The Dak Harkara

These days, we have a plethora of mail delivery services, be it snail mail or electronic mail. We have video mail, voice mail, email, secure couriers and so on all vying for their place next to the old monopoly of the Indian government, the lowly placed postal mail. One may choose to callously call it snail mail or what ever, but there was a time, when it was the only mail system available. And before that, well, all we had were the Dak runner’s or the Harkara. The Harkara literally ran with the mail, not necessarily from point A to point B, but as part of a relay system. In the Moghul days, they ran 8-10 miles in each direction and back (i.e. 20 miles a day), but in later EIC times, they ran 5-6 miles per direction, before they handed it over to the next Harkara. The harkara was not only a delivery man of letters, but also a person who conveyed news to both ends, officially and unofficially, publicly or surreptitiously. They were sometimes purveyors of intelligence to authorities of far flung areas, reporting on troubles and important happenings at both locations. In many an instance, they were letter writers, transferring the word of mouth of an illiterate man to paper.

While in the ancient times they hailed from families of Harkara’s of Punjabi Jat or even peasant origin, they were carefully selected in the EIC times. A number of locals were carefully interviewed, and selected after a review of references to their honesty, their physique & endurance, and of course courage. Why so, because by the last decade of the 18th century, the Dak runner or harkara had to carry in his leather pouch, not just letters, but money to far flung places and important parcels. And so they had to be very honest. This is the story of one such harkara.

By 1840, Yeshwant who had already been running as a harkara for 5 years was bone tired. At the age of 35, he was in the latter half of the average lifespan of an Indian peasant. Hailing from Satara, he was born to parents who were woefully poor and perennially in debt struggling to pay back the loans they owed the local Zamindar. Yeshwant had been consigned to the fields since the age of 10 and by the age 25, he had a wiry frame, darkened by the toil in the hot sun. But he was a popular man, for he participated in all the local festivities and running and wrestling events, winning many. One fateful day, the overseer to the Vilayati firangi had attended one such sporting event. The race winner Yeshwant caught his eye. He was there for a specific purpose, for his superintendent had asked him to locate potential candidates for the harkara positions. And thus Yeshwant became a harkara.

He was quickly released off the bonded situation and sent to the English. The postal superintendent, a benevolent man soon found Yeshwant the fastest of the fresh crop of Harkaras he had planned to employ in order to cover the many miles of the western regions. Yeshwant was provided the ceremonial appointment letter, the Cap and belt and the leather pouch. He was thus ordained an honorable man in the local society, and also given the bamboo spear with the many rings and bells that signaled his move through ragged terrain, dense forests and deep ravines. That night, the deeply religious Yeshwant prayed to Mahadev, thanking him for the benevolence, salvation from the fields and vowed to gift the entire first months wages of Rs 5/- in the god’s name.

But you know how some people are, they are weak of mind, and after a few days, Yeshwant had developed the special stagger of success and the air of arrogance, which one sees in a government servant of the time. By the end of the month, he had not only forgotten to gift the pay to the Mahadev’s shrine, but had already run up an overdraft at the toddy sellers place. Nevertheless, he was very good at his job and was always on time with his deliveries. On many days he even covered a few extra miles regardless of the weather conditions, if there was a need. Last week for example, Krisha the next relay runner was ill and he had taken over the second leg too, without any complaints.

Yeshwant was a decent man, though, and quite helpful, but his past or to be more precise his parent’s past, weighed heavily on him. The amount owed to the Zamindar was all of two hundred rupees, money borrowed for the marriage of Yeshwant’s sisters, and in order to tide the terrible decade of famine they had finally passed just two summers ago. Yeshwant himself had married, but the dowry of Rs 20/- he obtained had to be used to repair the small hut they all lived in. The new job was a boon though, for the British had built him a hut at the edge of the village, in the middle of the forest. This was his quarters where his wife and daughter spent time, taking care of the small field around the hut where they planted vegetables and some raggi or millet.

Yeshwant went for the weekly meetings of the village sabha, where after a pot of toddy, he would recount proudly his motto…

The romance of the post office job lies with people like me, the number of tigers satiated with flesh of my kinsfolk is beyond count, snow and rivers have carried us under or away, swamps have pulled us under, but in the face of all this danger, have we forsaken our duty? According to stories, never, but in real life, just once or twice…

It was difficult though, with tigers and other wild animals on the prowl, it was very dangerous. By evening they had to light the large oil dipped ‘buttees’ around the house to scare wild animals away. Though it did keep away some smaller animals, elephants did not and once destroyed everything they dad. But this being British property, they soon rebuilt the hut. Life went on, and the main worry Yeshwant had in addition to the debts was the upcoming marriage of his daughter, aged 12. They had found a boy in the next village, only 10 years elder to her who was prepared to marry her and the dowry was settled at Rs 25/-. To top his misery, Yeshwant had also been told by the Zamindar (who knew Yeshwant had a regular pay now) that an amount of Rs 100/- be paid to him by the end of summer or vague but dire consequences would result.

Anyway days went by, the debts grew and Yeshwant became more & more frustrated. Though he had found a bridegroom for his daughter, the expenses of a few hundred rupees for the function plus the Zamindar’s money were giving him sleepless nights. Not only that in the last meeting at the Superintendent’s bungalow, he had for the very first time lost out on the yearly award of Rs 25/-, an award he had got the last two years.

As things are wont to happen, Yeshwant had to deliver a hefty pouch one month end on the return leg. It contained amongst a number of other documents, the monthly pay for the district staff.

The mountain route and pathway was always difficult but often was rendered useless during the rainy season. In such cases, Yeshwant used an alternate, which had part of the route passing through denser forest where there were man eating tigers. On that fated day, Yeshwant was attacked by a tiger. He ran for dear life, finally climbing a tree as he was taught, just escaping the pointed fangs and the dirty breath of the man eater. After a day’s waiting, shivering and cold on the tree, Yeshwant slipped to the ground and fell, injuring himself severely. But in the midst of the pain and blood, thoughts of being bed ridden for a few days and despondency at his terrible fate, Yeshwant had an ill-fated brainwave. He hobbled back to the superintendent and reported that the bag was lost in the fight and melee that it had been lost in the forest. The superintendent reported back to Bombay in the next letter, trusting Yeshwant, for these things were wont to happen. The pay was delayed, but that too was common in those days. Yeshwant was given a month’s leave to recover.

And then Yeshwant made a series of blundering mistakes that got him into even deeper trouble. He conducted his daughters marriage and paid off the dowry, he also paid off the Zamindar the Rs 100/-. The Zamindar by chance met the British superintendent and mentioned in passing that he must be paying his coolies too well. The good natured superintendent wondered why and upon quizzing the Zamindar found out that Yeshwant had paid back the majestic amount of Rs 100 and had conducted the wedding, while recuperating. Considering a monthly salary of just 5.50 per month, this was difficult to fathom and in a flash the Superintendent knew that Yeshwant had stolen the mail bag. For him, it was a shock, as Harkara’s were some of the most honest people in the British payroll. In reality, he was appalled, for he had even considered paying Yeshwant a gratuity of Rs 50/- for the heroic fight with the tiger. It would have even set an example for the other.

Anyway the Superintendent met the local Thasildar and they discussed the matter. It was decided that they should subject Yeshwant to a trial by ordeal rather than threaten him or flog him. Well, many a reader would wonder what this is, but in those days, for example in Calicut - Malabar, if a person was suspected of some ill doing, for example theft, he had to dip his hand in boiling oil. If he escaped unscathed, he was honest, if he did not, he was the culprit. One would be amazed reading this - for the natural outcome if one were subjected to such an ordeal is well known, if at all one were subjected to it. So how did it work? Was there divine intervention? To answer that let us see what was done in Yeshwant’s case.

An honorable Brahmin poojari was located in the nearby temple and consulted. He came up with the solution. Yeshwant and a number of other people of the locality were called on a dark moonless night to the temple. There they were told to enter one by one, prostrate before Mahadev and state that they are truly innocent after picking up the magic ‘truth’ stick laying on the floor. Should the person be dishonest, the stick would remain attached to the hand and the matter would be solved.

The superintendent of course was aghast wondering how such a hair brained idea would resolve the matter, just like he had wondered how the oil method worked in Malabar.

At the appointed time, the incense sticks were lit, the lamps were lit, the room was filled with smoke from the sambrani on coal, and the Pujari wore his crimson robes and chanted loudly. A curtain was placed between the sanctum and the outside. One by one, the selected people went in and returned. Yeshwant was the last to be called. By this time he was trembling with fear, knowing fully well that he was going to get caught and fearing the magnitude of the god’s curse and the superintendent’s punishment. As soon as he entered the room, the priest looked him in his eye and said – Ok! We all know that you are the culprit. Either you can go through the ordeal and be shamed or confess and face a lesser punishment. Yeshwant was relieved, within minutes he had told the superintendent exactly what happened. The case was closed.

The superintendent asked the priest what he had done to bring about the confession from Yeshwant. It was simple, said the priest. These people are inherently god fearing and honest. In this case despondency coupled with opportunity twisted the mind of this poor soul. The magic wand had no magic; all that was done was smearing the stick with sandalwood oil. The aura of godliness was created with the hyms, chanting and the lamps and the apparent presenceof God in the room forced out the confession from the poor soul.

Yeshwant was asked to return the bag and the rest of the money and ordered to pay a penalty of Rs 200/- or face a years jail term according to the postal act prevailing then. He had no money to pay, and thus landed up in jail, destroying his good name for ever.
Fact or fiction?

Well, this is a true account reported briefly by a postal superintendent in Maharashtra to the London Postal magazine in 1896, but I took liberties to make a lengthy story out of it. But then the harkara’s were the subjects of many a romantic thought about India and its ways in early British minds. For them, even after stray cases like Yeshwant’s, the Harkara continued to be honest person, who sacrificed his life for duty. Whatever be the weather or terrain, he would cover his quota of miles and get the mail bag to the destination. With that background, let us take a deeper look at the Harkara or Hirkara, the Dak runner. Many a Harkara fell prey to man eating tigers and mauling was commonplace. It is also a fact that the Harkara quarters (a.k.a stage hut) were placed at jungle edges with a hidden purpose. Due to their familiarity with the jungle, he could lead the burra sahib on many a shikar, without undue risk!!

The organized Harkara postal system started with Sher shah and was strengthened by Akbar. Later Aurangazeb increased the Harkara’s running distance to 10 miles, but finally when the English got into power, reduced to 5-7 miles. While erstwhile raja’s paid these men Rs 4-5/- per month, the British Raj later hiked the salary to Rs 5-7/- (around five shillings in those days) per month. Was it enough? A quote from Socrates answers this succinctly …He who is content with the least is the richest man, for contentment is natures riches!!

Usually the night Harkara of the 20th century going through a treacherous forest with very important parcels had a posse comprising a drummer, two torch bearers and a brace of archers. His dress was a white cotton coat, a dhoti tied tightly and stopping at the knees, a red ‘Pugdi’, a leather belt with a brass buckle and a bamboo spear with bells and rings. A leather bag tied to one end and this was the mail bag. The mail runner’s bag was limited to 30 pounds weight whereas the parcel runners bag was close to 60 pounds. In Hastings time, arrangements for three Harkaras (messenger-runners), one mashalchy (torch-bearer) and one drummer at each stage was set up. A munshi (postmaster) was appointed at each capital stage, who had the charge of a certain number of stages. Two ghari-wallas (time-keepers) were appointed with each munshi for the purpose of determining the arrival of each packet.

The lowly harkara did carry a considerable air of self importance. He expected everybody and even carts to clear the road when he arrived with her majesty’s mail. But naturally, for he and his colleagues supported close to 70% of the mail service in those days. Trains, steamers, mail carts and so on, handled jut 30%!!! It is also stated that the British government gave a gratuity to severely maimed runners and definitely to the family of runners who died while heroically performing their duties (by 1918 there were close to 20,000 harkaras in a total staff of 108,000 in the postal dept).Though it has been exaggerated that some runners can do 100km in one day, half of that is usually feasible.

The superior grade (there are 3 grades) harkara in 18th century Maharashtra should be skilled in the Vedas, astronomy, astrology & vocal music. He should know at least 5 languages, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Avadhi, Marathi and six kinds of script. In those times, you could not refuse an answer to a Harkara, he had to be given a reply and if he was shamed in any way war could result. (Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India - Christopher Alan Bayly)

In many historic references, harakara’s are equated to spying. As you recall being the only ones who were in touch with remote places, they were responsible for delivering news at both ends. However, considering that this was a secondary task, it is not appropriate to title them spies.The average speed of a harkara was 4-5 miles per hour. This was even used as a reference, for example one history book says – ‘Yarkand is about a months march from here, but about 12 days for a harkara’. They even had accurate harkara time tables, such was the dependence on this lowest of classes in the postal system…

And Today? As always, ‘Service before self’

At a time when e-mail threatens to banish the postman to the museum, mail-runners are still the only means of communication in remote regions of the north Indian mountain state of Himachal Pradesh. The runners cover long distances on foot across deep valleys, gushing rivers and snow-smeared mountains, and brave heavy snow and avalanches to keep lines of communication open. "Their territory begins where motorable roads ends," said an official from the state's postal department in the provincial capital of Shimla, India's most popular summer resort. "Without their services mail may never be delivered in several villages perched atop ridges or hidden in icy mountains," another official said, adding the harkara’s even deliver to Hindu holy men meditating in caves. "There are 1,719 mail runners in the state and of which only65 are working as full-time employees, while the rest are part-timers, and it is not unusual for some of them to be buried in avalanches in the high mountains,"

Chandar Bhat from Ladakh says

The runners would travel round the clock and all seasons. Villagers who no watches, on seeing the runners (Harkara) or hearing the sound of the bells tied to the spear which he carried always would know the time and it was authentically accurate. Mails leaving Khalsi at 0745 hours should have been delivered at Leh by 1330 hours the next day on a distance of 95 km. Between Kashmir and Leh, there were 100 Chowki Harkaras who scaled snow clad peaks in just 4 days to reach Leh from Srinagar during the summer season and 7-8 days during the winter season.The route to (Padam) Zanaskar remains closed for 8 months from October to May and mails during these eight months are carried through seasonal runners and the conveyance of mails to Padam (Zanaskar) during these months is of unique nature. The unique method of mail conveyance adopted by runners is via Chader, the Zanaskar River. This river remains totally frozen during January to March with temperature known to drop to minus 300 Celsius. During this time it is possible to walk on the frozen river all the way to Padam in Zanaskar. This walk on frozen river is not as simple as it sounds. At many places the river does not freeze completely and the runners at times have to have for days together for ice to form. The whole route takes complete 3 days to reach Padam.

The British postal museum states

In the early years, "Runner" (Dak Harkara) was the embodiment of "Service before Self". He had to face all sorts of risks, hazards and hardships in carrying mails through jungles, terrains and deserts. In the process, he encountered wild animals, dacoits and risked his life. There were cases when the Runners on duty were carried away by tigers, drowned in flooded rivers, bitten by venomous snakes, buried in avalanche or murdered by robbers. In 1921-23, there were 57 cases in which mails were plundered by highway robbers resulting in the loss of seven lives. In the face of all these dangers, the Runners seldom shrunk from their responsibilities. The Runner used to put on colorful attire with badges and was armed with spears and jingling bells for self defense. For hilly regions, he was provided with a bugle to proclaim his presence. The jingling of bells will revive reminiscences of the days when the Department was always on the move day in and day out.

Tarashankar Bandhopadhyay’s ‘Dak Runner’ is a short story which went on to become a famous movie on the subject. It tells of a brave harkara who fights his own son in this Bangla short story, of how the runner braved rains and darkness of night and resisted his son who tried to snatch the money from mailbag. The movie went on to air at the Venice film festival and has some memorable Mannadey songs.

I am not sure if we had Harkara’s in South India, though I do know that the Mysore Raja’s had an organized system. Messengers were surely there, but I have not come across a formal runner system delivering written mail in Malabar.

The London postal magazine 1896

Harkara 3 – Calcutta walks, India today


Lekhni said…
That's a very interesting story; I'd never heard of Harkaras before.

It's amazing how poorly compensated they were for the kind of risks they had to run.
Very interesing story, beautifully told.

Re your question, if such runners existed in south India. Decidedly so. In the south as in traditional India, the runners were always considered faster and more reliable than the horse based mail system. Possibly because it is much easier and cheaper to organize relays.

The standard Tamil word for the post relay is 'anjal' and is possibly the Malayalam word too. There's another word 'tapAl' for the same thing. This probably is a derivative of the Mughal system.

I remember seeing something about this a long time back in a Indian Posts Museum.

Hope this helps.
I forgot to mention that during the early 18th century, the Europeans used to marvel how the traditional Indian businessmen used to convery price information for commodities such as grain etc over long distances such as Agra-Calcutta and that too, very fast. They supposed it was a system of mirrors. Today most scholars think the traders had a private postal system as efficient as the royal mails.
YOSEE said…
An interesting bit of history .
In south India too there were Runners who took mail to the remotest of villages across the then Mysore State and Madras Presidency. I don't know if any research has been done on their system.
Maddy said…
Thanks Lekhni - but from all accounts I read - the harkara was a happy contended soul

once again - if you missed the quote from socrates -He who is content with the least is the richest man, for contentment is natures riches!!

Also remember that he had been released from bonded labor & had a place in important man of the village. even today such small gestures compensate far more than thousands in compensation..
Maddy said…
LNS - now you have raised my curiosity levels - i have to investigate this further & find out about the systems in south India.

And about the mirrors i had read it briefly somewhere, but now it is in context - so here starts my research on that too..

thanks boss
Maddy said…
Thanks Yosee - I had made a mention that the Mysore rajah had such a system, but I have not yet collected details. will do together with LNS 's tips
claireulrich said…
Very nice read, thank you
Ashvin said…
Maddy, you truly are a pheno'menon' ! I have been planning to blog for ages but just can't seem to get down to it and here you are, writing oodles of stuff on the most fascinating topics.

In re. some of the comments above - yes Travancore and Cochin had their own 'Anchal' systems and in fact the older postage stamps still show 'Travancore Anchal' on them. Malabar being under direct British rule must have had the Imperial postal system, whatever it was.

I remember one of our maids at home telling me about her father (or grandfather ?) who was an Anchalottakkaran (Anchal runner) in the services of the Cochin state. Apparently he also had a small hand held bell which he used to keep ringing on and off; as the postal employee of the Maharaja he had right of way almost everywhere, and it seems he used to run barefoot (obviously).
Ashvin said…
oh and btw Lekhni, Rs. 5.50 per month in the 1800s was a very handsome salary, I assure you.
Lekhni said…
Maddy- That makes sense, I guess even now postmen are important persons in rural areas?

Ashvin - That's right, most things were priced in annas, weren't they? I suppose the cost of living was even lower in the villages.
Maddy said…
Thnaks Raji & Claire...
Maddy said…
Thanks Ashvin..

That is good information - In fact if I can drum up enough information, I plan to do a second part on the Anchal ottakkar, but information is too scarce for the time being..
Maddy said…
yes, Lekhni - panam in the south and then came annas..The rupeee was big - recall that it was equal to a shilling..
Happy Kitten said…
nd I think in later years the postman did something similar too...and I remember such a scene in one Malayalam movie where this postman (Paravoor Bharathan) continues to walk or run at a fast pace while talking...he never stands still..

nd our postmen still deliver letters by hand..nd he /she knows much about each family...

interesting read as usual...
Kamini said…
Fantastic! What an effort!
Ashvin said…
Maddy, a small correction, I think the Anchalottakkaran used to carry a bamboo stave or staff, to which the bell was attached, if my memory serves me right.

I can still remember my grandmother asking 'tapaal sipayi vannuvo?' meaning for those non-Malayalis reading this, 'did the postal sepoy come?' which may have been a usage peculiar to Malabar.
Maddy said…
Thanks Ashvin

I can provide a brief note covering the Anchal system in Travancore & Cochin. Anchal Aappees was what it was known as. The term 'anchal' meant 'postal' and 'aappees' is an earlier vernacular word for 'office. Colonel John Monroe formalized it around 1811 though it must have been around earlier for the raja’s work. I understand that it was used to carry only Royal implements, government letters, and flowers as offering to Padmanabhaswamy Temple. Later the system was opened to the public for a fee of one chakram. Anchal Aappees was headed by an 'anchal pillai' (the post master) a person of considerable influence. Postal runners who carry postal articles were allowed to run along the middle of the road. Any obstruction made to the postal runners was considered a serious offence. The runner according to my friend Hari was called harikaran.
Ashvin said…
Is that why there is a 'arikkara street' in Palakkad ?
JD said…
Wonderful Piece!
Maddy said…
Thanks JD & Ashvin..
Glad you enjoyed it, and ashvin I am not sure about the arikkara st...have to check
ambivalent said…
outstanding! Maddy I edit a small cultural magazine , would like you to do an article on Harkara, will it be possible. You may confirm on
Any resources for finding out more about today's Harkaras?
Maddy said…
thanks Tyler,
did not quite get your line of thought - you mean the postmen of India or the e-mailers and so on?
Came across your blog as I was doing some random research on "Runners" for a story that I am planning to write on my fiction blog. Interesting information. I have always been fascinated by them.. There is a beautiful song by Hemanta Kumar in Bangla "Runner Chhutteche Runner Runner ghonta bajche paye" .
Maddy said…
Thanks Meera
Glad you enjoyed it, and hemenat being a favorite, I have to go and listen to that song.
let me also suggest that you read read my recent article on the Anchal services
Maddy said…
Thank u so much meera
That was a lovely song and both salulda and hemant. My favorites