“There is a most mysterious affair going on throughout the whole of India at present,” wrote Dr Gilbert Hadow in a letter to his sister at home in Britain dated March 1857. “No one seems to know the meaning of it… It is not known where it originated, by whom or for what purpose, whether it is supposed to be connected to any religious ceremony or whether it has to do with some secret society. The Indian papers are full of surmises as to what it means. It is called ‘the chupatty movement.'” [Hibbert p.59]
The “movement” that Dr Hadow was describing was a remarkable example of rumour gone wild. It consisted of the distribution of many thousands of chapatis – unleavened Indian breads – which were passed from hand to hand and from village to village throughout the mofussil (interior) of the Subcontinent. That these chapatis really existed is beyond doubt; what made their distribution truly bizarre and inexplicable was that nobody knew for sure what they were for. Most Indians thought they were the work of the British, who – through the medium of the East India Company – had ruled over large portions of the country for almost exactly a century (and were, according to one well-known prophecy, due to be unseated at that century’s end). The British, who at least knew that they had nothing to do with the mysterious transmission, guessed they were a piece of mischief-making on the part of the Indians, though opinion was divided as to whether the breads came from the east, near Calcutta (Kolkata), from the north, in the province of Oude (Avadh), or from Indore, in centre of the country. Extensive enquiries into the meaning of the breads produced plenty of theories but few firm facts; even the runners and watchmen who baked them and actually carried them from village to village “did not know why they had to run through the night with chupatties in their turbans,” although they took them just the same [Hibbert p.60].
The chupatty movement first came to British attention early in February 1857. One of the first officials to encounter it was Mark Thornhill, who was the magistrate in the little Indian town of Mathura, near Agra. Thornhill came into his office one morning to find four “dirty little cakes of the coarsest flour, about the size and thickness of a biscuit” lying on his desk. These had – he was informed – been brought in by one of his Indian policemen, who had received them from a puzzled village chowkidar (watchman). And where had the chowkidar got them? “A man had come out of the jungle with them, and given them to the watchman with instructions to make four like them and to take these to the watchman in the next village, who was to be told to do the same.” [Thornhill p.2]
Thornhill carefully examined the chapatis in his office. There was nothing at all unusual about them. They bore no message, and were identical to the breads cooked in every home in India, which formed (and still form) a staple part of the locals’ diet. Yet the magistrate’s discreet enquiries soon revealed that many hundreds of chapatis were passing through his district, and through other parts of India as well – everywhere from the Narmada river in the south to the border with Nepal several hundred miles to the north. The breads formed, in short, what amounted to a culinary chain letter, and it was one that was spreading with such spectacular rapidity that Thornhill’s boss George Harvey, in Agra, calculated that a wave of chapatis was advancing across his province at the rate of somewhere between 100 and 200 miles a night. [Wagner p.63]
This discovery was particularly disconcerting, since the chapatis were moving vastly more swiftly than the fastest British mails could manage, and urgent enquiries were made as to the source and the meaning of the “movement”. This yielded the information that the distribution of breads was far more widespread than anyone in Agra had yet realised [left, in red; download image to see at full size], and that the Indians who received them generally took them as some sort of a sign. Beyond that, however, opinions remained divided.
From the North-West Provinces:
I have the honour to inform you that a signal has passed through numbers of the villages in this district, the purport of which has not yet transpired…
A Chowkeydar, on receiving one of these cakes, has had five or six more prepared, and thus they have passed from village to village… An idea has been industriously circulated that the Government has given the order.
[W. Ford, magistrate, Goorgaon, to Simon Fraser, Commissioner, Delhi, in Kaye p.632]
I did hear of the circumstance. Some people said that it was a propitiatory observance to avert some impending calamity; others, that they were circulated by the Government to signify that the population throughout the country would be compelled to use the same food as the Christians, and thus be deprived of their religion; while others again said that the chupatties were circulated to make it known that Government was determined to force Christianity on the country by interfering with their food, and intimation of it was thus given that they might be prepared to resist the attempt.
Q. Is the sending of such articles about the country a custom among the Hindoos or Mussulmans; and would the meaning be at once understood without any accompanying explanation?
A. No, it is not by any means a custom; I am 50 years old, and never heard of such a thing before.
[Evidence of Jat Mall, news-writer [summariser of court news] to the Lieutenant Governor of Agra, “Trial of the King of Delhi,” Parliamentary Papers, 1859, 1st Session p.74]
From Nimach, near Bombay:
At the time they appeared in Nimar, they were everywhere brought from the direction of Indore. That city was at the time afflicted with a severe visitation of cholera, and numbers of the inhabitants died daily. It was at the time understood by the people of Nimar, and is still believed, that the cakes of wheat were dispatched from Indore after the performance over them of incantations that would ensure the pestilence accompanying them. The cakes did not come straight from North to South, for they were received at Bujenggbur, more than half-way between Indore and Gwalior, on the 9th of February, but had been distributed at Mundlaiser on the 12th of January.
[Richard Harte Keatinge, VC, in Kaye pp.572-3]
It was alluded to [in the native newspapers], and it was supposed to portend some coming disturbance, and was, moreover, understood as implying an invitation to the whole population of the country to unite for some secret objective afterwards to be disclosed.
[Evidence of Chuni Lal, news-writer, “Trial of the King of Delhi,” Parliamentary Papers, 1859, 1st Session pp.83-4.]
Some time in February 1857, a curious occurrence took place. A Chowkeydar ran up to another village with two chupatties. He ordered his fellow-official to make ten more, and give two to each of the five nearest village Chowkeydars with the same instructions. In a few hours the whole country was in a stir, from Chowkeydars flying around with these cakes. The signal spread in all directions with wonderful celerity. The magistrates tried to stop it, but, in spite of all they could do, it passed along to the borders of the Punjab. There is reason to believe that this was originated by some intriguers of the old Court of Lucknow.
Nobody can tell what was the object of the distribution of the chupatties. It is not known who first projected the plan. All the people in the palace wondered what it could mean. I had no conversation with the King on the subject; but others talked in his presence about it, wondering what could be the object.
[Statement of Hakin Ahsan Ullah, confidential physician to the King of Delhi, in Kaye p.636]
Numerous explanations were considered. A few suggested that the chapatis might conceal “seditious letters” that “were in this manner forwarded from village to village, read by the village chief, again crusted over with flour, and sent on in the shape of a chupatty, to be broken by the next recipient,” [Kaye p.572] but examination of the breads revealed no hidden messages. Some of the more knowledgeable British officials linked the spread of the chapatis to outbreaks of cholera in central India – seeing the distribution of breads as a prophylactic – adding that, since incidence of the disease was associated with the movement of the Company’s armies, “there was a widespread belief that the British were in fact responsible for the disease.” [Wagner p.61] Another official suggested that the chupatty movement had been initiated somewhere in central India by dyers, anxious that their dyes “were not clearing properly,” or were the product of some spellwork aimed at protecting crops against hail. [Davenport p.441]
All in all, the British were extremely spooked by the spread of the chapatis. Vital though their Indian empire was to them, they controlled the Subcontinent with a comparative handful of men – about 100,000 in all, less than half of whom were soldiers, ruling over a population of 250 million – and they were all too aware of just how inadequate these numbers would be in the event of any serious rebellion. That, combined with a definite decline in the number of British officers who properly understood India, spoke Indian languages fluently, or had any real sympathy for the people whom they ruled, meant that the colonial hierarchy remained perpetually jittery with some reason. Tall tales, panic and misapprehension spread readily in such a climate, and plenty of people felt a certain disquiet in the early months of 1857:
“Lotus flowers and bits of goats’ flesh, so it was rumoured, were being passed from hand to hand, as well as chupatties. Symbols of unknown significance were chalked on the walls of towns; protective charms were on sale everywhere; an ominous slogan, Sub lal hogea hai (‘Everything has become red’) was being whispered…”
It is no surprise that, faced with such a plethora of portents, “the British regarded with deep suspicion, bordering on paranoia, any type of communication in India which they could not understand.” [Wagner p.63] The colonial administration well understood that rumours, however unfounded, could have serious consequences in an India in which rulers and ruled regarded each other with mutual suspicion, and there were plenty of notably more dangerous urban legends about. One popular story, widely believed, suggested that the British were attempting the mass conversion of their subjects to Christianity by adultering their flour with bone meal from cows and pigs, which was forbidden to Hindus and Moslems respectively. Once defiled, the theory went, men who had consumed the forbidden meal would be shunned by their co-religionists and would be easier to bring into the Christian fold [Kaye p.634], or could then be sent as soldiers overseas (crossing the “black water” being forbidden to Hindus of high caste). And, historically, much the same thing had happened before in times of trouble. Coconuts had passed at great speed from village to village in central India in 1818, at a time when the mofussil was being ravaged by large bands of merciless looters known as the Pindaris. [Malcolm, II, 217-18; Dodd p.36] Most worryingly of all, some very similar rumours had once been recorded far to the south, in the Madras Presidency in 1806, at the time of a serious outbreak of mutiny among Indian soldiers stationed at Vellore:
Among other wild fables, which took firm hold of the popular mind, was one to the effect that the Company’s officers had collected all the newly-manufactured salt, had divided it into two great heaps, and over one had sprinkled the blood of hogs, and over the other the blood of cows; that they had then sent it to be sold throughout the country of the pollution and desecration of the Mahommedans and Hindoos, that all might be brought to one caste and to one religion like the English.
Seen from this perspective, it is not surprising that one of the many subsidiary rumours that accompanied the chupatty movement was that the breads were being carried and distributed “by the hands of the very lowest caste men that can be found; and the natives say that it is intended by Government to force or bribe the headmen to eat the, and thus loose their caste.” [“Trial of the King of Delhi,” Parliamentary Papers, 1859, 1st Session p.100] The consumption of food supplied by the British was, it was commonly believed, to be “considered as a token that they should likewise be compelled to embrace one faith, or, as they termed it, ‘One food and one faith.'” [Roy p.232]
By the time of the chupatty movement, no more than a handful of aged India hands could remember such long-ago events as the Vellore Mutiny. But those who did would not have been surprised by what happened next, for some very similar beliefs were spreading in the early months of 1857. According to this rumour, which spread like wildfire among the sepoys (Indian soldiers) stationed at cantonments throughout the north of the country, the British had come up with yet another diabolical contrivance for breaking their caste and defiling their bodies: the greased cartridge.
It was certainly no secret that the Company’s armies had been making preparations for the introduction of a new sort of ammunition for a new model of Enfield rifle. To be loaded, this cartridge [right], had to be torn open so that the powder it contained could be poured down the barrel of the muzzle-loading gun; because the soldier’s hands were full, this was done with the teeth. Then the bullet had to be rammed down the rifled barrel of the muzzle-loading gun [below]. To facilitate its passage, the cartridges were greased with tallow, which, in the UK, was made of beef and pork fat. The greased cartridges thus posed precisely the same threat to observant sepoys as would flour adulterated with the blood of pigs and cows, and though the problem was recognised by the British at an early stage, and not a single greased cartridge was ever actually issued to any Indian troops, fear that the Company was plotting to defile them took hold among the men of many Indian regiments and resulted in the outbreak of rebellion in the cantonment of Meerut in April 1857.
The revolt of 1857, which the British call the Indian Mutiny but many Indians prefer to think of as the First War of Independence, was the defining event in British imperial history. It came as a greater shock than the loss of the American colonies, and prompted reprisals far more hysterical and vicious than those visited on rebellious subjects elsewhere in the Empire. In one sense, this was not surprising; since India had a large and settled British population, there were more women and children around for the rebels to kill. In another, however, the appalling atrocities visited by the Company’s armies on the people of northern India were far from justified, since the British were themselves proved to be just as prone to rumours and panics as their Indian subjects. Wild stories circulated freely in the panic-stricken atmosphere of 1857, and there were enough real massacres and murders to make almost anything seem possible. Thus it was widely reported, and believed, that Mrs Charlotte Chambers – a heavily-pregnant officer’s wife stationed at Meerut – had had her clothes set on fire by a howling mob of rebels before she was shot, and was stabbed, and had her baby cut out of her belly by a butcher and held up to her “before her dimming eyes,” after which her hands were thrust into her abdomen in place of the murdered foetus. [Ward p.507&n; letter from James Johnston to his mother, 1857] Subsequent investigation eventually suggested that none of this was true, and that the unfortunate Mrs Chambers, though certainly killed, died instantly, and “did not suffer any protracted pain, torture or indignity” [Ward p.675; Women of History], but this revelation was not widely circulated, and in any case came far too late to save the thousands of entirely blameless Indians who found themselves caught up in the hysterical aftermath of the rebellion and who were flogged, or blown from cannon, or forced to clean bloodied paving stones using only their tongues before being summarily hanged.
By the time the British came to examine the causes of the rebellion in 1858 and 1859, therefore, the chupatty movement had assumed a fresh significance. It was generally believed, in retrospect, that the circulation of the breads had been a warning of trouble ahead, and that the wave of chapatis must have been set in motion by a cunning group of determined conspirators who had begun plotting the rising months, if not years, in advance. The rapid spread of disorder in 1857 – when regiment after regiment had mutinied, and revolts against British rule had sprung up throughout most of northern and central India – made it almost impossible to believe that the rebellion could have been spontaneous (as most modern historians concede), and considerable effort was made to chronicle the movement and trace the spread of the anomalous chapatis.
The real irony is that all this effort actually supplied historians with evidence that the chupatty movement had nothing at all to do with the outbreak of disorder some months later – and that the circulation of the breads early in 1857 was nothing more than a strange coincidence. Kim Wagner, who has made the most recent study of the phenomenon, concludes that the movement had its origins in Indore, a princely state still nominally independent of British rule, and that it began as an attempt to ward off the ravages of cholera:
The geographic circulation of the chapattis was not systematic or exponential; their transmission was erratically linear and different ‘currents’ moved at different speeds. Some currents simply ran cold, while others moved in parallel, or paused before continuing. Thus, long after the chapattis reached their northern-most point of Meerut, there was another northwards distribution from Cawnpore to Fattehgarh, which was widely reported in the newspapers… The circulation took place along well-established routes of transmission, which followed the main trade and pilgrimage routes between the bigger cities.
At some point the chapattis passed beyond the limits of their meaningful transmission and simply continued through the country as a “blank” message. This allowed different meanings an interpretations to be attributed to them, and the chapattis became an index of people’s thoughts and worries.
[Wagner pp.65, 67]
Furthermore, the superstitious impulse that still encourages the transmission of chain-letters clearly applied in 1857:
Although the original specific meaning of the chapattis had been lost early in the distribution, the dire consequences of breaking the chain of transmission remained, and thus ensured their successful circulation over an immense area. In the event, the chapattis were not ‘harbingers of a coming storm.’ They were what people made them into, and the significance attributed to them was a symptom of the pervasive distrust and general consternation amongst the Indian population during the early months of 1857.
Seen from a distance of 150 years, the chupatty movement can appear a quaint anomaly, a strange and colourful rumour of interest mostly to historians and psychologists. To me, however, the bloody results of the mutual incomprehension that existed between the British and ‘native’ communities in India are a potent reminder that mistrust and panic can have very serious consequences. They did in France in 1307, at the time of the destruction of the Templars, and in Salem in 1692, at the time of the witch trials. In South Africa, in 1856, the spread of rumours concerning a series of visions experienced by a Xhosa girl named Nonqawuse resulted in the slaughter of most of the Xhosa’s cattle, and the subsequent death by starvation of around 40,000 people. [J.B. Peires, The Dead Will Arise: Nonqawuse and the Great Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement of 1856-7 (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1989)]
These are deep waters that we trawl in, and dangerous ones, too.
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John Davenport. The Historical Class Book. Or Readings in Modern History (London: Relfe Brothers, 1861)
George Dodd. The History of the Indian Revolt (London: W&R Chambers, 1859)
Troy Downs. ‘Host of Midian: the chapati circulation and the Indian Revolt of 1857-58.’ Studies in History 16 (2000)
Christopher Hibbert. The Great Mutiny: India 1857 (London: Penguin, 1978)
House of Commons. “Proceedings of the Trial of Badahur Shah.” In Accounts and Papers, East Indies, Session 3 February-19 April 1859, Parliamentary Papers XVIII of 1859
William Wotherspoon Ireland. History of the Siege of Delhi, by an Officer Who Served There (Edinburgh: A&C Black, 1861)
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Tapti Roy. The Politics of a Popular Uprising: Bundelkhand in 1857 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994)
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Kim A. Wagner. The Great Fear of 1857: Rumours, Conspiracies and the Making of the Indian Uprising (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010)
Andrew Ward. Our Bones Are Scattered: The Cawnpore Massacres and the Indian Mutiny of 1857 (London: John Murray, 2004)