Punkah. hand-operated hanging fan a colonial legacy

A Punkha,Takhat Vilas, Mehrangarh Fort Palace, Jodhpur. en.wikimedia.org

A punkah  columbia.edu/

Above image: Punkahs were pulled from outside, with a rope that ran through a small hole in the wall.A lithograph by William Taylor of the Bengal Civil Service (London, 1842)...... 

Hand operated  fan/pukah 1898: Photographic print Date:

Above image: General Manager's room 'Times of India' office. hand operated fan/punkah- November 1898.Photographer: E.O.S. and Company Medium........................

 woman reading under a punkah at her home in Berhampore, India  1863.

                                                credit: amusingplanet.com/

Punkah,Kanpur Memorial Church (albumen photo, c.1880's).columbia.edu

Hand pulled punkah in a church. Bombay.blogspot.in

Above image: At a church with hand pulled fan/punkah; also seen are kerosene lantern before electricity came to Thiruvantha Puram in 1929.....

India, being a hot tropical country, it is difficult to manage the hot temperatures and wind in the summer  season (
April to June)   on the plains. The heat condition will prevail from March till September.  In the northern states it is much worse - really hot coupled with hot air condition in some places. On the coastal areas when the  rainfall declines, intense heat will have hold on the people and it is further aggravated by moisture in the air -  humidity from the sea creating  breathing difficulties.

Before the arrival of electricity, in villages and small towns, people used to sleep on the raised platform (locally called Thinnai) in front of the house or in open spaces under the trees to have refreshing air.  Women folks would sleep inside the house. When the Europeans landed in India, getting used to the tropical hot days was a major problem  for them because of excess sweating and high sweltering conditions. Punkah is a sort  of elongated ceiling fan used in the Indian subcontinent before the advent of electric fan.  Air is generated by hand pulling punkah often using a pulley. Widely used in the colonial time, there were many punkah makers in numerous  towns as well as Punkah wallas - those who pull them for daily wages.

Vietnamese court with a ceiling punkah, 1885 Photo credit: Alinari Archives

A punkah, native to India  is  a weird elongate fan,  with a  long wooden frame covered with  cloth, some ten, twenty, thirty, or more feet long, suspended from the ceiling of a room.  Gentle air is generated below it when it is  moved to and fro  rhythmically   by means of a rope and pulleys  by a man. The man sits outside the room and the rope connecting the punkah is passed through a hole on the wall. This way the family members or officers inside the buildings  had privacy without any interruption from punkah operators. At home, punkah was fixed on the ceiling of bed rooms and dinning hall frequently used by occupants.

It was a luxury  to have punkahs fixed in the home in those days  and  only the rich and elites could afford them.  There were different varieties of punkah with elaborate designs on the cloth, some being painted and  the ropes covered with silk. Expensive materials or fabrics were also used,  depending on the taste and budget.  The  motion of the punkah  produces enough air without touching the chandeliers, suspended in the same line with the punkah.  In the colonial period the punkah was  pulled  over the charpai or bed. “during the  hot days and nights by a man called Punkahawala  for the comforts of white settlers and rich Indians. On  sultry nights, when the punkah  was on, the Memsahib and Memsahiba could sleep  or read comfortably  under the artificial and gentle breeze, while the punkahwalla was half dozing, with his hands pulling the country fan automatically. Punkahwalla used to work 24 days a month and received a paltry sum for his services. Sometimes, they also do other duties in the residence. In large halls such as spacious office, or a courthouse, a number of punkahs could be connected  and operated  together in unison  by sturdy ropes  so that they would swing uniformly. The principle behind punkah is as simple as making an apple pie. Just like the way birds produce the draft by flopping their wings in the sky while flying, punkah produces  a draft  of air by continuous  to and fro motion of the elongate hanging fabric. Since 500 BC men have known the use of punkah.
hand-held Punkah, Indiathethrifthunter.wordpress.com

In  the 8th century itself, the Arabs knew the utility of this kind of fan to beat hot days.  It is believed that in India  punkah was used on a large scale from the  early 18th century on and the colonial people made it popular.

Punkah ( a Hindustani word; in Tamil it is called Visiri)  is typically also referred to as  a hand held fan made from a single frond of Palmyra palm or a woven square of bamboo strips, rattan or other plant fiber, that can be rotated or fanned. This hand-held fan has been around in India for centuries and it was known as poor man's fan. Across  India even today,  millions of people use this small, simple device to keep themselves cool and comfortable in the hot season when outages or power shutdowns are common. Now they are available in PVC and come in different style and color. 

In those days 60 or 70 years ago, most of the residential buildings had a tall ceiling with a small Mandapam (hall) roughly 6 feet tall and 7 or 8 feet wide (size varies), a sort of raised  covered structure with windows on all sides built above the ceiling. This specific Mandapam (hall)  was for better ventilation and air circulation inside the building. Numerous government buildings had similar structure to reduce uncomfortable radiation  coming from the ceiling. Besides, there were ceiling fans to cool off people sweating below them.