Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Dangers and Delights of Dak Bungalows

If you are living in India , are fond of trekking or are part of Government service then the word Dak Bungalow will strike a note in your mind immediately. Well , in very simple terms these are the government guest houses usually in such small towns or remote localities where even today no hotels exist . They are a refuge to the trekkers and poor government servants on duty who by virtue of their passion or work have to visit these forsaken places. When I started writing this post I thought I’ll call it Government guest houses and National Integration as the inspiration came from the fact that food in all these guest houses tastes exactly the same. But I am abandoning the idea because I know a couple of scholars from the prestigious Presidency College who specialize on National Integration and " just about anything" kind of topics. Who knows they have already dealt on the subject with this title and my poor post will fall for copyrights.

Before I start with my comments on food in the Dak Bungalows let me brief you about their genesis. Ever since the early days of Raj the British used to travel far and wide for various reasons including administration, policing, revenue work, trade, hunting, trekking and photography. In those days it was not very safe to travel alone and usually they traveled in convoys. These rest houses were built along the major routes to provide night halts for the travelers. They were primarily for the government officials but also entertained tourists and civilians if the rooms were available .
If you are fond of Raj stories you will recall how the families of Burra Sahebs along with a full contingent of servants will stay in these Rest houses during their visit to some remote hill station . Civil servants and Army officers used to frequent these places. Usually built by Garrison engineers these were places sans any luxury but more suited as a halt than a tent in the open. And the glorious tradition lives till today. You can’t help staying in /passing by one such PWD Guest House if you are trekking in Uttaranchal or Himachal . Even the elite cousin Circuit Houses-elegantly standing tall in every big town of India, are serving the purpose of providing refuse to Government functionaries with much efficiency.
To be fair I must take views of these Sahibs of yesteryears about the comforts and conditions of these dak bungalows . After all they were the one who thought for this chain of rest houses which survived the test of time. So here is what Alan Shaw writes in his book “Marching on to Laffan's Plain':

“We stopped at a dak bungalow (a post house) on the first night. This was very much part of travel in rural India. It was a Government maintained bungalow usually miles from anywhere, in the sole care of a keeper and his family with a chowkidar to keep guard during the night. The dak bungalow keeper could produce simple meals like poached eggs (“sunny side up’ or “turned over” sahib? was always his prompt question) and sometimes a scrawny jungle fowl with curry and daal (lentils).
Trying to sleep in a dak bungalow bedroom could be an unnerving business. Overhead was a dirty grey ceiling cloth stretched under the rafters forming a nightly battleground for lizards, snakes and rats. A mosquito net was a necessity if only to protect against wild life falling from above.
To offset these horrors was the pleasure of awaking and walking out into the pearly light of the Indian hot weather dawn, an almost mystical experience, especially in a wooded place surrounded by the calls of jungle crows, mynahs, hoopoes, coucals, the hawk cuckoo or brain fever bird and doves. Flowering trees and shrubs abound in India even under the arid conditions of the hot weather and in the middle of the dreaded hot weather the day still commences with this magical hour. "

This fascinating pic is taken from a Gertrude Bell archive of photographs from her travels to India in 1901 and 1902 .The archive exists on the Internet:

My favorite account on these guest houses is by Ruddy baba i.e. the famous (and infamous) Rudyard Kipling who informs that a good Dak Bungalow worth its name should have at least few resident ghosts and a Chaukidar to tell about them. He writes in his delightful “My own true Ghost Story" :

“Some of the dak-bungalows on the Grand Trunk Road have handy little cemeteries in their compound--witnesses to the "changes and chances of this mortal life" in the days when men drove from Calcutta to the Northwest. These bungalows are objectionable places to put up in. They are generally very old, always dirty, while the khansamah is as ancient as the bungalow. He either chatters senilely, or falls into the long trances of age. In both moods he is useless. If you get angry with him, he refers to some Sahib dead and buried these thirty years, and says that when he was in that Sahib's service not a khansamah in the Province could touch him. Then he jabbers and mows and trembles and fidgets among the dishes, and you repent of your irritation.
In these dak-bungalows, ghosts are most likely to be found, and when found, they should be made a note of. Not long ago it was my business to live in dak-bungalows. I never inhabited the same house for three nights running, and grew to be learned in the breed. I lived in Government-built ones with red brick walls and rail ceilings, an inventory of the furniture posted in every room, and an excited snake at the threshold to give welcome. I lived in "converted" ones--old houses officiating as dak-bungalows—where nothing was in its proper place and there wasn't even a fowl for dinner. I lived in second-hand palaces where the wind blew through open-work marble tracery just as uncomfortably as through a broken pane.
I lived in dak-bungalows where the last entry in the visitors' book was fifteen months old, and where they slashed off the curry-kid's head with a sword. It was my good luck to meet all sorts of men, from sober traveling missionaries and deserters flying from British Regiments, to drunken loafers who threw whisky bottles at all who passed; and my still greater good fortune just to escape a maternity case. Seeing that a fair proportion of the tragedy of our lives out here acted itself in dak-bungalows, I wondered that I had met no ghosts. 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.”

So in such romantic surroundings (with a lunatic ghost or two for company) when a officer in Uniform will reach with his sawar and orderlies , the chaukidar cum cook of the Dak Bungalow will hurriedly do his shopping from the nearest village and knock up something to suit sahib’s taste . Availability of ingredients, conditions of cooking and the skill of the cook were sparse and therefore the Dak-bungalow cuisine always had a easy to make factor in it. Next time when you find Chicken Dak Bungalow in a restaurant , please remember that the recipe was invented by a native cook (and not an Anglo Indian housewife-as widely believed) in some remote hilly guest house. Then there are other delicacies like Burra Memsahib's Vegetarian Seekh", "Sir Alfred's Chicken Makhni", "Havaldar's Dal Tadka" and occasionally "Dak Bungalow Lamb", "Regiment's Dal Makhni" etc. Another recipe which is associated with the Dak bungalows is of Non vegetarian cutlet. These days one can find it occasionally in military messes . The Dak Bungalow Curry was another famous dish during Colonial times. It was prepared with either meat or chicken and served with rice and vegetables or bread to the British Officers when they stayed at the various Dak Bungalows, while on official trips around the country. The recipe for preparing this dish varied with each cook at the Dak Bungalows depending on the availability of ingredients in a particular place during the war. But strangely the taste was more or less same. I can guarantee this about the Vegetarian stuff available in the numerous circuit houses, PWD guest houses and Dak bungalows ( from Shimla to Port Blair…and from Allahabad to Kanyakumari ) even today . I wonder how in each guest house you find same yellow dal, same Aloo-gobhi sabji and even salad is cut in the same manner. Tea will be served in similar cups and will taste almost same .
Talking of similarity, even the look of these buildings…. I mean that of the original buildings are more or less same. They will be usually painted in Yellow (interestingly called PWD Yellow) and Brick colour . These places usually have a neat front garden and messy back garden . Even the rooms and “not-used-for-long” fire places smell the same everywhere. Huge bathrooms with spartan décor and the keeper who will provide all stories, resources in the town and will double as a guide for the market with just a small “bakshish” .
And I bet you’ll agree that time stops in these places if you try asking directions for these dak bungalows in small towns (I can vouch for UP towns) .Most probably you will have the same experience which Thomas Stevens had in 1886 .He narrates in his book “Around the World on a Bicycle”:

"The average native, when asked for the dak bungalow, is quite as likely to direct one to the post-office, the kutcherry, or any other government building, from a seeming inability to discriminate between them. At the entrance to Umballa one of these hopeful participants in the blessings of enlightened government informs me, with sundry obsequious salaams, that the dak bungalow is four miles farther. So thoroughly has my fifty-mile ride used up my energy that even this four miles, on a most perfect road, seems utterly impossible of accomplishment; besides which, experience has taught that following the directions given would very likely bring me to the post-office and farther away from the dak bungalow than ever…….Traveling leisurely, and resting often, for thirty miles, the afternoon brings me to the small town of Peepli, where a dak bungalow provides food and shelter of a certain kind. The sleeping-accommodation of the dak bungalow may hardly be described as luxurious; ants and other insects swarm in myriads, and lizards drag their slimy length about the timber of the walls and ceiling. The wild jungle encroaches on the village, and the dak bungalow occupies an isolated position at one end. The jungle resounds with the strange noises of animals and birds, and a friendly native, who speaks a little English, confides the joyful information that the deadly cobra everywhere abounds.”

Now tell me , was I wrong in my earlier choice of title for the post? Or may be a more appropriate title will be "Time stops at the Dak Bungalow" .


Cats said...

Hi Atoorva,
a really original topic to blog about,made for a great read.
Why 'refuse' for 'refuge'?
Another dig at us Bongs from Preidency or a freudian slip about the dak bangalow food?
Tried the 'Dak Bungalow Chicken curry' at 'Oh Calctta' yet? worth a try.

alice said...

but tell me, why are they called Dak Bungalows?? were they meant only for Postal pppl:-)
Going by your post i would rather call them Dark Bungalows:-)

Atoorva said...

RE: No they were not meant for Post people at all..actually Dak in those days should not be read as Dak i.e. post today. It had a wider meaning. Meant any communication ...Any official movement or communication... Also some of these were established at places where Dak-Sarais were existing since old may be that is one reason for the name.

mmsbk said...

Loved this, took me back to the early 1970's when I was on my great hippy pilgrimage. Dak bungalows were a great feature Iremember learning a lesson sternly told to me by the custodian of one such place, when I didn't want him to serve me tea, feeling uncomfortable with a man old enough to be mey greatgrandfather waiting on me. He sat me down and explained the concept of dharma to me. I have never forgotten him

Uday said...

Hi,enjoyed reading your comments about Dak Bungalows.Having stayed in many (more then 40 at least)such
Bungalows during my life time (Iam 58 now)I can say that the experiences are fresh in my memory even today.The food was good,locations BEST & Khansama's expertise to give food in shortest time with limited items available was an ART.I recently revisuted one such place in MP after a gap of 30 years and enjoyed the view ,the Dak Bungalow there is more then 110 years old & still standing TALL....
Wish I clould forward couple of photos to you.

Uday Naik

Welcome To said...


request a repost of this in , or permission to post.. will need your mail ID though.. to sign you up.. Pls mail me wtinet at gmail dot com

Syed said...

Hi, as I typed the word Dak Bungalow in google your blog was the first one to appear.
Dak Bungalows may be the first in providing transient housing for government employees in most out of the way places, but they are not the only ones.
PWD, forestery service, Highway department, Railways and many others have this type of housing in some of the remotest and most scenic places. They still serve an important function for the travellers wanting to taste something off the beaten track. Typically these accomodations are basic, cheap and peaceful. This is true in Pakistan and Bangladesh too, since they were part of British India.
My dream is to create a directory of such accomodations through out the Indian sub-continent and make it available on the internet. I would also include "Youth Hostels"
in such a directory. Anyone out there interested in a project such as this?

Uday said...

I can provide some detailed inputs on the Dak Bangalows of the earstwhile state of Gwalior,their daily tarifs and the services rendered by the caretakers there.

I could possibily get some pictures (I will have to dig them out though) of some of them places.

Let me see what I can come up with.

Uday Naik

Paramvir Thakur said...

Loved this piece. Have stayed in some of these bungalows while trekking in Garhwal/Kumaon regions.. They are distinctive thru -
presence of a very old guard cum caretaker cum khansamah ( all rolled into one )

the cook will always ask your choice & then disappear to buy provisions for dinner.

huge verandas to facilitate meals outside besides mother nature.


Neo said...

This was a very good piece of information providing adequate amount of information to people interested. would have been really if you could provide some links or sources so as to get more information

Tom said...

A lovely note to Alan Shaw above!

Interesting blog too!


Tim said...

Syed - did you ever start or complete your list of current Dak Bungalows? If yes, please share them with us.

Does anyone know of an existing list?

Regards, Tim, currently travelling in Uganda.

vinitg said...


great info on a topic seldom discussed.i became interested in dak bunglows / circuit houses after reading a lot of stories from the raj. is there a definitive list f existing ones ?

Aruna Vedula said...

What a wonderful read! I am an Army brat and have stayed in many Dak Bungalows. The word itself conjures up so many beautiful memories. We used to stay in them whenever my father got posted to a new Army station. One such posting was to Calcutta (we were in Jammu) - we drove the distance, it took us a week to do so and all along the way we stayed at a Dak Bungalow.

Aruna Vedula said...

What a wonderful read! I am an Army brat and have stayed in many Dak Bungalows. The word itself conjures up so many beautiful memories. We used to stay in them whenever my father got posted to a new Army station. One such posting was to Calcutta (we were in Jammu) - we drove the distance, it took us a week to do so and all along the way we stayed at a Dak Bungalow.

William said...

An excellent blog. I stayed in a dak bungalow in Banshkhali, Bangladesh, just two nights ago and was looking for an online article to explain this to friends unfamiliar with South Asia. Very well written.

Rita Narayanan said...

In case anybody is interested:

Dak Bungalows and Circuit Houses by Rajika Bhandari

publisher Roli Books

expected release date: Sept-Oct 2012

Rita Narayanan said...


tried looking for an e-mail address to let you know how lovely your blog is.

i cam upon it much like one of those weary travellers while i was trying to get an update on Rajika Bhandari's book.

now i find that many of your lovely writings (about maids in india etc) are captivating.

shall read whenever time permits, thanks for the education and information and good luck :)

Rajika Bhandari said...

Really enjoyed this blog. Some of you expressed interest in my book, which is dedicated to India's dak bungalows and circuit houses. The title is "The Raj on the Move: Story of the Dak Bungalow" and it should be available at bookstores in India very soon. It is being published by Roli Books. Do check it out!

Rajika Bhandari

RAMA said...

Yea, I had an oppurtunity to stay in one of these Dak bangalows, when I was detailed to receive Mr Morarji Deasi at Amarkantak, in MP.
With only one lantern put at a particular place (Hung) , the whole Dak Bangalow glittered with light visible enough, to sip our whisky which was generously offered by the DC.
Food made to order with good tasty snacks, both veg & non-veg.
It was a memorable stay at Amarkantak Dak Bnagalow.Amarkantak is famous for that is where river'Narmada" starts trickling.

Anil kaul said...

Even today 2013. The mail received/sent from anyone into any Army unit/HQ is put in a folder by the Head Clerk.... And guess what it is called the "DAK FOLDER" incoming or outgoing!!!!!!!!

siraj said...