How did people travel long distances in India before the advent of the train? Native Indians seldom needed to move beyond the boundaries of their own village or the adjoining ones and would spend their entire lifetime within these confines. We have heard about Indian pilgrims travelling from distant parts of India to holy sites such as Varanasi or Haridwar. Such journeys must have been on foot and must have taken years. It was possible that no one who undertook such a journey every came back.
The British civil and military servants in the 18th and early 19th century needed to move long distances on land as part of the administrative work. How did they travel? They used the dak.
The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British and Foreign India, China and Australasia, published in 1833 carries, on page 181, this detailed and vivid description of the dak journey.
In a dak journey, the traveller must apply to the postmaster of the place of his residence to furnish him with relays of bearers to a given point, a preliminary which is called "laying the dak" the time of starting is specified, and the different places at which it may be expedient to rest. Three or four days' notice is usually required to enable the dak-master to apprise the public functionaries of the different villages of the demand for bearers: the traveller must be provided with his own palanquin, and his own banghies (boxes), ropes, and bamboos.Will it be necessary, in these enlightened times, to describe a palanquin? An oblong chest will convey the truest idea which can be given of this conveyance; the walls are of double canvas, painted and varnished on the outside, and lined within with chintz or silk; it is furnished on either side with sliding wooden doors, fitted into grooves, and when unclosed disappearing between the canvas walls; the roof projects about an inch all round, and is sometimes double, to keep off the heat of the sun. In front, there are two small windows furnished with blinds, and beneath them run a shelf and a shallow drawer. The bottom is made of split cane interwoven like that of a chair, and having a mattrass, a bolster, and pillow covered either with leather or phintz: some are also supplied with a moveable support for the back, in case the traveller should prefer sitting upright to reclining at full length. The poles jet out at each end near the top; they are slightly curved, and each is long enough to rest upon the shoulders of two men, who stand one on each side, shifting their shoulders as they run along. Could the palanquin be constructed to swing upon springs, no conveyance would be more easy and agreeable; but mechanical art has made little progress in India; no method has yet been struck out to prevent the vehicle from jolting. It is said that the pendulous motion, which would be the least unpleasant to the traveller, would distress the bearers; but when the makers shall be men of science, this difficulty will vanish.The preparations for a dak journey are simple. The necessary baggage is packed into banghies, which are sometimes square tin boxes of a particular size, fitted for the mode of conveyance with conical tops; at others, round covered baskets sewed up in painted canvas. These are slung with ropes to each end of a bamboo, which is carried across a man's shoulder, two banghie-bearers being usually attached to the dak. A desk may be placed upon the shelf before-mentioned, and other small packages stowed in the palanquin, which should be supplied with biscuits, a tumbler, a bottle of wine or brandy, and a serai (a long-necked porous jar) of water wrapped in a wet cloth, which may be tied to one of the poles outside. Eight men attend to carry the palanquin, who relieve each other by turns, the four off duty running by the side of the vehicle. At night, two mussaulchees (torch-bearers) are added. These men are all Hindoos, and belong to one of the poorest, though not the lowest castes; they bring with them their cloths, loias (drinking-vessels), and provision for a meal, which they pack upon the top of the palanquin, and retaining a very scanty portion of drapery upon their persons, present an exceedingly grotesque appearance. When all is ready, they take up their burden and setoff at a round pace, going, when the road is good, at the rate of from three miles and a-half to four miles an hour.The stages vary from ten to fourteen miles, and a change of bearers is often effected in the midst of a wide plain. The relay, which is generally in waiting for some time, kindle a fire, group themselves around it, and beguile the interval with smoking or sleeping. When drawing near to the appointed spot, the traveller is made aware of the circumstance by the shouts of his own people, who exclaim, in loud but musical accents, "dak wallah, dak wallah, tiar hi?" (dak men or fellows, are you ready ?). The welcome response is joyfully received, and in a few minutes more the palanquin is put down amid the cries of "Ram! Ram !"* an expression which, when thus used, conveys both salutation and thankfulness. The tired traveller will often echo the " Ram! Ram!" of his weary bearers, who, if they have received the customary buxies (present) of an eight anna piece, take leave with shouts of "salaam, Saib." In preparing for a dak journey, care should be taken to secure a halt of eight or twelve hours, at stated distances, certainly not exceeding a hundred miles, while a lady will find it expedient to rest after she has traversed fifty or sixty. On the great road, from Calcutta to Cawnpore, there are govemment-bungaJows at the end of every stage, built purposely for the accommodation of travellers; but on other routes, they must depend upon the hospitality of individuals. It can always be previously ascertained when and where it may be advisable to rest, and notices to the persons whose houses lie in the road can be conveyed at the time that the bearers are summoned, though in no instance would a dak traveller be refused admittance, and it is only necessary to go up to the gate and ask for shelter.In the hot season, persons who brave the heat of the day, in a palanquin, venture at the risk of their lives: they should always take care to be housed by twelve o'clock. Not a few, who have unadvisedly set out upon a long journey without the necessary precaution of breaking it by remaining under some friendly roof during the sultry hours, have been found dead in their palanquins, and others have escaped with very severe fevers. In the cold weather, it is more agreeable to travel by day, the nights being very piercing. As the doors can only be partially open until after sunset, very little of the country is to be seen from a palanquin; however, the eye may still find amusement in contemplating the passing objects, and, particularly in Bengal, the gambols of the monkeys crashing amid the boughs of the trees above, and the fire-flies irradiating the leaves of whole groves, shooting in and out in coruscations of emerald light, afford gratification to those who are willing to be amused.A journey by dak is the only rapid method of travelling which has yet been devised in India, and the rate, compared with that in European countries, is slow indeed. It is also very expensive if the distance be long, the charge made by the postmaster being a shilling per mile. There is also a demand for a deposit, under the name of demurrage, which the traveller forfeits should he detain the bearers in places not specified in the route. The dak traveller experiences considerable inconvenience in being deprived of the attendance of his own servants, who must follow in a much more tedious manner. While actually upon the road, the want of domestics is not felt, the bearers being particularly attentive to the comforts of the traveller: even persons totally unacquainted with Hindoostanee may trust themselves to a long journey, secure that the different sets of natives, who may be employed to carry them, will endeavour, with the most earnest zeal, to comprehend and obey their commands. On one occasion, a lady, who did not know ten words of the language, obtained a very comfortable breakfast by pointing to a bottle of tea which she had with her in the palanquin, and making the bearers understand that she wished to have it heated. They kindled a fire, warmed the tea in an earthen pipkin purchased for the purpose, and catching a goat presented her with a tumbler-full of its milk.In most cases where complaints are made of the bearers, the fault, upon investigation, will be found to lie with the traveller. Raw young men, and sometimes even those who have not the excuse of youth and inexperience, are but too apt to amuse themselves by playing tricks with, or beating, their luckless bearers, who are not infrequently treated like beasts of burthen. They have it in their power to retaliate, and when provoked to excess, punish the offender, by putting the palanquin down, and making off to the jungles. A three or four hours' detention upon the road, perhaps under a burning sun, is the consequence, and it would require a very vivid imagination to conceive a more disagreeable situation, especially to a person wholly unacquainted with the country, and the means of procuring a new set of bearers to carry him on. The chance of falling in with a European is very small indeed, and few of the passers-by would consider it to be their duty to offer their assistance. Natives do not trouble themselves about the affairs of strangers, and they would consider it to be the will of heaven that a Saib should lie upon the road, and would not think of interfering unless especially called upon to do so. As there is only one particular caste who will carry burthens upon their shoulders, the palanquin would remain in a quiescent state for ever, before men who were not bearers by birth and profession would lift it from the ground: they would ejaculate upon being hailed, and pass on, confining their services to the report of the affair to the cuiwal or jemadar of a neighbouring village, who would send bearers if they could be procured, which is not always the case under several hours' notice.It happened to the writer that, upon a dak journey, the bhangie ropes broke, and were useless. The bhangie-bearers could not be prevailed upon to carry the boxes on their heads, and at every stage a considerable delay took place in procuring coolies to convey a burthen rejected by persons belonging to a different class. Sirdar-bearers, chuprassies, etc. will carry a guttrie, or bundle, but will upon no account submit to the disgrace of a box. They sometimes insist upon taking out a crape or gauze dress, and wrapping it in a towel, to the utter destruction of its furbelows; and many are the lively discussions which occur between them and the ayah upon these occasions.But to return to the discomforts of a dak journey. Policy as well as humanity should teach Europeans to treat the natives of India with kindness; they have frequently the power (though, to their credit be it spoken, they rarely avail themselves of it) of avenging their injuries, and the advantages of a good name can in no country be of higher value. The bhote tttcha Saib, or the bhote utcha Bebee, who have procured the commendations of the natives around them, will find their fame very widely extended. They are secure of meeting respect and attention wheresoever they may go, while those of a contrary character are equally certain of being shunned by all who are not actually compelled to render them unwilling service. The repose obtained in a palanquin is liable to many interruptions; at the end of each stage there is the clamour for busies, and when the vehicle gets into the hands of a set of bearers who are either ill-matched in size, or who do not step out well together, the jolting is tremendous.The country during the rainy season is intersected by nullahs; every channel of the ravines is converted into a rapid river, and the greater number being unfordable, they must be crossed in boats. Ferries are established upon the principal thoroughfares, and there is usually a group of natives assembled on the bank. Time does not appear to be of the slightest value to the people of Hindoostan; they will wait for days together at an unfrequented ghaut for the chance of getting a free passage, in a boat engaged by some more wealthy traveller, rather than pay the few pice demanded for their transport. The instant the palanquin is safely lodged in the boat, the crowd upon the bank embark, and if the owner should be so rash as to ask for his fee, the intruders enquire with great indignation if he be not satisfied with the hurra buxies (great present) he has already received, declaring to a man that, after the Saib's extraordinary liberality, they will give him nothing: the boat belonged to the Saib, to whom their thanks are due. Apparently, this reasoning is conclusive; at least the boatman takes nothing by his motion.It is only when night spreads its mysterious spell over the scene, that an Indian landscape, during the dry weather, can captivate the eye, however luxuriant the foliage may be, and that never appears to be scorched by the sun. However romantic the temples, when springing from an arid soil, more than half their charm is lost; but starlight or moonlight can invest it with a divine aspect: the barren sands become soft and silvery; and the parched desert, cool and refreshed, cheats the vision with a semblance of verdure. To a dak traveller, the changes produced by the approach of night are particularly striking: his eyes have been wearied for many hours with dust and glare, and he hails the first shadows cast by the setting sun with joy. So extraordinary is the illusion, that it would not be difficult to fancy that he was entering upon some new country; some enchanting paradise hitherto undiscovered, whence all unsightly things have been banished, or where they never found a place.In some of the jungley districts of India, a dak traveller may be surprized by the unwelcome appearanee of a tiger. In this event, the bearers, justly considering^ self-preservation to be the first law of nature, usually betake themselves to flight; leaving their employer to do battle in the best way he can with the monster of the wild: conduct which excites a higher degree of indignation than it merits, since they are certainly more exposed to a sudden spring than the person inside the palanquin, and are also less able to defend themselves. It is much easier to escape without their burthen, and it does appear rather hard that they should be expected to risk their lives in defence of a stranger, who has merely hired them to carry a palanquin.A dak journey of any very considerable length is seldom performed without the occurrence of some incident, either agreeable or the reverse; detention upon the road is the most common, the bearers, the traveller being to blame. Upon arriving at the end of a stage, if the relay should not be in readiness, there is no alternative but to await its arrival; the old bearers cannot be induced to proceed a step farther; they are fatigued, and it would take them too long a distance from their homes. While the unfortunate traveller, impatient and out of humour, is lamenting over his ill-luck, the people, who have just been released from their duty, are enjoying themselves with great relish. Excepting in the rains, they do not seek a shelter, a tree affords sufficient shade by day, and at night they require no other canopy than the sky. They kindle a fire upon the ground, and while some are cooking or smoking, the remainder fall asleep. The traveller might sleep also were he not tormented by the fear of losing his banghies, which are given up and placed under his care. As there are numbers of petty thieves upon the watch for any stray article which may come across them, he is compelled to keep a sharp look-out after his property, and if the palanquin should remain for some hours upon the ground, there is the danger of an invasion by a rat or a snake.When a village is the scene of the delay, some amusement may be obtained, especially at night, by a survey of the interiors of the huts. The window-shutters and doors are well-provided with chinks; both are frequently dispensed with, lattices of bamboo supplying their places, and as there is a lamp always burning in the poorest tenement, the whole economy of the apartments is distinctly visible. They are generally, though merely plastered with mud, extremely clean and neatly kept. The furniture is simple and scanty; a chest standing upon four or six feet and clamped with brass, to contain clothes and articles of any value; a charpoy, a mat, and a few brass vessels, frequently composing the whole. Others are of a superior description and have the walls decorated with small looking-glasses and pictures in gilt frames, either miserable designs, miserably executed, of native subjects, or gaudy scripture-prints, such as are still sometimes to be found iiv the cottages of England, and which have found their way to the most distant parts of Hindoostan. In some of these houses may be seen, at a late hour, a venerable old man, with a beard flowing down to his waist, handsomely attired in white muslin, seated upon the floor, and employed in writing with a reed pen upon vellum, by the light of a small chiraug, a moonshee, calculating, perchance, the expenses of the day, or engaged on some more abstruse subject.At some periods, when there are several persons proceeding up or down the country, at the same time, by dak, two palanquins meet or pass each other on the road. Upon such occasions, it would be supposed that solitary Europeans, even though previously unacquainted, would exchange some friendly greeting, especially if detained for a few minutes in the same place; but even in the wildest districts, English reserve is strictly maintained. Two palanquins may be put down upon a desolate plain, with only a few yards of sand between them ; yet the inmates will keep themselves closely shut up, never enquiring whether they can render any assistance to each other, or offering to share the refreshments they may have in store. It is rarely that they even ask the name of the person with whom they have been placed in such close contact, and brothers long severed might have the opportunity of an interview of an hour's duration, and lose it from too close an adherence to the unsocial pride which is the characteristic of an Englishman.