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Sikkim’s ‘Rocket Mail’ Turns 85!

Sikkim’s ‘Rocket Mail’ Turns 85!

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The profile picture of the arthor Shital Pradhan of this article

The progressive king of the erstwhile Himalayan kingdom had the vision to sanction a rare experiment of sending mail using rockets in 1935, creating world history

by Shital Pradhan

The rocket flew out from Surumsa, now spelt Saramsa, Gangtok, to Ray, then an idyllic rice growing village, below the capital of the erstwhile independent kingdom of Sikkim.

The rocket with letters filled in its belly, all set to be firedIn its belly, rocket carried letters. Though there are no confirmations, it seems the rocket also carried sundry other goods such as medicines and cigarettes.

Till then, no one had heard of such a crazy experiment!

The rocket is being fired t carry all the lettersWhen the rocket mail experiment was all the rage across the globe, Sikkim created history as the first country in Asia to get the thing perfectly right.

I remember it was in 2003, when Weekend Review was the most popular newspaper in my state, Sikkim,that I called up the editor, Mr. Sujit Chakraborty, and suggested I wanted to write an article on Sikkim’s Rocket Mail.

What is that, he had asked. I told him, and he was excited. I sent the story with some pictures. It became the Cover Story for the next edition!

That is how I started off as a journalist.So the story of Sikkim’s Rocket Mail is very close to my heart.

The first successful Rocket Mail was launched on April7, 1935.

Sending mail by rockets was then a global experiment, and the kingdom ruled by the Chogyal, or Dharma Raja, achieved what perhaps no other country had.

Stephen Hector Taylor-Smith holding the rocket used for Rocket MailAnd though people in the Himalayan state have forgotten all that by now, today the western world acknowledges the great achievement of the efforts of a single man, Stephen Hector Taylor-Smith.

He immediately picked up the moniker of ‘Pioneer of Indian Rocket Mail’.

Smith was an Indian aerospace engineer, at Strawberry Hill, in Shillong, Assam (the state of Meghalaya was created much later).

As a boy, along with other schoolmates, Smith attempted to transport live garden lizards in rockets over the swimming pool of St. Patrick’s School,  Asansol.

It was Smith who first engineered the dispatch of mail over a river that was conducted at River Rani Khola, near Ranipool, his first experiment of sending mail rocket from ship to shore in Bay of Bengal had bombed!

Smith had chosen Sikkim for his experiment because of its geographical peculiarities, especially the barrier of mountains and numerous rivers.

With the sanction of the Sikkim Durbar, Smith visited the kingdomearly in 1935.

The Durbar not only sanctioned the use of four special rocket stamps for use on the mail and parcel experiments, in fact some 2,000 of each kind was printed.

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 district towns of West Bengal, and the other was in the Kingdom of Sikkim.

All the rockets were supplied free to Smith by the Oriental Fireworks Company of Calcutta,which was also responsible for their design.

The rockets were fairly crude, resembling larger versions of fireworks. They were approximately six feet in length, with the body (which contained the mail) two feet long.

“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.

The persons who helped the experiment included Chogyal Tashi Namgyal; CE Dudley, General Secretary to the Chogyal; Tashi Dadul Densarpa, Private Secretary to the king; Rai Sahib Fakir Chand Jali, the state engineer, and F Williamson, the British Political Officer to Sikkim.

Prior to the first experiment at Gangtok, four tests were done, of which two failed.

Content of the RocketThe first official Rocket Mail was fired from the Gangtok Post Office compound to the Durbar High School,in which 200 items were carried. It was between 10.30 am and 10.35 am on April 7.

The envelopes were franked with the special two-rupee Rocket Mail stamps in blue and yellow.

The letters have the postmark: “Gangtok, 7 Th April, 1935.” Two launches were made crossing over 50 yards, and both were successful.

The second firing was done at Chogyal Tashi Namgyal Field towards the Post Office in the presence of the Chogyal himself, and His Highness signed his name on three of the six covers.

The covers scripted: “Tashi Namgyal Field, 8/4/35.”

Six covers and 410 cards were flown out in the rocket fired by the Maharajah, with a total weight of one pound.

The evening of April 8 witnessed an interesting vertical firing.

This was the first vertical firing east of Europe.

CE Dudley discharged the sixth mail rocket at 3.35 pm on April 10, 1935. It set a new world record when for the first time, a parcel was carried by means of a rocket. The parcel included 12 items,like tea, sugar, spoons, toothbrush, cigarettes and other items

The rocket carried 388 gold cards and had risen 1,000 feet above the ground and weighed two pounds.

The fourth firing saw 175 covers being dispatched by F Williamson from Dak Bungalow, towards the Post Office.

The rocket failed to reach its target and smashed into a hill.

The world’s first parcel dispatch over a river was done on April 10, at 3.30 pm over River Rani Khola, then written as ‘Ranikhali’ on the covers.

That was the fifth rocket in the series.

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Dead body being carried like this in the Naga custom

CE Dudley discharged the sixth mail rocketat 3.35 pm on the same day. It set 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 packets of tea, sugar, spoons, toothbrush, cigarettes, and other items.

Dudley fired the parcel rocket over the river Rani Khola from Surumsa to Ray.

On the rocket reaching its destination, Smith opened the parcel.

All the articles were perfectly intact. In fact the word “mail” was cancelled by hand and the word “Parcel’ written instead.

Firing was again done over River Rani Khola but from the 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 was a solution for transport during floods or landslips.

Another experiment was held on the same day from opposite the White Memorial Hall, Gangtok.

The test was to observe the strength of the rocket against a gale. Smith fired it over Singtam River in Singtam on April 13 with 118 covers.

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.

A single Sikkim Rocket Mail flight cost between $100 and $500.

Today, these historic Sikkim Rocket Mail Experiment postal envelopes are highly sought-after by airmail stationery collectors as well as philatelists across the globe.

I do have in my collection one of the labels, or so-called Sikkim Rocket Mail Stamp, including one with the signature of Stephen Smith.

For that I had to pay Rs 1,500 a 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 history of airmail, the Sikkim Rocket Mail Experiment 1935 always finds its exalted status.


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