Dak Bungalows

by Lieut.-Col. J. K. Stanford, C.B.E., M.C. This article was originally written for Volume I of the ORG, published in 1961, recalling Lt–Col. Stanford’s service in India

`Dak’ is, 1 believe, in Urdu, a word with two meanings-(a) stage
on a road, as in stage-coach, and (b) post, as a postman usually
ran or walked a stage and then was relieved by another man. In
my day Dakwala was a postman or a Government messenger who brought letters. Dak-bungalow was the word, lasting from Kipling’s to my time, for the Government bungalows put up for travellers along the main roads and principal district roads. Government officials had the first use of them and other people could only use them, and had to pay a fee, if they were not needed by officials.

The users paid for supplies, firewood, grass, chickens, eggs, paraffin,
which were supplied him and his ponies, etc., by the Khansamah, a sort of butler, or the Durwan, a caretaker.

As nearly all travellers brought their own servants, stores and
bedding, the bungalow usually provided tables, chairs, beds,
crockery, lamps, etc. A register was kept. in which the traveller
had to record the date and time of his coming and going, and any
payments made for breakages. I imagine, as the country developed,
a lot of the dak-bungalows along the Grand Trunk Road, etc., fell
into disuse, and there were many, such as one Kipling describes,
used only once or twice a year but probably full of ghosts.

In Kipling’s India they were probably one-storied thatched buildings, with a big central dining-room and verandah and two or three bedrooms, with a kitchen and servants’ go-downs adjoining. In many places where there was no court-house, cases were tried and enquiries were held in them by officials “on tour”. I have tried many murder cases in remote hill bungalows. All were maintained by the Public Works Department. The canal bungalows were similar buildings put up along the canal banks, principally for the use of travelling canal officials, but anyone could use them on the same terms as the dak-bungalows. Exactly similar “forest-bungalows” were kept up in Government forests for the use of touring officials. Some were just a roof and rooms, and the forest officer imported his own camp furniture, stores, lamps, and so on, and camped there for a night or two under cover, instead of pitching tents.

The ordinary District was rarely less than 3,000 square miles, so
that, in the rains and before the days of motor-cars, a touring official
often spent three weeks in the month out “on tour” in these
bungalows away from home and received a sum of about 7 rupees 8 annas a night for travelling allowance, out of which he paid for his pony-grass, firewood, eggs, chickens, etc., purchased on tour. At most district H.Q.s there were two such bungalows: (a) the dak-bungalow and (b) the circuit house, a rather larger and more lavish building whose first purpose was to house the Sessions Judge on tour, and which contained a large court-room on the ground floor in which Sessions (Assizes) cases were tried. The Sessions Judge lived in the upper rooms. In a very notorious case, the (Burmese) wife of an English judge used to throw gambling parties for her friends upstairs while court cases were being tried by her husband below. He once remonstrated at the noise and she came down and slippered him in front of his own court, which led to his leaving Government service!

The dak-bungalow or rest house or circuit house was thus the
equivalent all over India of the hotel for travellers, or the old coaching-inn, and they contain as much history, of quarrels, suicides, divorces, murders, causes celebres, as anywhere in India. You find them scattered all over Africa, Malay, and so on, too, the standard of
accommodation varying greatly. 1n Libya they even supplied me
with sheets and bedding, and cooked my meals.

I should say that in the old days in India the Khansamah also cooked for any traveller who did not bring his own cook. You will find a lot about them in Kipling

  • In “Thrown Away” the suicide takes place in a “Canal Engineers’ rest house” or dak-bungalow.
  • In “Garm – a Hostage” the final scene takes place in the rest-house at Solon.
  • “The Return of Imray” describes a native-owned bungalow which probably resembled most dak-bungalows in construction.
  • In ” The Head of the District” the “public audience” by the new D.C. almost certainly took place in a dak-bungalow.
  • In “By Word of Mouth” Dumoise stops at a forest dak-bungalow ‘open to all the winds and bitterly cold’.
  • “The Garden of Eden” in The Gadsbys occurs in the Mahasu dak-bungalow.
  • In Letters of Marque Chapter VI Kipling stops in a dak-bungalow at Udaipur with a French bedstead.
  • In The Naulahka much of the action takes place in the ‘double cube of red sandstone’ which is the dak-bungalow at Rhatore. Most of the details in Chapter VII of that story were as true in 1930 as they were in 1890:

    …this was only in a distant sense a hotel and there he was open to the danger of being turned out at twelve hours’ notice”.

  • In the chapter “Seven
    Years Hard”, in Something of Myself , Kipling describes how he found a rest-house on the Tibet road which provided ‘bottles of
    strong Army beer’.
  • In “My Own True Ghost Story” is Kipling’s own masterly two-page summary of the old half-deserted dak-bungalows on the Grand Trunk Road:

    …a fair proportion of the tragedy of our lives in India acted itself in dak-bungalows and
    many men had died mad in them.



©J K Stanford 1961 All rights reserved