When fear of epidemic drove Agra prisoners from jail to the Taj Mahal


Like all things serious, even pandemics can have a lighter side, if only in hindsight

Like all things serious, even pandemics can have a lighter side — funny only in hindsight, when the pandemic has become history. For example, in 1856, when prisoners lodged in the Agra jail had suddenly found themselves in the gardens of the Taj Mahal, they weren’t marvelling at their luck but were more concerned about escaping cholera.

“An old proverb goes that truth is stranger than fiction, and it is certainly true in the case of the cholera epidemic in British India,” said the Jaipur-based science historian and mathematician Rohit Gupta, an alumnus of Indian Institute of Technology-Kharagpur. “The Bombay Famine Code in the 19th century laid out this rule that even if just three cases of cholera were detected, entire troops would have to vacate a camp. Not only that, they must march at right angles to the wind — like crabs walking sideways — wherever that may lead.”

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The reason behind this bizarre drill, said Mr. Gupta, was an erroneous belief that cholera spread through air. “And funnily, one fine day in 1856, the prisoners of Agra jail were asked to march sideways and they soon found themselves camping in the gardens of the Taj Mahal,” he said.

According to him, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb once invited a Rajput prince named Prithvi Singh and gifted him a robe of honour. The prince died within a day, possibly from smallpox which he contracted from the infected cloth. “In fact, this seems to have been a very popular form of murder at the time. Raja Shivaji Bhonsle escaped such an attempt at Aurangzeb’s court, where he felt insulted and walked away rudely before a robe could be placed upon him. These stories constructed an obsessive fear of thin Indian clothing, and that of tropical diseases. Why so many Europeans chose to dress in thick garments completely unsuitable for Indian climate is best explained by this infernal dread,” Mr. Gupta explained.

He added, on a more serious note: “William H. McNeill argued in his classic book Plagues & Peoples that human history has been shaped by epidemics, and I think we’re witnessing that right now with COVID-19. The full spectrum of ramifications is yet to unfold.

“South America is a great example of this. It wasn’t the size of the Spanish army which overwhelmed both the Aztec and Inca empires, but the smallpox virus they unknowingly introduced into the continent. It seems odd to me that one of today’s largest global empires is named after those same forests, the Amazon,” he said.

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“We have always invaded the forests, now something from the forest has invaded us. We have colonised the earth, now it wants to colonise us. It is myopic to think we can just make it [COVID-19] go away. There will be a severe economic depression, followed by social unrest and upheaval. These are the patterns of history that keep repeating,” Mr. Gupta said.

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