The Anchal Service

The ancient postal services at Travancore, and Cochin

As a child I loved the many trips to our local post office. At Pallavur, the old post office was situated next to the temple and I had first introduced it when I wrote the story of Ramnath and ‘a pack of cards’. Whenever I went to Pallavur for my vacations, an errand my uncle gave me was to go to the post office every day at 10 and fetch the mail. The intention of course was to pick it up early, for it would be 2PM by the time the post man legging his rounds in the sun, would get there otherwise. Many other families had their representatives waiting there already and busy partaking in the morning gossip. Of course, a youngster is not allowed to join such groups, so I would slink away to the corner and watch the goings on in the post office till the post man was ready to go out. The post master was busy with the important thing, the money bag and the money orders, sorting all that out, while at the same time manning the window and selling stamps, postal orders etc. The post man was busy rubber stamping the receipt on various postal items and bagging it for the outgoing mail. This he had to do before setting out for mail delivery. Now note here that the post office was actually the 2nd floor of a more modern agraharam house, next to the smaller temple pond and right opposite the temple gates.

Just before he left with his leather bag holding all the mail, he would look around, identify who all were waiting in the hall and yell out their names, to hand over their post. He would also chat a bit, ask about the wellbeing of the elders in the family or of important happenings in their families, like a distant cousin would. That done, he would leave towards the agraharams (which were the nearest and the starting point of his mail route) and I would trudge back home. Nair, the post man would start his lonely walk, traverse the North grammam, then the South grammam, then towards the long stretch which comprised the Nair Tharavads, separated by large distances and many paddy fields. He would cover perhaps 50% of his work by 1PM and would be at Kizhakkethara for his lunch at the lone hotel and tea shop. After lunch, he continued on for miles before trudging wearily back to the start and finish off his duties by sorting the mail which had arrived from the main Palghat post office.

You may wonder why I mentioned the caste of the postman, well, it was an important aspect right from the early days when caste was paramount in South Malabar. Let me narrate a story to illustrate that, quoting from Geoffrey Clarke’s very interesting book. The story goes thus - On the Malabar side of the peninsula, where a very strict form of Brahminism prevails, persons of low caste are forbidden to enter the quarters of a town (Kalpathy I presume) occupied by Brahmins, and care has to be taken to place these quarters in the beats of high caste postmen. In Palghat there was almost a riot on one occasion when a postman of inferior caste attempted to enter a Brahmin street in the performance of his duties, and the Post- master-General was promptly called to order, by the indignant inhabitants. It was nearly a question whether he should be fined and compelled to feed a thousand beggars in accordance with the custom of the caste, but, on proving that he was an indigent member of the Indian Civil Service with a wife and family in England, he was pardoned on admitting his error and promising that no repetition of the offence should occur!!

Let me stop the narration and switch topics, for this has nothing to do with the postal system as I knew it, in my younger days. I can go on and on, and even move to the workings of the large P&T office in Calicut where I spent a good amount of time while at College, for that is where my friends played table tennis , where I knew a few people working in the Calicut headquarters, and the regular visits to Paragon which was not ‘the most popular restaurant’ of Calicut then. I would have also told you about a very attractive postal clerk we had in our college post office, who entered the dreams and thoughts of many of us, including me. She had an exquisite figure and was always dressed alluringly in white. One thing was clear, the postal sales skyrocketed after her arrival and you can easily figure that a mainly male engineering college would have produced scores of admirers for that lovely lady. Let’s forget her too and traverse back many decades and centuries to the mid-18th century.

As I said, this is a different topic. Some years ago, I introduced the Dak Harkara’s of the north, or the postal runners. At that time, my friend Hari, a very knowledgeable soul on many a history and art topic, but one who spends his days in the dreary world of finance and numbers instead, had briefly mentioned to me the Anchal system of Travancore. Recently I laid my hands on a very interesting book written by NS Moos on the very topic, and armed with some information from that fine effort by Moos, decided to research the world of the Anchal postal system, one that existed in the 18th and 19th centuries in Travancore, Cochin and some territories close to Cochin (Note that Malabar by the 18th century had become part of the British and later the Madras presidency, being served by the British Indian postal system). As I read on, I saw that most articles I chanced on had threadbare factoids and so I thought it better to dive deep in search of more.

All records point to the existence of an early system of delivery named the Anchal in Travancore and Cochin during the 1760’s. After seeing some references to Munro and some far reaching conclusions that the name Anchel was formulated by Munro deriving it from the word Angel, I decided to look beyond the borders. It was not too difficult to discover that the first use of the word Anche for a postal service came from neighboring Mysore where Chikka DevaRaja Wodeyar II had established one (drawing the concept of the harkara from the Mughals) and named it the Anche. (It may be relevant to mention that Alauddin Khilji, Sher Shah Suri and the Mughals had originally designed the systems of “horse daks” and “postal runners” and later, Akbar built post houses at 10 mile intervals on key routes, with replacement horses as well at each locale). The Mysore Anche was not only a government (not public) postal service, but also an intelligence collection agency. How did the word come about? Kannada scholars opine that it was an early Kannada derivation from Hamsa or Swan, a carrier of messages for the mythical Damayanti from Nala! But Moos believes that Anche was derived from the Urdu word Ungel meaning message.

So Anche stood for post, Anche Bakshi its head, Anche Kacheri or Anche Chavady was the post office, Anche yava or Anche harikararu was the mail runner, Anchemida was a Anche relay service, Anche mane or Ancheyavara gudisalu was his hut and Anche chila or Anche bastu, his leather mail bag! They did have a fairly extensive route and suffice to state that Hyder and Tipu continued with it, till it was all merged with the British system in 1889. The gejjegdra who supplied bells for the anklets of dancing girls and bells around the necks of bullocks also supplied bells for the Ancheyavara’s staff. The stick was made from branches of the torch tree or hennu gorivi.

Down south in Travancore, it is said that the earliest mentions of a formal government Anchal service started during the reign of Marthanda Varma and was known as the Sircar Anchal (It was originally spelt as Unjel, not Anchal or Anchel). Velu Pillai’s TSM provides the following data – We find in the treasury accounts of the year 936 M. E. (1760-61), found in the Chellamvuka records, a reference to transmission of letters by Anchal. That regular Anchal service extended up to Sherthala and beyond so early as 941 M. E. (1765-66) is evidenced by two official records of the same date in reference to the boundary disputes between Cochin and Travancore. Shungoonny Menon states that in 9.59 M. E. (1784) Maharaja Rama Varma, after his return from Rameswaram, improved the Anchal and established it on better principles.

An even earlier extract from the Mathilakom records is cited by Kunju – He mentions ‘A variyola dated Painkuni, 930 M. E. (March 1755) provides detailed information regarding the distance between the stage-stations, the time taken for carrying mail between two stage- stations, the records to be maintained relating to the time of despatch of mail, punishment for delay, etc. The mail-carriers took 158 ¼ nalikas (63 Hrs and 18 Min) to cover the 18 stage stations from Tovala to Erramanur a total distance of 42 ¼ katam (169 miles)…. If there is any delay, even half a nalika, the delay should be noted. If the delay is unaccounted, the Mantapattumvatukkal (taluk) karyakkar should enquire and punish the mail carrier or postal clerk, whoever is responsible for the delay, one stripe for each nalika of delay.

Velu Pillai provides a pointer that Cochin too relied on a similar Anchal system. Quoting him ‘It was the Anchal Master of Edappally who communicated to the Maharaja the news of Tippu Sultan’s defeat in 1790, and as a reward for the transmission of the happy news the office was made hereditary in the family. This is evidenced by a copper plate grant. The family held the office till 1056 M. E. (1880-81.), when the grant was cancelled for acts of malfeasance’.

The Sircar Anchal of Anantapuram delivered government letters between officers, flowers to the Padmanabhaswami temples and vegetables to the royal kitchens. While the services of the sircar anchal were limited to the above activities for a century, it was in 1848-1849 that the service was opened out to government servants and private petitioners as well as carriage of the private letters of government servants. As this led to various abuses, petitioners were therefore required to attest in writing to the satisfaction of the Anchal Masters that ‘the letters required to be sent through the Anchal were statements of genuine grievances’. One would of course be interested to know what this mail looked like. Well they were most definitely not on paper, but were on ola or cadjun leaf, written with the ezhuttani (a metallic pen with a sharp point using which indentations were made on the dried palm leaf). Some were short ola cuts and these were placed in a China or shencotta ‘paper’ envelope for mailing. If the ola was a long one (e.g. a full report), the leaf was rolled up and the address written on the exposed end. Many such rolls to a common destination were garlanded by the Anchal officer and the garland dumped into a gunny bag carried by the runner.

In 1860-61 the posting of private letters was allowed at the rate of 1 chuckram (½ anna) per cover irrespective of weight and distance. Mail registration was started as well as carriage of express mail at the rate of 1 fanam or panam (2 annas.) per mile) and the distinction between letter and parcel mails was also introduced in that year.

The Anchal came under the Dewan, and was part of the Huzur Rayasam (correspondence) department. It was administered by a ‘Melvicharippukar’ or superindentent, and supported by two ‘Sekharipuus’ or paymasters. ‘Anchal Pillamar’ came next, heading various Anchal offices or appes’s and tailed off with the runners of the ‘Anchal ottakkar’. The runners were required to traverse 2 miles an hour. For every hour delayed, a fine of one chuckram (16 kasu or ½ anna) was levied; but if the mail was ‘express’, the fine was 2 chs. for every hour. The total extent of mail communication was then 865 ¾ miles. Delivery peons were called ‘Chilavu Sadhanakkar’ and the parcel was termed ‘Sadhanam’. Important mail was personally delivered by the Anchal master. Landed gentry (Viruthikar) were also sometimes responsible for mail handling in their areas. Delinquent runners were punished and the Melvicharippukar had the authority to flog them. A nadakuli system (rural delivery) was established for remote places.

In 1862-63 branch offices were thrown open for the transmission of service covers and letters for the
public in general. A gumasthan in the taluk cutcherry, tobacco or salt bankshall (like a government ration shop), was entrusted in addition to his normal duties with the charge of collecting letters, etc., for despatch to the nearest Anchal Office and receiving from such offices letters for delivery at the station through Viruthikar and peons attached to those Cutcherries. In 1865-66 the system of registering covers was introduced on payment of seven chuckraras (about 4 annas). In 1868-69 a Boat Transit Service from Trivandrum to Shoranore, then the nearest station on the Madras railway, was sanctioned, the distance being about 180 miles. Date stamps and clocks for important offices were supplied in 1871-72 and 1872-73 respectively. The next year saw the introduction of paper in the place of Cadjun.

All this was further regulated and formalized in 1888. Anchal stamps and cards were inaugurated in 1888. The ‘bearing’ system was introduced, as also service cards and pillar boxes. In 1892 the Madras Government suggested the desirability of amalgamating the Anchal with the British Indian postal system. As it was apprehended that it would cause great inconvenience to Travancore, the amalgamation was not considered. In 1894-95 a DLO or Dead Letter Office was started.

Matters started to become stricter as time went by - Regulation II of 1079 ME (1903) prohibited sending of newspapers by anchal “which has on its cover any words or design of an indecent, sedition, slander threatening or grossly offensive character.” Uniforms were given to the runner which were Khaki shorts, a Khaki shirt topped off with a Khaki hat with red lining. A special candle holder was developed for the Anchal Ottakkaran which being portable could be folded into a compact package.

By 1903-04 the total number of Anchal offices reached about 150 and the number of letter boxes were 179. These pillar boxes were made of cast iron, are about 40” tall, were hexagonal in shape and were introduced around 1888-89. Proudly featured was the State emblem, the Conch shell. The time of clearance was indicated, and these boxes could carry some 3,000 letters and small packets. These Anchal petti’s were supplied by Massey & Co, Madras and the Travancore petti’s were painted green (British Indian and the general public anchals were painted red). Rate wise, the Anchal was much cheaper than the British system, so most people preferred the Anchal. Anchal stamps were only valid for deliveries within Travancore and Cochin kingdoms. Letters addressed outside Anchal territories were not delivered and were sent back to sender. Railway mail to Shencottah, boat mail to Shornur etc. were later developments. Adhesive stamps and embossed envelopes were first introduced on April 1892, followed by regular post cards in 1898 and official cards in 1912. The British introduced their own postal communication into Travancore in 1857, the first Post Office being established at Alleppey. Offices were opened in Trivandrum in 1863, Quilon in 1864, and Nagercoil in 1865.

The Cochin Anchal too provided most of the services of the Travancore Anchal. The Cochin manual states that the Postal Department in Cochin was organized in 1795. There too, only government articles were sent by post at first and regular runners were posted between post offices. By 1865, private articles were accepted and around 1910, there were 43 anchal offices, 84 letter boxes and 301 miles of anchal lines served in Cochin. Sadly I could not find any pictures of the Cochin Anchal box. Emily Gilchrist reported a Cochin runner in her guide book - The only regular pedestrians through this jungle track were the Anchal post runners who carried the post from Kumili through to Munnar. Formerly one runner left each morning at 6 a.m., carried the mails twelve miles… Cochin started to sell stamps from 1898 or so, and in Cochin, the roads used by the ottakaran going up the hills was termed the Anchal vazhy!

The public have always been fascinated by the person who has the hardest task, the Tapal ottakaran. I don’t know if they always wore Khakhi uniforms but they did carry a 2 foot staff with bells on the top and they jingled it to get a clear right of way on any road. One of the most complete articles about an anchal ottkaran personified by one Chapli Kannan, was written by Suresh Thomas, and can be found here. 

It is fascinating to read how he went about his routine, and Suresh narrates it thus - Chapli Kannan’s working hours started at 6.30 a.m. when he would leave for Kanthalloor post office, eight kilometres from his kudi. He would collect postal articles and, carrying them on his head, would run to Marayur post office, 16 km from Kanthalloor. After delivering the articles, he would collect those to be delivered at Kanthalloor post office and run back. He would be home by 6.30 p.m. The routine was repeated six times a week, Sunday being the “off day”. “Thirty-two km of running and 16 km of walking, day after day, and week after week,” he says. “Not everyone could have done that job. I am happy that I could… All I had to do was run, and be on time.” The two aspects of the job that gave him the greatest contentment were the power that he enjoyed—“everyone had to make way for me, and I could do anything with my wooden staff”—and the amount of time he had for himself. His sense of satisfaction permeates his recollections.

There are others, and we can read in another record that during a bad year in Chokli, a runner ran through his duties for 5 days due to the fear of losing his job, without eating any rice or drinking gruel. The Anchal service diversified into money orders or hundis and also insurance. The Travancore and Cochin Anchals were combined in 1949 as the currency was demonetized and finally in 1951, it was amalgamated into the Indian postal service.

British Malabar too had its quota of runners – Grace Seton noticed them and wrote in her ‘Yes lady Saheb’ - Occasionally, on the mountain road a dak walla (post runner) would appear trudging along, jingling some rings on an iron rod two feet long to keep people and animals away. We note another case during the Moplah revolt years, where a Tiyya postal runner (and his step son) returning from Kottakal to Tirur, after having delivered his mails, were carried off by the rebels and placed before a special tribunal composed of 5,000 assembled rebels. The rebels asked him to give an undertaking that he would resign his post under the British Government within two months, and join the service of the Khilafat Government. This he did and he was released on condition.

The speed of a British post runner varied from 3/4th to two and a half miles per hour. In 1847 the time taken for the conveyance of mail from Calicut to Ooty a distance of 100 miles, varied from 39 to 63 hours. 4 runners covered the Nilgiris route and were paid Rs 5/- to Rs 7/- per month!

In some parts of British India they had to run at a minimum speed of 6 miles per hour and any Englishman could flog a dawk runner found to be loitering around or asleep by the roadside. Conversely, by law magistrates had to restrain their police officers from stopping dawk runners, while employed in the actual conveyance of the mails, on petty charges of misdemeanor being preferred against them. Sometimes the Dawk runner had to carry parcels and he would do it with a banghy. The banghy is defined as a light pliable pole, with a bundle suspended at each end, which is carried balanced across the shoulder by the Dawk runner, very much like the fish seller’s kavu of yore.

This can go on and on, and statistics available are aplenty, but it would all be incredibly boring to a lay reader. So I should hasten and conclude thus, with a tribute to the runner. The desire to communicate and send information to another has existed since time immemorial. From smoke signals, carrier pigeons and written mail sent through runners there have been steady developments driving the postal department to what it is today. Even that will vanish soon, with advancements in the field of telephony, telex, telegraph and now the medium of internet where not just text but audio and video can be transmitted at incredible speeds, using electrons and optic waves. Soon they will be transmitting thoughts, of that I am sure.

But you will never forget the image of a postal runner resolutely sprinting his way barefooted, through forests, mountains and valleys, through rain and sun, mist and haze, through the roughest and wildest of terrains, occasionally facing off to a dog or a bear or a tiger or a jackal, all with one purpose, to deliver a message from another, meant for you. That my friends was commitment, more than any other.

The Travancore Anchal – NS Moos
Travancore State Manual Vol 3 Velu Pillai
Rise of Travancore: a study of the life and times of Marthaṇḍa Varma – AP Ibrahim Kunju
The post office of India and its story - Geoffrey Clarke
Mysore Gazetteer
Cochin state manual - C Achyutha Menon

Pics – Stamps, cover Google pics, thanks to uploaders. Anchal Pillar Wikimedia. Anchal Runner kerapex2016, Indian philately digest shared publicly on google+, acknowledged with thanks

Notes – I always used to wonder what happened to letters which landed up at the DLO or the Dead Letter Office, the so called morgue for ill addressed letters. I found the answer in the linked Hindustan Times article and another one in Indian express.

Nowadays the name has changed to the ‘returned letter office’ of RLO. The conditions to be satisfied before it goes to the RLO are - The post offices do try to deliver the letters to the addressee but if the name or address is undecipherable or wrong or incomplete, if the addressee has changed his address with no forwarding address, or if the letter / parcel is refused to be accepted by the party concerned normally they try to send it back to the sender. But many times the name and address of the sender is not given. In that case the letter or parcel is sent to the RLO. Their task is to try and find out the addressee and deliver the item. They are authorized to open the letters and parcels which they do and sometimes the address of the sender is written inside in which case the items is sent back to the sender. Sometimes the sender refuses to take it back and it lands back with the RLO. The RLO keeps all the postal articles, which are delivered there from different post offices for a year. In the past the RLO burnt all letters after a year and auction the articles found inside the parcels. But today they shred all those letters and auction the goods recovered from the parcels through approved auctioneers after obtaining formal permission from the postal department. The sale proceeds from the auction as well as any cash, cheques and drafts are deposited in the unclassified receipts of the Department.


B Pradeep Nair said…
Interesting insights. Now of course the speed of the postman has increased. Most of them are on scooters. There are now postwomen too.
Another point I want to make here is that though most people have shifted to emails and Instant Messengers on mobiles, post-offices are still crowded. One reason is that Indian Post has launched a number of savings schemes. Post office also now functions as a payment bank.
Very interesting and so thoroughly researched. Will the generation of today be able to appreciate the travails of a letter to reach it's destination? Running and walking more than 30 kms to deliver post, when today it just takes the flick if a finger to send letters directly to the recipient.
Maddy said…
Thanks Pradeep.
That's good to note. But with fewer and fewer people reading books (like holding one in your hand), even fewer writing a letter, the nature of the post office will change to that of a government savings bank perhaps?
Maddy said…
Hi Raji..
Great to hear from you.
Yes, you are right. Try telling somebody in America to write a 5 page essay. They will have no problems facing an audience with 50,000 people and deliver a speech, but writing is not a forte anymore with these kids. A look at some samples of handwriting will tell you that it is a labored activity and cursive writing hardly undertaken.

Even the president delivers his dictums on twitter these days!