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
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
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.