Beating the heat

Cooling tales from the Raj by Pran Nevile

An English family at dinner under a hanging punkah. Drawing by Sir Charles D’oyly c. 1810
An English family at dinner under a hanging punkah. Drawing by Sir Charles D’oyly c. 1810

The heat of the Indian summers scared the English. Before the advent of punkhas and American ice in early the 19th century, the English dreaded the oppressive heat and miseries of the hot season.

One of the earliest comments on the Indian summer was recorded by an English surgeon in 1774. He refers to his horrible experience of a sultry day "when not a breath of air was there for many hours; man and every fowl of the air so sensibly felt it that some species fell down dead". The heat, dust and hot winds and the awful devastation they caused earned them the title of "angels of death" by many a memsahib in her letters home. It was even jokingly remarked that the deadly heat of Calcutta was more dangerous to British life than any uprising by the natives.

An amusing tool to battle the heat as recommended to the sahibs by the English editor of Calcutta Gazette in 1783 was to sleep with Indian women to keep themselves cool in the beastly summer of Calcutta. The Portuguese actually secured a firman from Emperor Shahjahan to keep Bengali women during summer to save themselves from the heat of the delta.

The early British settlers in the 18th century used to wear loose fitting and airy cotton garments at home suitable for the hot climate. Later, however, in the light of increasing political power and prestige they began wearing clothing designed for the English climate which was completely unsuitable for the Indian summer. Their attire and the habit of excessive consumption of alcohol were not conducive to alleviate the effects of the heat.

Building defence

As a protection against the hot Indian climate, the English built their bungalows within compounds of shady trees and the rooms had very thick walls and high ceilings surrounded by covered verandas. Some wealthy high-ranking sahibs in Calcutta even maintained garden houses on the banks of the river. Some British officials like Metcalfe and William Fraser, in Delhi followed the Mughal practice and built tehkhanas in their residences where they entertained their guests.

Another novel feature of the English bungalows was the terrace or housetop accessible through a winding staircase from without and often from within the house also. Many sahibs, especially bachelors, had their cots carried to the housetop during the hot season, and there, with heaven as their canopy, they slept during the night.

Some sahibs would set up special enclosures on the terrace and put their cots over there. Colesworthy even writes about a person known to him, who used to sleep on the bare terrace with nothing except a pillow and would remain lying there even when it rained. We come across an interesting case of a young Company civilian who beat the heat by lying down on a cot with a mushq for a pillow and the contents of a second mushq poured over him. There were others who slept in sheets which had been previously soaked in water. As it was unbearable to sleep indoors during the hot weather, some of them selected open spaces in their compounds.

An indigenous cooling device adopted by the sahibs was the installation of tatties made of khus-khus grass over all openings — windows and doors — of a house. Tatties were kept continually wet by a bhishtee, or a water carrier, engaged to throw water against these from outside. This was very effective in cooling when winds, hot or cool, blew. The rapid evaporation of sprinkled water and the refreshing odour of khus-khus made the inner spaces both cool and comfortable. The khus-khus tatties were highly valued in the upper provinces, which had far more hot winds than in Calcutta. The use of tatties, however, was also prevalent during the Mughal times and the invention of this device is attributed to the Mughal emperor Akbar.

Punkah perfect

The punkah bears the stamp of the Orient and the tropics. The use of hand punkha dates from olden times. There were many different kinds and sizes of the hand punkha. These were waved to and fro by servants called punkhawalas. There is also a mention of hand fans made of peacock tails and feathers in South India where servants also held umbrellas over their masters. The hanging punkha suspended from the ceiling was introduced towards the end of the 18th century. Col Yule in Hobson Jobson refers to the use of this device by the Arabs and attributes its invention to Caliph Mansur (AD 753-74). It was known as the Marwaha al Khaish (linen fan). There is no reference to swinging punkah in Mughal India or in the East India Company records until 1780.

William Hicky in 1785 records the luxury of hanging fans while sahibs were having their meals. It is a French seaman — Captain de Grandpre’ — who first describes the Calcutta punkha in 1790. "In many houses, there was a large fan, hanging from the ceiling over the eating table, of a square form and balanced on an axle fitted to the upper part of it. A servant standing at one end of it, puts it in motion by means of a cord which is fastened to it in the same manner as he would ring a bell".

According to one authority, hanging punkhas were accidentally invented by a Eurasian clerk in Calcutta when he suspended the leaf of a table which was waved by a visitor to and fro resulting in a breath of cool air, which suggested the idea of developing this device.

Besides the punkah, there was another mostly forgotten device used in some British homes for beating the heat called the ‘thermantidote’. It was a huge box containing a revolving hand-operated fan like a steamboat’s paddle with tatties- fitted windows on each side. The hot air sucked in by this gadget passing through moist tatties filled the entire house with cool air, bringing relief to the memsahib, who would write home about various modes of cooling during the ghastly Indian summer. There is a mention of this novel device in the writings of Fanny Parks in 1831. This invention is attributed to Dr George Green Spilsbury, who came to India in 1823 and was, for some years, surgeon to the Saugor Political Agency.

Before the introduction of ice, an important servant of the sahib’s household was the Abdar. He was entrusted with the job of cooling the water, wines, beer and other table delicacies, which depended more on their refreshing coolness than flavour for value and acceptance. He was the walking refrigerator of those days and went with his master to every dinner party for cooling the master’s wine, using saltpetre in a container for the bottle.

Imported ice

Icepits near Allahabad. Drawing by Fanny Parks c. 1830
Icepits near Allahabad. Drawing by Fanny Parks c. 1830

The introduction of American ice in 1833 was an event of great jubilation and feasting in Calcutta. The American ice replaced the mountain ice brought down at heavy cost and inconvenience, and the other native ice produced in ice pits during winter nights and preserved for the summer, entailing colossal wastage. Small earthen pots filled with water were placed in an open field, and in the morning the coating of ice formed in the cold temperature of the night was collected and stored in ice-pits.

It was after more than 20 years of experiment in the early 19th century that an American entrepreneur, Fredrick Tudor, succeeded in transporting ice from a cold to a hot climate.

The ice blocks cut from the frozen ponds rented near Boston were stored in an icehouse before loading them on board the vessel, which had an in-built icehouse. The first shipment of American ice arrived in Calcutta by S.S. Tussany in September, 1833, after a four-month voyage around the Cape. Wrapped in felt and pine saw dust, two-thirds of the ice cargo in solid form was received with great excitement in Calcutta. So much so that the Governor-General Lord Bentinck presented an inscribed silver-gilt cup to the ship’s captain William C. Rogers for having successfully landed the first shipment of American ice in India. This encouraged the exporter Fredrick Tudor to make ice shipments to Bombay and Madras also. Icehouses were soon constructed at all three ports to store the precious ice cargo and preserve it against heat. There was a growing demand for this crystal clear ice among the local European population as well as wealthy Indians. Selling at four annas a seer, half the price of Indian ice, the American ice became popular with all who could afford it. Tudor made a fortune by carrying on this ice trade for over 30 years till the technology of making ice was introduced in India.

Super sola

Another useful device, which served as a shield against the killer sun of the tropics was the sola topi. People had used various kinds of head covers for protection against the sun’s rays. It was after 1857 that the sola topi attained its supremacy and eliminated all other kinds of sun hats. It became even a symbol of the Imperial might as no sahib ever appeared in public without a hat. They wore them even during the rain and some sahibs got them enamelled to make them waterproof.

The heat, no doubt, haunted the English and even determined their life-style in India. After consolidating their hold on major parts of India, they created their "little Englands" at the hill stations with English-style cottages. These relics of the Raj with their cool climate, lush greenery and glorious views of snow-covered peaks offered a pleasant escape from the grilling heat of the plains. Simla, the pride of the`A0Raj, became the summer capital of India from 1830 followed by Ooty for Madras, Nainital for Lucknow, Mahableshwar for Bombay and Darjeeling for Calcutta.

With their holiday atmosphere enriched by picnics and parties in the cool and picturesque surroundings, the hill stations provided an escape from the heat, a refuge for the invalid and the bored and a fun place for the pleasure seekers, both sahibs and memsahibs. Emily Eden, sister of Governor-General Auckland, described Simla as "the nearest place to dear home that one could hope for in this dreadful country". From 1864, Simla became the seat of the government from April till October, and the ruling elite and their staff would move en bloc from Calcutta to run the administration from there. With Kipling’s writings, Simla acquired a reputation for merriment, gaiety, high living and not so harmless flirting. Nevertheless, the hill stations became popular centres for rest and recreation in summer, especially for memsahibs, who supposedly wilted under the heat much more rapidly than their men folk.