PALKI The Rolls Royce of ancient India | WBRi Online Magazine

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Line art drawing of palanquin.

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Kolkata, Dec 30, 2011 (Washington Bangla Radio / Penning Creations) The soft hum of hun-huna, the immortal song of the road still echoes in the remotest of the Indian villages with palanquins or palkis, as they are known in India, still being used for the purpose of transportation in such parts. In fact the word “palanquin” has been borrowed from the Sanskrit word “palyanka” meaning a couch. These quaint vehicles have a really long history to relate since they have remained a witness to eons of tradition, heritage and evolution. Though the earliest mention of the palki can be traced back to the Ramayana (250 BC), the exact time of their origin is not known.

Palkis have long been associated with the rich, the royal and the powerful, especially so in India where these were the only means of travel for rajas, maharajas and the feudal lords in the absence of modern transport systems. From simple to ornate, the palkis came in many variants and the richness in their décor, it is said, reflected the power and richness of the one travelling in it. Mostly carried on the shoulders by the slaves or dasas, these palkis tell a tale of social and economic dichotomy prevalent in ancient India.

Exuding an oriental charm, the palkis were considered to be a luxury that well-marked the social strata in ancient India. Once a trademark conveyance for kings, nawabs and zamindars, the palki also became a popular mode of transport for the European traders in Bengal in the wake of colonization in India during the 17th and the 18th century. Therefore the palanquin is also seen as the symbol of social demarcation that was readily adopted by the English sahibs as a sign to portray their superiority.

The “boyees” as known in Bengal and some other parts of India, the palanquin bearers led a life that did not care for harsh weather or rough terrains. In spite of being a predominantly male job, women also worked as palanquin bearers within the palaces in the ancient Vijayanagar kingdom.

Infused with the age-old Indian culture, palkis find their place in Indian art as well. The traditional madhubani and meenakari paintings, among many other styles, offer some exquisite depiction of palkis. Also many ancient engravings and carvings bear the image of palanquins in one form or the other. Sarojini Naidu’s poem, “Palanquin Bearers” creates a beautiful and vivid recreation of the Indian pastoral scene wherein a bride is being carried in a palanquin. Art abounds in this ancient Rolls Royce and how!

Not just in India, the palkis also have had their counterparts all over the world, the Sedan Chairs in England, Lectica in Ancient Rome, Woh in Thailand, Gama in Korea and more. But wherever it is, the palanquins have always been synonymous with the high-class and social supremacy. Also worth mentioning is the once pontifical ritual for Popes to make special public appearances in a portable throne, much like a palanquin, known as sedia gestatoria.

Another remarkable symbol that the palanquins stand for is the traditional wedding ritual in India. The dolees that were used to carry a bride are still used at times to recreate the old, antiquated feel in weddings today. Even the traditional Chinese weddings are incomplete without their traditional palanquins.

Coming across as reminders of a bygone era, palkis evoke the royalty and the richness like none other, albeit, against a sepia backdrop.

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