Around the streets of Karachi, the rickshaw is a common sight. There’s hardly a street you can cross without seeing one, whether traditional and bright, with designs and pictures coloured on its outside, or one of the newer ‘eco-friendly’ types, painted in bold primary colours.

They dominate the streets, manoeuvring through tight spots, chugging and puffing out clouds of smoke, their colourful exterior making everyone aware of their presence. But have you ever wondered how this jazzy three-wheeled vehicle came to be?

We’ve all studied the history of cars, boats and other forms of transport, but does anyone have any idea where the rickshaw originated? Was the early rickshaw the same as it is today? Why it was given its unique name? Let’s try to follow the noisy, colourful trail of history the rickshaw has marked over surprisingly, many different parts of the world.

The original rickshaw, in its early days, was a human-drawn vehicle, much like the traditional ‘tuk-tuks’ we find around the streets of Thailand. You may think, seeing so many rickshaws on the streets of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, that the rickshaw was probably invented and used first only around the subcontinent. Well, think again!

The earliest versions of human-powered ‘mobile chairs’ were the earliest forms of rickshaws, and they first appeared in France, during the reign of the French King Louis XIV, during the 17th century. Although most people give credit to an American Baptist missionary, living in Japan, called Jonathan Goble, for inventing the original design of the first pulled cycle rickshaw.

He was living in Yokohama, Japan, during the 1800s and decided to create an innovative vehicle which would comfortable transport his invalid, physically weak wife around the streets of the city. This new machine was christened the ‘Jinrikisha’, which in Japanese means ‘man-powered vehicle’, and it was later shortened to ‘rickshaw’ in English.

Thus took place the birth of the first man-pulled rickshaw, in the year 1869. This method of transportation became massively popular in Japan, with over 150,000 vehicles appearing in Japan only 10 years after it was invented! In fact, by 1872, there were some 40,000 rickshaws operating in Tokyo, and became the most popular mode of transport in the country.

Soon, the vehicle’s popularity spread to other parts of Asia, appearing in Singapore, China and Burma around 1900. It was introduced in India by Chinese traders, who used them to transport goods. Later, in 1914, the Chinese applied for government permission to start using rickshaws to transport people and soon they had established themselves in all the big cities of South Asia, as it was a popular job for peasants migrating from the small villages.

The rickshaw craze had even reached South Africa, especially in the city of Durban, where these rickshaws were pulled by fierce Zulu tribesmen! Can you imagine riding in a rickshaw pulled by a fearsome African warrior?

Rickshaws were still popular in Japan, until World War II, when they were used increasingly because the prices of petrol had risen very high. But once the war was over, Japan converted to using motorised vehicles, and the human-drawn rickshaw was less frequently seen.

Pulling a rickshaw is a strenuous and tiring work. Imagine spending the entire day cycling around bumpy, crowded roads in the heat, with bags of wheat and groups of people seated in the back! Many people could cram into the rickshaw in those days, and the poor driver had to work so hard to get them to their destinations quickly.The Pakistani government outlawed the pulled rickshaw in the early 1960s.

So when motorised, auto rickshaws came into being, the human-pulled rickshaws, which required so much effort, became less popular. The auto rickshaw used in Pakistan is based loosely on the model released by the Japanese company Daihatsu Midget.

Lahore is a major producer of auto rickshaws in Pakistan. The government also plans to turn all petrol-run auto rickshaws into CNG rickshaws by 2015, which are more environment-friendly and even reduce noise and air pollution, as they do not jerk-start with a bang or emit steady trails of black smoke as they whiz past!

So when you think about it, the early rickshaw, pulled by a sweaty, tired Frenchman in France during the 1700s, has certainly changed drastically to the efficient, comfortable models we see on the streets today.

Did you know rickshaws are forbidden in Islamabad?