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Palanquin - luxury travel of ancient and medieval times


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Author Topic: Palanquin - luxury travel of ancient and medieval times  (Read 45 times)
N. Truth Seeker
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« on: April 01, 2019, 08:12:52 am »


As-salam Alaykum everyone.  Can anyone put up some history about this old mode of travel?  My sister is doing a course on something like history of social traditions and she's been told to prepare a write-up on palanquin.  We do know that this was some sort of enclosed, reclining chair in which ancient aristocrats traveled, carried on the shoulders of servants or slaves.  Anything more?   Not  looking for a dissertation, but just some compiled points for an essay of sorts.  She has to submit in two weeks.
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« Reply #1 on: April 01, 2019, 08:52:42 am »




Walaikum As-Salaam brother.  Yes, I can help your sister with that.  I've read quite a bit about this old mode of travel .. a human powered transport.   It's called 'palanquin' in the east and 'sedan chair' in the west. 

First, concerning the origin of this word briefly:  Some sources say the word 'palanquin' is derived from the east Indian term, palki.  Maybe, but I wouldn't know that for sure.  Furthermore, The New English Dictionary mentions of a resemblance between the word 'palanquin' and the Latin term  "phalanga" which means 'bearing' or 'carrying pole.'  Again, I don't know if there's really any connection between these two words.  They also say that in Spanish the word 'palanca' means a lever or to uplift.  But whether or not it was ever linked to the palanquin is not known.

Coming to the rest of the details  ....

Most historians are of the opinion that palanquins existed in many societies around the world since ancient times, particularly in places where class distinctions were deep-rooted between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the helpless.  Thus, the culture of the palanquin is often perceived from the perspective of human inequality.   While the impoverished carriers walked and walked with this weighty, embellished and wheelless vehicle, the passenger reclined in luxury, napping or day-dreaming. 

Palanquin existed in the Far-East, South Asia and the Middle-East.    Not too sure about the rest of Europe, but it definitely existed in ancient/medieval France and Britain known as "sedan chair,"  deriving its title from the north-eastern city of France, Sedan.  Practically it served the same purpose as a palanquin, but designed a bit differently. 

Palanquin was a covered litter usually for a single passenger or maybe two.  It was much like a closed couch with side windows and a hinged front door;  one could relax and recline with a back support while traveling.  The more comfy ones had cushions and curtains.  It was viewed in ancient times as a luxury mode of travel because of the privacy it offered to the passenger and the shelter it provided from the the sun, heat and dust.   Sedan chairs were shaped a bit more upright; perhaps not as snug as the traditional palanquins.

Though all palanquins were carried on poles, they had different structural designs.   In the Far-East and South Asia, palanquins were carried on the shoulders by four or eight bearers by means of a pole projecting from the front and behind.  In the Middle East, the poles of the palanquins were usually attached to a yoke fastened to the sides of camels, and thus the palanquins were tugged along by camels.  In the middle ages, the idea of a fanciful palanquin in Middle Eastern regions was more a fantasy than a common reality.   Palanquin passengers were mostly women.  The palanquin was certainly rarer in the Middle East compared to South Asia and the Far-East.   However, modest looking palanquins were quite commonly used by Middle-Eastern women from middle-class or even poor families for traveling long distances.   

Palanquins are still sometimes used in traditional Moroccan weddings as symbolic of the culture to transport the bride accompanied by a large crowd of family and friends around it.   So, one may presume palanquins might have been commonly used in ancient  weddings and other special occasions, though there is no specific segment of Middle-Eastern history that is synonymous with palanquins other than the fictions of Arabian Nights that are rife with South Asian traditions.

While in medieval Middle-East, palanquin passengers were mostly women, in South Asia and the Far-East both men and women traveled in palanquins.   The practice continued during the era of the British colonizers in the region across Asia.   When the British rule began in India, palanquin was the favorite mode of travel for British women, prior to the railways.   Use of palanquin (also called doli in South Asia) wasn't uncommon during weddings in wealthy South Asian families.

On Britain and France ....

Reportedly, soon after the fire of London in mid 1600s when it wasn't easy to walk along the sidewalks and across the streets, the nobles often traveled for business and pleasure in sedan chairs.  But the fire of London wasn't the only reason for the use of sedan chairs. 

The following in an interesting excerpt on Britain's sedan chair (counterpart of the palanquin in the east) by Ellen Castelow in Historic UK  "Filthy streets littered with mud, refuse and excrement were not only a health hazard in 16th and 17th century Europe, but also made travel difficult and impractical. Until the introduction of the sedan chair, that is.   In 1634 Sir Saunders Duncombe introduced the sedan chair for hire in London. They quickly became popular, being cheaper than a hackney cab and often the quickest form of transport in the city, as they could pass down streets too narrow for carriages. ... Not recommended for those who suffered with motion sickness, as sedan chairs swayed and bounced, especially when conveyed at speed through the streets!  ... Sedan chairs were allowed legally to travel on the pavement.  .. Like taxi drivers nowadays, chairmen were licensed and sedan chair stations were set up from which passengers could hire a chair. Sedan chairs were available for hire around the clock, but after midnight the fare was doubled. After dark, the sedan chair would be accompanied by ‘link boys’ or torch bearers to light the way.  .... The wealthy would not use these stations but would send their footman out into the street to summon a chair by shouting, “Chair! Chair!”. The very wealthy might have their own chair, kept in the hall and often painted and decorated to reflect the decor of the house."

One can imagine how tough the job must have been for the sedan chair bearers, though there are reports that only tough guys were selected as chair bearers (also called 'chairmen') in London who wouldn't be huffing and puffing all too soon.   Sedan chairs for the rich were fanciful while the rest looked more ordinary in comparison.   For the dubious folks who wished to conceal their identity for one reason or another, sedan chair was an ideal mode of travel.   It was also a convenient mode of travel for the invalid.  And of course, if a passenger was heavy like the Tudor bitch, Henry VIII, the sedan chair bearers would have to struggle their ass out to carry the damn chair.

The following are some captioned images to further help understand the history of palanquin.


This painting by Edmund Dulac is illustration of Arabian Nights.
Please note: Use of palanquin is NOT an Islamic culture.



Palanquin in the Middle-East.



Bride in a palanquin (symbolic of tradition), modern Morocco wedding.



Palanquin in the Middle East, looks like a spacious one, more like a small balcony with windows.



Palanquin on a camel while the camel in front is apparently carrying household items - Middle East.



Ancient Persian palanquin.  As we can see, palanquins in the Middle East in middle ages weren't powered by humans, rather camels were generally utilized for this purpose.



This is probably the simplest palanquin ever seen.  Not sure if it can at all be called a palanquin, perhaps just a curtain around a seat on a camel.



This sketch gives a good idea how Middle-Eastern palanquins were placed in the center and yokes fastened to camels, one in front and the other behind.  Designed much like the ancient Persian palanquin.



Palanquin in India during British rule - a Brit can be seen lolling inside the palanquin with six people carrying it.



Image shows a wealthy nawab in India traveling in his palanquin accompanied by an entourage of servants.



Sedan chair in medieval England or France. Apparently in this kind of sedan chair, the passenger couldn't recline as comfortably as in the standard palanquins.



A sedan chair accident.  Chair breaks and falls apart while traveling.  Must have been catastrophic for the passenger.  Though not usual, such accidents were not altogether rare either.



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« Reply #2 on: April 01, 2019, 09:05:30 am »



Read it.  Great job and a huge thanks Sister Zeynab.  My sister will be utterly grateful.  I'll print the whole thing with pics and pass it on to her.  Immensely informative for me too.
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« Reply #3 on: April 01, 2019, 09:06:51 am »



Very welcome brother. 
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« Reply #4 on: April 01, 2019, 09:09:06 am »



Interesting!   and yikes!!  that sedan chair accident  Shocked   That would surely be Hell on earth for the passenger.
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« Reply #5 on: April 01, 2019, 09:10:52 am »



Yeah ..... I wonder what were the common causes for such accidents.  Did similar disasters also happen with palanquins?
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« Reply #6 on: April 01, 2019, 09:14:01 am »



These could break either because of age or defective construction or perhaps sometimes because of the weight of the passenger.

I'm pretty sure similar accidents also happened with palanquins though rarely as in the case of sedan chairs.

 

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« Reply #7 on: April 01, 2019, 09:16:13 am »


I wonder if ever the cause of accident was a nagging passenger tossed over by harassed chair bearers.
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« Reply #8 on: April 01, 2019, 09:18:19 am »



Ha ha, good question.  Well, if you saw the movie Spartacus, that's how the revolt started.  A couple of chair bearers among many others turned around and killed the ill tempered lady and then all Hell broke loose.
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« Reply #9 on: April 01, 2019, 09:19:43 am »



lol ,, yeah, I remember that bit in that movie .......
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« Reply #10 on: April 01, 2019, 09:21:55 am »



My sister said her teacher mentioned that in medieval times sedan chairs in Britain were actually cheaper than horse drawn carriages.   Even a small horse carriage was more costly as a means of transport.  In other words, human resources were cheaper than animal resources.  Typical of that society with more than a dozen aristocratic titles separating the wealthy from the commoners. 

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« Reply #11 on: April 01, 2019, 09:23:43 am »



Hummm, right .......

Btw, has your sister joined university to study this subject ?
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« Reply #12 on: April 01, 2019, 09:25:44 am »



No.  This is some private institute called 'history school' or 'history society' where they're learning and researching the social traditions and practices of early times through the middle ages.
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