The Black Death in Medieval India: a Historical Mystery
By Lakshmikanthan Anandavalli
Tangents: The Journal of the Master of Liberal Arts program at Stanford University, Vol.6 (2007)
Introduction: No one would dare to deny the importance of the Black Death as a watershed in European history, or question its impact on the economic and social development of Western Europe. Intensive research has established exactly when and how the plague arrived in various countries in Europe and how it spread from city to city. It is now universally accepted by Western scholars that the Black Death originated in Central Asia and spread to Europe via India. Although some sources point to 1334 as the year of the epidemic in India, and some others point to 1346, neither 1334 nor 1346 is considered a watershed in Indian history. Why did a pestilence that had such an impact on one part of the world go unmentioned in another part of the world?
While Petrarch was pondering if “happy posterity” would believe their “abysmal woe,” thousands of miles away in India, the Hindu kings were fighting against the Delhi Sultans, the Delhi Sultans were fighting the Bahmini Sultans, and the victorious kings were establishing new empires. The sources from the West claim that the plague decimated the population of India, but Medieval Indian history questions the presence of an epidemic of that magnitude, and it suggests that, even if there was a pestilence in India in the fourteenth century, it was not as virulent and infectious as the Black Death in Europe.
Many twentieth-century scholars of the Black Death claim that it invaded China and India before it arrived in the Middle East and Europe. Zeigler, in his analysis of the origins of the Black Death, claims that the Black Death was ravaging India by the end of 1346. Gottfried says that sometime in the late thirteenth century or early fourteenth century, Yersina Pestis, the bacillus that causes the plague, spread from the Gobi desert, its permanent locus, “east into China, south into India, and west across Central Asia to the Middle East and the Mediterranean Basin”. Aberth suggests that the disease originated in the land of the Mongols and in vaded China and India before it spread to Europe. Sticker, a twentieth-century historian of epidemiology, asserts that there was a plague in India in 1332 and again in 1344, and he argues that the plague originated in India.
Support for the claim that the Black Death visited India before it spread to Europe comes from the chronicles of medieval merchants of Venice and Genoa, medieval historians from the Middle East, and other chroniclers of Europe. Gabriele de’ Mussi, a thirteenth-century chronicler from Piacenza, wrote an account of the Black Death in which he mentioned that almost everyone in the East, including the population of India, was affected by the pestilence. An anonymous Flemish cleric wrote that in Greater India it rained frogs, serpents, lizards, scorpions and many venomous beasts and, on the third day, the whole province was infected.
We should be aware that when a medieval merchant from Venice or Genoa refers to Greater India, he is referring to the region bounded by Central Asia in the north and Indonesia in the south. Marco Polo, the Venetian traveler from the thirteenth century, explains the three terms used by the merchants: “the Greater India” extends from Mabar to Kesmacoran,“the Lesser India” commences at Ziampa and extends to Murphili, and “the Middle India” includes Abascia. Mabar refers to a part of South India, Abascia refers to modern-day Ethiopia, and Ziampa refers to modern-day Vietnam. In 1348, the medical faculty of Paris wrote that the cause of the Black Death lay in the war between the sun and the sea near India.