Truck painting and decorating has emerged as a vibrant form of folk art in India. Thought to have started in Pakistan, the practice has spread to all corners of India. These “painted ladies” of the Indian highways have captured the imagination of many photographers and have even inspired a Monopoly spinoff called Truckopoly.
Horn OK Please
The most common design element seen on trucks is the slogan “Horn OK Please.” It simply means to use the horn before trying to pass, since most trucks do not have functional side view mirrors and lane discipline is seldom observed, if there are lanes at all.
The question is, why is there an “OK” in the middle? There are several theories about the origins of this phrase, but the most intriguing one dates back to World War II, when many trucks in India ran on kerosene. These trucks could explode easily if hit, so it was important to warn other drivers “Horn Please, On Kerosene.”
Another explanation is that the phrase got started on trucks made by TATA. “OK TATA” is a common way of saying goodbye in India, so truck drivers would place “OK” next to the TATA logo, with “Horn Please” painted on either side but not connected to it.
Bangalore "Sound O Horn K Please" and Delhi "OK TATA"
Use Dipper At Night
When overtaking a truck at night, honking is not enough; using the dipper (high-beams) is required. First, you flash your dipper at the truck. When the truck turns on his left or right turn signal that means it’s safe to pass on that side. Truckers still use hand signals to tell drivers they are clear to pass during the day, but at night turn signals do the job. It’s very common in the north parts of India to see “Use Dipper At Night” painted next to “Horn Please.”
Rajasthani trucks offering numerous driving tips including "Use Dipper At Night" and "Wait for Side"
Many trucks do not have any brake lights, but almost every truck has “STOP” on its mudflaps. Most trucks also advertise their speed (usually 40 km/hr) and instruct drivers to “Wait for Side” meaning wait to pass. I once saw a taxi that said “A/C no signal,” meaning it is an air conditioned car so the driver won’t be rolling down the windows to give hand signals.
Truck As Wife
I’ve asked a lot of people why truckers take so much care to decorate their trucks. A common response is that truckers are on the road and away from their families and wives for so long that they begin to see and treat their trucks like their wives. In this light, adorning a truck with flowers and painting human features on it is more meaningful than an outward show of customization. The decorations symbolize the personification of the truck as a wife, and the act of decorating represents the husband’s devotion and love for her. Personification doesn't stop there. One truck-spotting blogger observes that, "Many trucks are also referred to as sons (beta), daughers (beti), tigresses (shernee), male brats (ladla) or female brats (laadli)."
Trucks of Kerala, Karnataka and Rajasthan (Kerala photos by Hannah Regier)
Devils & Charms
Devils frequently appear on the front and rear fenders, and sometimes on the rear axle itself. They all come with horns, fangs, outstretched tongue and an elaborate mustache. Their job is simple – to ward off evil, to prevent accidents.
Fender devils of Delhi and Bangalore
Many other charms and religious symbols can be found on trucks, from the OM sign, to swastikas to shoes. Wait, shoes? In Rajasthan it’s not uncommon to see a shoe dangling from the back of a rickshaw to ward off the evil eye. On trucks, the shoe is sometimes painted on mudflaps.
The "shoe" charm on a soda pop truck in Jaipur, and a Nandi/Shiva scene from Delhi
Public Messaging Platform
One day I spotted a truck in Bangalore with an intriguing message on it: “We Two Ours One.” This is a variant of the Hindi phrase “Hum do, hamare do,” which roughly translates “we two, ours two” or “two children per family.” This truck was promoting an even stricter family planning regime of one child per family, but why? And who painted this on the truck? One theory is that local governments paint these on the trucks as a way of reaching rural populations, a kind of mobile public service announcement. Since many trucks cross state lines, it’s a way for one state to spread a potentially controversial message to another.
Family planning message, Bangalore
One of the most serious health/social issues in the trucking community is AIDS. Truckers are believed to be one of the biggest carriers of the disease. Slogans like “Stop AIDS” appear on some trucks, but it is a rarity. Taking it to the next level, Shantanu Suman has designed a deck of cards for Indian truckers with the slogan “Use Rubber At Night,” complete with truck-art typography and Raj-inspired face cards. If only they were for sale.