The history of India's postal system begins long before the introduction of postage stamps. The antecedents have been traced to the systems of the Persian Empire instituted by Cyrus the Great and Darius I for communicating important military and political information. The Atharvaveda records a messenger service. Systems for collecting information and revenue data from the provinces are mentioned in Chanakya's Arthashastra (ca. 3rd century BC).
In ancient times the kings, emperors, rulers, zamindars or the feudal lords protected their land through the intelligence services of specially trained police or military agencies and courier services to convey and obtain information through runners, messengers and even through pigeons. The chief of the secret service, known as the postmaster, maintained the lines of communication ... The people used to send letters to [their] distant relatives through their friends or neighbors.
For centuries it was rare for messages to be carried by any means other than a relay of runners on foot. A runner ran from one village or relay post to the next, carrying the letters on a pole with a sharp point. His was a dangerous occupation: the relay of postal runners worked throughout the day and night, vulnerable to attacks by bandits and wild animals. These mail runners were used chiefly by the rulers, for purposes of information and wartime news. They were subsequently used by merchants for trade purpose. It was much later that mail runners came to be in use for the carriage of private mail.
The postal history of India primarily began with the overland routes, stretching from Persia to India. What began as mere foot-tracks that more than often included fords across the mountaneous streams, gradually evolved over the centuries as highways, used by traders and military envoys on foot and horses, for carriage of missives.
The Arab influence of the Caliphate came about with the conquest of Sind by Muhammad bin Qasim in 712 A.D. Thereupon, the Diwan-i-Barid or Department of Posts established official communication across the far-flung empire. The swiftness of the horse messengers finds mention in many of the chronicles of that period.
The first Sultan of Delhi, Qutb-ud-din Aybak (Persian: قطب الدین ایبک) was Sultan for only four years, 1206 - 1210, but he founded the Mamluk Dynasty and created a messenger post system. This was expanded into the dak chowkis, a horse and foot runner service, by Alauddin Khilji in 1296. Sher Shah Suri (1541-1545) replaced runners with horses for conveyance of messages along the northern high road, today known as the Grand Trunk Road, which he constructed between Bengal and Sindh over an ancient trade route at the base of the Himalayas, the Uttarapatha.
After 1793, when Cornwallis introduced the Regulation of the Permanent Settlement, the financial responsibility for maintaining the official posts rested with the zamindars. Alongside these, private dawk mail systems sprang up for the commercial conveyance of messages using hired runners. Also, the East India Company created its own infrastructure for the expansion and administration of military and commercial power. The runners were paid according to the distance they travelled and the weight of their letters.
The Post Office Act XVII of 1837 provided that the Governor-General of India in Council had the exclusive right of conveying letters by post for hire within the territories of the East India Company. The mails were available to certain officials without charge, which became a controversial privilege as the years passed. On this basis the Indian Post Office was established on October 1, 1837.
The use of the Scinde Dawk adhesive stamps to signify the prepayment of postage began on 1 July 1852 in the Scinde/Sindh district, as part of a comprehensive reform of the district's postal system. A year earlier Sir Bartle Frere had replaced the postal runners with a network of horses and camels, improving communications in the Indus river valley to serve the military and commercial needs of the British East India Company.
The new stamps were embossed individually onto paper or a wax wafer. The shape was circular, with "SCINDE DISTRICT DAWK" around the rim and the British East India Company's Merchant's Mark as the central emblem. The paper was either white or greyish white. The blue stamp was printed onto the paper by the die during the embossing, while the wax version was embossed on a red sealing wax wafer on paper; but all had the same value of 1/2 anna. They were used until October 1854, and then officially suppressed. These are quite scarce today, with valuations from US$700 to $10,000 for postally used examples; the unused red stamp is valued at £65,000.00 by Stanley Gibbons (basis 2006).
The first stamps valid for postage throughout India were placed on sale in October, 1854 with four values:
1/2 anna, 1 anna, 2 annas, and 4 annas. These were issued without perforations or gum. All were lithographed except for the 2 annas green, which was produced by typography from copper clichés or from electrotyped plates. Featuring a youthful profile of Queen Victoria, all four values were designed and printed in Calcutta. The 4 annas value (illustrated) was one of the world's first bicolored stamps, preceded only by the Basel Dove, a beautiful local issue.
These stamps were issued following a Commission of Inquiry which had carefully studied the postal systems of Europe and America. In the opinion of Geoffrey Clarke, the reformed system was to be maintained "for the benefit of the people of India and not for the purpose of swelling the revenue. The Commissioners voted to abolish the earlier practice of conveying official letters free of postage ("franking"). The new system was recommended by the Governor-General, Lord Dalhousie and adopted by the East India Company's Court of Directors. It introduced "low and uniform" rates for sending mail efficiently throughout the country within the jurisdiction of the East India Company. The basic rate was 1/2 anna on letters not more than 1/4 tola in weight. The stamps were needed to show the postage was prepaid, a basic principle of the new system, like the fundamental changes of the British system advocated by Rowland Hill and the Scinde reforms of Bartle Frere. These reforms transformed mail services within India.
The urgent European mails were carried overland via Egypt at the isthmus of Suez. This route, pioneered by Thomas Waghorn, linked the Red Sea with the Mediterranean, and thence by steamer via Marseilles, Brindisi or Trieste to European destinations. The Suez Canal did not open until 17 November 1869. The time in transit for letters using the Overland Mail route was dramatically reduced. Waghorn's route reduced the journey from 16,000 miles via the Cape of Good Hope to 6,000 miles; and reduced the time in transit from three months to between 35 and 45 days.
The East India Company already had attempted a 1/2 anna vermilion stamp in April, 1854, known as the "9 1/2 arches essay". This could not be produced in quantity because it required an expensive vermilion pigment not readily available from England, and the substituted Indian pigment destroyed the printing stones.
A new set of stamps, with Queen Victoria in an oval vignette inside a rectangular frame, was inscribed "EAST INDIA POSTAGE". These stamps were recess printed by De La Rue in England (who produced all the subsequent issues of British India) and made available in 1855. These continued in use well after the British government took over the administration of India in 1858, following the 1857 Rebellion (or "Mutiny") against the East India Company's rule. From 1865 the Indian stamps were printed on paper watermarked with an elephant's head.
The volume of mail moved by the postal system increased relentlessly, doubling between 1854 and 1866, then doubling again by 1871. The Post Office Act XIV introduced reforms by May 1, 1866 to correct some of the more apparent postal system deficiencies and abuses. Postal service efficiencies also were introduced. In 1863 new lower rates were set for "steamer" mail to Europe at 6 annas 8 pies for a 1/2 ounce letter. Lower rates were introduced for inland mail, as well.
New regulations removed the special postal privileges which had been enjoyed by officials of the East India Company. Stamps for official use were prepared and carefully accounted for to combat the abuse by Company officials. In 1854 Spain had printed special stamps for official communications, but in 1866 India was the first country to adopt the simple expedient of overprinting 'Service' on postage stamps and 'Service Postage' on revenue stamps. This innovation became widely adopted by other countries in later years.
Shortages developed, so these stamps also had to be improvised. Some of the "Service Postage" overprinted rarities of this year resulted from the sudden changes in postal regulations. New designs for the 4 annas and "6 annas 8 pies" stamps were issued in 1866. Nevertheless, there was a shortage of stamps to meet the new rates. Provisional six annas stamps were improvised by cutting the tops and bottoms from a current Foreign Bill revenue stamp, and overprinting "POSTAGE".
Another four new designs appeared, one at a time, between 1874 and 1876.
A complete new set of stamps was issued in 1882 for the Empire of India that had been proclaimed five years earlier, in 1877. The designs consisted of the usual Victoria profile, in a variety of frames, inscribed "INDIA POSTAGE". The watermark also changed to a star shape. These stamps were heavily used and are still quite common today.
British India had hundreds of Princely States, some 652 in all, but most of them did not issue postage stamps. The stamp-issuing States were of two kinds: the Convention States and the Feudatory States. The postage stamps and postal histories of these States provide great challenges and many rewards to the patient philatelist. Many rarities are to be found here. Although handbooks are available, much remains to be discovered.
The Convention States are those which had postal conventions (or agreements) with the Post Office of India to provide postal services within their territories. The adhesive stamps and postal stationery of British India were overprinted for use within each Convention State. The first Convention State was Patiala, in 1884, followed by others in 1885. The stamps of the Convention States all became invalid 1 January 1950.Reference: Charles Stewart-Wilson, British Indian Adhesive Stamps (Queen's Head) Surcharged for Native States, rev. ed. with B.G. Jones (1904)
The Feudatory States maintained their own postal services within their territories and issued stamps with their own designs. Many of the stamps were imperforate and without gum, as issued. Many varieties of type, paper, inks and dies are not listed in the standard catalogs. The stamps of each Feudatory State were valid only within that State, so letters sent outside that State needed additional British India postage.;;Reference: David Heppell, Modern Indian States postage stamp forgeries: an illustrated checklist, on line.Below is a list of the Convention states and Feudatory Indian states:
|Convention states||Feudatory states (starting - ending years)|
Both Faridkot and Jind, as feudatory states, issued their own stamps before they joined the Postal Convention. Faridkot joined on January 1, 1887. Jind joined in July, 1885; its stamps from the feudatory period became invalid for postage, but they continued to be used for revenue purposes.
High values -- 2, 3 and 5 rupees -- were introduced in 1895. Other existing designs were reprinted in new colors in 1900 .
In 1902 a new series depicting King Edward VII generally reused the frames of the Victoria stamps, with some color changes, and included values up to 25 rupees. The higher values were often used for the payment of telegraph and parcel fees. Generally, such usage will lower a collector's estimation of a stamp's value; except those from remote or "used abroad" offices.
The 1911 stamps of King George V were more florid in their design. It is reported that George V, a philatelist, personally approved these designs. In 1919 a 1 1/2 anna stamp was introduced, inscribed "ONE AND HALF ANNA", but in 1921 this changed to "ONE AND A HALF ANNAS". In 1926 the watermark changed to a pattern of multiple stars.
The first pictorial stamps appeared in 1931. The set of six, showing the fortress of Purana Qila, Delhi and government edifices, was issued to mark the government's move from Calcutta to New Delhi. Another pictorial set, also showing buildings, commemorated George V's Silver Jubilee in 1935.
The stamps issued in 1937 depicted various forms of mail transports, with King George VI's effigy appearing on the higher values. A new issue in 1941, constrained by the austerity of World War II, consisted of rather plain designs using minimal amounts of ink and paper. As Indian Post Offices annually required some billions of stamps for postage, as a measure of economy the large pictorial stamps were immediately withdrawn and smaller stamps were issued. Even this did not ease the paper situation and it was thought desirable to reduce the size even more.
A victory issue in 1946 was followed in November, 1947 by a first Dominion issue, whose three stamps were the first to depict the Ashoka Pillar and the new flag of India (the third showed an airplane).
A memorial to Mahatma Gandhi was issued 15 August, 1948 on the first anniversary of Independence. Exactly one year later a definitive series appeared, depicting India's broad cultural heritage, mostly Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh and Jain temples, sculptures, monuments and fortresses. A subsequent issue commemorated the inauguration of the Republic of India on January 26, 1950.
Definitives included a technology and development theme in 1955, a series all showing the map of India in 1957, denominated in naye paisa (decimal currency), and a series with a broad variety of images in 1965.
Gandhi, Nehru and other historic personalities continued on the postal issues coming from the country since Independence, with almost half a century seeing the Gandhi definitives of denominations most frequently used in the era concerned, becoming synonymous with a postage stamp to the Indian people of that respective time period. More non-conventional themes are now finding their place on Indian postage stamps, including some prominent joint issues, renewable energy sources, the local flora and fauna and even the special annual issues wishing season's greetings. Nevertheless, philatelists are still yearning for even a single stamp bearing computer-generated patterns and stamps of different shapes from India.