Saturday, October 27, 2001

Rare relics of the Raj
Manpreet Singh

SOLID, sleek and crowned ó the blood-red letter-boxes of the British era still stand elegantly in some places in the erstwhile summer capital of the Raj, Shimla, and its surrounding hills. They have held ground for over a century and withstood the ravages of time.

When India got Independence from the British, most things associated with the British were done away with, but some of the pretty letter-boxes managed to survive. These letter-boxes have a nostalgic aura about them. Some are over 150 years old. Now they all bear the logo of the Indian Postal Services.

A peep into the history of the letter-box throws up some interesting facts. Before letter-boxes came to be used, in Britain a man riding on a bicycle would accept the mail by ringing a bell. Of course one had to pay the charges: one penny per letter.


Then the novelist Anthony Trollope, who also was a postal surveyor, came up with the novel idea of putting up boxes with a slit on the top at public places into which people could drop their letter. Consequently, letter-boxes were installed in the late 1830s. Painted in different colours to begin with, they were painted uniformly in red colour in 1876 in London.

These elegant and unique letter-boxes can still be seen in Shimla and Kasauli (photos by the writer)

Since India was under the British rule, many such letter-boxes were put up in the important places where the British resided. Although after Independence most of them were done away with, some can still be found at Shimla, Chennai and a few other places.

One such crowned letter-box still stands opposite the house of a British army officer in Kasauli, a small town near Shimla. It is due to the efforts of this officer, 90-year-old Major R.E. Hotz, who didnít return to England after Independence and settled down in Kasauli, that the beautiful letter-box survives till today and is functional. When the government was tearing down these letter-boxes, this one was spared on the request of Major Hotz.

"This letter-box has been here as long as I can remember. It was always red in colour," says Major Hotz, sitting in his wheelchair, passing his twilight years in his home at Kasauli.

Lately, the government again wanted to remove this letter-box and keep it in a museum. However, the Army authorities here rejected the proposal saying that the letter-box was the property of the Army since it is located within the Army area. The sleek letter-box continues to be functional and even receives a couple of letters every day.

However, other letter-boxes may not have been so lucky. In Shimla, one can find only a couple of such antique letter-boxes. A few are still functional and a beautiful one adorns the entrance of Shimla Museum. Senior employees of the postal department and some elderly citizens want these rare red relics of the Raj days to be preserved.

Ladli Ram, an old man residing in Shimla since birth, says "I remember these letter-boxes being here since I was a child. They look elegant. No one should remove them thoughtlessly. They are a bond with olden times."

True, compared to the modern letter-boxes made of thin sheets of metal and painted in different colours, these stand apart. Made with wrought iron in cylindrical and pillar shapes with crowns on the top, these letter-boxes stand majestically; a reminder of a bygone era in this age of electronic mails.