September 08, 2019


The Scream, Edvard Munch
The Scream, Edvard Munch

Bridges mean many things to many people. One can see our life journey as the building of bridges — such as establishing relationships, developing a language to communicate, teaching, composing music, writing letters, publishing books, praying to God or engaging in peace talks. Each generation is also a bridge between the past and the future.

The author Les Coleman points out, “A bridge has no allegiance to either side.” It is neutral, connecting and enabling both sides. There may, however, be uncertainty about crossing a bridge, expressed by the French anthropologist Jean-Pierre Vernant, “As leaving the familiar and entering the unknown.”

Most myths about life after death involve the crossing of a dangerous river — the Greek River Styx, the Mesopotamian Hubur, the Norse Gjoll, the Vaitarna in Hinduism. In Muslim traditions, after the Day of Judgement, all persons will walk across a bridge thinner than a hair called Pul-i-Siraat. True believers will cross it easily while those who have erred will find it difficult and may slip down into hell. Zoroastrianism has a similar concept of a bridge called the Chinvat Bridge.

Physical bridges are emblems of human determination, connecting otherwise unreachable locations, whether the dangerously rickety Hussaini Hanging Bridge  across the Hunza River or the magnificent 102-mile Chinese Danyang — Kunshan Grand Bridge, the world’s longest bridge. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and London’s Tower Bridge have become symbols of those cities.

The Chinese have built thousands of bridges from ancient times, many with elaborate shrines upon them. The shrines may be dedicated to the gods of war, commerce, scholarship or for returning souls, indicating the aims of perilous journeys away from home. In Dong culture, rituals and meetings were held on bridges across rivers representing energy or chi. Brides were carried across bridges and barren or pregnant women crossed bridges to receive a waiting soul. Symbolic bridges like stools or wooden planks could be used for the same purpose.

Japanese Zen bridges or hashi (edge) — an essential part of Japanese gardens — connect the world of man to the world of nature. Splitting a bridge into two or more paths is to confuse evil spirits who can only travel in straight lines.

The philosopher Heidegger says, “Bridges give identity to the banks they span, ‘collect and unite’ stream bank and land into one neighbourhood.” In Paris, Rive Gauche (Left Bank) developed its own identity as the haunt of artists, writers and philosophers, distinct from the bourgeois Rive Droit (Right Bank).

The author Les Coleman points out, “A bridge has no allegiance to either side.”

Bridges have a poetic symbolism. The Bridge of Sighs was the last view of Venice convicts saw before their imprisonments, inspiring poets Lord Byron and Thomas Hood. Die Brucke (the Bridge) was a group of German Expressionist painters who wanted to carry art across to the future. Lovers place locks on bridges in Paris, London, Rome and Venice.

Some bridges are unfortunately known as suicide bridges, a despair caught in Edvard Munch’s painting ‘The Scream.’ In Arthur Miller’s play A View from a Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge represents the possibility of a new life. Noor Jehan’s song Sanoo neher walay pul pe bula te huray mahi kithay reh gaya (where are you, my lover, after calling me to meet you on the bridge over the canal?) has the fear of abandonment, while Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters has soothed generations of despondent spirits.

Castles had moveable drawbridges that could be pulled up in defence. A 2016 issue of The Economist uses the term “Drawbridges up” to describe the resistance of Europe and America to migrants and urges “drawbridge-downers” to fight back for a more equitable and welcoming world.

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 8th, 2019