Epidemics and Crisis Management in Pre-modern South Asia

01.03.2022 - 28.02.2026

Project lead: Vitus Angermeier

FWF, P 35301G

While the colonial and modern history of epidemics in South Asia is well researched, the earlier developments of this subject area have hardly been studied. The project "Epidemics and Crisis Management in Pre-modern South Asia" aims to fill part of this gap by exploring the intellectual history of epidemics and similar disasters in South Asia and their medical, religious, social, political, and philosophical aspects through a comprehensive study of the relevant Sanskrit literature from this period.

The project focuses on the so-called classical period which begins from the 6th century BCE, after the end of the Vedic era, with the emergence of an urban culture in the Ganges-Yamuna region, and ends with the fall of the Gupta Empire in the 6th century CE. This phase includes two historically extremely important epidemiological developments. The first consists of the spread throughout Eurasia of diseases that cannot be precisely determined, such as smallpox, measles, and perhaps typhoid, which reached Europe as the “Plague of Athens” (429-426 BC) and a second time as the “Antonine Plague” (165-180 AD). The second development is the spread of the bubonic plague, which culminated in Europe in the so-called “Justinian Plague” (541-542 AD). In all probability, at least the two later events originated in South Asia, as McNeill argues in his 1976 classic on the global history of epidemics Plagues and Peoples. If one follows his arguments, this classic period is a critical one in which several waves of immigration led to clashes not only between the newcomers and the earlier inhabitants of the subcontinent, but also between the disease pools of the two groups. The newcomers inevitably had to become accustomed to the local pathogens, parasites, and climatic conditions, leading to all sorts of unexpected miseries. Analogous to the better documented situation in the Americas after Columbus' discovery, the already resident population of South Asia probably suffered severely from newly introduced diseases or was even threatened with extinction. In addition, urbanization and the associated increased population density led to unimpeded infection scenarios, an essential prerequisite for the occurrence of epidemics. Therefore, a focus on the classical phase promises the most interesting results and allows for a better understanding of epidemiological development throughout the pre-modern period. The goal of the project is to provide material for a comprehensive historical perspective of these events by synthesizing findings from scientific, religious, art historical, and archaeological sources into a cultural and intellectual history of epidemics in pre-modern South Asia.

Collaboration partners:

  • Karin Preisendanz, University of Vienna
  • Julia Shaw, University College London
  • Dominik Wujastyk, University of Alberta
  • Kenneth Zysk, University of Copenhagen