Closing the gaps: Ten iconic bridges and how they’re changing India
The way Vinay Gupta, president of the Indian Institution of Bridge Engineers, sees it, Independent India is living through its golden age of bridge-building. In the last two decades, we’ve dreamed bigger than ever. The country’s longest bridge, the 9.1-km Dhola-Sadiya, opened in 2017, linking Assam and Arunachal Pradesh and allowing troops to smoothly reach the border with China.
With construction over Kashmir’s forbidding Chenab Valley nearing completion, we’ll soon operate the world’s highest railway bridge. In Tamil Nadu, radical tech will allow a section of Pamban’s new sea bridge to rise, like an elevator, so ships can pass beneath.
It takes feats of engineering to link two distant points, in a country as challenging as India. The rivers are turbulent, open seas swell during the monsoon, states such as Kerala and Goa have several water bodies complicating construction, Jammu’s mountains are quake-prone, the subsoil in Assam is different from that in Kerala. “What worked in one place will not necessarily work in another,” says Gupta. “You have to innovate from the bottom up.”
India has stumped engineers since the colonial years. Our rivers were wider and wilder than those in England. The monsoon was so intense work had to be halted for months at a time (a problem that continues to this day). Piers would sink into the silt. Well-style foundations were developed especially for India, in which cylinders of brickwork would be sunk deep into the sand until they hit rock. Over these well clusters, piers could stand firmer, allowing iconic structures such as the old Naini Bridge in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh, to stand.
More recently, builders have found a way to compress concrete with high-strength steel wire. The resulting pre-stressed girders can withstand more pressure better. “It cuts building time; you can do it on site,” Gupta says. Combine them with a design in which a central tower connects cables that hold up the bridge deck, and it becomes possible to build longer, sturdier bridges, such as Mumbai’s sea-link, that hold up against wind and tide too.
Regardless of where they’re built, India’s bridges are connectors in more ways than may at first be apparent. When remote villages get a tangible and weather-proof link to cities, opportunities, markets and ambitions expand. Neighbouring districts, once so distant and strange, are suddenly an hour’s drive away, and not so different after all. Troops can reach conflict zones faster. Often, residents become tourists in their own states. And everywhere, a bridge sends out the message that movement matters; that getting somewhere is worth it.
India’s new bridge-building spree is linking even those who’ve never travelled on them. When pictures of the Chenab valley bridge, its arch all but complete, went viral early this year, Kashmir suddenly felt closer even to those in Mumbai and Chennai. With the closure of the old Lakshman Jhula in Rishikesh comes news that a new glass-bottomed bridge will be built further up the Ganges. Every bridge we build near our borders sends the message that we’re serious about defending our territory.
“It’s a golden age in terms of how quickly we’re learning too,” Gupta says. India’s milestones have piled up quickly, largely because India is learning from China, West Asia and the US, which are building the world’s longest and most-advanced bridges. They’ve innovated to create new techniques to locate damage while a bridge remains in use. Drones fly over sites, using infrared thermography to identify hidden problem areas. The Chenab bridge uses ultrasonic machines and Tekla, a sophisticated AI program that analyses existing data and usage projections to create a speeded-up simulation, anticipating errors and damage even before they occur.
“India’s bridges are beautiful, many of them created against great odds,” Gupta says. “People travel over these marvels every day, never once realising their role in holding India together.”
In Kashmir, the world’s highest rail bridge:Chenab River Bridge, under construction
It doesn’t have a name yet. But in February, when then railway minister Piyush Goyal tweeted a photo of the final segment of the bridge being fitted on this link across the Chenab valley, it caught everyone’s attention. India had just closed the steel arch on the world’s highest railway bridge. It stands 359 metres above sea level. And its peak, measured from sea level, floats higher than the top of the Eiffel Tower. It’s a marvel in other ways too. Its 1.3-km length links parts of the Reasi district in Jammu and Kashmir where earthquakes are common and the weather unforgiving. When tracks are laid over the blast-proof arch, there’ll be more reason to cheer. Tracks in Kashmir will finally be connected to the rest of India, allowing a train to run seamlessly from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, without a detour to Jammu.
In UP, a new connection in an old city:New Yamuna Bridge, 2004
Prayagraj already had a bridge. But the old bridge, connecting Prayagraj and Naini by road and rail across the Yamuna, was narrow and more than a century old. Vehicles would be backed up for miles in rush hour. The very bridge would groan under the weight. The new bridge isn’t just bigger. At 1.5 km, it’s among India’s longest cable-stayed bridges. Cars zip across in a mere five minutes. Trucks and freight vehicles, barred from using the unsafe old bridge, needn’t take long detours. With its bright lights and dedicated pedestrian path, New Yamuna Bridge has even become something of a hangout spot, a place to catch the breeze, catch up with friends and catch your breath as the river beneath flows quietly on.
Assam and Arunachal, suddenly closer:Dhola Sadiya Bridge, 2017
Before the 9.15-km Bhupen Hazarika Setu was constructed over the Lohit, Kundil and Dhola rivers, connecting Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, it would take six hours to go from one to the other. And it wasn’t an easy six hours either. The roads were winding, with a rickety two-hour ferry ride in-between. In the monsoon, the ferry services would be suspended. In other months, if it got too stormy or too hard to navigate, boats would simply stop mid-river for the night, passengers and all. For India, the bridge is certainly a quick way to move troops to the border with China, in Arunachal Pradesh. For locals, it’s a miracle. Travel time is now down to just one hour.
A new jewel in Mumbai’s crown:Bandra-Worli Sea Link, 2009
Time is money in Mumbai. So show residents how they can save time – even a few minutes – and you’ve got their attention. The Rajiv Gandhi Setu, popularly known as the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, stretches across 5.6 km, and during rush hour can shave almost 45 minutes off a commute through the heart of the city.
India’s first cable-stayed bridge constructed over open seas wasn’t easy to build. The seas are rough. The monsoon delays construction work. The main span, one of the longest stretches of concrete deck attempted globally, allows fishing boats to float under safely. It’s become an indigenous, modern symbol for Mumbai, one befitting the city’s ambitions.
Sadly, it also a symbol of the administration’s excessive focus on cars and on road space for motorists. Buses cannot use the sea link; neither can two-wheelers or pedestrians. With its expensive toll ( ₹85 one-way), the link isn’t as heavily trafficked as expected. Yet work has begun on a massive extension, a “coastal road” that will require large tracts of land to be reclaimed from sensitive marine ecosystems along the city’s edge.
Uttarakhand devotees get right of sway:Lakshman and Ram Jhulas, 1929, 1986
Bridges don’t have to be long to make a difference. In Rishikesh, the Ram and Lakshman Jhulas can be traversed on foot. But for pilgrims crossing the Ganga, they’re literally a rite of passage. The iron-suspension Lakshman Jhula, 136 metres long, is the older brother, built in 1929, replacing an old rope bridge on the spot where Lakshman is said to have crossed the river too. The Ram Jhula, built 2 km downstream in 1986, is bigger and sturdier but similar in style. The older bridge was closed for repairs in 2019 and will reopen as a heritage structure. Meanwhile, the state is building a third crossover — a 132-metre glass-floor bridge. Perhaps they’ll name it after Sita?
Bihar can go the distance:Mahatma Gandhi Setu, 1982
Forty years ago, if you wanted to head from Bihar’s capital, Patna, on the south bank of the Ganga, to Hajipur on its north bank, you’d think twice. The steamer boats were unreliable and exhausting, the rail detour took even longer — half a day. The Mahatma Gandhi Setu, 5.7 km long and built with pre-stress technology, was Asia’s longest, sturdiest bridge when it opened in 1982. Traffic could finally move easily between the state’s two largest cities. Hajipur became a new commercial hub for business, pulling more families out of poverty. Some 1 lakh cars use the bridge every day. The original connection will be supplemented by a new one by 2024. A bridge with a flyover, four minor bridges and a 21-km-long service road is in the works.
Kolkata’s investment in the future:Nivedita Setu, 2007
There are plenty of ways to get across Kolkata. There’s the Vivekananda Bridge (Bally Bridge), Rabindra Setu (Howrah Bridge), Vidyasagar link. The 6.1-km Nivedita Setu, however, was built with the best intentions. Its pylons, the towers that hold the cables, are deliberately not too tall, so as not to obstruct the view of the Dakshineswar temple’s spires. Three lanes run in each direction, with the cables in the centre, like a spine. There are several entry and exit points for smooth traffic flow. It was built to link Kolkata and Howrah better, with the hope that this would boost plans for satellite neighbourhoods and industrial and IT hubs in the latter. Political upheaval means those dreams haven’t materialised yet. But when they do, the Nivedita Setu will be ready and waiting.
Rameswaram’s high-tech link:Pamban Bridge, under construction
The original rail bridge connecting picturesque Pamban Island with the Tamil Nadu mainland was built in 1914. Even then it was a marvel, with flaps that could be raised to let ships pass below. Engineers called it the Queen of Indian Bridges, rebuilding it fully just months after a devastating cyclone in 1964. A new 2-km parallel bridge is now being built. Its central section will have a vertical shaft, another first for India, in which a portion of the bridge can be elevated, to allow ferries to pass underneath. It will also be stronger, to carry heavier loads and withstand sea storms.
In Kerala, an upcoming attraction:Vembanad Bridge, 2010
That the 4.6-km rail bridge across Kerala’s Vembanad Lake only services goods is unfortunate. The route runs between Edappally and the site of the International Container Transshipment Terminal on Vallarpadam Island. There are backwaters, palm fronds and little islets along the way, making this one of the most picturesque rail journeys in India. The terminal is being developed as a mega marine cargo hub, but there are plans to run a tourist train across the bridge soon too. A steam engine will pull air-conditioned vistadome coaches, from which passengers can finally enjoy the view.
Road, rail and rapid security in Assam:Bogibeel Bridge, 2018
The Bogibeel Bridge has missed more deadlines than most projects in India. Part of the reason is that the Brahmaputra, across which it is built, floods often, so construction could only be carried out for a few months each year. Plans for this bridge were first drawn up in the 1980s. At 4.94 km, this is India’s longest road-and-rail bridge. Two broad-gauge lines run on the lower deck, with a three-lane road bridge above. The bridge has transformed everyday life since it was eventually completed in late 2018. Trains now reach Delhi three hours faster. Arunachal Pradesh is less than 100 km away, instead of a 500km route via Guwahati. For armed forces, travel time to the farthest points of the India-China border has shrunk. To the people of Dhemaji and Dibrugarh, folks from neighbouring towns don’t quite seem like strangers anymore.