On a leafy uphill road in Mumbai’s Bandra suburb, a fire burns at a Catholic shrine. Garlands adorn a cross and idols of saints below it as pedestrians walk by wearing masks. A nondescript sign at the back of the shrine tells visitors that the cross was erected in 1897 when the city was battling another pandemic.
Deserted roads, a migrant workers’ exodus, fears of the disease spreading in congested slums — the scenes that have played out in India’s financial capital over the past year with COVID-19 bear a striking resemblance to what life was like here when the bubonic plague hit the city (then known as Bombay) more than a century ago.
The disease was characterized by fever and swelling of the lymph nodes, and was caused by a bacterium that spread via rats carrying infected fleas. The first case was reported in Bombay in 1896. Over the next few decades, the plague killed millions in British India, most of them poor people who lived and worked in cramped surroundings.
It also shaped Mumbai — literally — and left indelible marks on its streets and buildings. Yet the bubonic plague rarely features in Mumbai’s public memory, historians say.
‘This Moment Of Rupture’
In fact, says Alisha Sadikot, a public historian and educator who conducts workshops and walking tours that highlight and explain the city’s history, you can’t really understand Mumbai without understanding the bubonic plague.
“The plague was like this moment of rupture,” says Sadikot. “You can physically see the difference in the city even today — places that existed before the plague and places that were planned and implemented as a result of the plague.”
In the late 1800s, British colonists christened Bombay Urbs Prima in Indis—Latin for “India’s Premier City.” They built Victorian Gothic structures — including a clock tower modeled on London’s Big Ben and a sprawling railway station with pointed arches and gargoyles — in the southern part of the city to showcase Bombay’s might. British elites had huge villas or bungalows in the hilly parts of the city, where they could enjoy the cool sea breeze. But farther north, what was called the “native town” — where the cotton mills and working-class neighborhoods were located — was strikingly different.
“Really congested neighborhoods; incredibly unsanitary, subhuman conditions of life; people living in dark, damp ill-ventilated housing,” says Sadikot. “And this is where the plague hits.”
Demolishing Houses, Making New Streets
The British colonial government responded to the plague by establishing the Bombay Improvement Trust, which was responsible for revamping congested neighborhoods. The Trust was tasked with “making new streets, opening out crowded localities, reclaiming lands from the sea to provide room for the expansion of the city, and the construction of sanitary dwellings for the poor,” writes historian Prashant Kidambi.
One way the Trust sought to redevelop and decongest entire neighborhoods was to demolish houses, says Sadikot.
“[The Trust] literally broke down homes to create these avenues of ventilation,” she says. “It widened roads allowing the sea air from the west to be pulled into the densest, [most] congested quarters of the native town.”
The Trust also implemented anti-epidemic building regulations, such as the “63.5 degree light angle rule,” which determined the distance between a building and its boundary wall to allow improved light and ventilation. Many of the iconic Art Deco-style buildings that adorn present-day Mumbai’s streets were built in accordance with these plague regulations.
The Trust also established a design rule for windows in chawls, working-class residential buildings with several single-room tenements. Each chawl unit had tall windows built from the base of the wall, so that residents — many of whom slept on the floor — had sufficient light and ventilation.
Sadikot says the Trust envisioned a “community type of neighborhood [that was built based on an] understanding that there are other people living alongside you.”
The Trust was zealous in knocking down buildings, but some experts say it didn’t replace enough of them.
“The Trust’s wholesale demolition of tenement blocks, without the provision of alternative accommodation for those displaced, rendered many homeless,” writes Kidambi.
Room 000 and Other Plague Landmarks
Markers of the plague are all around modern Mumbai, says Shriti Tyagi. You just have to look closely. Tyagi led a walking tour of the city in 2016 to mark 120 years since the outbreak, guiding visitors through plague landmarks. The walk included more than half a dozen spots, including Room 000, a laboratory in a stone building where Russian scientist Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine developed a bubonic plague vaccine, and a statue of Dr. Acacio Gabriel Viegas, who first detected the bubonic plague in Mumbai.
Tyagi says that once you start looking for them, stories and evidence of the plague can be found in unexpected places and structures — even in the iconic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, one of Mumbai’s most famous landmarks. The Indian industrialist Jamsetji Tata commissioned the hotel after the plague struck Bombay.
Tyagi says Tata wanted to boost the morale of his ravaged, beloved city by giving it a stunning new landmark. The fact that someone was willing to invest in an expensive project at a time of severe economic distress gave people hope. “The construction of the hotel itself rebooted a lot of people’s faith in Bombay,” says Tyagi. “Jamsetji Tata staked his faith in the city, and many followed.”
Two Pandemics, Similar Aftermaths
What happened after the plague’s outbreak in Bombay has parallels with modern-day Mumbai’s response to COVID-19. In both cases, the city became a major hot spot for the disease.
Economic activity ground to a halt when the bubonic plague reached Bombay in 1896. Poor mill workers started leaving the city and moving back to their native villages, inadvertently spreading the plague across the subcontinent. In March 2020, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement of a total lockdown — with just four hours’ notice — triggered a similar migrant exodus, as poor day laborers walked, sometimes hundreds of miles, back to their rural hometowns.
During the bubonic plague, the colonial British government sent authorities into houses to forcefully inspect and separate people thought to be infected from those who weren’t. The mostly conservative Indian population objected to male British doctors checking women for signs of the disease. Some families hid plague victims out of fear that they would be taken away to “segregation camps,” where they would eventually die alone and their bodies would be disposed of without proper funerary rituals.
Likewise, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Indians fled quarantine centers, large government facilities housing those believed to have been exposed to the virus. Conditions were reported to be miserable, with dirty or broken toilets and beds crammed together.
A Forgotten History
In the narrow lanes of Bandra, only a handful of the plague crosses have signs or plaques about their origins.
“Communities gather around them to pray, but rarely [does] anyone remember their plague connection,” says Sanchia deSouza, 38, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Toronto. She grew up in a Mumbai neighborhood dotted with crosses, but says she only learned about their history through her research.
“Mumbai has forgotten the lessons it learned from the plague,” says Sadikot. The building regulations that were introduced to make the city more resilient to epidemics, for instance, have long been scrapped, she says. Over the past few decades, Mumbai’s real-estate market has boomed, and vertical construction has gone into overdrive.
“Today you’ll see an old building set back from the street and right next to it this new high-rise with no setback from the boundary wall,” says Sadikot. “And there’s no light coming into these old buildings anymore.”
Experts say that to provide housing for the maximum number of people on Mumbai’s limited, expensive land, authorities have compromised on basic standards of livability — including proper ventilation and how much natural light enters homes — by erecting buildings too close to one another.
A study in the journal Cities & Health shows that residents of affordable-housing complexes in Mumbai that have little natural light or breeze are more likely to become tubercular. “The planning norms are currently aiding a public-health disaster,” the study’s authors write.
Today, nearly half of Mumbai’s population lives in slums. With luxury skyscrapers and blue tarp-covered shanties existing side-by-side, the city has some of the most unequal neighborhoods in the world — just as it did when the bubonic plague hit.