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The Rickshaw in South Asia

The Rickshaw or Tuk Tuk is a popular form of transport in South Asia. Colourful & full of joy, it is a moving work of art used as a canvas to reflect local art & culture. Islamic art is also painted on Rickshaws In Pakistan, Bangladesh & Afghanistan.

Image credit: Beauty of Pakistan Twitter


Several theories surround the invention of the Rickshaw or Tuk Tuk. However, it is agreed it began as a 2-wheeled passenger cart, called a pulled rickshaw. This was generally pulled by one man with one or two passengers. The term was first used in 1887 in Japan.

Image credit: Raimund von Stillfried studio


'Jinrikisha', a Japanese term for Rickshaw, replaced palanquins as Japan's primary mode of transport - a couple of years after its invention. By the end of the century, the Rickshaw had reached Singapore, China, Hong Kong, South Africa & Pre Partition India.

Image credit The British Museum


In South Asia, from human-pulled Jinrikishas, the vehicle evolved into being driven by a bicycle and eventually by a motorbike.

Image credit Omair Zia


The first Rickshaw in South Asia is believed to be introduced in Shimla, India, around 1880 and in Kolkata in 1930. The vehicle was also introduced to the streets of present-day Bangladesh around the same time.

Image credit Glenn Losack M.D


Although the Rickshaw originated in Japan, Dhaka is known as the capital of rickshaws in the world. The cycle rickshaw is the most popular transport in Bangladesh. Around 40,000 rickshaws are moving across the streets of Dhaka every day.

Image credit Indusland Twitter


Most Rickshaws have a highly ornamental appearance. The design & patterns used in the rickshaws of South Asia provide an impression of local art and culture.

Image credit Laura Tantanzoni


Recognised as a cultural phenomenon in its own right, rickshaw art renders each vehicle unique. From the 1970s onwards, local culture, beliefs and aspirations were adorning rickshaws.

Image credit @lens_and_Pencil Instagram


The six-seater Qingqi Rickshaw and the three-seater covered Rickshaw, often known as the Rangeela Rickshaw (Colourful Rickshaw), are some of the most popular modes of transport in South Asia today.

Image credit: Taha Asghar


With time, indigenous creativity and skill splashed in colourful ink and paint onto rickshaws, turned them into mobile works of art.

Some rickshaws are also decorated with golden fringe, sequin shawls, or colourful veils.

Image credit: Pinterest


Painted with the brush of culture, it was inevitable that Islamic art and motifs were an integral part of rickshaw art, primarily in modern-day South Asia. Some Rickshaw art is connected to and reflects the Islamic values and beliefs of the painters and truck owners.

Image credit: Indusland


Islamic art on Rickshaws is seen primarily in Pakistan & Bangladesh but also in Afghanistan and India. Subject to regional and national artistic styles - overarching features of this style include calligraphy, geometry and vegetal patterns.

Image credit: Sonya Rehman


In the middle of the 1960s, the Pakistani Government, considering Islamic beliefs, restricted the drawing of human figures on rickshaws. This led to artists painting Islamic religious symbols, like the purity of flowers, mosques & one of the most favorite subjects - the Taj Mahal.

Image credit: D.C. Das


As Islam forbids hyper-realistic art of animals and people, Muslim artists, for centuries, have stylised people & animals in remarkable new ways, to not clash with their religious beliefs. Some examples of such are painted on Rickshaws.

Image credit: Greg Vore


There are examples of mosques, the Holy Kabah, and religious philosophy painted on rickshaws. Some everyday things you'll come across also include Borak (a flying horse), and dargahs (shrines of saints).

Rickshaw with the painted Borak. Image credit: H.K Photography


Most Rickshaw artists have learned the craft from their family members and well-known masters. They begin as apprentices with their masters, learning directly to obtain this high skill level.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons


The images and designs that appear on Rickshaws reflect the wishes of their owner and driver, but ultimately, the artists are the ones whose imagination dominates the Rickshaw art and can convince the owner if they want.

Image credit: Saba's Photography


Preserving Rickshaw art has become a priority for many, as it is slowly declining in a modern-day world…

Rickshaw painting workshop in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Image credit: Saqlain Rizve


Sources of inspiration and information:

Rezwan, Mohammad Zaki. (2022). Devotion in Motion: The Image of Islam in Rickshaw Art of Bangladesh

A Study on Material Culture in Dhaka | Rickshaw, A Motion Craft Prepared By | Nazmul Islam Supervised By | Dr Robert Mellin


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