The last cart, the last craftsmen of Haroli

PARI volunteer Sanket Jain aims to traverse 300 villages across India and, among other stories, produce this feature: a photograph of a rural scene or event and a sketch of that photograph. This is the eighth in the series on PARI. Draw the slider either way to see the photo or sketch in full

“This is probably the last wooden bullock cart I have repaired,” says Dattatray Sutar of Haroli village. Dattatray, 60, is among the few remaining skilled makers of wooden bullock carts in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district – though he now only repairs the carts.

Crafting carts began to fade away as a skill around a decade ago in Haroli and nearby Nandani, villages once renowned in Shirol taluka for their finely crafted bullock carts. These sturdy vehicles were used for carrying agricultural produce and vairan (dry grass for cattle), as well as a means of transportation.

“A farmer from Nandani asked me to repair his bullock cart four years ago. But he never showed up and it has stayed with me,” Dattatray says. The cart, featured here, now rests in the open ground in front of his workshop, and some neighbours have kept cow dung cakes on it to dry.

Dattatray began making carts when he was around 14. His is the fourth generation in the Sutar family doing this work. He picked up the craftsmanship by observing his uncles and grandfather. Dattatray's father died when he was just six and his mother worked as an agricultural labourer.  In the past, he says, besides bullock carts of various sizes, they also made wooden agricultural implements.

“For generations only men have done this work. Women look after agriculture,” he says. His wife Kanchan, 55, reiterates, “Only men do this work [in our families]. I work in the field.”

But this work is no longer available. “I got the last order to make a wooden bullock cart a decade ago,” Dattatray recalls. The traditional cart with wooden wheels has slowly been replaced by tractors or metal (mainly iron) carts with rubber tyres.

The carts Dattatray made were 7-feet long and 3.5-feet wide, with4.5-feet high wheels.  The craftsmen used the durable babool wood, brought from the villages of Sangli district. “Each cart required at least 10 ghanfoot [1 ghanfoot = 1 cubic foot] of babool ,” says Dattatray. No nails or screws were used. Skilled workers would fasten parts into each other by drilling holes. Iron was used only for the outer covering and central part of the wheels.

“In the 1980s, selling a cart for Rs. 600 was profitable for us. One ghanfoot of babool cost only Rs. 6 then,” Dattatray says. “Now it has increased to Rs. 600. I sold my last wooden bullock cart in 2008 for Rs. 5,500.”

In the family’s once-bustling workshop, Dattatray and his four brothers along with 10 other hired labourers worked 12 hours a day. From September to May every year, they managed to manufacture around 105 bullock carts. Farmers from the villages of Kolhapur and Sangli districts in Maharashtra, and Belgaum district in Karnataka, were the family’s regular customers.

“We didn’t make carts in the rainy season. During this time, we would work in the nearby town of Ichalkaranji as carpenters repairing broken windows and chairs. For this, we cycled 22 kilometres back and forth from our village,” Datattray recalls.

Why have bullock carts become unpopular? “Iron lasts longer than wood and costs only around 40-50 rupees per kilo. And not all farmers can afford to keep a bullock now, so many rent tractors,” Dattatray replies. “Even the babool wood used for making the cart isn’t readily available [due to over-use and high demand for other purposes].”

Dattaray’s son Mahadev, in his late 30s, learned fabrication – the process of making items from iron, aluminium  and other metals – after studying till Class 12, and today he looks after the family workshop. Dattatray’s daughter Megha, 34, is married and a homemaker.

The Sutar family workshop now hires only three workers. Besides metal carts, Mahadev supervises the moulding of grilles for windows and railings for staircases, and he also makes wooden cupboards.

A metal cart costs between Rs. 10,000-14,000. “Many farmers can’t afford to spend so much, so this demand too has fallen in recent years,” Dattatray says. So he also cultivates some sugarcane on his less than one acre of land, and only occasionally  looks after the workshop that once produced some of the finest bullock carts in this region.

Sanket Jain

Sanket Jain is a journalist based in Kolhapur, Maharashtra. He is a 2022 PARI Senior Fellow and a 2019 PARI Fellow.

Other stories by Sanket Jain
Editor : Sharmila Joshi

Sharmila Joshi is former Executive Editor, People's Archive of Rural India, and a writer and occasional teacher.

Other stories by Sharmila Joshi