Bread and Resistance in Colonial Bengal

By Mohd. Ahmar Alvi

Among the many foods accompanying British colonizers to India, leavened bread was received differently by different communities and religious groups. Many upper-caste Hindus had revulsion not only for the bread but also for the other items coming out of bakeries introduced to the Indian culinary scene by the British. Meanwhile, Dalits –who had been marginalized by the Brahmins first by not being given jobs and second by being denied food eaten by the higher castes— accrued these bakeries as an opportunity to liberate themselves from unpaid, indentured, menial jobs, but also to ensure economic security and dignity. Muslims, a religious minority, also perceived these bakeries as a prospective source of earnings owing to their longstanding and auspicious connections to baking skills, inherited from the Mughals during their rule in past centuries.  

The aversion exhibited by upper-caste Hindus was predicated on a set of strong Brahmanical religious beliefs. In Hinduism, food can carry a plethora of diktats. It dictates your job, your social status, whether you are ‘pure’ or ‘polluted’, and whether you are entitled to enter a temple or not. The food one eats becomes the defining factor of one’s caste. One such way that upper-caste Hindus distinguish themselves from the lower ones is by denying the food touched or cooked by the lower castes. A high-caste Hindu can only accept food or drink from a person of a similar rank. If the food is prepared or touched by a lower caste person, it must be rejected.[i] Therefore, to accept bread coming from Dalits’ hands would be polluting and profaning to savarnas (caste Hindus). 

However, bhadralok (the educated ‘enlightened’ Bengali middle-class), under the strong influence of Brahmo Samaj [ii], used the consumption of bread as a means to record their resistance against casteism and to defy the taboo about crossing the seas to the West. A sizeable amount of literature—both fictional and autobiographical—written in Bengal in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries documents this resistance.

Rajnarayan Basu, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For example, in his 1909 autobiography, Atmacharit (Autobiography), Rajnarayan Basu (1826-1899), a famous Brahmo[iii] leader, narrates how during his college days he often consumed bread and biscuits coming from the hands of Dalits as an emblem of progress and to mobilize resistance against casteism. When he accepted Brahmosim, he consumed bread to record his protest against casteism, because, at that time, Bengal bakeries were operated by Dalits or Muslims. He remembers his Brahmo oath-taking ceremony as:

On the day when I signed the oath (at the beginning of 1846) and received Brahmoism, I was accompanied by a couple of other adults from my village. That day, we celebrated our new religion with bread and sherry. This was to show that we did not believe in distinctions of caste or creed.[iv]


Bipin Chandra Pal, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Likewise, Bipin Chandra Pal (1858-1932), in his autobiography, Sattar Bastar (Seventy Years), tells us how by consuming bread, albeit secretly, he along with his peers broke away from the shackles of casteism:

Though we would come out of the shop after buying flour of one paisa and holding it in our hands to show to the people. We would bring hot bread and biscuits inside our shirt pockets or inside our dhotis, and at the night, after our guardians slept, we would bring these out and have those. In this way, even while staying at Sylhet, my binding considerations of religion and caste were internally totally broken.[v]


Madhusudan Dutt, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In his satirical play, Ekei Ki Bale Sabhyata (That’s What Civilization is all About), Madhusudhan Dutt (1824-1873) dramatizes the response of the middle-class Bengali youth toward the consumption of bread baked by Dalits. In the play, a Vaishnava[vi] man observes some youths to learn their activities. Kali, one of the youths, suggests feeding Vaishnava fowl cutlet with bread so that his life becomes meaningful.[vii] In the nineteenth century, Vaishnavas did not consume any meat or an item prepared by a lower-caste Hindu, so this represented a particularly powerful moment of resistance.

Swami Vivekananda, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Among critics, the diminishing potential of scriptural reasoning and advancing modernity in colonial Bengal meant that some detractors couched their criticism against the consumption of bread in the language of science. In 1899, Swami Vivekananda, in his essay, The East and the West, strongly opposed the consumption of bread. According to him, flour mixed with yeast became injurious to health, and he approved of the consumption of only toasted bread under special circumstances:

And as for fermented bread, it is also poison, don’t touch it at all. Flour mixed with yeast becomes injurious. Never take any fermented thing; in this respect, the prohibition in our shastras of partaking of any such article of food is a fact of great importance.[viii]

In this way, the consumption of bread was not only about sustenance, but reflected broader debates and relationships between communities and religious groups. People’s varied responses to bread thus suggest the power of food in resisting casteism in Colonial Bengal.


[i] For a detailed study on food and Hinduism see Pamela G. Kittler and Kathryn P. Sucher, Food and Culture. 5th ([Sydney]: Thomson Wadsworth, 2004).

[ii] This community played an important role in the genesis and development of every major religious, social, and political movement in India between 1820 and 1930. It brought about a social reformation by extending full equality to Dalits, women, and laborers, among other marginalized groups. Its members are regarded as the pioneers of liberal political consciousness and Indian nationalism. 

[iii] A believer and practitioner of the principles of Brahmo Samaj.

[iv] Rajnarayan Basu,  Atmacharit (Calcutta: Chiraya Prakasan, 1909): 44.

[v] Bipin Chandra Pal, Sattar Bastar (Calcutta: Patralakha, 1954): 92-93.

[vi] Follower of the Hindu god Vishnu and his incarnations.

[vii] Madhusudhan Dutt, Ekei Ki Bale Sabhyata (Calcutta: Tuli Kalam, 1860): 247.

[viii] Swami Vivekananda, “The East and the West”, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Almora: Advaita Ashram, 1954): 390-91.

Sickness Personified: Clandestine Remedies from Colonial Yucatán

By R.A. Kashanipour

I curse you, little seizures! Whose erupting pox are you? Eruptions on the head and body, open eruptions, internal eruptions, fiery eruptions…” [1] So begins a highly ritualized remedy for fever, eruptions, and seizures from late colonial Yucatán. As I noted in my last post, sickness and disease were endemic throughout colonial Latin America and brought together distinct traditions of healing. As this remedy and the dozens of others from the manuscript known as Ritual of the Bacabs show, eighteenth-century Mayas of the Yucatán were not silent victims of disease. Instead, they understood sickness and infirmity as extensions of the natural and human world. They incorporated ancient traditions and firmly rooted healing in colonial context. And, as I would like to note in this post, healers personified and naturalized diseases to bolster their own therapeutic powers.

Before returning to this remedy, I want to touch on the manuscript source and then briefly make note of ancient traditions of Maya healing. Ritual of the Bacabs is a collection of healing incantations, prayers, and remedies written in Yucatec Maya sometime in the eighteenth century. This unique work, which today is held at Princeton University, addresses afflictions common to the colonial world, including pox (kak), difficulty breathing (coc), and difficulty walking (chibal oc). The devastating affects of disease are often noted as seizures (tancas). Several cures associate these outbursts with their origins, such as walking seizures (ah oc tancas), while others ascribe direct ties to the natural world as their sources, including macaw-jaguar seizures (mo balam tancas) and tarantula seizures (chiuoh tancas). The culturally bound ailment often described as madness (coil) regularly appears associated with extreme cases of the pox and seizures.

On the whole, the remedies of the text illustrate the ongoing revision of long-standing Maya traditions in the face of colonial institutions. In particular, in the pre-Hispanic period, infirmity and remediation were associated with the supernatural world and directly tied to the deities Ix Chel and Itzamná. In 1571, Diego de Landa, the second Bishop of Yucatán and infamous crusader against pagan practices, noted Ix Chel’s centrality to healing.

“The physicians and the sorcerers assembled in one of their houses with their wives… they opened bundles of their medicine, in which they kept many little things… little idols of the goddess of medicine, whom they called Ix Chel .”

Diego de Landa, ca. 1570

The two deities, the goddess of the moon and lord of the sun, were bound as husband and wife and mirroring elements of health and sickness.

Ix Chel and Itzamna This rollout image from a classic period pot depicts the goddess Ix Chel (center) caring for an ailing Itzamná (right) and a female healer (left) performing a healing ritual.  The leaves surround the infirmed and bedridden Itzamná most likely represent the purgatives used to induce the deer to vomit. A vulture appears underneath the old god’s bed, just to make clear that his condition is dire.  © Justin Kerr, K2794,
Ix Chel and Itzamna
This rollout image from a classic period pot depicts the goddess Ix Chel (center) caring for an ailing Itzamná (right) and a female healer (left) performing a healing ritual. The leaves surround the infirmed and bedridden Itzamná most likely represent the purgatives used to induce the deer to vomit. A vulture appears underneath the old god’s bed, just to make clear that his condition is dire. © Justin Kerr, K2794,

During the colonial period, local Church authorities attempted to root out any expressed association with ancient religions. In healing, however, it is clear they were unsuccessful. These deities, who were central to the creation mythology of the Classical Maya, were represented as powerful animistic forces in the healing text. In a remedy for a breathing affliction in Ritual of the Bacabs, both Itzamna and Ix Chel are invoked to harness the use of the powerful cardinal directions. The enchanter is to “for four days, shake the face of the red Ix Chel, the white Ix Chel, the yellow Ix Chel; four days he shakes the face of the red Itzamna.” [3] These supernatural forces figure prominently in the background of numerous remedies. They serve to root the cures in line with ancient traditions, which endured well into the colonial period.

File:Goddess O Ixchel.jpg
Ix Chel with her Rabbit
In this image from a Classic period earthenware polychome vase, a seated Ix Chel appears with her rabbit, which is often identified as one of her animal spirit companions. She appears as a young woman, dressed in the regalia of a noble, complete with headdress. The original object is housed at Museum of Fine Arts Boston and available digitally here.

The remedies of Ritual of the Bacabs represent a clandestine system of ritualized healing that directly built on past Maya practices, such as the invocation of Ix Chel. As a text designed for alienating and eliminating sickness, the curanderos that penned the work most likely identified themselves as a special Maya class of healers known as mak ik or benevolent shamans that controlled healing winds. In this way, they stood in line with ancient traditions, but were fully immersed in colonial experience.

[1] Ritual of the Bacabs, Princeton University Library, Garrett-Gates Collection, Mesoamerican Manuscript No. 1, folio 100.

[2] Diego de Landa and Alfred M. Tozzer, Landa’s Relación De Las Cosas De Yucatan: A Translation. (New York: Kraus, 1966), 154.

[3] Ritual of the Bacabs, folio 65.

A Black Rooster and the Angel of Dread: Jewish Magical Recipes Against Fear

By Andrea Gondos

Illness and a desperate longing for wellness and healing defined Jewish magical recipes books, written in a thriving manuscript culture of practical Kabbalah that existed alongside printed works in Jewish communities of East-Central Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.[i] These manuscripts, many of them cherished by their compilers, played an important role in recording, accumulating, and subsequently transmitting knowledge about the natural and the supernatural worlds. As recipe compilations, they include lists of ingredients that are accompanied by detailed instructions directed at a practical goal, which in this case aimed to improve a person’s material and spiritual wellbeing. The writers of these amulets were collectively called ba’alei shem[ii] or masters of the (divine) name who deployed experiential types of knowledge in combination with traditions of angelic and divine names. These expose a holistic outlook based on the careful alignment and calibration of three interrelated spheres of human existence: the religious, derived from prayer and proper conduct; artisanal knowledge of the natural world, the unique qualities of herbs, plants, and animal substances; and the mastery of supernatural forces and processes by wielding power over demons, forces of impurity, and astrological influences.  The acquisition of this unique type of expertise, enumerated in these magical recipe books, bequeathed upon its master extraordinary powers and charisma. Here, I will survey three visually interesting amulets designed to counteract demonic forces that were believed to cause negative mental and emotional states such as fear.

Image courtesy of The National Library of Israel, MS 38 3279, fol. 109v: an amulet against fear for a child.


“[An] amulet for a child gripped by terror. It should be hung on the child and her/his name should be written on it; he can also hang on the child the foot of a black rooster.”

A curious ingredient and technique presented in this recipe is the use of charaktêres, or angelic alphabet, that was meant to directly command and address specific angelic interlocutors to produce a desired outcome.[iii] Defined as “an alphabetic sign or a simple ideogram which does not belong to any of the alphabets used in that specific magical text, or to any known system of meaningful symbols,”[iv] charaktêres constituted a form of linguistic magic and were frequently deployed through cross-cultural borrowing and adaptation in a variety of cultural settings, including Judaism, from Antiquity to modern times.

Another recipe that addresses fear was supposed to be written on parchment made from a kosher animal, one that was considered in compliance with Jewish dietary laws. Here the visual element is the formation of a square from the angelic name PAHAD’EL, which is a composite of the words ‘fear’ (pahad) and God (‘El). At the upper corners of the recipe, on the left and right sides, two additional angelic names are indicated: Hasadi’el (left), and Rahami’el (right). Both names are cognates of mercy, thus visually these two merciful angels flank the Angel of Dread (Pahad’el) overpowering and diminishing its negative effect on the person, who is gripped by fear. When confronted by the debilitating effects of mental distress, such as fear or dread, the Jewish shaman thus had recourse to a cache of magical modalities to affect healing. Ingredients here are comprised of a magic square, letter mysticism, alongside theoretical elements of Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah, which invokes the mystical principle of containment. Accordingly, the demonic powers of the left side of the divinity need to be included, encompassed, and subsumed in the right, the sacred aspect of God. Kabbalistic theosophy places great emphasis on the idea of tricks and ruse to co-opt the dark forces of the left, instead of confronting them directly; this conceptualization is visually demarcated in the diagrammatic features of this recipe formula.

Image courtesy of The National Library of Israel. MS 8 1070, fol. 31r


In the final recipe for fear, food and plant substances, bread and garlic, are promoted as effective therapeutic ingredients to overcome this negative emotional state. This particular compilation does not contain any distinctly Jewish elements. Rather, it draws on more common cross-cultural practices, which are adopted and offered as part of a ba’alei shem’s stock of natural remedies:

“For one who goes out at night so he would not fear evil spirits even in a place of danger: He should take a loaf of bread in his right hand and in his left hand some garlic, and no harm will come to him, God willing, who saves and protects.”

Image courtesy of The National Library of Israel. MS 8 1070, fol. 11v


The above recipes which were offered as panacea against fear, a form of mental distress, highlight the multiplicity of approaches that ba’alei shem in East-Central Europe took to alleviate the debilitating grip of negative states of the mind. While some recipes display theoretical, particularistic, and more elite forms of knowledge, other variants for the same illness exhibit a more universal, folkloristic, and popular stance.


[i] See Agata Paluch, “Practical Kabbalah and Practical Knowledge: Kabbalistic Manuals and Natural Knowledge in Early Modern East-Central Europe,” History of Knowledge, April 11, 2019,

[ii] On ba’alei shem, see Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, “The Master of an Evil Name: Hillel Ba’al Shem and His Sefer ḥa-Heshek,”AJS Review 28.2 (2004): 217–248; and Immanuel Etkes. The Besht: Magician, Mystic, and Leader, translated by Saadya Sternberg (Hanover and London: Brandeis University, 2005).

[iii] Gideon Bohak, “The Charaktêres in Ancient and Medieval Jewish Magic,” Acta Classica Universitatis Scientiarum Debreceniensis, 47 (2011): 25-44.

[iv] Ibid., p. 25.




Andrea Gondos’s scholarship has focused on knowledge organization and transmission reflected in early modern study guides in the field of Kabbalah. Currently, she is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the DFG-Emmy Noether Research Group “Patterns of Knowledge Circulation” at the Institute of Jewish Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, where she examines the conceptualization of the female body, gender, and reproductive health as expressed by Jewish male healers in early modern manuscripts of magic in East-Central Europe.

A Recipe for Music: Notating Domestic Singing in Seventeenth-Century England

By Sarah Koval

Mary Chantrell and others, recipe book, f.92v, 1690, MS 1548. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Mary Chantrell’s book of recipes for food and medicines (1690) is typical of the manuscript recipe genre: a handwritten, bound book full of instructions for making common foods, preserves, and medicinal cures such as “pills to cure a consumption,” (f.63r), “the green oyntment,” (f.30r) and “a purge for sharpe humours” (f.50r). On the last folio, however, we find an unusual entry: written out twice on either side of a recipe “for the chin cough [whooping cough],” is the text to “Madam Roda Cliffords Song,” a metrical verse with four stanzas that lacks any conventional music notation, apparently received from Mary’s personal acquaintance (f.92r92v). What could a single song be doing among such practical household directions? 

Musical entries can be found in several of the hundreds of surviving household recipe books from this period. These musical inscriptions are highly personalized, reflecting the private, domestic context in which they arose and were used. The number of musical entries, their physical placement within the book, and even the presence or absence of a more conventional musical notation—one that indicates at the very least pitch and rhythm—all vary from book to book. At one exciting extreme we find, in the commonplace book of John Ridout ([16–], see the image below), thirty-two pieces for the cittern (a guitar relative), notated with tablature, nestled between hundreds of recipes for food and medicines.(1) However, most of the musical entries in recipe books are not so easily reproduced or heard today due to their lack of notational specificity, forestalling the traditional work of the musicologist. 

John Ridout’s commonplace book, f.79v-80r, [16–], MS Mus 182. Image credit: Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. The top page features a piece called “Orlando,” the bottom a table of note values.


Nevertheless, there is a telling parallel between the sparse notations of these songs and the utility-driven written recipes that dominate these manuals. A recipe, writes historian William Eamon, is “a prescription for taking action,” a notion that could apply equally well to a notated piece of music.(2) Indeed, the songs, hymns, psalms, and other musical items found in recipe books form part of a family’s “memorial archive,” gathered alongside other ritualistic instructions as prescriptions for action in a family’s daily routines.(3)

We might call such ambiguous, text-only notations “purposely incomplete,” following musicologist John Butt.(4) Similar to their tandem recipe notations, song texts were likely compiled to be sung by their collectors, their family members, and close friends. While Madam Clifford’s song may have been used for entertainment, titles like those in Martha Hodges’ recipe book (1675-c.1725) show that many pieces were used for private worship at the hearth or in the prayer closet: “Evening song, Vespers” (f.34r); “A Morning Hymn” (f.43v); and “An Hymn in Sickness” (f.43r). Not meant as casual reading material, recipes and musical texts were most likely taken off-page in the daily care of the bodies and souls of the household.

Music notation, as with any form of writing, is a way of extending memory across time. In the case of such household inscriptions—either for food, medicine, or music—writing served as an aid to practice within the memorial micro-archive of the family unit. This archive is the musical and performance knowledge of a single family, a small social network, or a few generations at most. Recipe books show us that the memorial archive of household knowledge not only included concerns of feeding and healing its members, but of creating musical sounds that served the material and sacred needs of the family. Difficult for those outside of the family unit to access, the memorial archive of domestic musical practices remains enigmatic but full of possibility. 

Recipe books containing music, such as those of English householders Mary Chantrell, John Ridout, and Martha Hodges, stand to reveal much about the role of music making and practices of worship in the sometimes inscrutable space of the seventeenth-century English home. Musical, culinary, and medicinal inscriptions have much in common: they present a sparse textual representation of an experiential and dietetic practice that allows for individual expression within a written family archive. Their textual markings tap into an aural, memory-powered tradition of both sacred and secular singing. The parallel gap between written text and off-page outcome in both recipes and music is just one aspect of these two seemingly disparate practices that reveals their interconnectedness in this period, pointing to larger resonances between music and bodily health that emerge in the study of domestic spaces. 


1. A cittern is a plucked, fretted, wire-string instrument, similar to a mandolin and related to the guitar, that was most popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Its tablature is similar to guitar tab today. Horizontal lines with letters between them representing the various strings of the cittern show where on the fretboard each string is to be held down. Music notes above the fret markings indicate the duration of the pitch. 

2. William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 131.

3. “Memorial archive” is a term Anna Maria Busse Berger uses to describe all the resources we draw on to understand and utilize the written word on the page. Medieval Music and the Art of Memory (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005), 45.

4. John Butt, Playing with History: The Historical Approach to Musical Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 106.