As you walk past the skeleton of an old German building, the wind rustles through the leaves of a Muchukunda tree and you can almost hear it whispering the stories which make up this place. Some of these very trees were planted by villagers 100 years ago; they are still worshiped by the names of those who tended them.
Nabakusthashram was built as a leprosy asylum in 1884 by a German missionary1, Reverend Heinrich Uffman. At that time little was known about the disease; people feared it was contagious, and the often gruesome disfigurements which lepers suffered only heightened this fear. If a person was found to have developed leprosy they would often be driven from their village by force, and subsequently shunned by other communities. Leprosy-affected people would then be homeless and unable to find work. This mission was the first of its kind and created a safe haven for victims of leprosy.
The term “asylum” brings forth images of white walls, starched uniforms, and maybe an electric chair for the imaginative reader. The reality in Purulia could not have been more different. By 1950 the Purulia asylum had become a modernized institution and was modeled by leprosy colonies worldwide. It was run as a community rather than an institution, and many residents were able to participate in the farming of the land which allowed them to be largely self-sufficient. At its peak, this village and the mission nearby in Purulia town hosted at least 800 residents.
There’s something about seeing people living in these difficult positions that leads the rest of us to justify that somehow, this is simply the reality for those who developed leprosy. It becomes plausible to imagine that this is how they’ve always lived; that it’s an unalterable reality. Two months ago if you looked at the buildings you would think the village was abandoned, even though there are nearly 40 residents.
What’s harder to believe is that life in this village used to be better than life in the surrounding area. When Uffman created this place he felt an unprecedented duty to serve these people, and that duty didn’t stop at mediocrity.
The first village soon filled past capacity. People traveled from other states to seek refuge here. There is a second village next to the Leprosy Mission (hospital) which is still in use, now doubling as a general hospital, in Purulia town.
“Life in this village used to be better than life in the surrounding area.”
In Purulia district, even in the late 19th century, people were not as harsh towards those affected by leprosy. Fear still reigned, but the contrasting hostility of surrounding states likely influenced Uffman’s decision in choosing Purulia for the building site. By the asylum’s construction in 1884, though no cure was known, informed medical opinion had determined (correctly) that Leprosy was caused by a bacteria and that it was not highly contagious. With this in mind, the location of the asylum was narrowed more specifically to land which sat next to a river, with high ground and good ventilation. This allowed for more hygienic living arrangements.
Although people in Purulia district were fairly humane towards Leprosy-affected people, there was still a tangible separation between affected people and everyone else. This was denoted by the asylum’s physical distance from other villages. This societal chasm was compelling motivation for the asylum to become as self-sustainable as possible. Residents were still unable to work regular jobs, so agricultural work was arranged on the surrounding land. Even with their disabilities residents were able to partake in their community’s sustenance.
Part of this self-sustainability practice is reflected in the presence of medicinal plants. In the early 20th c. the Chaulmoogra tree (which produces a Jangli almond) was considered a treatment for leprosy. It would be applied as a balm to wounds, or else the oil would be used. They planted Chaulmoogra trees here as well as many other medicinal plants: Last week we found a flowering tree, the leaves from which lower blood pressure. Fenced in at the women’s section are aloe plants for burns. The leaves of a Muchukunda tree mentioned earlier can be ground up and applied to the forehead to relieve headache. There is a hanging plant on the way to the women’s section with small Divya Shivalingi fruits (like tiny, spherical watermelons – red when ripe). These are used to treat infertility, and are named for the shape of the seed which looks like Shiva’s eye. (Shiva is a principal deity in Hinduism whose iconic attributes include a third eye on his forehead.)
Important medical research was breaking ground in Uffman’s paradise. Continued study of residents showed that even continuous close contact between staff and leprosy-affected people did not result in contagion. Leprosy was thought to be a child’s disease, as adults beyond a certain age rarely came down with symptoms. This is because an adult’s immune system can usually fight the bacteria. According to the CDC, only 5% of adults are able to develop Leprosy at all.
“While doctors researched their disease, residents were living the entirety of their lives in this relative isolation.”
Sometimes people coming to the asylum had begun to show symptoms while with child. If the newborn child were to stay with the parent, he or she would have a high rate of developing Leprosy. However when separated, the success rate was very good. For this reason when a child was born, he or she would be removed from the mother’s side and placed in an isolated children’s quarters for quarantine. Once the child was determined to be unaffected by the disease, they were placed in a home for healthy boys and girls. This home was at a small distance from the other residents, on raised ground, and near the living quarters of teachers and doctors. The success rate was so good that by the 1930’s, this practice became a standard in leprosy asylums abroad.
While doctors researched their disease, residents were living the entirety of their lives in this relative isolation. Leprosy colonies all over the world found this same conundrum, unable to fill their days with the experiences we live through without blinking: Going to work, reaping the joys and pains of economic agency which work brings, watching and helping our children grow and live. Many residents turned to creative expression as an outlet. West Bengal is rich in culture; residents found no lack of inspiration when crafting their song, dance, and dramas. More on that next time – stay tuned for Part 2.
Thank you to Budhu Mohato, Sanjay Mohato, and Robert Lush for their valuable insight into this history.
1.The work of missionaries over the last two centuries can be controversial: There are indisputable negative aspects of their efforts, some of which you will learn from us. However groundbreaking work has also been done here in West Bengal thanks to the missionaries stationed here in the 19th and 20th centuries. This leprosy village is one great example; another is the thorough documentation of Oraon language and culture by the reverend Ferdinand Hahn around the turn of the 20th century. Despite the fact that their recordings of indigenous languages and cultures was ultimately intended to alter a way of life, missionaries in fact are responsible for a significant portion of language documentation around the world. They were some of the world’s first great linguists.