Pilgrimage, Politics, and Pestilence: The Haj from the Indian Subcontinent, 1860-1920 by Saurabh Mishra, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2011, pp.177, Rs. 595.
By Rakhshanda Jalil
The Brill Dictionary of Religion describes ‘pilgrimage’ as ‘time-honoured migrations to outlying sacred places. This phenomenon of religious mobility is attested among peoples of ancient times… This devotional journeying is underlain by the belief that the local presence of a deity, a hero, or a saint in this specific place makes transcendence in immanence especially effective and available to experience, and thereby especially efficacious for one’s own concerns.’ From the point of view of cultural history, pilgrimage is a symbolic movement incorporating both bodily relocation and heightened piety. Since, in Islam there is no fixed age by when the pilgrimage must be undertaken, most Muslims, till very recently, used to postpone it for their old age. Till not very long ago, this accounted for older people afflicted by disease and infirmity and the poor and indigent forming the bulk of pilgrim traffic. Year after year, the colonial government across Asia and Africa had to incur the expense of repatriating the destitute and penniless, and local authorities had to cope with the burial of those who died of disease, neglect or poverty in the Holy Land. Also, given the phenomenally large numbers of pilgrims who descended upon the holy sites during the annual haj pilgrimage, issues of health and hygiene assumed gigantic proportions.
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, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Faculty of History, Oxford, addresses this lacuna. 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 stabilization 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 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, pilgrims could only be ‘induced’ to get themselves vaccinated by persuasion. Despite best intention, 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. 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.
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 Hijaz succeeded in uniting rival European powers as the West realized 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 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. The larger politics of ‘Islamism’ continued to grow; in fact the epicenter of the Muslim world being located in Mecca, the Holy Land became ‘the source and the creator of the growing Muslim restlessness and assertiveness.’ 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 had shifted to politics and empire.
With the help of extracts culled from a variety of sources – Urdu newspapers, pilgrims’ diaries and public records --Mishra demonstrates how the spiritual experience of the haj began to increasingly reflect a growing anti-imperialist, anti-colonial sentiment. He delineates the changing contours of the Dar-ul-Harb vs. the Dar-ul-Islam debate both within India and elsewhere, by quoting from a variety of sources. From publicists to pilgrims, apologists to fierce anti-colonialists, European travellers and missionaries to pan-Islamists, Mishra gathers toginter-twining of politics and pilgrimage thus:
‘Colonial perception of the haj had travelled some distance from the days when it was seen as a subject of exclusively commercial or sanitary importance; a whole gamut of changes that had taken place in the way in which it was perceived by the state. Mecca had begun to be increasingly seen as a beehive of anti-British propaganda, and a close watch was maintained on it, even though no outright intervention was imaginable.’
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, the politics of appeasement and subsidies have replaced the politics of trade and commerce.
Rakhshanda Jalil has translated and edited, with Mushirul Hasan, Journey to a Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Diary (OUP, 2009).