout its long history. Emperor Akbar won the fort for the Mughal Empire in a long and bloody siege in 1567-68. The fortress is now maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India, although it is so huge that inhabited villages exist within the walls alongside the historical monuments. Architectural highlights inside the fort include the Vijay Stambh (Tower of Victory, 1457-68), Kumbha Shyam Mandir (magnificent Nagara-style temple), Mira Bai Mandir, and Gaumukh Kund (rainwater storage tank).

Scootermobility

Media in the car-saturated West—especially in the USA—have watched with some hand-wringing as the middle classes of large Asian countries such as China and India have increasingly been buying cars. At least in India, though, cars have so far failed to catch on to the extent that they did a century ago in the USA. What have caught on are two-wheelers: motorcycles and motor scooters. The profusion of two-wheelers in India hasn’t attracted much attention in the West, but I believe it has had a bigger influence in making India the country it is today.

Seven years ago, I spent my first sojourn in India at a school in the rural East Garo Hills district of Meghalaya. All of the teachers lived in the campus compound. Out of twenty-off families, only two had any sort of personal mechanized transportation: the principal had a car (a Maruti 800), and one of the teachers had a Bajaj motor scooter. Everybody else got around by walking, catching buses on the other side of the river, piling into the school sumo when it went to market, or bumming rides from the one teacher with a scooter.

Five years later, when I went back to Meghalaya to visit, there was only one family that didn’t have a scooter or motorcycle, and the others were asking when they would get one too. One of the teachers who now rode everywhere on his motorcycle spoke wistfully of the old days when everybody used to walk all the time.

In the early years of the twentieth century, when Americans first started buying cars in large numbers, optimistic car advocates claimed that automobility would usher in a new democratic age, when citizens could drive wherever they pleased, free from the tyranny of the railroads. Although cars did lead to new dependencies—on oil companies, tire companies, and of course the auto manufacturers themselves—cars did allow Americans to be more mobile than ever before.

Something similar is happening in India, except more with scooters and motorcycles than with cars. Thanks to scootermobility, residents of both city and country can go more places with more ease than ever before. Whole families pile onto single bikes to go on picnics. Teenagers and twenty-somethings escape the parental gaze to hang out in waste areas or old ruins on the edge of town.

Alongside the perks, scooters and motorcycles also come with many of the same pitfalls as cars, such as polluted skies and people who never walk anywhere anymore. There are also three shortcomings that aren’t shared by cars, which should give the builders of 21st-century India pause. The first is minimal safety protections. Motorcycles can go as fast as cars, but they have no room for crumple zones or roll bars. A seatbelt on a motorcycle would not do anyone any good. Second, two-wheelers have the loudest, shrillest horns of any vehicles. On any given day, they do more to create urban India’s noise pollution problem than anything else. And third, two-wheelers can insinuate themselves into places that cars could never go, thus endangering pedestrians and generally trampling cities in new ways. The pleasant pedestrian promenade at Connaught Place in New Delhi becomes not so pleasant when you constantly have to worry about getting run over by a scooter.

The cycle-taxis of Syonan

On a recent trip to Singapore and Malaysia to attend the Society for the History of Technology’s first meeting in Asia, I came across a curious example of local technology, the trishaw. At first glance, trishaws looked like cycle rickshaws, common in India, but on closer inspection they turned out to be an ordinary bicycle with a sidecar clamped to one side.

The trishaws I saw were not regular taxis. Instead, like the pedicabs of New York City, they offered joy rides to tourists. In Singapore, I only saw a few forlorn trishaws parked opposite the Raffles Hotel, but in Malacca (Melaka) there were flocks of them congregating around the historic Dutch Square. The Singaporean trishaws were mostly unornamented, but the Malaccan ones were decked out elaborately. Most of the decorations featured children’s movie or TV characters, such as Doraemon, Minions, or the main characters of Frozen.

The history of trishaws in Southeast Asia began more than seventy years ago. According to C.M. Turnbull’s History of Singapore (Oxford, 1977), trishaws originated in World War II during the Japanese occupation of Syonan (“Light of the South,” the name given to Singapore by the Japanese). Singapore, an island state with few natural resources, had long been economically oriented toward the west. The Japanese occupation cut off Singapore’s western trade links, leading to severe resource shortages. Some enterprising Singaporeans found ways to create domestic import substitutes, such as banana-fiber ropes and bamboo paper. Trishaws were another such improvisation. Not only could they be readily adapted from existing bicycles, they also did not consume any gasoline, another scarce wartime commodity. After the end of the war, Singapore’s economy recovered, but trishaws continued to be used into the 1970s. More recently, they have made a comeback for tourists.

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