The Panka: A Story of India’s Fan

The weather in India during the summer can be described as scorching, yet during my extended stay in New Delhi, I have scarcely witnessed any indigenous individuals employing fans to cool themselves. In truth, fans in India not only possess a lengthy historical lineage but also harbor numerous captivating anecdotes.

The Indian fan, denoted as “Panka,” derives its name from the Sanskrit term “wing” while also connoting “side.” Both in terms of form and semantics, “Panka” can be aptly translated as the “lateral fan.” Panka boasts an axe-like handle, with the fan itself fashioned in the shape of an axe, adjoined to one side of the handle. I once beheld a Panka gracing an Indian wedding, where an attendant or a dear companion, well aware of the bride’s apprehension surrounding perspiration-induced makeup mishaps, was deliberately stationed beside her on the ceremonial carriage, diligently wielding the Panka to create a refreshing breeze. Perhaps to alleviate the strain of manually gripping the handle for fanning, the attendant grasped the juncture between the handle and the fan surface, raising the fan surface towards the bride’s visage.

In point of fact, this is precisely how Panka was employed in ancient times. Historically, Pankas were objects of opulence reserved exclusively for Indian princes and nobility, who were attended to by dedicated servants skilled in the art of fanning. The early Pankas assumed an axe-shaped, trapezoidal, and rectangular structure, far grander in scale than their present-day counterparts, resembling carpets suspended from the ceiling with several lengthy ropes affixed to their lower edges. Several attendants would hold these ropes, traversing the space to and fro, rhythmically inducing a cooling current with each pull of the immense Panka. Even today, discerning observers may spot iron rings adorning the ceilings of certain regal palaces in India, remnants of bygone eras where large Pankas were suspended. The movement of such a sizable Pankara would bestow a refreshing ambiance upon the entire room.

Panka boasts a rich history spanning millennia and finds its mention in the Indian epic “Mahabharata.” The designated attendant responsible for wielding the Panka carries the evocative title of “Pankawala,” signifying “the one who manipulates the fan.” In contrast to other manual laborers, Pankawala need not possess prodigious physical prowess, thereby making this occupation particularly suitable for adolescents or the elderly. Yet, owing to their ceaseless proximity to their masters, Pankawalas remain privy to their masters’ secrets and private affairs, necessitating a heightened level of loyalty.

Understandably, in sweltering weather, individuals tend to attire themselves more sparsely, eventually finding it impractical to constantly retain the services of Pankawalas. Consequently, an ingenious method was devised whereby a hole was drilled flush with Pankawala’s position on the wall, allowing a drawstring to be threaded through, thereby enabling Pankawala to be summoned from outside the confines of the residence. For the Pankawala, this liberation from working in the immediate presence of their master granted a modicum of freedom. During the daytime, some Pankawalas would manually tug the rope to sway the Panka, while at night, reclining with their heads towards the wall, they would tether the rope ends to their feet, utilizing the pendulum-like motion of their thighs to generate the necessary oscillations, thereby conserving a significant amount of energy.

Subsequently, a labor-saving pulley mechanism was invented specifically for the purpose of manipulating the Panka, enabling a single individual to perform the duties that previously necessitated the efforts of two or three people, thus alleviating the burdensome labor. During the British colonial era in India, beset by difficulties in adapting to the local climate, British colonizers accorded Pankawala the utmost indispensability within their households. Numerous novels and letters from the British colonial period, preserved and propagated through subsequent generations, make mention of the esteemed Pankawala.

In the modern era, with the widespread availability of electric fans and electricity, Pankawalas were ultimately rendered “redundant.” However, in 1974, in homage to the fading presence of Pankawalas in history, India produced a film entitled “Pankawala’s Rebellion.” Today, while the colossal carpet-sized Pankas have vanished from sight, the diminutive Pankas retain their distinctive axe-like configuration.

Presently, Pankhas are characterized by an array of materials and styles, boasting regional nuances, effectively serving as vessels of local culture. Many rural women devote their leisure hours to crafting Pankhas imbued with local flair, subsequently marketing them as cherished mementos for tourists. Examples include palm leaf Pankas and Albizia Pankas from West Bengal, bamboo Pankas from Bihar, leather Pankas from Gujarat, andpeacock feather Pankas from New Delhi, all of which garner considerable popularity. Rajasthani Pankhas are adorned with diverse embellishments, such as vibrant decals, ornamental beads, and glass accents, often acquired and displayed as decorative wall hangings. Satin Pankhas, embroidered with threads of gold and silver, harken back to the ancient palace traditions of Uttar Pradesh, commanding exorbitant prices and finding a place of honor within the collections of affluent connoisseurs.

In 2017, India issued a commemorative stamp set comprising 16 unique designs, all paying homage to the Panka’s cultural significance across the nation. Moreover, a devoted elderly folk artist established a personal museum, showcasing the hundreds of Pankas he had amassed over his lifetime, a testament to his unwavering fascination with this cherished artifact.

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