A city shaped and reshaped by epidemics

Built after a plague, Hyderabad has fought a slew of natural disasters, disease outbreaks

Updated - March 17, 2020 12:31 am IST

Published - March 17, 2020 12:23 am IST - Hyderabad

The image of a rodent that was the carrier of bubonic plague which killed lakhs on the eastern arch of Charminar.

The image of a rodent that was the carrier of bubonic plague which killed lakhs on the eastern arch of Charminar.

Inside the inner arch of Charminar, on the eastern side is the small image of a rodent that was the carrier of bubonic plague which wreaked havoc and killed lakhs and shaped the city of Hyderabad. “Epidemics and lack of water supply were one of the reasons for the 1591 move-out of Golconda and creation of Hyderabad,” says heritage activist Sajjad Shahid.

Every year, at the beginning of monsoon, women in Secunderabad dress up in festive finery and carry a bowl of food on their heads when they visit the Ujjaini Mahankali Temple. According to oral history, the temple is a tribute to the Goddess for deliverance from smallpox nearly 200 years ago that killed thousands.

Change in topography

A few hundred years after the creation of Hyderabad, the city was again visited by a virulent pestilence forcing another change in topography. While the 1908 flood is considered the reason for the big push to redesign the city, the unsanitary conditions were a key factor. Built after a plague, fighting against epidemics, transformed by pandemics, Hyderabad has been shaped and reshaped by diseases like the COVID-19 that is threatening the world. Between 1916 and 1918, an influenza epidemic named Spanish Flu killed 18-20 million Indians.

But the 1915 epidemic of cholera (called gattara in Telangana) led to another shift in the city. It led to the creation of a hospital that is still called Koranti, a corrupted version of the word ‘quarantine’. Officially, it is called Sir Ronald Ross Institute of Tropical and Communicable Diseases, named after a gentleman who discovered the link between mosquito and the malaria parasite on August 20, 1897 in Secunderabad. The quarantine facility was built on the outskirts of the city. Ironically, the area near the hospital is now a densely populated locality.

Places of refuge

At the time of these pandemics, the city’s gardens, temples and dargahs became places of refuge. “Part of what we now call Begum Bazaar was known as Mulla Khayali Bagicha. There were other gardens in the area and Hyderabad was developed away from the thickly populated Golconda,” informs Mr Shahid.

The biggest blow to the city was between 1916-18 when thousands of people died. Temple and dargah lands were turned into places of refuge and in course of time, the Chennakesava Temple that was controlled by Raja Bansi Lal family turned the grounds into a refuge for people afflicted by the plague. Now the area is called Chandrayangutta and the open space around it has disappeared.

Some of the refuge grounds were designated plague camps and they dotted the peripheral areas of the city. One of them was near Makbarah Tahawur Ali Khan and another was near Kunta Nandi Muslaigura. While the plague camp near Makbarah Tahawur Ali Khan has disappeared without a trace in the Karwan area, the Nandi Muslai Guda or N.M. Guda is but a name without the lake (kunta).

During the 1890s epidemics, camps were set up in areas that we now call Panjagutta, Basheerbagh and Irram Manzil. “During these epidemics, families were not allowed to take the bodies to their family graveyards and were buried in the nearest available one. The government banned the transport of dead bodies to limit the spread of the disease,” says Mr. Shahid.

But for a city with recurring encounters with epidemics, the City Improvement Board (CIB) changed everything.

In 1911, the first case of bubonic plague was discovered in Nampally area, according to Mohammed Ayub Ali Khan who discovered a document written by Muhammad Samdani about the outbreak. Another historian says “Nampally was a nursery of plague and disease”. This area was levelled to the ground and three types of houses were built there by the CIB for people of different economic strata.

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