Dak bungalows have remained an integral part of the travel experience along highways and smaller roadways in India. Built in the 1840s following a decree by Lord Auckland, the then Governor General, these rest houses, separated from one another by 12-15 miles, carried forward the long established tradition of caravan serais and dharamshalas built by Indian rulers for pilgrims. These charming shelters were rather harshly described by Rudyard Kipling’s father J Lockwood Kipling as “about as handsome as a stack of hay” and forming an “irreducible minimum of accommodation”.
Dak bungalows were a convenience for British officers detailed to set up and maintain outposts of the East India Company throughout India in the 19th century. And these were staging points for mail runners of the Imperial Mail Service, and makeshift court houses for proceedings in remote areas. According to Lt Col JK Stanford, a distinguished writer who served in the ICS in India and Burma from 1919 until 1936 between two stints in the British army, a Sessions Judge on tour trying cases on the ground floor of a dak bungalow was disturbed by his Burmese wife, who was hosting a gambling party for her friends upstairs. When he remonstrated about the noise, she came down and slippered him in front of his own court, which led to his leaving government service!
He has also recorded that, in the rains and before the advent of motor cars, officers often spent three weeks in a month on tour, living in these bungalows, with 7 rupees and 8 annas as a nightly travelling allowance that paid for the horse’s feed, firewood, eggs, chickens, and paraffin; they did not have to pay for the accommodation. Today’s government functionaries are entitled to use these facilities at minimal rates and when not occupied or booked, private citizens can pay modest sums and stay in these quaint but frugal digs.
Many of these structures that have survived the vicissitudes of time are to be found along highways, major and minor alike. Wherever possible, these were built on promontories overlooking the surrounding landscape; modest two-bedroom accommodations with terracotta-tiled roofs and planter’s chairs in deep verandahs affording an unrestricted view of the usually large compound dotted with trees, many fruit bearing and others for shade. Meanwhile, the Forest Department had built up a parallel inventory of rest houses, of nearly similar vintage and style, to facilitate tours of its officers into dense jungle tracts. In contrast, Railway rest houses were tucked into crowded complexes adjoining railway stations.
In the rural areas, unless one’s arrival was pre-notified, one could be in for a surprise upon arrival at an unfrequented dak bungalow. The cook-cum-chowkidar could have locked up the facility and trundled off for a tryst in the adjoining hamlet, or made his way to the nearby haat (market in tribal areas wherein barter system, rather than cash, prevails) to arrange for his victuals for the week. However, if he were to be available on arrival, and not inebriated, he would hasten to offer tea and then produce a meal, which could range from the barely edible to the sublime.
However, if the old-time, lonesome khansama (all in one — cook, butler and factotum) were to be around, dak bangla roast chicken and caramel custard would form the core of the fare, presented with much ceremony in chipped porcelain of another era. The older khansamas would regale visitors with delectable stories about the love lives of Sahibs in the dak bungalow’s central room, serving both as a lounge and dining room, with a non-functional grandfather clock alongside a faded daguerreotype of the Englishman credited with building the facility.
With their bleak and remote locations, dak bungalows provided the perfect setting for wild imaginings. Kipling noted: “A ghost that would voluntarily hang about a dak bungalow would be mad of course; but so many men have died mad in dak bungalows that there must be a fair percentage of lunatic ghosts.”
Ruskin Bond wrote thus: “the ghosts… who the British brought to India and left behind in our… dak bungalows, they are what you’d call revenants… from the dead reappearing physically, but not quite physically.” Lore has it that the spirits of a man and a woman did not take kindly to Britishers visiting Damoh Circuit House: objects would fly around and furniture would march across the room. Any visitors that resisted the ghosts would meet their end, like General Douglas, who shot his wife and two children for no apparent reason while staying there.
None would visit the Chirai Dongri Rest House atop a hill amidst dense forest, between Jabalpur and Mandla, during Christmas week because of the anticipated visit of the ghost of an Englishman, who had killed himself there due to loneliness. Misrodh near Bhopal is said to have acquired this name after Miss Rod, the daughter of one Major Rod, committed suicide in the local dak bungalow due to a failed romance.
Sadly, many dak bungalows, which have been witness to much history and have been the venues of romances, quarrels, murders, suicides and other tragedies, have been subjected to thoughtless makeovers. Ceramic tiles, garishly painted plywood, plastic crockery and furniture have robbed them of their charm. And avaricious members of the administration have made off with teak cupboards and furniture, cane chairs, mirrors set in embellished frames and other moveables dating back to the 19th and early 20th centuries. Fortunately, a few rest houses located away from the cities and major thoroughfares like Thalkobad, deep in the Saranda forest in Jharkhand, retain their pristine appeal, having been spared such ravages due to inaccessibility.
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