History of Postal Communications in India

by Sangeeta Deogawanka


India is today, the land with the highest number of post offices and postal workers. It is also the country with perhaps the most eclectic, yet effectual modes of mail conveyance ever used. From the conventional bare-footed mail runners to the non-conformist bullock mail carts and the avant-garde air mail of 1911, the road navigated to the present-day e-post, has been a much acclaimed historic journey.

The evolution and systemic growth of postal communications in India can be traced over a span of centuries. An amazing yet pertinent aspect of the development of communication system, has been its adaptability with respect to the geographical environs of the country. So the routes and modes that have evolved over the centuries, befit the diverse topography and compelling historical developments of this region. This is also a country that has witnessed centuries of external incursions and ensuing regional volatility. A continual influx of foreign invaders coupled with the localised factors of inaccessible terrain and parochialist governance, makes for an interesting study, vis-à-vis postal communications.
Communications in India have always been typically endemic to the Indian sub-continent. Beginning with the early era, one comes across these visually appealing yet enduring practices of that period. Whether it is the primitive drawings and heliographic characters found in caves, the carvings of ancient temples and pillars, or the stone tablets that have been the boon to archaeological discoveries, they are all vibrant stories with messages of their own. In fact, these visual modes of communication maybe interpreted as symbolic of the ethos of that period, that have traversed across a timeline of centuries.

A quaint feature is the element of romanticism evident in most forms of communication adopted in ancient India. One comes across messages written on leaves and stones, preserved as visual relics of an era when images and symbolic representations were the order of the day. Then again, is the most remarkable and emotive method of communication, through music - in the rendering of the flute tenor or the melody and pitch of a song. This auditory method of communication transmitted very effectively a piece of good, bad or daunting news instantly across the village. The sound of drumbeats and crude bushfires were additionally used to transmit messages across rivers and valleys.

Most unique to this country is her wealth of oral communication, weaved within narratives and carried down generations as part of oral histories. Often imbued with regional flavour and musical overtones, these oral histories form an integral part of the cultural and social fabric of the country. Genealogical studies and postal histories of Indian Princely States are incomplete without these oral time-honoured communications.

As the needs of men became more demanding, the methods used to communicate were manifested in various ways designed to meet the challenge of the times. Many of the old Hindu scriptures carry references to such remarkable ‘carriers’ of message. The ‘RigVeda’ cites the use of a dog called ‘Sarama’ to carry message, even as the ‘Atharvaveda’ records the use of couriers going by the term ‘Palagala’.

Indian mythology and ancient history too, record traditional emissaries conveying messages in an unconventional manner. Perhaps the 21st century version of the day-and-night hi-tech courier service draws inspiration from the time-honoured use of the human courier as mentioned in the Epics and sacred scriptures. The ‘Ramayan’ cites instances of Hanuman being sent by Ram to covey messages. In ‘Mahabharata’, King Drupad dispatched the message to King Dhritirashtra to give away half the kingdom through the Royal Priest. Also from ‘Mahabharata’ is the romantic legend mentioning the swan being used to convey the message of love from prince Nal to princess Damayanti. Chanakya’s ‘Arthashaastra’ also calls attention to the efficient manner of collecting information and revenue data using doots, who doubled up as spies for the King.

The practice of using homing pigeons as message carriers also prevailed from the earliest times in India. It maybe interesting to note, that ‘pigeon carriers’ are still officially in use by government departments in remote areas, like in the State of Orissa. Camels too were in rampant use not only in the desert areas of present Rajasthan, i.e. the North-Western States, but also arid zones of Orissa, like Jajnagar, particularly by Ashoka in the 4th century B.C. The use of horses for carrying mail was chiefly for military purpose.

Then, of course, there is the legendary mail runner, or Harkara. The relentless toiling of the dak or mail runner, through rain and storm, to deliver his epistle contained within a bundle on his stick, has immortalized him in poetry and literature, alike. The customary jingle of bells, as the runner hastens along to ensure a speed delivery of the letters, has stoked the passions of many a poet, writer and artist, who have eulogized the mail runner.

Evident from a few scriptures of the Deccan India and early Greek records present today, maritime trade and ship-buidling was on an all-time high. So the consequent exchange of communication obviously was a part of ancient maritime activity, though records are mostly unavailable except for the random reference.

At the outset, the mail or Dak runner was used by Kings and Military commanders for purposes of information, missives and royal correspondence. However, military conquests and aggressive governance witnessed the evolution of the mail runner as the primary spokes in a system of news-gathering. Later, even as the dak runner continued to be predominantly used for carrying official mail, the usage was extended beyond the military to the governance and administrative purpose. Eventually, mail carriers came to be used by merchants for business and trading. The common man either had little use for such a service, relying upon a relative to convey an urgent message, or the costs of using a regular mail service were beyond his reach. It was only the repeated instances of private mail being carried on the sly by these bribed official mail carriers, which compelled the monarchs to extend mail service to private use.

One of the earliest evidence of a systematic postal service using foot messengers is found during the reign of Chandragupta Maurya (322-298 B.C.). A courier service between the capital and the outlying provinces of the vast kingdom served the needs of intelligence gathering and collection of revenue data, whence regular messengers, doots (emissaries) and pigeons were used for conveying the royal communiqué. However its efficacy was lost upon his death and the system fell through. Emperor Ashoka however devised a very efficient means of communication that proved to be the raison d'être for his success in building a vast empire, using a combination of mail runners, horse couriers, pigeon carriers and camels for official communication. This was exemplary of how an efficiently operated communication system gave that much-needed fillip to effective governance and the extra edge to an aggressive ruler, even in the ancient times.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part  6 & 7 | Part 8 | Part 09 | Part 10 |

Copyright © 2007-2008, Sangeeta Deogawanka, Kolkata

Sangeeta Deogawanka is a freelance writer & researcher based in India. A decade-old nouveau collector she has already achieved the distinction of being a philatelic gold medalist, besides having authored the award-winning handbook Stamp Collecting Today. Her ongoing focus of interest is Modes of Mail Transport in India and Postal History of Travancore State. She has also begun her thematic collecting with some non-conformist themes. A contributor to various websites and magazines, with essays, blogs, environmental, philatelic and parenting articles to her credit, she has recently made a foray into science-fiction as well. As web consultant, she has lent her expertise to freelance and writing sites. As an active citizen journalist, she has earlier served as Parenting Expert on http://allexperts.com/, and is currently involved with various global issues besides volunteering as Channel Steward for the Hinduism section of the largest citizen publication http://www.helium.com/

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