Lawrence refers to popular remedies of those times like sour green grapes and ‘blood-letting by the village barber’
While Kashmir is gripped by fear of Coronavirus pandemiclike any other part of the world, it’s worth revisiting the history of epidemics in the valley. Probably Kashmir’s worst epidemic occurred in the summer of 1892, when according to the report of the then Chief Medical Officer, 11712 persons died in the valley. However, in his book ‘The Valley of Kashmir’, Sir Walter Lawrence puts the death toll at staggering 18,000.
“The panic was so great and the registration of deaths so imperfect that it is quite possible this figure (11,712) does not represent the total mortality; my own impression is that the mortality in the villages, which is given as 5931, was far greater and that not less than 18,000 people died of cholera in 1892 in the whole valley,” writes Lawrence, who served as the first Settlement Commissioner of Kashmir.
Depicting the plight of Kashmiris, he writes: “I was in camp in the villages during the cholera and I have never seen anything so awful as the helplessness and despair of people. All work was suspended and silent groups of villagers would sit all day long in the graveyards.”
Lawrence termed cholera as the “great scourge of Kashmir” causing very heavy mortality. As per his account, Cholera visited the valley ten times from 1824 with worst episode in 1892. He blames the poor sanitation, particularly in the city. “The epidemic finds a congenial soil in the alluvial parts of the valley, but its nursery is the filthy city of Srinagar,” he adds.
In his book ‘Kashmir in Sunlight and Shade’, Tyndale Biscoe provides an interesting account of epidemics of various kinds which played havoc among Kashmiris. “Every four or five years, cholera in epidemic form sweeps them off in hundreds, and sometimes in thousands during the summer months,” he writes.
“Everyone has small-pox, with the exception of the few that have been vaccinated; every fifth person is pitted with small-pox on some part of his body, and many are blinded from it.Typhoid is rampant in the city,” he adds.
Biscoe also refers to the superstitions and obsessions of people in those times. “For example, when small-pox attacks a family, they seem rather pleased than otherwise, as they say the goddess has deigned to visit their humble dwelling. This is one of the reasons why Kashmiri Hindus objected to vaccination.”
Biscoe blamed the people for poor sanitation, making the city and towns vulnerable to outbreak of diseases. “It will be a slow business to alter the conditions of the towns in the matter of sanitation, as the people themselves are against improvement. Their answer to any change is always the same- ‘Our father sand forefathers were always very happy and contented under the existing order of things, so why should not we be satisfied?” he writes.
He goes on to citea rather amusing instance in this respect. “A certain health officer who had been to England for his training was upset about a filthy alley leading from the main street to the river which was much frequented. He wished to have it paved with bricks so that it could be flushed with water and kept clean. The Brahmin priests of the neighborhood had come to him and ordered him to desist, using the usual fore-father argument.
So as the health officer stood firm to his resolve they threatened that if he attempted to pave the alley they themselves would lie down flat on the road and he would have to lay the bricks over them… Brahmins won that day and that alley remains what it always has been, a latrine for the priests and their families, a pestilential spot.”
Walter Lawrence quotes the then Chief Medical Officer of Kashmir, a Bengali man who worked for many years in Srinagar, on the insanitary conditions of the city. “Within an area of six square miles live a population of 118,960 in houses low and dirty… few houses have latrines and small lanes and alleys are used as such…two hundred sweepers are now engaged by the municipality, but the number is too microscopic compared with the requirements of such a vast population…this produced an epidemic constitution in the people fitted for the reception and fostering of cholera-germs.”
Lawrence also refers to popular remedies of those times like sour green grapes and ‘blood-letting by the village barber’.
Coming back to Kashmir of 2020, cholera is no longer a threat; Coronavirus pandemic is.While cholera caused huge human losses in 19th century in Kashmir, it would be catastrophic if the spread of Coronavirus goes unchecked. Let’s make concerted efforts to break the chain and fend off this invisible monster lest it devours us all.