Monday, January 21, 2008

Nostalgia: Punkah, the manually operated ceiling fan

Imagine hot summer nights and days before there was electricity? Hand held fans were fine when one was awake and doing nothing. Or one could have a servant doing the fanning. But it would generate only limited air movement barely sufficient for the face and the torso.

The alternative was a punkah. Merriam Webster Online Dictionary defines it as “a fan used especially in India that consists of a canvas-covered frame suspended from the ceiling and that is operated by a cord”.

Operating the fan was done by servants known as punka wallahs taking turns. The cord would be passed through a pulley on a door or wall. Drawing on the line moved the fan to and fro, creating air circulation.

Originally the punkahs were made of bamboo or light wood frames and Palmyra leaves. They were portable in case the sahib or the lord wanted to, say, sit under a tree. Then wooden frames suspended on the ceiling indoors with canvas or thick cloth to sweep the air, were introduced.

Not only the palaces and the bungalows but also churches in India had punkahs, rows of them. The New York Times dated January 6, 1884 carried an interesting report on the subject. You can read it at:

How many generations of punkah wallahs have passed on after spending their lives tugging the ropes of the punkahs? What thoughts went through their minds while sitting outside an office chamber during the day, or bedroom at nights, silently carrying on the monotonous chore hour after hour?

Most of them were men of honor. Many secrets, heard, seen, while keeping their masters comfortable, went along with them as they vanished into history.

[The photographs (copyright reserved) are from the ancestral home of the Thekkanattu Parayil Tharakans at Olavipe, Kerala. Click on them for enlarged view.]


Also see:

Nostalgia: A clock of time

Olakkuda – Palmyra leaf umbrella

Lions that guard Thekkanattu Parayil


Krishna Vattam said...

I went down the memory lane as I was going through your excellent piece.It was in Bellary , which was part of the Madras Composite State, where I had seen these fans being used in Collector's chamaber and also in the Court hall of the Dist and Sessions Judge.The temperature in Bellary ranges from 42 to 44 degrees celsius during summer and while localites, who were being called as natives usually used hand fan, in offices like the Collector who used to be Britishers, punkas were part of officialdom.I distinctly remember a well built Muslim with a turban was on the staff roll as the punka puller.He used to sit outside the chamber facing the Collector with a long drawn rope which he used to pull dexterously.It was a gentle pull and any rash would not only have disturbed the normal functioning of their sahbes, but would also have perhaps earned their wrath.He never used to feel tired even after this labour and the sitting of the Collector used to last three to three to and a half hour.
Besides this punkas the lesser mortals in other offices were getting contingency summer allowance to buy "khus khus" thatti" a screen made of long grown weed which emanate pleasing aroma.These screens used to be drenched in tubs of water and were hung to the windows.They used to get dried up soon and the peons used to perch water on them.I understand this screen is still available in some towns in Andhra Pradesh.
I must thank you for taking me back to some fifty years.The world has changed so much during this last half a century.Unfortunately such practices prevalent in not too distant past is not documented by those who had experienced and practised them. Such rich source materials are being lost.They are all our intangible heritage.I must congratulate you for your efforts to preserve this heritage.As a Journalist myself I was keen to read the New York Times article , but I could not access.Further there was a caution about virus.Is there a way out to see what this paper had to say.
One more word of appreciation.I find you are a very prolific writer and Sun may fail to rise in the East daily but Mr Tarakan's article is there.May your tribe increase.
Krishna Vattam

Abraham Tharakan said...

krishna vattam, thank you for your informative comment and the nice things you have said about my blog.

You are absolutely right about people writing down their experiences. Particularly the elders should do this.

In fact that was one of the reasons why I got into blogging. My two daughters kept pestering me about writing down my memories for the posterity. Then I felt that some of them would be of interest to others as well.

I hope you have been able to view the NYT report.