Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Legend of the Sāgar Lake—Paralysis from eating the Grain of the Lathyrus sativus

The cantonments of Sāgar are about two miles from the city and occupied by three regiments of native infantry, one of local horse, and a company of European artillery.[1] The city occupies two sides of one of the most beautiful lakes of India, formed by a wall which unites two sandstone hills on the north side. The fort and part of the town stands upon this wall, which, according to tradition, was built by a wealthy merchant of the Banjāra caste.[2]


After he had finished it, the bed of the lake still remained dry; and he was told in a dream, or by a priest, that it would continue so till he should consent to sacrifice his own daughter, then a girl, and the young lad to whom she was affianced, to the tutelary god of the place. He accordingly built a little shrine in the centre of the valley, which was to become the bed of the lake, put the two children in, and built up the doorway.


He had no sooner done so than the whole of the valley became filled with water, and the old merchant, the priest, the masons, and spectators, made their escape with much difficulty. From that time the lake has been inexhaustible; but no living soul of the Banjāra caste has ever since been known to drink of its waters.


Certainly all of that caste at present religiously avoid drinking the water of the lake; and the old people of the city say that they have always done so since they can remember, and that they used to hear from their parents that they had always done so. In nothing does the Founder of the Christian religion appear more amiable than in His injunction, 'Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not'.


In nothing do the Hindoo deities appear more horrible than in the delight they are supposed to take in their sacrifice—it is everywhere the helpless, the female, and the infant that they seek to devour—and so it was among the Phoenicians and their Carthaginian colonies. Human sacrifices were certainly offered in the cities of Sāgar during the whole of the Marātha government up to the year 1800, when they were put a stop to by the local governor, Āsā Sāhib, a very humane man; and I once heard a very learned Brahman priest say that he thought the decline of his family and government arose from this innovation.


'There is', said he, 'no sin in not offering human sacrifices to the gods where none have been offered; but, where the gods have been accustomed to them, they are naturally annoyed when the rite is abolished, and visit the place and people with all kinds of calamities.'


He did not seem to think that there was anything singular in this mode of reasoning, and perhaps three Brahman priests out of four would have reasoned in the same manner.[3]


On descending into the valley of the Nerbudda over the Vindhya range of hills from Bhopal, one may see by the side of the road, upon a spur of the hill, a singular pillar of sandstone rising in two spires, one turning above and rising over the other, to the height of from twenty to thirty feet. On a spur of a hill half a mile distant is another sandstone pillar not quite so high.


The tradition is that the smaller pillar was the affianced bride of the taller one, who was a youth of a family of great eminence in these parts. Coming with his uncle to pay his first visit to his bride in the procession they call the 'barāt', he grew more and more impatient as he approached nearer and nearer, and she shared the feeling. At last, unable to restrain himself, he jumped upon his uncle's shoulder, and looked with all his might towards the spot where his bride was said to be seated.


Unhappily she felt no less impatient than he did, and raised 'the fringed curtains of her eye', as he raised his, [and] they saw each other at the same moment. In that moment the bride, bridegroom, and uncle were all converted into stone pillars; and there they stand to this day a monument, in the estimation of the people, to warn men and womankind against too strong an inclination to indulge curiosity.


It is a singular fact that in one of the most extensive tribes of the Gond population of Central India, to which this couple is said to have belonged, the bride always goes to the bridegroom in the procession of the 'barāt', to prevent a recurrence of this calamity. It is the bridegroom who goes to the bride among every other class of the people of India, as well Muhammadans as Hindoos. Whether the usage grew out of the tradition, or the tradition out of the usage, is a question that will admit of much being said on both sides. I can only vouch for the existence of both. I have seen the pillars, heard the tradition from the people, and ascertained the usage; as in the case of that of the Sāgar lake.


The Mahādēo sandstone hills, which in the Sātpura range overlook the Nerbudda to the south, rise to between four and five thousand feet above the level of the sea;[4] and in one of the highest parts a fair was formerly, and is, perhaps, still held[5] for the enjoyment of those who assemble to witness the self devotion of a few young men, who offer themselves as a sacrifice to fulfil the vows of their mothers. When a woman is without children she makes votive offerings to all the gods, who can, she thinks, assist her, and promises of still greater in case they should grant what she wants.


Smaller promises being found of no avail, she at last promises her first-born, if a male, to the god of destruction, Mahādēo. If she gets a son, she conceals from him her vows till he has attained the age of puberty; she then communicates it [sic] to him, and enjoins him to fulfil it. He believes it to be his paramount duty to obey his mother's call; and from that moment he considers himself as devoted to the god.


Without breathing to any living soul a syllable of what she has told him, he puts on the habit of a pilgrim or religious mendicant, visits all the celebrated temples dedicated to this god in different parts of India;[6] and, at the annual fair on the Mahādēo hills, throws himself from a perpendicular height of four or five hundred feet, and is dashed to pieces upon the rocks below.[7]


If the youth does not feel himself quite prepared for the sacrifice on the first visit, he spends another year in pilgrimages, and returns to fulfil his mother's vow at the next fair. Some have, I believe, been known to postpone the sacrifice to a third fair; but the interval is always spent in painful pilgrimages to the celebrated temples of the god. When Sir R. Jenkins was the Governor-General's representative at the court of Nāgpur,[8] great efforts were made by him and all the European officers under him to put a stop to these horrors by doing away with the fair; and their efforts were assisted by the cholera morbus, which broke out among the multitude one season while they were so employed, and carried off the greater part of them.


This seasonable visitation was, I believe, considered as an intimation on the part of the god that the people ought to have been more attentive to the wishes of the white men, for it so happens that Mahādēo is the only one of the Hindoo gods who is represented with a white face.[9] He figures among the dramatis personae of the great pantomime of the Rāmlīlā[10] or fight for the recovery of Sitā from the demon king of Ceylon; and is the only one with a white face. I know not whether the fair has ever been revived, but [I] think not.


In 1829 the wheat and other spring crops in this and the surrounding villages were destroyed by a severe hail-storm; in 1830 they were deficient from the want of seasonable rains; and in 1831 they were destroyed by blight. During these three years the 'teorī', or what in other parts of India is called 'kesārī' (the Lathyrus sativus of botanists), a kind of wild vetch, which, though not sown itself, is left carelessly to grow among the wheat and other grain, and given in the green and dry state to cattle, remained uninjured, and thrived with great luxuriance.[11] In 1831 they reaped a rich crop of it from the blighted wheat-fields, and subsisted upon its grain during that and the following years, giving the stalks and leaves only to their cattle.


In 1833 the sad effects of this food began to manifest themselves. The younger part of the population of this and the surrounding villages, from the age of thirty downwards, began to be deprived of the use of their limbs below the waist by paralytic strokes, in all cases sudden, but in some cases more severe than in others. About half the youth of this village of both sexes became affected during the years 1833 and 1834, and many of them have lost the use of their lower limbs entirely, and are unable to move.


The youth of the surrounding villages, in which the 'teorī' from the same causes formed the chief article of food during the years 1831 and 1832, have suffered to an equal degree. Since the year 1834 no new case has occurred; but no person once attacked had been found to recover the use of the limbs affected; and my tent was surrounded by great numbers of the youth in different stages of the disease, imploring my advice and assistance under this dreadful visitation.


Some of them were very fine-looking young men of good caste and respectable families; and all stated that their pains and infirmities were confined entirely to the parts below the waist. They described the attack as coming on suddenly, often while the person was asleep, and without any warning symptoms whatever; and stated that a greater portion of the young men were attacked than of the young women. It is the prevailing opinion of the natives throughout the country that both horses and bullocks, which have been much fed upon 'teorī', are liable to lose the use of their limbs; but, if the poisonous qualities abound more in the grain than in the stalk or leaves, man, who eats nothing but the grain, must be more liable to suffer from the use of this food than beasts, which eat it merely as they eat grass or hay.


I sent the son of the head man of the village and another, who were among the young people least affected, into Sāgar with a letter to my friend Dr. Foley, with a request that he would try what he could do for them; and if he had any fair prospect of being able to restore these people to the use of their limbs, that measures might be adopted through the civil authorities to provide them with accommodation and the means of subsistence, either by private subscription, or by application to Government.