A Colonial Cosmology of Disease
Disease and medicine were also powerful and enduring influences in British attitudes toward Banaras, though the nature of their influence varied over the long period of British involvement with the city and, to some extent, with the professional outlook of the individuals concerned. There was a disposition among European observers, medical men and missionaries especially, to denigrate Banaras as a Hindu sacred place by pointing to the contrast between its alleged sanctity and purity and its actual squalor and want of sanitation. Typical of this attitude was the following diatribe from the Reverend M. A. Sherring in the 1860s:
Threaded with narrow streets, above which rise the many storied edifices for which the city is famous, it is, without doubt, a problem of considerable difficulty, how to preserve the health of its teeming population. But, when we reflect on the foul wells and tanks in some parts of the city, whose water is of deadly influence, and the vapour from which fills the air with fever-fraught and cholera-breeding miasma; when we consider the loathsome and disgusting state of the popular temples, owing to the rapid decomposition of the offerings, from the intense heat of the sun; when we call to mind the filthy condition of nearly all the by-streets, due to stagnant cesspools, accumulated refuse, and dead bodies of animals; and, when, in addition, we remember how utterly regardless of these matters, and incompetent to correct them, is the police force scattered over the city, the difficulty becomes overwhelming. (Sherring 1868: 181–82)
One can see in this description the almost total reversal of the Hindu understanding of Banaras. Even its sacred and curative waters have become "foul wells and tanks" whose effects are described as "deadly" rather than life-giving or life-preserving. The Ganges at Banaras was subjected to a similar sanitary critique (cf. Eck 1983:216–17). It was also characteristic of Sherring's late-nineteenth-century British standpoint that he believed that the solution to the city's insanitary and insalubrious state lay in the creation of an efficient and purposeful municipal corporation. Under such a body, he claimed, "we should soon see a thorough transformation of the city," and the execution of "radical changes, so imperatively demanded in this region of palaces and filth, in this hot-bed of periodical disease" (Sherring 1868:183).
The British attack upon the insanitary, disease-ridden nature of Hindu pilgrimage centers and sacred places like Banaras was in part an
assault on Hinduism itself and an expression of the disgust, loathing, and incomprehension many nineteenth-century Europeans felt for Hindu India (Arnold 1986). Representing their own ideas and methods as rational and scientific, they characterized the whole of Indian medicine, religion, and popular belief as superstitious and irrational. Medicine and sanitation were among the means by which they sought to demonstrate and to implement their belief in the innate superiority of Western civilization. Through medicine and sanitation the West constituted itself the rival and the antithesis of Indian modes of thought and action.
But, for all the strength of their convictions, the British were forced to recognize the force of Indian cultural and social resistance to Western innovation and intervention. They could not simply ignore the importance of Banaras as a Hindu place of pilgrimage and worship. And, as an alien regime, in a vast and populous land, they were alert to the political risks in attempting too forcefully to impose their own ideas upon a wary population. At first, however, because Banaras was one of the earliest and largest Indian cities to pass under British control, and because it was such an important center for the Hindu religion, the British were keen to make the city a showpiece of their benevolence and enlightenment. Among the first institutions established at Banaras were those twin temples to the healing arts—a hospital (originating with subscriptions collected by Jonathan Duncan, the Resident, in 1787) and a lunatic asylum (1809). By 1814 the "native hospital" was one of three in the Bengal Presidency, but the other two, at Calcutta and Murshidabad, appear to have been more successful propagandists for the virtues of Western medicine. W. W. Bird, one of the governors of the Banaras hospital, observed stoically that the "rise and progress of every benevolent purpose has been a perpetual struggle against opposition and difficulty, but enlightened zeal and perseverance have always prevailed, and doubtless will in the present instance."
Vaccination was another of the boons conferred by Western science and benevolence which it was at first hoped Hindus would embrace with alacrity and gratitude. In practice, in and around Banaras, inoculation continued to be more popular while vaccination was viewed with great suspicion. One of the rumors that circulated about it in eastern U.P. was that it was an attempt by the British to find a child with white blood (or milk) in its veins, the Mahdi or the Kalki, who would otherwise drive the British out of India (North Indian Notes and Queries 1891, I (2):32; I (8):120; Hopkins 1983:147). But the British continued to
think of the benefits of medicine as helping to complement or balance out the more openly coercive aspects of their rule. It was, significantly, at the opening of the Victoria Hospital at Banaras in December 1889 that the lieutenant-governor, Sir Auckland Colvin, possibly with the Mutiny more in mind than medicine, observed that "our empire in India to be secure must rest not on physical force only, but on the goodwill of the people" (Hindustan [28 December] in SVN for 1889). But to many of "the people" Western medicine, through such practices as vaccination, appeared to be just another aspect of colonial coercion (Arnold 1985, 1987).
But from self-interest and from the strength of the resistance encountered, the British were obliged to make frequent concessions to Indian sentiment, placing political pragmatism before medical idealism, and thus tending to confirm their own view of Indian ingratitude, ignorance, and immutable conservatism. When Duncan in 1790 tried to improve upon the primitive state of sanitation in Banaras a "vast multitude of persons" gathered on the outskirts of the city and forced the shopkeepers and traders to observe a hartal (a closure of shops and workplaces as a protest). A petition presented to Duncan complained that his measures were "a novelty" that made the people "apprehensive and disturbed them." He explained that there had been no sinister motive behind his action and that the changes had been intended to benefit the citizens of Banaras. With this reassurance, the people dispersed, "shouting their thanks and rejoicing, to their homes." But Duncan concluded from this and similar experiences that "all innovations, even for evident advantages, should be cautiously attempted, as far as they may affect the various classes and sects who inhabit the local centre of the Hindu faith" (Oldham 1876:208).
The British in Banaras (and to varying degrees elsewhere in colonial India) accordingly pursued a cautious policy, pressing what were seen to be the benefits of Western medicine when they could, but otherwise acknowledging political, cultural, and financial restraints. Early in the nineteenth century they elicited from the pandits of Banaras a statement that vaccination was not in contravention of the shastras (Report of the Smallpox Commissioners 1850:29). By the late 1870s smallpox inoculation had been formally outlawed within the municipalities of Banaras, Ghazipur, and Ballia, and in 1881 vaccination was made compulsory in the municipality of Banaras, followed two years later by the cantonment (colonial Banaras, it should be remembered, was also a military station). But as late as the 1920s the government refrained from making vaccination obligatory throughout Banaras district, fearing the strength of the opposition from the higher castes in the countryside
(ARSC 1879:31A; ARSC 1889:47; ARDPH 1925:44; Nevill, 1909a:26). Similarly, in 1900–1 the Collector of Banaras was at pains to impress the city's inhabitants that the government would not be enforcing the more extreme antiplague provisions, such as compulsory segregation and hospitalization of suspected cases (Indian Appeal , 8 February 1901; Bharat Jiwan [18 February] in SVN for 1901).
In a fashion that echoed the policies of the "Oudh School" of colonial administration, medical and civilian officers in eastern U.P. in the second half of the nineteenth century also sought to overcome or bypass popular resistance to Western medical measures by looking to local elites as intermediaries and leaders. In discussing the prospects for vaccination in the area, J. MacGregor, the regional Superintendent of Vaccination, remarked in 1878 that "an alteration in social customs to be successful in India, as in other countries, must take firm root in the upper strata before it penetrates downwards to the masses." It had been found from experience, he continued, "that when a zamindar's child is vaccinated, the ryot s [peasants] submit their children with only the slender amount of pressure required to remove the vis inertia of apathy." When, however, the landholder was "an absentee or malcontent," the vaccinator "was obliged to find his recruits among those outcasts who live in the slums, or in the outskirts, of the village," a course of action likely to further prejudice the higher castes against vaccination (ARSC 1878:20A). Vaccination officers accordingly sought the assistance of Indian government servants, newspaper editors, municipal councillors, zamindars, and the Raja of Banaras to try to persuade townsfolk and villagers to accept vaccination (ARSC 1877:41; ARSC 1878:20A, 24A).
By the 1880s Western medical and sanitary ideas were gaining at least partial acceptance among many of these traditional and more recent elites (though not, it should be stressed, necessarily to the exclusion of indigenous beliefs and therapies). It was, for example, on the initiative of the Raja of Banaras and his diwan (chief minister) that the Kashi Ganga Prashadini Sabha was formed in 1886 to redirect the sewage of Banaras, keeping the bathing ghats free from pollution. Veneration for the Ganges, the traditional leadership of the Raja, and Western (rather than Hindu) notions of cleanliness and pollution were in this cojoined (Bharat Jiwan [22 November] in SVN for 1886; Nevill 1909a:262). It is striking, too, how many newspaper editors in Banaras and neighboring towns associated themselves with the government's often unpopular vaccination and antiplague policies and were critical of what they, too, saw as the prejudices of the "ignorant masses" (e.g., Hindustan [24 March] in SVN for 1901). Despite the earlier antipathy
and divergence between Western and Indian medical belief and practice, by the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century there were signs of a growing accommodation and compatibility between the two.