Saturday, April 18, 2009

Sikkim’s Rocket mail Experiment towards 75th anniversary

With an article on Sikkim’s Rocket mail Experiment 1935 I joined Weekend Review, noted weekly newspaper published from Gangtok and made debut at the print media. So the story of Sikkim’s Rocket mail is infact very close to me. When I first received a feedback for the article on Sikkim Rocketmail in 2003 the small note read ‘lost in 1935 discovered in 2003’, truly to the words the Sikkim Rocketmail Experiment in 1935 had been long lost and nowhere to be found in Sikkim itself. Today the western world acknowledges the great achievement of the effort of a single man Stephen Hector Taylor-Smith, promptly called the pioneer of Indian Rocketmail. More than seven decades of the historical experiments that set forward the early days of the world airmail invention today is long forgotten in this part of the world. Forgotten is World’s first parcel dispatch over the river that was conducted at Rani Khola, near Ranipool and one of the great accomplishment in Sikkim soil when for the first time a parcel was carried by means of a rocket. This successful rocket firing was done from Surumsa to Ray.

Rocket being launched

It was a red letter day on April 7, 1935 at Gangtok, the then capital of the small Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim when the first Sikkim Rocket mail experiment, a unique experiment in mail delivery was flown. In fact Sikkim was one of the first countries in the world during the reign of the Chogyal to perform this ambitious achievement. The parcels along with letters and other items were sent from the rockets to the confined destinations.

Sikkim Rocket mail experiments were the first official firings in Asia. Stephen Hector Smith a pioneer in Indian Rocket mail history chooses Sikkim for his experiment because of its geographical features and mountains. With the sanction of the Sikkim Durbar Stephen Smith visited Sikkim early in April and conducted a series of experiments. The Durbar also sanctioned the use of four special rockets stamps for use on the mail and parcel experiments, 2000 of each kind being printed by Experimenter.

Chogyal Tashi Namgyal with the Rocket

At that time, the experiment of sending mail through rockets was being conducted in only two places in the Indian subcontinent. One was in Calcutta and some of the district towns of West Bengal, and the other was in the Kingdom of Sikkim. All of the rockets were supplied free to Smith by the Oriental Fireworks Company of Calcutta who was also responsible for their design. The rockets were apparently fairly crude, resembling larger versions of fireworks. They were approximately 6 feet in length with the body (which carried the mail) 2 feet long. They were launched by lighting a touch paper from a sloping stand aimed in the general direction of the intended target. Oriental Fireworks Company based in Calcutta provided all the rockets to Smith. “The rockets were launched by lighting a touch paper from a sloping stand aimed in the general direction of the intended target”, a document relating to the experiment says.

Sikkim is also the first country in the world to successfully dispatch by means of a rocket, a parcel containing small quantities of such useful articles as medicine, tobacco, tea, sugar, etc. Those people who helped Sikkim Rocket experiment succeed included Chogyal Tashi Namgyal, CE Dudley, General Secretary to the Chogyal, Tashi Dadul Densarpa, Private Secretary, Rai Sahib Fakir Chand Jali, the state engineer and F Williamson, British Political Officer. For a curiosity I would like to tell that a mask statue of Williamson’s face could be seen in the wall of STNM Hospital on the way to male ward above the blood donation room.

Prior to the first experiment at Gangtok four tests was done where of the four, two was ragged and busted. The first official rocket mail was done from the Gangtok Post Office compound to the Durbar High School where 200 items was carried. It was between 10.30 am and 10.35 am. The envelopes were franked with the special two rupees Rocket mail stamp in blue and yellow. The letters were then posted and have the postmark “Gangtok 7 Th April 1939.” Two launches were made with over 50 yards that was successful.

Rocket mail covers

Second firing was done at Chogyal Tashi Namgyal Field towards Post Office in presence of the Chogyal and the His Highness signing his name in three of the six covers. The covers scripted “Tashi Namgyal Field 8/4/35.” Six covers and 410 cards were flown by the Maharajah with one pound of mail as the weight carried by the rocket. An evening of April 8 witnessed an interesting firing being fired vertical. This was the first vertical firing east of Europe. The rocket carried 388 gold cards and had raised 1000ft and the weight included 2lbs. This was the first vertical firing east of Europe. The Chogyal autographed two cards for the experimenter and granted him permission to have a block made of his signature to impress all rocket mail items dispatched by him.

Fourth firing saw 175 covers being dispatched by F Williamson from Dak Bungalow towards the Post Offices. The rocket failed to its target and struck to the rock and was smashed. World’s first parcel dispatch over the river was done on April 10 over River Rani Khola that is written as Ranikhali on the covers at 3.30 pm. CE Dudley discharged the mail rocket. The sixth firing on April 10 at 3.35 pm established a new world record when for the first time a parcel was carried by means of a rocket. The parcel included 12 items that had packet of tea, sugars, spoon, hanger chief, toothbrush, cigarettes, and others. Dudley fired the parcel rocket over the river Rani Khola from Surumsa to Ray. On the parcel reaching destination the river was crossed and Smith opened the parcel. All the articles were perfectly intact. In the missives of word “mail” was cancelled by hand and the word “Parcel’ written instead.

Firing was again done over River Rani Khola but from opposite bank i.e. from Ray to Surumsa. Tashi Dadul Densapa fired the 186-cover flight. Dudley handed over a certificate to Smith quoting that this experiment as a means of transport during floods or landslips. Another experiment was held on the same day at opposite White Memorial Hall, Gangtok. The test was to observe the strength of the rocket against the gale. Smith fired eight firing over Singtam River in Singtam on April 13 with 118 covers flown. The distance covered by the rocket was 550 yards. The last and the ninth firing in Sikkim were made over Rungpo River at Rungpo. There were 100 covers flown.

Rocket mail covers

Today these historic Sikkim Rocket mail Experiment envelopes are very sought-after by the airmail stationery collectors as well as stamps collectors across the globe. I found it very interesting that these single Sikkim Rocket mail flight covers each cost from $100 to $500. I do have in my collection one of the labels or so-called Sikkim Rocket mail stamp including a signature of Stephen Smith, for which I had to pay Rs 1500 few years back. Truly today, we have long forgotten this rare achievement that was performed in the soil of Sikkim. But whenever anyone talks about the airmail history, the name of Sikkim Rocket mail Experiment 1935 will always be given its due respect.