Text by Anil Chitrakar

Today, we live in a world of text messaging, video conferencing, e-mails, web sites, U-tube and mobile phones. Over 60 billion e-mails are sent out each day across the earth. People expect instant replies and decisions, making the pace of life quite hectic, not to mention the fact that anyone can find you any time. Obviously things were not always like this. Hulak or the postal system in Nepal throughout history relied on people to deliver letters and goods across this country. The Kagate Hulak was for the transportation of official mail and the Thaple Hulak for transporting goods, gifts, arms and ammunitions for the state, king or army. For most of Nepali history, this service was not available to the public. While Kagat means paper, thaple is derived from thaplo meaning forehead. Obviously, Nepalis have been carrying “mail” across Nepal literally on their backs.

Nepal for centuries was under the system of state land lordship, farmers who tilled land were required to provide the state with unpaid labour. Hulak or postal service was one such category of unpaid labour that people had to provide the state. While Hulak personnel were generally land tax exempt, service had to be provided to the state all year round without exception unlike the others, which were seasonal. By the middle of the last century, there were over 5000 families whose responsibility was to move Kagate and Thaple Hulak from Kathmandu to Dhankuta in the east; and Doti in the west. Each family was required to carry the mail for a ‘day’ – defined not by time but by the distance one could cover depending on the terrain. Perhaps this explains why trekkers always seem to be confused when they ask local villagers for directions and the time it takes to get to their next stop!

As we travel to different parts of Nepal today, we come across the old Hulak Ghar (house) and the Hulaki roads. Some portions of these roads have been integrated into the system of our national highways and some into dirt motorable roads. A system of public buses and aeroplanes has to some extent replaced people to carry mail to different parts of the country. Horses and mules were and are still used on some trails. What is ironic is that in the beginning of the 21st century many in Nepal still do not have access to any form of communications including mail delivery. Imagine the challenges faced by Jung Bahadur to keep pace with events in Nepal during his visit to Europe in 1850. In 1934 when the massive earthquake struck Kathmandu valley, the prime minister was on a hunting trip in far west Nepal. Informing him was a huge challenge for Brahma SJB Rana who managed the rescue and restoration after the quake.

Many writers and poets in Nepal have been inspired to write some of their best literary works based on the fact that mail could not be sent to their loved ones who were trading in Tibet or serving in the British or Indian armies. The most famous of these masterpieces which have now become popular musicals are the Muna Madan by Laxmi Prasad Devkota and the Mi - Manau Pau (the letter not destroyed by the funeral pyre) by popular Newari writer Chittadhar Hridaya.  In both these epics, lovers come home to find that their spouses have passed away without their knowledge. Across Nepal today, families face similar situations of having to live in complete darkness about the whereabouts of their loved ones who have traveled abroad to seek a better life.

This country has stayed an independent state for so long, fought and won so many wars and continues to modernize itself based on the Hulak. One way to recognize and celebrate the contributions these known and unknown Hulakis have contributed to the country, would be to dedicate a portion of the present post office building overlooking the Sundhara and make a postal museum. Businesses may even wish to understand the hulak systems as a way to expand into new markets. In the months ahead, we still need to deliver ballot boxes, relief materials, food, and books to Nepalis and most of it will still be on the backs of people – Thaple Hulak.

1881 AD was the first year that postage stamps were introduced in Nepal. The first stamps depicted the crown with two crossed Khukuris and were worth one anna, two anna and four anna. Each anna being worth 4 paisa; and 100 paisa equal to a rupee. The first post card worth half anna was issued in 1887. Subsequently, book post and money order systems were also introduced in Nepal. It was only in 1937 that Nepali postal stamps were recognized in India, opening up Nepal to the global postal network.

Mahabir Pun, Ashoka Fellow, who has just been awarded the Magasasay Award, may have come up with an innovation that might push kagate hulak permanently into the history books. Nepal today has the unique opportunity to build on Mahabir’s innovation with wireless connectivity and send e-mails not just across Nepal, but globally. However, seeing all the expensive pens and stationary across the globe, writing letters is definitely not going out of style soon.