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Contribution to the History of the Wheeled Vehicle in India

Jean Deloche


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  • 189 The testimony of foreign observers is unequivocal: whereas in the North, in the Ganges valley or f (...)

1This analysis shows that prior to the British period, the northern plains of India were favoured with a variety of light vehicles for travelling and for goods traffic, while in the Deccan most of the country carts were heavy, ill-constructed and not fit for distant journeys.189

2The reason why the populations of Hindusthan showed much greater ingenuity than those of the Deccan as pertains to the construction of carts is perhaps due to the fact that, over the centuries, greater attention was given there to roads and their maintenance than on the peninsula: at least since Aśoka, the sovereigns of the Gangetic Plain were interested in the question of roads, and particularly in the good condition of the Grand Trunk Road and the axes leading to the Gulf of Cambay.

3It also shows that the distribution of the types of wheels reflects recent phenomena. The area of the solid wheel, today restricted to backward places, was formerly much larger; the wheel with paired cross-bars appears to have been used more commonly in north-western India (Gujarat and Rajasthan); as for the radially spoked wheel, uniformly distributed to the south of the Gangetic plain, it is certain that its area was more dispersed: absent from Kashmir and Assam, rarely used on the west coast and on the Deccan plateau, it was known in the plains of Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh, Barar, Khandesh and, associated with the paired spoke wheel, in Gujarat.

4If new designs were chosen for cart building in the regions where cartage was not practised, there is no evidence of any incorporation of foreign technology in the new models of rural vehicles: the techniques were adopted from adjacent regions which had already developed efficient vehicles. The process of diffusion of the innovations remained well within the limits of Indian society and culture.

5The bullock cart, symbol of rural India, remained almost entirely indigenous.

6Last remark. Readers will be interested to learn whether the bullock cart has been improved recently. According to experts, better designs for wheel and axle, yoke and harness, are needed. It has therefore been suggested that four wheels are used instead of two, in order to improve stability and reduce weight on the animal, but this would require more space for turning than is usually available on rural roads; it has also been proposed to increase the thickness of the felloe to reduce road wear and tear, but this would also make turning more difficult; then, to use pneumatic tyres to give a smoother ride, but their smaller diameter makes them unsuitable for rough terrains; ball bearings and roller bearings increase the efficiency and reduce the strain on the animals, but their cost and maintenance make them impracticable.

7At a seminar on bullock cart transport held at Rourkela in 1973, among the few prototype designs presented, one was an all metal bullock cart with a lower centre of gravity, built at the Regional Engineering College, Warangal; engineers at the I.I.M. Bengalur had developed many prototypes with improved bearings, wheels and harnessing systems; they had incorporated braking systems, spring suspensions, solid rubber tyres and spring suspended harnesses. However, as the sizes and breeds of bullocks vary widely across the country and the ideal size of cart and load capacity for each type is not known, none of these vehicles were considered suitable for large scale implementation.

8If the traditional bullock cart is still used in most parts of India, it is probably because the farmers, through trial and error over the ages, had already determined the best combinations.


189 The testimony of foreign observers is unequivocal: whereas in the North, in the Ganges valley or from the Jamuna to the Gulf of Cambay, hundred of carts were frequently used in caravans to transport goods, in the Vijayanagara empire all transport was effected by pack animals. Tavernier 1925, vol. I, p. 142, specifies in his account that, south of Golkonda, carts were not used for travelling and that only pack animals and palanquins were employed (for the references, see Deloche 1993, vol. I, pp. 255–273).

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2014

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