Howrah Bridge – A bridge without nuts & bolts!

S Balakrishnan

I take the liberty to write about Howrah Bridge merely because I lovingly walked its entire length once and would love to walk many times again. Kolkata’s Howrah Bridge is everyone's dream bridge; to see it and walk on it at least once in the lifetime is everyone’s dream. I am no exception because Howrah Bridge is unique in many ways.
The first time I ever had a chance to darshan it was in 1979. But I could only whizz past the bridge in a taxi and not feel it. I also saw for the first time with awe the tram chugging on the Bridge. I had landed in Calcutta from Port Blair (Andamans) by flight and was in a hurry to catch the Coromandel Express train to Madras to attend my sister's wedding. Those days the ship and flight services to Port Blair were not that frequent; in fact, there was flight connection only to Calcutta with just two flights in a week. Even this was subject to weather conditions. Ships sailed only once in a fortnight to Madras/Calcutta and it took a solid 3 ½ days. As there was no coinciding ship schedule to Madras, I had to opt for the only other way out – the circuitous route of flying to Calcutta and then taking a train to Madras. I longingly looked at the bridge and vowed to visit it again. But it took 35 long years for the dream to realise. At last it was only in 2014 that I could caress the Howrah Bridge and leisurely walk from one end to the other. By then much water had literally & figuratively flown under the Howrah Bridge (for which I am in no way responsible) and the names of these two metropolises had also been changed as Chennai and Kolkata.
What brought me to Kolkata the next time was a much pending revisit to Sikkim where I had lived from 1983 to 1988; a long-cherished revisit after a quarter century, thanks to the LTC (Leave travel concession) facility and the free boarding & lodging assurance given by my friend Sundaram who was the first Registrar of Sikkim SRM University (SRMUS). It is like being paid for chewing sugarcane, as the Tamil saying goes. How could I miss the all-free trip offer - travel, board & lodge! So I grabbed it greedily and also decided to use this free trip to have a peek into Kolkata, the Gateway to Eastern India. We also squeezed Darjeeling into the trip and it was really a jam-packed hectic schedule. We visited the Howrah Bridge with such excitement and walked its whole length slowly, clicking all the way. It was being painted then. We also viewed it from the river by availing the ferry service during the day and in the night for the illuminated view of the Bridge. But I am still not satisfied. It was so full of life!
An iconic landmark of not only Kolkata but also of West  Bengal, the Howrah Bridge is across River Hoogly (Ganges), connecting Howrah and Kolkata, the twin cities on the western and eastern banks of Hoogly. It is just 420 meters across Howrah railway station. The bridge replaced an earlier pontoon bridge at a cost of 250 lakh rupees and so was called the New Howrah Bridge. It was renamed as Rabindra Setu (after Rabindranath Tagore) in June 1965, but people prefer calling it simply as Howrah Bridge, because ‘Old habits die hard’. Howrah Bridge was commissioned on 3rd February 1943. It now carries more than 1,00,000 vehicles and 1.5 lakh pedestrians daily, beyond its capacity! Fearing overload, the tram service over it was stopped in 1993; ironically, it was a tram car that first plied on the Bridge!  For the same reason of overload, a new bridge was constructed in 1992, some 8 kms. away. Named Vidyasagar Setu, it is the longest cable-stayed bridge in India. There are now four bridges across Hoogly. A natural coral rock bridge formation in the far off Neil Island (renamed Shaheed) in Andamans is fondly called the Small Howrah Bridge by the Bengali settlers there.
Howrah Bridge is a suspension-type balanced cantilever bridge with truss arch. Don’t ask me what it is! Let us not get into the technical mumbo-jumbo. To put it simply, the bridge deck hangs from panel points in the lower chord of the main trusses with 39 pairs of hangers. Again, do not ask me what is truss. It is a framework, typically consisting of rafters, posts, and struts, supporting a bridge or roof. Well, seeing is believing!  The Bridge is 705m long and 30m wide/71 ft., with 15 ft. footpath on either side.   The clearance for the carriageway is 5.8m on the bridge, and 8.8m under the bridge for the river traffic. The four-lane bridge is maintained by Kolkata Port Trust. It was illuminated in 2006 and a light and sound show launched in 2020. The Bridge required 26,500 litres of aluminum paint & primer to cover 26,500 ton of steel, i.e., a total of 24 million sq. ft., costing 6.5 million rupees.  Out of 26,500 tons of steel required for its construction, 23,000 tons of high-tensile alloy steel, known as Tiscrom, were supplied by Tata Steel. ‘Make in India’ back then itself! Howrah Bridge is easily the busiest cantilever bridge in the world. The third-longest cantilever bridge at the time of its construction, it is currently the sixth-longest bridge of its type in the world. The most unique feature of this Bridge is that it does not have nuts and bolts, but was formed by riveting the whole structure!
The pontoon bridge, the earliest bridge to be constructed across Hoogly River by the British, was completed and opened for traffic on 17th October, 1874.  Its various parts were constructed in England and shipped to Calcutta for assembling. Costing Rs. 20.20 lakhs, it was 1528 ft long and 62 ft wide, flanked by 7-foot wide pavement. The bridge was unfastened for the vessels to pass through – initially during daytime only and then in the night also. From 19 August 1879, the bridge was illuminated by electric lamp-posts, powered by the dynamo at the Mullick Ghat Pumping Station.
In view of rapidly increasing load on the pontoon bridge, the Calcutta Port Commissioners started planning in 1905 for a new improved bridge. The traffic census in 1906 found that bullock carts formed 8/13th of the total traffic! The Commission wisely planned for the tramway traffic also on the new bridge. The New Howrah Bridge Act was amended in 1935 to reflect this, and construction of the bridge started in 1936 by The Braithwaite, Burn & Jessop Construction Co., as designed by M/s. Rendel, Palmer and Tritton. Despite interruptions by Word Wars I & II, the New Howrah Bridge was opened for traffic in 1943 without any formal function, fearing Japanese attack.
The Kolkata Port Trust (KoPT) that is vested with the maintenance of the bridge cleans the bird droppings at an annual expense of Rs 5,00,000, as the droppings erode the steel structure. Again, it spent Rs 20 lakh on covering the base of the steel pillars with fiberglass casing to prevent gutka and paan spit from corroding them! What appears to be small & silly things had to be taken care of by spending lakhs of rupees to safeguard the Bridge. The Howrah Bridge project was a pioneer in bridge construction, particularly in India. The unique bridge still continues to carry much more than the expected load.
The writer can be reached at [email protected] / 9840917608 Whatsapp