Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Global Deadliest Pandemic and  Indian Culture

Dr H N Dutta


Occurance of  pandemics  is not a new phenomenon in human history. Since ancient times pandemics massacred human societies, collapsed empires, annihilated gross population threatened economy and the survival of the mankind.  Covid-19 is such a pandemic of greatest human threat witnessed by the mankind during the 21st century AD.  Covid-19, a  greatest catastrophe that has shaken the mankind  with threat of innumerable deaths across the world.  Covid-19  is so astounding that,  within months it massacred 307,929 lives and yet, it is uncertain how disastrous will it be  in the  future. Covid-19, If not controlled,  may doom  entire population and put down  all human traits of travel, trade, religion, cultural event and  economy. Hence, it develops our attention how pandemic occurred in the past, how ancient was and what were its consequences.

The word ‘pandemic’  is  a Greek word.  ‘Pan’ means ‘all’ and ‘demos’ means ‘population or people’. The term was first used by Homer, who took its medical meaning, when Hippocrates (430BC) used it as the title of one of his  treatise.  During that period , epidemic was used to mean a collection of clinical syndromes, such as coughs, or diarrheas, occurring and propagating in a given period at a given location.  The term  pandemic is applied, when an epidemic occurs on a large scale, crosses international boundaries, affecting gross section of people, world wide. Pandemics were so fatal that, it caused large scale displacement of populations, countless deaths  in absence  of remedies.

Although,  not historically established, the  earliest occurrence epidemic, which the mankind had faced, could have been the Cholera. An early Sanskrit text on medicine Sushruta Samhita, written  by Sushruta in BCE 500, Hippocrates, the father of Western Medicine from Greece  in BC400 and  Aretaeus of Cappadocia in  CE100  described the occurrence of  isolated cases of illness like Cholera1. Sanskrit term ‘Visucika’, referring to a condition occurred in person suffering with indigestion (ajirna) as described in Ayurvedic literature could be co related with Cholera, or  ‘Haija’  in Hindi, which causes pain like pricking with a needle over the body 2. A detail  account of  Cholera, for the first time was recorded by the  Portuguese   historian Gaspar Correa, in his work ‘Legendary India’, where he  traced occurrence of epidemic in 1543, in the Ganges Delta3 This disease killed the victims within 8 hours of developing its symptoms. Its fatality rate was so high that, the  locals had to struggle to bury all the deads 4.

Plague was another lethal ancient  pandemic  occurred in human history, which reshaped society, in profound ways. Plague killed hundreds of millions of people, empires had  fallen for Plague, governments cracked and generations were depopulated  by this deadliest pandemic. Plague most likely emerged in China and spread  westward to  the Roman empire  under Antoninus and Marcus Aurelius Atoninus ( CE 165 to 180 CE )  along the Silk Road of China, first constructed  under the Han dynasty of China5 and by trading ships headed for Rome. The Roman military came in to contact with  Plague  during the siege of Seleucia on the river Tigris6   During the period China  had maintained trade and commerce with European countries through the Silk Road and China   was an important trading nation. Through the  Silk Road,  this pandemic  moved out from China.  Plague-infected rats on merchants ships spread the disease to Western Asia and Europe. The word Plague was coined by the Roman physician Galen (130-210 BCE) But the disease was recorded long before   in relating the affliction of the Plague occurred in Athens during 429-426 BCE.7  Plague or the Black Death had caused the death of one-third of the world population. It was so disastrous that, it  swept across Rome during the reign of Marcus Aurelius and became a cause for  the fall of the Roman Empire8 Soon Plague had spread to England and  France.  It was so terrible that, if it  caught  one, he or she had roughly two weeks to live. In England the Doctors, the Lawyers and the Royalties fled away from  the towns and the poor were ravaged by the disease. More than 2000 people died daily.  England and France were so incapacitated by the plague that  once the both countries  had to called a truce to one of their war. The ancient world never recovered from the blew inflicted upon it by the Plague.

In India, Plague occurred in Punjab in1616.  Iqbal nama of Muhammad Khan  records that, when the Plague was about to break out, a mouse would rush out of his hole, as if, mad and striking itself against the doors and the walls of the house, would expire. If immediately after this signal,  the occupants left their houses to  stay in the jungles, their lives were saved; if otherwise, the inhabitants of the whole village would be swept away by the hands of death. From Punjab, it spread to almost every part of Northern and Western India and  lasted for 8 years9 creating havoc on human life.

Besides Cholera, the Black Death or Plague, Small pox and Influenza, Tuberculosis are some of the most brutal killers in human history.  Specially the small pox and  Tuberculosis has killed between 300-500 million people, throughout history  of 12.000 years . History has it that Cholera occurred in India during  CE1700. It spread throughout the country in more or less epidemic form occurring periodically, particularly at the places of pilgrimage such as Haridwar, Prayag and Puri10.

Kala-azar was another such epidemic, sporadically occurred in India causing death of thousands of  lives. Kala Azar has a long history in Assam and Bihar. In 1934 there were 90.000 cases of Kala-Azar in Bihar. In Assam the first outbreak of Kala- Azar occurred in the Garo Hills District during 1875-83, which  as recorded by Rogers (1908)  gradually extended to Kamrup in 1888, reached Darrong , the following year. In Goalpara the death toll rose from 9, 000 to 13,000 and in Kamrup District it was 5,000 to 7,500 per year.  Kala-azar gradually covered Nagaon, Lakhimpur and Sivasagar District of the Brahmaputra valley .  The Golaghat Sub Division of Sivasagar District in its Athgaon (5,000 people)  and Ghiladhari mauja  (5,098 people) witnessed  a severe scene of this leishmanial disease during 1940-48 11  

The outbreak of Covid -19, as a pandemic is worst in history. Beginning its spread in December 2019,  from the region of Wuhan in China, this  new (“novel”) corona virus, began irresistibly appearing in human beings. It spreads with human contact and as such, is highly communicable. Due to its newness, no one on earth has an immunity to Covid-19. Initially seem to be an epidemic in China, but  the virus spread worldwide within months. The WHO declared Covid-19 as pandemic in March 2020 and till 16th May2020, the world  saw  its confirmed cases 4,556,961,  total deaths of 307,929 souls and total recovered cases of 1,644,670 . Within months Covid-19 ravaged most of the European countries and USA.  Covid-19  is a threat to the  existence of human lives and livelihood and will leave behind  a far reaching drastic consequences in all spheres of human life on earth.

As a matter of record,  India has  never generated any pandemic so far. Be it Plague or Black Death  or Covid -19 these pandemics are not Indian in origin. Sporadic occurrence of  epidemic in India however witnessed since ancient times, but these generally occurred following natural calamities like earth quakes, famines  and floods etc. at times  followed by kala-azar,  as has been noticed in past e.g. the earthquake of 1897 and 1935 12.  India, in its own land, never generated  any pandemic.  It could be for the reason that, geographically the peninsular  India being guarded by the Indian ocean in the south and by the Himalayas in north, is a region naturally secluded. For that matter, India has developed a secluded geo-ethnic and geo-cultural identity, rich with tradition of living with geography and nature generated with strong  immune system in individual and  community life.   Ancient Indian sages  who lived in hermitages had  developed the Indian syndrome of Yoga and Naturopathy, as a booster of strong immunity in human health, which is still adhered to. Understanding the interdependence of human life and  nature, the sages divided the entire  biotic spheres of the globe into  four groups of lives e.g.  (i)  those who swim (ii) those who walk (iii) those who grows and (iv) those who fly and professed for  living ethical lives accordingly amidst  natural environment.  Nature provide the Indian society the basic elements of food, clothes, cottages,  life and culture-  reference of which are galore in  the epics Ramayana and the Mahabharata, as well as in the  traditional cultural life of India today. All these approach to life are immune booster in community life in India.

Atharvaveda is one of the ancient medicinal texts of India belonging to the Rigvedic age,  and Ayurveda is a study on medicine continued in India since long distant past. A cultural nation  stands for  good  physical  health and mind. Indian culture always stands for self resistance.   Adaptation of natural vegetation many of which are medicinal herbs, plants, verities of domesticated plants, ritual plants, fruits, vegetables, cereals rich in minerals as regular food , cleanliness of health and hygiene, all  contribute to the growth of strong  immune system in Indian  community life, which resist occurrence and  spread of pandemics in India. Assamese society  has a tradition of taking  101 varieties of medicinal herbs, as ritual food, on the  occasion of the annual Bohag Bihu festival i.e. First day of the New year. Because such Indian  traditional food habits inherited by the community life genetically function as strong immune booster, for which, pandemic normally  do not occur in India. Covid-19, for that matter, would  not have occurred,   had it not been communicated human to human in India. This status also accounts for the entire North Eastern Region of India. The health care system  in the North Eastern Region of India  is relatively weak,  and although, should not be declared as Covid-19 free zone, but the rate of local transmission case of Covid-19 is extremely low. What ever is happening  today is the result of  direct contact with Covid—19 positive persons.

Besides, the lockdown, social distancing, use of mask maintenance of cleanliness, upon so much of stress have been given,  are not as such medicine for the recovery from  Covid-19. These are a garb provided for a safety  to the immune system check community spread only.

Thus, India has a unique indigenous  tradition of life and living rooted in its native geography, ecology and environment.  In the Post Covid-19 era we in India need to stand with our rich tradition and cultural heritage that works against transmission of  pandemic.  We need to understand that our culture is our savior, our  protector and promoter of our economy. Our tradition may  show the world definite  paths of our economic sustainability, during the post Covid-19 era.  We need to be proud of our indigenous culture and  tradition and  need to plan to  glorify it  globally.


  • V.V. Prasad, Bulletin Indian Institute of Historical Medicine, Hydravad Jan-Jun 2005
  • John Keay, A History of China, Basic Books, New York, (2009) p 134
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  • Dr Mahesh Bhatnagar, History of Mediaeval India Sultanate and Mughal Period,
  • Chand and Company ,Ram Nagar,New Delhi 110055, (2016) p718
  • ibid.p 718
  • B C Sengupta, ‘A Report on Kala-Azar in Assam’, The Indian Medical Gazette, June 1951,  pp 266-271
  • ibid., p266