A Palanquin is a covered wheel-less carriage (litter) carried on two horizontal poles by men.The word “Palanquin” is from Portuguese palanquin, from Malay or Javanese pelangki, of Indo-Aryan origin; < Odia pālaṅki,(related to pālkī पालकी) based on Sanskrit पर्यङ्क paryaṅka (= bed, couch). Some other names of palanquin in Sanskrit are śivikā शिविका, vāhya वाह्य etc.
The tradition of wheel-less carriages for travelling short & long distances is very old in Indian subcontinent & its use was often restricted to royals, nobles & wealthy. The people who carried these palanquins were variously known as Kahār कहार, Gond गोंड, or Bhoi भोई in North & central Indian.
Travelling by european style Indian palanquins would usually require services of 8 bearers, a mashālcī (torch bearer), & a porter. These palanquin bearers were usually hired by the Palanquin owner for the entire journey or on semi-permanent basis, notwithstanding the distance covered. Because travelling long distances with the same set of bearers demanded longer time, & provisions, in 1778 East India company under Captain John Harvey started the first “Relay Palanquin Service ” between Calcutta Kolkata) & Benaras (Varanasi).
A set of eight bearers, two torch bearers, & a porter were kept ready on the interval of 10 miles, with a sardār (leader) entrusted to supervise them. In 1783, the contract to operate this relay service was handed over to the Post Office Department, giving it the name ḍāk डाक Palanquin service. Under this contract, the relay had to cover around 96 miles (i.e. 155 kilometers) per day.
Since travelling at this speed over long distances required navigation & excellent communication between Palanquin bearers, they had developed an argot in their languages to communicate effectively about dynamic geography of the path, where to sprint, where to slow, change of shoulders, stopping & starting etc. It became rather important given bearers at the back side had no clue of what’s coming ahead!
some of the expressions were –
Rāj dariddar rase rase राज दरिद्दर रसे रसे = path is narrow, go slow
Santo, chūṭal māyā संतो छुटल माया = path strewn with sharp stubble
Boltā hau बोलता हौ = there are people on the way.
Bhar Kadam भर कदम = take a full step (while crossing an obstacle)
Caltā hau चलता हौ = ground is slippery
Chahāṭā hau छहाटा हौ = ground is slippery / muddy
Gaūdān गऊदान = there’s cattle on the path
Bail ke kamāi hau बैल के कमाई हौ = a ploughed field ahead.
There were 6 main types of palanquins used across Indian subcontinent.
ḍolī डोली = a litter for women (especially brides)
muḥāfah मुहाफह = curtained litter for women
pālkī पालकी = a litter for men
nālkī नालकी = a kind of open litter (used by bridegrooms)
miyān मियाना = a mid sized litter with upper cover
Another one was known as tāmjān तामजान, which was an exquisite open palanquin. No wonder Hindi / Urdu for an elaborate although unnecessary arrangement is still known as tāmjhām तामझाम.
During 18-19th Century, Odia Palanquin bearers had a monopoly in Calcutta. They did not speak Bengali, and abstained from some kind of cleaning works at home of their employers. Later palanquin bearers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh started coming to take up jobs in Calcutta.Odia Palanquin bearers opposed their employment but competitive pricing and extra cleaning work done by new entrants helped them secure their position. One peculiar aspect of Odia palanquin bearers attire was their shaven head (with a tuft of hair) and a white dhoti. Similarly, Musahars (rat catchers) of Bihar and UP were challenging traditional palanquin bearing castes like Kahār and Gond in this service market. Musahars were often preferred over Kahārs because of their stronger build and willingness to do extra cleaning work.