Part I: Kashmir Survived Past Epidemics

It is recorded that till the valley of Kashmir got exposed to the outsiders from Punjab & other [United] Indian places, and opened up via new routes of trade & travel, Jehlum Valley Road, or Rawalpindi-Srinagar Road, during Dogra Rule in 1890, the valley remained mostly “immune” to the epidemic disasters, like cholera. (Dr. E Neve, Anand Koul Anand). While there were twelve epidemics of cholera in Punjab between 1867 and 1890, there were only five outbreaks in Kashmir during the same period. But, by joining British India by opening up of Jhelum Valley Road in 1890,  the valley got exposed to more deadly epidemic risks in the following years because “epidemics like cholera, like trade, travel by roads”.  (Lawrence)

It is historically correct thatnatural calamities & manmade disasters have always played havoc with the inhabitants of the valley from time to time.  “Kashmir has always been a land of tragedies and great disasters”. Its inhabitants havein history endured severest “natural & other calamities” of conflagrations, famines, floods & earthquakes, apart from epidemics of plague, cholera & small-pox. The chief reasons attributed to these epidemic diseases of the past were absence of drainage & sewerage systems, consumption of contaminated water from Jhelum & Dal in the city, & other water bodies in towns & villages, squalid living conditions of people. So, for these main causes, coupled with heavy influx of outsiders, visitors & soldiers to the valley, from early Dogra rule, the people fell an easy prey to cholera and other diseases.  “The filthy city of Srinagar, from a sanitary standpoint, was like a powder magazine waiting for a spark”.  All this needed a reform:

Introduction of sanitation:

Dr. Rai Bahadur A. Mitra (b.1858-) was appointed by the Maharaja in 1885, as [First] Chief Medical Officer of Kashmir & Sanitary Advisor to the administration, & later he was Public Works Minister in the Maharaja’s Administration. Before his appointment as Chief Medical Officer of Kashmir in 1885, Dr. A. Mitra had worked as Health Officer for Calcutta Public Health Society in 1884 & had highlighted the sanitary needs of city of Calcutta through his published articles. With those experiences of sanitary reforms in the city of Calcutta, backed up by his educational & training background of London medical institutes, Dr. A Mitra, after his arrival in Kashmir, made big sanitary reforms in Srinagar city through Srinagar Municipal Committee/SMC that was set up simultaneously with Jammu Municipal Committee/JMC in 1886 under the J&K Municipal Act No. 16 of 1886. He made arrangementsfor cleaning of lanes & by-lanes by the sweepers & jamadars, building of latrines, widening of the roads making them paved & metalled & making available abundant supply of pure pipe-water in the city. (Koul & Lawrence)

In 1888 there was no supply of pure drinking-water laid on in Srinagar. However, before 1900, a supply of pure water was laid to most parts of the city that saved thousands of lives in subsequent cholera epidemics.  (Dr. E Neve)  The sanitary reforms in Srinagar mitigated the ravages of cholera, and even if it appeared 5 to 6 times thereafter, it prevailed in mild form with Srinagar city minimum affected compared to previous cholera epidemics.  (Koul & Lawrence)

Introduction of Vaccination:

The vaccination of epidemic diseases of cholera, smallpox, etc, was known to Europe, America & China, centuries before, but it came very late to Kashmir. The introduction of vaccination in 1893/1894 for small pox, cholera & plague , first time in Kashmir’s history , was the great work of Kashmir Mission Hospital of the Church Missionary Society though its missionary doctors Dr. Arthur Neve (1859-1919) & Dr. Earnest Neve ( 1861-1946). Dr.Arthur Neve came to Kashmir in 1882. He was joined in his Kashmir Medical Mission by his brother Dr. Earnest Neve in 1886. Truly, the problems of the absence of healthcare system & vaccination facilities for recurring epidemics of Kashmir were addressed by the devotional & dedicated services and skills of great missionary doctors, Dr. William Jackson Elmslie (1832-1872), Dr.Arthur Neve & Dr. Ernest Neve of Kashmir Medical Mission that was connected with the Church Missionary Society of England. Before introduction of general vaccination in 1893/1894, the whole population of Kashmir contracted smallpox in childhood with 50% mortality rate among infants & most of those who survived the epidemic were left with permanent blindness.  (Dr. E Neve )

Superstitions & attitude of locals & the clergy:

As noticed above, squalid living conditions of Kashmiris, during 19th century, worsened by absence of proper sanitary facilities, pure drinking water, drainage & sewerage systems, and consumption of contaminated water from the water bodies & thereupon absence of healthcare facilities caused thousands of deaths each time by the recurrent epidemic diseases of cholera, plague, goiter & small-pox. This was apart from the deaths due to other non-epidemic diseases. The story did not end here. During second half of 19th Century till early first half of 20th century, many reputed missionary doctors & nurses entered the valley. They travelled the length and breadth of the valley, looking for the sick & diseased people, extending medical aid everywhere in the villages, towns & city of Srinagar. But the superstitious beliefs & attitudes of the local population & the ignorant clergy towards the new sanitary reforms in Srinagar city during last quarter of 19th Century & inoculations against plague of 1903-1904 by the State’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. A. Mitra & his team and setting up of medical aid, hospitals & vaccination by the missionary doctors & nurses, right from second half of 19th century, to prevent & cure the epidemic & other diseases, contributed considerably to the greater numbers of deaths by epidemics & other diseases each time. Thus, writes Dr. A. Mitra: “In the beginning, the people in Srinagar would not believe that it was plague [of 1903-1904] which appeared in the city. Most absurd stories were circulated, and many attempts were made by misrepresentation to discredit the agencies [doctors] who were fighting at great personal risk for public good. The superstition of the people was that the police constables and their relations [who had contracted plague] were only suffering for their sins. Many educated people, from whom better things were expected, actually tried to rouse popular opinion against us by making false representations about discomfort in the [isolation] camps and spreading the rumour that it was only pneumonia and not pneumonic plague’.

Dr. Earnest Neve & his brother, Dr. Arthur Neve, spent decades in Kashmir treating sick & diseased, and brought European vaccination first time to Kashmir against cholera & small-pox, and extended medical aid services of Kashmir Medical Mission throughout the valley. Their unforgettable healthcare services/Khidmat to the Kashmiris are golden pages of Kashmir history. Dr. Earnest Neve has recorded that Muslims of the valley have the highest reverence for the Holy Quran & the the Holy Prophet (PBUH), as yet, he adds: “they [Kashmiri Muslims] know very little about” their religion. “It is the shrine which”, they believe, “protects from disease and disaster, and to it they look for aid in any enterprise or in times of stress. ….. The custodians of the tomb …..are called pirs or pirzadas, and wield considerable influence. ….. Many patients who come to us show signs, over the seat of their disease, of clay from a shrine. This has been plastered on. Success after operation [by doctors] is often attributed to the virtue of this application. The common people have great faith in pirs. One of the villagers, referring to the plague which had not invaded the isolated mountainous district in which his village was situated, said to me: “It has not come here, sahib, the pirs here have mighty powers.” ( Dr. Earnest Neve)

Dr. Arthur Neve, elder brother of Dr. Earnest Neve, who joined Kashmir Medical Mission four years before him in 1882, too records the same kind of superstitious stories, as  the valley of Kashmir  was “full of superstitions”, writes Lawrence. Gazetteer of Kashmir & Ladakh states that Kashmiris were extremely ignorant about their faith & remarkably superstitious.

There was a fantastic story of superstitions woven in Kashmir even around the causation of natural calamities like earthquakes, floods & the like.  Dr. Arthur Neve was in the midst of terrible earthquake of 1885 in Kashmir when twin towns of Sopore & Baramulla were completely ruined by the earthquake. He, with his missionary doctors & staff visited the affected areas with medical aid.  In a village where tomb/shrine of some pir stood, the building, which was wooden, had escaped damage from the great earthquake. In a neighbouring village, the local tomb/shrine of pir/saint with building was completely destroyed. The people of the first village “gave special offerings to the powerful saint who had protected them” they claimed.  When Dr. Arthur Neve asked them, “why the pir of the neighbouring village had not saved the people who lived round his tomb”,  “ oh,” they said, “save them, why should he ? They had heaped too much earth upon him, the fools, and it was his turning in his grave to shake it off which caused their destruction!”, records Dr. Arthur Neve in his published memoirs.  The Kashmir Mission Hospital Reports too record all the developments of that time in Kashmir.

Lawrence too has recorded marvelous tales that were told during 1894 floods in Sind-n- Jehlum-rivers of Kashmir. The floods had caused havoc in many parts of North Kashmir. The people were heard saying to each other that rice fields of Tullamulla & bridge of Sumbal were saved only by the presence of the flags that were taken from the shrines as a last resort.

Historian, Prof. Mohibul Hassan, after recording selfless, spartan & pious living, services & teachings of early Muslim saints of Kashmir, states that “the saint worship” , after their demise,  occupied “an important part in the life of a Kashmiri who is being constantly exploited by the Pirs and their disciples”.  Dr.Allama Iqbal, in Bal i Jibril , Gabriel’s Wings,  Saqinama, 142, Stanza 2,recalls how selfless were earlier mystics of Islam & how the later preachers & pirs got lost in absurdities & maze of Ajam which reduced the Muslims to heaps of ashes only. Actually, the basic truthsthat were taught by earlier mystics of Kashmir were to be rediscovered & reclaimed from the mass of the superstitious beliefs & myths woven around them & also interpreted inthe light of the revolutionary discoveries of science that were taking place during the past three hundred years, records Pandit Prem Nath Bazaz. Once the congenial home of mystics was made superstitious by Pandits & Pirs which resulted in mysticism and superstition getting interwoven & ingrained in the very nature of the Kashmiris, that gave rise to Pir Parasti “which must be eradicated as completely and as quickly as practicable if the Musalmans of Kashmir are to make any real advance in the world”, writes great Muslim historian, Dr. GMD Sufi.

To Be Continued