As the world awaits an effective vaccine for Covid-19, which has reached–unsurprisingly–to the current occupants of the White (supremacist) House, let us return to the history of vaccinations. I sketched out the global techniques of variolation and the development of vaccination by Edward Jenner in the 18th century in this Aug. 8 issue of Early Modern Times. As a variolation on this theme, let us explore the promotion of vaccination in colonial India at the beginning of the 19th century, including an intriguing painting which appears to depict Indian queens exposing their inoculated arms, and which you can see in this recent article. The portrait dates to when Devajammani, the queen on the right side of the painting, arrived in Mysore in 1805 for her wedding–which ended up for her (and her fellow queens) as vaccines from a marriage.
Variolation had been practiced in India, as it had been in many other countries, for centuries to treat smallpox. In India, this ailment was embodied in a Hindu deity, Mariamma or Sitala. It was thought that the anger, or one could say dis-ease, of this goddess was inflicted in the form of the pox. To quell this apox-plectic deity, various rituals were prescribed to accompany the technique of variolation. Given the sacred aura of this ritual treatment, members of the Brahminical caste known as ‘tikadars’ would extract a sample from the pustules of an infected patient and apply it to another person as a form of immunisation. According to the officiously-named Cambridge historian Nigel Chancellor, the queen on the left of the painting–the king’s first wife, also named Devajammani (which just goes to show that the royal court at Mysore had Devajam-many queens)–shows signs of variolation in the discoloration under her nose and mouth: an indication, he thinks, of the ground pustule blown up into her nostrils. If Chancellor is correct, this would appear to suggest that the elder Devajammani was the powder behind the throne, at least to those in the nose.
By 1800, vaccination–Edward Jenner’s technique of applying cowpox lesions to treat the related disease smallpox–was replacing variolation in Britain. The British were keen to promote vaccination in their colonies including on the Indian subcontinent, ostensibly to foster the health of the native population but in fact to protect British expatriates in the Raj. Several factors were obstacles to the colonial campaign of mass vaccination. First, the tikadars’ livelihoods would be threatened by the displacement of their treatment by vaccination: a variolation of their rites. Second, the technique of extracting cowpox lesions to treat smallpox threatened to founder on the shoals of translation: Sanskrit scholars would render ‘cowpox’ using terms for more serious ailments, and there was a fear that cowpox could prove fatal to cattle–a particular danger given the sacredness of the cow in the Hindu religion. Third, vaccination was transmitted from arm to arm: in other words, the cowpox pustule would be introduced on the arm of one patient and then extracted and inserted into the arm of another, and so on to another given the difficulty of preserving the dried vaccine outside of human subjects. The cowpox pus would thus be transferred ‘through bodies of all races, religions, castes and genders, and that ran counter to unyielding Hindu notions of purity’. Hence, such inoculation could be seen as arm-ful to the caste system.
The British saw an opportunity to overcome these difficulties with the help of Indian nobility. In 1805, at the age of 12, Devajammani arrived at the royal court in Mysore (SW India, now known as Bangalore) to marry Krishnaraja Wadiyar III (also 12). The East India Company had managed to expand their territories in India through strategic alliances with and betrayals of various Indian rulers keen to throw off the dominion of the once-powerful Muslim Mogul empire, now in decline. These allies included the Wadiyars, who were restored to power by the Company following decades of exile and thus indebted to the British. In other words, these rulers asked the East India Company, Wadiyar want me to do for you?
How better, the British thought, to counter the perceived dangers–both medical and cultural–of vaccination than to apply the treatment to the Wadiyar queens and have them pose for a painting displaying their inoculated arms? Chancellor argues that the dress of the paintings’ subjects mark them as royalty rather than courtesans or dancers, and their casual, candid poses suggest a purpose beyond official portraiture. The woman in the middle may be Lakshmi Ammani, grandmother to the king, who lost her husband to smallpox, and who may have encouraged the two Devajammanis to pose with their arms exposed (instead of being covered by their saris, as would usually have been the case). If this theory is sound, then this painting was a pro-vaxx celebrity endorsement, showing hale and hearty Indian queens with nothing worse than a couple of My-sore arms.
Till next time,
Director, Early Modern ‘Coat of Davajammani Colours’ Studies Program