Legacy's Last Ride: How Kashmir’s Sopore Town Continues Its Date with Tongas

While acknowledging the challenges posed by Tongas, including their slow speed and the odor emanating from horse dung, many Tongawallas are steadfast in their resistance to the pressure of modernization. To them, Tongas are more than just a mode of transportation – they are a symbol of tradition, a link to their cultural heritage that must be preserved at all costs.
Despite its historical significance, the Tonga faces an uncertain future as modern modes of transportation gain popularity.
Despite its historical significance, the Tonga faces an uncertain future as modern modes of transportation gain popularity. Picture Courtesy: Abu Bakr

Srinagar: Tongas, the horse carts that used to be the traditional mode of transportation across the Kashmir region for centuries, are on the verge of decline. However, many in Sopore, the north Valley’s apple-rich township, are continuing their date with the traditional mode of transportation.

In the bustling town of Sopore, nestled in the picturesque landscape, amidst the clamor of modernity and progress, there exists a humble relic of the past – the Tonga. This horse-driven two-wheeled carriage continues to hold its ground, a testament to tradition and resilience in the face of technological advancement.

For generations, the Tonga has been an integral part of life in Sopore, ferrying goods and passengers through its narrow streets and bustling markets. It's not just a mode of transportation; it's a livelihood for many families, a link to their heritage and identity.

Despite its historical significance, the Tonga faces an uncertain future as modern modes of transportation gain popularity.
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Muhammad Subhan Dar, a seasoned Tonga driver, speaks of the challenges faced by the dwindling community of Tonga Wallas. "We have been riding these horse carts for generations. We used to earn handsomely, but times have changed," he laments. The meagre income from operating Tongas has made it increasingly difficult for them to make ends meet.

Despite the hardships, some, like Muhammad Subhan Dar, remain steadfast in their profession, preserving a tradition that dates back to the 1930s when Maharajas traversed the roads in luxurious horse carts. But the future of the Tonga seems uncertain as modern modes of transport like auto-rickshaws gain popularity, relegating these horse-drawn carriages to obscurity.

Recalling the times when tongas were the only means of transportation in Kashmir, Aziz Ahmad, 65, a tongawalla from Sopore, says horse carts used to be the main transportation mode, both in Kashmir's towns and villages.

Ahmad, with a hint of nostalgia in his voice, reminisces about a time when Tongas ruled the roads of Kashmir. "They were the main mode of transportation, both in towns and villages," he recalls. From ferrying newlyweds on their wedding day to transporting essential goods, Tongas were an indispensable part of daily life. However, with the advent of auto-rickshaws and other fast means of transport, the demand for Tongas has dwindled. The younger generation views riding Tongas as demeaning, preferring to distance themselves from the profession associated with their forefathers.

As Sopore marches forward into the future, the fate of the Tonga hangs in the balance.
As Sopore marches forward into the future, the fate of the Tonga hangs in the balance. Picture Courtesy: Abu Bakr

Even those involved in the ancillary businesses related to Tongas find themselves struggling to survive. Ghulam Ahmad, who deals in Tonga accessories, reflects on the decline of his trade. "It is not possible to feed even a small family on this business anymore," he says, highlighting the economic challenges faced by those connected to this fading tradition.

As the wheels of progress continue to turn, the fate of the Tonga hangs in the balance. Will it endure as a symbol of heritage and tradition, or will it fade into obscurity, remembered only in the stories passed down through generations? Only time will tell, but for now, the Tonga continues to hold its space in the streets of Sopore, a silent witness to a changing world.

Despite its historical significance, the Tonga faces an uncertain future as modern modes of transportation gain popularity. With auto-rickshaws and cars becoming the preferred choice for commuters, the demand for Tongas has dwindled.

“Back in the day, Tongas were the kings of the road. They were everywhere – ferrying passengers, delivering goods, even transporting newlyweds on their wedding day. But now, they're becoming a rare sight,” says Ghulam Ali, a local teacher from Sopore.

The decline of the Tonga industry has had far-reaching consequences, not just for the drivers, but for those associated with ancillary businesses as well. Ghulam Ahmad, a supplier of Tonga accessories, reflects on the challenges faced by his trade.

The authorities, citing reasons of traffic congestion and hygiene, have sought to replace Tongas with three-wheelers, much to the dismay of the Tongawallas.
The authorities, citing reasons of traffic congestion and hygiene, have sought to replace Tongas with three-wheelers, much to the dismay of the Tongawallas. Picture Courtesy: Abu Bakr

“There was a time when business was booming, but now, it's a struggle to make ends meet. People just aren't interested in Tongas anymore, and it's affecting all of us who rely on this industry for our livelihood.”

Yet, the advent of auto-rickshaws has cast a shadow over the future of Tongas in Sopore. The younger generation of Tongawallas, once proud stewards of this ancient tradition, now feel a sense of shame at riding a Tonga, preferring to distance themselves from a profession that is perceived as archaic and outmoded. Even those who were once associated with dealing in Tonga accessories have reluctantly abandoned their trade, as demand for such items dwindles in the face of modernization.

The authorities, citing reasons of traffic congestion and hygiene, have sought to replace Tongas with three-wheelers, much to the dismay of the Tongawallas. While acknowledging the challenges posed by Tongas, including their slow speed and the odor emanating from horse dung, many Tongawallas are steadfast in their resistance to the pressure of modernization. To them, Tongas are more than just a mode of transportation – they are a symbol of tradition, a link to their cultural heritage that must be preserved at all costs.

As Sopore undergoes rapid modernization and urbanization, the future of Tongas hangs in the balance. Yet, amidst the tumult of change, there remains a glimmer of hope that this timeless tradition will endure, cherished by future generations as a testament to the resilience and perseverance of the people of Sopore. For in preserving Tongas, we preserve not just a mode of transportation, but a piece of our shared history and identity.

As Sopore marches forward into the future, the fate of the Tonga hangs in the balance. Will it continue to hold its place in the town's collective memory, or will it fade into obscurity, remembered only in stories and photographs? Only time will tell, but for now, the echoes of tradition continue to reverberate through the streets of Sopore.

-The author Nazir Ganaie is a Kashmir based Journalist.

Despite its historical significance, the Tonga faces an uncertain future as modern modes of transportation gain popularity.
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