By Dr.Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai
Browsing through a collection of postage stamps from South Asian countries, I found two from Ceylon worth Rs.10 and Rs. 30 with the picture of a ‘mail runner’ on them. The illustrations showed a man carrying a heavy sack of mails on his head, with the acronym G.P.O (General Post Office) inscribed on it. His left hand supported the sack while he held a spear in his right hand. Below the image on the Rs. 2 stamp was written- “Mail Runner- 1815” which had been issued in 1990 to commemorate the 175 th. anniversary of the postal service of Sri Lanka.
On the Rs. 30 stamp was written- “Ancient Mail Conveyance Systems of Ceylon”. It had been issued on the occasion of the World Postal Day in 2016.
The images of the ‘mail runner’ brought to my mind the famous 20th century poem- ‘Runner’– by Bengali poet, Sukanto Bhattacharya. This was set to tune and made into a song by music maestro Salil Chowdhury in 1951. The singer was the legendary Hemanta Mukherjee (famous as Hemant Kumar in his avatar in the Hindi film industry). The poem and the lyrics brought out the life of a mail runner, his emotions, anxieties and expressions and also portrayed the social context in which he lived and did his job.
Though the “mail” is a recent phenomenon, “messenger systems” had existed in the South Asian region even in ancient times. The postal runners of those days would carry a sack of mails in one hand and a spear with a bell in the other. The sound of the bell helped keep animals at bay.
In very ancient times message delivery men were often accompanied by armed guards if the messages were from royals or nobles. The masses used to send their letters through their friends or relations.
The messenger system of the royals was the more organised one. The Daakpaal– or the postmaster was responsible for maintaining the line of communication.Mail delivery was a risky proposition because of the presence of bandits, robbers and wild animals on the way.
The runners were an important part of the socio-cultural and economic system as they not only delivered messages, but also acted as secret agents during the time of war. They were used by traders and merchants to carry out business transactions in far flung areas.
It was much later that the mail runners became a specialized mail delivery system without any other functions. However in modern times ,the postal department took on many functions including running telephone and broadcasting systems.
The medieval Indian king, Qutb-ud-din Aybak, also referred to as the first Sultan of Delhi who founded the Mamluk Dynasty, is believed to have created a regular, specialized mail delivery system. This expanded further under the rule of Allauddin Khilji in later years with Dak Chowkis and horse and foot runner services in 1296.
During the Mughal dynasty the runners were paid according to the distance travelled and the weight of the letters. Each letter was exchanged by over two dozen runners before they reached their destination. It was much later, in mid 19 th. Century, that horses and camels were inducted into the postal service.
Postal runners were reported in Afghanistan even as late as the 1920s. Larissa Reisner, the wife of then Soviet Ambassador, Fyodor Raskolnikov, saw them in service when she witnessed the 1920 Independence Day celebrations in Kabul. All foreign mails had to be routed through Kabul. The runners would take the fees from the sender (between one and three annas) and carry it to the Contract Post Office and deposit it there.
Pigeon Post of Sri Lanka
One of the earliest methods of message delivery system in Sri Lanka was the ‘pigeon post’. This existed along with postal-runners and Andabera karayas or drummers who would announce royal edicts with the cry “asaw asaw” (hark ye, hark ye). The Andabera karayas were around up until the 20th century, often used by the government to announce notices, important dates, and availability of medical clinics.
The history of the message-delivery system during the colonial period in Sri Lanka can be traced back to the time of the Dutch, about three centuries ago, when the maritime provinces were under Dutch rule. The Postal Training Institute and the National Postal Museum reflect much part of the history of the service. The Dutch established a postal service in 1789 with five post offices in the maritime districts of Galle, Colombo, Mannar, Jaffna and Trincomalee.
Letters which were shipped from Holland would take about a year to reach the country and upon reaching, they were distributed within the city by the Lascareens- a military unit of Malay soldiers. In 1797, when the country became a British Crown Colony, the British reorganised the postal services. In 1802, the first Post Office was set up for both inland and overseas mails. By 1836, there were 12 post offices. The number of post offices soon grew to 112. Later they also took on more functions. They made public announcements, sent telegrams and offered telephone and banking facilities.
For the delivery of mails from the GPO (General Post Office) in Colombo to other parts (especially the central region of Kandy) various systems of delivery were established. A mail coach service was established between Colombo and Kandy in 1832, and a year later, between Galle and Colombo. Horse carriages, bullock carts and rickshaws were used- apart from runners and birds.
Postal runners were employed to traverse difficult beats like jungle tracks. They carried a spear along with a loud bell- called the minigediya to scare away animals. Interestingly enough, this minigediya was carried as recently as the early 1900s.
In Tibet, the British set up telegraph and post offices in 1906. Nepalese and Indian traders found this system to be very useful. The Buddhist monasteries had their own ‘runners’. The ‘runners’ identified the mails of various traders by hand marked symbols on the envelopes.
The mail also included newspapers from Kolkata, but they took about a week to reach. This was a significant achievement since the distance of Kolkata to Lhasa and the difference in altitude made it a formidable challenge.
Michael Buckley in his Tibet gives details about these deliveries to Tibet. “By 1930s few of Dalai Lama’s letters were dispatched and they hardly went beyond Sikkim. These were carried by private runners and enclosed ceremonial silk scarves and perhaps a small bag of gold dust. They could only leave the Potala on auspicious dates.”
In Nepal, most reports points to the existence of an organised postal service from the last quarter of 19th century onwards. Till then the messenger system was limited to the needs of the royalty. Messenger ‘runners’ were used. One of the earliest Kings under whom an organised system of messenger delivery was used was Prithivi Narayan Shah- who ruled Nepal from 1768 to 1775.
In that period, communications were between Kathmandu, Nuwakot, Gorkha and some other places. However, the general public were not allowed to use the government postal system. The scope increased with the establishment of the ‘Nepal Postal House” (Nepal Hulak Ghar) in 1879. The first postal stamp in Nepal was published in the 1881.
In Bhutan, the royal government introduced a regular mail dispatch system in 1955. It functioned every five days and could be used by common people. Fiscal revenue stamps were introduced a year before. Mails for the King were however free of any such charges. This revised mail runner system with the use of fiscals as postage is referred to as the Dzong Dak system. But the mails were for delivery within the country only.
Some postage stamps of Bhutan commemorate these initial steps through various illustrations of the nation’s royalty, the country’s arts, crafts and wildlife, the Dzong architecture, Buddhist heritage and the Bhutanese mail service- including the postal runner.
The ‘runners’ in Bhutan were known as Garp and these walked between Punakha and Trongsa crossing mountain rivers and dense forests to cover a distance of about 135.8 km each way.