The thing with three-wheelers in Delhi is that once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. With green and yellow exteriors and plain interiors and sometimes a picture of their respective deity/religious leader or Salman Khan wedged between the frame of the three-wheeler and the tarpaulin, there’s very little distinguish one three wheeler from the other. Even the drivers are supposed to wear a standard uniform so there’s little room for individuality. This fantastic realization dawned on me a year or so ago when Indian A left her phone in a tuk-tuk and we had to do a mad dash around Central Delhi trying to find the right three-wheeler.
I’m not sure how it is in the rest of India but compared to Delhi, their Sri Lankan counterparts are definitely more personalized and have more character. Maybe it’s the lack of the fourth wheel and complete disregard for road rules, but for the longest time, I found it hard to take tuk-tuks as a serious form of transport but I’ve watched how the Lankan three-wheeler has come of age gradually and it’s pretty interesting.
Most drivers I’ve spoken to have their own three-wheelers while some of them are rented and a certain amount paid regularly to the owner. I’ve seen three-wheeler drivers back at home look after their vehicles with meticulous care and how at times, their vehicles are even an extension or representation of themselves (Ex: Bad ass tuk-tuk = heavily tattooed driver + super loud engine + heavy beats) Till a few years back, most three-wheelers were sparse and unembellished. Sometimes, there would be an androgynous baby poster on the inner sides or a token landscape poster with a random quote (home is where the heart is, smile and the world will smile with you, etc) but that was basically it.
It may have begun with the introduction of a stereo at the back (which took up almost all the storage space and gave way to after-hour three-wheeler parties on the side of the road) and more three-wheelers in varying colours. Snazzier interiors replaced the usual ones. The bars, handles or whatchamacallits were gradually revamped. Fancy, metallic work or padded frames replaced the plain frames, a light inside for the convenience of the passenger was introduced along with more storage space and bottle holders (for the driver).
Dashboards are now decorated with enthusiasm. There’s a curious tendency for flowers and plastic grapes dangling distractingly.
Or you know, hello kitty bobble heads.
Some tuk-tuks even come with skylights.
Sometimes, Bob Marley chills in three-wheelers
With leery babies and their austere mothers.
St. Fallen posted a picture yesterday of a trishaw with two fans – one for the driver and one for the passenger. How’s that for service?
Wearing your religion on your sleeve is another distinct feature of Sri Lankan three-wheelers. Religious symbols are predominant while figurines, garlands and statues adorn the dashboard. If you hail a tuk early enough, you might see the traces of the morning incense and flowers strewn on the dashboard as well. Sometimes, Buddhist and Quran verses are on the exterior or a short prayer asking to bless the respective vehicle.
And of course, the trishaw wisdom. Megs has done a fantastic job documenting quotes and general pearls of profoundness three wheelers in Sri Lanka dispense. Some of them are pure gold. I’ve popped in a few but I’d advise you to check the full collection out over here on Pinterest. (All pictures of trishaw quotes via Megs’ Pinterest page)
Living in SL, it was something I took for granted and it wasn’t until I noticed the homogeneity of the Delhi wheelers that I realized how Lankan three wheelers have morphed over the years. My favourite features would be the dashboard decorations and the quotes. I’m not sure about the functional aspects and engine enhancements, but if they’re jazzing up the rims I’m going to guess that they’ve made internal improvements as well, along the road.
It’ll be interesting to see what would be added on in the future. I’ve seen wheelers being used to advertise stuff and it’s only a matter of time before some genius decided to harness its full potential and go all out in a commercial frenzy like the buses of Colombo have been subjected to. Which although an eye sore, it would mean an additional source of income for the drivers and extra money is always welcome.
I’m going to keep my fingers crossed for trishaw-art or a Sri Lankan version of the London Underground (but instead of the subway, the tuk-tuk) with Sinhala and Tamil poetry. Not sure how feasible poetry would be as a mass communication tool but hey, this is just wishful thinking.