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Messaging over the years

From running to flying it has been a long, eventful journey spanning 150 years for the Indian postal system. ROSALIND EZHIL K threads together the history of the institution that has helped family, friends and lovers communicate in a way that can never be paralleled.

The days when we waited for the postman with a thudding heart are over for most of us. Telephones, the internet, and of course the ubiquitous private courier services have greatly diminished our dependence on the services of the Indian Postal Department. However, the importance of this mighty institution can not be overstated.

This year the Indian Postal department celebrates 150 years of its existence. It was in 1854 that the Indian Post Office Act ‘54 was passed, laying the grounds for the integration of the many different postal services run in different parts of the country into a single administrative unit. Today, there are more than 155,000 post offices all over the country reaching deep into the heart of rural India.

Before the British came to India, postal services were maintained by kings and chieftans ruling the different parts of the country. Good tidings or bad, the ruler had to rely on his messengers to tell him the happenings at the far flung corners of his empire. Post offices played important political roles as these were quite often the means by which the King spied on his subjects. For instance, the ‘Mysore Anche’, established in the seventeenth century, was an elaborate and efficient system that formed a part of the King’s intelligence department and was headed by the “Anche Bakshi”. Rulers in other parts of the country also maintained their own private systems, called “daks”. But of course these services were not really for the general public and were chiefly for the use of the kings, their ministers and the armies.

Bell-ed messengers!

For several centuries, runners and horse couriers were the mainstay of postal transportation. Travellers and historians of yore describe the working of these systems in their records. In the 14th century, the King of Delhi, Muhammad Bin Tughlak (1325-1361) had horse couriers placed every four miles while foot couriers were placed a mile apart. The foot couriers or “Harkara” would wait inside sentry boxes placed along the path. Each courier carried a whip in his hand with small bells attached. As he approached the next stage, the courier would shake the bells on his whip signalling to the next message carrier his arrival – hastening the process of handing over mail. Sher Shah and Emperor Akbar who came later had similar systems with runners and mounted couriers carrying the mail.

With Emperor Akbar’s (1543 - 1605 A.D.) system, government letters could travel 100 miles in a day and a night. A letter could go from Agra to Ahmedabad in a quick five days. The runners carrying the mail were a hardy and fearless lot and often had to travel through hostile territory. “... the dawk runners or harkara were animists by religion. They would face wild beasts and wandering criminals but would go miles to avoid an evil spirit in a tree” says Mohini Lal Majumdar, of the runners in his book ‘Postal history of zamindari dawk’.

When the British came to India in the 17th century, establishing an effective communication system, spanning the areas under their control was crucial to their operations. In the beginning, the East India Company used the existing “dak” systems, but by 1688 the East India Company had its own paid postal runners. Where the company did not have its own system in place, ‘zamindari dak’, run by local landowners was used. The system was not for private citizens, but it was possible to bribe receivers and use the company’s setup! However, by now others were motivated to enter the business and bankers had established a “Mahajan Dawk” which would carry private person’s mail for a charge.

The East India company opened its first post office in 1727. The first GPO was established in Calcutta in 1774 and GPOs in Chennai and Mumbai were set up in 1786 and 1793. In 1837, new postal regulations came into force merging these postal circles into a single service. The regulations also banned private postal services in the company’s territories. By now private persons could pay the charge and send mail through the imperial system. Mail was delivered by the village chowkidar and policemen. Only after 1863 did the postman came nearer the doors of private homes for mail delivery.

Postal Act

The year 1854 was historic for Indian posts. This was the year the Indian Postal Act 1854 was passed and many new and important developments came into play. The Act laid the grounds for the integration of postal services all over the country into a single organ. Not all the princely states were enthusiastic about joining the imperial system though and the process of integration took several decades. In fact, 15 princely states (including Travancore, Hyderabad and Jaipur) gave up their own postal systems in favour of the all-India one only after independance.

The other revolution in 1854 was the issuance of postage stamps on an all-India basis. Delivery of letters was often a difficult process with the addresses being illegibly written and stamps were introduced partly in the hope that senders would address their letters more carefully. (In the pre-stamp era the reciever had to pay for the letter.) However there was a feeling amongst the general public that unstamped letters had higher chances of being delivered as the postal department would surely want to collect the penalty for non-payment! It was also not unknown for people to send out unstamped letters with the message written on the outside of the envelope. This way the addressee would get the message but could refuse to pay the postage fee and take receipt of the letter which would end up in the ‘dead letter’ office.

The use of the railways for carrying mail was also initiated in 1854 bringing several revolutionary changes to the existing system of posts. Over the next 100 years, the post office greatly increased the number of services it offered the general public. Banking, insurance, licensing, etc all came within the ambit of the post office. At the end of the 19th century, post offices nationwide were used for the distribution of quinine – a remedy for malaria.

In 1911 the first airmail demonstration was effected. The flight was between Allahabad and Naini and carried 6500 letters. Regular airmail service was set up in 1920 between Bombay and Karachi. And so the post office grew. The network that had 701 post offices in 1854 now has 155,00,000 post offices.

But how useful is the post office today?

While many people interviewed said they did not really use the post office for communicating any more, many find the interest rates on post office savings schemes attractive. But Manjunath says “Even if the interest rates are better, there is too much paper work required in post office schemes”. M M Katti says, “I use the post office for investments, speed post services, etc.” Dr Murthy says, “The post office has suddenly lost it’s importance. I do use it sometimes out of nostalgia.”

“When I was a child the postman was a friend one waited for expectantly. Birthday and new year greetings, letters from friends and cousins, announcements - why even our school results came by post! There was something romantic about waiting at the window, sharpening our ears to the sound of the postman’s bicycle-bell. When I visit my parents in their village, the sight of the postman never fails to bring on a rush of nostalgia. He remains for me, a sad vestige of unhurried times when I once had time enough to write a letter,” says Lakshmi P.

Reinventing itself?

So, is there any chance of the post office becoming a defunct organisation? “Not at all”, says Mr M P Rajan, Post Master General, South Karnataka Region “there is demand for a wide spectrum of communication systems today and the post office caters to that need.” International money transfer, passport registration, mutual fund transaction, etc are all services offered by the post office today. The postal department is coming up with several new schemes. The ‘Bill-mail’ service allows a firm to post all its bills locally and nationally at flat rates. Through the ‘E-bill’ scheme, private firms’ bills collection can be realised through the postal department. Through ‘Logistic post’ truckloads of goods can be sent point to point. “The postal department is working on developing a more customer friendly approach,” says Mr Rajan “and we are in fact finding that people are coming back to us”.

At the moment printed matter makes up the bulk of postal matter transported but work related to the postal savings bank consumes most of the postal staff’s time, says Mr Rajan.

Above all, for the vast majority of people in rural India, the post office remains an indispensable channel of communication.

The writer acknowledes Mahalingeshwar Athani’s help in researching for this piece .

What the footsoldiers say

While many of us have been frustrated with indifferent services offered at post offices, postmen seem to enjoy a better reputation. All the postmen and women interviewed seem very committed to their jobs and take their roles as public servants seriously. Postman Hari Prakash says “Earlier people waited for the post man’s delivery eagerly - a delay could cause loss of business. This has changed now.” Range Gowda mentions the especial trust the public places on postmen. “Somebody once dropped a bundle of cheques. This was handed to me by a member of the public and I took the responsibility to see it went to the right person,” he says. The job involves responsibility and postwoman Vijayakumari talks of the un forgettable moment when she misplaced a money order for Rs 10,000 and the penalties that could have led to. Fortunately, she found the article in time! Do young people still wait for postmen to deliver love letters? “Yes!” they all say. Mobile phone or no, greeting cards are still in vogue they say.

Answer the Phone: Your Identity is on the Line

Beverly Hills, CA -- (ArriveNet - May 06, 2005) -- There hasn't been much good news in the battle against identity theft lately, with fraudsters staying one step ahead of the game. But don't panic, our old friend the telephone has come to the rescue.

We're all aware of the problem of identity theft, but did you know that your local pizza chain has had a solution for years? You recognize it as the system that prevents little Johnny from having twenty pizzas delivered to your door at midnight: the pizza chain calls you immediately after the order is placed to verify the validity of the order. Because little Johnny is afraid to be caught, he'll think twice about causing this pizza-related havoc.

TeleSign's patent-pending verification system has transferred this pizza concept to the high-tech world. It works like this: after filling out a form on a website, the user is prompted to enter his phone number. A robotic system then places a call to that number and speaks aloud a unique three digit code. Once that code is entered into the website, the authentication is complete. This system can be implemented at any point on a website: at registration, purchase, a specific time interval, or at the request of a user.

Email verification is the current standard for user authentication, but email may end up filtered, junked, bulked, or trashed. Because of spam, viruses, and phishing, email filtering has become so aggressive that even legitimate emails don't reach the inbox. But a telephone call cannot be stopped, making this the perfect time for the introduction of TeleSign’s solution.

The future of ecommerce is threatened by rampant fraud and lack of trust. TeleSign will force anonymous users to expose their faces by revealing their working phone numbers.

To try an interactive demo, visit ( and have your phone ready.

For more information about TeleSign’s products and services, visit ( or email

About TeleSign Corp.
TeleSign is a leader in innovative internet security solutions and provider of intelligent telephone-based verification solutions for any entity conducting business online where trust is essential and where fraud is a concern. TeleSign’s patent-pending Verification System provides a critical layer of security for the e-commerce world and is a proven deterrent against ill-intentioned web users. The company’s first product, the TeleSign Verification System, blends the latest internet, security and telephony technologies into a powerful new tool to combat fraud and enhance trust in e-business.

TeleSign Corp. seeks to provide simplified solutions for any company conducting business online where trust is essential and where fraud is a concern. TeleSign’s patent-pending Verification System provides a critical layer of security for the e-commerce world and is a proven deterrent against ill-intentioned web users. TeleSign’s Verification System is able to legitimize a web user’s claimed identification at a miniscule cost and with little inconvenience to all parties involved.

TeleSign’s Verification System is based upon the premise that ill-intentioned web users hesitate to disclose their working phone numbers. By placing a computer-generated telephone call coupled with a unique security code, we insist that a web user provide a legitimate telephone number or be rooted out. The company’s first product, the TeleSign Verification System, blends the latest internet, security and telephony technologies into a powerful new tool to combat fraud in e-commerce.

Visit or call 310-276-5900 for more information.

TeleSign Corporation
Contact: Sam Gonen
Telephone: (310) 276-7843


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