A curious case of Lotah & the Revolt of 1857

In 1834 when authorities tried to take away personal Lotah at Alipore Jail, prisoners attacked Magistrate Richardson and killed him with Lotahs.

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What’s in a Lotah (metal drinking vessel) which can cause a general revolt of masses? In India it was supposed to be one of the reasons for causing a mass uprising against British rule in 1857. 

The British rulers established themselves as a political power in India after winning the Battle of Plassey in 1757. They tried to study the Indian population and culture in order to help them maintain political control. These studies were also carried by, and for, the help of Christian missionaries. Of several other things Lotah for the Europeans was a mysterious object. They couldn’t understand that a brass or copper vessel for drinking could be so important for the Indians. 

They found that an Indian would do anything to save his Lotah from other people. The problem was that Indians wouldn’t drink water from other caste/community people. To guard this seclusion, they kept a Lotah which nobody else was allowed to touch.

Jadunath Sarkar in his Economics of British India noted Lotah as one of the most necessary belongings which Indians possessed. He wrote, “Also the inevitable jug for every family. It is called a lotah among the Hindus and a badhna or aftabah (the latter having a spout) among the Muslims, and is usually made of brass, the Muhammadans preferring copper.”

The British tried to put their sanctions in jails, army cantonments and other places. They tried to take away these Lotahs which, by the Indians, was seen as an attempt at trying to convert them into Chritian faith.

Who was Kafir according to Nana Saheb?

In 1834 when authorities tried to take away personal Lotah at Alipore Jail, prisoners attacked Magistrate Richardson and killed him with Lotahs. After his visit to Alipore Jail, T. H. Lloyd, “And here the prejudices of caste receive a deathblow, for the remarkable thing is, that there is not a single lotah within the Jail. All the prisoners whatever their caste or creed, be they Mussulman or Hindoo, Brahmin or Sweeper, resort to the wider aqueduct where the water is used in common, whether taken for culinary purposes, or drawn out in earthen vessels and used by the men for washing and bathing, while standing in the reservoir itself, none of them being allowed to enter the aqueduct.”

Almost all the British official historians of the 1857 revolt wrote a story of Lotah and mutiny. George Bruce Malleson wrote, “ A lascar engaged in the factory at Dam-Dam asked a Brahman sipáhí to let him have a drink of water from his lotah, or brass pot. The sipáhí indignantly refused, on the ground that his caste would not permit him to use the lotah afterwards if it should be defiled by the drinking of a man of a lower position in the Hindu hierarchy. The lascar, in reply, laughed at him for talking of defilement, when he said, ‘You will all soon be biting cartridges smeared with the fat of the cow and the pig.’ He then told the sipáhí the method of the new cartridges. The incident occurred when the minds of the sipáhís had been inflamed, in the manner already recounted, to a high state of tension. The story spread like wildfire.” The story finds mention by Charles Ball,  Major-General Hearsey, John William Kaye and many others as well.

Waris Ali, the lesser known hero of 1857 in Tirhut

John William Kaye in his ‘A History of the Sepoy War in India’ considered Lotah as one of the reasons of the discontent against the British Raj before 1857. He wrote, “A Hindoo, or a Hindooised Mahomedan , is nothing without his Lotah. A Lotah is a metal drinking- vessel, which he religiously guards against defilement, and which he holds as a cherished possession when he has nothing else belonging to him in the world.” 

The prisoners saw these attempts of disassociating them from Lotah as a direct attack on their caste, culture and religion. Kaye noted, “So the prisoners resisted the experiment, and in more than one place manifested their resentment with a fury which was shared by the population of the towns. At Arrah the excitement was so great that the guards were ordered to fire upon the prisoners, and at Mozufferpore, in Tirhoot, so formidable was the outburst of popular indignation, that the magistrate, in grave official language, described it as a furious and altogether unexpected outbreak on the part of the people of the town and district in support and sympathy with the prisoners .”The rioters, it was said,” included almost all the inhabitants of the town, as well as a vast number of ryots , who declared that they would not go away until the lotahs were restored ; “and so great was the danger of the prisoners escaping, of their plundering the Treasury and pillaging the town, before the troops which had been sent for could be brought up, that the civil authorities deemed it expedient to pacify the insurgents by restoring the lotahs to the people in the jails.”


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