The Christmas Island Revolt - 1942

And V.E. Mathew of Ka-su-ma-su

I am almost sure that many of you would not have heard this story, barring a few living in Britain and Australia, those who peruse newspapers and old WWII stories carefully. This happened at a remote locale in the Indian Ocean, some 250 miles south of Java, named Christmas Island, where a revolt or mutiny of sorts took place. The revolt was carried out by a handful of Indian soldiers serving in the British army, during the 2nd world war. The date being 10th March 1942 makes it an early revolt against the crown, yet it is hardly mentioned today, in India or Pakistan. So let’s proceed back in time, on a trip to the island and find out what happened during those balmy, but intrigue filled and tense days.

The Southeast Asian campaign of WWII started when the Japanese bombed Victoria Point in Burma during Dec 1941, cordoned off Burma and followed up with the capture of Singapore and a land attack into Burma. The Japanese intent was to get to the oilfields in Burma, a strategic conquest to ensure they had the resources before the grand entry westwards across India. Within a span of three months, the British in Burma were in a hasty retreat, and Burma was in Japanese hands. Subhas Chandra Bose was still in Germany and the Azad Hind had not yet been formed. Fujiwara, the Lawrence of the Indian Army was heading the F Kikan and pretty soon the first ISI/IIL was formed under the leadership of Mohan Singh. If you recall, we covered this ground with the story of the valiant Kumaran Nair.

As events galloped on at a fast clip, Kuala Lumpur fell in Jan 1942 and Singapore was surrendered in Feb 1942. The British bastions had been breached and the victorious Japanese were on the March northwards to Rangoon. By February 1942, from a total of about 40,000 Indian personnel in Singapore, about 30,000 joined the INA led by Mohan Singh.

South of all this hectic fighting was the lonely Xmas Island where newspapers used to come in now and then from Singapore updating the few Chinese, Sikh, Malay, British and Indian population in the island. The island got its name from the day of its christening in 1643 and we see it being annexed by the British in 1888 and administered out of Singapore through the Straits Settlements government. The CIP Company started its phosphate mining operations with Chinese and Malay labor. The beginnings were filled with stories of disease, extortion, bad living conditions, coolie riots, revolts, booms and busts. A few (5) Sikhs were brought over time to head a police department and manage the town of Kasma, they built their own Gurudwara as their fold increased to 14 (there were Sikh company guards too) and kept to themselves and their work. Initially they were all bachelors except their corporal who had his family (There was an interesting case of a Sikh policeman who fancied a Chinese headman’s wife and got murdered).

And they had a couple of brothels called the White House’s 1& 2 (with distinct spiral staircases), to service the hard working Chinese bachelors (They were called seamstresses or carpenter’s wives and were inspected weekly by the medical officer and strangely the island’s electrical engineer for disease!). The Malays kept to themselves and their families, and were mostly Muslim. The First World War happened, the feared raider ship Emden captained by Von Mueller passed by and was eventually scuttled in Cocos Islands some 600 miles away. The Europeans later got busy installing a telescope to view the 1922 solar eclipse and check out Einstein’s theory of relativity.  

The island community slept well though 1939-under the belief that the great guns of Singapore would keep the enemy out of reach, even after the many reverses in Europe during 1940 and the capitulation of France. As the war gathered force, a small volunteer force comprising the Chinese and Malays were formed in the island and a 1900 vintage 6” breech loader gun was installed at Smith Point. Captain Williams was sent out from Hong Kong, supported by four British NCO’s (Sgt W. Giles, Lance Sgt G.H. Cross, Gunner G.S. Thurgood and Gunner J. Tate), and 27 Punjabi Muslim soldiers to support them. But as you can imagine this was more of a charade, and would only help delay the inevitable, for the island which at that point of time was contended and calm, was simply not defensible. By 1942, the population comprised 30 Europeans, 1175 Chinese, 122 Malays, 88 Indians, 2 Eurasians all put a total of 1,417.

Everything changed in Dec 1941 with Pearl Harbor as Japan entered the war with a roar and well, to put it simply, the Eastern part of the allied world had been caught not just napping, but in deep slumber. The people of Xmas Island were by now a nervy lot, wondering about their future. The seas around the island boiled with all types of naval frigates, transports, aircraft carriers, allied subs and axis U boats.

Manning the Marconi DX radio under call sign ZC3AC and transmitting at 14,015 Khz, CW, was our own man from Kuriyannur (Pathanamthitta), one Vadakathu Easow (V E) Mathew, aged 28, who had arrived in 1939 as a wireless operator. Originally a teacher in Malaysia and needing to escape frequent dust allergy attacks there, he went on to requalify as a wireless operator after completing the course at Calcutta!  Accompanying him were some five more persons from Kerala, them being KG Alexander, TA John, AY Dethose (also a wireless operator), Thomas (cook), and Gopal (cook), whom MAthew had managed to recommend and obtain jobs for.

V E Mathew - Manning the Christmas Island Radio (Pic Courtesy Mary Mathew)

What Mathew and Dethos heard from other radio operators and Singapore was not reassuring. Capt Williams was now supervising defensive measures such as drills and building of pillboxes. Europeans sent their wives to Australia and London. Meanwhile, the ship which ferried between Singapore and Xmas Island, ‘the Islander’ suddenly found itself without a radioman, for he had absconded, and Dethose cried his way out not wanting to get killed in a Japanese bombing. Mathew thus took on the last run to Singapore for a tripled salary and a bonus. It was not a good choice, the ship ahead and the ship behind were bombed and Mathew and the ‘Islander’ escaped only due to providence. Reaching Singapore, they were again in the eye of the storm, for Singapore was being bombed and Mathew and his relatives there had to frequently flee to hide in the drains as air raid sirens blared.

The plan was to get the Islander fitted with an AA gun. But that also did not happen due to technical difficulties and the ship sailed back to Xmas Island. The Malayalee’s stuck together and stayed away from harms reach. But in Jan 1942, war reached the island when a Norwegian ship being loaded with Phosphate, was hit by a Japanese torpedo. In Feb, a corpse in a boiler suit washed ashore, to be later buried as the unknown sailor.

False alarms and Air raid sirens sent most islanders scurrying to the jungles. Mathew picked up more bad news of the capitulation of Singapore, after which he lost radio connection to the HQ. The remaining European and Sikh women with their children and a few men were sent away to Australia. Mathew sadly reported ‘I was unlucky because I was of ‘essential services’ and was not allowed to go’.

A Malay fisherman now reported that a Japanese submarine was moored off one of the island’s beaches and that some of its crewmen were seen bathing in rock pools of the island. The railway and factory machinery were quickly dismantled and hidden as the coolie’s stooped working and fled into the jungles. Meanwhile an US aircraft carrier USS Langley was hit and its captain Thomas Donovan was accidentally left behind on the island. He conveyed his whereabouts to the US forces over Mathew’s radio.

Mathew continued to be in the thick of things, and heard on the radio all kinds of rumors, of the British discussions about independence for India, of the formation of the INA, of the activities of Gandhi and the Congress, the Muslim league and so on. On 23rd Feb, Japan occupied the Andaman Islands and from 28th Feb to 3rd Mar, following the Battles of the Java Seas and the Sunda Straits, they eliminated Allied naval resistance. On March 1st the Japanese bombed the island (It is mentioned in the CQ magazine report that this was because the Japanese spotted a wooden mock aircraft built by the XI soldiers as a deterrent). Nine Japanese planes were in action, bombing and perhaps strafing the island. 3 Chinese were killed.

Mathew was on the radio, sending one last message. As the account goes - Upon hearing a whistling sound, of what proved to be a direct hit, he lunged out the door and dove into the adjacent swimming pool, narrowly escaping the subsequent explosion. His bicycle was bombed to smithereens. With that the island went silent and was shut off from the world.

With ZC3AC shut down, the island was left only with an emergency SW transmitter, but that was buried at Grants hill and hidden for the future. The Japanese commenced long distance shelling of the island’s pier from the sea and the Indian contingent abandoned the gun to take cover. Cromwell (District Officer) and Donovan decided (against the advice of Capt Williams) to hoist the white flag on 7th March and dismantle the naval gun, following which the Japanese left without landing on the island. Williams told his team that they should lay down arms, have them locked up, that there was no more war, and that the British flag should be replaced with white if they spotted Japanese, but also that the Union Jack should go up if allied ships or planes were spotted.

Some of the Indian soldiers murmured amongst themselves that hoisting the British flag was going to invite sure death. The island prepared for the arrival of the Japanese. Malays built underground shelters, young girls shaved their heads to pass off as boys and the ladies of the night attached themselves to the older men to appear married. White men split into two, those who wanted to surrender and those who wanted to fight. Williams pulled down the white bed sheet and replaced it with the Union Jack and reassembled the gun, which Cromwell told Williams, was not correct per international law.

This was the situation when the so called mutiny or revolt occurred. Some accounts of the mutiny mention that the soldiers had been listening (Subedar Muzaffar Khan later denied this at the trial) to Azad hind or Azad Muslim radio broadcasts coming out of Germany, Holland and Japan. The Indian soldiers were headed by a ‘graying and grizzled’ Bengali (East Bengal) Subedar Muzaffar Khan. The two havildars who reported to him were Punjabis, namely Mir Ali and Ghulam Qadir.

During later depositions, it was recalled that some of the instigators had refused to salute Capt Williams at parade, so they had indeed fallen out in a way, after the white flag act. It is also mentioned that the British were overbearing on the Indian troops, and on one occasion the Indians were asked to shut up when they started singing. John Michel mentions in his book that this was the reason for the mutiny (considering that Muzaffar Khan denied that any of them ever listened to Axis radio broadcasts, it is likely that British gave the soldiers repeated cause for a revolt to occur!).

The soldiers hatched a plot to revolt, waiting for an opportune moment which presented itself on the night of 10th March 1942 when Williams and team went for a birthday party. Mir Ali the ring leader and Ghulam Qadir unlocked the ammunition store and distributed the weapons. They were sent out in pairs to finish off the five British soldiers. From records we know that Ghulam Qadir, Mir Ali, Alla Ditta, Mohd. Ashraf, Abdul Aziz (a medical orderly), Nazir Hussein, Sher Muhammad, Muhammad Hussain and Sultan Muhammad, Niaz Ali etc. were involved in this action. Many of those who did not participate fled into the jungle when shots rang out. Subedar Muzaffar Khan woke up in alarm and reached for his revolver which had apparently been removed by somebody in the know, and he too fled into the jungle. The next action was to dispose of the dead bodies which were consigned into the sea through a blow hole and these bodies wrapped in bed sheets were seen by a few witnesses. Qadir then cleaned the blood from the floor. Some of the Sikh policemen joined the mutineers while others abstained. Muzaffar Khan was livid and appears to have berated the 60 Indians assembled. Mir Ali wanted to kill the remaining Englishmen, but agreed not to, after heeding to remonstrations from Muzaffar Khan. At long last, they stood down.

The Punjabi soldiers then went to Mathew and asked him to send a radio message to the Japanese that they could dock at the island safely. Mathew replied that the radio was gone, destroyed in the bombing. The Europeans were locked up in Cromwell’s bungalow. The above listed men, about 12 of them and a few Sikhs who took their side, now waited for the Japanese to turn up. The wait took close to 4 weeks. The incoming Japanese fleet led by the frigate Naka was being shadowed by an American Submarine SS197 Seawolf, and as they berthed in Christmas Island, the Seawolf fired her torpedoes, but strangely not one hit the Naka.

Japanese take over the CI 6" Gun
Commander Ando stepped ashore with some 850 men to take control of the island. When they saw the wrecked phosphate loading machinery, Ando was enraged, but he eventually accepted the explanation that it was due to Japanese bombing. The biggest damage was to the loading belt and this meant that loading would have to be manual. Mathew and the other Malayalee’s were accosted by the Japanese who assumed they were Indonesian. When Mathew mentioned Gandhi’s name, they were left alone.

The Seawolf shot another three torpedoes at the Naka while at XI, but they missed again. How Fred Warder commanding (SS197) Seawolf missed hitting a ship with all these torpedoes is a mystery, but the likely cause was malfunction of the armaments (a chronic problem in the early war years). Eventually the Seawolf got the Naka on its return voyage when one of the last two torpedoes finally hit the target.

The Japanese were allowed 3 days of plunder after which things settled to a routine at the island. Mir Ali approached the Japanese stating that he had his cohorts had finished off the British soldiers and that he wanted protection and a reward. But to his dismay, the Japanese set all of them to a labor routine, with the other island workers.  As the allies avoided the island, the Japanese remained in place for another two years. It was not a horrible occupation, but relatively mundane and Japanese efforts at shipping out large quantities of phosphate never took off. The Japs built a pretty Japanese temple, but the Muslim Malays were not happy being forced to pray there.

The Japanese did want the White houses opened up but the Chinese girls were not too keen to service them. As it turned out, the Japanese brought in some Indonesians, for their comfort. These Javanese girls were tricked into coming to Christmas Island after answering a "Teachers wanted" advertisement in the newspaper. The 21 Europeans were also put to tasks befitting their skills, and they were the only prisoners. Mathew is mentioned as one who helped these prisoners with food, rolling food sacks down the hill at night, to waiting hands.

In Nov 1942, a Japanese ship loading phosphate was torpedoed and in the following year (Dec 1943) as their food supplies dwindled, the Japanese plans changed. They evacuated the island and most of the people including the Indians and the mutineers were shipped to Java’s prisons. Mathew and some of his friends were sent to a prison camp in Surabaya. Some soldiers and a small population remained, and the remaining Japanese left by early 1945. Christmas Island was isolated, once again.

The first person to resurface after Japanese internment, in Sept 1945 was Cromwell, but he never managed to return to his island, passing away in Dublin in 1946. Seven Indians were next seen in Singapore as British prisoners. Based on depositions by Cromwell and Donovan, the British decided to bring them to justice. Mir Ali and a dozen others had vanished and were thought to have fought for the INA in Burma.

As the Indians could not be charged with murder three years after its occurrence, they were charged with mutiny, under the Army act Section 7 (3), and the ensuing trial in Singapore stretched over a period of many weeks, with the convoluted court martial covered in detail by Straits times. I will not get into technicalities, but war trials sometimes stretched the rule of law in the winner’s favor. In this case too, the witness testimony was inconclusive and the defense claim that Cromwell had already raised the white flag thereby making a mutiny charge incorrect, was not allowed to stand. There were many other inconsistencies in the depositions.

Inayat Khan and Ghulam Qadir were two of the main witnesses. Some tried to shift blame on Mir Ali and butter up to Muzaffar Khan, the Subedar who was on the prosecution side. Allah Bux was found innocent and Niaz Ali to be coerced by others. In March 1947, the court sentenced six of the accused guilty and to die by the gallows. Allah Bux was acquitted. 

On 13th August 1947 King George VI confirmed five of the death sentences on Ghulam Qadir, Sher Muhammad, Nazar Hussain, Muhammad Hussain and Allah Ditta. Niaz Ali was sentenced for two years imprisonment and a dishonorable discharge.  They were to die at 7AM in Singapore, on 18th Sept 1947.

On 14th August 1947, Pakistan became a free nation.

On 15th August 1947, India became independent. The five prisoners were now considered Pakistanis.

On 17th Sep, the day before the execution, the governments of India and Pakistan informed the commonwealth relation office that the executions be stayed until they have had an opportunity to study the case. In the meantime many INA prisoners had been freed by Nehru, in independent India. Citing that as a reason, Pakistan which was now in charge of the five prisoners insisted that they be re-sentenced to imprisonment and not death. The British agreed that Pakistan had a strong case, and the death sentences were commuted.

Gunner Sultan Muhammed who had been apprehended separately and tried in Nee Soon in 1948, was also sentenced to death. He too had his sentence commuted on the same grounds. All of them were now to serve imprisonment until 1956/57. Pakistan then requested that they be transferred to Pakistan jails. Eventually all of them were sent back to Pakistan in 1955. Nothing more is known of these internees. Mir Ali was never found. Perhaps he died in the INA battles at Imphal, but nobody knows. Strange, these Punjabi Muslim’s left a land oppressed, and returned to lands violently divided. They must have wondered about their acts and after escaping death, having spent 12 years of their lives in various prisons, only to return to more violence, hatred and chaos!!

Christmas Island - today
Following WWII, Britain resumed control of the island and from January 1, 1958 it was administered as a separate crown colony. Today Christmas Island is an Australian external territory and famous for its red crabs. Now let’s get back to our man Mathew.

Mathew’s initial days of internment at Surabaya were harrowing, but he met a Christian Japanese captain who took a liking to him. He was allowed to work in a workshop, heading a team of some 30 Indonesians. Some of the other Island Malayalee’s were also with Mathew. As the war ended, they narrowly escaped retaliation by the Indonesian prisoners. So close were they to death that they had written their last words to their families and buried them in a bottle underground for some future finder. But they were let go when the Indonesian’s found they were Indians. Eventually help arrived and they were guided to an Indian Red Cross ship by a friendly Indonesian watchman. They returned to India from Surabaya via Singapore and Mathew managed to reestablish contacts with his employers.

As it turned out, Mathew got married in 1948 and came back to Christmas Island continue work as a wireless operator, live in relative peace and fathered five children. Mathew’s name reappeared on the airwaves in 1958, while he was trying to reconstruct his radio. W4LYV sent a new crystal (14034 Khz) to ZC3AC while VS1JF was still handling some of the cards to him. In 1964, the Short wave magazine reported that Mathews, ex-ZC3AC, was still on the island but transmitting as VK9MV (1959), he continued with a 40 watts transmitter and his DXing passion is archived with his QSL cards.

He retired in 1971 and his friends honored him with 57 dinners during his last two months. Mathew departed saying ‘ I am leaving Christmas Island after seeing her in her young days, uncouth and wild, and now as a lady in her teens, with her mini flats and respectable highways!’ He went back to Kuriyannur, lived his last days peacefully, ever an honest man and passed away in 2000 at the ripe age of 88. His children are all well settled in Australia. I did get in touch, with Mathew’s youngest daughter Mary Mathew who in a charming and lengthy telephone conversation filled in a great many missing blanks.

The thrill of a HAM radio operator in contacting obscure persons around the world and/or listening to them and sharing notes is a fascinating experience. While the DX community still thrives, internet, skype, chats and emails have largely taken over the communication channels.  

The excitement and danger of war is another thing though, though I am not sure what Mathew thought. To narrowly survive three or four narrow brushes with death, to live as a prisoner in a camp and survive, to get married, raise a family and eventually retire in peace simply means he was a blessed person. And to be sure there are many more stories like this, of people who played a part in those wars.

Suffering Through Strength: The Men Who Made Christmas Island – John Hunt
Christmas Island - the early years – Jan Adams, Marg Neale
Straits Times reports (over a 100 of them) 1945-1947
Mr Michel’s war – John J A Michel
An Ordeal to forget – Thomas A Donovan Jr (Naval history Vol14, issue 3)
CQ Amateur radio magazine May 1977 issue
USS Seawolf at the Battle of Christmas Island - John Domagalski

This Christmas Island is not to be confused with the one known as Kiritimati in the Pacific, more popularly associated with the UK’s H Bomb tests. The Book by Adams and Neale has some interesting pictures e.g. the Sikh Policemen, the Japanese AA gun etc. My thanks to John Hunt’s painstaking research and a fine book, and Mary Mathew for a great interview.

You may wonder why I chose to call this a revolt or rebellion, not a mutiny. I tended to take the side of the prisoners based on some related facts (white flag, salutes, and singing) before the rebellion, and considering that the prosecution witness who testified against them was very emphatic in that they had not listened to the Axis radio. It was also clear from the trial that all the accused had been away from India for a long time 7-10 years, so they could not have been seriously indoctrinated with a rebellious cause before coming to Christmas island. Jan Adams in her book also concurs that their ‘motivation remained uncertain’. Perhaps a reason was self-preservation, knowing that the Japanese would kill everybody if they detected a threat in the island (Williams and his men must have proved to be a needless threat!). But this is just my conclusion.

Thomas Donovan the American who was spared in the revolt, survived the war and was awarded the Legion of Merit. He continued in the US Navy and retired as a Rear Admiral. Donovan was transferred early to Makassar (Celebs Island) and later to Java where he had an eventful internment. It appears that the Japanese told Donovan that if a single shot had been fired by the islanders, they were planning to kill everybody in the Island. So in hindsight, the revolt probably saved a large number of lives!

Ka su ma su – is how ‘Christmas’ was pronounced by the Chinese.

What is a QSL? Many DXers attempt to obtain written verifications of reception or contact, sometimes referred to as "QSLs" or "veries" The picture shows QSL’s provided by Mathew to other DX’s.


The Breast Tax and the Upper Cloth Movement

Nangeli’s story, is it true?

A considerable furor seems to have been created by news reports detailing the legend of a lady named Nangeli who once lived at Chertala in Travancore. Some based their stories on the oral testimony of descendants of this hapless woman following which a few of my friends contacted me for its authenticity, but I must admit that my research did not prove conclusive. The story as I could see, spread in the last two years and seems to have formed an impression that Travancore and Cochin in the 18th and 19th century was going through a terrible period of casteism, an opinion which is not wrong, for it was indeed a troubling period. But what happened is that most newspapers who re-publicized the issue combined two subjects into one, the two subjects being the so called ‘Breast tax’ and the ‘upper cloth revolts’. These were two different issues relating to Travancore, with differing origins and backgrounds.

So it is perhaps the right time to revisit the topic in some detail so as to understand what it was about and how matters took the course they did. The story as published and oft repeated mentions an incident concerning an Ezhava lady in Chertalai named Nangeli, who it seems sliced off her breasts to protest against two things, the oppressive breast tax and secondly the fact that she could not hide her modesty by wearing an upper cloth. Some reports mentioned as well that the tax was to be paid if a lower caste woman wanted to cover their breasts. There were apparently some descendants who remembered the event.

Most of you who have studied Malabar, Cochin and Travancore history to some degree would have come across what they call ‘peculiar’ customs existing in those days. They relate to matrimonial customs, dressing (or lack thereof), matriliny, matrimonial fidelity, methods of justice etc. to name a few. I had over many articles covered just some of these issues over the past few years.

First and foremost, let us get to the so called oppressive taxes which were in put into place in the Travancore Kingdom ruled (1729-1758) by Marthanda Varma (MV) and administered by Ramayyan Dalawa. During the course of many studies and topics we perused thus far, we saw that MV had a huge difficulty in raising money, all through his reign. He had to beg and borrow, he had to plead and pledge with the rich and he even had to usurp wealth from others to keep his kingdom in control and pay the thousands of Nair and Muslim troops as well as his Marwa mercenaries fighting for him. To tide over these crises, he was instrumental in introducing and enforcing many of these downright silly taxes. In all, this category covered some 120 ‘minor taxes’ which hit the downtrodden masses quite hard. This is not to say that he did not collect monies from the rich landowners, which he certainly did. These so called minor taxes netted small amounts for the ‘sircar’ treasury, but they were oppressive for the virtually enslaved Nadar and Ezhava communities, who were paid just a pittance for their hard work or sometimes not at all.

For example they had to pay Kuppakazcha (taxes for living in a hut), talakkaram (head tax), meniponnu (ornament tax), Ezhaputchi (toddy tapping tax), meeshakarram (moustache tax), Tariyira (cess on handloom), Mechikkaram (cattle rearing), Meenpattam (fishing tax), Mulakkaram (breast tax), chakkira (oil pressing tax), Kusakkaram (earthenware making tax), vivahakkaram (marriage tax). The list goes on and covers as I mentioned earlier, some 120 categories. Oozhium service incidentally was adhoc ordering of these communities to do manual work and supply goods without pay. In addition, they were also not allowed to wear gold or silver ornaments, only bead/stone necklaces.

Of the 120 taxes, some 110 were particularly applicable and extortionary to the poorer communities. They bore through it for centuries, considering it their fate till somebody came by to tell them there was a way out. Changes occurred when some of these communities found willing ears which would listen to their difficulties, namely the LMS Christian missionaries. Much of the criticism of age old practices and conventions started with the arrival of these missionaries in Travancore. The British administrators at Travancore and Cochin also abetted these missionaries in their attempts to increase conversions from these depressed classes. Starting with Munro, then Cullen (Cullen was briefly not in support, though) and forward, they pushed and prodded the rulers of Travancore and Cochin in obtaining permissions for establishment of schools, churches as well as management of large communities of Christian converts. One of the earliest conversions if you recall, was effected by De Lannoy, an event involving Vedamanickam which perhaps spoiled his relationship with the king Rama Varma, as some allude. As you read the many accounts of Augur, Ringeltaube, Mead, Mateer and later writers such as RN Yesudasan, Ibrahim Kunju etc, you will come across a mention that it was easier for them to find willing converts from amongst the Nadars of Tinnevelly and South East Travancore, not so much from the Ezhava community, who even if they did convert would not easily adopt new and ‘decent’ ways or throw aside old ones.

Nevertheless, the missionaries introduced Western morality, the concept of Christian marriage, Western methods of personal conduct such as ‘decency in clothing and manners’ and created a sense of equality amongst their fold. In this new community, there were no barriers of caste and nobility and so it was in a sense, uplifting of these downtrodden masses and their emancipation. Others started to see the effects of these evangelization efforts and reacted differently. The Hindus, especially the powerful Brahmins and Nairs, as you can very well imagine, did not like it at all and took to violence even, at times. We will soon get to the details, but what was important was that these early missionaries made detailed records of what they saw and heard, the ills practiced in the pagan or heathen communities they met, during their attempts to show them the light. I bring this up because, their records as far as I can see, make only a single mention of a mutilation on account of the terrible breast tax.

Before we get to the event, let us try to understand what the Breast tax levy was all about, keeping in mind that this was a period when nobody really knew or bothered about their exact age. The head tax or ‘thalakkaram’ was charged when a lower caste boy attained puberty (age>14) and became a wage earning adult. Similarly, a lower caste woman had to pay a ‘mulakkaram’ when she joined the working class (age>14) of women. It certainly had nothing to do with the size or shape or attractiveness of her breasts, as SN Sadasivan had wrongly mentioned, nor did it have anything to do with covering of a woman’s breasts. The Thalakkaram and Mulakkaram were basically one and the same thing and was a revenue term only differentiated with gender.

It was certainly a nuisance and we shall now see a story related to a protest. This documented record relates to a hill tribe in Poonjar, namely the Malai Arayans. It was substantiated by the well-known anthropologist L Ananthakrishna Iyer and earlier by Thurston, so let us see what they had to say, verbatim (Travancore tribes and castes Vol 1, page 165)

The Malayarayans appear to have suffered from heavy disabilities in former times. “The Puniat Raja, who ruled over those at Mundapalli, made them pay head money - two chuckrams a head monthly as soon as they were able to work and a similar sum as 'presence money' besides certain quotas of fruits and vegetables and feudal service. They were also forced to lend money if they possessed any, and to bring leaves and other articles without any pretext of paying them, and that for days. The men these villages were placed in were in a worse position than the slaves. The petty Raja used to give a silver headed cane to the principal headman, who was then called ‘Perumban or 'cane man’. The head money was popularly known as ‘thalakaram’ in the case of males and ‘mulakaram’ in the case of females. It is said that these exactions came to an end under very tragic circumstances. Once, when the agent of the Raja went to recover talakaram, the Malayarayan pleaded inability to pay the amount, but the agent insisted on payment. The Arayans were so enraged that they cut off the head of the man and placed it before the Agent saying ‘here is your ‘thalakaram.’ Similarly, inability was pleaded in the case of an Arayan woman from payment of mulakaram, but the Agent again persisted. One breast of the woman was cut off and placed before him saying ‘here is your mulakaram.’ On hearing this incident, the Raja was so enraged at the indiscretion of the agent that he forthwith ordered the discontinuance of this system of receiving payment.

Tracking this incident back is not difficult and this observation could be attributed to Rev Henry Baker. We know that he was the one who preached the gospel at Kombukuthy near Mundakkayam in 1847-49 and converted a few of the local inhabitants into Christianity. But we can also see from Baker’s records that his work slackened after 1860 and that the Punnattu Raja maintained that if Baker or his successors converted anybody, they had to leave his kingdom. The situation changed only much later after the Raja’s tone mellowed. So the last sentence in LAK’s quote above has to be dated later than 1847-49 and before 1865 when the tax was formally abolished in Travancore, of which kingdom, Poonjar was a suzerainty. We also observe that the tax was a flat 2 chakrams per month per working head, and this was an income tax of sorts.

Nangeli’s case dates farther back to 1840 according to SN Sadasivan and if that was certain, should have been gleefully reported by these missionaries, in my opinion. The LMS missionaries who stirred things up in the name of social awakening, during that period, had not pounced on that story when it happened and had never reported it though they highlighted many macabre events of the period. A case from the 1840’s Chertalai would have had reporting precedence over an Arayan hill tribe near Munnar, being nearer and accessible. Reading the histories of Nadars, missionaries, the LMS etc,, we do not come across any such case in Chertalai during 1840, but that is not to say it never happened, only that it is unlikely. RN Yesudasan also reports this mutilation on the strength of a retelling from NR Krishnan’s account in his book ‘Ezhavar Annum Innum’. It is possible that Sadasivan too picked this information up from Krishnan, a bureaucrat who published his work in 1960. That is the source of Nangeli’s self-mutilation event.

While we see that the Poonjar Raja abolished these head taxes sometime between 1845 and 1865, the government of Travancore abolished these 110 minor taxes under pressure from the British vide an order dated 22nd karkidagom 1040 ME (1864-1865). These stupid taxes were not applied or mentioned from then on.

But there was still an unresolved issue, that was the so called ‘upper cloth issue’.

The upper cloth controversies relate to something else. Again reporters and writers have described the whole story in a wrong light, stating that only the lower classes went about with uncovered bosoms and that they were expected to do so as subservient slaves. It was certainly not the case and most castes of that time dressed in a similar fashion, willingly so, for it was the norm, custom and practice in Travancore. In reality, there was no shame attached to it till they saw their converted sisters doing so and till those women berated them for not doing so. I was also surprised to note Yesudasan mentioning that Nambudri woman (I think he confused the Nambudri with the few Tamil Brahmin women of Travancore) always wore a smart colored jacket fastened in front and an upper cloth over it (also mentioning that they wore silk dresses, and were adorned with many gold ornaments and diamonds), Nair women wore a chela and that only Ezhava, Nadar and other lower caste girls had to go about bare bosomed. This I believe is not quite factual and will be refuted by anybody who has studied these communities. The only womenfolk who covered their bosoms were Muslim and Christian woman (Syrian Catholics and early Portuguese converts). The Christians wore what is known as ’Ethapu’ and the Muslims the ‘Kuppayam’. It is true however that upper caste women of repute did wear a chela or upper cloth loosely slung about their chests, but one should note that they usually removed it while at home or while visiting temples.

As conversions increased, the Nadar women (Shanars of Channatikal) took to wearing the kuppayam (Converts were loosely termed Kuppayakar) or a loose upper garment as they were advised to, in the interest of modesty and decency. The non-converts were prevented from robing themselves by the upper castes of Travancore.

But the first upper cloth issue was picked up even earlier, around 1750.The first reported ‘upper cloth’ related mutilation is connected to Grose, Forbes and the Attingal Rani. This dates all the way back to the time when Grose visited Travancore and Cochin. He wrote about the incident thus, in his travelogue. Forbes who visited later checked out the story, and confirmed that such an account did take place.

The women of those countries are not allowed to cover any part of their breasts, to the naked display of which they annex no idea of immodesty, which in fact ceases by the familiarity of it to the eye. Most Europeans at their first arrival experience the force of temptation from such a nudity on the foot of the ideas, to which their education and customs have habituated them: but it is not long before those impressions by their frequency entirely wear off, and they view it with as little emotion as the natives themselves, or as any of the most obvious parts of the body, the face, or hands. In some parts of the Malabar, this custom is however more rigorously observed than in others.  A Queen of Attinga, on a woman of her country coming into her presence, who having been some time in an European settlement, where she had conformed to the fashion there, had continued the concealment of her breasts, ordered them to be cut off, for daring to appear before her with such a mark of disrespect to the established manners of the country….

I will now provide you with a brief overview of the well documented ‘upper cloth movement’, connected mainly with the Channatikal (the Nadar or the Shanar women) in South Travancore. The first uprising happened in 1822-23 when converts started wearing the kuppayam (according to an order dated 1814) and the upper caste Hindus would not tolerate it. The courts intervened at Fr Mead’s behest and agreed not to fine the ladies covering themselves. The friction between the converts and the Hindus continued and in 1829-30 erupted into more troubles. The Ranee of Travancore now intervened and stated that nobody, not even the Shanar converts were allowed to wear upper clothes. The Nadars did not quite heed to the order and continued to wear the kuppayam. In 1858-59, the dewan reiterated the Ranee’s order and of course troubles erupted again. This order also incensed the missionaries who petitioned the Raja of Travancore first and later Sir Charles Trevelyan, the new Governor of Madras following the establishment of British governance of India w.e.f. 1858. The governor contacted the resident Cullen and asked him to take up the matter with the Raja.

The raja finally issued a proclamation in 1859 permitting converts to wear the kuppayam, but not an upper cloth in the same fashion as caste Hindus of Travancore. This was also not acceptable to the missionaries as the Shanars wanted to wear the same upper cloth to signify parity with Hindu upper castes. They continued the pressure through the British administrators, forcing the Raja to issue a new proclamation in 1865 granting full ‘freedom in dressing’ for the Nadars. There are also papers (Chandramohan) which imply that British economic interests slanted the upper cloth issue such that it had a positive impact on imported cloth sales.

But if the Nangeli case occurred, why did the missionaries or historians not document it? One could always argue that the missionaries did not report Nangeli’s case because it was unrelated to them, for Nangeli was an Ezhava who did not convert. The point I am getting to is that regardless of its authenticity, the breast tax issue and upper cloth issues were unrelated and that combining them to create a sensational story does not seem right. In the reported cases at Attingal and Poonjar, the punishment or mutilation was put into effect by another, upon the victim. There is also another aspect to be borne in mind. Self-mutilation is probably easy to write about, but not the easiest thing done, especially slicing off one’s own breasts. As for Nangeli’s story, I could find no factual evidence, maybe it is true, maybe not, but it has nothing to do with the upper cloth. Perhaps there is something more out there on the event, if so, please do let me know and I will add a para to this article, gladly.

I should also make it clear that I profess no disrespect to any caste or religion and totally agree that all these communities were oppressed at that time, pushed down by the so called upper castes. I do not condone any of these actions, nor am I in support of any kind of caste segregation, but I am just being objective in this analysis as an observer and student of Kerala’s history.

So much for the story of the taxes and modesty, all matters which have since been corrected in the progressive state which we now know as Kerala.

Before we leave the topic, let me mention something seemingly related. You will be surprised to note that women around the world still pay a certain amount of ‘breast tax’ and men pay an ‘underwear tax’ annually. Surprised, right? I chanced on this information while perusing Gresser’s interesting work which expands on the premise that the highest tariffs of most countries are on the items most important to low income families and on the produce imported from the world’s poorest countries. Taking the example of USA and records from the early years of the 21st century, he records that tariffs generated an amount of 560M$ (2.4%) on imported steel worth 23B$.

There was uproar about it in various exporting countries, but they failed to notice that USA also imported about 10B$ worth of underwear and this generated an even higher tariff of 786M$ (8%). In this category was included brassieres, panties, garter belts, negligees and men’s underwear. To summarize, brassieres worth 2B$ generated the highest tariff, 270M$ or 12.9% (5 times higher than steel in %) while men’s underwear worth 2B$ generated 116M$ or 6%!! Spread over approximately 140 million women in America, this ‘breast tax’ amounts to roughly 70 cents per breast, per year! This Gresser explains, is still only the tariff. Add the markup of the retailer, other sales and administration costs and overheads, state taxes etc., and you can see that it works out to so much more! Have somebody run the same calculations in India and compare it to the historical past.  

Regrettably this is how it is, even today, only you don’t see it.

A Social History of India – SN Sadasivan
Travancore tribes and castes Vol 1, L. Aanatha Krishna Ayyar
A Voyage to the East Indies – John Henry Grose
Protestant Christianity and people's movements in Kerala - J W Gladstone
A People's Revolt in Travancore – R N Yesudasan
The History of the London Missionary Society in Travancore - R N Yesudasan
Colonialism and its forms of knowledge: the British in India – BS Cohen
Freedom from want -Edward Gresser
Let the hills rejoice: the conversion of the Hill Arrians of Kerala and its effect on evangelism – K G Daniel
The Nadars of Tamilnad; the political culture of a community in change - Robert L. Hardgrave, Jr.
Colonial connections of Protestant missionaries in Travancore – P Chandrmohan
The Breast-Cloth Controversy: Caste Consciousness and Social Change in Southern Travancore Robert L Hardgrave


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.