When the British first came to India to expand the reach of their empire, they were faced with many challenges. They had to deal with spicy new cuisine, ravenous mosquitoes, a new language, but most of all, they were just hot. The climate in India can be unbearable at times and the brits of the 17th century just weren’t having it.
Not knowing what electricity was and the world being particularly devoid of this invention at the time, ceiling fans didn’t exist back then. So, another solution was developed to keep the British colonists cool, something called a Punkah. These were rectangular ceiling fans that were swung back and forth on the ceiling of rooms to keep a cooling draft in the house at all times.
These fans were generally rectangular, made from wood or canes and were suspended from the ceiling by a rope strung through pulleys.
Now you may be wondering how these fans were powered… by humans of course! On the other end of the pulleys would sit a servant or slave called a punkah-wallah. This person would sit pulling back and forth on the string allowing a gentle breeze for the wealthy inside.
Notably, since every ceiling fan at the time required a physical person to power it, this was a luxury relegated to the rich. One British colonist at the time was quoted as saying, “you have a punkah over your bed, another over your bath-tub, another at your dressing-bureau, another over your dining table, and another above your desk. Your body servant calls out to your punkah-wallah and has him shift from one cord to another as you move about your room, or go from one room to another. You have the punkah in motion all day and all night somewhere, and for this purpose, you must have two men to relieve each other. When you go to bed … you are fanned to sleep.”
Many rich users of punkahs actually preferred their punkah-wallahs to be deaf so that they could discuss private matters in their house without having to worry about their secrets getting out.
For those that were delegated the task of being a punkah-wallah, the job wasn’t exactly difficult, but it didn’t pay well – if anything – and it was very tedious. In general, punka-wallahs always came from poor groups in the Indian class system, but they became indispensable in Indian culture due to the climate. Eventually, word even made it to the southern US and southern plantation owners started implementing the system in their homes.
While utilizing slave labor to cool off your house isn’t the happiest of history, it is a rather interesting bit of it. The practice continued until the development of electricity and the electric ceiling fan in the late 19th century. Thank goodness that staying cool in your house nowadays doesn’t mean what it used to…