ACROSS INDIA IN A PALKEE.
which brought out Sir Charles Napier, and he often used to
relate that he was the last through passenger wHo went by
Dak Palkee to Calcutta.
In 1870 I rode with Mr. Hay on horseback for several
hundred miles, and for a few weeks together, through Syria,
and had ample time and opportunity to ask him about this
mode of locomotion and as to how he stood the journey, but
it did not occur to me to do so, and thus much valuable
information was lost.
“Traveling with a palanquin,”
The railway having now superseded this method of travelling — driven it into secluded districts, and so in a manner relegated it to ancient history — it is now my business to endeavour, by ploughing among dead men's bones,
to gather together some particulars about Palkee travelling to
Calcutta and elsewhere.
|An English baby girl being carried on a palanquin by Indian bearers, on the road fo Nainital. Photograph dated 1904.|
This was the mode which Mountstuart Elphinstone generally
adopted in his long journey from Calcutta to Poona in 1801,
and which touched up his liver so much that he felt the effects
of it during the rest of his life.
Heber, in 1824, rode on horse and camel-back a good part of the way, but occasionally adopted this method of travelling in his Mofussil journeys. Though
cra^nped, he found it neither violent nor unpleasant, but he could not sketch in a palanquin or read anything but large print.
But we must begin at the beginning. Posting by palkee was an organisation of the East India Company, and was entirely under the control of the Postal Department or the District Collectors,
and early in " the forties," or, to be particular, say in 1845,. if you intended proceeding from Bombay to Calcutta by this mode of conveyance you had to put
yourself in communication with the head of the Postal Department at least ten days before the date of your intended departure, giving him your destination, with many other particulars (which we will endeavour to relate), such as the
exact day and hour of your intended departure from Bombay.
You elect, we will suppose, the route by Poona, Hyderabad,
Vizagapatam, Masulipatam, and Cuttack. Very well. As
there are close upon a hundred halting stations,
you will require to state how long you intend halting at each of them, and the
names of the stations you intend to halt at, stating whether
for sleep or refreshment. You are a " stout " party, this word
meaning in those days Not corpulent but robust, and intend to
do the journey in twenty-two days.* You know what palkee travelling is.
You have gone to Love Grove, Worlee, we will suppose, five miles, and have emerged as stiff as a poker. Bear in mind your intendedjourney is one of 500 hours' duration.
If it is in April or May you will journey mostly by night and rest
during the day. The reason why the Postmaster requires all
these particulars is that the laying down a dak to Calcutta
involves an immense correspondence, and the route covers
nearly 1,400 miles.
You will please to remember the hamals are
in sets, and go only a certain mileage, that they are drawn from
their homes, which lie at distances from the halting stations,
and that in the Nizam's dominions every hamal starts from
Hyderabad, or says he does so, to its remotest boundary, and
that you, a traveller, will require to pay these hamals every
day their wages from the day they are supposed to leave their
homes until they return thereto
. You will require changes of
linen and clothing, so you are allowed two banghy bardars, who
will swing on their shoulders your kit, not more than fifty-six
. Brandy goes into narrow compass — you must depend
upon beer where you can find it, and you will require to pay
through the nose for it in these distant regions, owing to the
expense of carriage.
If your period is the rains, be thankful if you escape malaria,
or if in the hot weather, sunstroke.It may be your last journey,
and the palanquin may become your catafalque ;certainly, even in our day the dead body of a traveller has been taken out of a palkee. I have not alluded to the crossing of rivers or the danger of being drowned in a box, or surprised by
Your bearers drop their burden like lightning, and
make tracks for the nearest tree, or bumping against some rock
in the dark you are shot out of your tabernacle like a catapult,
your Venetian along with you ; happily for you if you fall among
the yielding branches of some bush, scrub or tree ; or you are
attacked by dacoitswho hunt in gangs, plundered and left dead
or wounded in the jungle, or, may be, confronted by a swollen
river. A man has just told us that his bearers once deserted
him, and that he had to haul his palkee for four days on a
These are contingencies you must face, and I warn you that Government by public notification held them- selves free of all responsibility for you or for your luggage.
You may read the notice up in every post office " that neither
Government nor any of their officers are responsible to the
traveller for the misfortunes and disappointments which are
insepai'able from dak travelling ; thus every traveller travels at
his own risk,and is liable to the losses and increased expenses
incidental to delays and accidents, and Government can in
no instance be considered liable to make good any losses
" When a private gentleman requires bearers to be posted
for him, he should be very particular in stating to his corre-
spondent whom he relies upon for assistance — the day, even the
hour, on which he proposes to commence his journey ;the places he intends to halt at for refreshment,and the time he intends to halt for that purpose.
If neglectful of these particu-lars the hamals may reach their stations several days before they are required, and perhaps put the traveller to a great
Should the traveller on any occasion wish to halt a day at any place,
his stating his intention previously would save the posting of one set. For instance a traveller from Bombay to Poona will meet the first PoOna set at Khola-
poor, and, supposing that they take him to the top of the ghat
to breakfast, they can, having refreshed themselves, take him
on in the evening to Wurgaon, or they might come to Karlee
to breakfast and run to Wurgaon or Talligaon in the evening.
For the extra labour, however, they would be entitled to at
least half a rupee each man additional.
The hamals at Panwell are under the Collector at Tanna ;
at Poona they are under the Collector in the city and under the bazaar master in camp, and this applies to kolapore."
Now for the question of expense. It may be useful for you
to read the following, unless money is out of the question. " A
set of dak bearers comprises twelve, and one mussalchee, for
which is charged, payable in advance, at the rate of eight annas
per mile ; but as in many instances, owing to the delay caused --
--by travellers remaining longer on the road than the stipulated
time, this sum is found unequal to the expense, a further sum
of four annas per mile is required to be paid as a deposit to
cover any eventual expense or demurrage caused by delay on
the part of .the traveller.
Should none occur the full amount of the sum deposited is refunded, upon the traveller furnishing a certificate from the deputy postmaster at the place where his journey is finished, that he arrived there without incurring
demurrage." And " when it is reported that a traveller comes on demurrage
on any part of the road, the adjustment of the amount deposited to cover such expenses will be postponed until the receipt of the bills for the dak from all the postmasters through whose divisions the traveller may have passed.
" And if you change your mind during these ten days preliminary to
your intended starting you will require to pay for it, which is
only fair, as '' heaven and earth " have been moved by the
authorities all along the line on your account.
" When dak has been ordered and circumstances may render it expedient
for the traveller to postpone his journey, or to withdraw the
bearers entirely, he will of course be held liable for any expense
which may have been incurred on his account.
the amount paid for the dak and deposited to cover demurrage willremain unadjusted until reports are received from the General
Postmaster upon the line of route upon which the dak was
I will give an abstract of what you will require to pay in
Bombay for your palkee passage alone.
I need not mention that for all meats and drinks and spiritual ordinances you will
require to pay cash down on your line of march.
I conclude you are not going this journey in grandc tcnue, and will dispense
with a butler ; but you will require cherry merry s in numero; to
the bheestie wh o souses you with a chattie of cold water over
your head in the morning, and to fakeers and all the omnium
gatherum of mendicants who will persecute you and howl you
sick until you give them an obolus. You will observe that
through the Nizam's dominions the charges are twice as heavy
as through other territories, and the reason I assign for this is
that all the hamals must come from Hyderabad, and it is the
distance that lends cnhancemiut, not enchantment, to the view
" Had you any companion ? " I once asked a man at the end
of a very long palanquin journey. " The only companion I had
was my pipe," was the reply.
So be sure you take plenty of tobacco and manilla cheroots and several pipes, as everything breakable will go to smash ere you reach Calcutta.
I advise you also to take a copy of Bunyan's Filgrim's Progress in large
type, suitable for schools or for old men whose sight is failing
them, as you will meet with Sloughs of Despond and Hills of
Evil Council galore, and will find when you get there that
Calcutta is not the Celestial City.
Moreover, be not tempted by objects of attraction, unless in your immediate purview. Bijapur and Vizianagar are not to be thought of.
And any subaltern at some military station a few miles from your line
of march, though he be your dearest friend, you must pass
by as if he had no existence.
Such deviations would put your chain of communication out of gear, and disturb the whole harmony of your arrangements. Hundreds of hamals at fifty
different stations are now awaiting you, chewing betel and
cleaning their teeth. Not that they object to the detention.
Every day's delay is a day's additional pay which you will
be required to liquidate.
Poona range, 259 miles, cost for 12 hamals and musaul at
Oil and Mickadura's foes perhaj s additional
^Nizam's Teritory, 275 miles, do., would cost.
masuiipatam CulUctorship, 105 miles „
rajiimundry „ 100 „ „
Vizagapatam „ 122 „ „
Cbicacolc, „ 125 „ „
Cuttack „ 112 „ „
Jelassore „ 126 „ „
To Tumlook „ 95 „ „
Total1,319 Miles=Rs. 1,291"
I don't think in the whole of India you could take a more uninteresting journey.
Half of the halting stations have unpronounceable names, and of half a hundred more the names you have never heard before.
There is not one city of great And historical renown, neither battlefield nor palace. You have many an ancient river and many a palmy plain, but little else.
And when you are done with it, the Duke's Nose at Khandalla
and the Temple of Orissa dedicated to Jugannath
are about the only objects that will arrest your attention or live in your memory.
In Chicacole at Barwa my guide book says " fine whiting here," and at Ponda " fish and oysters," and I am told to " watch the tide," which to one who has seen the Solway or the race horses in the Gulf of Cambay is poor consolation. No,
my friend, I would not give the pomphlet of Bandra
or the oysters of Jinjeera for all your seas hold between the mouths of the Krishna and the mouths of the great river Mahanadi.
And the Chilka Lake,
with its sands knee-deep. Bah ! Did not Elphinstone feel there " bilious and ill ? " "I walked along the shore at eleven. I found myself still unwell, so I lay down and slept till half-past twelve.
" Had that sleep ended as it sometimes did there would have been a big gap in
the History of India. And here I am reminded by a friend of
thelate Mr. Joseph Jefferson's experiences,which will apply to
1845 or thereabouts. Some of our readers may recollect that
he was long the Father of the Bombay Solicitors, of which fact,
on his resuming practice, Chief Justice Westropp reminded him
in open Court. He was fifty years on the roll of the Solicitors
of the High Court. Mr. Jefferson had been in Ceylon on
professional business, and made his way by sea to Madras. It
was the height of the monsoon, and his further progress by sea
was barred. He applied to the Postmaster to have a palkee dak
laid for Bombay. He was told that it was madness, but the
exigencies of business required his presence in Bom.bay, so
what with strong remonstrances and all other legal means the
dak was laid.
At first the journey was not so bad as he had
anticipated, and became very tolerable as he neared Dharwar.
There are some sappy places about Sholapore, but as to how he
crossed the Bhima, the Sina, or their numerous tributaries there
is no record. The black soil and moorum of Poona would be a
caution, so, with firmer footing for his bearers on the tableland
of the Dekhan above the Ghauts, from which we can imagine
him descending with many a bump, if it was during or soon
after a heavy hursat, a spectacle would meet his eye fit to
appeal the stoutest heart
. We have all seen it, but under very different circumstances (from the cushioned seat of a first class railway carriage).
Campoli Tank almost obliterated as an
entity, or converted into a great sea, that in the dusk stretched to the horizon, with long lines of trees which rose aboA'e and dotted the surface, marking the track of the great Poona High lioad now deep down under water.
How he piloted his way over the labyrinth of muddy dykes,
or floundered through the quaking bogs of Tanna and Kalyan,
or steered his aerial bark over the plastic gum of Salsette,
determined that it should not " serve as paste and cover to his
bones," we cannot imagine.
We take it for granted that Mr. Jefferson had been interned
in his portable tabernacle, excepting for intervals of sleep and
refreshment, for fifteen days. As he emerged from his prison-
house and touched the doorstep of his bungalow at Colaba,
he must have felt like Noah coming out of the ark after the
deluge.that he survived such an ordeal was due to the
Providence of God and a robust constitution.
It is needless to remind the reader that this was the orthodox mode of
locomotion from Sir Thomas Roe to Lord Roberts (for he
travelled in this way for several weeks from Allahabad to
Peshawar) down to the advent of railways.
You ask why the route to Calcutta was not by Nagpore and the Central
Provinces ? We answer that the road was the old route, and
that the Nagpore arrangement was not yet inaugurated. When
one remembers how little there was to see it must have been a
blessed exchange. A glance at that hrochure de luxe, the
Bombay and Baroda Railway Guide for 1895
, makes one bless
his stars that he lives not fifty years ago.
For what would an India be without Ahmedabad, Jeypore, Agra, Delhi or Benares?
fort of Akbar at Allahabad
These are names that leave everlasting pictures on the mind's
palace of Agra
When I scan the names of these great historic cities,
crowded with so many associations, military and political, and
contrast them with the barren and colourless items of the
hundred halting stations by this palkee route,
I pity the poor traveller whose lot was sent to make the journey via Masuli-
patam from Bombay to Bengal in the year of Grace 1845.