RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — Everything about Pakistani trucks is exuberant and over-the-top, from the colors to the boisterous designs to the intricate wood carvings on the doors. Each one is elaborately decorated, and no two trucks are alike.
For the drivers and the artists who decorate their vehicles, Pakistani trucks are more than just trucks.
“When we decorate it, we hope people will look at our truck with love,” says Muhammad Ejaz Mughal, a longtime truck artist who learned the craft from his father and now runs a small studio from his home. “When a truck is decorated, we consider it to be like a bride and decorate it and take care of it.”
Just off the main commercial road between Islamabad and Rawalpindi, there are artists, welders, metal workers, horn sellers and electricians, all busy refurbishing and decorating the massive vehicles parked in the yard. Their sprawling space, called the carriage factory area, is devoted to the maintenance and care of creations that serve a utilitarian purpose — transporting goods from one place to another — while looking and sounding as impressive as possible.
Every driver wants his truck to be the most admired vehicle on the road.
“We ensure that when a truck goes on the road, it looks beautiful. It has a variety of beauty,” Mughal says. “It should look like the most beautiful, so that’s what we try to do.”
Truck painting has become a distinctively Pakistani art form
Scholars have traced evidence of decorated transport in the Subcontinent back thousands of years. The Pakistani practice of truck painting began gaining widespread popularity soon after the country’s independence. Mughal says his father, Haji Habib Rahman, was one of the country’s early truck artists.
While trucks in India and other countries may feature embellishment, few are decorated quite as extravagantly — or as thoroughly and painstakingly — as Pakistani trucks.
Rigs big and small are covered with designs, colorful stickers and fanciful paintings — hearts, flowers, peacocks, movie stars, folk singers, animals, politicians, angels and army generals. Chains dangling off the bottom jingle and sway with the truck’s stops and turns.
There are lines of poetry in swirls of calligraphy expressing the loneliness of the long-haul trucker: “My beloved,” says an Urdu couplet on the back of one truck, “I am surprised to see you on the shore of the sea. You left me in the middle of the sea in trouble, and now you are walking on the shore.”
Styles vary by region, and in Rawalpindi people tend to favor truck art that Mughal describes as “disco.” Mirrorwork and embossed metal shine and glitter — not just on the exterior, but inside the drivers’ cabs too. In recent years, some trucks have begun adding multicolored flashing lights.
Pakistani anthropologist and filmmaker Samar Minallah Khan says Pakistan’s tradition of truck art is special in part because it overturns assumptions about truckers.
“It just celebrates their culture, their way of life,” she says. “You see that they are artists. They are poets. They have a sense of humor. They are fond of nature. They are fond of, you know, so many things that need to be celebrated.”
Trucks are Pakistan’s primary mode of freight transport
There are more than 200,000 registered trucks on Pakistan’s roads — and likely many more in total, since the informal nature of the industry makes a complete count difficult. Trucks remain the primary means of transporting freight due the poor condition of the country’s rail system.
Often loaded to near-bursting, they heave their way along highways, up and down rough mountain roads and in and around city streets, hauling their tons of goods — everything from gravel, cement and bricks to wheat, cotton and fruit. Many are majestic old Bedford trucks, no longer in production.
The trucks need to be reconditioned and repainted regularly. Jamal Elias, a University of Pennsylvania professor and author of On Wings of Diesel: Trucks, Identity and Culture in Pakistan, has estimated that trucks need to be repainted every five years or so. Fully refurbishing one costs thousands of dollars, tradesmen at the Rawalpindi carriage factory area say, and can require the labor and expertise of some four dozen people.
Drivers and owners have a say, but the artist’s vision usually prevails
Squatting alongside a truck at the workshop, a painter named Irfan Muhammad puts finishing touches on a mountain valley scene in vivid green, orange, blue and red. He’s been painting trucks for 20 years now. His favorite subject is peacocks — he admires their beauty — but other truck artists favor different animals, usually for symbolic effect.
Sometimes, says Mughal, “They paint a lion, and the lion is hunting a deer or something like that — so strong that this truck is the lion. It is the best and it is the most ferocious truck, [more] than others.”
Others prefer more spiritual emblems of power: some want their vehicles to carry a depiction of the Buraq, the winged steed who carried the Prophet Muhammad to the heavens.
The images and designs that appear on a Pakistani truck reflect the wishes of its owner and driver, but, says Mughal, the artists “are the ones whose imagination dominates the truck art, and can convince the owner if they want.”
The horns come in many varieties
Drivers have their choice when it comes to the horns. Some are trilling and melodious, others wailing or shrill like a train whistle, and still others good old-fashioned klaxons. All are impossible to ignore.
In his shop, Javed Iqbal vocalizes some of the horn sounds for visitors. Many drivers request the “rail wallah” horn, he says, the one that sounds like a train. And for those who don’t want to choose just one sound, he sells a single horn with multiple effects.
“It sounds like musical sounds, train sounds,” he says. “So because different drivers have different tendencies, the truck has to have more than one horn and we have to make it easier for them. So in one package, a five-six-seven sound.”
Truck art has also helped bring missing children home
Thanks in part to the efforts of Khan, the anthropologist and filmmaker, Pakistani trucks don’t only look and sound good — they also serve a social good. She helped launch an award-winning project in 2019 in which a small number of trucks carry portraits of missing children, along with a number to call for Roshni Helpline, a Karachi-based nonprofit dedicated to recovering them.
“So that if whoever sees this image and, you know, wants to reach out to this organization or helpline with any kind of information, it would be easier for them to remember the number and everything,” she explains.
Many did reach out. Of the 20 or so missing children whose portraits were painted on trucks, Khan says at least five were found. The project, she says, is continuing.
NPR’s Fatma Tanis contributed to this story from Rawalpindi.