From carrying mail on horse carts and elephants to employing post-women to deliver letters, the Shimla General Post Office has stood the test of changing times

It was in 1883 that one of the oldest post offices in the country and the oldest in northern India — the Shimla General Post Office was opened in a building known as Conny Cottage. Located in the heart of the city on the Mall Road near Scandal Point, the three-storied building is mainly made of wood like many other heritage buildings in the hill town.

Before the establishment of road and rail link with Shimla, mail was sent through a special dak gari from Ambala to Kalka. It was then transported to Shimla by postal employees using horses, ponies and even elephants. The present head of the Philately Bureau of Shimla GPO, Prem Lal Verma, while recalling his conversations with Ram Krishan Rohal, who was a former Head Post Man and worked in the post office from 1911 and 1955, says that the arrival of the horse cart carrying mail from abroad at the Post Office would be signalled with the ringing of a bell and a red flag would be hoisted. The postmen, who lived in the quarters around the post office, would immediately gather there whatever hour of the day or night it would be.

There were instances, Mr. Verma says, when the Viceroy’s baghi (carriage) would give way to the rickshaw carrying the dak (post) as the British government gave a lot of importance to the fast delivery and dispatch of mail. In fact, postmen at that time were paid more than the teachers and many teachers left their job to become postmen.

Being the summer capital during the British rule, Shimla was the nerve centre of politics, especially during the peak of the independence movement. It is said that some of the postmen would carry or deliver confidential post of the freedom fighters without the knowledge of their British masters. An inquiry is said to have been ordered against one of the postmen on this account.

Today the post is delivered to the branch post offices through the red and white gypsies and the postmen go on foot to deliver the letters to the residential colonies and offices. About 15 years back, for the first time women were roped in to deliver the mail. The first post-woman Vijay Negi says, “It was not easy to carry the mail, some time as heavy as 10 kg and climb up and down the hills for hours together to go to different localities, but I took it as a challenge.”

Ms. Negi recalls moments when she was overwhelmed by the response she got from the people. Narrating such an incident, she says that once she was completely drenched and the lady of the house she had gone to deliver a letter to invited her inside the house; saw to it that her clothes were dried and even offered tea so that she may not catch cold .

Pushpa Devi, who now delivers letters and other postal material to shops and residences on the Mall, says she has never faced any problem and enjoys her work.

The officiating Post Master M.L. Sharma says that since people in the hills are generally hospitable, post-women get good response from the people. Still, he adds, the postal authorities make sure that they are sent to safe and secure destinations for delivering mail.

A few years back, the colour scheme of the GPO building was changed from green and white to red and white under the ‘Arrow Project’. While it may not have found favour with locals nostalgic about heritage buildings in the town, the move in a way symbolises the change from the colonial past to the modern-day India.