In 19th and early 20th century India, if you were a British officer posted for a short while in a remote part of the county, your only refuge was a dak bangla. During your tour of duty, this spartan structure in the midst of the tropical badlands was your home, your office and your last defence against wild animals and evil spirits that were believed to inhabit the Indian heartland. Quite simply, you had no choice.
It was your home, your office and your last defence against wild animals
But why were these dak banglas so conveniently built in the most inconvenient places?
The word ‘dak’ is Urdu for 'post' and dak banglas were initially built by the British Indian Public Works Department to help postal officers relay the mail in stages. For British administrative officers who had to travel to the remote Indian hinterland, staying in camps and tents was not an appealing prospect, especially during the Indian monsoon. It is easy to see why the dak bangla became their preferred option.
These dak banglas were well used. By the mid-19th century, the British East India Company controlled vast swathes of India, and while a complex administrative system was put in place to rule this vast land, the number of British officers was miniscule vis-a-vis the masses they ruled. This meant that British officialdom was constantly on the move and always in need of temporary accommodation.
The dak banglas were strikingly uniform across the Indian subcontinent
From the foothills of the Himalayas to the edge of land deep in the south, dak banglas were strikingly uniform. Although frugal, they were built in European style, with wide and long verandahs, high ceilings and polished interiors. The basic layout was the same – a large central room with bedrooms on both sides. However, there were vernacular variations, depending on what raw materials were locally available. They were also built typically 28-32 km apart, and were generally located deep inside forests or on top of hills.
Lt Col J K Stanford, a British Indian Civil servant and a noted writer of the early 20th century, in his memoirs of his days in India, wrote that a touring official was given 7 rupees and 8 annas as a nightly travelling allowance that paid for the horse’s feed, firewood, eggs, chickens and so on.
These bungalows were managed by a caretaker, who doubled as a cook and a butler, and was known as the ‘khansamah’. In popular writings of the time, he is often portrayed as ‘as ancient as the bungalow’ itself and ‘peculiar’, for the lonesome life he led in these forsaken dak banglas.
The khansamah is often as ancient as the dak bungalow
Numerous travel memoirs paint a fairly uniform picture of how travellers used these bungalows. They generally carried their own beds, servants and cooks, and when they didn’t, the khansamah prepared their meals. In the absence of regular provisions, the staple was usually chicken as the birds were often bred in the bungalows and always handy!
J F Foster, an Assistant Surgeon in British Indian government service in the 1870s, narrates a scenario many would have witnessed first-hand: ‘…the cook rushing out into the courtyard wielding a knife to catch the chicken just minutes before preparing the meal.’
The dust from the arriving dak gharry (carriage carrying the post) would barely have settled when the martyred chicken would arrive on the dining table in one of its many avatars, which ranged from the ubiquitous ‘Captain Curry’ to the quintessential Anglo-Indian invention, the ‘chicken cutlet’. With the advent of the railways, these recipes reached the clubs and hotels in the cities, and even today, ‘Dak Bangla Chicken Curry’ is a fondly remembered recipe from the British era.
‘Revenge your slaughtered countrywomen! To hell with the bloody sepoys!’
In times of strife, these rest houses served as a place of refuge for British officers fleeing Delhi during the Revolt of 1857. William Howard Russell, regarded as the world’s first modern war correspondent, travelled across India to report for The Times shortly after the Revolt. He reported how he came across graffiti on the walls of dak banglas, urging British soldiers to seek vengeance. One of the more grisly messages read, ‘Revenge your slaughtered countrywomen! To hell with the bloody sepoys!’
Given their godforsaken location and the bleak stay they offered, dak banglas became fodder for writers of dark tales. A well-known one is that of an old dak bungalow in Delhi that was demolished and is now the site of the Mutiny Memorial opposite the Telegraph Office. Locals believe that the spirit of a young British officer who shot himself dead in it after an affair with a woman went awry still roams the neighbourhood with his severed head in his hands.
Noted India-born English writer Rudyard Kipling seems to have relished the images that the dak bangla conjured up. In his writings, he refers to the fact that several such bungalows along the Grand Trunk Road ‘have handy little cemeteries in their compounds – witnesses to the changes and chances of this mortal life in the days when men drove from Calcutta to the Northwest...’
In spite of the grim tales spun around them, the dak bangla also evoked a certain warmth. In her book, The Raj On The Move: Story Of The Dak Bungalow, Rajika Bhandari says,
‘The presence and availability of dak bungalows had an unexpected but profound influence on the social interactions of the British in India. Occasions like Christmas could now be celebrated away from home… this is how many generations of British in India – officers, their memsahibs and their little ‘missy sahibs and ‘baba log’ – came to be acquainted with the Indian wilderness that they eventually came to love.’
Love them, hate them or fear them, there is no denying the dak bangla was an anchor for wandering British officials and for travellers, who enchanted by India journeyed to the most inhospitable corners of this enigmatic land. Many of these bungalows are now in a state of disrepair but there are some, like the ones in Misrod (Bhopal), Kumaon (Uttarakhand), Kasauli (Simla), Garhi (Rajasthan) and Munnar (Kerala) that are a living ode to a bygone but enchanting era.
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