Before colonial rule began in India, various rest houses were built along the ancient commerce routes. Serais and dharamshalas (shelters and rest houses) have existed in India for centuries and were meant for pilgrims travelling through the dusty corners of the countryside. During the Mughal rule, inns called caravanserais provided shelter to traders, merchants, and buccaneers.

The Indian postal system was established by Robert Clive in 1776 in Calcutta, which ushered in the age of dak bungalows, also known as circuit houses. These buildings were much like the coaching inns of Europe and were built especially for British officers and civilians as they travelled through the hinterlands. Eventually, the bungalows came to be used by individual travellers for resting overnight while in transit.

Since the British travelled regularly, such rest stops were a recurring feature of their highly mobile lives. Travellers could hire coaches, horses, palanquins, or even carts carrying mail and rest in the bungalows on the way where the mail coaches stopped. In contrast to the challenges of the open roads and dense jungles, these bungalows were a welcome shelter. They were built at distances of 15 and 20 miles along the principal roads, and on particularly long travels they were a sight for sore eyes for the exhausted men and women on horseback or in carriages.

Travelling memsahibs had a range of options available to them when they undertook long journeys. They usually had the opportunity to reside with their friends and relations on the way, enjoying the hospitality of their hosts’ homes and relishing the chota hazri, the meal taken at dawn, and barha hazri, which was the main breakfast meal, all of which provided a welcome change from the difficulties of the road.

If memsahibs were the wives of important dignitaries or military officers of higher ranks, they would be welcomed into the local rajas’ palaces. But very often, they sojourned up-country where there was no one to host them. In such remote places, they lodged in abandoned old buildings and palaces being operated as dak bungalows.

Memsahibs, in this way, were privileged travellers as they had access to government resources and facilities. However, the experience of living in dak bungalows could seldom count as a ‘privilege’, and even the most nomadic memsahibs dreaded staying in such guesthouses.

This is because the structures were usually dilapidated and lacked the most basic of provisions. Ordinarily, they contained no more than four suites of rooms, with each suite having three rooms, a bathroom, and sometimes, its own veranda. If they were lucky, the rooms had fireplaces because in the evenings, even in summer, it could become chilly in some areas, especially in mountainous regions or hill stations.

There was a good reason why dak bungalows, over time, acquired a poor reputation. Even if in some rare cases they were adequately furnished, they were hardly aesthetic or comfortable and were usually rather austere. The windows would often have no glass, the walls would be grimy and plastered, and the rooms would have floors of beaten earth instead of proper flooring.

Occasionally, the floors were made of mud, and covered with coarse dhurries (rugs). Very often the memsahibs found the wood- work of the doors, windows, roofs, and furniture to be rudimentary, and sometimes even doors and windows were absent, and the servants would drape curtains to give the guests privacy. If there were doors, and the rooms were shut, there could be complete darkness inside because of poor interior design. Very rarely did the rooms of any dak bungalow have glass panes to permit light inside.

The rough and crude construction would upset the memsahibs when, after a long journey, they would find that their rooms did not even have mirrors and basins. Even though jharuwallahs, who were sweepers, were usually attached to the bungalows and received small payments from travellers using their services, they did not always do a proper job, so the interiors often looked unkempt. Christina S Bremner was lucky to get a porter to clean up the dak bungalow she was staying in.

E Augusta King, wife to a civilian, who was travelling in India during the late 1870s and early 1880s, called the dak bungalow structures she lived in “thoroughly native”. She wrote about the rest house in Banihal which was so poorly constructed that cold gales of mountain wind flowed inside from all directions due to the arched windows that had only latticework on them

Luckily for her, they had kangris, which were small earthen pots filled with hot wood ashes that could be placed under petticoats or under a rug spread over the knees in order to keep warm indoors. In Kashmir, kangris were even carried because they were so portable and could last all day. The basic kangris were cheap, priced at 3 pence, and the more ornamental ones, which were preferred by the memsahibs, were between 6 pence and 9 pence.

Memsahibs usually made it a habit to travel with some basic amenities knowing that the bungalows they would come across would be spartan and filthy. Most of the bungalows did not even have proper bedding, and they would have to make their own arrangements on this matter. Memsahibs set up their rooms with the help of their servants and the khitmatgar of the bungalow just after settling in.

When Flora Annie Steel stayed in a dak bungalow in Kasur, she decorated her flat nicely because she was going to stay for a long period of time. She had packed rugs, quilts, hangings, stools, and good crockery. She allowed herself some sundry luxuries such as a soft pillow cut on English lines and a coffee grinder to make her delicious brew of mocha coffee that was locally purchased. She even had a great supply of fresh meat and bread.

Her stay in several dak bungalows was pleasant; however, occasionally she came across a bungalow that was in poor condition. In one such bungalow, the living room was dusty and the mouldy smell was unbearable. In Saharanpur, the dak bungalow she stayed in was swarming with rats and mice. The bearers told her and her husband that nearly 500 had been killed already so they were reluctant to do more.

Despite all measures, the weary travellers normally did not find comfort in the poorly constructed structures of dak bungalows. This was probably because the establishments were government properties, and the tariffs were affordable and standardised. In 1864, the tariff for a bungalow with all furnishings, crockery, bed, and other necessities was 1 rupee per day – in some cases, 1 rupee a day for each room occupied, and in others, 1 rupee a day for each member of the party.

These nominal rates were justified as everything was quite below standard. Still, the dak system in place supported and encouraged travel and did help women move independently and frequently.

Upon arrival, the lodgers would be greeted by the khansama (head chef) and the manager of the bungalow. At the reception, they would be given an oblong registration book where they had to sign before taking up lodging there. After the stay, when checking out, the lodgers had to inscribe their date of departure, pay the tariff, and provide feedback in the same oblong book. The registration books were collected by the Company for accessing the performance of the bungalows and their employees.

If a particular dak bungalow received too many complaints, it was fined for not maintaining proper standards, although this method clearly did not work well as none of the bungalows maintained ‘standards’. However, the Indian employees and servants were sometimes severely punished for not doing work properly. Since they could not read English, they could never understand if the feedback was good or not and could not manipulate it.

After making the registration, the travellers had to quickly secure their rooms, because other travellers could come in and reserve the better rooms since the system was first come, first served. This system was not completely meticulous, and travellers often had to accommodate additional occupants or relinquish their extra rooms. This was a great challenge for the lodgers and added to the inconvenience of long journeys, which already made every- one exhausted and ill-tempered.

Sometimes, the bungalows could be tiny and not large enough to accommodate more than one or two individuals. In cases of shortage of space, it was not uncommon for the previous lodgers to agree to accommodate the new arrivals by doubling up in single rooms. If the bungalows were full, then memsahibs were required to vacate the rooms should a Company officer come that way.

It was worse if the bungalow was housing sick soldiers because travellers who arrived later could not make a stopover there. And if families or lone women travellers arrived, the memsahibs would also have to vacate their rooms and share another, particularly if these ladies were ill-tempered and quarrelsome (as they often could be). This frequently resulted in arguments and scuffles in dak houses.

The tired memsahib, “flying from the hot season of the plains”, as Nora Gardner put it, usually asked to procure a bath as the first thing to do when arriving anywhere. Then they would send one of their servants off to purchase provisions as soon as they had settled in. Usually, they had their meals prepared by their own servants if they felt finicky about the hygiene of the bungalow. But it could be too costly to purchase provisions en route, and most dak bungalows, in places such as Chakrata for instance, were inconveniently located; therefore food supplies were sparse. It was usually better to get meals from the bungalows since the rates were cheap anyway.

Every bungalow had its own khansama, but the food was often not up to standard. It was a popular joke that the khansama would always appear before mealtimes to politely ask the boarder what they would like to eat. But no matter the request, the food prepared would be the same generic chicken with gravy that was rarely palatable. Sometimes even this would not be available.

Once, E Augusta King found that the dak bungalow she had come to did not even have bread and eggs, and she had to sleep without a meal (it was always the responsibility of the peon – low-ranking attendant – of the bungalow to make such an arrangement). In the morning, they managed to get one single loaf, which by then made them feel extremely grateful.

Another time, at the dak bungalow in the snow-clad Nagthat in Uttarakhand, which was built for the use of the road engineer, she found that the facilities were wholly unlike what she had been told they would be. To her utter dismay, there was not even any cooking vessel of any sort, no water, and nothing to bring any in, and the nearest village was down in the valley. They had to send their servants out to find a water pot first thing upon arriving.

The only washing apparatus they found was an old tin tub with a great crack in it, which she had to plaster with mud as a temporary fix. There were also no candles in the bungalow. Luckily, they had carried their own, but they could not be too extravagant with their supplies lest they ran out and the next bungalow turned out to be worse.

Mrs Paget had to stop in a jungle bungalow once in Palasner, in present-day Maharashtra, which was extremely cold and dirty, and she feared that the insanitary condition of the place, as well as the season of fever, could be most unhealthy.

Nora Gardner, who came to India in 1892, wrote about her trials while travelling in Rifle and Spear with the Rajpoots: Being the Narrative of a Winter’s Travel and Sport in Northern India, published in 1895:

Thursday, October 13th – l think if I had not slept on that bedstead it would have gone for a walk by itself! It is explained to me that the rain drives “things” indoors. It certainly did. There is a tiny English shop here, and I am laying in tins of Keating’s powder. The view from the bungalow is beautiful. Two rivers meet below, one quite blue, the other brown, and the mountains tower above us on every side...

The location of the bungalows, however, was not always picturesque, especially if they were located in the middle of the jungle, which memsahibs knew was inhabited by the deadliest of creatures. There was the risk of wild animals attacking them even around the premises of remote bungalows.

At Mowana, near Haryana, wolves were common around the dak bungalow where E Augusta King and her husband were staying, and they realised that they could not let their little child sleep in a cot outside because wolves snatched little children away even with others around. Cheetahs could be bold enough to come into camps and attack slight coolies or pet animals. As King noted, “a moonlight stroll loses its charm when a possible tiger is crouching in the bushes”.

While staying at the only bungalow for European travellers in ‘Campoorly’ (it is likely this refers to Khopoli, also known as Campoolie, near Bhor Ghat in Maharashtra), Anna H Leonowens found, much to her horror, that it was inhabited by a tribe of monkeys that created a great ruckus when they moved in.

She hastened to find cover inside her room and counted sixteen of them, and they ran in and out of the half-deserted building, throwing fruits from the peepal tree outside. Some were peeping in at her through doors and windows, and some were swinging from the rafters, seemingly swearing at her in a human-like fashion. She had to have the servant drive them away as monkeys could be extremely vicious in the regions she was passing through and were even known to strangle passers-by.

In fact, the bungalows, rather than providing some respite, were extremely exhausting for memsahibs. They were built a day’s march apart, and the constant packing and unpacking could be extremely wearisome. E Augusta King fell ill just the day before they had to urgently depart to Murree, and it delayed much of the preparation they had to undertake, especially because the ayah also fell ill. She wrote that despite deeply exhausting illness, “one way and another, all was done that had to be done”, and they began their journey as scheduled.

Indeed, the chain of dak bungalows that travellers had to stop at during their journeys could be nerve-wracking as they never knew what their next one would be like. Moreover, it was not unusual if their own servants turned insubordinate or stole from them on long journeys. Since they could not quarrel too much with the locals due to language barriers, they were sometimes faced with risky situations.

Furthermore, there were times when memsahibs were forced to stop in completely remote and eerie-looking bungalows if they were not inclined to continue their journey at night. This could be extremely perilous because the other lodgers would mostly be men, making it more unsafe for the memsahibs. In fact, dak bungalows could be even more sinister if they were located in spooky sleepy hollows of distant towns, deep inside the jungles, or in the middle of arid areas. Once, a memsahib realised that the bungalow she was staying at had the reputation of being haunted by the ghosts of a resident and his two children who had been slaughtered in the room directly above, during the revolt of 1857.

Memsahibs: British Women in Colonial India

Excerpted with permission from Memsahibs: British Women in Colonial India, Ipshita Nath, HarperCollins India.