Protectors, Pestilence, and Poxes: Journeying through the plague temples of Bengaluru

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Protectors, Pestilence, and Poxes: Journeying through the plague temples of Bengaluru

An essay by Sonali Dhanpal.

On 12th August 1898, a railway employee travelled on the Madras-and-Southern-Maratha-Railway, from the Bombay Presidency to Bangalore. First presenting a fever, then a rash and eventually multiple buboes on his body, he unknowingly became the first recorded vector of the Third Plague Pandemic or better known as the bubonic plague in Bangalore and thereby the Mysore princely state. Little did he know that the disease he had contracted would ultimately impact colonial India for over two decades, with a devastating toll on many Indian cities, killing over 10 million people. First found in the subcontinent in Bombay in 1896, the plague firmly established itself in colonial India, spreading first to Northern and Western India and subsequently to the rest of the country.

Gippsland Times, 1901
Gippsland Times, 1901

Soon, the very same railways where the first case was found, become an arena of surveillance. Detention camps were established at railway stations and all persons who had come from infected areas and those who could not be trusted to report themselves were intercepted and forcefully detained. Those detained were prohibited from leaving the cantonment and the city railway stations until they underwent complete disinfection. This was one amongst the many extraordinary measures of policing and surveillance that the colonial state responded with, measures that have aroused much interest in the current times of Covid-19 pandemic. How the colonial government launched itself into a series of far-reaching measures was surprising, given the previous reluctance to provoke public opposition and unwillingness to spend more than what was absolutely necessary on public health. But such intervention was triggered by a combination of domestic and international pressures. Thought to be localised actions, cordon sanitaries, quarantines, segregation camps, plague hospitals were deployed to regulate and limit the disease, discipline and cure the plague afflicted into health and obedience, actions that act as doublespeak for those brought about by COVID-19.

In Bangalore, the plague of 1898 significantly impacted the urban through projects of state-led planning seen in residential extensions in the city such as Basavanagudi, Malleshwaram, Frazer Town, that still remain. But these were long term measures to present a vision of order and control that the state sought to leave behind. In contrast to how the city readily became a space of control, temporal state measures in the years soon after the plague, much like today, led to resistance and conflict. This opposition stemmed from manhandling of individuals, violation of caste in hospitals and segregation camps, entering homes for disinfection without consent, unwelcome segregation of women and many others. At the core were fear and uncertainty coupled with a deep mistrust of the government and these interventions were perceived as unnecessary and disruptive. Terror-stricken and dying in large numbers, residents fled the city. Plague corpses were left at night in the verandas of some Europeans officials’ residences! It is, therefore, no surprise that pandemonium broke out, a municipal engineer, J.H Stephens in his book Plague Proof Town Planning described Bangalore to have been ‘a spectacle that made mortals shudder’ and likened the rubbish on the streets to those left from an overflowing of Vesuvius. Varied and conflicting ideas of health and disease existed between those of the state and its elites to that of its citizens. This conflict between ideas of health and disease is reflected in one of the most fascinating legacies left on the urban environment.

A labyrinth of roads in Akkithimmanhalli leads to a narrow tree-lined street with a curious-looking shrine that abuts a 30’x 40’ plot with a multi-storey structure, another urban legacy from the plague. A fenced-off large tree on one side, the shrine on the other clad with brown granite, atop a gopuram with multiple types of cement rendered figurines painted in emulsion pink, yellow and dull gold. Little can be said about the historicity of this structure, with the exception of various purveyors of heritage in the city attesting to its historic presence in news articles and blogs. Perhaps the only indicator of its connection to the plague is the name itself, Sri Plague Mariyamma Temple Trust, displayed on a board above a fabricated mild steel gate. A trishul or trident staked to the ground sits outside the temple, two steps lead up to the small rectangular interior layout, the sanctum sanctorum houses the main deity made of black stone, goddess Mariyamma, the premier goddess of contagion in south India, (associated with Parvati, the consort of Shiva). ‘Mari’ meaning rain or loosely translating to transformation and ‘Amma’ meaning mother or goddess, is invoked for her ability to cool fevers. That the histories of disease and religion are innately entwined, is well-known but this temple sits at the cusp of an important moment in the history of the plague, the wider ‘acceptance’ of western medicine in the life of everyday Indians, in a way that had not existed before the plague. Indigenous understanding of disease lay in seeing the body as made up of balances and imbalances. Contagion, therefore, existed within the body itself but was active or inactive. The label of ‘plague goddess’ is therefore not bestowed on her because she cured the plague, rather such diseases and ‘fevers’ which already existed in bodies were controlled by her.

Sri Plague Mariyamma Temple Trust. Picture Courtesy: Author
Sri Plague Mariyamma Temple Trust. Picture Courtesy: Author

Widely held understanding of western medicine based on pathogens and source of disease external to the body, was in opposition to the indigenous understanding of the disease. Nevertheless, inoculation was widely promoted by medical practitioners and eventually by the government as a prophylactic measure for all populations. But inoculation in the initial years could not guarantee against the plague, since it was not clear that it was the fleas that the rats carried and not the rats themselves that carried the disease. Rumours spread that the colonial government had manufactured the disease to kill populations, many therefore sought their own treatments. Some believed the consumption of alcohol as a plague preventive measure. Various private practitioners too found encouragement, ‘bubo ointments’ and ‘plague solutions’ were seen dispensed by various chemists and practitioners. It is not difficult to imagine, invoking of goddess Mariyamma and symbols of her protection in such a climate when many thought no real cure existed and the measures being dispensed were viewed with suspicion.

Mariyamma idol in Plague Mariyamma Temple Trust. Picture Courtesy: Author
Mariyamma idol in Plague Mariyamma Temple Trust. Picture Courtesy: Author

Muthyalamma idol in Sri Muthyalamma Devi Sannidhi. Picture Courtesy: Author
Muthyalamma idol in Sri Muthyalamma Devi Sannidhi. Picture Courtesy: Author

Despite the plague occurring post germ theory, the miasma theory that held that the disease transmission was caused by a miasma, a noxious form of ‘bad air’ was still prevalent until the end of the 19th century. The latter allowed the launch of an offensive against the urban environment; evictions, demolitions and clearing of slums were carried out as European medical practitioners in India claimed with certainty that the infection was in-situ, stemming from specific neighbourhoods. Archives reveal that the populations subjected to the harshest regulations were, unsurprisingly, from deprived castes and classes. The ideology of improvement of the urban after the plague was institutionalised in the Bangalore City Improvement Trust Board. But capitalist imperatives made available the bourgeois comfort of a planned locality to limited populations since the improvement was not seen as remedying sanitary conditions but instead enhancing the commercial value of the land. This, in turn, meant that those evicted were unable to access land and housing that were made healthful or sanitary. It is, therefore, no wonder that temples dedicated to Mariamma are located in what were perhaps some of the most historically dense pockets in the city such as Shivaji Nagar (former Blackpully), and parts of Ulsoor (or Halasur).

Sri Muthyalamma Devi Sannidhi, Ulsoor. Picture Courtesy: Author
Sri Muthyalamma Devi Sannidhi, Ulsoor. Picture Courtesy: Author

Sri Circle Mariamma Temple. Picture Courtesy: Mythrayi Harshavardhan
Sri Circle Mariamma Temple. Picture Courtesy: Mythrayi Harshavardhan

The plague was only one amongst many diseases such as cholera, smallpox, malaria, tuberculosis and an assortment of fevers that plagued populations in the long nineteenth century. Mariyamma’s powers were therefore appropriated on many occasions of pestilence by communities and temples dedicated to her dot the city. In offering such relief, however, she was not alone, goddess Muthyalamma – the shrine in Ulsoor - was also worshipped to ward off epidemics such as small-pox. A historian would hope to access records describing them or wish to discover more of the original fabric now painted with vivid colours, clad with tiles, cementitious figures, a newly evolving temple aesthetic with a glut of modern materials. Perhaps, like the Circle Mariamman Temple which was called upon to evade fears of road traffic accidents in Malleshwaram, these plague temples too began as small shrines along the road only to have superstructures added later. The plague temples, still evolving to protect the devout from the vagaries of disease and affliction, present indigenous institutional practices as spaces of resistance and autonomy.

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Sonali Dhanpal
Sonali Dhanpal

An architect and built heritage conservationist, Sonali is the inaugural recipient of the Forshaw Scholarship for her PhD at the Newcastle School of Architecture, Planning & Landscape, United Kingdom. Her research explores residential extensions, bungalow culture and the production of everyday spaces in the Princely State of Mysore.

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