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Shackled Bodies, Unchained Minds: Lunatic Asylums in the Bombay Presidency 1793-1921

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posted on 2021-11-22, 12:02 authored by Pinto, Sarah Ann

Lunatic asylums in the Bombay Presidency were characteristically custodial. In 1793, the government sanctioned the building of the first asylum in the Presidency. During the nineteenth century, they built more asylums, adding to their number. However, by the early twentieth century, these asylums remained mere ‘lock-ups’ for those deemed dangerous to society. Lunacy administration, as one superintendent noted, was the veritable Cinderella in the family of colonial institutions. In terms of the public use of asylums by Indians, in 1905 the total patient population of the asylums in the Bombay Presidency stood only at 1203 patients. This was a meagre number compared to the asylum patient population in Britain. The poor admission numbers baffled both the government and the Indian press.  This thesis argues that the colonial lunatic asylum did not assimilate into Indian society and therefore remained a failed colonial-medical enterprise. Colonial agencies attributed the poor quality of asylum treatment practices to ‘native apathy’ in matters of mental health, and the low admission numbers to ‘less-brain energy’ of Indians. Eduardo Duran has argued that colonial institutions, because of their lack of cultural competence, inflicted historical traumas on indigenous people; historical traumas affect people on three levels: physical, psychological, and spiritual. The thesis contends that Indian ‘apathy’ was a mere reaction to the historical traumas caused by the asylum system.  The thesis accounts for these historical traumas. The first chapter argues that the lunatic asylum contended with two intrinsic characteristics of Indian society - its integrated spiritual-somatic understanding of insanity and its close family ties. The ‘apathy’ of the Indian population towards the asylum system, then, was a reaction to the wounds caused by the colonial undermining of Indian worldviews, medical knowledge, and socio-cultural practices. In the second chapter, the thesis proceeds to examine the colonial-local encounters within the asylum system. These encounters reveal the character of the lunatic asylum as a colonial middle ground. While the government, judiciary and asylum staff executed various forms of control over patients, they failed to achieve colonial hegemony in the lunatic asylums. The third and fourth chapters examine treatment practices and the asylum soundscape as evidence of its failure as a medical institution. Over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, asylum treatment methods remained largely primitive - revolving around clothing, feeding and keeping patients occupied. Such treatment methods reflected the custodial character of Bombay’s asylum system. The custodial nature was also evident in the asylum soundscape or aural environment. Asylum staff did not succeed in regulating and regimenting the asylum soundscape unlike other asylums around the world because of monetary and spatial constraints. In the final chapter, the thesis proceeds to examine the local community’s understanding of the asylum system. For local communities, the lunatic asylum was a place of ‘insulation, mystery and darkness’ - a perception that kept them away from its use.  Extensive archival research in India and Britain, in institutions such as the Maharashtra State Archives, National Archives of India, and British Library, where primary sources such as government proceedings, case notes, asylum general rules, annual reports along with local newspapers and patient letters were collected and analysed in this investigation. Hospital records and photographs, taken at the mental hospitals at Thana and Ratnagiri, corroborated other primary sources. The thesis examines the lunatic asylums in the Bombay Presidency from its establishment in 1793 to 1921, after which the government changed the designation ‘lunatic asylum’ to ‘mental hospital’.  The thesis does not aim to examine colonial motivations in establishing the lunatic asylum since colonial agencies had heterogeneous views on the purpose of the asylum. Rather, it assesses the Indian experience as it encountered a colonial medical institution. In analysing the impact of the asylum system, the thesis seeks to explain the aversion of Indian families to the asylum. This aversion is evident in Indian society even today, and so is the custodial character of mental hospitals in Maharashtra. An awareness of the historical traumas associated with such institutions can help mental health practitioners, policy makers and Indian society invent better ways to help people suffering from mental illness.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Doctor of Philosophy

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Awarded Doctoral Thesis



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Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Bandyopadhyay, Sekhar; Lichtner, Giacomo