I distinctly remember that during the early 90’s till about the new millennium the usage of postcards was very common for me. The 90’s saw many quizzes and completions on television and newspaper which required the individual to respond on a postcard. Later due to their increasing popularity the postal department had rolled out special Competition Post Cards which cost a lot more than the ordinary postcard. However with the new millennium and the advent of Internet in the country saw the dominance of postal service slowly declining. Emails were slowly replacing letters and private courier services with better service took over the role played by Indian postal department.
History of Postal Services in India
During my research for this blog, I came across various documents which suggested that some sought of mailing service existed as old as the time of Mohammed Bin Tughlaq during early 1300. This account was narrated by the famous traveler Ibn Battuta where he mentions “There are in Hindustan two kinds of couriers, horse, and foot; these they generally term ‘El Wolak.‘ The horse-courier, which is generally part of the Sultan’s cavalry, is stationed at a distance of every four miles. As to the foot-couriers there will be one at the distance of every mile occupying stations which they call ‘El Davah‘ and making on the whole three miles; so that there is, at the distance of every three miles, an inhabited village, and without this, three sentry boxes where the couriers sit prepared for motion with their loins girded. In the hands of each is a whip about two cubits long, and upon the head of this are small bells. Whenever, therefore, one of the couriers leaves any city he takes his despatches in one hand and the whip, which he keeps constantly shaking, in the other. In this manner he proceeds to the nearest foot-courier and, as he approaches, shakes his whip. Upon this out comes another who takes the despatches and so proceeds to the next. For this reason, it is that the Sultan receives his despatches in so short a time.”
India being divided into multiple kingdoms resulted in various kings and rulers having their own messenger services and famous of these were that of Sher Shah Suri (1541) using the famous Grant Trunk Road as an information highway using houses this was further developed by Akbar. Chikka Deva Raja Wodeyar of Mysore (1672) and other smaller kingdoms which even used regular courier services to transfer flowers and fruits used as offering to temples. Famous would be that of the rules of Udaipur who would send a regular offering to the temples of Pushkar.
Then came East India Company and it was important for them to maintain a regular mail link between its different states like that of Bengal, Madras and Bombay. Robert Clive (1766) can be considered as one of the pioneers of the modern postal service in India. He introduced the concept of regular mailing routes with the help of local landlords and zamindars who would deploy runners to transfer mails. Further development was done to this system under Warren Hastings and on 31st March of 1774 the first Postmaster General was appointed and the postal service was also extended for private use.
The next great change took place with Act XVII of 1837 with which East India Company had the exclusive rights over postal services in its territories abolishing all private mailing services. This was followed by the Act XVII of 1854 which signaled the formation of Indian Post Office system. Under this, the department was headed by a Director General further appointing Postmasters General. In 1883 saw the first combination of postal and telegraph services and later became an integral part of the postal system.
After this, the post and telegraph department became an important channel of communication in India and various new acts and law were passed to further define the service functionality of the postal department in India. Post-independence Indian postal services became of largest mailing services in the world using air, land and sea routes to deliver mail.
Postal Museum and Philatelic Library
This museum has recently been renovated and if you are in the city as a visitor or just living in this city then you should consider yourself lucky to be able to visit this museum. Don’t expect a large museum like that of The Indian Museum rather this place just consist of four rooms and at most a total of 700 to 800 square feet would be the approximate size of the whole museum. The small size of the museum is overshadowed by the sheer collection that this place is having making this a must for any heritage lover.
Before we go into the content of the museum we must learn about an interesting fact about the building where the museum is located. A marble plaque inside the museum walls informs that the building was constructed to house the offices of the Director General of The Post Office of India in the year 1885. The then Director General was one gentleman by the name Frederick Russell Hogg and if the surname “Hogg” seems to ring a bell then yes you are absolutely correct he was related to Sir Stuart Saunders Hogg the very gentleman in whose name the famous New Market or SS Hogg Market is dedicated to. He is the younger brother of Sir Stuart Saunders Hogg.
The museum has no tickets and photography without flash is allowed. The best part is that the museum is open seven days a week between 11 AM to 4 PM so it can be easily be visited on weekends.
The museum is relatively small having just 4 rooms. The map at the museum shows three rooms but what the map does not show is the fourth room adjacent to the entrance which has one on the most important exhibit from the famous Black Hole of Calcutta.
On entering you will see a hallway in front of you, this section has the collection of all the stamps, postcards, revenue stamps, maps, postal saving certificates, photographs and other important documents. But before you go forward turn 360 degrees and look up towards the ceiling and you will see the marble plaque which will give you the reason why this building was erected, the date and the people responsible for its construction.
Some of the important things to see in this room would be the photograph of GPO under construction with the bamboo outer scaffolding still visible, the photographs of the Brass Lines of the southern curtain demarcating the old Fort William. The postal certificates signed by none other than C. V. Raman. The postal saving book owned by Rabindranath Tagore with his original signature still visible. Maps of old Calcutta, maps of old air mail routes, maps of postal service availability during British India. Postcards from three different era, East India Company, British India and Independent India. Medals of war won by the postal department for serving during World War I and II in the campaigns of Italy, Pacific, Burma, Africa. Belts worn by the various staffs of the postal departments with their designation embossed on brass buckle. Etc. At the end of the room, you will find two large vintage post collection boxes.
The small room right next to this long room houses brass plates, sea signaling lanterns, weighing scale with standardized weights and a large leather chest. Also you will find an enamel printed plates from 1957 declaring the changeover to Naya Paisa and its conversion factor.
The third room houses some of the hardware used by the postal departments like a vintage telephone handset, telegraph machines, flag raising mechanism, bugle, a bell from the dead letter office, metal stamps, locks, clocks, scissors etc. Postal service during the early days was sometimes a dangerous job often passing through areas known for being infested by robbers and highwaymen and sometimes even being faced with the prospect of meeting a hungry tiger for this some of the runners would carry swords, daggers and other light arms for self-protection. In this room, you also will find an old cannon found at Berhampore during the construction of the post office.
The highlight for me was the coin invalidating machine which was used by the postal department from invalidating an old coin removed from circulation by punching a “V” shaped cut. I guess the word “Khota Sikka” came from this.
This room also has some table top show models depicting the various uniform and types of mail delivery men and the best one was the one depicting a mail delivery man perched on a tree top near a river while a hungry tiger watches from the other side.
Last but not the least is the fourth room which houses the stone tablet which was placed above the Black Hole Memorial, this plaque was removed and was out of sight for decades and finally you will be able to see it again with your own eyes.
Overall it should take around one to two hours to see the museum depending on your interest level. I spent almost three hours inside and still feel like visiting again. If you are visiting on a weekend and coming with your own vehicle then the nearest parking spot would be at St. Johns Church. Alternately you can come by any public transport and get down in front of GPO and take the road going towards Strand Road.
Location of the Museum
Click here to open the location on Google Maps
History and old photograph source courtesy University of California Library (The Post Office of India and its Story by Geoffrey Clarke)