Bhubaneswar: Indian queens modelled for the world’s first-ever vaccine to overcome the fears of vaccines passing through bodies of all races, religions, castes and genders. These fears ran counter to unyielding Hindu notions of purity. How better to overcome these fears than enlist the help of Hindu royals, whose power was tied to their bloodlines?
The power and persuasion by the East India Company to introduce the world’s first-ever vaccine to India involved British surgeons, Indian vaccinators, scheming company bosses and friendly royals – none more so than the Wodiyars, indebted to the British who had put them back on the throne after more than 30 years of exile.
Reportedly, Krishnaraja Wodiyar III was the new ruler of the southern Indian kingdom of Mysore when Devajammani arrived at the royal court in 1805, to marry him. Both of them were 12 years of age.
In 2007, when a portrait with an arresting rendition in oil on canvas was last offered for sale via Sotheby’s auction house, its subjects were unknown – and thought to be dancing girls or courtesans.
Until Dr Nigel Chancellor, a historian at Cambridge University who stumbled upon the painting identified the woman on the right in the painting as Devajammani, the younger queen. He said her sari would have typically covered her left arm, but it was left exposed so she could point to where she had been vaccinated ‘with a minimum loss of dignity’.
The woman on the left, he believed, was the king’s first wife, also named Devajammani. The marked discolouration under her nose and around her mouth is consistent with controlled exposure to the smallpox virus, Chancellor was quoted as saying by BBC.
He also believed that painting, dated to around 1805, is not just a record of the queen’s vaccination but also a window into how the British effort unfolded.
“Devajammani soon found herself recruited for a more momentous cause – to publicise and promote the smallpox vaccine. And her unwitting role was captured in a painting commissioned by the East India Company to ‘encourage participation in the vaccination programme’,” Chancellor said.
According to the report, the British did not always record the names of people who kept the supply going, but they did note that it passed through many “unexceptional bodies” – there are mentions of three “half-caste” children who re-established supply in Madras, and a Malay boy who ferried the vaccine to Calcutta (Kolkata).
But none memorialised it in a portrait. The credit for that politicking, according to Chancellor, goes to the king’s grandmother, Lakshmi Ammani, who had lost her husband to smallpox. He believes she is the woman in the middle of the portrait of the three women, buttressing the Wodiyar stamp of approval for the vaccine. The ‘oval face and enormous eyes’ are typical of the family, he added.
More so, Chancellor cited details to support his theory, which was first published in an article in 2001.
- The date of the painting matches the Wodiyar king’s wedding dates and the court records from July 1806, announcing that Devjammmani’s vaccination had a ‘salutary influence’ on people who came forward to be inoculated.
- As an expert in Mysore history, Chancellor is certain the ‘heavy gold sleeve bangles’ and ‘the magnificent headdresses’ are characteristic of Wodiyar queens. Also, the artist, Thomas Hickey, had earlier painted the Wodiyars and other members of the court.
- And most importantly, he wrote, is the “compelling candour” with which they engage the viewer. Half-smiling royal women striking a casual pose for a European painter is rare enough to raise eyebrows. And the Wodiyars would not have risked a scandal, Chancellor said, for a run-of-the-mill portrait.