The 75-year-old bridge is very much a part of everyday life in Kolkata.
The Howrah Bridge is turning 75, but it stills looks the same – a grand structure, one of the most photographed.
Comprising 26,000 tonnes of steel, riveted without a single pillar, this cantilever bridge connects Calcutta and Howrah.
Now very much a part of Kolkata city life, the bridge has an interesting history. Before its construction, the east and west banks of the Hooghly river were then connected by a pontoon bridge.
While the idea had already been floated, the plan to build the bridge was aborted during the First World War. After the war was over, in 1921, a body of engineers was formed to look into the possibilities of bridge construction. Then the Mukherjee Committee was formed, headed by Sir R.N. Mukherjee, an industrialist, and comprised Sir Clement Hindley, chairman of the Calcutta Port Trust, and J. McGlashan, the chief engineer.
In 1922, the New Howrah Bridge Commission was set up and the Mukherjee Committee submitted its report, though it took many more years to decide what kind of bridge was to be built and how. Due to river traffic and soft muddy soil, an archetypal bridge was not ideal. The idea of using suspension and cantilever came in, and tenders were floated.
The contracts went to Braithwaite, Burn & Jessops Company in 1935 and construction was due to start the next year. But once again, a war was looming in Europe. Due to the start of the Second World War, procuring steel from England became difficult. Allied ships were often attacked by the Axis powers. Initially, 3,000 tonnes came by cargo, but the rest of the 23,000 tonnes were procured from Tata steel. A special steel called Tiscrom was developed to cater the needs of the bridge.
The Howrah Bridge stretches across 705 metres and is 85 feet wide, with space for human traffic. At the time of its construction, this made it the third longest cantilever bridge in the world; now it is the sixth longest.
Close to 100,000 vehicles and 150,000 pedestrians cross this bridge every day; it has become a part of life for people in the city. The sheer excitement of reaching Kolkata by train and seeing glimpses of the bridge from far away is an experience in itself. Plenty of movies have also been filmed around the bridge.
Generations come and go, but this iron structure stands as a doorway to Kolkata, welcoming millions who aspire to start a life in a new city. “This monument is the grappling iron that bind one generation to another, ” wrote historian Joseph Jonhert about the bridge.
Today, the Kolkata Port Trust is finding it difficult to maintain the bridge, as the metal parts need careful attention and are prone to degradation.
All photos by Shome Basu.