The iconic structure of the Howrah Bridge completes 75 years of its existence this month. The historical landmark that has been synonymous with the City of Joy has been a witness to history, both in pre-Independence India and thereafter. The bridge has been not only been a part of history, literature and art, but also a significant part of popular culture — be it in commercial cinema or magazine art and caricature. From Satyajit Ray to Richard Attenborough and Mani Ratnam to Anurag Basu, the popular iconography of Kolkata has been celebrated by film-makers and photographers alike.
Connecting the twin city of Kolkata (earlier known as Calcutta) and Howrah, on either sides of River Hooghly in Bengal, the archetypal structure is one of the busiest bridges on the country. Renamed Rabindra Setu in 1965 after Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, the suspension-type balanced cantilever bridge has a central span of 1500 ft. between centres of main towers. As the bridge completes being functional for over seven decades, here are some interesting facts about the unique structure that you might be interested in.
A bridge without nuts and bolts: Hard to believe? Yes, the gigantic bridge spread across the width of River Hooghly does not have a single nut and screw joining the array of metallic structures. Instead, the unique bridge was built by riveting the whole structure, which means a metal piece (rivet) is used to connect two or more plates inserted through the hole in plates and pressed on the other side.
A suspended bridge: If you didn’t notice in all the photos of Howrah Bridge, then take a look now and observe how the metal structure hangs above the river with no pillars in between supporting it. It’s a suspended-type balanced cantilever bridge, the third longest when it was constructed and now, it’s the sixth longest bridge of its type in the world.
It’s the ‘new’ Howrah Bridge: Even though the vintage structure has been around for more than seven decades and even stood witness to the Second World War, it is ironically called the ‘New’ Howrah Bridge. The reason behind it is that it replaced an old pontoon bridge, which was set up in 1874. As in the 17th century, Calcutta was emerging as a bustling city by the merger of the three villages – Kolkata, Sutanati and Gobindapur, there was an urgent demand to link the city with the commercial hub Howrah. And after the Howrah station was built in 1906, the to-fro movement on the bridge began to escalate and engineers at Calcutta Port Trust started brainstorming ideas to build a better and stronger bridge.
Stalled by First World War: The bridge has a sad association with World War I (1914-1919). Even though the proposal to replace the old pontoon bridge had begun in the early 1900s, it was delayed owing to the catastrophic war. The bridge was partially renewed in the years 1917 and 1927. However, it was completed until the Second World War.
No formal inauguration: Even as a marvel for architects, engineers and the Colonials who built the emblematic landmark, it did not even have a formal opening, forget a grand inauguration. It was completed in 1942 and opened to the public in February 1943 but was not highlighted due to a fear of attacks by Japanese planes fighting the Allied Powers. Japan had already attacked Pearl Harbour in 1941 and that instilled fear among the Britishers that this could prove to be a target as well.
A made-in-India bridge: Unlike now, during the British Era, not only the raw materials but even the finished product were made in England and assembled here. Even the former Sir Bradford Leslie’s pontoon bridge — different parts were constructed in England and shipped to Calcutta. However, it incurred a huge cost. Owing to the ongoing WWII (1939-1945) all the steel (26,000 tonnes) that was to come from the UK were diverted for the war effort in Europe. Out of total steel required for the bridge, only 3,000 tonnes were supplied from England. The remaining 23,000 tonnes were supplied by India’s Tata Steel and even the erection work was reassigned to a local engineering firm of Howrah — the Braithwaite, Burn and Jessop Construction Co.
Trams used the bridge: As lakhs of commuters daily cross the bridge now either by foot on on cars and buses, but during its initial days of existence, trams used to ply on the bridge transporting people to and fro from the twin cities. In fact, the first vehicle to use the bridge was a solitary tram. The tram services on the bridge were discontinued in 1993 owing to rise in vehicular traffic.