One of the greatest challenges our rural folk face is a lack of access to information about markets - not just distant markets but neighbouring markets as well. Few of them read and our research has shown that they don’t tend to travel beyond a few kms for commerce (see my earlier post Do not disturb). When they do travel longer distances it’s primarily to visit temples on pilgrimage. Consequently, many of them claim that they don’t need a phone because everyone they know and interact with lives close by. I was lamenting the difficulty of getting new product information to people who live in these circumstances and my husband very helpfully offered up that it sounds like we need to have heralds or messengers and town criers like they did in medieval Europe. That got me thinking and I started to read about these roles. I think he was on to something.
A little bit of scouting history turned up that in medieval Europe, messengers were hard-working, talented folk. They had to be excellent horsemen, able to travel up to 100 km in a day, skilled topographers able to navigate unmapped terrain and talented communicators; a tough combination. Heralds and messengers were prestigious jobs, well paid and protected by official decree. ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’ was in fact law. And it wasn’t just the Royal government that employed messengers. Wealthy families and businesses employed them as well. Interfacing with the far traveling messengers were the town-criers, who shouted out news on everything from wars, taxes and jobs to local markets and events; even lost dogs. What struck me was that in England and some other parts of Europe, Town Criers were a government position, appointed by the Mayor of each town, to keep the citizens informed of matters of both national and local importance. In fact, interfering with a Town Crier in the execution of his duty was once a serious offense. The British Empire apparently took the job of spreading news and information very seriously. It strikes me what an extraordinarily powerful system this was and I would be willing to wager that the rise of civilizations and the spread of empires were closely correlated to faster mechanisms for information flow.
I started to look back in history a little – what about the Ancient Greek and Roman empires? The Olympic marathon itself is a tribute to the system of message runners. Indeed, the first evidence of such messengers is from Ancient Greece around 500 BC, and continued into the Roman empire. As the legend goes, Pheidippides, a Greek runner, ran all day and night from Marathon to Athens (the terrain was too tough on horses) to deliver the message of victory against the Persians, dropping dead of exhaustion as soon as his message was delivered. “No finer way to die” it was declared. Running messages was a highly prestigious, respected position. No easy job but invaluable. Information was King, literally. And the Persians? Even as they clashed with the Greeks they were at their peak and had expanded their empire widely. As early as 500 BC Cyrus the Great, and then Darius, extended the road network and set up the first postal system, posting stations where new men and fresh horses would be available at any moment to carry a message further on. Information traveled at the fastest documented speeds of the time – up to 200 miles (320 km) a day.
My husband has been reading over my shoulder. You can’t leave out the Pony Express he says. Of course not, I say (Umm, what’s that exactly?). It was a fast mail service across the United States in the 1800s, a commercial undertaking of massive proportion. 157 stations placed at intervals of about 10 miles - the maximum distance a horse could gallop, allowed the rider to change to a new horse at each station, crashing the time it took to get across the United States to ten days. Riders were apparently paid $25 per week compared to the $1 per week you got for unskilled work. Clearly they understood the value in speed of information.
I have not come across any historical evidence of official, full-time messengers in India. Besides, here in South India and many other parts, people were certainly never known for their horsemanship. And today, finding out what’s up in the next town is clearly not an organized priority. Now of course there is TV, but TV does not cover news of very local importance such as a lost cow, a job in the next village or your next village neighbors new cool idea.
That said, it is unlikely that horseback messengers and town criers did not exist in the kingdoms that were once India. Still, from what I gather it was probably not as prestigious, organized and granted as high a stature. And it might still be useful, particularly in the village context where literacy is low. Indeed it seems as though in the last fifty years, some communities here have picked up on it. Only thing, it’s not granted nearly its due importance and value.