Coronavirus Outbreak: What Our Urdu Poets Wrote About Pandemics

Amid news of people thronging temples during this pandemic, here’s a hark back to historic pilgrimages & pandemics.

6 min read
Hindi Female

Perhaps the most searing announcement of self-imposed social distancing, long before the term gained currency in these COVID-infested times, is this ghazal by Delhi’s pre-eminent poet, Mirza Ghalib:

Rahiye ab aisi jagah chal kar jahan koi na ho
Hum-suḳhan koi na ho aur ham-zaban koi na ho
Be-dar-o-diwar sa ik ghar banaya chahiye
Koi hum-saya na ho aur pasban koi na ho
Padiye gar bimaar to koi na ho timaardar
Aur agar mar jaaiye to nauha-ḳhwan koi na ho

Let us go and live somewhere where there is no one
No one who speaks to me in my language, no one to talk to
I will make something that is like a house
(But) There won’t be any neighbours, nor anyone to guard it
Were I to fall ill, there will be no one to tend me
And when I die, no one to mourn me


Aftermath of Revolt of 1857

Of course, there was no Coronavirus scare in Delhi then, but in the immediate aftermath of the Revolt of 1857, many citizens of Delhi, who had chosen to stay back in their battle-scarred, besieged city, were house-bound. With rations running low, plummeting morale and deteriorating civic conditions, there was mounting news of the atrocities being unleashed by the British on hapless citizens. These three couplets are said to have been written in response to the Nawab of Farrukhabad being picked up by the British for aiding the rebels, and abandoned on an island off the shore of Arabia.

They reflect the hopelessness and escapism that afflicted many Indians of Ghalib’s generation.

The words ‘bechaini’, ‘beqarari’, ‘dard’, especially ‘dard-e dil’, feature prominently in Urdu poetry, such as this sher by, again, Ghalib:

Ishq se tabiat ne ziist ka maza paaya
Dard ki davaa paai dard-e-be-dava paaya

It’s from love we learnt the savour of life
Found the cure for pain and the pain that has no cure

But if it is of sickness, ill health or malady (bimaari), in particular that we speak, there is Ghalib (again) with his oft-quoted:

Un ke dekhe se jo aa jaati hai munh par raunaq
Woh samajhte hain ki bimar ka haal achchha hai

The glow that comes to my face when they look at me
They think the patient is feeling better today


Of Death & Disease

Others who have written on sickness, though almost always in the abstract, there is this by Mubarak Azimabadi:

Mehrbani charasazon ki baḌhi
Jab badha darman to bimari baḌhi

The kindness of my physicians increased
When the medicine increased so did the illness

And this by Khalilur Rehman Raz in much the same vein:

Kya suna.en jan-ba-lab qaumon ki bimari ka haal
Dard badhta hi gaya juun juun dava karte rahe

What shall I tell you about the sickness of the nations at death’s door
The pain increased as we increased the medicine

On ‘vaba’ or epidemic in particular, there is this by Hasan Naim:

Sab pareshan hain ki aḳhir kis vaba men vo mire
Jin ko ġhurbat ke alava koi bimari na thi

Everyone is worried about the epidemic that will ensnare
Them who have no illness save poverty

Seeing an old woman sleeping on the open ground at a time when death and disease are rampant in the country, Josh Malihabadi writes this in a long poem entitled ‘Zaifa’ meaning ‘old woman’:

Aur kis mausam men jab ta.un hai phaila hua
Zarra zarra hai vaba ke ḳhauf se simTa hua

At this time when pestilence has spread
Every particle has shrunk with the fear of epidemic


The Haj & Pilgrim Ships’ Act

The one time when fear of epidemic is very real, and mortality often very high, is during mass religious gatherings, such as the Haj. While the Haj has been studied from many perspectives – religious, sociological, cultural – it has seldom been viewed from the perspective of community health. Saurabh Mishra addresses this lacuna in his book Pilgrimage, Politics, and Pestilence: The Haj from the Indian Subcontinent, 1860-1920 (OUP, 2011).

He looks at the ‘medicalisation’ of Mecca as it reeled from one epidemic to another all through the late nineteenth century till it found some degree of stabilisation through the introduction of quarantine and other regularisations imposed by an increasingly threatened and jittery Europe.

Running apace with this growing ‘medicalisation’ is what Mishra calls the increasing ‘politicisation’, as the Hejaz becomes a highly contested zone, and the pilgrims a volatile, politically-driven lot than the meek, pious passengers of olden days.

Since the bulk of Haj pilgrims in the period of Mishra’s study were from Asia and Africa, where diseases, especially highly contagious ones such as cholera, small pox, typhoid, etc. were rampant, the colonial governments in these parts did their best to control the spread of epidemics at the source, that is, at the exit points for each country, usually the embarkation ports along the Indian Ocean.

Since there was no rule in the Pilgrim Ships’ Act regarding compulsory vaccination then, pilgrims could only be ‘induced’ to get themselves vaccinated by persuasion. Despite the best of intentions, disease and infection could not be entirely controlled. People continued to pour into Mecca, either with forged certificates or without the knowledge that inoculations were for their own good.

Many even believed that being ‘Allah’s guests’, those who die in Mecca, considered the Bait-ul Muqqaddas or the ‘Holiest of Homes’, were assured a straight passage to Heaven. They, therefore, not only made light of any inconveniences or misfortunes, but even considered it a rare privilege to die and be buried in the soil of the holy sites.


Cholera in the Hejaz in 1831

Among the pilgrims who have left behind travel accounts or safarnamas, the few who did note the abysmal lack of systems of sanitary intervention, chose to concentrate on the unsanitary conditions, especially after the ritual sacrifice of an animal at Mina rather than the general state of affairs which bred disease and pestilence. Things reached such a pass in Mina that local authorities were often forced to raise a yellow flag on the mountain top to alert the incoming tide of pilgrims. The raising of the yellow flag struck terror among the devout, but did little to either douse their ardour or improve health and hygiene.

Pilgrims continued to die of infectious diseases in the Hejaz. In 1893, of the 200,000 pilgrims during Haj, 33,000 perished.

Since the great majority of those who flocked to the holy cities were either poor or enfeebled by age, the health hazards of accumulating large numbers of people under unsanitary conditions increased manifold. Cholera, long a scourge in India, appeared in the Hejaz in 1831. From then on till the early twentieth century, it continued to rage and claim thousands of pious victims. The Ottomans, and later, the Nejdis, tried their best to contain it – but by 1865, a major cholera epidemic was raging through the Hejaz. It is said to have originated in Java, and was carried to Mecca by pilgrims, one-third of whom perished during the pilgrimage.

By June the disease was raging in Alexandria. And later that same month, it reached Marseilles, and thence, most of the cities of Europe. In November 1865, cholera was reported in New York City.


Threat of Devastating Cholera Epidemics Invading Europe Via Hejaz

Once the threat of this annual epidemic ravaging western non-endemic, non-Islamic nations became very real, several international conferences were held. Quarantine stations were set up. Port authorities – both at the point of embarkation and disembarkation – were instructed to step up vigilance. Fumigation of pilgrims’ luggage was made compulsory.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, lauded as a great victory for European hegemonic interests, was suddenly seen as a portal of death and destruction.

For the first time in the history of the West’s interaction with the Middle East, fear replaced greed. This fear was overlaid with self-preservation. The threat of devastating cholera epidemics invading Europe by way of the Hejaz succeeded in uniting rival European powers, as the West realised it could not remain at the mercy of the pilgrimage to Mecca year after year. As a result of this fear, the Haj became ‘not merely a subject of concern for European countries, it also fashioned medical practices and debates.

It was the motive force behind the colonial government’s stance on the subject of cholera and quarantines. It was also partly responsible for the lasting sway of the theory of non-contagiousness of cholera in India, long after it had been thoroughly overturned in Europe.’


The Last of the Great Cholera Outbreaks in the Hejaz

The last of the great cholera epidemics in the Hejaz was reported in 1912, thus, ending one chapter in the intertwined story of public health and politics as played out against the backdrop of pilgrimage. For the non-Muslim world, too, the focus of interest shifted from medical surveillance to a watchful mistrust of the increasing politicisation of the pilgrimage. The colonial governments, in particular, were alive to the changing perception of the Haj itself – from trade and commerce, the focus shifted to politics and empire.

While outright intervention in the custodianship of the holy sites is still unimaginable, the politics of pilgrimage plays on in different guises in different parts of the world. In the case of India, there is the politics of assertiveness as in the case of the Ram Navami celebrations in Ayodhya, with the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh himself leading the ceremonial prayer on the first day of Navratri on 25 March.

(Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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