Fans and Punkhas…

A sweltering heat wave is on around Eastern USA and we are all baking in three digit heat though it just might cool off next week. The AC’s and the fans at home are on, and it is bearable inside, but outside, well, the grass is burnt and the heat continues on well into the night. Once in a way we have thunderstorms…but then the humidity goes up. And well, then thoughts like this will come and I drifted off thinking about fans and Punkhas…..

I don’t think anybody from India would ever forget this contraption that is so much part of their life, for it has been there since time immemorial in some version of the other. It could start with the very young days when you were nodding off with your head in your mother’s lap, and her fondly fanning you to sleep, with the hand fan, it could be the noisy white fan in your home which ingrains itself into your psyche so much that you cannot sleep without the air cutting noise (like me) or for some the swoosh of air over their faces is a must before they go into lala land. Yet, there are the dainty ornamental ones ladies once carried, especially brought over from China or Japan, via Malaya or Singapore..and then again, you saw the huge slow droners in government offices and railway stations, black with grime collected over centuries, which turn but are so sleepy and inefficient themselves that they put everybody else to sleep, including the clerks and officers and passengers and what not. But if you ask me, they were works of art, and provided you with fond memories of a very special continent (minus the heat). Sometimes, you recall the special ramacham vishari, the hand fan made of special herbs that provide a medicinal draft and was kept only in the guest room or taken out when somebody got married and the new person came into the household. Sometimes a traveler uncle brought along a special torch cum fan with a water compartment with which you could spray water into the blades and you got a mist to cool you off, and then of course there were those massive desert coolers in North India which brought in the Ganges into the bedroom and played havoc with anything electronic or anything that could rust.

The hand fan called Punkhti in N India and Vishari in Kerala, was thus at the lowest level, closest to the need. As Hobson Jobson defines it - in its original sense a portable fan, generally made from the leaf of the Palmyra, the natural type and origin of the fan. Such punkhtis in India are not however formed, as Chinese fans are, like those of our ladies; they are generally, whether large or small, of a bean-shape, with a part of the dried leaf-stalk adhering, which forms the handle.

But as you know, the film industry has to come up with new ideas, and they did exactly that by showing us even more special uses for the fan. The heroine was usually the one to use it thus, by putting a stool (this word is known only to Indians, do not try going to supermarket in US and ask for a small stool….you will get bewildered expressions), clambering up, tossing her sari through the blades and hanging herself to death, with the hero on many an occasion reaching in the nick of time to cut a perfectly good saree to bits and get her down. Only in India, Sir , I guess, are fans and saris manufactured to withstand the weight of a healthy human being.

And so we grew up with Usha’s and Khaitans and GEC and all those versions above our heads or on pedestals or tables. It was three blade first, then 4 blade and now I don’t know how many. Then the colors started to change from the usual white and now I suppose one has so many choices. Imagine those days when you sat and looked through the blades of the table fan (no, I am not talking about a Satyajit Ray film scene) at the setting sun’s rays with Geeta Dutt singing in the background, her voice coming through the valve radio propped up on the wall, and your eyes stray to the webbed antenna on the wall, where a spider is anxiously trying to repair his web, at the same time focused on the lonely fly’s hovering. The homework is to be completed, your friends are waiting with the rubber-band ball and the home made bat and you are trying to figure out how to slink away. But the fan is always the whirring spectator, knowing not what to tell you other than giving you the slightly cooler environment to get those grey cells whirring up with new ideas. Know what? The first companies that made them in India were called Tropical and Kassel, with bamboo blades or metal, virtually everlasting. Slowly the induction motor was catching hold, and finding uses for so many applications at home.

Well, before those fans came up, only the rich and wealthy had some kind of equipment to move the air around them and speed up the evaporation of sweat, thus cooling one off. Yes, the poor had hand fans, of course, so many different types, made of bamboo, hay (these days you get silly mock plastic ones too). Back to biblical or even earlier times, the rich Assyrian merchants had servants spray the floor’s bottom from a basement, with cool water. American Indians dug gutters under their floors and circulated water to provide cooling. Romans brought in snow from the mountains to cool their homes,but then in India, we also had the Punkah….

'Fast and loose, it cannot touch what it tries to reach; though tied up it moves swiftly, and though a prisoner it is free. Fixed in its place it drives before it the gentle breeze; though its path lie closed up it moves on in its nocturnal journey.'"— That was the ancient Punkah……so beautifully described by Ibn Hamdun in the 9th century..

The Punkha is where one should start I suppose, a venerable device of system if one were to call it that, which the English and the earlier princely nobles were accustomed to. If you were not aware of it, let it be known that once upon a time it was even exported all the way from Calcutta to Broadway in New York, not as a rarity or showpiece, but as a method of circulating air, practically. Who pulled the strings in New York is not clear though, and if the first imported labor from India came for that (imagine a visa category for a certified experienced punkah puller!!). In fact it was later supplied to many a fine Southern house in USA as evidenced by the pictures in the page that you can review after clicking the hyperlink.

Pankha wallas in India had a tough time, they worked 15-20 days a month during summers. They were paid tips based on their enthusiasm and a good session in a lord’s house fetched four annas (1900). Usually they charged three annas per day and three annas per night per man. Not only were they seen in the North, but also in wealthy houses down south, punkawing away and figuring prominently in many a court case if you choose to look at those musty, dusty brown records for they were mute witnesses to many an event in a wealthy home, virtually considered inanimate objects by their employers.You can see a great example of the Punkah in the linked blog by Mr Tharakan, still maintained in his ancestral home. . This kind of hanging punkah popular in offices and churches came about by accident.

The story goes thus - Hanging punkahs are said by one authority to have originated in Calcutta by accident towards the close of the 18th century. It is reported that a clerk in a Government office suspended the leaf of a table, which was accidentally waved to and fro by a visitor. A breath of cool air followed the movement, and suggested the idea which was worked out and resulted in the present machine".. well I am not so sure, if that version came from an inebriated sahib…

As the descrition continues in the Putnams monthly of 1857 - In every room of every house in Calcutta a punka swings from the ceiling. This is a long, light frame of wood, covered with long-cloth or fancy paper, having a flounce of muslin along its lower edge. It is suspended from hooks by three or four ornamental cords. Then another cord passes from the body of the punka over a brass wheel on the wall, and so through the wall, and over another such wheel on the opposite side, to the hand of a punka-wallah— one of a pair—who, squatting on the floor, pendulates his charge continually, or so long as the apartment is occupied. Under these punkas yon dine and smoke, read, loll, and sleep, by day or night; and what with them, and the great Palmyra fans— as much as your bearer can featly wave with both his hands—and the latticed verandas, and the sprinkled mats, and an abundance of Boston ice—with all the sherry-cobblers that come of it—and the lalling palankeens, and the well-watered side-walks and drives, and the embowered "compounds" of the Chowringheo Road, and the breezy Midan, and the nabobish Esplanade, and the fruit-boothed Parade-ground with its nightly serenade, the City of Palaces has no favors to ask of the City of Hotels.

Remember my story on the Boston ice? If not read it here… Later on with the advent of English, the simple system started to become more complex. Lt RN Cook got a patent to mechanize it around 1855 and use it in places like hospitals, much to the happiness of the hapless patients.

A patent has been recently granted to Lieut. Cook, R.N., F.R.S., Professor of Fortification at Addiscombe Military College, “for improvements in the method of working gigantic fans (called punkas) for agitating the air in hospitals, barracks, churches, and other large buildings in tropical climates, and in the height of summer in more northern latitudes." These punkas may be worked by manual labour, or by horse, bullock, or steam-power. The machine is so arranged, that one man can work a system of sixteen punkas with comparative ease. This is the number required to fan the occupants of thirty-two beds, as they are arranged in pairs in adjacent rooms in the hospitals of India. The apparatus for working the punkas in adjoining buildings may all be brought to the same focus or moving power, if that of horse or steam be used; while the action of any single punka may be arrested (without affecting the forward motion of the others) and set at liberty again at the will of the patients. For private beds, “revolving fans" are used within musquito curtains, which, by a simple and noiseless mechanism, are made to fan the occupant for two, four, six, or eight hours, according to the temperature of the room, and the consequent speed required. Those only who have experienced the discomfort of restless nights, from the high temperature of tropical climates, can duly appreciate the value of such a contrivance, which may be sent to and fitted in any part of the world.

Soon they found their way to the US of A. (quoting from Putnam’s monthly 1856) - Within two or three years, punkas have been imported hither. At Gosling's excellent eating-house, on Broadway, you will find them, and they soothe heated brains at the Sun office. Go observe their mechanism and operation, and if, being an enterprising person with a mechanical turn of mind, you should hereafter take the East India Company's prize of ten thousand rupees for a self-acting punka, you will not forget to thank us for this hint.

But back to India - Francis and Elizabeth Clark in their travelogue notes - The "punkah-wallah," too, or the man who pulls the huge fans with which every office, dining-room, parlor, and church is provided, is a well-known character in Madras, as in all Southern India. I must say I have seen days in New York and Boston when a punkah was as necessary as it even is in hot Madras. This occupation often descends from father to son, for many generations, and the true punkahwallah by instinct and training becomes so expert that, tying the string to his toe, he will go to sleep and still keep jerking away at the cord to fan the hot brows of the Europeans within, who may be dining, or reading, or writing, or sleeping, as the case may be.

Thomas Wallace Knox in the Boy travelers in the FE provides this insight

We visited two or three bungalows in the resident portion of Madras, and had an opportunity of looking through them. They had wide verandas, and the windows were covered with lattices and Venetian blinds to keep out the heat, while the floor was of brick or cement, for the sake of the superior coolness of those articles. Coir matting was laid over the floor to protect the bare feet of the occupants, and there were several punkas in each room to keep the air in circulation.

We were quite interested in looking at the punkas, and learning how they work them. There is a certain class of servants, known as pankhd-wattahs (punka-fellows), who work these fans, and are hired for that purpose at about three dollars a month, they boarding themselves. They stand outside and work the punka by means of a cord passing through a hole in the wall, so that while you are enjoying the strictest privacy, yon may have the fan in motion above you. You have a punka over your bed, another over your bath-tub, another at your dressing-bureau, another over your dining-table, and another above your desk. Your body-servant calls out to your punkha-wallah, and has him shift from one cord to another as yon move about your room, or go from one room to another. You have the punka in motion all day and all night somewhere, and for this purpose you must have two men to relieve each other. When you go to bed a basket of old shoes is placed where you can reach them, and you are fanned to sleep. If you wake perspiring in the night, and find the punka motionless, you may know that the pankha-wallah is taking a nap; you throw a shoe in his direction and thus awaken him, and immediately he resumes his duty.

The side where the man pulls is the one that gets the air most vigorously circulated, for the reason that it is brought forward with a certain force, and goes back by its own weight. The people here call the one where the man pulls the Bombay side of the punka, and the other the Bengal side. We asked why it was, and they told us that when the south-west monsoon blows it comes with its full force from the sea upon the shores of the Bombay presidency; crossing the country and going over the mountains to Bengal, it expends its strength and becomes very weak. Therefore you see how the Bombay and Bengal sides of the punka get their names.

"They say that a good many inventions have been tried for substituting machinery for man power in working the punka, but none ofthem have succeeded, for the reason that the peculiar pull or impulse that is needed to put the air in motion can only be given by the human arm. Machinery works with regularity and a steady pull, and the real need of the punka is a jerk or extra force while the cord is being drawn, followed by a complete relaxation of the cord to allow the fan to go back and get ready to be drawn forward again.

By 1900 the punkah was becoming a big white elephant for the shrinking salaries of the white man. Ashcroft writing for the electrical world magazine explains - The electric desk fan and the electric ceiling fan have sealed the fate of the punkah; its oscillations are becoming feebler and feebler, and will soon entirely cease. And when one considers that four punkah pullers are included in the bag and baggage of every white man in India, transient or otherwise, the Indian labor question assumes a very complex position in view of the introduction of our Western methods of breeze-manufacturing. Every electric fan imported into India means depriving four natives of their means of subsistence; and it seems as though our electric fan manufacturers, who are trading here should annually devote a goodly portion of their profits to that annually-recurring institution—the Indian famine. It is not at all strange that Mahomet and Brahma should nowadays be having their slumbers constantly interrupted by the pitiful supplications of erstwhile punkah pullers for the destruction of this new-fangled enemy of theirs—electric fans and electricity. If there ever is another Black Hole of Calcutta, any fan manufacturer who happens to be in town at the time will undoubtedly find himself an inmate, if his identity is known.

For a punkah breeze, the established price is 12 annas per 24 hours. This sum, which is equivalent to 24 American cents, is divided among four coolies, so that each gets the munificent salary of 6 American cents per day—and some of them support a family on this. The Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation, a somewhat recently-established institution, is now supplying power at the rate of 4 annas per kw-hour. The punkah coolies work in two shifts, from six to six. The day shift does quite reliable work, if a vehement injunction, such as "Tanno," meaning "Pull," is given them every five minutes. The night gang, however, are familiar with "ways that are dark and tricks that are vain." Their duty is to pull the punkah over your bed, and thus save your anatomy from being perforated by mosquitoes and other vermin without end; but they are sadly handicapped in the performance of their duty by their unceasing attempts to get as near to 12 hours' sleep as possible during the interval between 6 p. m. and 6 a. m. Thus it is that, in India, a boot-jack is used nocturnally to create activity rather than to suppress it; and, even if your aim is good, the punkah coolie will be off to sleep again in the next 15 minutes. So, is it not reasonable to suppose that the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation will pay handsome dividends, at least from that department of its service appertaining to supplying power for electric fans?

But we still have punkah wallahs here and there, especially religious mausoleums. Click here to see a present day fellow. In the Southern US, slaves had the responsibility of operating the Punkah and were seen in rich homes, but differed slightly from the Indian versions, after local versions were manufactured.

Anyway I guess, the story of the punkah will drone along unless I put a stop to it and move on to the next developments. There were so many mechanical contraptions designed to move air over time, that it will take even more space than I planned, so let me get to detailing but a few

Around the beginning of the 20th century, some 50 years after it reached New York, the electric Punkah was invented. Literary digest in 1905 states - readers of Kipling's stories or of any other Anglo-Indian literature need no information regarding the nature and uses of the punkah, which plays so large a part in all narratives of the land of torrid days and breathless nights. The substitution of electric power for sleepy Hindu servants in its propulsion will probably conduce to greater comfort, though it may interfere with some of the romance.

Says The Electrical Review and Western Electrician (New York):

"An electrically driven punkah has been invented, and although this is not the first of its kind, it is said to give satisfaction because it substitutes for the peculiar jerk which is given by the native, and in which the previously devised mechanically driven punkahs were lacking, a similar mechanical movement. The satisfactory service which the hand-worked punkah gives is due to a turn of the fan that the native effects by jerking the rope at each turn. In order to obtain a flick of the curtain similar to that given to the hand-worked fans, the inventors of the new electrically driven punkah have devised an ingenious piece of mechanism.

"A horizontal spindle is made to revolve by an electric motor, aud against this spindle there is pressed, by means of a spring, a leather-covered, lath-shaped piece attached to the-fan. The motion of the spindle makes the attachment move over as far as the length of its surface, and the impetus carries the attachment and the punkah a considerable distance from the spindle. As soon as the lathshaped attachment comes back to the revolving spindle in the return swing, an extra impetus is suddenly imparted to the swing of the punkah, which gives the requisite flick."—Literary Digest.

But well, we talked about the Punkah, but the mechanical versions were also being invented during this time, in Europe. Like many other inventions, the first fan water driven was perhaps invented by Leonardo Da Vinci in 1500. In 1833, Dr John Gorice blew air over ice to provide a cool draft for his recuperating patients, while by 1872, we have Boyle with his refrigerator. The first air conditioners came up in 1922 and became popular after the 2nd world war. But back to fans which were staple before all this. Spirit-stove fans are also used in India. These were attached to and operated by small spirit stoves, especially in country bungalows and in tents, where no electric current is available. These spirit-stove fans, often mounted on tripods, have added immensely to the comfort of trips into the jungles and in camp life generally. A leading firm dealing in those fans advertised then that there are over 20,000 Europeans in India using them.Then there were steam engine driven fans and the Stirling kerosene engine fan...

By the late 1880’s, Hunter fans entered the field with their hybrid machine with a Syracuse water motor. Dc fans were soon replaced by AC fans, which had to be started by hand. The first ceiling fans based on the Turek design (James C. Hunter buys an interest in the Tuerk Water Meter Company of Syracuse, NY.Here the first water-driven fans are developed—and the ceiling fan is invented.) were introduced in 1886 by Hunter and belt driven by water motors running off city water. Later the Turek became electric driven. The original electric motor idea came from Singer thanks to an employee Philip Diehl. Soon Hunter excelled in their versions. One of their biggest export markets was India. Later the fans housed lights and took ornate looks. However air conditioning became popular after the war and the fans disappeared from most houses due to their inability to control oppressive humidity of the south, but are slowly making a comeback these days, mostly in an ornamental fashion or even modernistic and outlandish fashions. Many fans these days are dual directional for use in winter and summer.

But it is time to stop…To end let us once again look at an ancient account, this one by James Kerr writing in 1873 about his impressions of India

The use of punkas in church at first rather shocks our sense of propriety. It does not harmonize with our ideas of the fitness of things, and the sanctity of the place. Swinging backwards and forwards, now concealing the face of the clergyman and now presenting it in full view, they act as a disturbing element in our devotions. It may be added, that the monotonous waving of so many large fans has rather a soporific effect, and you are apt to drop over, unless the sermon is all the more lively. The punkapuller himself, an unconverted heathen, who does not know a word that is said, is the first to feel the drowsy influence. Every now and then his hand stops, and, to the dismay of everyone, the punka ceases to move. After a few moments the poor man awakes, with the whole congregation staring at him, and begins to pull with fresh vigour. Or, perhaps, he remains in a state of coma and suspended animation for a considerable time, and someone bolder than the rest rises from his seat and gives a sudden jerk to the rope which hangs dangling in his hands. The apathetic Hindoo is fairly roused, jumps almost out of his skin, and for a short time the punka flies over your head with increased vivacity; but only again, after a while, to sink into repose.

I have heard it said, and do in part believe it, that the heat of the climate, the monotonous waving of the punkas, and the senium, each separately capable of producing a great effect, do when combined and acting with united force, form so powerful a narcotic, that no human brain is able to resist it, but, like the eyes of Argus under the wand of Mercury, those of the congregation, one by one, close in sleep, completely overpowered.

The Land of India – James Kerr
Boy travelers in the FE - Thomas Wallace Knox
Old house Journal
Hunter fan history
Southern US Punkha’s
Water powered fan at work
Refrigerant Punkhas

Pics - from the net - thanks and acknowledgements to the uploaders...

Many thanks to my friend Venkat for gently prodding me into doing this article


Beautiful post with a deep peep into the past. In a place called Nowgong (Bundelkhand) I happened to visit an old church. Apart from the main hall it had twoo side halls as well. There was a series of Pankhas all over inter connected and only one person required to pull the strings.
बीकानेर के रजवाड़ों में अब भी कहीं कहीं पुराने झलने वाले पंखे दिखाई देते हैं। एक आदमी बाहर बैठकर झलता था।

पुरानी पंखियों पर मोरपंख और चीढ़ों (जिन्‍हें आजकल की भाषा में फैशन बीट्स कहते हैं) से सजाया जाता था।

बहुत सुंदर पोस्‍ट गर्मियों में पंखियां अब खत्‍म हो रही है। इन्‍वर्टर ने उनकी मांग बहुत कम कर दी है... :)
Maddy said…
Thanks PNS..
the whole system was ingenious, though requiring a tough guy to pull the ropes constantly..
Bernard said…
Manmadhan Sir,
This post reminds me of Raamacha vishari (Roots of Vetiveria zizanioides)and the very homemade one made from the base of Areca nut leaf (Paala). We all used to cut Paala for such use.
Maddy said…
Bhrahmaneeyam provides this interesting insight

Interesting piece of writing, which takes my thoughts back to my
College days sixty years back. I was a student of Degree Course in
Government Arts College, Coimbatore. Only Degree College in my town in those days. Being a Government College of one hundred years standing at that time, it followed old British system. Our head of the department enjoyed the facilities of a rest room and a "Punkha boy".
Though there was no Punkha in his rest room, the post was not
abolished and functionally he served as a "Tea boy" in modern
However I have seen Punkha functioning in some other place. It was the in the famous Jewellery shop of P.A.Raju Cheittiar & Bro, in big bazaar, Coimbatore. In those days, Chettiar himself used to sit on floor with his Cash box and jewellery weighing scale before him. A Punkha will drawn by a Pankhawala slowly to spread cool breeze over his seat. Whenever Chettiar was using the weighing scale Pankha will be stopped
Maddy said…
Thanks bernard..
I mentioned the Ramacha vishari in the text, the picture I believe depicts one..
the square ola meja type prominent in palghat is another...
Maddy said…
thanks Bhrahmaneeyam..
the scene description of the punkha puller stopping when the weighing was done was fascinating..
Seema Moondra said…
Maddy, Thanks for the fun narration about this ingenious device invented by man. I have a program called Enjoy Explore India and conduct workshops for libraries and schools. I am doing a craft workshop on Indian Fan and I am wondering if I can use some of the photos and illustrations used by you for my display board. Thanks. Seema Moondra
Maddy said…
Hi seema
Thanks - go ahead

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