At a time when Delhi’s roads are choc-a-bloc with vehicles, there is one man who still prefers to move in a horse-drawn cart. A resident of Old Delhi, Bholu Pehelwan sits tall on his tonga in a narrow lane near Jama Masjid. Every day, his cart heads for a different area, racing past the Red Fort. But it’s only in the early hours of the day that he can command his horse to giddyup. Once the market opens, the area gets too congested for comfort. But Bholu is determined not to give up on his tonga.
“We’ve been following the tonga tradition for three generations,” he says. “My grandfather used to go on a round of Delhi every morning on a horse-cart. Later, my father kept the tradition alive. After his death, I am doing the same,” he says, getting nostalgic.
Post an hour-long ride, when Bholu gets back, he issues instructions to the caretakers with a finicky concern for the animal. He ensures that the horse remains clean and healthy, while keeping a meticulous eye on its food, bridle and medication.
His love for animals complements his love for the horse-driven cart. However, when the horse gets too old to draw the cart, he replaces him with a young one.
“Though we raise horses like our own children, we have to replace them every 10-12 years. I feel dejected on these occasions, but you can’t do anything about it,” he rues.
To keep the tradition alive, Bholu has had to overcome several stumbling blocks. While frowns and chuckles from bystanders don’t bother him anymore, he does get upset when some traffic policeman grills him on a busy road. “They don’t penalise me, but they look upon my tonga as a nuisance, which really disheartens me,” he says. “The city’s roads and lifestyle have changed dramatically. In a way, it is good as it spells growth for Delhi, but it also has its side-effects,” he adds.
The tonga is disappearing. Bholu says one big reason for this is the exorbitant expense involved. Maintaining a horse-cart is as expensive as keeping a decent car in the capital. Bholu has hired two caretakers to look after the horse. Its food, health and other expenses add to the cost. Despite the steep maintenance cost, the tonga cannot be used as a regular means of conveyance. “Whenever I have to go out with my family, I rely on my car,” says Bholu.
But there are those moments of joy too. Like, when little children in the family want to join him on his morning-rides. For them, it’s an elating experience. But not every elder in the family shares this sentiment.
Many of them consider the horse-cart an archaic tradition, which is both costly and futile. They’d choose comfortable cars over bumpy horse-cart rides any day.
While Bholu has managed to convince both his children to keep alive the family tradition of wrestling, the childhood memories of tonga rides with their father are long forgotten.
And it now seems that Delhi’s tonga culture will soon be lost in time.