From Tamil Nadu's Archives Department emerges a document, unveiling the genesis of India's first government-sanctioned holiday — Sunday.
In a quaint corner of the Tamil Nadu State Archives Department in Egmore, Chennai, lies a document of historical significance — one that sheds light on a seemingly mundane yet transformative aspect of modern life.
Dated 12 January, 1847, this General Order by the Right Honourable Governor General of India holds within its lines the declaration that forever changed the rhythm of work and life for Indians.
The origin of the first government-declared holiday — Sunday.
The General Order, issued from the Home Department, Camp Bheranah, marks a significant juncture in India’s history. Before this proclamation, the concept of a structured weekly day of rest was not established in government practice.
The order’s stipulations were clear, “The Governor General is pleased to direct that all Public Works carried on by order of the Government, whether under the direction of its own Officers or through the Agency of Contractors, shall be discontinued on Sunday.”
Explaining that they stumbled upon the document, G Prakash, Commissioner of Archives and Historical Research, said, “We have a treasure trove of documents from 1657 to 1957 in Stack 7 of the department. This period chronicles the tumultuous times of the East India Company’s rule, the rise of princely states, and the struggles and triumphs of ordinary people.”
“While we were studying the documents, we stumbled upon this directive that was the starting point of work-life balance for Indians. There are numerous documents like this awaiting to be unearthed inside the department,” he adds.
While the directive was categorical, it also acknowledged cases of urgent necessity that could require work on Sundays.
The order specified that such cases must be reported to the Military Board for their special orders and government information.
This allowance recognised the importance of balance between public service and the need for rest, even in urgent scenarios.
The third clause brought about a fundamental shift in contractual agreements for public works. “The cessation of work on Sunday shall be an understood condition in all future contracts for Public Works, whether an express provision to that effect be inserted in the deed of contract or not,” it stated.
This clause was instrumental in institutionalising the concept of a weekly day of rest, ensuring that it became an integral aspect of labour agreements.
The General Order of 1847 held particular significance due to its extension from the Bombay Government, where a similar rule had been enforced since 1843.
This extension signalled a growing recognition of the importance of a weekly day of rest across various regions under the Government of India.
“While the British officers and workers would go to Church on Sunday and take the day off, the Indian mill workers did not have any such respite. There were numerous struggles from Indians requesting a day off on the same day as the British workers. After a long struggle, at the beginning of the 1840s, the British government declared Sunday a holiday in a few regions. Since then, they have been slowly extending the concept of the holiday to different departments,” says research scholar Kalyan Bhatt.
This document gains even more profound significance when considering its direct relevance to the Public Works Department, a segment that constituted a substantial portion of India’s working class during that era, he adds.
It may be interesting to note that there is no official announcement from the Indian government declaring Sunday as a holiday.
Over time, this historic declaration rippled through India’s cultural and societal fabric.
It not only marked the advent of government-declared holidays but also laid the foundation for the concept of a weekly day of rest, fostering a healthier work-life balance for generations to come.
Today, this remarkable document resides within the hallowed walls of the Tamil Nadu State Archives Department, a tangible testament to the enduring impact of a seemingly routine decision made over a century and a half ago.