Anchal runners have dashed into history

Published: 04th December 2012 12:01 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th December 2012 12:01 AM   |  A+A-

Picture a situation where a postal employee is flogged under orders from his supervisor for lapses in mail delivery! Unbelievable? However it’s true — on the authority of R Kulathu Iyer, a renowned Travancore historian. Indeed a far cry from modern day civil service hierarchy, modes of enforcing discipline over public welfare.

In Kerala, arrangements for transfer of ‘postal articles’ from place to place appear to have been initiated first in the princely state of Travancore some time in the beginning of the 18th Century during the reign of Marthanda Varma. The department’s name then was ‘anchal’, some holding that this is derivation from the word ‘angel’, a synonym for ‘messenger’. (Cochin state followed a little later — around 1770.) Interestingly, anchal service in both the states was restricted initially to government business. (There was hardly any distinction those days as between the palace, the temple and the government in certain matters.) Such government business in Travancore included bringing to Thiruvananthapuram from distant places flowers for use in the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple and vegetables for the palace kitchen. Gradually, work for private individuals also was entertained and a fare was fixed. Sale of anchal stamps, a monopoly of the government, was introduced around 1888, while Cochin took another 10 years to implement the innovation. Postal arrangements were codified through a set of regulations. Money order service came in 1901 and postal savings scheme in 1912. By 1921, even insurance business was brought under the umbrella of ‘anchal’!

Anchal operations were through all conceivable modes — train, roads, canals — and where none of these worked, they turned to the good old ways of running!

‘Anchal runners’ would be provided with a two-feet long wooden staff with small bells attached and the hapless chap would run carrying the postal articles on his head and shaking the staff vigorously so that its chiming would scare other road users away enabling him to push forward unhindered — somewhat like the modern ambulance vans. In fact, every one — the high and the mighty included — was bound by law to leave the way clear for him.

Traversing miles-long trajectories was executed through relay race of sorts: after handing over the articles to his colleague, the first guy would run back with what his friend gives: the second one would, on his part, run forward with his load to hand it over to the next guy and thus the chain stretched. The perquisites admissible to the ‘running staff’ included a kind of fuel allowance — to buy faggots to be lit and used as a torch while working after dusk.

Travancore and Cochin, though afflicted with intermittent interludes of diplomatic aloofness and mutual hostilities, however, cooperated well in making inter-state anchal services a success. Red boxes kept in important junctions were meant for purely internal delivery while the green ones were to be used for inter-state services.

With the onslaught of mobile phones, fax, Internet and so on and the consequent communication explosion, ‘snail mail’ is dying a slow death. The Department of Posts is naturally mulling ‘product-diversification’ to stay afloat — which, of course, has made much headway.

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