The Howrah Bridge is one of the most distinguished national landmarks, tourist attractions and engineering wonders in Kolkata, India. It is a suspension-type cantilevered bridge that crosses the Hooghly River connecting the twin cities, Howrah and Kolkata (old name: Calcutta). The bridge was opened and named New Howrah Bridge in 1943 and then renamed as Rabindra Setu in 1965. Today, however, it remains widely known as Howrah Bridge. It used to be the third longest bridge of its kind and is now the sixth longest.
The bridge and Hooghly River are famous symbols of Kolkata and the state of West Bengal. The 260-km long Hooghly River is a well-known distributary channel of the mighty Ganges River. Vivekananda Setu and Nivedita Setu are two other important bridges that span the width of the Hooghly.
With so many people living and commuting in Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, Howrah Bridge could easily be one of the busiest cantilever bridges in the world. Over 100,000 vehicles and possibly more than 150,000 pedestrians pass over it every day. Surveys reveal that total traffic in a year is about 1.5 million pedestrians and one million vehicles. It also battles the stormy weather that is typical in the Bay of Bengal region. Below are three characteristics that make this engineering feat truly unique.
One, it was constructed without nuts and bolts, but simply rivets. It was built using 26,500 tons of steel including 23,000 tons of high-tensile steel alloy. The road-bridge is flanked by 15-foot wide footpaths. When it was finally completed, the Indian Government did not organize any elaborate inaugural program to celebrate a major infrastructural achievement. Indian officials were afraid that any formal opening would catch the attention of Japanese planes that were at war with the Allied Powers during that time. The first ever vehicle that crossed the bridge was a solitary tram.
Two, the bridge’s most menacing enemies are neither the elements nor the tons and tons of vehicles that regular pass over it, but bird droppings and human spit. Based on an investigation conducted in 2003, the continuous accumulation of bird wastes creates a chemical reaction that corrodes the steel. To solve this problem, the Kolkata Port Trust initiates regular and costly cleaning and repainting of the bridge every year. Kolkata Port Trust is tasked with the maintenance of the bridge.
Human spitting, on the other hand, has been observed to reduce the thickness of the steel hoods by six to three millimeters or less. The hoods protect the pillars and prevent water from seeping into the cross-girders and hangers. This thinning of the bridge could affect its structural integrity and therefore weaken the entire structure.
And finally, the third unique characteristic of Howrah Bridge is its cultural significance. It has, through the years, symbolized not just the city of Calcutta but also the entire country. Rudyard Kipling could not help mentioning this bridge in his short story “City of Dreadful Night”. The famous writer said, “Why, this is London! This is the docks. This is Imperial. This is worth coming across India to see!” The famous bridge has also been featured in several major Bollywood movies.