Javab Covers

Those of us in the J&K philatelic fraternity who do not read Persian or Urdu are indebted to Wheeler Thackston for deciphering that vexed “javab” notation that has so animated our fancies and furrowed our brows. He gives us:

جواب نوشته شده ~ jawâb navishta shuda.

That is wind in our sails indeed, and our warm thanks to both Prof. Thackston and to Dr. George Harell, an intrepid J&Ker, for seeing this critical feature resolved at last. —CvdL

The notation as it typically appears. This detail from the first known J&K cover was kindly provided by Anthony Bard. The letter was despatched from Srinagar on 23 March 1866. The notation is always identifiable by the word javāb, seen here in the lower line, which means “response” or “letter.” Thus, here, “reponse has been written on 13 zelqa'de [1283] ~ 30 March 1866,” which is to say, after the letter’s arrival at Amritsar in India. What, pray, has been responded to on that date? Several other murky features attend this notation. Wolfgang Hellrigl stressed its likely importance to J&K philately; he has provided some scans of rare material that exhibit it, including copies of potentially telling covers ex Mix.

Some Details, Some Questions

A good majority of these covers were destined to a depot at Katra Ahluwalia, Amritsar, and most of the examples of the early period were without British postage. It was the absence of British postage that has allowed many of these covers to be misconstrued as internal covers in the past (e.g., Haverbeck Lots 1391, 1427, 1428). But the sometime presence of British postage suggests that these mailings were not a practice of the special Maharaja’s Dak either. The active period for J&K was 1866-68, though sporadic examples are seen over some four decades. The notation remained surprisingly uniform, serving much like a mechanical date stamp, and one of remarkably long employ.

This detail (#253 Sturton Sale) is from one of the two known ‘myrtle covers,’ and thus provides an important dating for the stamp: 2 rajab [1284] ~ 30 Oct 1867. The upper section of the notation (seldom present) is vital to the understanding of the practice. What is its lead-in word at the top right? Our latest (and terribly provisional) stab at the lead-in word on the upper section is مٶرخه mo'arrakha, which Platts glosses as “chronicled,” for a date does sometimes follow it to its left, as in the following:

Here the two-segment nature of the notation is explicit, with dates in the two parts differing by weeks. The early date in the upper portion reads 26 zelhejje 1282 ~ 12 May 1866, and the javab portion proper is 9 jūn in transcription from English, that is, almost a month later. Samvat dating does occur, but is rare, while western dating is unusually prevalent, which is a switch from the familiar. In spite of this sometimes considerable lapse of time between the two dates after a letter’s arrival, the two sections invariably look as if they were done with the same implement in a single hand. Detail from the Jaiswal collection.

The early date is 25 rabī’ol’avval [1284] ~ 27 July 1867 and the response date is 8 rabī’ os-sāni ~ 9 August 1867, almost two weeks later. Sometimes the two sections are merged:

The (here) uninterpreted numeral string associated with the early-date segment is so far only seen with a 1 or a 2 in the leftmost slot. The second element from the left is sometimes the letter 'ain [ع], which according to my Arabic dictionary can be an abbreviation of 'adad, used in the manner of our numeral symbol # or ‘No.’ The word adad (~ item, piece) is also used as a measure- or classifier-word in Persian, as in ‘2 items X.’ The second detail shows the more common form for the intervening element. It is often underdotted (including the example in the next scan). The symbol has on occasion been misinterpreted in stamp sales as being the ‘9’ in a date, thus severely misdating certain covers. The third example is prefixed from the bottom ‘javāb ţalab’ ~ request reply. While inspection of more than a dozen such examples reveals no obvious correlation of these numbers with dating, we see here what looks to be a year reference, sanh, true, not true? Since the the numeral on the right sometimes exceeds 24, that would eliminate clock dating.

Above: Sometimes writing replaces the numerical string on the right of the “ع”. This is the ‘other myrtle’ on cover; javabs certainly do come with pedigree. This item has been wrongly described as a local cover, probably on account of the absence of British postage, but this beauty is indeed a javab to Amritsar. The illustration is taken from the 1967 Dawson auction catalogue, Lot #342.

Above: English-language months are popular. From the left, 13 aprīl, 16 sitambar, 15 jūn.

Above: Date 14 navambar 1877, in Western dating. The cover bears the unique Kashmir ½a ultramarine watercolor, bisected. Collection Jaiswal.

Javabs do seem to attract such anomalies, including rare color-switchings (blue for the usual black in the ½a circular, and black for the usual blue in the 1a). In the lit, these color switches are sometimes said to be “errors.” On the other hand, the Kashmir single-die ½a, the plate ½a, and the circular ½a are all three seen on javab duty in black over the 1866-68 winter. Which is to say, there is no (apparent) division of labor by color or stamp type in some cases.


“But strange things may be generally accounted for if their cause
be fairly searched out.”
—Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (1818)

While the javab markings themselves were indubitably postal, one asks whether it represents an older practice that simply piggy-backed on the postal system when stamps became available in 1866. Perhaps that didn’t work so well, for the practice became markedly less frequent after 1868, at least insofar as the notation attests to it. A number of entwined features confront us:

      •  The existence of the practice prior to the use of Kashmir stamps.
      •  The high activity in the 1866-68 period (including the first attested cover).
      •  The sporadic appearance otherwise, over several decades.
      •  The double-dating after arrival by one implement, in one hand at one time.
      •  The meaning of the numerical code strings.
      •  The notable use of Western dating.
      •  The relative dearth of Samvat dating.
      •  The notable number of cases of “missing” British postage.
      •  The number of “color-switched” rarities and other oddities.
      •  The existence of the notation on non-native covers.

The javab notation apart, what (if anything) distinguishes these covers from non-javabs? When and why did the practice stop? Do check out George Harell’s article in India Post 41 117.

Appendix I: Some Examples

This section displays a growing selection of such as might add something to the story. The earliest sighting of an Amritsar javab that we can report so far is from January 1860, albeit not on a Kashmir item: An illustration of the cover is provided by Martin Hosselmann in Fig. 5 in the follow-up piece on the Bombay Receiving Houses by Cliff Gregory, India Post 39 54 (2005). One finds dar qasba Amritsar Katra Ahluwalia in the upper left corner, with the javab notation itself in the center amidst the English. The text dealing with this cover does so as if it were labelled Fig. 4.

Above, these two clips are the most explicit versions of the jawab notation itself that we have so far encountered. The example on the right is the same, but dated in addition 12 safar.

Javabs first show up (for us) in the pre-stamp “franks” period. The detail below, Lot #12 Sturton Sale, is dated 2 safar [12]83 ~ 16 June 1866, and is therefore within days of the Boggs cover. There is a ½a British India on the reverse. See also Lots #9, #10, and #11.

A half-rate visitors’ cover for June 1867. The javab dating on the back is 15 jūn in English transcription, i.e., a week after the arrival at Amritsar on 9 June. Hellrigl collection.

A similar example is shown in Fig. 3 of Anthony Bard’s article, “Visitors’ Letters from Kashmir, 1860-1866,” SG Stamp Monthly p 52, March 1982. It antedates the preceding item by a year and a week, yet reveals very much the same scenario (same writer with French-looking hand, same addressee, same postage, same half-rate privilege, same javab notation for the same month). The arrival cds at Amritsar for 2 June 1866 was again followed a week later by the javab notation, this time reading 9 jūn in transcription from English.

Above: the early date is 4 rajab ~ 12 November 1866, and the “response” segment is dated 16 navambar. The stamp is the ½a black watercolor from the Kashmir plate. The older literature first notices these stamps only in the spring of 1867. Cover ex Mix, reverse unavailable.

Above, the early date is 9 rajab ~ 17 November [1866], and the response-segment is dated 23 navambar. The stamp is the Kashmir single-die ½a black watercolor. The cover passed from Srinagar to Amritsar without British postage. Collection Hellrigl.

Above, the early-date segment is undated, and the response-segment is 29 navambar [1866]. The stamp is the ½a black watercolor circular. The cover passed from Srinagar to Amritsar without British postage. Collection Hellrigl. These last three entries sport three different kinds of ½a blacks, all on javab duty over the same period.

Above, the early date is obscured by Masson’s name tag, and the response-segment is 19 shahr [ram]zān [1283] ~ 25 January 1867. Ex Mix. The stamp is the Kashmir single-die ½a black watercolor. Reverse unavailable.

The despatch date is 27 ramazān [12]83 ~ 2 February 1867. Javab date: 4 shavvāl [1283] ~ 9 February 1867, same as the arrival stamp at Amritsar. Two annas in native stamps are matched by two annas in British postage, which were cancelled at the Sialkot City mail agency. Ex Mix.

Despatch 11 zelqa'de [1283] ~ 17 March 1867, on reverse of this Srinagar to Amritsar cover without British postage. Response date as per javab 17 zelqa'de [1283] ~ 23 March 1867. There is ‘do tola’ letter-weight notation upside down in image at center. The cover would seem to bear appropriate 1a + 1a in postage. Those stamps, however, are both marked ćāhar āna ~ 4 annas for a total of 8 annas. Collection Jaiswal.

The rare color anomaly 1a ultramarine watercolor (instead of black or orange). Despatch dating for this Srinagar to Amritsar cover is dated 15 zelhejje 1283 ~ 20 April 1867 on reverse. The response dating is 28 zelhejje ~ 3 May 1867. Ex Mix. Haverbeck Lot #1427.

Another javab, another strange stamp, another day and usage, another mystery. This the 4a indigo watercolor (accompanied by a mere Kashmir ½a ultramarine). The indigo is listed in SG as “for use in Jammu only,” but this would seem to be a counter-example. At first glance we thought it might be another two-venue affair, but the Srinagar seal cancelled both stamps in one strike. This picture is from Boggs’ 1941 Blue Book article. Perhaps on account of the absence British postage, Boggs reckoned this cover to be destined only so far as Jammu; it is actually an external to Amritsar with response date as per javab on 14 shavvāl ~ 8 February 1868. Haverbeck auction Lot #1246.

Dated November 1874. Javab, untypically from Jammu. Ex Mix.

By Jove, this could make the cover of Punch. Haverbeck Lot 1661: an 1894 registered mailing to Jammu from India (no origin given) via Kahuta and Punch. The Kahuta exchange office seems to serve for Punch much the way the Sialkot office did for Jammu. The Punch stamps are 1a and 4a officials in black and were matched with 5a in British postage. So we have some 34 years of javabs.

Weary of them? Let us end then with a little staircase on an unlikely spectrum of envelope paper:

Appendix II: A Speculation

Something of an inspiration has come to us from a recent Scrooge McDuck comic book, a good duck tale about the treasury of the Knights Templar. (See, I didn’t say ḍāk tail). In actual history, the Knights used a system for transferring money safely over distances, usually across guarded borders in a way that avoided bribes, taxes, and other theft.

The basic scheme, which has been an entrenched institution in many Asian countries for a very long time, comes in a variety of versions that vary greatly in secrecy and intent, and goes by many names by different groups. For the Chinese, there is the feī qián ~ without money. For the chaps working the Jammu-Punjab border it was known as hawāla (حواله) or hunda. The hawaladar or hundiwala receives cash in one location, while his counterpart at the other site later dispenses the cash to a recipient, minus a fee. Runners of the mail conveyed the information amount what sums were involved and by what date the transaction needed to be accomplished. The sender provides the recipient with a code number or other signal for obtaining the cash on the day agreed to. Katra Ahluwalia was an important textile hub, especially for Kashmir, and may well have been one of the important nodes (read pool of cash) in this ersatz banking system.

Such markings as these are seen occasionally on the envelope flaps of javab covers, as if in a symbolic sealing of the envelope. Do these spell hawāla? Seems so to an untutored eye. That of course does not imply that an actual money transfer was being signaled this way, for who would so advertise? The word has built into it the notion of “entrust,” which one might use for any transfer of content via the mail.

By the way,  حوالة مالية ~ hawālat māliyat is Postal Money Order in Arabic, fancy that. The term in Turkish is posta havalesi.

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