Although methods of postal delivery varied from one country to another, it is believed that in India, Emperor Chandragupta Maurya who ruled the country between 321-297 BC, was the first to introduce a form of postal communication to dispatch confidential reports to distant posts in his empire.
However, the first recorded mention in history is to be found in the writings of historian Ziadduin Barni. He mentions that Ala-ud-din Khilji of the Delhi Sultanate, who ruled Delhi over 700 years ago, organized a regular horse and foot runner service called harakuras in 1296 AD. These runners carried a baton with bells and ran across the allotted territory with mail. Runners changed after each mile and the post was delivered in record time.
Mughal Emperor Babar developed the horse courier service and maintained a regular courier postal service.
At this time in France, a certain Monsieur de Velayer had the idea of creating a small post office and in 1653, he offered his customers small pieces of paper mentioned ‘receipt for the payment of transport’. Letters with these pieces attached were to be put into letterboxes to be later sent to their destinations.
The world’s first pre-paid postage stamps were issued on May 6, 1840 in Britain. Called the Penny Black stamp and the two Penny Blue stamp they carried the portrait of Queen Victoria, who was the British head of state then.
Initial public reaction to this idea was not very favourable. But by January 1841, 72 million Penny Blacks were printed and issued.
The method was rapidly adopted by other countries and the postage stamp came into being. India, a British colony then, was one of the first countries to adapt this system.
Earlier in 1727, the East India Company (a company that had come to trade in India but ended up ruling it instead ) established the first post office in Inidia. In 1786 the first General Post Office was set up at Chennai.
Following the Penny black, India issued a half-anna stamp in 1852 (an anna was the earlier Indian currency before the rupee system was adopted. 16 annas equalled a rupee). The world’s first circular stamp, the ‘Scinde Dawk’ (provincial), was issued on July 1, 1852. The stamp was embossed on circular red wafers with the logo of the East India Company. All India stamps for half anna and one anna were issued on October 1, 1854.
India was soon leading the world with different variations of stamps. In 1866, for instance, Indian stamps were issued with the word OFFICIAL or SARKARI or SERVICE overstamped on them.
So common are stamps that we take for granted the every tiny detail that goes into the making of this utilitarian product. But to millions of stamp collectors (the hobby is called philately) the issue of a new stamp is an eagerly anticipated event.
Among various collector’s items from India are the stamps with multilingual inscriptions or inscriptions in several languages. Between 1871-1948 stamps from the then State of Hyderabad (now Andhra Pradesh) were inscribed in four languages – English, Marathi, Telugu and Urdu.
Another collector’s item is the three country stamp. Stamps for Ethiopia portraying King Haile Selassie in his coronation robes, were lithographed (offset printed) at Nasik, in Maharashra state in India, and the value of these stamps were added by letter press printing at Khartoum in Sudan! Thus three countries left their ‘stamp’ on this stamp.
Most stamps are printed at government security presses as these stamps have monetary value. However, there have been instances in India when stamps have been printed by other printers.
Diamond Soap Works, Kishanganj printed a series of halftone stamps for the princely state of Kishanganj between 1913-16. Between 1911-28, the Jail Press at Jaipur in Rajasthan also printed stamps and for the princely state of Bundi, the ‘Times of India’ a daily newspaper, printed stamps at its press in 1947!
And finally for some postal trivia. Mahatma Gandhi is the only person in the world to be honoured with a stamp by over 43 countries of the globe. Over 80 stamps honouring him have been printed including one from the Republic of South Africa.
It was in South Africa that Gandhi had once been thrown out of a first class railway carriage for being Indian. To the racist South African regime, Indians were ‘black’ and only white people were allowed to travel in first class!
India is also the only country that has a camel post service in the state of Rajasthan, a pigeon post service in Orissa state and a dog post service at Siachen glacier high up in the Himalayas!
Today, India has the largest postal network in the world with 1,53,454 post offices, and 5,62,000 letter boxes serving 6,04,341 towns, cities and villages in the country!