Cover Story History & Culture

India through Her Stamps

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Sreelata tells us about the journey of India through her stamps. With the first General Post Office being opened, in 1774, in Calcutta, followed by Madras (1778) and Bombay (1792) it was Warren Hastings Governor General from 1773-1784 who first threw it open to the public for a fee of two annas per 100 miles. In 1911, Henri Pequet flew the worlds’ first airmail flight across the Ganges from Allahabad to Naini. A Different Truths exclusive.

Have you ever spared a thought for the man who unfailingly delivers your mail day in and day out, with nary a complaint?

Trudging along rarely trodden paths or cycling along our busy streets he is often spotted, despite the advent of the internet, carrying his bag of letters to connect the unconnected. Romanticised by Bollywood, come rain or shine, snow or hail our Dakhiya is the one man who always delivers.

Yet none of us so much as gives him a thought. A letter is a letter to be welcomed or thrust aside as the case maybe – from people we may or may not know – but the one who brings it and the support system that makes it happen is taken so much for granted.

At the Rashtrapati Bhavan at a glittering ceremony for the Indian National Congress centennial celebrations to celebrate and honor my great grandfather Sir C Sankaran Nair President INC 1897 – Amraoti session – one among many freedom fighters of the time, the message that was driven home was how important a role in history it is that was played by our postal system. Every important occasion marked by a commemorative stamp chronologically reflects India’s story. Not only does it date back to our own immediate British inheritance but is steeped deep in our medieval and ancient past.

Since the Atharva Veda and the Epics speak of foot runners and riders, the British it is evidently built upon an already well-honed system of couriers set up by our Muslim rulers who appear to have inherited it from our ancient Indian rulers. Using a combined system of runners, camels and horses (including pigeons) to carry their messages –for a fee – Sher Shah Suri of Grand Trunk Road fame and the later Mughal emperors established a thoroughly efficient message-transmitting system across the entire sub- continent. Usually for royal, military and espionage purposes. These runners –dressed in colourful clothes-who braved the cruel vagaries of the seasons, wild animals, dacoits and snake bites formed the backbone of a centralized communication system which the East India Company later tapped into. Under the Company the runners were replaced by an elaborate but efficient network of horses and the Dak Chowkis and the Daroga-I – Dak Chowkis became Dak Bungalows and the Director General Post. They transformed into post offices in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta about 1688.

With the first General Post Office being opened, in 1774, in Calcutta, followed by Madras (1778) and Bombay (1792) it was Warren Hastings Governor General from 1773-1784 who first threw it open to the public for a fee of two annas per 100 miles. Known as ‘India Bishop Marks’ after the British Post Master General Col Henry Bishop they were India’s first post marks.

The British India’s first adhesive prepaid postage stamp – the ‘Scinde Dawk’ which was round with a design embossed on red sealing wax bearing the Company’s ‘Merchant’s Mark’ with uniform postage rates made its appearance. Dawk was for Dak and Scinde for Sindh where it was first issued. In 1854, a new set of stamps with the profile of a young Queen Victoria replaced the ½ anna Scinde Dawk prepaid adhesives of 1852. Some had ‘East India Postage’ as well on them. They were India’s first pan India stamps.

Soon the Trans India Telegraph system that transmitted messages instantly by causing tiny electric shocks on the operator’s fingers set up by William O’Shaughnessy a brilliant inventor came into being.It almost single-handedly sorted out the Sepoy Mutiny for the British. Their importance during the World Wars and our own Freedom Struggle is beyond emphasis. Over the years eased out by the technology they gradually began to lose relevance.162 years after it came into being India’s last telegram was sent to Rahul Gandhi in July 2014 and finally phased out.

Similarly, who has not heard of the famous address 56/99 APO-especially during our wars? Founded in 1856, the Army Postal Service, a subsidised military mail system, continues to connect our army men wherever they are to their families – as it did the British.

From the East India company’s ‘Transfer of Power’(1858) to ‘Empress of India’ Queen Victoria with an elephant as a watermark plus a definitive series on King George to the Dominion issue with the Asoka Pillar, right up to independent India’s tricolor, stamps to mark every occasion and milestone have been issued at regular intervals. Mahatma Gandhi adorned India’s first Independence anniversary issue (1948) while another one came out to commemorate our Republic in 1950. Soon the ‘annas’ gave way to ‘paisa’ and Bharat (Hindi) and India replaced ‘India postage’ (1962).

As to the airmail, in 1911, Henri Pequet flew the worlds’ first airmail flight across the Ganges from Allahabad to Naini – a distance of 7kms carrying stamped letters including one for the monarch.

So all we need to do is to follow the stamp trail to get more than a potted version of our history.

Interestingly ‘Post’ is a Persian word that referred to the sending of a message which required a reply and it soon became ‘Mail’ from the medieval English word ‘male’ that meant ‘trunk’, which gradually metamorphosed into a ‘bag of letters’. The collection centres were devised – the credit for inventing the first such ‘Post box’ goes to Anthony Trollope the celebrated author who was initially a British postal worker- and were hung on trees and lamp posts. They came in different attractive and ornate designs and colours – especially in India – though red quickly dominated. The State of Travancore even had an elephant’s trunk as a post box. Incidentally, Nobel laureate Sir CV Raman was also a postal officer.

While India’s highest post office can be found in Hikkim Arunachal Pradesh (15,500 ft.) there is a floating one on the Dal Lake in Srinagar and another in the back waters of Kerala. We even have one in the Antarctica called Dakshin Gangotri and a quaint little one in Lakshadweep which still carried the dates on which Irish postal orders could be paid.

Now, computerised and tech savvy India Post with its Mission Mode e-Governance Project caters to modern India’s demands even while continuing its tradition of bringing out exquisite first day covers and sets of uniquely designed stamps that highlight our art and cultural heritage-including the ‘Personality Series –The Spirit of Nationalism’ which introduced us, the present generation (at Rashtrapati Bhavan) to four national icons from our past. While these and more can be seen at the National Philatelic Museum which has many rare stamps not only of old princely states and subsequent ones but also the Scinde Dawk , you don’t need to go too far to find the man who delivers them.

He usually comes knocking at your door every day.

©Sreelata Menon

Photos of stamps sourced by the author from the postal authorities.

#Stamps #StampsOfIndia #HistoryOfIndianStamps #BritishIndiaStamps #PostalHistoryOfIndia #CoverStory #DifferentTruths

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