The romance of the post has been celebrated in poetry and prose. It has traveled long distance even when the means of communication were primitive. The strength of the message carried the day. BG Verghese offers a tour d’ horizon spanning several centuries to come up with vignettes of social and political history that may not be found in textbooks and conventional tracts. He painstakingly etches the picture of an incredible India both as a modern nation state in the making and an ancient civilisation that has bound together an amazing heterogeneity of peoples, races and faiths. The multiplicity of the India story is sought to be captured by a tale woven around its postal stamps.
Admittedly, it is a story worth telling. There are some highly evocative references to the rainbow country which would interest those who see history as an episodic structure waiting to unfold. There are delectable flourishes here and there. Sample this one: “One can only surmise it was a love letter that would be secretly carried by a trusted handmaid to an ardent lover. Another famous letter written in literature is that of Shakuntala to King Dushyanta in Kalidasa’s immortal fifth century Sanskrit play, Abhijnanasakuntalam, as retold from the Mahabharata.”
The book tells us how the romance of the post has its roots in communication, the bedrock of community. Signals constituted the earliest form of communication whether by flashing mirrors, smoke signs, hoisting flags, or drum beat. It also tells us of how messengers too were employed. Among the most famous of these was the Greek soldier, Pheidippides, who ran 42.2 kilometres from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to announce the defeat of the Persians in 490 BC and then, alas, dropped dead. It is from this event that the present-day marathon derives.
The Indus Valley script may not have been deciphered as yet, but the clay tablets of the Indus Valley civilization are found at Mohenjodaro and Harappa (3000-1500 BC).
The Indus Valley or Harappan civilisation covered a wide swathe of territory in Sind, Punjab and Rajasthan and had a flourishing maritime trade.
Emperor Ashoka, having renounced war after the bloody battle of Kalinga, governed through ethical edicts drawn from Buddhist teachings that were carved on great rocks or glazed pillars. There were altogether 36 inscriptions, including a few cave inscriptions, and 14 pillar edicts. These incidentally marked the immense extent of the Ashokan kingdom that included Afghanistan. Many of these Ashoka pillars and rock edits are still extant and one of them, a highly polished 13 metre sandstone pillar was brought to Delhi in 1356 from Topara near Meerut, and planted atop Feroz Shah Kotla, the citadel of Feroz Shah Tughlaq. It reportedly took several thousand men to haul it to the new site in a special carriage with 48 wheels.
Though not free from poverty, we come across an India that was developed in several ways from early times. Jawaharlal Nehru’s final testament was more recently replicated on a rock face placed in the grounds of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) in Delhi.
Once writing had been invented, messaging acquired a new mobility as it could be reproduced on papyrus, bark, leather and paper. In India bhojpatra (the bark of the Himalayan birch) and tampatra were used for writing sacred texts for generations until the Chinese technology of making paper travelled via the Arab world to India. Paper manufacture commenced in Kashmir but it was more widely introduced into the country by the Sultanate rulers and Emperor Akbar.
The original messengers were largely spies and agents who rode post haste, carrying every kind of intelligence, domestic and diplomatic. The king was thus able to keep tabs on his subjects and enemies and nip mischief in the bud. Chandragupta Maurya’s mentor, Kautilya (also known as Chanakya), wrote a famous treatise on statecraft, the Arthashastra, around 321 BC in which the importance of espionage and intelligence gathering was given prime attention. Chanakyapuri, Delhi’s diplomatic enclave, and Kautilya, one of its major arteries, recall that ancient practitioner of diplomacy and statecraft.
In contrast to countries where horses were employed for fast movement over long distances, possibly on account of a plentiful supply of cheap labour, professional runners drawn from lowly classes or tribes were widely employed in India in relays each of eight to 10 miles. These men or messengers came to be called hacarrahs or harkaras (also doots, kasids). The term, translated as a do-all or factotum, passed into the vocabulary and gained wide currency. Trained from their youth, these dak runners would speed bare feet, carrying a staff with tassels and metal bells whose tinkling would announce their approach and scare away animals. They would sometimes be accompanied by a torch bearer and drummers!
Dak runners needed both courage and stamina and the latter was frequently sustained by taking a dose of opium as a prophylactic against fatigue and inclement weather. Today’s truck drivers lumbering along national highways ferrying all manner of goods, raw materials and merchandise, most often through the night, fortify themselves with mugs of tea laced with varying tots of opium derivatives, the strength of which is measured in the terminology used while placing the order, such as pachas or sau-kilometre chai, depending on whether the driver wants a kick that will carry him 50 or 100 kilometres as the case may be!
The book details the advance through the Sultanate period down to the East India Company and beyond, in a language which will fascinate young adults.
While kings were entitled to maintain a post, lesser princes, wealthy landowners and merchants would engage runners of lower caste to carry mail and parcels for a small fee of cash or produce. These post-runners were called dak-dauriyas and were sometimes organised in guilds. The mail bags they carried weighed up to 30 pounds and they were paid Rs 5-7 per month by the East India Company.
The postal service required not only runners but writers and interpreters. The most senior harkaras were required to know as many as five languages, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Awadhi and Marathi, to be able to write and translate or read communications over linguistic divides. This was much like the modern postman who would both write and read postcards and fill in money order forms for illiterate villagers. This dying species was a loved presence and they were men of consequence. At its prime, to become a head postmaster was akin to being a zamindar.
Dak runners, though endangered, are not yet an extinct postal species. To what may we compare them in contemporary times? Kanwaria pilgrims (devotees of Shiva who undertake a yatra in the month of Shravan) can be seen strung along drenched monsoon highways. They walk many hundreds of kilometers to or from Haridwar from as far away as Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Bihar, carrying home on shoulderpoles tiers of matkas filled with precious Gangajal for their families.
The First War of Independence of 1857 disrupted Delhi’s well established postal system. In his account of the siege of Delhi, Dastanbuy, the poet, Mirza Ghalib, lamented: ‘The postal system is in utter chaos and service has virtually stopped. It is impossible for postmen to come and go: thus letters can neither be sent nor received.’
The coming of railways expanded postal communications in India through a Royal Mail Service inaugurated in 1870. The postal system had graduated through runners, bullock cart mail (Bombay to Panvel, 1832), horse, camel mail, Akbar’s pigeon-post, boat and sea mail, and then air mail. An Orissa Police pigeon post stamp was issued in 1889. Many of these older forms of service still survive in remote areas. Dak runners still carry post in far flung areas of Himachal and Ladakh.
The Indian postal service has been in every sense a part of the daily life of every Indian. Till date, the Indian Post maintains a post office at 15,000 feet in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh and another at Dakshina Gangotri, India’s polar station in Antarctica.
The chapters on natural and built heritage offers more than just the splendour of royal cities and bustling towns: how much ancient history still lies in some lost cities from Hastinapur to Tamluk has been captured in easy, languid prose. India’s multiculturism and eclecticism has been captured as also the politicisation of faith exposed.
But things are changing. The telegram became a casualty of time last year. One can only hope for better luck for the postal system as a whole! On his part, the veteran author has done a world of good to those who know too little of their collective past.