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Riding through time

Sharath S. Srivatsa



JOY RIDE: The tonga is expected to regain its old charm during Dasara festivities in Mysore.

MYSORE: They once ruled the thoroughfares of this Heritage City and were the principal mode of transport. For nearly three decades now, the Mysore Shah Pasand Tongas have competed with the autorickshaws, though unsuccessfully. A city that once boasted of more than a 1,000 Mysore Tongas, has less than a 100 now and very few in good condition.

The Shah Pasand Tongas popularised by the erstwhile ruler Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar, and known for its exclusive shape has fallen out of favour among the locals, and dragging along with the limited patronage received from the tourists visiting Mysore, especially the foreign nationals. It is the shape, which is widely believed to have been designed by the Wadiyar, that places Mysore Tongas apart from those found elsewhere in the country.

For Siddappa, a second-generation tongawalla, the decline has been rapid and tough to adjust. He said, "The arrival of the metered autorickshaws sounded the knell for the Mysore Tongas, and the numbers declined rapidly. Those that remain are catering to the tourists and keeping the heritage alive." Siddappa is one among the last few available of their ilk.

Before the advent of autorickshaws, the city had exclusive "gadi chowki" or tonga stands at Devaraja Market, Agrahara Circle, Nazarbad, St. Philomena's Church, Chamundipuram, Railway Station and City Bus Stand. In fact, the civic authorities were issuing licenses and tonga numbers for the tongawallas, and the minimum prescribed age for holding license was 20 years. Besides, each tonga had to have a bell and a lamp.

However, the situation has changed for these tongawallas. Many of the tonga stands have been either scrapped or converted into autorickshaw stands. Siddappa laments that they neither have a designated place to park their tongas nor do the police allow them to do so. "We are chased away by the police. Riding tongas, as a family tradition, will end with me, and I have not allowed my two sons to even sit in my tonga so far," he said.

Due to meagre earnings, 45-year-old Zameer said that most of the tonga owners do not maintain them well. He said, "During peak season, we earn about Rs. 200 per day, and around Rs. 50 during the off-seasons. Only those who own and ride tongas themselves keep them in good shape."

He says nearly 80 per cent of the tongawallas do not own them, and take them for a daily rent of Rs. 20 besides buying fodder of Rs. 40 for the horses. Not much is left with the tongawallas at the end of the day, he said. All these show up in the health of the horses that draw these tongas

Hopes for better living have been raised by the proposal to have a heritage tour on the tongas. But the tongawallas feel that it is only during Dasara that their services are sought. However, for the tongawallas, who struggle for most part of the year to earn their livelihood, the arrival of Dasara festivities signifies the arrival of good time, rising hopes of a decent earning.

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