>Solace in the time of plague

The Oriental Rat Flea that caused all the trouble, it is said, hopped onto the train that had left Bombay and passed through Hubli en route to Bangalore. It settled unnoticed on the body of the Railway Superintendant’s unsuspecting butler. By the time the train chugged into Bangalore City station on August 12, 1898, the free-loading insect had moved on, but the butler was now running a fever, accompanied by headaches, chills and inflammation of the lymph nodes. The infected man died quickly. Six weeks later, a second case was reported in the Bangalore Cantonment. In the days that followed, coolies working and living around the goods sheds of the Southern Mahratta Railway near the city station also began to exhibit symptoms of being infected by the Yersinia pestis bacillus. The `Black Death’ that had claimed countless lives over the centuries, had arrived in Bangalore.

Doorways of hope in troubled times

The Plague quickly spread through a congested rabbit-warren called Blackpalli (also Dandu’ or Lashkar, in reference to the cantonment) that is now known to us as  Shivajinagar.  This colonial General Bazaar, with open drains and sewers, no proper sanitation facilities and houses packed tight like biscuits in a box, was a vulnerable target for the dreaded killer that had decimated the population of Europe several times over.

The British administration of the Bangalore Cantonment and the then Dewan of Mysore, Sir K Seshadri Iyer, would now fight a fierce battle across the state. Bangalore City and the Cantonment were placed in a state of red alert. Health Officers were appointed for Bangalore, Mysore (Mysuru) and Kolar Gold Fields, while Civil Surgeon Dr. D.A. Choksi took charge as Chief Plague Officer. Preventive measures identified in the Frontier Plague Protection Scheme were quickly deployed and overseen by the princely state of Mysore. The Epidemic Disease Hospital (1891) in the city was soon filled to full capacity. People who could not afford hospitalisation were provided with timber and bamboo shelters in temporary detention camps on the outskirts of the city. Hopeful locals also queued up for field trials of the new plague vaccination that had been developed in Bombay by bacteriologist, Professor Waldemar Haffkine, an Armenian-Jew.

Railway and frontier inspection stations and outposts were set up. Rail and road passengers found themselves subjected to rigorous checks and testing. Anyone entering the city was given passports that obliged them to appear for daily checks during a strict ten-day observation period. The segregation of confirmed cases was enforced and suspects were sent to the Magadi Road camp for isolation. The inspection and disinfection of trains began at Yeshwanthpur, Bangalore Cantonment and the Kengeri railway stations. Testing facilities were established for the Health Department in accordance with the Mysore Epidemic Diseases Act, II that had been passed in 1897. Temporary Plague Hospitals or Isolation Hospitals were set up. In parallel, Dr. P.H.Benson, the Sanitary Commissioner of Mysore, launched a programme of large-scale innoculations for Bangalore.

Watching over the helpless

In the midst of this turmoil, people found their own ways to keep the fear at bay-they invoked the power of Mother Mary as ‘Aaney Arogiamarie’ and took shelter at the St. Mary’s Cathedral. Homes were marked with auspicious symbols and prayers were inscribed on walls. As city folk fell like swatted flies, temples were also built to invoke the powerful`Plague Deity ‘, the Goddess Mariamman, or Maramma as she is known in Karnataka.

Mariamma (who is also considered to be a Shakti and consort of Shiva), is  a rural `Pox Goddess’. She invokes rain, wards off evil spirits and protects agrarian communities from pestilence, skin infections and diseases like the small pox, chicken pox measles and of course, the plague (all traditionally attributed to an over-heated body). Mariamma’s healing powers are seen in her symbols-the colour yellow from turmeric and lemons, neem leaves that possess healing-antiseptic properties, ‘cooling’ curds, and peppercorns to ward off the evil eye, much like her sisters Gangammā and Mutyālammā (mutya shares etymological roots with the word moti meaning pearl, also a colloquial reference to the small-pox pustules).  Like other rural goddesses, she is usually represented by an aniconic stone or an earthen pot that is tied to a spear staked to the ground in front of her shrines. Temples dedicated to her dot the city. They include the Plague Mariamma Temple in Thyagarajanagar, Ulsoor and Akkithimannhalli (near Langford Road), the Circle Mariamman Temple near IISc., and the Dandu Mariamman Temple at Shivaji Square, that are all vivid reminders of this desperate time when the city looked to her for healing

The scientific-minded city municipality, on the other hand, advised Bangaloreans to use the popular Cyllin and kerosene oil emulsion to disinfect their homes, while attempts were made to block rat holes. Rodents were exterminated at a cost of Rs. four and half paise for each rat that was handed over to the authorities.  The vermin-infested grain markets of Tharagupete in the old city were severely affected, causing them to be burnt and disinfected. The New Tharagupete market area would come up much later.

Three months later on Thursday, December 1, 1898, The Gippsland Times, London noted with much alarm,  that ‘the bubonic plague is committing fearful ravages in India. It has now been determined by the sanitary authorities in Bombay to regard the plague as having obtained a permanent footing in the dependency, and the most rigid precautions are to be adopted. All travellers are to be examined before being permitted to enter the country, and a careful watch is to be kept on their destinations. The existing system of hospital camps will be altered. At Bangalore, in the native State of Mysore, the mortality from the plague has reached the alarming total of a hundred per day’.

People pitched in too. In February 1899, a perturbed Mary Budtan-Hepburn wrote an emotional appeal in The Tablet, London, for contributions from all ‘Roman Catholics and Christian friends at home and abroad’ to be sent to her father, General Fischer, R.E., the Honorary Secretary of the “Friend-in-Need Society, Bangalore, at his address, ‘Binfield, Bangalore, Madras’.  But the killer was relentless. The 1899 Plague Commission Report states that by June 1899, there were 2,665 official deaths in the city area while the Cantonment recorded about 3,321. An estimated 15,000 cases across the state made it to hospital, of which about 12,000 people never made it out at all. (Origin and growth of Basavanagudi, N Lakshman Rao, IAS /The City Beautiful, TP Issar). Winston Churchill, a young officer with the 4th Hussars who was stationed  in Bangalore at this time, wrote to his brother that two grooms, as well as the wife and mother of his bearer were `carried off’ as well. Bodies were left on the street and in dustbins. Administrative attempts at social segregation were resisted by local populations. Potential rioting, law and order had to be controlled by the Imperial Lancers who patrolled the city on horseback.

Segregation was not the only issue that challenged the authorities. According to Health Officer, Mr. Achyutha Rao (Report on Plague Operation in Mysore State 1898-99, K.S.A. Bangalore) “The hospital and contact sheds were looked upon as slaughter houses. Any attempt to purify the drinking water was put down as an attempt to poison it. Even putting up of sheds at burial grounds for the accommodation of watermen was looked upon with suspicion as having some sinister object in view. Inoculation was dreaded and it was thought that the object of inoculation was to instill some subtle poison into the system”. 

People fled from the crowded bazaar area to the outskirts of the city in large numbers seeking fresh air, open spaces and a cleaner environment. The administration now needed to look more closely at city planning to manage this exodus. Approximately 1000 acres were allocated towards this effort and drawings were sought for new layouts-including  Malleswaram, Basavangudi and Fraser Town, to be built. They were laid out in grids, with narrow lanes known as ‘conservancy lanes’  running behind them since modern sewage systems and undergroundstorm-water drains had not yet appeared.

The drainage of the Bazaar and the Cantonment in the late 1800s depended on a large open sewer that passed through a tunnel in the Halasur Tank, before emptying out on the outskirts of the Cantonment where (much to Florence Nightingale’s distress) it was ‘applied to cultivation’. Sewage disposal was still in its infancy and flush tanks and commodes were a distant dream. The system was therefore, quite literally, in the hands of the jemadar, the night-soil worker who cleaned out the ‘thunder boxes’ every day. But despite municipal bye-laws that insisted on daily conservancy, privy pits in Bangalore were not cleared out frequently enough. The epidemic would now push the municipal administration towards putting a formal sanitation system in place.

In 1899, the Mysore government diverted Rs. 27, 15, 221 for sanitation work across the state. The schemes, under Plague Commissioner V.P. Madhava Rao (not yet Diwan at this point), included establishing sanitation departments, widening narrow streets and constructing sanitation and drainage facilities. But despite these efforts, the plague would revisit the city yet again.

Several administrative experiments took place thereafter. Between 1898-1902, the post of Special Commissioner for Plague came into being. In 1913, the head of the Medical Department was designated as Sanitary Commissioner till in 1917, a full-time Sanitary Commissioner came to be appointed from the Medical Department.  It was only in 1929 that the city would have a proper Board of Health.

The Bangalore Plague is now a matter of history for most Bangaloreans, even while the city continues to grapple daily with sanitation and garbage disposal issues. It is necessary though, for these moments from the city’s past to remain relevant in its present, so that we may learn important lessons and prevent other historic epidemics in the future.


  1. massoom · · Reply

    I participated in Thimithi festival 2 times in the kovil of Mauritius. I was facing a lot of problems in my life with my husband. After 7 years of marriage i beome a mother. I give birth to a little daughter. I was thinking that my husband would live peacefully with my child but later I learnt he is committing adultery, beating me always, leave conjugal roof and gone to live with his mistress. His mother and all his family was coming to sack me out from my house. I was so depressed with my life. Then I surrendered myself in the lap of Mother Goddess Mariamman. I did thimithi 2 times and I was possessed by mother Goddess Mariamman. I dance like mother Goddess everybody says. I took my baby in my hands and woork in the fire. I played a lot. I am happy that Goddess mariamman is protecting me and my child. I keep fast for mother Mariamman on each Tuesday and Friday.

    I love mariamman. She is the mother of the Universe. Adiparashakti.

  2. […] de personas en todo el mundo. A finales del siglo XIX, mi ciudad natal de Bangalore sufrió un epidemia de peste bubónica, que requería los servicios de una diosa del contagio. Los documentos coloniales británicos […]

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