Sleep-out to remember

Chatting on a charpoy with spare
charpoys stacked up on wall [Left]
Sleeping on a traditional charpoy in the outdoors can be both comfortably communal and fly-tening, as PEGGY LOH finds out

In the days before security companies were common there were Sikh night watchmen who would sleep overnight in front of banks and business premises.  These watchmen are also synonymous with their charpoys or Punjabi string-beds which they bring to rest along shop corridors.  And in the morning, the watchmen would carry their beds balanced on their heads, away for storage until they went on duty again at night.

My earliest memories of the charpoy was one I saw on the corridor of the block of shop-houses adjacent to where ah kong or grandfather used to live at No. 154 Jalan Ngee Heng.  I remember there was a Sikh family who lived upstairs at the far end of the block.  I often saw one of their male family members resting there and I even sometimes spied him combing out his long hair and coiling it into a bun on top of his head.

When I asked my mum about the charpoy, she surprised me by revealing that a Sikh family used to live in ah kong’s house as caretakers while he was transferred to work in the Land Office in Muar.  After ah kong and his family moved back to their home in Jalan Ngee Heng, the Sikh family continued to live downstairs for a while before they shifted out.  Mum said there was a charpoy in the front porch where the Sikh man used to rest on as a day bed and slept there at night!

This is a very interesting revelation because it adds to my own fascination about the charming charpoy.  This traditional piece of furniture is made of a wooden frame and legs with a bed woven of ropes made from jute.  In India and Pakistan, the charpoy is an important part of their lifestyle because people use it to sit on and as a bed.

I learnt this first-hand when I stayed with a Sikh family, relatives of my friend Kuldip, in Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab and Haryana.  These versatile charpoys are used indoors and outdoors or on rooftops and it was a common practice to invite guests to sit on it.  On a visit to the home of my host’s relatives in a nearby village, I was amused when I was offered a charpoy to sit on and I did as the proverbial Romans did and joined the ladies on this communal bed.  It was cool and comfortable to sit on and I marveled at that remarkably strong charpoy which took on our substantial combined weight!

In another relative’s home, they had upgraded to a mattress double bed but it was odd that this was the central piece of furniture in the front hall.  When I was invited to sit on it, I hesitated because I did not fancy sharing that bed which already had several people lounging on it.  Sensitive to my culture shock, the host found an armchair and when it was offered to me, I gratefully accepted.

Calves tethered to the charpoy
For hundreds of years, generations of families have been using this versatile and functional piece of furniture.  When I walked through the village, I noticed how the charpoy was sometimes even used as an anchor to tether young calves and prevent them from wandering off.  And when not in use, the space-saving charpoy can be easily stood up against the wall.

I was convinced that before I left Chandigarh, I must have the experience of sleeping on the charpoy and when Kuldip shared my idea with her aunty in their own language, I read her body language as she responded in horror.  It was summer and the men usually sleep outdoors but it was unthinkable for me to want to sleep outside too.  But as Kuldip explained that I’m a writer and must have that experience, her aunty finally relented and decreed that, that night all the men will sleep indoors while the ladies sleep outdoors.

Peggy [Right] and Kuldip [wearing green] joined by
neighbours for a chit-chat on charpoy before bed;
Aunty is washing her face [Background]
Aunty arranged a row of charpoys in the courtyard and made them more comfortable with several layers of quilts and sheets.  I remember it was a humid evening and some women neighbours, probably curious about this crazy writer, turned up to join their chit-chat on the charpoys.  I was glad that I went to bed armed with my socks and a small towel because it got progressively cooler in the night and I used the towel to wrap my head and face to keep out the chill!

My charpoy was sandwiched between Kuldip and aunty’s charpoys on either side of me among her daughters in that row.  It was an unforgettable experience on many levels but the most memorable bit must be my rude awakening by a megaphone that was blaring wedding songs (I was later told) from a nearby temple.  While my head and face was virtually turbaned by my towel, I managed a peek and won’t forget that cloud of flies that rose from me when I moved!

Morning also brought out the pesky flies that abound in that agricultural district and no amount of swatting could keep them away.  As I reluctantly dragged myself out from that cosy cocoon on my comfortable charpoy, I was ever grateful to Kuldip and my Punjabi host for my priceless charpoy experience. 

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 21 July 2011

Charming Charpoys

In February 2011 while I was at the Thistle Resort in Port Dickson, I told my friends there that I was trying to track down Stringbedco, the charpoy maker.  They spared no effort to help me locate their showroom in Telok Kemang and added it into the itinerary of our tour of local places of interest. 

The showroom was open only on weekends and public holidays and since that day was a weekday, a visit to the showroom was by appointment only.  At that time, the showroom was under renovation but after several phone calls, I was thrilled that Neena Gill of Stringbedco, graciously welcomed my friends and I to drop by. 

Neena Gill [Centre] showing off her charpoys
From the coast road, we spotted a signboard which read, “Tall Trees Garden” and the sight of a small wooden frame woven with strings – a mini replica of charpoy – confirmed that we were at the right spot!  Later when Neena showed off the plants in the rear garden, it was easy to see how this address got its name because the compound was fringed by towering trees. 

Neena was quite apologetic about the mess because the showroom was just repainted and her charpoys were not displayed to the best advantage for our viewing.  All the same, she showed us some excellent samples of Stringbedco products. 

I just could not help admiring these updated versions of traditional string beds, made with fine quality wood and strings that would not only look great in modern homes but should blend very well with our tropical lifestyle as a day bed or patio furniture. For more info, visit website

Two sizes of charpoys with square and round legs
Stringbedco bench [Right] and
side tables [Rear]


Nandita said:

While I was catching up with the articles I'd missed (can't imagine how!), I read you'd been to Chandigarh. Did you enjoy visiting the city?  You sure look comfy lounging with Kuldip and her folks. :-)

I was shipped off there to do Pre-Med post-MCE, and after the initial hiccups (cultural differences, cutting of apron strings, having to eat chapatis instead of rice, etc), I actually grew very fond of the place.  Haven't been back in nearly three decades and I've heard it's changed a lot, like most of India has. Maybe I'll take a detour from my annual sojourn to Kolkata this year and go back in time to relive the heady days of Abba and Boney M in Le Corbusier's city-before-its-time.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous5/04/2013

    very nice brings back memories