Even the Tigers Turn Tail: Runners of India's Overland Mail - Running Through History


I've gotten such cool recommendations from you about other runners through history to feature! It is exciting to learn about how runners from all across the globe toiled on their feet to transmit messages, mail and sometimes, intelligence and counter-intelligence.

Today's story takes us to India, where the dak (mail) runners , known as dak dauriya, or harakaara, carried loads of mail and messages across a huge, rugged empire.

I have not yet traveled to India, but everything I've read points to it being exactly the kind of place that would be challenging to traverse on foot. Take the world's highest mountains and plateaus, throw in some dense jungles, broad rushing rivers, and forbidding deserts. Then, add in a diverse array of weather as varied as the terrain, ranging from hot, dry summers to dripping monsoons; arid desert sandstorms to frigid katabatic winds; icy blizzards to unbearable heat waves. And intermittently, throw in a cyclone or two, floods, landslides, and droughts. 

And that's just the land; we haven't even mentioned its wildlife, which includes vast herds of buffalo, venomous snakes, stealthy crocodiles, and -- legendarily -- "man-eating" tigers. Then go back in time about 200 years, to a time when few developed roads traversed India, and those that did exist were frequently flooded out. Ready to run out and deliver some mail?


Like Japan's hikyaku, the dak dauriya came into being out of administrative necessity, as a way to communicate more quickly across varied, rugged terrain. As far back as the 13th century, historian Ziauddin Barani was sharing tales of daring messengers on foot or horseback... the human runners bearing the vast majority of the assignments, given how much of the terrain was impassable on a horse. Dak dauriyas' adventures were told and retold, and they became known for their extraordinary physical strength and the dangers they negotiated along the way, climbing mountain passes, traversing deserts, and braving encounters with tigers. Their commitment to carry the mail through rain and flood made them heroes.

The waterproof, breathable fabrics that make it comfortable today to run in just about any kind of weather, did not exist then, nor did today's durable, protective running shoes. As runners covered around 20 miles per day, they had little protection from the elements or from marauding people or wildlife; a spear in his hand was all a runner had to defend himself. The Dak dauriyas' work was grueling, and their lives sometimes cut short; an 1831 news piece reported that a runner carrying mail from Calcutta was grabbed by a tiger, who quickly disappeared into the long grass.


I'm aware that Rudyard Kipling, an Englishman born into colonial India, was a man of his age, with views that we today understand to be anglocentric and imperialist. That said, his tribute to the Dak dauria is so moving that I found it a good way to close today's post. Enjoy!

The Overland Mail (Foot-service to the Hills)

by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)


In the name of the Empress of India, make way,
     O Lords of the Jungle, wherever you roam.
The woods are astir at the close of the day;
     We exiles are waiting for letters from Home.
Let the robber retreat—let the tiger turn tail
In the Name of the Empress, the Overland Mail!

With a jingle of bells as the dusk gathers in,
     He turns to the footpath that heads up the hill,
The bags on his back and a cloth round his chin,
     And, tucked in his waistbelt, the Post Office bill;
“Despatched on this date, as received by the rail,
“Per runner, two bags of the Overland Mail."

Is the torrent in spate? He must ford it or swim.
     Has the rain wrecked the road? He must climb by the cliff.
Does the tempest cry halt? What are tempests to him?
     The service admits not a “but” or an “if.”
While the breath’s in his mouth, he must bear without fail,
In the Name of the Empress, the Overland Mail.

From aloe to rose-oak, from rose-oak to fir,
     From level to upland, from upland to crest,
From rice-field to rock-ridge, from rock-ridge to spur,
     Fly the soft-sandalled feet, strains the brawny brown chest.
From rail to ravine — to the peak from the vale —
Up, up through the night goes the Overland Mail.

There’s a speck on the hillside, a dot on the road —
     A jingle of bells on the footpath below —
There’s a scuffle above in the monkey’s abode —
     The world is awake and the clouds are aglow.
For the great Sun himself must attend to the hail:—
“In the Name of the Empress, the Overland Mail!”


Wishing you joyful running, from rice-field to rock-ridge and rock-ridge to spur... I'll see you on the trail!