One of the most curious and distinctive things about roads in India and Pakistan are the trucks – because they are all decorated, beautifully, with bright colours, finely detailed images, intricate tassles, and carefully written messages. It is a uniquely beautiful and fascinating expression of popular Islamic culture.
In Pakistan, truck decoration is a veritable industry. In the port city of Karachi alone, 50,000 people are employed in truck decoration. “Practically every truck is decorated,” says Jamal J. Elias, probably the world’s foremost expert on Pakistani truck decoration. (Oh, academic specialisation is a wonderful, tragic thing.) “Truck culture is so pervasive in Pakistan.” It has become a dynamic, visible expression of Pakistani folk art.
And it’s really expensive. In a country with a GDP per capita of only US$2,800, spending over $30,000 on a new truck and then almost the same amount for decorations, which need to be re-done every five years, is a serious investment. It’s no wonder that the drivers are intensely proud of their trucks, lovingly caring for them and keen to show them off. But why bother?
An economist would say it is advertising. The more highly decorated a truck is, the more likely it is to be chosen to do a job. If every truck is decorated, yours must be too if you want to compete. This may well be the case, but it glosses over the deep significance the decorations can have for the driver. The paintings are a way for the drivers to comment on their families, their religion, and Pakistani society. They are seen as visual reflections of the driver’s lifestyle and identity.
The decorations are highly symbolic, with frequent recourse to religious imagery. But this immediately becomes interesting, considering that Islam is “generally considered an iconoclastic religion,” meaning that it prohibits the visual depiction of religious subjects. Such a prohibition in not mentioned in the Qur’an, but derives from certain hadith (a series of supplementary sayings attributed to the prophet Muhammad). Theological justifications say that there is no Creator but God, and that visual depictions of the divine can lead to idolatry.
But the human propensity towards artistic expression is difficult to suppress. Whole streams of Islamic art avoid the prohibited Muhammad but instead depict secondary characters from the Qur’an and Islamic teachings. One subject that is particularly common among Pakistani trucks is Muhammad’s steed Buraq, upon which he made his night flight to Jerusalem (the reason why the Dome of the Rock is where it is). Buraq is usually depicted as a winged, donkey-shaped creature with a woman’s head and a peacock’s tail. Such depictions of trucks ostensibly act as protective charms.
Other favourite religious subjects for trucks include Muhammad’s horse, various famous Mosques, and Arabic calligraphy. Written messages of adoration are permitted in Islam – explaining the opulence and intricacy of Islamic calligraphy – and indeed, “Allah Akbar (or some variation, such as Mashallah or Subhanallah) appears on every Pakistani truck.” Folk symbols like fish (representing good fortune) and women’s eyes (representing beauty) are also common. And all this is squeezed on there next to secular images such as film stars, Pakistani flags, and poetry. Fascinatingly, there are unspoken rules and traditions about what kinds of designs go on what parts of the truck. This is a complex, fully-formed folk tradition, replete with symbols drawn syncretically from religion and popular culture, all combining into a unique communicative system.
The tradition has also been seen internationally. For the 2006 Commonwealth Games, the city of Melbourne had one of its trams decorated in full Pakistani style.