Kumar's chariots are used only occasionally now, but he remembers a time when his family thrived on the business.

Chennai on a chariot Kumar and his horse carriages are remnants of the citys pastKumar
Features Human Interest Tuesday, August 07, 2018 - 15:33

“Our horses are very well behaved. If you are okay with the rates, you can call me. Here, take my card.” A shiny blue card with pictures of decorated horses and a grand chariot, with the name S Kumar printed in red above the words “Horses and coach for shooting and functions” is handed over to us.

When we tell him that we’re not there to rent one of his chariots, confusion looms in Kumar’s eager brown eyes. As President of Chennai Kudhirai Savari Thozhilalargal Nala Sangam - Viduthalai Munnetram (a welfare organisation for people in the trade), Kumar manages the remnants of what was once the city’s thriving tanga horse shelters.

“My grandfather Francis was an English man,” he begins with some pride, “and he married my grandmother Sengalamma who was Tamil.”

Kumar’s grandfather worked as a horse-drawn chariot driver for the British and his half English, half Indian sons - Standov Murthy and Daniel - followed their father in their family business. “My father Standov owned 10 tanga vehicles in the eighties," says Kumar.

These tanga horse vehicles were used by the public before Independence and were also in use for a few decades after it. “The public liked travelling in these to places like Central station, Egmore station, snake park and the beach, among other tourist places. It used to look very grand,” says Kumar.

But now, what remains of the quarter-of-a-kilometre long tanga stand near Chennai Central, is a few meters of a cloth covered make-shift stable, supported by bamboo sticks. Six horses, in varying shades of white, stand beneath it and a few chariots are parked on the pavement, covered tightly with plastic sheets and ropes.

We are introduced to the well-behaved inhabitants, some busy scouting for straw on the floor and the others vacantly gazing at everyday traffic, swatting flies with their tails while neighing and kicking the ground intermittently. “Meet James, Yakobe (Jacob), Yeshuva (Joshua), Jhansi and Samuel," says Kumar.

As we speak, Shyam, Kumar’s 14-year-old nephew jumps up and down from the chariot - red and gold, studded with colourful plastic stones, and still encased in its transparent plastic sheet - untying ropes and removing covers for us to see. Standing right next to the chariot is a white horse with tiny grey specks on its skin, a wisp of white hair on its crown. “She’s Laisa. Kumar mama’s first horse,” grins Shyam.

Some of Kumar’s chariots are as old as Independent India.

“I currently own only two chariots. My uncle had 20 but only 7 or 8 are in good condition now. I’d show them to you but they’re not in good condition because it’s not being frequently used. I can send photos on WhatsApp if you like,” offers Kumar.

“You must have seen one of our old chariots in Madarasapattinam - the caged one,” he adds after some thought.

Kumar rents out his horses and chariots for public events and for weddings which brings him a few thousands. “Sometimes, we may not have any event for 6 months. During those times, we borrow money from people we know to feed our horses. Which bank will give us loans? The government in fact is looking at ways to remove us from here. They want their roads to look beautiful, don’t they,” he says with some impatience.

While horse/bullock-drawn vehicles went out of use eventually, the DMK regime, back in the 1960s, banned rickshaws hand-pulled by men. Then came the pedal model rickshaws, which many might nostalgically recall riding to school or to the market. These have now been largely replaced by auto rickshaws and rickshaws fixed with motors. Even today, the pedal model rickshaws are still in use in north Chennai, Mylapore and in few other parts of the city.

But the future for Kumar and his stable of horses remains bleak. “Now people come to us rarely for functions like weddings or for inviting certain leaders in chariots. Who cares about parambriyam (traditions)?” he rues.

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