The Earthquake of 1885

LKH DeskOrigins Comments

The spring of 1885 had been unusually cold and wet, and heavy rains had lasted right on into the summer. It was five o’clock one May morning when Arthur Neve was wakened by what seemed like a slight jar or shock. He looked out of his bedroom window ; it was still drizzling. Suddenly the whole house began to rock and shake as though in a moment it would collapse. For more than half a minute the noise increased ; roof-timbers creaked, doors banged. Crash! Somewhere below, pictures and china were falling. Then a still louder crash, as the staircase ceiling collapsed with a rumble of falling bricks and plaster. Occupying sleeping quarters on the ground floor were the Rev. J. Hinton Knowles and his wife, who had joined the Mission two years before. After a moment of uncanny silence, Neve leapt out of bed at a shout from Mr. Knowles to know if he was okay.

As he spoke there came from the mists of rain that still shrouded the city, a cry that rose into a scream from thousands of throats. Instantly Neve shouted to one of the terror-stricken servants to send up to the hospital for Dr. Thomas and as many splints, dressings, and bandages as they could carry, this was a 7.0-magnitude earthquake. The total affected area was 1,00,000 sq.miles which includes thousands of houses. People slept for many days in the open. It is thought that over 20,000 houses, 30,000 cattle and 3,500 human lives were no more.

Ruins of Baramulla

Fortunately the hospital and its inmates had suffered hardly at all, and soon Neve and Mr. Knowles were leading a rescue party to the city. The streets were filled with the panic-stricken population, and over everything rang the cries and screams of the wounded or dying. For the most part the wooden houses, tumbledown and dilapidated as they appeared, had not fallen, but some more cheaply built native huts, many of which had thick mud roofs, had collapsed utterly. Suddenly a message was brought to Neve that the barracks had fallen with a terrible loss of life. It took him and his companion some time to make their way through the crowded streets. Nothing could be seen of the building but the tumbled masses of the heavy roof, on which already hundreds of men were working desperately, pulling at timbers and digging through mud and plaster.

There was not one soldier that was not badly hurt; most were dead, and in many cases, though still alive when rescued, they were crushed beyond hope of recovery. All day long the doctors worked, dressing wounds, setting fractures or dislocations, and sending up patients to the mission hospital, which fortunately was not full at the time. They had the invaluable co-operation of the staff of the State hospital, which had been built and organized by an Indian doctor and had the professional help of successive Residency surgeons. That night twenty-one fires were burning on the river bank consuming the bodies of dead soldiers.

Kashmir earthquake 1885: A fragment showing the nature of the Chasms near Laldoora

Next day, however, news was brought that the earthquake had been much worse down the valley and that the town of Baramula had been nearly wiped out. Instantly Arthur Neve and Mr. Knowles started off by boat, accompanied by the Rev. Rowland Bateman, who was there on holiday. When they had passed the Wular Lake, they arrived at Sopor, a town a few miles above Baramulla. Hardly a house was left standing, and numbers of wounded people pleaded for help. No houses were safe to use, so Neve hired a number of barges and turned them into hospital wards. For two or three days the doctors worked incessantly, and then they moved on to Baramulla. Here, too, hardly any houses were left standing, and Neve erected tents along the river bank. The patients numbered hundreds, some of them brought in ten miles by their friends. Calculations based on the census reports of 1873 (Drew, 1875) and 1891 (Ram, 1891) reveal that 67.33% of the total human population died in Baramulla district alone.

Each day matters became worse. Wounds had festered, fractures had set themselves crookedly, mortification had set in upon crushed limbs. Piteous stories of the condition of the villages were brought in, until at last Neve and his helpers determined to leave Baramula and go out to the villages. Along the way they were met by terrible sights. In one place the whole side of a hill, saturated by the great rains, had slipped away, engulfing the village below in a sea of mud and broken tree trunks. Only one villager had escaped.

In some places all that remained was a heap of ashes. The Kashmiris always sleep in cold weather with their kangri, a pot with live coals in it, and in many cases these had fired the dry thatch of the fallen houses. The people seemed stunned. In one village where a number of people lived together under a great roof of earth two feet thick, only three men were left alive out of seventeen people and over a hundred cattle, and the survivors were seen mechanically digging through the roof for the corpses of their friends.

Everywhere there was an awful smell of unburied bodies of men and cattle. In one village they found a woman sitting by a wrecked house, holding her baby to her breast with one arm, while the other hung useless, badly broken. It was necessary that she should be taken to the hospital, but she could not walk. ” No,” she said, in answer to their questioning, ” my husband is not dead. But after the earthquake he looked at the house and then at me and the child, and he cried out in horror and ran away. He has not returned.”

The Durbar rooms, Shere Ghurie Palace.

In one village there was a famous shrine. All the houses there were built of wood and had completely escaped damage. “Ah, sahib!” they said to Mr. Bateman, ” our Pir saved us from the earthquake.” Yet at the last village the Pir did not save them. Even his shrine was demolished and the trees rooted up. One terrible result of the earthquake was the poorness of the harvest. Hundreds of men who worked in the fields and hundreds of plough bullocks had been killed. True, there were not so many mouths to feed, but the following winter would be a hard one.

All the summer and autumn Neve was kept busy at the hospital, and it was not until the snows of winter had fallen that he found time to revisit the district of Baramula. This time he decided to try the experiment of travelling alone, without either servant or a tent to sleep in, and to accept the hospitality of the places he visited. He hired the lightest of boats, needing only one boatman. There was the usual awning in front for the passenger, but so small that it was completely filled by a bedstead, a box, and a charcoal stove. Holes were cut in the matting and windows fitted, so that Neve could live in the warmth of his shelter and yet have ample light. He took with him, besides his usual medicines, a supply of warm clothes and money for those whose breadwinner had perished in the earthquake. It took two nights and a day to make the journey to Baramula, but the time passed quickly, for Neve was his own cook, and though the menu was restricted to eggs, porridge, and puddings, it gave him plenty to do.

When he reached Baramula, he received a warm welcome from his old patients and from the governor of the district, a finely set-up Sikh, with whiskers tied to his ears. Wherever Neve went he was hospitably welcomed, for the news of the mission soon spread, and although he came unattended and accepted the native hospitality, he was still the great sahib, whose influence and favour were worth much to the people. The afternoon was closing in as he reached a large village. Immediately the guest room in one of the chief houses was cleared for him, but the room was dense with smoke from a wood fire. The Kashmiris made nothing of it, sitting and chatting unconcernedly in an atmosphere so thick that they were hardly visible, but Neve took refuge in the least smoky corner he could find. At last, however, the room was cleared, and a native supper was brought in of savoury dishes of meat and rice and other vegetables. Supper over, Neve joined the circle round the fire in the next room. But he soon retreated before the smoke, and wrapping himself in his blankets, fell into a dreamless sleep.

According to historical accounts of the time, the 1885 quake was accompanied by loud noises and the creation of large fissures at Pattan, Doabgah, Sopore, Baramulla and Lari-Dura. These fissures spewed water and green sand smelling of sulfur. At Doabgah fissure, steam and sulphurous fumes were given out. Leakage of hot gases was reported at Lari Dura. Many drinking water and irrigation springs disappeared and new ones appeared.  The quake was followed by a cholera epidemic.

(This is an edited chapter of Arthur Neve of Kashmir by A.P. Shepherd, more details have been added.)


About the Author
LKH Desk

LKH Desk