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Posted on 18, Feb 2020


A brief History of Epidemics in India

Covid-19 seems to be the first pandemic of the new millennium and most of the people living through it are doing it for the first time in their lives. The reason behind absence of epidemics and pandemics in our living memory seems to be the advances in the medicinal technology. However the fragility and vulnerability of the modern medicine and modern economic organization lies exposed under the threat of the present pandemic. Epidemics and pandemics are new for a modern society however in an early modern and pre-modern society, epidemics and pandemics were the realities which one should be prepared to encounter and tackle. It came like any other natural disaster and had to be contained with whatever means available. Historically the pandemics and epidemics seem to open raw the class discriminations and economic inequalities, which also seems to be the case with the on-going pandemic. The post will take examples ranging from world history and Indian history to understand epidemics in historical context.

It is believed that it was in 1200 BC in Babylon that the earliest epidemic arose and since then there are recorded in history several epidemics and pandemics which ravaged humanity. The important aspect that needs to be understood is that in a pre-industrialized pre-modern, non-globalised world, the reach of a disease remained limited to a particular area. The highly connected and rapidly moving Global village that the world has become in the 21st century doesn't have the privilege of containing an outbreak to a limited area.

To better understand how epidemics were dealt with in the past, one can take examples from both Indian as well as World History. Ancient Indian knowledge about disease and medicine is primarily contained in the Athrva Veda or the fourth and last Veda of the Hindu religious thought. The content of the text reveals a consciousness of the diseases caused by krimi which is the term used to refer to germs & worms which are visible or invisible and enter human body to cause ailment. There is also a description of the spread of infectious disease from person to person, mention is made of sores, pustules and Yaksma(consumption) which spreads from one place to another. In another old Sanskrit medical text, the Susruta Samhita, there is mention of a pustular disease known as masurika which can be understood to be smallpox. This awareness suggests that the infectious diseases which might have spread from person to person causing an epidemic were known to the Ancient Indians. Another text written during the Gupta period of Indian history, Vagbhata's Ashtanga Hrdayam talks about the diseases cause by the external elements ranging from evil spirits to parasites and other living things, in the means of prevention of such diseases it is mentioned that the person should not come in contact with others. These references suggest that the Ancient Indians were familiar with outbreaks that must have been caused due to the uncontrolled spread of infectious diseases.

To better understand how epidemics were dealt with in the past, one can take examples from both Indian as well as World History. Ancient Indian knowledge about disease and medicine is primarily contained in the Athrva Veda or the fourth and last Veda of the Hindu religious thought. The content of the text reveals a consciousness of the diseases caused by krimi which is the term used to refer to germs & worms which are visible or invisible and enter human body to cause ailment.

Plague and epidemics have been recorded throughout the medieval period of Indian history as well, one gets ample references to such diseases breaking out and causing much death. To take examples Ibn Battuta the traveller to Muhammad bin Tughlaq's court writes about the plague which ravaged the royal Tughlaq army when they were attacking the province of Tiling (Telangana). During this time plague broke out in the army and a major bulk of the soldiers perished, the condition was such that many leading chiefs and nobles also died in the pestilence and the Sultan eventually had to return to his southern capital of Daulatabad. This example can also be used to understand the political implication of the epidemics, where a victorious attacking army was reduced to naught due to the plague. In one of the many stories about the foundation of the city of Agra it is informed that a sickness spread in the region of Biana which prompted Sikandar Lodi to find a new place to settle and this eventually led to the foundation of Agra. Apart from this Mughal sources also inform about epidemics. For example Emperor Jahangir gives details of the plague that ravaged India during his time. In his memoirs he writes that in 1617 plague had appeared in Kashmir, his favourite destination. Further in between 1618 and 1619 plague troubled the city of Agra and nearby regions. Banarasidas, a merchant living during the time of Akbar and Jahangir, also informs about the plague at Agra. He gives gory details of the illness which he calls gamthi ka rog and which rapidly spread all over the city causing instant death and not sparing the doctors, who according to Banarasidas were dying like rats. People had stopped touching food fearing contamination. He informs how an exodus took place because of this incident. He himself escaped to a village named Azizpur in order to avoid the disease spread in the city. The most convenient way of avoiding any such outbreak was to escape to an uncontaminated area. This escape was the privilege of the rich and the powerful which left the poor as the sufferers of the epidemic outbreak.


The above mentioned references suggest that the epidemics of the medieval period were overcome over a period of time and were contained to a limited area. Despite this limited reach which can be attributed to the less globalised world, some of the epidemics in the past seem to have claimed a much greater domain and a much deadlier run. For example, the plague of Justinian caused death and turmoil in the world during the sixth and eighth centuries. The more famous plague pandemic known as the 'Black Death' and 'the Universal Plague', lasting 7 years (1347'1354), swept over a major section of the world and considerably reduced the population of Europe. In the mid-eighteenth century plague again spread in China and India. In India it was limited to Bombay in and Calcutta. In the province of Bengal, it is said to have killed 480,000 persons between 1898 and 1906.

Another epidemic which caused a great turmoil and changed the course of history majorly was small pox. The small pox epidemic acted as a vehicle for the colonization of the New World by the Europeans. It is believed that it was in the sixteenth century that smallpox reached the New World causing millions of deaths of the indigenous populations. This cleared the way for European colonizers to establish themselves in the Americas. Cholera epidemic occurred several times in the regions of India and south Asia. In what is understood to be the second pandemic wave of Cholera eoidemic during 1826'1837, the disease of cholera reached Prussia, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Western Europe. The first wave was in 1817 and had spread Cholera to Ceylon, Burma, Siam (Bangkok), Malacca, Singapore, the Philippines, China, Java, Borneo, Persia, Egypt, the Caspian Sea shores, and Syria.

The Spanish Flu of the post-World War I world can be considered the deadliest of the pandemics prior to the appearance of Covid-19 on the face of the world. An estimated one third of the world's population (or '500 million persons) were infected during the 1918'1919 influenza pandemic. Total deaths were estimated as high as 100 million. The soldiers returning to their homes following the end of World War I carried the disease with them to various regions of the world including India. An intriguing and devastating aspect about the Spanish flu of 1918 was that apart from causing deaths in the old and the very young it caused high mortality in the young adults as well. There have been many explanations to it, suggesting that a particular generation had developed immunity to the virus having been exposed to a milder strain in 1889. The over reaction of the immune system of the young adults was given as another explanation. The Spanish flu came to Indian shores with the soldiers returning home and killed around 12-17 million people, about 5% of the population. It has been argued by some that the inhuman ignorance and gross failure of the colonial rulers in tackling the issue changed the course of history and made Indians firm in their resolve to oust the British. Gandhi, the Indian anticolonial leader also suffered personally from the flu and lost his close relatives while himself surviving the symptoms similar to the disease. Gandhi even though at one point wanted to be a doctor was distrustful of allopathic medicine and prescribed natural remedies. He believed that diseases were resulted from man's estrangement from nature and the only solution to keep healthy and to restore health was to bring about a realignment life with natural force. He also seems to have associated divine retribution as the cause of natural disasters. Divine wrath or not, pandemics have a tendency of bringing humans closer to humanity and their own frailty which impacts the socio-cultural and economic dimensions of the future to be built after the pandemic. Having looked at the evidence that history provides to human mind regarding the epidemics and pandemics one can positively argue in favour of the fact that 'This too shall pass', however the world on the other side of this pandemic would be majorly changed. Another aspect that needs to be underlined here is the fact that in Covid-19 Pandemic as well, like in earlier epidemics, the poorer sections are suffering more. While the rich are comfortably tucked in their homes, it is the poor, the daily wage earner, the migrant labourer who bears the brunt of the pandemic and efforts put into place to control it.

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Lubna Irfan

Hsitory Professor

Womens's College, AMU Aligarh