Memories of Madness

by Sanjeev Jain and Alok Sarin 3

How we treat our ‘lunatics’ says a lot about who we are as a society. Psychiatrists Sanjeev Jain and Alok Sarin recall Delhi’s asylum, first sacked during the 1857 rebellion

Living, as we do, in a post-digital cornucopia, our brains used to a constant numb surprise, we learn to forget every day. History may be layered in Delhi but reminders exist, in the midst of the smog and sprawl, of the city’s previous iterations. But are we paying much attention and do we think any of it matters, or is relevant? In this piece, we discuss a passage in the history of Delhi’s Lunatic Asylum. Every nation has the asylums and the memories it deserves, so what does this now-forgotten event say about us?

        On May 11, 1857, the Asylum was ransacked and all the inmates ‘escaped or were set free’. This was almost certainly the first act of rebellion against the rule of the East India Company as experienced by the dusty province that later became the capital of British India. The events of 1857 have been labelled varyingly as a mutiny, a rebellion, or as India’s first attempt at seizing Independence. Regardless of the gaze, the uprising that started in Meerut on May 10 reached the walls of Delhi, just over 60 kilometres away, the next day. The Asylum, right outside the city gates, might well have been the first structure of Imperial authority the rebels encountered, and so, summarily ransacked. As a powerful, symbolic signifier in a subsequently doomed endeavour, it remains amazing that this incident should have been ignored so very completely both by historians of psychiatry, and of the Mutiny.

        A parallel may perhaps be the storming of the Bastille 79 years earlier, on July 14, 1749. The Bastille, at the time, housed seven inmates, and was a prison for people with ‘deviant’ political and social views, some of whom were considered insane. The date, of course, signals the beginning of the French Revolution and the so-called Age of Reason. It also heralded a new age, around the world, in the treatment of the mentally ill. As Michel Foucault suggests, the Revolution was followed by the great incarceration; and two centuries later, the chaining of unreason and the freedoms of passions continues to guide our social and political life.

        There is no consistent history of lunatic asylums in precolonial South Asia. This is not to say that madness and insanity were not known, as the accounts of Unmada (the Ayurvedic term for insanity) and the Deewanagee of Laila and Majnun exemplify. It’s just that neither the medical traditions nor the rulers of the land had put in place a systemic response to madness. The East India Company, trying to apply recent European sensibilities to the areas they controlled, established asylums in Madras and Bengal by the end of the 18th century, and as the Company’s interests took it further north, asylums were established in Benares, Bareilly, Agra, Delhi and Lahore.

        It is clear that there existed in Delhi, by the 1840s, an asylum that was situated outside the walls of the old city, “on the road”, one source helpfully points out, “leading from Delhi Gate to Muttra (Mathura), about 600 yards from the river Jumna (Yamuna)”. Built under the supervision of the then Civil Surgeon of Delhi, Dr Ross, it was a walled-in structure, in an area measuring 474 feet by 414 feet, and conformed to the norms of an Indian jail. We must remember here that the river then, like memory, did not flow where it flows today. By all estimates, the current location of this site—given the fact that while the river has shifted, Delhi Gate stands where it did, as does the road leaving it—is on the grounds of the Maulana Azad Medical College.

        In a detailed monograph, Major CJ Lodge Patch of the Indian Medical Service, the Superintendent of the Lahore Mental Hospital, considers the complicated histories of the hospitals of what was then Punjab. There are many references to the Delhi hospital in documents available in various archives in London and Delhi. Also, interestingly, subaltern versions of the histories of 1857 refer to the existence of the institution and its presence in the collective consciousness of the city. The Delhi, Bareilly and Benares asylums are often commented upon and referred to together, as the Company nibbled away at the fringes of the Mughal Empire. A new asylum was considered necessary for Delhi, and the comments of the Civil Surgeon were sought in 1845, but the plans finally not approved. The asylum at Bareilly was thought sufficient for the needs of the region. Cost-cutting and austerity were in evidence even then, and it was suggested that a disused building at Fattehgarh (halfway between Bareilly and Delhi) could be refurbished for Rs 30,000 while a new building would cost Rs 81,457.

Delhi in 1857, from the January 16, 1858 edition of The Illustrated London News; and (magnified) the Delhi Asylum

Delhi in 1857, from the January 16, 1858 edition of The Illustrated London News;
and (magnified) the Delhi Asylum

        Still, there are hints in some of the contemporaneous sources of labourers being employed to clear land for an asylum in Delhi, and as the reporting officer noted, removing evidence of older ‘handsome’ structures and pillars to make way for the new building. Erasing history as part of ‘development’ and ‘improvement’ also has its own precedents. In any case, things did not go well. An 1852 enquiry found that the asylum was “noisy and filthy”, with “stocks and chains in full operation”. It concluded that no more patients should be transferred to Delhi, in part because the building was also too small. The superintendent has also apparently “flagrantly neglected” his duties, though he was keen enough to save the government’s money by reducing rations and introducing a ‘food for work’ programme. The ensuing deaths and illnesses were noted in the report with “regret”. The officer in question was removed and the report remarked with approval that other officers who “entertained correct and enlightened views as to the proper mode of managing [asylums]” were appointed. In 1853, the report for that year recorded, some 176 patients were treated in Delhi, of which 44 were cured and 29 died, a high number. This proportion improved somewhat in 1854, and by 1855 it was apparent that the Delhi asylum had “received the zealous attention of the medical officers in charge”.

        However, record-keeping was still not good enough, making comparisons with the well-established asylums in Calcutta, Dacca and Madras impossible. Whether the conditions inside the Delhi asylum were known to the citizens is not clear, so we cannot assume that the ransacking was a personal act of anger and vendetta (like the contemporary trashing of hospitals and nursing homes by aggrieved families) over the treatment of patients.

        In any case, the Asylum was ransacked on May 11, 1857. Some of the freed ‘lunatics’ were observed wandering inside the walled city, mistaken as spies and ironically dispatched to a Mughal version of an asylum. Where that asylum was inside the walled city is unclear. Soon after the Crown had wrested control of Delhi, a decision was taken to use the old premises as a jail, and the few ‘lunatics’ were housed in a building between Chandni Chowk and Qudsia Bagh, for 16 people, and then moved to another building near Jama Masjid which housed 50 people but was shut down not long after. Some 61 patients were transferred from Delhi to Lahore, the former apparently seen by the new overlords as little more than a footnote in history. The Punjab government congratulated itself on saving Rs 2 per month, while critics asked whether such parsimony was inhumane, given how far patients were being moved from their families.

        Sense prevailed and, by 1866, an asylum was back in Delhi, in an improved building that could house about 100 patients, each with 100 cubic feet of personal space. Pets (“we have two monkeys, a cat, a dog and a fair show of pigeons”) were allowed; music encouraged (including one blind man who had an abusive turn of phrase and kept rhythm on a tinplate, later a stock trope in Bollywood movies depicting asylums); and an ice pit created to supply ice to the public (at a modest profit). No better indicator of global warming is needed, as today it is near impossible to generate ice by precipitation in Delhi.

        In addition to the Medical Superintendent, two British couples (the Gilsons, and later the Cousins) ran affairs at the hospital, followed a few years later by Indian medical graduates Nathu Lal (who died early, and was much lamented as he was “peculiarly adapted for looking after the welfare of the lunatics”, said one observer) and then Dr Saadat Ali and Dr Gopal Das. The accounts suggest extensive personal interactions between the patients and the staff. Mr Gilson was particularly aggrieved on one occasion, because contrary to his observation that the mentally ill lost all sense of caste, one Bania resolutely refused to take food from his hand! However, the subsequent non-medical staff (barkandazees and keepers) were often found to be “indolent and troublesome”; and at salaries of Rs 5-8 per month, only “coolies of the worst character [could] be procured as caretakers”. In any case, the expenses were found to be more than in Lahore, and thus an unwelcome burden. Similar concerns in the present day (regarding mental healthcare), disguised as if rooted in sensible economics, are all the more galling since it is our government and not colonialists who speak and think about fellow citizens in this way.

        Despite removing ‘luxuries’ like a barber and reducing the number of cooks, the Delhi asylum was closed in 1900 with all the patients again shuttled to Lahore. As the communal politics around Independence became rife, the asylum was ‘partitioned’, with ‘appropriate’ insane patients transferred to India. The insanity of the exchange is, of course, the setting for ‘Toba Tek Singh’, Saadat Hasan Manto’s famous story. We do get the asylums we deserve. Incidentally, in a world so prone to forgetting, how many remember that May 11, the day the Delhi asylum was sacked by ‘mutineers’, is also Manto’s birthday?

        Fragments of the clinical case notes from the Delhi asylum suggest that life inside could be remarkably contemporary. Substance abuse and cannabis were the most common reasons to ‘section’ people. Young men would gather at the Eidgah maidan or on the banks of the Yamuna and smoke ganja in a chillum. Scare-mongering about addiction among the youth is thus not a new phenomenon. In another case study, an eight-year-old girl was brought to the asylum by a man who found her when he was ploughing his field, and believed her to be a wolf-child. Rudyard Kipling, then a young reporter in Delhi, might well have known this story and used it as the basis of The Jungle Book.

        Religious and political delusions were quite common among the clinically insane. There was Imrit, a tailor, who claimed he was a descendant of the Sen dynasty, and Habib Shah who claimed to be the last of the Mughals, as anointed by Nizamuddin Aulia (he was discovered sitting on the Diwan-e-Khas in the Red Fort, which was then a military camp). Shah’s story was well known to the public, though he was eventually discharged as quite sane. Juma, from Peshawar, meanwhile believed he was the son of Colonel Mackeson (who had been assassinated by a religious fanatic from Swat in 1853). Like Shah, both Juma and Imrit were later discharged as ‘cured’.

        Another interesting case was that of an Irishman who converted to Islam and took the name Ahmed Din. He claimed to be the Duke of Normandy, Lancaster (and other titles) etc, and that he was on his way to Kabul to offer his assistance to the Emir. The Irishman also believed the Indian people should take the help of the Russians, engaged in their ‘Great Game’ with the British Empire, to drive the latter out. He was sent to the asylum, much to the annoyance of his Muslim friends. They described the decision to send him to the asylum as the “iniquity of making a man out to be insane” on the grounds of religious conversion. After a couple of months he was sent to Colaba, in Bombay, to the relief of the Superintendent. Ahmed Din had been spending his time collating newspaper cuttings and writing letters exaggerating the accounts of Russian progress in Central Asia, actions that the Superintendent believed could have caused trouble with the “excitable population” of Delhi. Most of his letters were intercepted by the police. Has intelligence gathering changed that much? One gets the sense that perhaps agents are still in the habit of reading the correspondence of madmen.

        As psychiatrists interested in the history of mental illness and more particularly, how society has understood, and engaged with it, it has been fascinating how the history of the mental hospital of Delhi has been obscured from public memory. In the closing years of the Raj, Delhi had become a rather more important town, no less than the capital, the seat of government. It would, inevitably, need a new asylum. After the tumult of Independence had subsided, a site near Shahdara (which had earlier been a landfill for sanitary waste) was earmarked by some corner of the administration. Of course, any memory of the Mughal gardens of Shahdara, once gifted to Dara Shikoh, and lovingly restored by Bahadur Shah Zafar, had disappeared. Constructed over 15 years, after a series of byzantine delays, the new asylum in Shahdara was finally opened in the 1960s. And, as if offering a final nod to memory and forgetting, the asylums of both Delhi and Lahore, situated at opposite ends of a 19th-century pendulum, are located in suburbs called Shahdara. Dara Shikoh is forgotten, the gardens gone, and the care of the mentally ill too, is almost forgotten. The asylum is now often evoked in public imagination (and certainly in political debate) as being worthy of Dante’s Inferno, a special place in hell to house one’s political enemies and any other ‘unwelcome’ foes. How often in our divided age, particularly on social media, do people on opposite sides of an argument simply put down their interlocutors’ views to madness?

        This is in stark contrast to what the reformist Dr Fairweather said in the 19th century. Speaking about the Delhi asylum, he argued that the “insane are not slow in sagacity and the power of comprehending what is done for their good, and thus will appreciate kindness.” Whether this optimism about sagacity, kindness and public good was misplaced is a question we still have to answer. Before we forget.

        While memories are slippery slopes, forgetting can be even more elusive. So the reasons for the deletion from public consciousness of the events of May 11, 1857, lie perhaps equally in the doomed nature of that particular endeavour and in the way societies think of mental illness. This may, then, be an appropriate time to consider what constitutes the ambiguities of reason in the way that we think about both madness and republics. 

coverThis essay was published in the July-September 2019 issue. The theme of the issue was Memory.


  1. Perminder Sachdev July 14, 2019 at 3:33 am - Reply

    What a wonderful piece!
    Thank you for reminding us that the history of insanity is nothing but the other side of our own history. Bastille Day became France’s day of independence. India’s first war of independence is still referred to by many historians as a Sepoy Mutiny.

  2. Veena Garyali July 14, 2019 at 10:23 pm - Reply

    I have yet to read a more thoughtful and eloquent article with such sensitivity and understanding. excellent

  3. Geetha Desai July 16, 2019 at 9:40 am - Reply

    Very interesting article to read
    Hope to read more such pieces

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