18 July 2009

Advent of Postal Communications in Ancient India

Meghdoot, the cloud - messenger

India – the land with the highest number of post offices and postal workers, is also the country with perhaps the most eclectic, yet effectual modes of mail conveyance ever used. Spanning across centuries, the methods of communication adopted have been varied, befitting the country's diverse topography and compelling history. It is no wonder that today, the world-wide demand for covers carried by unique modes continues to be high. You only have to look at the going prices at EBay to know how valued such covers are for a cognizant collector.

The advent of communications in India was born of need, as prevailed universally. For when man progressed from the Neanderthal levels, he developed want-lists that moved beyond the simple, basic and elemental to a societal dimension. Necessity gave rise to unique ways of communication, that inspired many a poet and litterateur. In particular, India with its ancient culture and the oldest of civilisations, boasts of a wealth of communication methods adopted over time, that have found their way into art and scriptures as well.

We find that the element of romanticism was very much evident in most forms of communication adopted in ancient India. The primitive drawings and heliographic characters found in caves and carvings of the temples and pillars. are vibrant stories with messages of their own. They can be interpreted as statements symbolic of the ethos of that period.

Messages were written on leaves and stones, using pictorial symbols and characters. They were depicted as rock paintings, stone engravings or carvings and sculptures.

These are the boon of archaeological discoveries and have been dated period-wise. Symbolic messages were engraved on stones, as sati stones and rock stones. Such stones dedicated to the memory of those departed, are a wealth of information to historians. Many such artifacts have been found in caves, barks of trees and threshholds of houses.

The most remarkable and emotive method of communication, was through music and lyrics. The rendering of the flute tenor or the melody and pitch of a song, conveyed very effectively a piece of good, bad or daunting news instantly across the village. Drumbeats and crude bushfires that cut across hills and valleys, were used to convey distress signals. The musical history of India is an integral part of the country's protohistory, where songs were the effective media of communication. Thus annalists and historians have had to take recourse to the wealth of oral history contained within the musical tradition of a given region.

In ancient India, the need to communicate was manifested in various ways. Dated and undated, scriptures and literature are replete with references. While RigVeda mentions a dog Sarama who was used to carry messages, the Atharvaveda records couriers referred as the Palagala.

Mythology and ancient history also records traditional emissaries conveying messages in an unconventional manner. The epic Ramayan contains many instances of Hanuman, carrying messages of Ram, flying over land and water. The narrative revolving around the message to Sita, kept hostage in Lanka, is a well-hyped one.

In Mahabharata, King Dhrupad dispatched the message instructing King Dhritirashtra to give away half the kingdom, through the Royal Priest. Centuries down, the practice of using Brahmin priests for carrying letters in a private postal system called the Brahmini Dak, reflects the importance accorded to such trusted human carriers. Mahabharata too has a romantic legend mentioning how a swan was used to convey the message of prince Nal to princess Damayanti.

Chanakya’s Arthashastra refers to doots who doubled up as spies, collecting information and revenue data for the King. The practice of using homing pigeons as message carriers also prevailed from the earliest times. Amazingly, they are still officially used by government departments as pigeon posts in remote areas. Orissa State Police is one such department using pigeons as mail carriers till date.

Then, of course, is the legendary mail runner, used by Kings for purposes of invitation, chivalry and war. The mail runner or the dak runner, has stoked the passions of many a poet, writer and artist, who have eulogized him, for his bravery and speed of conveyance. The mail carriers were also used by the merchants for business. The common man it seems either had little use for such a service or preferred to rely upon visiting relatives and travelling villagers.

One of the earliest evidence of a systematic postal service using foot messengers is found during the reign of Chandragupta Maurya (322-298 B.C.). A courier service between the capital and the outlying provinces of the vast kingdom served the needs of intelligence gathering and collection of revenue data, whence regular messengers, doots and pigeons were used for conveying the royal communiqué. However its efficacy was lost upon his death and the system fell through. Emperor Ashoka also devised a very efficient means of communication that helped him create a vast empire. During his period, camels were also in use to carry mail in some parts of Eastern India, like Jajpur.

Even before the northern parts of India came under Greek and foreign rule, ancient India already had a fairly regular and developed mail service in use by the Kings, albeit cheifly for miltary purposes. This was the golden period of Hindu rule, which owed much of its success and far reach across the Indian sub-continent, to the communication system in use.

Notes : The Indian sub-continent, was the seat of the most ancient of civilsations, the Indus Valley civilisation - a very advanced and scientific civilisation - whose demise was followed by a mushroom growth of Dravidian, Arabic and Persian cultures. The continual invasions from the West and the topographic logistics separating the Deccan India from the northern frontiers, witnessed an evolution of distinct Hindu and Islamic cultures, each of which bore influences of the incursions and changing military regimes. However this remained an undivided sub-continent, powerful even in the ancient period, attracting wealth seekers and power-mongers. The colonial period saw a segragation of the north-western extremities, chiefly Afghanistan. and subsequently, in 1947, the sub-continent was divided into the present nations of INDIA and PAKISTAN.

The entire series is part of an ongoing research project and can be accessed as a work in progress. Readers are requested to comment, share any resources, materials (maps, covers, books) or information that they feel is pertinent to the research. The same will be duly acknowledged as desired by the reader, collector or dealer.


  1. Madam,
    I make at present a research on the taming and the expansion of carrier pigeons. I read your article and I have some question on this subject:
    - what are doots? (I did not find the translation and I shall like knowing if it is about another bird or simply about population) - is there, in your knowledge, some use of the pigeons in India, before 300 BCE?
    - according to you, does this custom(usage) come to Very India, to population Mesopotamia, from China, from gréco-Macedonians (Alexander the Great) or moreover?
    Could you answer me the following address?
    thank you
    Grégoire Ultré
    Bonjour Madame,
    j'effectue actuellement une recherche sur la domestication et l'expansion des pigeons voyageurs. J'ai lu votre article et j'ai quelques question à ce sujet:
    -qu'est-ce qu'un doots? (je n'ai pas trouvé la traduction et j'aimerai savoir s'il s'agit d'un autre oiseau ou simplement d'une population...)
    -n'y a-t-il, à votre connaissance, une quelconque utilisation des pigeons en Inde, avant 300 BCE?
    -selon vous, cet usage vient-il de l'Inde elle-même, de population Mésopotamie, de Chine, des gréco-macédoniens (Alexandre le Grand) ou d'ailleurs?
    pourriez-vous me répondre à l'adresse suivante?
    Grégoire Ultré

  2. Doots are traditionally spies who also doubled up as messengers.

    The practice of using pigeons for carrying mail has been in existence earliest in Greece and Mesopotamia. In India, we do find references to their use during the Mauryan dynasty, ie. about 320 B.C. Earlier use not known to me.

    1. Madam check with history of ajathasatru and history of maghada which had such systems

  3. Hi Mam,
    i am a student of National Institute of Design and in my present project, i am studying the indian postal system. your paper on the history wre quite useful but i would also like to know the developmental changes post independence. please guide me .

    -neha gupta

  4. Neha, the latter part of the series covers the post-independence section. so you can read that section in a couple of months' time at this blog.

    In the meantime, these books may be of help:

    Indian Postal History (1873-1923) – Brig Virk
    Postal History & Practice – I.G.J. Hamilton
    Early History and Growth of Postal system – M.L. Mazumdar

    Hope this helps!

  5. I tried to post earlier but the message did not appear. I was complimenting you on this work and this posting, and asking if you could recommend reliable sources in English or French about the use of carrier pigeons by Indian soldiers in the British or German forces during WWII?
    Thank you in advance for your help,

  6. PS As a funny sidenote, the code i had to type to publish the previous message happened to be : "pecked" :)

  7. Dr.Amrapali Merchant
    The information is good.It is helpful to researchers.

  8. Ps drum messengers and bell man are important part of messengers along with thrumpet blowers. Light house were also built for communication purpose.
    Explaining them war drums were built along with bells for dual purpose at every 20 km.bells help kings in capital to got to know about worship times. Drums will sound in the time of emergency .