Smoke coming out of a crematorium's chimney where Covid-19 dead bodies are cremated at Yerwada in Pune, India, on Friday. (Pratham Gokhale/HT Photo)
Smoke coming out of a crematorium's chimney where Covid-19 dead bodies are cremated at Yerwada in Pune, India, on Friday. (Pratham Gokhale/HT Photo)

Monday musings: From the bubonic plague to Covid, Pune’s crematoria burn through memories

In Pune, the wait for cremation is extended, as 170-180 bodies are being brought in daily, although official figures reported by the PMC and the state health department do not match with records from the crematoria
UPDATED ON MAY 04, 2021 12:00 AM IST

Crematoria have never been in such focus as they are today in India. Pyres are burning round the clock as Covid fatalities surge every day. The foreign and Indian press has shown images from cremation grounds from across the country, much to the criticism of some.

In Pune, the wait for cremation is extended, as 170-180 bodies are being brought in daily, although official figures reported by the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) and the State health department do not match with records from the crematoria.

Is this the first-time the city is witnessing such scenes?

During the 1896-97 bubonic plague that hit the city, Pune, then called Poona by the British ruling the nation, saw scenes as scores of bodies were cremated one after another.

There’s no precise record of the actual number of fatalities, though old reports and historians such as Mandar Lawate, say that around 5,000 deaths were recorded in Pune between October 1896 and May 1897.

Given that the population of city - including those residing in municipal limits, cantonments and the suburbs – was 0.161 million, the fatality rate was in the range of 3.1 %.

With many succumbing to the plague, Pune’s Omkareshwar ghat on the banks of the Mutha was flooded with bodies being cremated for months. During the period, the ghat stretching from Omkareshwar temple to Lakdi pul (near Deccan), was the only place for cremating bodies as compared to 21 crematoria that Pune has today.

Pyres were seen burning from a distance, day and night, as being witnessed these days in many cities.

“The situation was grim. British officer WC Rand had appointed police personnel to note down records of bodies coming in to the cremation ghat. Once the body was cremated, police used to visit the residence of deceased as part of a house-to-house search for infected patients and suspects. However, the search wasn’t just limited to identifying suspects. The houses where patients succumbed to the plague were cleaned, fumigated, dug-up (to destroy rats) and lime washed. The family members of the deceased used to be taken to a segregation camp at Swargate, while infected patients were shifted to a temporary facility at Sangam ghat near Shivajinagar,” said Lawate.

Sassoon hospital was reserved largely for British or European patients, while special plague hospitals were erected in various parts of the city, one each for the Hindu, Muslim, and Parsi communities.

More than the grief of passing away of loved ones, locals from Pune were extremely unhappy with suppressive measures by 34-year-old Walter Charles Rand, an Oxford-educated officer of the Indian Civil Service, to contain the plague.

Rand was serving in Satara when he was appointed on February 10, 1897, as an assistant collector and chairman, Poona Plague Committee. In his plague report drafted in July 1897, Rand, in his introductory remarks mentioned: “The outbreak of bubonic plague with which I have to deal with in this report is the first that has occurred in Poona within the memory of living man, while of the occurrence of a similar epidemic in former times I am not aware of any authentic record. At the time of the present outbreak, the disease was quite unknown to the inhabitants of this part of India.”

On containment measures, Rand explained in detail the gravity of the disease and urgency with which it had to be dealt. “There was, it is true, no Indian example of the suppression by strong measures, of an epidemic of the plague which had established itself in a large town, but the possibility of so suppressing the disease had been demonstrated at Hong Kong in 1894. It was certain that if the plague was not to be allowed to run its course, but was to be stamped out of Poona, stringent measures would have to be taken,” Rand observed in his report made available by National Library of Scotland.

The report was later submitted to the British regime in England by RA Lamb, chairman, Poona Plague Committee, post Rand’s assassination by the Chapekar brothers. As the discontent against Rand grew in Poona, Damodar, Balkrisha and Vasudev shot Rand and Lieutenant Charles Ayerst at Ganeshkhind (now Pune University). While Ayerst died immediately, Rand succumbed to the injuries on July 3, 1897.

Scared by the pandemic, many fled the city and took shelter at Fergusson College, which then was outside Pune. The situation was reported in great details by Lokmanya Tilak’s “Kesari”, then a weekly newspaper. The plague took a break intermittently and returned every after few years, though its intensity lowered.

Like Covid, the bubonic plague did not discriminate between rich and poor. At the same time, many came forward to help, just as the Pune, in the grip of Covid, is seeing today.

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