The Howrah Bridge: A Journey Through the Years

One of the most spectacular landmarks of present-day Bengal and a historical legacy of British times, the Howrah Bridge does more than carry the weight of vehicles, goods, and passengers. Standing tall over the mighty Hooghly river for the past eighty years, the Howrah Bridge bears witness to all the changing times in Bengal—the best, the worst, and everything in between.

The Howrah Bridge was the first-ever cantilever bridge built in India. | Image Source: The Indian Express

The Hooghly river and the Howrah bridge share quite an intimate relationship. Together they constitute one of the finest sights of modern West Bengal. But there was a time when the present-day massive structure of the Howrah bridge did not exist. Instead, there was a pontoon or floating bridge, connecting two of the biggest cities of Bengal—Howrah and Kolkata. The British constructed this bridge in the 1870s to facilitate the transfer of industrial goods, but they soon realized that the bridge could not be used for heavy vehicles nor could it sustain the occasional stormy weather around the river. The British formed committees to construct a new bridge to replace the pontoon but the proposal for it kept getting delayed. Finally, the construction work of the bridge was initiated in 1917, but it was halted soon because of the First World War.

It was the pioneering industrialist of Bengal, R.N. Mukherjee, who suggested the construction of a suspension bridge over Hooghly. However, the proposal to that also did not receive any enthusiastic response until 1935, when the new Howrah Bridge Act was amended. With this, the construction of the present-day Howrah bridge began officially in 1936.

Interestingly, of the 26,500 tons of steel required to construct the bridge, more than half was supplied by Tata Steel as the British had to divert their resources for the Second World War. The war presented other issues that threatened to create major hindrances in the completion of the bridge. The Japanese air attacks on Kolkata were one such issue. However, the work was completed in due time.

The new Howrah Bridge, as it was initially called, was officially inaugurated in 1943. The architecture of this bridge is one of a kind in that it was built without a single nut and screw and instead a single piece of metal was used for connecting two or more plates through the riveting technique. The bridge is designed in a cantilever suspension style, meaning that it remains suspended over the river without a single pillar to hold its weight. At the time of its construction, the Howrah was the first cantilever bridge in India and the third in the world. Today, it is the sixth-longest cantilever bridge in the world. It also remains the busiest bridge of this suspended kind, bearing the weight of some 100,000 vehicles and more than 150,000 pedestrians every day.

The bridge today is ever filled with honking and blazing cars, bikes, and other vehicles. Interestingly, however, the first vehicle operating on the bridge was the classic tram of Kolkata, which was banned some time in 1993 in the wake of ever-increasing vehicular traffic on the bridge. Amidst the concern of vehicular traffic and overweighing of the bridge, the second Howrah Bridge, also known as Vidyasagar Setu, was also built in 1992.

In 1965, the bridge was officially renamed the Rabindra Setu in honour of Rabindranath Tagore. Yet, among the locals and the tourists, the bridge continues to be referred to as Howrah, a name which immediately portals one’s mind to the hub of colonial rule, and one of their majestic legacies suspending over the Hooghly, almost in a protective gesture.


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