Where have all the tongas gone?

Once upon a time, the historical city of Delhi was quite comfortable with cycle rickshaws and horse carriages, known as tonga. They were the preferred modes of transport till development, economic well being and affluence made their presence felt. Today, most of us can afford a private vehicle, or prefer to travel in the comfortable and time-saving Metro trains or take the ubiquitous DTC buses and autos and air pollution, traffic congestion and sundry other issues be damned!

But ever wondered where these tongawallah’s have gone along with their horses? Riding a tonga was exciting and brought back memories of small towns with cobbled streets, where such a mode of transport is still popular. Metrolife got a chance to speak to some old tongawallahs and other horse owners to find out how they have fared in the face of stiff competition with fast-moving, gas guzzling automobiles.

“Some tongawallahs are still there in Old Delhi and ply their trade if tourists etc want to go for a ride in the buggy. However, most have taken up other means of livelihood, the horses too have grown old and are rested for special events like marriages,” says Mashuf Khan, an old tongawallah.

Getting sentimental about a trade which has few takers today, Khan says, “My Rani has grown old with me but is still energetic.” Rani is his horse and a “dukh, sukh ka saathi”. Khan and his family presently own five horses which are employed to carry the construction waste from nearby places. He and his sons keep the horses on a barren piece of land near Asif Ali Road.

“The horses too have feelings like human beings. They understand love, anger and respond to kindness. They too suffer from cold and fever, they sweat like us when they work for longer time in summer,” says Zafar, Khan’s son. The horse is being served with husk and channa (black gram) peel every day as the Khans are unable to feed the horses the expensive cereal.

“We take the horses and walk a little till the public toilets to provide water,” Khan adds. The daily food of the horses cost around Rs 300, and it depends on the status of the owner what he serves his horse. The horses carry the construction waste from 5 am to 3 pm before wrapping up for the day and some well-earned rest. Khan says he and his son stay on the barren land with the horses at night and visit their homes only in the day. “We do not like to leave our horses, which are the most friendly and loyal animals like dogs, alone,” says Khan.

“Once a new horse is brought home it’s a ritual to keep salt and sugar in your hand and serve the horse and the horse will serve you till their last breath,” says Zafar, adding, “We don’t keep our horses till their last breath as we buy horses for domestic purposes and sell them when they become old.”

There are horse owners who utilise the horses for pulling vegetable carts and carrying goods to the city. Mintu is one among them. He along with his cousins carries vegetables to Green Park market every morning. They halt in market and feed the horses and sell vegetables. As the animal requires water after every hour they have to halt often and the horses drink around 10 litres of water at
a stretch.

Living with the horses for years these horseowners treat their animals more as friends and companions, talking to them and responding to their needs. Mintu, who calls his horse ‘Raju’, tells him, Chalo Raju and Raju immediately starts pulling the vegetable cart. Raju is given a shower every alternate days and a change of shoes every week.

Mintu’s family owns around 14 horses which they rent out for marriages. “Once the horse becomes old we send them for taking rest. Sometime the doctors take them to their farms. Other times some horses when they get old are left in the nearby jungles to fend for themselves.”

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