The beautiful Rabindra Setu which connects Kolkata to Howrah has today become an icon of Bengal's history, culture, and tourist attractions. Popularly known as the Howrah Bridge, it was constructed in 1946 and till date, sees a massive amount of traffic on a daily basis. In this article, we've tried to gather all the information about the Howrah Bridge and its history for your perusal. While some of these are well-known points, we promise a few fascinating tidbits that you probably didn't know before reading this.
1. The Plan
The need for a bridge connecting the cities on either side of the Ganges was felt early on. As Calcutta grew in size and became increasingly busier, the necessity was felt for increased connectivity by building a bridge over the Hooghly River.
In the year 1862, the feasibility of building a bridge was first scrutinised by the Governor of Bengal who asked the then chief engineer of the East Indian Railway Company, George Turnbull, to conduct a study. The initial plans proposed suggested building several other types of bridges. Some even suggested a tunnel to connect the two cities. This was soon after the establishment of the Howrah Station, and a bridge would significantly increase Calcutta's connectivity with the rest of the country.
Turnbull, however, concluded that building a bridge at Calcutta would require considerably more effort and money and was not feasible. He suggested that a suspended-girder bridge is constructed about 12 miles north of Calcutta. Ultimately, nothing came of out this study, but the seeds had been sown for the eventual creation of the Howrah Bridge.
2. The Initial BridgeThe Calcutta Port Trust was founded in 1870 and entrusted, via the Howrah Bridge Act of 1871, with the construction and maintenance of the Bridge. The first bridge connecting the two areas was a Pontoon Bridge that was built in 1874 following a contract signed with Sir Bradford Leslie. Parts of this bridge were built in England and then shipped to India to be assembled.
The first bridge over the Hooghly River connecting Calcutta was opened to traffic on the 17th of October 1874. It was 465.7 meters long and 19 meters wide, with 2.1 meter wide pavements on either side.
To ensure that steamers and other water transport could pass, the bridge would be unfastened periodically.
A few years later, the bridge was illuminated by using electric lamp posts.
The problem, however, was that this type of bridge could not bear the load of heavy traffic and rough weather. By the turn of the century, the need for a sturdier alternative was felt keenly, and the Port Commissioners began seeking other options.
3. Planning and Commissioning the Howrah Bridge
A variety of plans were made, and several types of bridges were suggested before the Howrah Bridge as we know it today was constructed.
In 1906, a committee was set up to look into the high traffic requirements that the new bridge would have to fulfil. Based on the report, the committee finally decided that a floating bridge would serve the requirements best. Subsequently, tenders were extended for the design and construction, and a prize amount of GBP 3,000 was announced for whoever was the winner.
This initial plan of action was stymied by the First World War but was temporarily resumed in 1917.
In 1921, a team of engineers, led by Sir R. N. Mukherjee and dubbed as the 'Mukherjee Committee', was set up to look into the construction of the Howrah Bridge. Interestingly, when this team referred the matter to Sir Basil Mott, he suggested a single span arch bridge be built.
In 1922, the 'Mukherjee Committee' submitted its report to the newly set up New Howrah Bridge Commission. This led to the creation of the New Howrah Bridge Act. In 1926, the committee recommended a suspension bridge of a particular type be constructed. Alongside the construction, came the varied requirements and laws to acquire land, employ many, and levy taxes for maintenance. It was the Howrah Bridge Act that ensured all these.
Soon after, in 1930, yet another team, the Goode Committee was formed to look into the feasibility of constructing a pier bridge between the two districts. Based on their recommendations, a special kind of suspension bridge was designed by the chief draftsman of M/s. Rendel, Palmer and Tritton, namely, Mr Walton. The British company, Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Company Ltd secured the contract for the whole work.
Global tenders were soon floated, and ultimately a local organisation called The Braithwaite Burn & Jessop Construction Company Limited was awarded the status of sub-contractors for the steelwork.
Construction was started by 1936, and the new Howrah Bridge was finally constructed in 1942. It opened on the 3rd of February, 1943.
4. The World Wars
The history of the Howrah Bridge is indirectly linked to both the World Wars. Although plans were made from the beginning of the 1900s, the beginning of the construction process was halted due to the First World War. In 1917 however, it was partially renewed for a time.
The delays gave time for other committees to be formed and further modifications were made to the planned bridge. As we mentioned earlier, the 'Mukherjee Committee' came into being in 1921 and was tasked with looking into the matter. It was based on their work that the New Howrah Bridge Act was passed.
But the delays due to war were far from over. In the 1930s, based on the Goode Committee's recommendations, global tenders were floated. The lowest bid received was from a German company which was not given the contract owing to escalating animosity between Germany and Great Britain at that time. Instead, a local company was awarded the contract and construction started soon after.
The war also affected the materials required for the construction of the bridge. Although 26,000 tons of steel were needed for construction, England was unable to provide more than 3000 tons as the rest had to be diverted for war efforts. Tata Steel then stepped in to supply the rest and developed high tension steel known as Tiscom for the bridge.
Although at that time there was a looming threat from Japan, construction was soon underway. There was also no formal opening of the bridge because the government feared an attack by the Japanese.
5. Building the bridge
The Howrah Bridge, at the time of construction, was the third-longest cantilever bridge in the world. The bridge is, more specifically, a suspension type balanced cantilever bridge. Another feature which sets it apart is the fact that the bridge was formed entirely by riveting, and does not have any nuts or bolts. It is made out of 26, 500 tons of steels, a majority of which is a high tensile alloy known as Tiscom that was made and supplied by Tata Steel.
The entire project is considered to be a pioneering marvel in bridge construction in India and cost around INR 25 million at that time.
The bridge has a central span of 460 m between the centres of the main towers. It also has a suspended span of 172 m. The main roadway is flanked by 15 feet wide footpaths for pedestrians to cross over.
6. Inauguration and the Initial Years
The first vehicle to cross over the Howrah Bridge was a tram. At that time traffic came from two-wheelers, cars, buses, trams and trucks plying on the bridge. A 1946 census revealed that over 27,400 vehicles, 121,100 pedestrians and 2,997 cattle crossed over the Howrah Bridge daily. The number has only grown over the years. A 2007 reports put the number of vehicles at almost 90,000.
In 1993, trams were stopped from using the bridge, and the route was discontinued. The reason behind this was that the bridge would not be able to take the heavy load of trams in light of increased traffic and footfalls.
The bridge has held up to the test of time, but not without any injury. Efforts have been made by the Kolkata Port Trust to maintain and safeguard the bridge from harm and to repair any corrosion, weathering or damage.
In 1965, the name of the bridge was officially changed to Rabindra Setu, after Bengali Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. However, to this date, the name 'Howrah Bridge' remains more popularly and commonly used in Kolkata.
7. The Howrah Bridge TodayThe Howrah Bridge today is a proud symbol of Kolkata. It is often called the gateway to Kolkata and with good reason, as it connects the city with the Howrah Railway Junction. At the other end of the bridge is the colourful chaos of the Mullick Ghat Flower Market.
Today, with nearly 100,000 vehicles and over 150,000 pedestrians passing by daily the Howrah Bridge is perhaps the busiest cantilever bridge in the world.
If you happen to be in the vicinity at night, it is impossible to miss the sight of the brightly and colourfully lit up the bridge as you enter the city of joy or leave it behind.
The bridge has found its way into many films and books both in Bengal and elsewhere. Movies by Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak, for example, have featured the Howrah Bridge.
How many of these were you aware of?
Did we miss out on anything?
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Read more about the magnificent bridges in India.