Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Epidemic Diseases—Scape-goat

In the evening, after my conversation with the cultivator upon the wall that united the two hills,[1] I received a visit from my little friend the Sarīmant. His fine rose-coloured turban is always put on very gracefully; every hair of his jet-black eyebrows and mustachios seems to be kept always most religiously in the same place; and he has always the same charming smile upon his little face, which was never, I believe, distorted into an absolute laugh or frown.


No man was ever more perfectly master of what the natives call 'the art of rising or sitting' (nishisht wa barkhāst), namely, good manners. I should as soon expect to see him set the Nerbudda on fire as commit any infringement of the convenances on this head established in good Indian society, or be guilty of anything vulgar in speech, sentiment, or manners.


I asked him by what means it was that the old queen of Sāgar[2] drove out the influenza that afflicted the people so much in 1832, while he was there on a visit to me. He told me that he took no part in the ceremonies, nor was he aware of them till awoke one night by 'the noise, when his attendants informed him that the queen and the greater part of the city were making offerings to the new god, Hardaul Lāla. He found next morning that a goat had been offered up with as much noise as possible, and with good effect, for the disease was found to give way from that moment.


About six years before, when great numbers were dying in his own little capital of Pithoria[3] from a similar epidemic, he had, he said, tried the same thing with still greater effect; but, on that occasion, he had the aid of a man very learned in such matters. This man caused a small carriage to be made up after a plan of his own, for a pair of scape-goats, which were harnessed to it, and driven during the ceremonies to a wood some distance from the town, where they were let loose.


From that hour the disease entirely ceased in the town. The goats never returned. 'Had they come back,' said Sarīmant, 'the disease must have come back with them; so he took them a long way into the wood—indeed (he believed), the man, to make sure of them, had afterwards caused them to be offered up as a sacrifice to the shrine of Hardaul Lāla, in that very wood. He had himself never seen a pūjā (religious ceremony) so entirely and immediately efficacious as this, and much of its success was, no doubt, attributable to the science of the man who planned the carriage, and himself drove the pair of goats to the wood. No one had ever before heard of the plan of a pair of scape- goats being driven in a carriage; but it was likely (he thought) to be extensively adopted in future.'[4]


Sarīmant's man of affairs mentioned that when Lord Hastings took the field against the Pindhārīs, in 1817,[5] and the division of the grand army under his command was encamped near the grove in Bundēlkhand, where repose the ashes of Hardaul Lāla, under a small shrine, a cow was taken into this grove to be converted into beef for the use of the Europeans.


The priest in attendance remonstrated, but in vain—the cow was killed and eaten. The priest complained, and from that day the cholera morbus broke out in the camp; and from this central point it was, he said, generally understood to have spread all over India.[6]


The story of the cow travelled at the same time, and the spirit of Hardaul Lāla was everywhere supposed to be riding in the whirlwind, and directing the storm. Temples were everywhere erected, and offerings made to appease him; and in six years after, he had himself seen them as far as Lahore, and in almost every village throughout the whole course of his journey to that distant capital and back.


He is one of the most sensible and freely spoken men that I have met with. 'Up to within the last few years', added he, 'the spirit of Hardaul Lāla had been propitiated only in cases of cholera morbus; but now he is supposed to preside over all kinds of epidemic diseases, and offerings have everywhere been made to his shrine during late influenzas.'[7]


'This of course arises', I observed, 'from the industry of his priests, who are now spread all over the country; and you know that there is hardly a village or hamlet in which there are not some of them to be found subsisting upon the fears of the people.'


'I have no doubt', replied he, 'that the cures which the people attribute to the spirit of Hardaul Lāla often arise merely from the firmness of their faith (itikād) in the efficacy of their offerings; and that any other ceremonies, that should give to their minds the same assurance of recovery, would be of great advantage in cases of epidemic diseases. I remember a singular instance of this,' said he. 'When Jeswant Rāo Holkar was flying before Lord Lake to the banks of the Hyphasis,[8] a poor trooper of one of his lordship's irregular corps, when he tied the grain-bag to his horse's mouth, said 'Take this in the name of Jeswant Rāo Holkar, for to him you and I owe all that we have.'


'The poor man had been suffering from an attack of ague and fever; but from that moment he felt himself relieved, and the fever never returned. At that time this fever prevailed more generally among the people of Hindustan than any I have ever known, though I am now an old man. The speech of the trooper and the supposed result soon spread; and others tried the experiment with similar success, and it acted everywhere like a charm.


'I had the fever myself, and, though by no means a superstitious man, and certainly no lover of Jeswant Rāo Holkar, I tried the experiment, and the fever left me from that day. From that time, till the epidemic disappeared, no man, from the Nerbudda to the Indus, fed his horse without invoking the spirit of Jeswant Rāo, though the chief was then alive and well. Some one had said he found great relief from plunging into the stream during the paroxysms of the fever; others followed the example, and some remained for half an hour at a time, and the sufferers generally found relief.


'The streams and tanks throughout the districts between the Ganges and Jumna became crowded, till the propitiatory offering to the spirit of the living Jeswant Rāo Holkar were [sic] found equally good, and far less troublesome to those who had horses that must have got their grain, whether in Holkar's name or not.'


There is no doubt that the great mass of those who had nothing but their horses and their good blades to depend upon for their subsistence did most fervently pray throughout India for the safety of this Marāthā chief, when he fled before Lord Lake's army; for they considered that, with his fall, the Company's dominion would become everywhere securely established, and that good soldiers would be at a discount.


'Company kē amal men kuchh rozgār nahin hai,'—'There is no employment in the Company's dominion,' is a common maxim, not only among the men of the sword and the spear, but among those merchants who lived by supporting native civil and military establishments with the luxuries and elegancies which, under the new order of things, they have no longer the means to enjoy.


The noisy pūjā (worship), about which our conversation began, took place at Sāgar in April, 1832, while I was at that station. More than four-fifths of the people of the city and cantonments had been affected by a violent influenza, which commenced with a distressing cough, was followed by fever, and, in some cases, terminated in death.


I had an application from the old Queen Dowager of Sāgar, who received a pension of ten thousand pounds a year from the British Government,[9] and resided in the city, to allow of a noisy religious procession to implore deliverance from this great calamity. Men, women, and children in this procession were to do their utmost to add to the noise by 'raising their voices in psalmody', beating upon their brass pots and pans with all their might, and discharging fire-arms where they could get them; and before the noisy crowd was to be driven a buffalo, which had been purchased by a general subscription, in order that every family might participate in the merit.


They were to follow it out for eight miles, where it was to be turned loose for any man who would take it. If the animal returned, the disease, it was said, must return with it, and the ceremony be performed over again. I was requested to intimate the circumstance to the officer commanding the troops in cantonments, in order that the hideous noise they intended to make might not excite any alarm, and bring down upon them the visit of the soldiery. It was, however, subsequently determined that the animal should be a goat, and he was driven before the crowd accordingly. I have on several occasions been requested to allow of such noisy pūjās in cases of epidemics; and the confidence they feel in their efficiency has, no doubt, a good effect.


While in civil charge of the district of Narsinghpur, in the valley of the Nerbudda, in April 1823, the cholera morbus raged in almost every house of Narsinghpur and Kandelī, situated near each other,[l0] and one of them close to my dwelling-house and court.


The European physicians lost all confidence in their prescriptions, and the people declared that the hand of God was upon them, and by appeasing Him could they alone hope to be saved.[11] A religious procession was determined upon; but the population of both towns was divided upon the point whether a silent or a noisy one would be most acceptable to God. Hundreds were dying around me when I was applied to to settle this knotty point between the parties. I found that both in point of numbers and respectability the majority was in favour of the silent procession, and I recommended that this should be adopted.


The procession took place about nine the same night, with all due ceremony; but the advocates for noise would none of them assist in it. Strange as it may appear, the disease abated from that moment; and the great majority of the population of both towns believed that their prayers had been heard; and I went to bed with a mind somewhat relieved by the hope that this feeling of confidence might be useful. About one o'clock I was awoke from a sound sleep by the most hideous noise that I had ever heard; and, not at that moment recollecting the proposal for the noisy procession, ran out of my house, in expectation of seeing both towns in flames.


I found that the advocates for noise, resolving to have their procession, had assembled together about midnight; and, apprehensive that they might be borne down by the advocates for silence and my police establishment, had determined to make the most of their time, and put in requisition all the pots, pans, shells, trumpets, pistols, and muskets that they could muster.


All opened at once about one o'clock; and, had there been any virtue in discord, the cholera must soon have deserted the place, for such another hideous compound of noises I never heard. The disease, which seemed to have subsided with the silent procession before I went to bed, now returned with double violence, as I was assured by numbers who flocked to my house in terror; and the whole population became exasperated with the leaders of the noisy faction, who had, they believed, been the means of bringing back among them all the horrors of this dreadful scourge.


I asked the Hindoo Sadar Amīn, or head native judicial officer at Sāgar, a very profound Sanskrit scholar, what he thought of the efficacy of these processions in checking epidemic diseases.


He said that 'there could be nothing more clear than the total inefficiency of medicine in such cases; and, when medicine failed, a man's only resource was in prayers; that the diseases of mankind were to be classed under three general heads: first, those suffered for sins committed in some former births; second, those suffered for sins committed in the present birth; third, those merely accidental. Now,' said the old gentleman, 'it must be clear to every unprejudiced mind that the third only can be cured or checked by the physician.'


Epidemics, he thought, must all be classed under the second head, and as inflicted by the Deity for some very general sin; consequently, to be removed only by prayers; and, whether silent or noisy, was, he thought, matter of little importance, provided they were offered in the same spirit.


I believe that, among the great mass of the people of India, three-fourths of the diseases of individuals are attributed to evil spirits and evil eyes; and for every physician among them there are certainly ten exorcisers. The faith in them is very great and very general; and, as the gift is supposed to be supernatural, it is commonly exercised without fee or reward. The gifted person subsists upon some other employment, and exorcises gratis.


A child of one of our servants was one day in convulsions from its sufferings in cutting its teeth. The Civil Surgeon happened to call that morning, and he offered to lance the child's gums. The poor mother thanked him, but stated that there could be no possible doubt as to the source of her child's sufferings—that the devil had got into it during the night, and would certainly not be frightened out by his little lancet; but she expected every moment my old tent- pitcher, whose exorcisms no devil of this description had ever yet been able to withstand.


The small-pox had been raging in the town of Jubbulpore for some time during one hot season that I was there, and a great many children had died from it. The severity of the disease was considered to have been a good deal augmented by a very untoward circumstance that had taken place in the family of the principal banker of the town, Khushhāl Chand. Sēwā Rām Sēth, the old man, had lately died, leaving two sons. Ram Kishan, the eldest, and Khushhāl Chand, the second.


The eldest gave up all the management of the sublunary concerns of the family, and devoted his mind entirely to religious duties. They had a very fine family temple of their own, in which they placed an image of their god Vishnu, cut out of the choicest stone of the Nerbudda, and consecrated after the most approved form, and with very expensive ceremonies.


This idol Rām Kishan used every day to wash with his own hands with rosewater, and anoint with precious ointments. One day, while he had the image in his arms, and was busily employed in anointing it, it fell to the ground upon the stone pavement, and one of the arms was broken. To live after such an untoward accident was quite out of the question, and poor Rām Kishan proceeded at once quietly to hang himself. He got a rope from the stable, and having tied it over the beam in the room where he had let the god fall upon the stone pavement, he was putting his head calmly into the noose, when his brother came in, laid hold of him, called for assistance, and put him under restraint.