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Pankha


Pankha (the hanging pankha) a traditional rectangular hanging fan made of heavy cloth. It was developed in early British Bengal and used universally in all offices and many aristocratic homes until replaced by the electric ceiling fan and air-conditioner in the twentieth century. The English, after they established their rule in India, had created many facilities to cope themselves with the prickling heat and humidity of the country in the summer.

One was the hanging pankha drawn by an operator. The Mughals adopted the native method of cooling by hand pankha made of cloth and feathers. Besides hand fan, they innovated a new device called khas-ki-tatty. The doors and windows were screened with khas, a fibrous root, and kept it constantly wet so that the wind passing through it could keep the rooms cool. The Mughals also introduced another device, which remained relatively unpopular but accepted by the English. It was the long pankha hanging from the ceiling.

Hanging Pankha in traditional office, Dhaka

The hand pankha was another means of keeping cool. But it was uneconomic and inconvenient to the mercantile English because it needed at least one servant for each person. However, the maintenance of khas-ki-tatty proved to be too expensive because English home had many doors and windows to screen and the khas root was not available locally. They took, therefore, to the third device, the hanging pankha, a heavy cloth, fixed to a wooden beam and hung from the ceiling. Only one person could pull it to and fro by a rope to stir the air of the whole room. Furthermore, hanging pankha (known popularly as the tana pakha) was also space saving. It proved to be particularly advantageous for office purpose.

According to a late 18th century traveller's account, the judges of the Calcutta Supreme Court and members of the Fort William Council used to change their linen several times a day to fight humidity. It indicates that the hanging pankha was not yet introduced at least in offices. The property inventory of Richard Becher, a Bengal civilian who died in 1783, shows that he had 'one cloth pankha'. Presumably, the hanging pankha was introduced first in private homes by the civilians and merchants, and subsequently in the offices. The hanging pankha is found for the first time in the Council Room of the Fort William in 1798. In 1800, Lord Wellesley ordered the installation of hanging pankha in St. John's and other churches of Calcutta. The practice of installing hanging pankhas in home and offices increased rapidly since 1800.

By the 1850s, the pankha became a common feature for all offices. As it also became a symbol of social status, most affluent people including zamindars and professionals furnished their homes with one or more hanging pankhas. In spite of the introduction of electric fan and air-cooler in the early 20th century, the pankha was seen to have been used in offices, particularly in lower courts down to 1950s. Many old established families are still preserving this pankha, once so prestigious, as a mark of aristocracy and antiquarian interest. [Sirajul Islam]