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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Oldest Letterbox in Odisha (India?)

Report by bureau; Bhubaneswar: (January 28, 2012)
When was the last time you posted a letter or send a postcard? In today’s world it is all electronic and instant, but one can’t forget the excitement of sending and receiving mail, be it a birthday card or a letter from an overseas friend.
An early British era letter box in a small village on Odisha. It was a chance discovery made by me. The wall mounted Letter Box was painted in the traditional post office red, but what is unique is the British  Royal emblem on it.
The Post Office at Kaipada is midway between Kendrapara and Jajpur. The  post office was of British era, the building had had been constructed way back in 1901. The post office dominates the village of Kaipada even today as it has been for over a hundred and ten  years. It still retains classical and traditional elegance.The Post Office is tucked some twenty metres away from the main road, in a thicket of tall trees. It stands on a two acre compound - the land has been Postal property since yore.
                I cannot give an exact date when the letter box was  affixed to the wall,  but it is must be  between 1901  and 1905. This might not be the oldest letter box in India, but I am certain it is the oldest in Odisha., and certainly one of the oldest that is still in use. These wall mounted letter boxes first appeared in 1857 in England.  The earliest known use in India is in 1885, I guess this must have been one of the early examples. All mailboxes shipped out of England bore the royal badge. Whenever there was a change of regime, so was the badge. No wonder, mailboxes bearing royal badge of different regimes on the sides can be found even today in the streets of England. The front of the letter box usually has the  royal cipher, “V.R”, “E.R” or “G.R”   denoting  Queen Victoria, King Edward or King George.  In present day Britain, the Letter Boxes are all  inscribed with the Royal Badge of the present Queen Elizabeth 2nd.
                The Kaipada Letter Box must have started off as a Victorian one, and seen the transaction to the Edwardian and then the Georgian ciphers.I had sent the photographs and details of the letter box  to a  British philatelist friend  and postal historian who did a lot of ground work. He  tells me that this type of boxes were  made by the London firm of W.T. Allen and Co. , who manufactured and shipped  letter boxes for the Post Office between 1881 and 1963. Many of them are still found in villages of England.
                The letter box stood in one corner, a silent sentinel who has seen the world go by. The road from Kendrapara to Jajpur has so much of history attached to it. In short, so much had changed in the century of the Letter Box’s existence, but that morning, while I was photographing it from various angles and hearing the tales of the villagers, it seemed I was back in time. Nothing had changed- nothing. The letter box was still emptied twice daily; letters were still posted in it. The mail run was the same that has been for years.
In 1934, Gandhiji began his celebrated Padayatra with the mission of Harijan uplift and abolition of untouchability. In was on the 31st May 1934, while on his way from   Kendrapara to Bari that the Mahatma stopped at Kaipada. He had rested under a big Banyan tree near the Post Office. Narayan Chandra Panda, the octogenarian retired post master told me of the eventful day. He was young lad, just ten years old and had seen the Mahatma. The villagers had all gathered under the tree and Gandhiji had curiously enquired about the Post Office building which stood by the side of the Road. One of the villagers had run to get the Post Master’s chair, but the Mahatma had refused  to sit on it and had sat down under the tree, spending a good one hour. Two other villagers in the nineties, Dadichi Sahoo and Gouranga Dhall, both told me of the day they had walked with Gandhiji till Bari.
The seeds of the freedom movement were sowed in the minds of all the people of the area after Gandhiji visit. He had advised Congressmen all over the country to take up rural reconstruction. At the end of his Padayatra in Orissa, at Bhadrak, he advised Congress workers to go back to villages. Many took up the cause. The Quit India Movement in 1942  was the expression of India's last push towards its "tryst with destiny."  Jajpur and Kendrapara were the hotbed of all revolutionary activities. The Government of Odisha had declared all Congress bodies unlawful and arrested many of the leaders. There was a huge public uprising and people took possession of government offices and burnt them down.
The Sub Post Office of Kaipada, with its old Letter Box, too played a very significant part in the revolt. The then Postmaster, Gobind Chandra Das got wind of the coming action and  on the 20th August he packed up all the postal stamps, cash, seals  and other important fiscal items and along with a runner took off for Kendrapara where he deposited the items at the main Post office there. He left the Post Office to his assistant, Narayan Chandra Panda, and warned him of the impending threat.
Popular history says that on the 22nd August 1942, the Post Office of Kaipada was burnt down, it was the only symbol of the British Raj in the vicinity, and the freedom fighters vent their ire on this vestige of oppression. A crowd of 200 surrounded the Post Office and set it on fire, as it was a pucca building, only the papers and furniture was destroyed. The armed Police soon arrived but was prevented to enter the village. They later on came in six boats and managed to arrest ten persons. The handcuffed prisoners were being taken to Jajpur, when a mob of a thousand persons attacked the police. The police opened fire killing four and injuring a dozen . The four who fell down by the pond in Kalamatia   were   Sanada Swain and Hadibandhu Panda of Krushnanagar village, Sauti Mallick of Srirampur  and Mayadhar Bhuyan of Hatasahi . Some of the people told me that even an airplane had dropped tear gas shells on the crowd, but I still have to ascertain the veracity of this fact. There is a small martyr’s memorial for the dead in the nearby village.
However, Narayan Chandra Panda, who had been charge of the Post office on the fateful day, told me a very different story. I spent a good hour with the old postmaster, the sad and rheumy eyed man recollected what all has happened. According to him, the Post Office was not actually set on fire completely, only a few papers were taken to the Verandah, (where incidentally the old Letter Box has been all these years) and burnt. Even the furniture was spared, and I think the tables, almirah and chairs are still being used.
Panda told me that he has appealed to the crowd that burning the post office would be of no use and the government would not build another one. It would be the village’s loss. He even told the crowd that the postmaster had taken away all the stamps, cash and seals.  He remembers taking down the portrait of  King George VI  from above the Postmaster’s Chair(he showed me the nail from  where the portrait had been hung, it was still in place!). He had given  the  crowd many of the postal forms and stationery. All these were taken to the verandah and a bonfire was made where King Emperor’s portrait was burnt. He says that earlier in the morning he had taken whatever little was left of the records and put in the secret underground safe of the Post Office. Surprisingly the present Post master did not know anything of the safe, and a steel almirah had to be moved for me to see it. The safe had no longer been in use since decades, it was a small underground cavity with a heavy steel cover. The lid was jammed and it took a good bit of pulling before we could open it.
              It is about time that  India Post took stock of the fact and does what ever it can for this important heritage of Indian history. My British friend warned me that if news of the Letter Box travelled, it should be properly protected; these period letter boxes command a very good price in the antique market.  

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