20 July 2009

Postal Communications under the Arab dominion

Arab influence of the Caliphate (7th – 11th century A.D.)

Quest of political power and wealth by the Arabs, led to their increasing presence in the Indian sub-continent. Initially by the peaceful means of commerce and later with conquests, extensive routes were laid over both land and sea.

The origin of the postal system during the Muslim rule can be traced to the conquest of Sind by the Arab ruler of Iraq, Mohammad bin Qasim, in 712 A.D. The Arab chiefs established many territories which necessitated maintenance of a regular line of communication with the Caliph of Bagdad, for military intelligence and administrative instructions. The special horse couriers carried letters from Caliph to Qasim on every third day and from Iraq to Sind in seven days.

The Caliph Mu’awiyyah (602-680) is considered the first ruler to have established the Department of Posts or Diwan-i-Barid for official communication throughout his far-flung Caliphate. Although the Barid* was used primarily for imperial communication, it later became less exclusive and included personal and business letters.(The word Barid means a “post-animal”, “post-horse”, “courier” or institution of “post” according to ‘Encyclopaedia of Islam’)

Barid messengers also became the bearers of information like the price of goods traded, but unlike their doot counterparts in ancient kingdoms of India, barids were publicly appointed officers. In this way, the Barid service played a role similar to modern postal system and is indeed used even in the modern times in various Arab countries as the original term for the Post.

The Caliph kept an elaborate system of posts at intervals of a few miles, where the official messenger could avail of a fresh relay of horses or pass his despatch to another member. These postal services extended across the Hindukush in the north as far as Kabul and Delhi in the South, with 930 post stations along six routes from Bagdad to India. The postal system under the Caliphate was independent of the political administration. It was solely used for conveyance of letters with two categories of officials, the nowaqquium and the farwaneqqyun. The former played the role of the modern postmaster, in charge of receipt, despatches and supervision of the conveyance of official letters, while the latter was in the garb of the modern Post Master General controlling operations at every province and reporting to the Caliphate at Baghdad. Thus, it is evident that the State postal systems in the Princely States of India were influenced by the systems pioneered by the Caliphate.

Relays of horses were used for long distance postal services, to keep the Caliphate and the Muslim invaders posted about the happenings throughout their vast territory. There is mention of frequent use of the horse-collar, the breast strap, the cross-bow, the stirrup, and even the wheelbarrow for rendering the horse service swift.

Though there is record of wheeled carriages, oxen drawn chariots, bullock carts, ekkas and tongas being used for trade and travel purposes, no mention has been found by this author of any of these being used for carrying mail during this period.

During this time, the Empires of the Han Chinese, Romans, Kushans, Mauryans and Greeks, provided a safe route for traders to travel. They encouraged long distance trade and speedy communication.

To increase speed of communication the speed of the messenger had to enhanced. Thus spawned good roads and well provisioned staging posts at which fresh men and horses were always kept ready. Much has been written about these swift horse couriers who galloped with fine abandon, braving the mountainous terrain, crossing swift-flowing rivers and ice-covered slopes in the most extreme of weather conditions.

In the ancient period, when external influences were primarily through overland trade and incursions, the swiftness of the horse messengers played a key role in communications, and to an extent, probably shaped the subsequent historical events in India.

Notes : * The word barid, according to Hitti is not derived from the Latin Veredus or the Persian burdan meaning ‘a swift horse’ but from the Arabic birdhawn meaning ‘a horse’ or ‘burden’. It may also be derived from ‘the towers built to protect the roads by which couriers travelled’ which was later used as yardstick to denote distance between two post stations.

Reference : P. K. Hitti, History of the Arabs
T.W. Arnold, Arab Travellers and Merchants, 1000-1500 A.D.
A. P. Newton, Travels and Travellers of the Middle Ages

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.

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