Keeping India Cool

Sweltering British imperialists relied on an army of fan bearers, whose stories are as invisible as the air they circulated.

Three Indian men on a verandah pulling punkha strings, c.1900 © Royal Society for Asian Affairs, London/Bridgeman Images

The everyday lives of British planters, administrators and members of their households in British India depended upon an army of servants, most of whom remain absent from the pages of history. Among them were the punkahwallahs: the fan operators who manually worked large swinging fans suspended from ceilings to waft air around homes and offices and keep their employers cool.

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