On Wings of Diesel: The Decorated Trucks of Pakistan

By Jamal J. Elias

For the past three years, Professor of Religion Jamal J. Elias has been conducting research on vehicular art in Pakistan as part of a larger academic project—and eventually a book—on the poetics of Islamic art. Last winter his research was funded by a grant from Amherst College. This article is adapted from his Website and an article he wrote for the spring 2003 issue of the journal RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics.

One of the most striking aspects of landscape and society in Pakistan is the vision of trucks and buses completely covered in a riot of color and design. They might spew diesel fumes, they may take up all of the winding, narrow, under-maintained road one is trying to negotiate, but they are certainly noticeable, like so many mechanical dinosaurs adorned in full courtship colors.

The decoration of vehicles is a common practice in a number of countries in addition to Pakistan. Similar techniques and materials are employed in truck and (more frequently) bus decoration in the Philippines, Indonesia and several countries in Central and South America; in South Asia itself, Indian trucks are painted, as are the bicycle rickshaws of Bangladesh. What makes the case of Pakistan unusual, however, is the pervasiveness of vehicle decoration, since decoration is heavily used on virtually all private and fleet-owned commercial vehicles, from the well-known trucks and buses to vans, share taxis, animal carts and even juice vendors’ pushcarts (a circumstance shared only by Afghanistan).

Vehicle decoration is an expensive undertaking. It costs about $5,000 to do the bodywork on a truck, although much of the cost goes toward structural modifications to the vehicle (the per capita income in Pakistan is $2,100, as measured by Purchasing Power Parity). Most Pakistani trucks are not owner-operated, but belong to fleets. In the case of larger fleets it is the norm for fleet owners to authorize the driver to take the vehicle to a coachwork shop at company expense and have it decorated according to his own taste (although in many fleets all trucks have similar lettering and colors on the side panels). In the case of smaller fleets, where the owner possesses three or four trucks, he takes a much more active role in the vehicles’ decoration. Given the owner’s and operator’s lack of direct economic benefit in decorating a truck and the absolute pervasiveness of this form of art—it is safe to say that every intercity privately owned truck in Pakistan is decorated—it becomes obvious that the motivation to decorate lies somewhere else. The motifs on trucks display not just aesthetic considerations, but attempts to depict aspects of the religious, sentimental and emotional worldviews of the individuals employed in the truck industry. And since trucks represent the major means of transporting cargo throughout Pakistan, truck decoration might very well be this society’s major form of representational art.

Although the high metal cowling over the cab of this Peshawar-style truck in Rawalpindi appears ornate, it is actually less so than those of trucks decorated in the Punjabi style.

My data has been collected in northern and southern Pakistan. I’ve focused my attention on the Karakorum Highway, the main commercial artery that connects Pakistan to China; on Rawalpindi, where the routes to China split from the east-west route to Afghanistan; and on the commercial center of Karachi. In addition to photographing trucks to analyze their designs, I’ve interviewed truckers on the road and at rest, as well as owners while they are having their trucks built up and when they are taking delivery of the finished vehicles. I’ve visited truck-design workshops, interviewed artists at their homes and places of work, and talked to artisans who manufacture the smaller pieces of art that are attached to the truck after the main designing is done.

Through this research, I have identified a number of distinct styles of design, although designers tend to be unselfconscious and extremely dynamic in modifying their approach, so that motifs are added and removed from the artist’s palette with great rapidity. Nevertheless, there are at least five basic styles of truck design. The most common is the Rawalpindi or Punjab style, which accounts for most trucks built up in the northern Punjab (Rawalpindi, Hasanabdal, Haripur and the Gujranwala area) and in Pakistan-administered Kashmir (Azad Kashmir). These trucks have ornate metal cowling above the windshield and rely heavily on plastic appliqué in their decoration. The trucks of Swat (a wide valley in the northwest of the country) are distinctive for their carved wooden doors and limited use of plastic and hammered metalwork. The trucks of Peshawar (a city close to the Khyber Pass on one of the two main routes connecting Pakistan and Afghanistan) fall somewhere in between the Rawalpindi and Swat schools. They often have carved wooden doors (although, unlike the trucks of Swat, their doors are likely to be painted), and they use a metal cowling, only the cowling tends to be simpler than that of a Rawalpindi truck. The fourth style is the Baluch form, based in southern and western Pakistan (Dera Ghazi Khan, Quetta and Karachi). Vehicles decorated in this style tend to be the most elaborate in their extensive use of intricate mosaic appliqué and chrome “cow-catcher” bumpers. The fifth style, that of Karachi, is difficult to define, and I am inclined to see it not as one mode at all, but an amalgamation. Karachi, as Pakistan’s major sea and land port, as well as its primary metropolitan area, has more trucks than any other place in the country. It also has truckers from every other region, and many of those drivers choose to decorate their trucks in the tradition of the up-country region to which they belong. The only distinctive Karachi design is wooden relief work over the windshield, colored with iridescent paints. This design is most common in water tankers, a kind of truck ubiquitous in Karachi and not at all common in other areas.

 The motifs on the trucks can be categorized in five groups:

  1.  Idealized elements of life, such as the romanticized village, landscapes or beautiful women
  2.  Elements from modern life, such as pictures of political figures or patriotic symbols
  3.  Talismanic and fetish objects, such as horns, yak tails and items of clothing
  4.  Talismanically or religiously loaded symbols, such as eyes and fish
  5.  Obvious religious symbols and images, such as Buraq (a celestial horse that is believed to have carried the Prophet Muhammad on a spiritual journey to heaven)


One can make sense, then, of the Pakistani truck that at first glance appears to be an explosive expression of popular or folk art. The side panels are used to situate the constantly moving driver in a social geography. The role played by the trucking company’s name and routes is self-apparent in situating the driver, but other images, particularly romanticized or idealized naturalistic paintings, are equally significant. The nomadic nature of the driver is critical to his self-conception, consciously articulated by him in conversation and in the music he listens to. He pines for an imagined home from which he is absent by definition. The truck functions not only as his home away from home, but also as his means of livelihood and his partner. The last concern explains the general motivation to decorate the truck and to feminize it and endow it with bridal symbols.

The symbolism connected with safety of person and livelihood dominates the truck and also the trucker’s behavior (visits to shrines, the religious stickers adorning the interior of the truck). The need to avoid misfortune and gain good fortune provides a simple explanation for the talismanic objects, symbols and explicit religious motifs on the truck. However, their specific nature and placement provide evidence for my assertion that truck decoration functions linguistically, and that the choice of motifs and their location are the syntax through which varying messages can be conveyed.

As I wrote in my article in RES,

A portrait of Major Aziz Bhatti, a military hero killed in Pakistan’s 1965 war with India, decorates the back of a truck outside Islamabad.

One important piece of evidence for this idea is the difference between how the front and the back of the truck are decorated [a pattern that is common to most trucks and styles]. Unlike the front of the truck, which largely features powerful religious material, the back is whimsical (often humorous) and predominantly has motifs from modern life. I find three main factors explain this. First, there is the practical consideration that the back of the truck suffers much wear and tear from the constant loading and unloading of goods….[It would] imply a disrespectful attitude if one were to have explicit religious ornamentation subjected to abuse. Second, there are important semiotic differences between the front and back in general: One’s “face to the world” is one’s serious expression, and one’s behind is the butt of jokes. Third, the back of the truck is normally seen by those stuck behind it on the road….When parked at truck stops, the vehicles are pulled into parking spaces face first, and truckers gather in front of the vehicles to eat, drink tea and chat. Given that the detailed decoration of the front of the truck can be seen fully only when the truck is stationary, and that when it is stopped, the people around it are normally truckers… it is to them that the trucker presents his serious face. This face is one that he partly creates and partly acquires or inherits—inasmuch as he has only partial control of the ornamental program of the truck—but at the moment of display it is his face, since he, the truck driver, is inseparably identified with the truck.

This raises the question of the driver’s relationship to the religious symbols that dominate the front part of the truck. By far the most common religious symbols are the Ka’ba and Prophet’s Mosque, usually appearing on the left and right of the front of the truck somewhere toward the top. It is not firmly established that the drivers, owners or the truck designers are entirely clear on the actual symbolism of the motifs. In fact, many drivers I’ve talked to plead ignorance of all the symbols and claim that they are either purely aesthetic or were put there at the sole discretion of the truck designer. Of course, in conducting fieldwork of this sort it is quite the norm to have the interviewees possess a different understanding of the material than the researcher does. But real or feigned ignorance of the religious imagery doesn’t mean that it lacks importance. In fact, with progressive loss of a symbol’s status as an active figure of speech or metaphor, it becomes more, not less, like literal truth.

I would argue that religious images, even at their least denotative, or most abstract, are images nonetheless; they are perceived, and—to paraphrase Paul Ricoeur—perception gives rise to symbols, and symbols give rise to thought and response. Built into the symbol, as a perceptual metaphor, is the capacity to pattern responses concerning how the individual relates to the world or to the divine. Thus the symbols used in truck decoration in particular (and vehicle decoration in general), even when they are not consciously representative of a particular religious message, are still shaped by a notion of the religious place of the individual, by a religious worldview, and they still elicit responses that are framed within the parameters of that worldview. That these religious symbols are pictorial, and that the religious responses are elicited by pictorial representation, raises many questions about the nature and role of religious art in Pakistan, which views itself as resolutely lacking pictorial religious art. That subject, however, is too complex to be addressed in this brief article.

Clearly Pakistani truck art offers the scholar a rich vein to mine, but one does not need to be a specialist to appreciate the talent, pride and exuberance the artwork represents. And these qualities are all the more striking for their context: The artwork does not occur in a palace, mosque or church, but on common work vehicles in one of the world’s poorest countries. Pakistani truck art, then, can be seen as a monument to the irrepressibility of human nature, but its more important role is to remind us that we all share it. 

Photos: Jamal J. Elias