The most striking aspect of landscape and society in Pakistan is the vision of trucks and buses completely covered in a riot of color and design. They might spew diesel fumes, they may take up all of the winding, narrow, under-maintained road one is trying to negotiate, but they are certainly noticeable, like so many mechanical dinosaurs adorned in full courtship colors.

The decoration of vehicles is a common practice in a number of countries in addition to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Similar techniques and materials are employed in truck and (more frequently) bus decoration in the Philippines, Indonesia, and several countries in Central and South America; in South Asia itself, Indian trucks are painted, as are the scooter rickshaws, called "Baby Taxis", of Bangladesh. What makes the case of Pakistan (and Afghanistan) unique, however, is the pervasiveness of vehicle decoration, since decoration is heavily utilized on virtually all privately and fleet-owned commercial vehicles, from the well known trucks and buses, to vans, share taxis, animal carts and even juice vendors' push carts. I am engaged in a major research topic on the decoration of trucks in Pakistan out of which I plan to produce a book and several articles. This site is intended as a very brief introduction to the importance of symbolism in Pakistani truck decoration.

It is worth noting that vehicle decoration is an expensive undertaking. On average, it costs US$5000 to do the bodywork on a truck, although in some cases people spend much more. The majority of Pakistani trucks are not owner-operated but belong to fleets, it is the norm for fleet owners to authorize the driver to take the vehicle to a coachwork shop at company expense and have it decorated according to his own taste (although in the case of many fleets all trucks have similar lettering and colors on the side panels). Given the lack of direct economic benefit in decorating a truck to the owner or operator, and the absolute pervasiveness of this form of art (it is safe to say that every intercity privately owned truck in Pakistan is decorated), it becomes obvious that the motivation to decorate lies somewhere else. The motifs represented on trucks display not just aesthetic considerations, but attempts to depict aspects of the religious, sentimental and emotional worldviews of the individuals employed in the truck industry. And since trucks represent the major means of transporting cargo throughout Pakistan, truck decoration might very well be this society's major form of representational art.

My data has been collected in northern and southern Pakistan; I've focused my attention on the Karakorum Highway, the main commercial artery which connects Pakistan to China; on Rawalpindi, where the routes to China split from the east-west route to Afghanistan, and on the commercial center of Karachi. In addition to photographing trucks to analyze their designs, I've interviewed truckers on the road, at rest stops and while they are having their trucks built up. I've visited truck design workshops, interviewed artists at their homes and places of work, interviewed artisans who manufacture the smaller pieces of art which are attached to the truck after the main designing is done. Through this research, I have identified a number of design schools, although they tend to be extremely dynamic in modifying styles and motifs, as well as unselfconscious, so that motifs are added and removed with great rapidity. Nevertheless, there are at least four basic schools of truck design. The commonest is the Rawalpindi school, which accounts for most trucks built up in the northern Punjab (Rawalpindi, Hasanabdal, Haripur, and the Gujranwala area). These trucks have ornate metal cowling above the windshield and rely heavily on plastic applique in their decoration. The trucks of Swat (a wide valley in the northwest of the country) are distinctive for their carved wooden doors and limited use of plastic and hammered metalwork. The trucks of Peshawar (a city close to the Khyber Pass on one of the two main routes connecting Pakistan and Afghanistan) fall somewhere in between the Rawalpindi and Swat schools. They often have carved wooden doors (although, unlike the trucks of Swat, their doors are likely to be painted) and they use a metal cowling, only the cowling tends to be simpler than that of a Rawalpindi truck. The Karachi school is difficult to define, and I am inclined to see it not as one school at all but an amalgamation. Karachi, as Pakistan's major sea and land port as well as primary metropolitan area, has more trucks than any other place in the country. It also has truckers and trucks from every other region, many of whom chose to decorate their trucks in the tradition of the up country region to which they belong. The only distinctive Karachi design I have been able to identify has wooden relief work colored with iridescent paints over the windshield. This design is most common in water tankers, a kind of truck ubiquitous in Karachi and not at all common in other areas.

The motifs on the trucks can be categorized in five groups:

1. Idealized elements of life, such as the romanticized village, landscapes or beautiful women.
2. Elements from modern life, such as pictures of political figures or patriotic symbols.
3. Talismanic and fetish objects, such as horns, yak tails and items of clothing.
4. Talismanically or religiously loaded symbols, such as eyes and fish.
5. .Obvious religious symbols and images such as Buraq (a celestial horse that is believed to have carried the Prophet Muhammad on a spiritual journey to heaven).

However, by far the commonest religious symbols appearing on a truck are the Ka'ba and Prophets mosque, appearing on the left and right of the front of the truck somewhere towards the top.

Pakistani trucks transform the landscape into a check work of moving religious and cultural tableaus, mobile talismans through which the truckers protect themselves and their livelihood, and itinerant homes which bear visual testimony to the truckers' sense of place and belonging. It is not clearly established that either the truckers or the truck designers are entirely clear on what the symbolism of the motifs used in truck design actually is. In fact, many truckers I've talked to plead ignorance of all the symbols and claim that they are either purely aesthetic choices, or else were put there at the sole discretion of the truck designer. However, I would argue that religious images, even at their least denotative, or most abstract, are images nonetheless; they are perceived and – to paraphrase Paul Ricoeur – perception gives rise to symbols, and symbols give rise to thought and response.

I would argue that one can make sense of the Pakistan truck which, at first glance, appears to be an explosive expression of popular or folk art. The side panels are used to depict the imagined home, thereby situating the driver, who by definition is never at home, in a social geography. The nomadic nature of the driver is critical to his self-conception, consciously articulated by him in conversation as well as in the music he listens to. The truck functions not only as his home away from home, but also his means of livelihood as well as his partner. The last concern explains the general motivation to decorate the truck as well as to feminize it and endow it with bridal symbols. The symbolism connected with safety of person and livelihood dominates the truck and also the truckers behavior (visits to shrines, the interior of the truck).

Built into the symbol, as a perceptual metaphor, is the capacity to pattern responses concerning how the individual relates to the world or to the divine. Thus the symbols used in truck decoration in particular (and vehicle decoration in general), even when they are not consciously representative of a particular religious message in the iconic sense, are still shaped by a notion of the religious place of the individual, by a religious worldview, and they still elicit responses which are framed within the parameters of that particular worldview. That these religious symbols are pictorial, and that the religious responses are elicited by pictorial representation, raises many questions about the role of religious art in a society that views itself as resolutely aniconic, that discussion is for another time.

© Jamal Elias, 2001