One of the things that sets Kolkata apart from other Indian metros is the existence of trams. It is one of the handful of cities left in the world that still has a network of tramways criss-crossing the city. On a Sunday morning, with mild winter chill still hovering in the air, a group of people set out to discover the story behind these ancient vehicles that lumber alongside contemporary cars, buses and trucks. It was part of the heritage walk event, Calcutta Tram Walk.
The walk was led by Dr Debasish Bhattacharyya, president of the citizen's group, The Calcutta Tram Users Association. They have been trying to make sure the city holds on to its unique tram heritage, and also asking for some trams to be modernised.
Strictly speaking, it was part walk and part tram journey. At the Esplanade tram depot in the heart of Kolkata, the day started with everyone boarding the tram to Shyambazar in old Kolkata (or North Kolkata). As buildings dating back a couple of centuries zip by, you are transported into the past, to the capital city of Colonial India. Shyambazar is a fascinating area with crumbling Bengali-European mansions and townhouses, fronted by airy verandahs with ironwork and charming louvred windows. One of the oldest areas, it used to be the hub of Kolkata elite in the 18th century. Shyambazar was an important point in Kolkata's transportation map, and the introduction of the metro station here served as a conduit between north and south Kolkata.
A short food break later, the next tram ride between Tollygunge and Ballygunge takes you through contemporary South Kolkata areas. You pass through the busy Rashbehari-Gariahat stretch, full of shops selling textiles (it has some great saree shops). As you traverse the two different sides of this fascinating city, you will get to know that the first tram which rolled out in the tracks was on February 24, 1873. One can only imagine the awe people would have felt seeing the carriages lumber across the iron tracks, like a mini train of sorts. The maiden journey was from Sealdah to the Armenian Ghats. Several trams still plying date back to that era with electrically driven carriage that have survived the ravages of time, seen the Indian freedom struggle, the World War, and the dawn of independent India. That's quite a lot to take in, sitting in these ancient and hardy vehicles.
Bhattacharya and others say that at a time when the world is doing a rethink on fossil fuel-run vehicles, it is sad that the city officials think trams should be outmoded. Calcutta Tramways is a historic public transportation system that out-survives trams in many international cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, London, Melbourne, and it certainly deserves to be preserved for future generations. In this scenario, it is fitting that such a walk should be led by a concerned citizen like Bhattacharya who has consistently protested against abolition of CTC and believes that it has immense heritage value.
The walk was part of the month-long India Heritage Walk Festival (IHWF) held across 37 cities from February 2-28. Organised by Sahapedia, along with UNESCO, the focus of the second edition of the festival was on heritage education and walks for people with special needs. Sahapedia organises a month-long heritage walks festival across India every year. And they also repeat experiences. Keep a watch on their page to see what comes up in your area here.