Past epidemics in Kashmir

In the Middle-Ages, the first recorded account of an epidemic disease in Kashmir is found in the Emperor Jahangir’s Memoirs
Past epidemics in Kashmir
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The ongoing pandemic caused by Coronavirus or "SARS-Cov-2"has paralysed the whole world. It is by far the worst of the pandemics known tothe human history cutting across geographies with catastrophic results forworld economy.  In these trying times,one is naturally persuaded to think about how the epidemics were there in theirown hometowns in the past. Kashmir, my hometown, till it was exposed tooutsiders from Punjab & other places, till it was opened up via new routesof trade & travel, during Mughal era followed by Afghan, Sikh & Dogra rules,remained mostly immune to the epidemic disasters, albeit natural calamities& manmade disasters always played havoc with its inhabitants from time totime.  Kashmiris in history have enduredseverest "natural & other calamities" of conflagrations (e.g. 1615, 1875 &1878), famines (e.g. 1597, 1745, 1864, 1877, 1878-1889), floods (e.g.1877, 1893& 1903) & earthquakes (e.g. 1863, 1878 & 1884-1885). While manyrulers inflicted more suffering on the people by plunder, the far-sighted oneshelped them during those calamities by bringing food, setting up lungers,providing shelters, money & work. However, all that is not the discussionhere. It is epidemics specific.

In the remote past, the visitation of devastatingearthquakes, famines and inundations caused terrible epidemics among theinhabitants of the beautiful valley of Kashmir. Without detailed accounts though, we find the earliest mention of someepidemics in Kalhana's Rajatarangini,  whichaccording to the Chronicler, occurred during the reigns of Raja Harsha in 1099AD (plague), Raja Uccala during 1101-111 1 AD (Cholera) & Raja Sussaladuring 112-1120 AD (plague).  In Dr. M AStein's acclaimed translation of the Kalhana's Chronicle, we don't, however,find detailed accounts of the epidemic diseases in Kashmir's ancient history.There is a strange mention in the Chronicle about plague caused by Luta duringthe time of Jayapida 779-810 AD. (I-IV: 169, Sholakas/Verses 524-529). Luta inSanskrit means Spider. Luta-disease was "contagious & fatal", theChronicler writes. Under medical science, spider-bite causing epidemic diseaselike plague may now look quite strange.

In the Middle-Ages, the first recorded account of anepidemic disease in Kashmir is found in the Emperor Jahangir's Memoirs. In1615, during his reign, epidemic of "plague had occurred & taken firm holdof the valley. Many people died. The symptoms were that the first day there washeadache and fever and much bleeding at the nose. On the second day the patientdied. In the house where one person died all the inmates were carried off.Whoever went near the sick person or a dead body was affected in the same way.In one instance the dead body was thrown on the grass, and it chanced that acow came and ate some of the grass. It died, and some dogs that had eaten itsflesh also all died. Things had come to such a pass that from fear of deathfathers would not approach their children, and children would not go near theirfathers". (I: 442)

In the memoir of Abul Fazl, Akbarnama, no specific mentionof any epidemic disease like cholera , etc, has been noticed in Kashmir during1589, 1592 & 1597: the three times Abul Fazl had accompanied the EmperorAkbar during Emperor's visits to the valley. No details are given anywhere,though Abul Fazl mentions of epidemic as "a strong wind of destruction" thathad destroyed many Southern provinces of Hindustan in 1575 AD. (3:227)

The natural & other calamities produced resultantpestilence which swept away thousands of people of the valley. (Newell: 445)Apart from the severest outbreaks of plague during 1903-1904 AD, cholera during1888, 1892, 1900-1902, 1906-1907 and 1910 AD, among all men and women of thevalley, small-pox among children & goiter mostly among villagers were othercommonly found diseases in the valley. "19th Century witnessed in Kashmir a seriesof appalling famines and epidemics, which wrought terrible havoc in the mass ofthe rural population particularly. The last famine, 1878-79, alone is supposedto have removed three-fifth of the population from the Valley". (Dr. Stein:136) In the winter of 1892 the ravages of small-pox among the children of thevalley and the city probably caused greater mortality than the cholera epidemicof the same year. Goitre was frequent especially common in villages. But thegreat scourge of Kashmir was the cholera which visited the valley ten timessince 1824, but probably the worst epidemic of cholera within the memory of manoccurred in the summer of 1892, when 5,781 persons died in Srinagar, and 5,931in villages. (Lawrence: 34, 218) So epidemics of cholera or other preventablediseases used to come and, after killing thousands, died their natural deathand then come again, but no attempt was made to prevent their recurrence. Thechief reasons attributed to these epidemic diseases of the past were absence ofdrainage & sewerage systems, consumption of contaminated water from Jhelum& Dal in city, & other water bodies in towns & villages, squalidliving conditions of people. So, for these main causes, coupled with heavy influxof outsiders to the valley, the people fell an easy prey to cholera and otherdiseases.

The vaccination of epidemic diseases of cholera etc wasknown to Europe, America & China, centuries before, but it came very lateto Kashmir. The poor sanitary system & absence of proper medical &vaccination facilities attracted the attention of Dr. A. Mitra, a Bengali-man,who was [First] Chief Medical Officer of Kashmir & President of the newlyset-up Srinagar Municipality, and also of Dr. Ernest Neve and Arthur Neve ofthe Medical Mission in Kashmir of the Church Missionary Society of England.Under the directions of British Resident during the reign of Maharaja RanbirSingh, Dr. Mitra made big sanitary reforms in Srinagar & other towns, andlikewise, Neve-Brothers introduced vaccination of cholera & small-pox firsttime in Kashmir in 1894. (Bamzai, 3; 710, Koul, 109-110, Lawrence, 35) Sincethen, with arrival of more & more vaccinations & drugs, greateradvancement of sanitary, health & educational systems in the valley, allthese & other virulent epidemic diseases stand eradicated from the valleynow.

Lawrence says before 1598 AD cholera was unknown or wasknown by a name different to that now used in Kashmir. It was & is called 'Wabah" in Kashmiri.  But presently even,Kashmiris refer to every calamity, natural or manmade, as Wabah. Most probably,Kashmiri name of cholera or any other epidemic, "Wabah" is the same what AbulFazl means by his words, "a strong wind of destruction".  Till 1880, even among European nations,common belief was that the epidemic like Cholera was spread by obnoxious airwhich was called "miasma". The scientists since 1854 have discarded this theoryas obsolete.

It seems that the people of the world had an understandingof contagious nature of pandemics from early times. When scientific knowledgehad not advanced, the people of London in a traditional way, during outbreaksof plagues from 1347 to 1500 AD, used to put a bale of hay or a white poleoutside the homes of those-affected by the epidemic of plague. This was donethose days to isolate the sick from non-sick. During "Great Plague of London,1665", those-affected were cruelly dealt with by shutting them inside theirhomes with Red Crosses & pleas, "Lord have Mercy on us", inscribed on theirdoors outside. Thereafter, plague got eradicated from London, the myth says. InKashmir, Emperor Jahangir has an interesting narrative to tell us. He writesthat when the plague of 1615 struck Kashmir, he was told that 3000 houses burntin a "mysterious" fire & that all burnt houses bore three circles beforeburning which ended the epidemic, thus. But, the enlightened Emperor, notagreeing with the "myth", adds "it seems a strange affair. It certainly doesnot agree with the canons of reason, and my intellect cannot accept it" (I:442-443)

However, there has been from early times a scientific way ofdealing with obnoxious outreaches of epidemics, isolating sick-n-suspect-sick& stopping spread of epidemics, in the countries. And, not humanely-disgracefulway of cruelly isolating the sick as mentioned above. For confirmed sick, wehave had hospitals there for treatment. The practice of putting "suspects withtravel history" in isolation in a more dignified and scientific way is followedtill date with improvements. To recall, the epidemics & pandemics have hada definite connection in human history with travelling of people, in connectionwith their trade, businesses, jobs, education, trips, who sometimes bringinfections from other infected-places along with them, when they return totheir native places. It is for this reason that, during pandemics like presentcoronavirus, those with a travel-history are nowadays stopped & isolated bythe administrations at entry-points to their native cities & places. It iscalled quarantine. The period of quarantine varies. In Kashmir it is 2 to 3weeks at present.

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