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Potent Potions Or Poisons?


Gagan Preet Singh

TOXIC HISTORIES: POISON AND POLLUTION IN MODERN INDIA
By David Arnold
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, Year 2017, pp. 241, $49.99

VOLUME XLI NUMBER 5 May 2017

David Arnold begins his book with an impressive but brief survey of historic references to poison in India’s past. Poisons were widely known in ancient India. For example, in several ancient Indian texts appears the legend of vishkanya or poison-maiden, a woman whose body had been impregnated with poison as she took incremental doses of poison. Any physical intimacy with her could be fatal. As Sushruta Samhita mentions, ‘if she touches you, her sweat can kill, if you make love to her, your penis drops off like a ripe fruit from its stalk’ (p. 18). The poison-maidens were most likely used to kill political rivals and enemies, and this use of poison, to eliminate political rivals, continued during the medieval times. The Mughal Emperors, as European travelogues of the times reveal, killed their political rivals with the help of ‘killer khilat’. This special khilat (robe of honour) was impregnated with poison, so that its wearer died a miserable death. The Mughals also eliminated their political rivals by forcing them to drink post (a concoction of raw opium). Even in the modern times, poison remained a secret weapon of assassination. In 1875, the Maharaja of Bikaner narrowly escaped when somebody tried to assassinate him by concealing poison in his shoes. In 1883, Dayanand Saraswati, founder of the Arya Samaj, was poisoned by his cook. Each of these examples is fantastic, but the following one is equally precious. In 1874 Colonel Robert Phyare, the political agent of the Princely State of Baroda, one day found an unpleasant metallic taste in his morning drink. The subsequent laboratory analysis of the residue revealed that it contained diamond dust. Since only a Maharaja could afford such an expensive method to poison someone, Phyare believed that the Maharaja had tried to kill him. Toxic Histories abounds with many such riveting tales of poisoning, but this is not what the book is all about. Arnold’s pioneering book is based on a new approach to study the history of poison. In the West, historians have mostly studied the history of poison in relation to the development of medical jurisprudence and toxicology which Arnold has only marginally discussed in his book. Rather his contribution lies in revealing how ‘poison’ was embedded in the socio-cultural, political, and urban history of modern India. His study goes beyond the confines of the laboratory to explore the bazaars of colonial India, where poisonous substances were ...


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