Mumbai: Victoria horse carriages, a remnant of the British Raj, were for decades a major tourist attraction in Bombay, as it then was. Taking in the charms of British-era Gothic architecture from the low-slung vantage point of the Victoria was historically apt, before they were consigned to memory and museum on the instructions of the Bombay High Court in 2015.
But now, the sightseeing staple has made a comeback on Mumbai’s streets, as a battery operated vehicle without the horses.
Starting late in 2021, Mumbaikars and the many tourists to the city have the option to experience landmarks at a stately pace, riding these e-Victorias.
The new four-seater e-carriages are conceptualised by UBO Ridez company, and the Khaki Tours company arranges curated tours. Ketan Kadam of UBO Ridez tells ThePrint that being battery operated, the e-Victorias are completely eco-friendly. Currently, seven such cars are out on the roads, and their speed is under 20km/hr.
The rides start at Rs 500 for 10 minutes, and go up to Rs 2,000 for a 40-minute ride without a curator, Kadam informs. With curators giving one a perfect vision of heritage Mumbai, the price for a one-hour ride can even go up to Rs 5,000 for the entire carriage, informs Bharat Gothoskar of Khaki Tours.
From Victoria to e-Victoria via Bollywood
French in origin and related to the light phaeton and brougham, Victorias in the 19th century had a partial canopy and space to stretch one’s legs on a winter’s ramble down Marine Drive, its slender, elegant frame belittling other cruder forms of transport. At night, the gas flashlight by the coachman’s box would throw a feeble light into the dark streets echoing with the clip-clop of hooves. The Bombay version was sturdier, seated more than the usual two, and carried British and Indian notables around town.
This later version was celebrated in the Hindi film Victoria 203 (1972), a crime caper in which the lovable villains Raja and Rana, played by the inimitable Ashok Kumar and Pran, dashed around town in the titled carriage, driven by a disguised Saira Banu!
Earlier, the horse carriages were owned and run by private individuals. Out of the 130 licensed carriages, four individuals owned 32.
But in 2012, PETA approached the Bombay High Court, citing animal cruelty and asking for a ban. It won a favourable verdict three years later.
That is when Ketan Kadam thought of preserving these heritage vehicles.
“Even the mayor of New York had announced that Central Park would be rid of horses and electric vehicles would take over. Then I realised there is obviously an opportunity, since somebody has thought about it,” Kadam tells ThePrint.
He approached the carriage owners, took specifications of the carriages, and discussed it with a company in China. He asked the company to design these carriages with lithium ion battery and a motor whose speed would not exceed 20km/hr. On a single charge, the carriages can run for 60-70 km. There are over 30 drivers being trained on these carriages.
The e-Victorias have been given a heritage look, are fitted with British coach lanterns and currently operate in the South Mumbai area.
The original plan was to launch the e-Victorias by 2019, but it got delayed to 2020. Then, the pandemic-induced lockdown intervened.
They were finally introduced in October 2021, and Kadam says despite the recent rise in Covid restrictions that shuts down the service early, “our number of rides have increased compared to what we used to have, by almost 50 per cent”.
The interesting meld of a traditional-modern experience is brought to the public by Khaki Tours, which is all about “magical story-telling”, says Gothoskar of Khaki Tours, which conducts various heritage walks across the city, including an urban safari. For these reasons, Gothoskar was approached personally by Kadam to join the venture.
“These curated story-telling rides last about 45-50 minutes, where we engage with people and tell them about the city, because we want the maximum number of people to experience history and heritage.”
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The feel of a ride
The carriages can be found at such iconic places as Kala Ghoda, Nariman Point and the Gateway of India. Tours start from these locations and take tourists to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus via Hutatma Chowk and Dr DN Road.
On curated rides, a member of the Khaki Tours team narrates to the passengers the historic importance of each building on its itinerary.
“For example, when we tell them that Regal Cinema in Colaba was the first air-conditioned theatre in Asia, they are genuinely surprised. Likewise, when we tell them why the roof of Bombay High court is so steep, or that the Taj hotel is older than the Gateway of India,” says Gothoskar.
Coachmen back in business
When the horse-driven carriages were stopped in 2015, about 30-35 coachmen who gave rides to tourists lost their jobs. But e-Victorias gave them back their beloved profession. After being hired, the drivers were given training for around a month.
Sajid, who has driven horse carriages for 10-12 years, now expertly manoeuvres the e-Victoria around Mumbai.
“This is much better now. With the horse, it was high maintenance, and there is no stable around anyway. Even though we have lost the case, this arrangement is much better,” says Sajid.
He adds that during weekends, he does about 10-12 rides a day, and some six-seven rides on weekdays. “People are happy. Demand is more for the longer rides that last about an hour,” he says.
Plans for expansion
Khaki Tours and UBO Ridez plan to expand the e-Victoria service across Mumbai, and then to other cities in Maharashtra. The plan is to get 20 more cars by the end of January 2022 and expand to the entire city of Mumbai, including Bandra, Juhu, Five Gardens and Sanjay Gandhi National Park.
By March, the entire city will have been covered, along with neighbouring Thane and Vashi. Later, Pune and Nagpur would join in too, with two e-Victorias earmarked for each of those cities.
UBO Ridez are also in talks about introducing the e-Victorias with authorities in Matheran, the hill station in the Western Ghats where tourists often take horse rides. They also want to include Nashik in their journey, within the charmed circle of savouring heritage at a slow march.
(Edited by Saikat Niyogi)
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