Horrors of the East

rohit gupta | Updated on January 23, 2018 Published on April 24, 2015

Emperor’s cloths: Aurangzeb was a man of paranoid cunning and treachery, and it was reported that his subjects considered him a fakir or wizard. Photo: Wikicommons

Shivaji openly defies Aurangzeb. Photo: Wikicommons


The colonialists were quick to deem India a place where the powers of darkness rage

The scientific awareness of a period in history is richly illustrated by folklore, for example, certain macabre legends concerning ‘poison khilats’ (or cloths, presumably). The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb is said to have 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.

Instead of smallpox, some tales hint that the cloth was soaked with an exotic oriental poison, which then percolated into the skin of the wearer, burning him to death. In 1666, Raja Shivaji Bhosle escaped such an attempt at Aurangzeb’s court, where he felt insulted and walked away rudely before the ‘robe of honour’ could be placed upon him. Historians Michelle Maskiell, and Adrienne Mayor inform us in a research paper: “For many 19th century British authors, including James Tod and William Crooke, Aurangzeb was a man of paranoid cunning and treachery, and it was reported that his subjects considered him a fakir or wizard.”

These European accounts thus constructed an obsessive fear of thin Indian clothing, and that of tropical diseases. Through this pernicious miasma, only a thick layer of cloth could prevent them from falling prey to the horrors of the East. Why so many Europeans chose to dress in garments completely unsuitable for Indian climate is best explained by this infernal dread.

Several instances and variations of this method of murder exist during this period, which suggest that the causal link between infection and disease had been firmly established within local knowledge. In the early 1600s, very primitive microscopes were already under development in Europe, but the microbial nature of disease would not be revealed for some time. According to a Wikipedia entry, “The first detailed account of the interior construction of living tissue based on the use of a microscope did not appear until 1644, in Giambattista Odierna’s L’occhio della Mosca, or The Fly’s Eye.”

A very interesting account of murders in the East was published in 1870 by Norman Chevers, a British doctor. His book A Manual of Medical Jurisprudence for India, Including the Outline of a History of Crime Against the Person in India also comments on the cloth murders. Chevers writes, “Anyone who has noticed how freely a robust person in India perspires through a thin garment, can understand that if the cloth were thoroughly impregnated with the cantharidine of that very powerful vesicant, the Telini (probably the blister beetle or Spanish fly), the result would be as dangerous as that of an extensive burn.”

The rest of the book explores a panorama of impassioned crimes by natives across British India, including some of the most bizarre. Wives in Bengal accidentally killing their husbands by mixing what they thought was a love potion, but turned out to be a fatal poison; the Rajah of Mandavie who committed masculine sati along with eight other people by burning himself in fireworks; Brahmins who committed suicide by overeating to death; men who would pretend to be a corpse so that the law may punish the accused; and a variety of incidents involving human sacrifice at the altar of goddess Kali.

Chevers does not mention another strange episode from the medical history of colonial India, the mysterious James Esdaile — a practitioner of mesmerism, or medical hypnotism. This doctor of Calcutta would place his patients in a sort of anesthetic, hypnotic trance induced to alleviate surgical pain. His journal is a dramatic account of the many cases treated by him, a large number of which featured amputations of various tumours and abscesses among the native population, including a number of prisoners from a nearby jail. Some of the accounts mention the removal of gargantuan appendages, perhaps with exaggerated dimensions to fuel the oriental fantasies of readers back home in England.

An example: “May 12th. — Bu­xoo, a Khit­mat­gar. There is a fi­stu­lus ope­ning in the ure­thra and the glans penis which is sloug­hing, and re­qui­res to be am­pu­ta­ted. I de­si­red him to be mes­me­ri­sed, and re­tur­ned in an hour. I found him as­leep, and when loo­king at him, he sud­denly ope­ned his eyes, but im­me­dia­tely went to sleep again, and in five mi­nu­tes after I cut off the glans, wi­thout awa­king him. He awoke soon af­ter, and said it was from fear, not pain.”

A similar state of suspended animation was the subject of a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Facts in the Case of M Valdemar’, originally intended as a hoax. This story, in turn, was mentioned in In the House of Suddhoo by Rudyard Kipling, the best-known chronicler of the British Raj. His mountain tale begins with an ominous poem about the horrors of India:

And all the world is wild and strange;

Churel and ghoul and Djinn and sprite

Shall bear us company to-night,

For we have reached the Oldest Land

Wherein the Powers of Darkness range.

( Rohit Gupta explores the history of science as Compasswallah)

Follow Rohit on Twitter @fadesingh

Published on April 24, 2015
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor