• Omer Haq

Enigma of Chapatis

Updated: Jan 13

Seen from a distance of 150 years, the chupatty movement can appear a quaint anomaly, a strange and colorful rumor of interest mostly to historians and psychologists. And yet it’s just as possible to see the bloody results of the mutual incomprehension between the British and native communities in India as a potent reminder that mistrust and panic can have serious consequences.

"It is here, a most mysterious affair going on throughout the whole of India at present. No one seems to know the meaning of it.… It is not known where it originated, by whom or for what purpose, whether it is supposed to be connected to any religious ceremony or whether it has to do with some secret society. The Indian papers are full of surmises as to what it means. It is called ‘the chupatty movement.’ ” Dr. Gilbert Hadow writes to his sister in Britain in March 1857.

Chapati, also known ad Indian flatbread

The “movement” that Hadow was describing was a remarkable example of rumor gone wild. It consisted of the distribution of many thousands of chapatis that were passed from hand to hand and from village to village throughout the north of the subcontinent. The chapatis were real, but no one knew for sure what they were for. Most Indians thought they were the work of the British. The British, who had nothing to do with the mysterious transmission, guessed the bread was a piece of mischief-making on the part of the Indians, although opinion was divided whether the bread came from Calcutta (Kolkata), from the north, in the province of Oude (Avadh) or from Indore. Extensive inquiries into the meaning of the bread brought about plenty of theories but few facts; even the runners and watchmen who baked them and carried them from village to village “did not know why they had to run through the night with chupatties in their turbans,” though they took them just the same.

The chupatty movement first came to British attention early in February 1857. One of the first officials to encounter it was Mark Thornhill, a magistrate in the little Indian town of Mathura, near Agra. Thornhill came into his office one morning to find four “dirty little cakes of the coarsest flour, about the size and thickness of a biscuit” lying on his desk. He was informed that they had been brought in by one of his Indian police officers, who had received them from a puzzled village chowkidar. And where had the chowkidar got them?

Thornhill examined the chapatis in his office. They bore no message and were identical to the bread cooked in every home in India. Yet discreet inquiries soon revealed that many hundreds of chapatis were passing through his district, and through other parts of India as well—everywhere from the Narmada river in the south to the border with Nepal several hundred miles to the north.

That rate in which the chapatis spread was particularly disconcerting because it was vastly swifter than the fastest British mails, and urgent inquiries were made as to the source and meaning of the “movement.” They yielded the information that the bread were being distributed far more widely than anyone in Agra had yet realized, and that the Indians who received them generally took them as some sort of a sign. Beyond that, however, opinions remained divided.

Numerous explanations were considered. A few suggested that the chapatis might conceal “seditious letters” that were “forwarded from village to village, read by the village chief, again crusted over with flour, and sent on in the shape of a chupatty, to be broken by the next recipient,” but an examination of the bread revealed no hidden messages.

1909 Map of British India
1909 Map of the British India, showing British India in two shades of pink and the princely states in yellow

The British were extremely spooked by the spread of the chapatis. Vital though their Indian empire was to them, they controlled the subcontinent with a comparative handful of men—about 100,000 in all, less than half of whom were soldiers, ruling over a population of 250 million—and they were all too aware of just how inadequate these numbers would be in the event of any serious rebellion. That, combined with a declining number of British officers who understood India, spoke Indian languages fluently or had any real sympathy for the people whom they ruled, meant that the colonial hierarchy remained perpetually jittery. Tall tales, panic, and rumor spread readily in such a climate, and plenty of people felt a certain disquiet in the early months of 1857.

Kim Wagner notes that The British regarded with deep suspicion, bordering on paranoia, any type of communication in India which they could not understand.” The colonial administration well understood that rumors, however unfounded, could have serious consequences, and there were plenty of notably more dangerous urban legends about. One popular story, widely believed, suggested that the British were attempting the mass conversion of their subjects to Christianity by adulterating their flour with bone meal from cows and pigs, which was forbidden to Hindus and Moslems, respectively. Once defiled, men who had consumed the forbidden meal would be shunned by their co-religionists and would be easier to bring into the Christian fold, or could be sent as soldiers overseas (crossing the “black water” being forbidden to Hindus).. Most worryingly of all, some very similar rumors had once been recorded far to the south, in the Madras Presidency in 1806, at the time of a serious outbreak of mutiny among Indian soldiers stationed at Vellore. As John Kaye wrote a few years later:

Fort of Vellore
Fort of Vellore

Among other wild fables, which took firm hold of the popular mind, was one to the effect that the Company’s officers had collected all the newly-manufactured salt, had divided it into two great heaps, and over one had sprinkled the blood of hogs, and over the other the blood of cows; that they had then sent it to be sold throughout the country of the pollution and desecration of the Mahommedans and Hindoos, that all might be brought to one caste and to one religion like the English.

By the time of the chupatty movement, no more than a handful of aged India hands could remember such long-ago events as the Vellore Mutiny. But those who did would not have been surprised by what happened next, for some very similar beliefs were spreading in the early months of 1857. A rumor that spread like wildfire among the sepoys (Indian soldiers) stationed at cantonments throughout the north of the country was that the British had come up with yet another diabolical contrivance for breaking their caste and defiling their bodies: the greased cartridge.

It was no secret that the Company’s armies had been making preparations for the introduction of a new sort of ammunition for a new model of Enfield rifle. To be loaded, this cartridge had to be torn open so that the powder it contained could be poured down the barrel of the muzzle-loading gun; because the soldier’s hands were full, this was done with the teeth. Then the bullet had to be rammed down the rifled barrel. To facilitate its passage, the cartridges were greased with tallow, which, in the U.K., was made of beef and pork fat. The greased cartridges thus posed precisely the same threat to observant sepoys as would flour adulterated with the blood of pigs and cows, and though the British recognized the problem early on, and never issued a single greased cartridge to any Indian troops, fear that the Company was plotting to defile them took hold among the men of many Indian regiments and resulted in the outbreak of rebellion in the cantonment of Meerut in April 1857.

Sepoy Mutiny of 1857
The Sepoy Revolt at Meerut

By the time the British came to examine the causes of the rebellion, therefore, the chupatty movement had assumed a fresh significance. It was generally believed, in retrospect, that the circulation of the breads had been a warning of trouble ahead, and that the wave of chapatis must have been set in motion by a cunning group of determined conspirators who had begun plotting the rising months, if not years, in advance. The rapid spread of disorder in 1857–when regiment after regiment had mutinied, and revolts against British rule had sprung up throughout most of northern and central India–made it almost impossible to believe that the rebellion could have been spontaneous (as most modern historians concede it was), and considerable effort was made to chronicle the movement and trace the spread of the anomalous chapatis.

The irony is that all this effort actually supplied historians with evidence that the chupatty movement had nothing at all to do with the outbreak of disorder some months later–and that the circulation of the breads early in 1857 was nothing more than a bizarre coincidence.

Kim Wagner, who has made the most recent study of the phenomenon, concludes that the movement had its origins in Indore, a princely state still nominally independent of British rule, and that it began as an attempt to ward off the ravages of cholera:

The geographic circulation of the chapattis was not systematic or exponential; their transmission was erratically linear and different ‘currents’ moved at different speeds. Some currents simply ran cold, while others moved in parallel, or paused before continuing. Thus, long after the chapattis reached their northern-most point of Meerut, there was another northwards distribution from Cawnpore to Fattehgarh, which was widely reported in the newspapers… The circulation took place along well-established routes of transmission, which followed the main trade and pilgrimage routes between the bigger cities.
Historian Kim A. Wagner

At some point the chapattis passed beyond the limits of their meaningful transmission and simply continued through the country as a “blank” message. This allowed different meanings an interpretations to be attributed to them, and the chapattis became an index of people’s thoughts and worries.

Furthermore, the superstitious impulse that still encourages the transmission of chain letters clearly applied in 1857:

Although the original specific meaning of the chapattis had been lost early in the distribution, the dire consequences of breaking the chain of transmission remained, and thus ensured their successful circulation over an immense area. In the event, the chapattis were not ‘harbingers of a coming storm.’ They were what people made them into, and the significance attributed to them was a symptom of the pervasive distrust and general consternation amongst the Indian population during the early months of 1857.

Seen from a distance of 150 years, the chupatty movement can appear a quaint anomaly, a strange and colorful rumor of interest mostly to historians and psychologists. And yet it’s just as possible to see the bloody results of the mutual incomprehension between the British and native communities in India as a potent reminder that mistrust and panic can have serious consequences.

These are deep waters that we trawl in, and dangerous ones, too.

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