Dak Bungalow Hopping on a Shoestring

View of the dak bungalow overlooking the smaller village houses at Narkunda, from the Elgin Collection: ‘Spring Tours 1894-98’. This is a late print of a Samuel Bourne photograph, Bourne’s original negative number (1426) has been scratched out and replaced by a later reference. Narkanda is a small village situated high in the Himalayan Mountains. The bungalow in this view provided accommodation for travellers on the old Hindustan-Tibet caravan route. Narkanda has awe-inspiring views of the snowy peaks as it is located on the ridge of the last watershed before the Himalayan range. Below Narkanda, to the north is the Sutlej Valley and beyond it is the snowy massif. The ridge on which Narkanda stands is the watershed between the Sutlej on the north and the Giri river. The sleepy town of Narkanda sits astride the watershed between the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal.

For those who do not know what a (Dak Bungalow’) is, it was simply a ‘Traveller’s Rest House in the Indian subcontinent. They were established, originally on a Dak Route, during the days of the British Raj. Dak is the Hindi word for mail. It refers to these bungalows, built to give the mail carriers, or passing British Army officers and officials, some respite along a Dak (mail) route.  The bungalows could also be used by passing travellers, who’d have to pay for their keep for the night. Accommodation would often include a meal.

These Daks were the Inns or Coach Houses of their time and the life-line of the Grand Trunk Roads, mountain routes and also canal systems. They met the basic needs of travellers and wayfarers. This Dak Chicken Bungalow curry is a recipe from that era, and would certainly have been eaten by an officer of the British Raj over 150 years ago. Dak houses contain as much history, of quarrels, suicides, divorces, murders, as anywhere in India.

If you are fond of Raj stories you will recall how the families of Burra Sahebs, along with a full contingent of servants, stayed in these Rest houses during their visit to some remote hill station. Civil servants and Army officers used to frequent these places. Usually built by Garrison engineers, these offered only a little comfort, but they offered more comfort than a tent in the open.

The glorious tradition lives till today. You can’t help staying in /passing by one such PWD Guest House if you are trekking in Uttaranchal or Himachal.

The Bungalows were sprawled over a huge piece of land often with spectacular views of nature. The Daks was run by a Khansamah or caretaker cum cook who’d tend some vegetables, keep chickens and perhaps a goat or two.

Ruddy baba, i.e. the famous (and infamous) Rudyard Kipling, informs his reader that a good Dak Bungalow worth its name should have at least few resident ghosts and a Chaukidar to tell about them. He writes in his delightful “My own true Ghost Story”

“Some of the dak-bungalows on the Grand Trunk Road have handy little cemeteries in their compound–witnesses to the “changes and chances of this mortal life” in the days when men drove from Calcutta to the Northwest. These bungalows are objectionable places to put up in. They are generally very old, always dirty, while the khansamah is as ancient as the bungalow. He either chatters senilely, or falls into the long trances of age. In both moods he is useless. If you get angry with him, he refers to some Sahib dead and buried these thirty years, and says that when he was in that Sahib’s service not a khansamah in the Province could touch him. Then he jabbers and mows and trembles and fidgets among the dishes, and you repent of your irritation.

In these dak-bungalows, ghosts are most likely to be found, and when found, they should be made a note of. Not long ago it was my business to live in dak-bungalows. I never inhabited the same house for three nights running, and grew to be learned in the breed. I lived in Government-built ones with red brick walls and rail ceilings, an inventory of the furniture posted in every room, and an excited snake at the threshold to give welcome. I lived in “converted” ones–old houses officiating as dak-bungalows—where nothing was in its proper place and there wasn’t even a fowl for dinner. I lived in second-hand palaces where the wind blew through open-work marble tracery just as uncomfortably as through a broken pane.

I lived in dak-bungalows where the last entry in the visitors’ book was fifteen months old, and where they slashed off the curry-kid’s head with a sword. It was my good luck to meet all sorts of men, from sober travelling missionaries and deserters flying from British Regiments ​to drunken loafers who threw whisky bottles at all who passed; and my still greater good fortune just to escape a maternity case. Seeing that a fair proportion of the tragedy of our lives out here acted itself in dak-bungalows, I wondered that I had met no ghosts. A ghost that would voluntarily hang about a dak-bungalow would be mad of course; but so many men have died mad in dak-bungalows that there must be a fair percentage of lunatic ghosts.”

Inspite of having read Kipling true ghost story, I am going to treat my creative spirit and embark on a virtual journey along a Dak Route! We are going to do a bit of Dak Bungalow hopping and spend some time letting the imagination run wild.  I will send some postcards!

Dak Bungalow Resources: Including recipes to get in the mood!

One of such tradition of food was the Dak bungalow cuisines.The culinary skill of the chowkidar or caretaker were sparse and so were his kitchen tools. Markets being far away and a dearth of exotic ingredients left the caretaker with limited options. Homegrown poultry and goat cooked with simple ingredients was served to the Babus. This easy to make style of cooking later came to be known as Dak Bungalow food.

Chicken Dak Bungalow

Forgotten Dak Bungalows

How the Dak Bungalow Fed the Peripatetic Raj

Dak Bungalow Trail

Old Tea Garden Bungalow

Far From the Madding Crowd

Heritage Bungalows

Ajmer Bungalow

Old Photos Bombay

Cantonments and Bungalows