By Tshering Tashi,
Photo: Nicholas Rhodes (courtesy-kuensel online.com)
The Bhutan Post Office was set up in 1962, but Bhutanese were sending letters and using stamps much before that.
According to English scholar Nicholas Rhodes, who has a collection of old Bhutanese stamps (see photo), “the early stamps were used in the mid 1950s and the postal use of these stamps ranges from 1955 to 1958”. The letters were sent mostly from Haa, Paro and Thimphu to Kalimpong in India, but a few covers used within Bhutan have survived.The postal stamps used then were revenue stamps. They were issued in four colours and denominations; blue, red, green and orange, indicating the denomination of 1 trangka, 2 trangkas, 4 trangkas and 8 trangkas. Later they were re-valued as 25, 50 ch, Nu 1, 5 respectively.
These stamps were first issued in 1954 as revenue generators; and, a year later, on January 1, 1955 the government proclaimed that they could be used as postage stamps, and hence used as both for postal and fiscal purposes.
The stamps were well designed and attractive and became highly coveted in the philately world. For example, the lowest denomination was blue in colour and, on the top, Druk Zhung meaning Bhutan government was written in Dzongkha. Just below it, occupying prime space, is the symbol of a juxtaposed Dorji in blue. At the bottom, the word Bhutan in English in upper case is boldly printed. The denomination is positioned in the lower corners.
These stamps fetch about USD 100, if it has been used as a postage stamp, but unused examples are much less valuable. Because of the high value of such covers, some forgeries have been produced using genuine stamps.
Until 1955, there was no system to move letters or messages. The mountainous terrain, deep gorges and the fast rivers made transmission of mails from one dzong to another extremely difficult. So, depending upon the urgency, letters or messages were sent either through casual travellers or special messengers.
After 1955, the first attempt to systematise the transmission of mail seems to have been made. The judges of the courts of the states served as the postmasters. The transmission of mails in the interior (western, central, northern and eastern regions) became their responsibility under the instructions of the chief secretary to the government, who prescribed that all daks, other than those relating to His Majesty, should bear stamps. These stamps were usually of four annas denomination and were also used on revenue and legal documents. The instructions also prescribed that each dzong should dispatch dak at intervals of five days.
Studying the movements of the letters and the seals of the stamp make this transmission line clearer. For example, the state from which the letter was sent had the responsibility of cancelling them. Almost all letters exited from Haa, where the postmaster fixed a seal with a date of transit. Couriers then carried it over the mountains to the border town of Yatung, where a Chinese stamp was sometimes applied. The Chinese handed the letters to the Indian postal system at the border, who then handled the letters, and in Kalimpong the arrival mark was stamped and delivered to the recipient. Few, if any, covers have survived that travelled further than Kalimpong.
Three years later, in 1958, the chief secretary further improved the system and increased the frequency. Under the new system, the dzongs were expected to send the daks twice a week, and to increase certainty the mailing days were fixed. The establishment of runner system appears to have been intended mainly to facilitate the carriage of official mails.
Usage of stamps?
In 1955, the government permitted the use of revenue stamps for postal purposes, but some have doubted its use, and others wonder if they were ever used for internal postage within Bhutan.
One theory is that the stamps were just a concoction of Kalimpong traders to make money from gullible western stamp collectors.
The Finnish philatelists, Iiro Kakko, questions the validity of these stamps. He said that, while most of the covers sent to Kalimpong did pass along the normal mail route, the stamps were not used to carry genuine letters. He believes that they were produced for sale into the philatelic market. Kakko interviewed Kesang Dorj,i the postmaster of Bhutan House in Kalimpong, who said that he generated some of these covers for that purpose.
The Experimental P.O.
In the late sixties, the post office of Bhutan House in Kalimpong was started as an experiment. Migma Nadik attested this, as he was estate manager in August 1956. At that time, his father was working in the prime minister’s office there. He said that Babu Agye Tshering worked as the postmaster in Haa and was responsible for sending letters from Bhutan to Kalimpong.
Nadik was one of the early letter writers. In 1966, he used to exchange letters with his wife, who worked as a teacher in Phuntsholing through the experimental P.O.
He remembers that the Bhutanese stamps were so popular that some Indians made fake ones using the revenue stamps.
With the establishment of the post office, Bhutanese stamps have become more attractive and diverse and are a delight for collectors, and revenue stamps are no longer used as postage.