17 September 2009

Postal Systems in Mughal Period - Under the reign of Sher Shah Suri

MEDIEVAL INDIA (1030 - 1757 A.D.)
Part 7

Under Sher Shah Suri (1540-1545)

The Suri dynasty of the Pashtuns from Northern India may have been an aberration of the Mughal period, but proved to be a boon for the postal history of medieval India . In the short span of a 5-year rule (1540-1545), Sher Shah Suri established the foundations of a mounted post or horse courier system, wherein conveyance of letters was also extended to traders. This is the first known record of the postal system of a kingdom being used for non-State purposes, i.e. for trade and business communication. Sher Shah’s administrative reforms were so well integrated with the postal system, that it rightly earned the place of the first officially recorded mounted post in India.

His multi-front crusade began with building 3000 miles of communication network, complete with milestones, connecting the capital, Agra with outlying areas. Sher Shah is also credited with establishing the principal line of communication, the Grand Trunk Road or Sadak-e-Azam, which has been rigorously used down the centuries. It ran from Sonargaon (now Upazila in Bangladesh ) through Agra , Delhi and Lahore to Mulatn in Sind (present Pakistan ).

Feeder routes from Agra to various parts of North India also spruced up communication, and will find mention in further articles. One road ran from Attock to Cacca. A second route from Agra to Mandu was extended to Burhanpur on Tapti river., while a third route from Agra went up to Chittor fort, and a fourth went on to Jodhpur and Ajmer linking up with the seaports of Gujrat. A new road between Multan and Lahore completed the North-Eastern link.

The existing dak runner system was revamped, with two horse couriers stationed at every 2 mile-distance for speedy conveyance of official and trade correspondence. A total of 1700 post houses with 3400 postal messengers have been recorded.

The serais
(inns) and dak chawkis (post-houses) dotting the route were overhauled to serve the needs of Hindus and Muslims alike. Serais were more in the nature of inns, serving traders, travellers and officers of the government. The dak chawkis served as transitory points for changing post-horses. The author believes that often these serais doubled up as dak chaukis. These serais were maintained from the land revenue collected by dak employees from the neigbouring areas, and were self-sustaining.

A porter cum chawkidaar, stationed at each of the post houses, attended to the post-horses and oxen of travellers as well as the needs of post-messengers. A Darogah (Watchman-in-charge) looked after each post-house. Additionally, there were two tariqh navis or post-house clerks, who recorded the arrival and departure of the mail carriers. Mails were carried by mewras and messengers, who were essentially of tribal origin or belonged to the lower castes.

Sher Shah Suri’s reforms devised a practical approach to administration, whence the system of provinces was replaced with Sarkars, Parganas and villages. This was adopted by the subsequent Mughal and British colonial administration. The empire was divided into 47 provinces, called Sarkars (19 in Bengal). Each Sarkar was further divided into smaller districts called Parganas. Each Sarkar was managed by two officers, the Shiqdar-i-Shiqdaram (Military Chief) and the Munsif-i-Munsifan,(Chief of Justice), who oversaw the work of Pargana officers, namely the Shiqdar (administrative officer), Amin (revenue officer), Munsif (judicial officer), Patwari (keeper of land revenue records), Chowdhury (landholder, next to zamindar rank) Muqaddam (village headman), Qarqun (accountant), Mushrif (holder of trust) and Khazaanchi (treasurer). While the Fautedar maintained property records in both, Persian and Hindi, the Qanoongo in each Sarkar supervised the same.

The officers were transferred every two or three years to prevent misuse of office, which was an innovation in that epoch of time. It maybe noted that the postal system was still not open to general public, though one comes across references to malpractices involving covert transmission of messages, besides transactions involving land. This is probably the reason that the practice of transferring officers was adopted.

A genealogical study of present use of these titles indicate the antecedence of the afore-mentioned administrative officers of this period. However, the author is intrigued by the prevalence of Kanungos and Shikdars solely in the Eastern provinces of Bengal and Orissa, while Fotedars being confined to the Kashmiri Pandits with a bureaucratic lineage, the Patwaris to Rajsthan. Whereas the administrative system was uniform throughout the empire from greater Bengal (including present Bangladesh) in the East to the Sind in North-West. Then why is there a regional proclivity in lineage patterns?

Abolishment of taxes that were a barrier to free trade, brought about development of trade. Introduction of the Rupayya or rupee coin in place of “Tanka” and “Jeetal” and the system of custom duties, gave a fillip to trade and commerce. The consequential increase in business correspondence was facilitated by the large network of roads built during the reign of Sher Shah Suri. The revenue and agricultural reforms of this period will also be of interest to the students of fiscal history.

Though military intelligence continued the use of spying as a tool, military matters were however isolated from political and social issues of the empire. The same serais that served as post-houses, also served as centres of local intelligence gathering, However, were the conveyance of mails and military intelligence network operations mutually exhaustive?

As a great postal administrator, Sher Shah established a self-sustaining postal system. The entire postal system was under supervision of the Darogah-I-Dak and the the Darogah-I-Dak Chawki, Superintendent of Postal Department. He served also as Director of Post-Houses, receiving the administrative dispatches for conveyance to the ruler. The department of correspondence was overseen by the Dewan-i-Isha who issued letters and royal firmaans, forwarding the same for transmission to the Darogah-I-Dak Chawki. These imperial firmaans and correspondence were served by Mir Munshis, the Head Clerks.


1. The ‘Mughal Period’ denotes the period (early 16th to mid 19th century A.D.) of supremacy of the Mughal rulers in India, notwithstanding the occasional defeat and dethroning of any ruler.
2. The reign of Sher Shah Suri, who wasn’t a Mughal but an Afghan, corresponds to this period of history, and has been dealt by the author apropos to Mughal period, given that his contributions to the postal system fall within the purview of the Mughal time-period.

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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