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Punkah: The Hand Operated Ceiling Fans of Colonial India

When the British first came to India, they had to adapt themselves to a lot of unfamiliar things, such as the climate, the blood sucking mosquitos, the spicy food, the language. But the one thing they couldn’t get used to was the heat.

Summer in India begins from April and lasts until October. In the north and in the west, the summer arrives early. In this part of India, April and May are usually the hottest months after which the monsoon helps keep temperatures down. In eastern India and in the coastal regions, rains delay the onset of summer. But as rainfall becomes scarce, heat begins to build up, which is exacerbated by the humidity from the sea creating a very suffocating experience.

punkah fans of colonial india

A woman reading under a punkah at her residence in Berhampore, 1863.

Before the arrival of electricity, it was not uncommon for people to sleep outside their homes under the shade of a tree, where it was cooler, or in the verandah with a handheld fan. Those who could afford had punkahs, or ceiling fans, that were swung with the help of a long string to produce a cooling draft.

A punkah was usually rectangular in shape and was made from cane, or a flat wooden frame covered with cloth. It was suspended from the ceiling of a room and pulled by the means of a rope and pulley by servants or slaves called punkah-wallah. The rhythmic to and fro movement of the punkah generated a gentle breeze that allowed the British expats and wealthy Indians to work and sleep in comfort.

Punkahs were a luxury found only in palatial homes and government bungalows and offices. As one British resident described, “you have a punkah over your bed, another over your bath-tub, another at your dressing-bureau, another over your dining-table, and another above your desk. Your body servant calls out to your punkah-wallah and has him shift from one cord to another as you move about your room, or go from one room to another. You have the punkah in motion all day and all night somewhere, and for this purpose you must have two men to relieve each other. When you go to bed … you are fanned to sleep.”

punkah fans of colonial india

Punkahs were used all over South-east Asia. This photograph shows a Vietnamese court with a ceiling punkah, circa 1885. Photo credit: Alinari Archives

The punkah-wallah sat in the corner of the room and pulled the rope keeping the fan in motion. Because he was always within earshot, many employers preferred punkah-wallahs who were deaf so that they could discuss private and confidential matters without getting eavesdropped. Sometimes, the rope would pass through a small hole in the wall near the ceiling so that the punkah-wallah could sit on the other side of the wall outside the room, or even outside the house.

The job of a punkah-wallah was not hard, but it was definitely tedious. In The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, authors Steel and Gardiner suggest that punkah-wallahs were quite lazy:

In regard to punkah, in the writer's opinion they are comparatively of little use except to keep away mosquitoes, or when sleeping on the roof. At mealtimes they are a necessity. But they are too intermittent a palliative to be satisfactory. The presence of a punkah rope in a coolie's hand seems positively to have a soporific effect on him ...

punkah fans of colonial india

A punkah-wallah falling asleep on his job.

Punkah coolies always came from the poorest groups in society. They received a paltry sum for their services, yet they were indispensible in the tropical climate of India.

Punkahs eventually started appearing in many places beyond the Indian subcontinent. They became a notable fixture in the homes of many plantation owners in the southern states of America, where there was certainly no shortage of punkah-pullers.

The advent of electricity and the development of the electric ceiling fan in the late 19th century signaled the end of the road for those involved in the profession.

punkah fans of colonial india

Three punkah-wallahs on a verandah pulling punkha strings, circa1900. Photo credit: Royal Society for Asian Affairs, London/Bridgeman Images

punkah fans of colonial india

punkah fans of colonial india

The elaborate punkah arrangements in the Kanpur Memorial Church, circa 1880. Photo credit: www.columbia.edu

punkah fans of colonial india

"A little accident happens to the Punka," from Harper's, 1875. Photo credit: www.columbia.edu

punkah fans of colonial india

punkah fans of colonial india

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