Disease, Death, and Curing
Banaras had, however, a special place in Indian and even British thinking about disease, death, and curing. In the traditions of Ayurveda, Banaras enjoyed particular eminence. It was reputedly there that Dhanvantari, "physician of the gods" and "father of Indian medical science" (Stutley and Stutley 1977:75; Sukul 1974:93–94), imparted his knowledge and skills to Sushruta, the author or compiler of the Sushruta Samhitta . Other works of classical Ayurveda, such as Chikitsa Kaumudi and Chikitsa Darshan , were also said to have been written at Banaras during the reigns of the early kings of Kashi. From an early date, probably even before the time of Buddha, Banaras was renowned for its physicians (Joshi 1965:344). With the rise of Muslim power in northern India from the twelfth century, Banaras also became a center for the Unani system of medicine, itself evolving through interaction with Ayurveda. Fashions in medicine, at least among the elite, tended to reflect changes in political supremacy, and the advent of British rule in the late eighteenth century was soon followed by the introduction of Western, allopathic medicine. At first the British showed some tolerance, even respect, for the indigenous medical systems, but as British power grew in confidence and strength attitudes became more openly disdainful. In the Anglicization of the 1830s the East India Company withdrew its former patronage for indigenous learning, including Ayurveda (B. Gupta 1976:370); but the Rajas of Banaras, like the Kings of Delhi and the Nawabs of Awadh until the mid-1850s (Sharar 1975:97–98), remained important patrons, enabling Indian medicine to survive into the late nineteenth century, when it began to be taken up again by the middle classes. As guardians and patrons of Vedic scholarship, the Rajas of Banaras extended their support to Ayurveda as well. Though in a manner indicative of the pluralistic nature of elite culture in Banaras (Saraswati 1975:31, 52), they also employed, indeed seemed to show a preference for, Unani practitioners. The district gazetteer lists among those who served the Rajas the vaidya Trimbak Shastri and the hakims Muhammad Hadi (born 1825), Muhammad Jaffar (born 1854), and Mazhar-ul-Hasan (born 1867), each of whom served in turn as court physician (tabib-i-khas ) (Joshi 1965:34–35). With the establishment of the Banaras Hindu University in 1916 (with its own Medical College and Institute of Medical Sciences) and with the accession of the Congress to ministerial power in U.P. in 1937 and again in 1946, there was a revival of Ayurveda, yet Western medical education and practice remained in the ascendant (Joshi 1965:360; Sukul 1974:102, 115).
But Ayurveda and Unani by no means exhausted the medical specialists of whom Banaras could boast. Hindu and Muslim astrologers, for example, were consulted about the cause of physical and mental ail-
ments and recommended various charms and observances to free their clients of their afflictions (Pugh 1981). Clearly, popular ideas about disease and curing were intimately bound up with wider beliefs about malevolent and benevolent forces affecting human fortunes, health, and happiness. Banaras and eastern U.P. also produced specialists of a more evidently practical kind, such as Jarrahs, or barbers, who performed minor surgical operations (Joshi 1965:345). The region was also one where smallpox inoculation had long been practiced: indeed, the Brahmins of Banaras seem to have been celebrated practitioners of the art (Holwell 1767:8). One early-nineteenth-century report (interestingly, by a Muslim, Nawab Mirza Mehadi Ali Khan) tells of a Brahmin at Banaras who performed a kind of pre-Jennerian cowpox inoculation in the name of Sitala, the smallpox deity; but this cannot have been common (Asiatic Annual Register 1804:98–99). In eastern U.P. generally, inoculators were commonly men of the Mali, or gardener, caste who traveled about the countryside plying their trade during the smallpox season and then returned to their agricultural pursuits as the disease waned—another example of the connection between the agrarian and the disease cycle. Despite British attempts to suppress inoculation in favor of Western vaccination, the practice continued in and around Banaras until at least the 1880s and probably, more discretely, for some time thereafter.6
In Banaras, however, curing or preventing disease was not the province of medical specialists alone. The city itself, with its temples, shrines, ghats, and wells, was widely believed to possess a special capacity to cure, protect, and assuage suffering. To some extent this was the mark of the eminence of Kashi as one of the most sacred places of Hindu India. The abode of Shiva as Vishvanatha, the point where the Ganges flowed north toward the Himalayas, Kashi was an exceptionally auspicious place to die or to be cremated. "Death, which elsewhere is feared, is there welcomed as a long-expected guest. Death, which elsewhere is polluting, is there holy and auspicious" (Eck 1978:191). One path of "curing" offered by Banaras was thus escape from physical and earthly suffering through the certain salvation (moksha) that death in the city conferred. Since disease and suffering were associated with sin and divine displeasure, spiritual and ritual solutions were as commonly sought as any medical therapy. The waters of the Ganges, which could cleanse the soul of all sin, could also by association free the body of its physical afflictions. Pilgrims bathed in the Ganges and took the water home with them from a belief in its curative and protective properties,
as well as for its ritual uses. The sick traveled to Banaras in the hope of being cured or at least of dying in the holy city. Others visited it in fulfillment of vows made during illness. Like Allahabad, Baidyanath, and a number of other sacred places in northern India, Banaras was a site where lepers congregated, whether in the hope of finding charity or from a belief that the holiness of the place would rid them of their disease. It was also to Kashi that thousands fled from eastern India and the Deccan to escape the plague in 1900–1, believing that the dreaded disease could never enter so sacred a place (Nevill 1909a:27). The religious reasons that made Banaras such a magnet for the sick and dying also help to explain why the mortality rate in the city was so perennially high.
In addition to its all-India prominence as a center for pilgrimage and worship, Banaras was also a "microcosm of Indian life, customs and popular beliefs" (Havell 1905:80). As such it attracted to itself ideas about disease and curing which belonged to a wider Hindu or Indian cosmology of belief and explanation. The "disease godlings" (Crooke 1926:114f.) of the folk tradition here commingled with the Sanskritic deities and Ayurveda of the literati and the elite (the so-called Great Tradition) in ways that defied neat division and compartmentalization. The worship of Sitala could be taken as one illustration of this. The Brahmin inoculators of Banaras invoked the goddess for the success of their operations; and the city seems to have long been important as a center for her worship (Wadley 1980:51–53; Nicholas 1981:30–31). As one of the shakti (female) forms of Shiva, Sitala was perhaps thought deserving of special representation in Shiva's city, and shrines to the goddess were often to be found in close association with Shaivite temples in Banaras (Havell 1905:113). But Sitala also remained part of the folk tradition from which she had originated (Eck 1983:171–72), and her popularity as an object of worship in the city may have reflected the prevalence of smallpox in the region and the reverence with which the goddess was widely regarded.
Other forms of popular disease propitiation and curing were to be found in Banaras. Vidyarthi in his recent study of the "sacred complex" of Kashi (1979:39, 54) lists thirteen deities with special attributes, including healing and protective powers. Apart from Sitala, these include Khokhi Devi for coughs and colds, Jwarharneshwar Mahadeo for
fevers, and Kal-Bhairava for warding off ghosts and malevolent spirits. Eck (1983:194) also identifies Bhairava as a popular protector against illness and misfortune. Other sources list tanks, wells, and shrines with similar properties. The Amrit Kupa (or "well of immortality") was said to be associated with the cure of skin diseases, including leprosy. It was also called after Dhanvantari, who was said to have thrown his medical bag into the waters, giving them their curative powers—an interesting link between Ayurveda and popular belief (Joshi 1965:345; Sherring 1868:219; cf. Eck's description of the Kala Kupa, "the well of time," 1983:262–63). At the Nag Kupa, or "serpent's well," an annual festival was held at the time of the Naga Panchami in Shravana (July–August) partly in order to obtain protection from snakebite (Fisher and Hewett 1884:139; Eck 1983:264).
Some of these protective or curative rites had their place in the annual cycle of the seasons, when a particular disease, like smallpox (Wadley 1980:37–38, 42–43), or when snakebite (Eck 1983:264), was most feared. But the annual cycle was interrupted or punctuated by the greater calamities of major epidemics when special measures were employed. On such occasions in eastern U.P., "scapegoats" were used to drive out epidemic disease, or offerings dedicated to a disease deity were passed on from village to village in the hope that the pestilence would move away with them. Sometimes as much noise and clamor as possible was made in a bid to scare off the demon of disease (North Indian Notes and Queries 1891, I (6): 111, 119; I (8): 127; Crooke 1968, chap. 3). Disease-driving rituals at times occasioned local clashes, for the inhabitants of contiguous neighborhoods did not always take kindly to the disease deity or demon being driven into their territory. On the night of March 10, 1901, as the plague epidemic closed in on Banaras, gangs of "rowdies" gathered in Dashashvamedha and Sigra in the south of the city to repulse the "scapegoat" of the disease driven out from Chaitganj (Bharat Jiwan [11 March] in SVN for 1901).
Such rituals gave emphasis to the continuing gulf between popular Indian beliefs concerning disease and the ideas held by the colonial administration. The depth of that divide, and its political as well as cultural connotations, was further exemplified by the rumor widespread in Banaras and other towns of northern India at the time that the British were deliberately spreading the plague through the poisoning of the municipal water supplies in order to rid themselves of a troublesome populace or to break down caste and religion (Kalidas [2 June] in SVN for 1900). But it is also indicative of the variety of responses provoked by epidemic disease that other Hindus and Muslims offered up prayers for protection in the city's temples and mosques and that the editor of the Banaras newspaper Bharat Jiwan turned to the Ayurveda
to find sanction for the British policy of evacuating infected towns and villages (Bharat Jiwan [11 March] in SVN for 1901).