The plague chronicles

In 1903, the dreaded plague visited Coimbatore, and then it came again, and again

October 31, 2014 06:50 pm | Updated October 18, 2016 12:49 pm IST

Divine intervention: Plague Mariamman to the rescue. Photo: S. Siva Saravanan

Divine intervention: Plague Mariamman to the rescue. Photo: S. Siva Saravanan

The Plague Mariamman Temple is located adjacent to the parking lot, in between Big Bazaar and Raja Streets. Though the temple is over 150 years old, it acquired this name as people believed that the goddess saved them from the plague in 1936. Plague was a deadly scourge that wiped out several million people throughout the world.

1903 was the sad year when Coimbatore was afflicted and several thousands died while others fled the town. It was not the only time. The plague revisited the city in 1909 and in 1917, killing more than 3,500 people each time. In 1911, the population of Coimbatore was reduced to 47,000. Lack of hygiene was the reason for the outbreak. Tamil Scholar C.K.Subramania Mudaliar got himself a house in Ramanathapuram in order to escape from plague but he was afflicted. But thanks to the treatment given by one Siddha Vaidyar Murugaiya Pandithar he survived. His wife Meenakshi also treated relatives who were afflicted and ensured they survived.

The local government decided to clean up the city and improve the roads by acquiring properties on narrow streets. They cleaned up and widened the streets. Abdul Hafiz Saib was appointed the Chairman of Coimbatore by the British for a salary of Rs. 500. His work in the trying times was much appreciated. Those days the Municipal authorities supplied rat traps with sweetened poison in them. People moved away to camps and returned later.

The citizens were administered vaccines in order to prevent an outbreak. The vaccine would sometimes cause inflammation and fevers too. Because of this people were unable to attend work or school. In order to encourage them to get vaccinated, people were actually compensated financially. Authorities paid a sum of six annas to men, three annas to women and two annas to children! If anyone tried to enter the sealed homes of plague victims, they were imprisoned for six months. Plague Policemen supported the local Police and each one of them was paid a salary of five rupees per month. In case people wanted to leave Coimbatore they had to be medically cleared at the railway station and a passport-like travel permit was issued to each one of them and they had to show this permit to the sanitary officers at their destination and undergo medical check ups. The Municipal authorities cleared the bodies of those killed by plague. Workers and employees lived in makeshift camps until the city was declared safe. Affluent families undertook pilgrimages to avoid staying in Coimbatore.

New extensions came up and people were encouraged to move here into cleaner neighbourhoods. Hafizpet, Devangapet, Ram Nagar and R.S.Puram came up as a response to plague. Private layouts were created too and some of these were Cox town, Grey town, Srinivasapuram and Gopalapuram.

People rallied around and made the best of their lot and reached out to one another. One Nachiarammal, wife of Asoka Krishna Chetty, taught embroidery and knitting to her neighbours. Septugenarian Textile Industrialist Radhakrishnan of Peelamedu remembers spending time in one of the Lakshmi Mills residences on Avanashi Road at the time of plague. One of the consequences of the deadly disease was that Coimbatoreans became alert, and even today, the city is known for its several public and private initiatives in the domain of civic infrastructure and environment.

(Rajesh is passionate about his city and is always looking for ways of documenting its history)

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