Community and Individual Responses to Disablement in South Asian Histories: Old Traditions, New Myths?

Documented histories of South Asian societies provide evidence that disabled people played various roles in their families and communities, sometimes with a good deal of independence. The commonest responses have been top-down, charitable or restrictive; yet some evidence challenges the stereotypes and suggests that disablement historically evoked a wider range of responses and initiative. Internet publication URL:

M. Miles Birmingham, UK



Cautious introduction
Disabled people in their families
Disabled indigents supported in the community
The royal tradition
Motivation & "Worthiness"
Self-supporting disabled people
Formalising the informal?
Notes & References 



South Asia has a long historical heritage of informal and semi-formal responses by communities and individuals to disablement from antiquity to the present. Documented histories of the Indian subcontinent provide evidence that disabled people played various roles in their families and communities, sometimes with a good deal of independence. Top-down, charitable or restrictive responses have been the most common, whether in folklore, epic or religious literature, with basic community provision of food and shelter to disabled people among many other categories of needy people. Within families, the tasks of care normally fell on female members. Yet some evidence challenges the stereotypes and suggests that disablement historically evoked a wider range of responses and initiative. The practices and motivations of philanthropists, and the worthiness or unworthiness of recipients, were subjected to critical discussion in Hindu, Jaina, Buddhist and Muslim histories. Formal community-based rehabilitation development in the 21st century could become more appropriate and effective by studying the previous 4000 years of cultural experience.


Cautious introduction

This paper briefly reviews some evidence of informal communal and individual activities involving or directed toward disabled people in South Asia, mainly in the period before European influences began to have much impact on Asian life.
(1). The evidence derives from translations of historical documents, ancient epic literature and legend, drama, folklore, religious homilies, and travellers' reports.
(2). Much of the material sounds surprisingly familiar though the social environments were in some respects substantially different from those of South Asian countries in the 21st century.

Both the apparent familiarity and the apparent differences are pitfalls around which to tread cautiously. Whether we travel across modern geographical borders or attempt to travel back through history, there is a tendency to focus on things that seem familiar, crying, "Look, they are (or were) just like us!". People who have lived in a distant country for at least a year will recognise that this honeymoon phase of 'initial recognition' soon gives way to a phase of disillusion, with the realisation that what looked familiar in the first few weeks in fact has many differences on the surface and substantial differences at a deeper level. After several years a more balanced view may be reached, recognising some shared human features at a deep level and some cultural and conceptual differences at all levels. When travelling back through the available historical evidence we may pass through similar stages of appreciating what is held in common and what is perceived very differently. It is of course far more difficult to confirm or disprove historical judgements, which should therefore be held tentatively rather than as firm convictions.

The material studied here mostly comes from antiquity to about 1800 CE, but dating of the earlier evidence is seldom precise and is often disputed. It is also impossible to show convincingly that any particular activity was the normal practice in the location where it was reported, let alone across the vastness of South Asia. Furthermore, all the ancient literature reaches us via the hands of many editors and interpreters, some of whom added their own spin. There continue to be sharply conflicting interpretations, for example between people seeking to recapture a 'Golden Age' of pure Indian culture (subsequently destroyed or deformed by foreign invaders), and people who believe that whatever happened earlier was primitive and unrefined and should be replaced as soon as possible by the latest technological advances with a little modification for Asian cultures. The present paper tries to steer moderately between such extremes; there is certainly room for many different opinions.

On the positive side, textual evidences of disabled people most often occurred as 'supporting detail' in stories or accounts where the main thrust was elsewhere. Supporting details in story-telling are effective only if they are a credible representation of a background familiar to the hearers; so those that have survived the passage of centuries are perhaps more likely to be reliable. Disability and the situation of disabled people seldom were contested issues until long after these stories achieved a stable form. Against this it should be borne in mind that even in the modern era, with hundreds of articulate people in every corner of South Asia having some knowledge and experience of disability and of community responses, no comprehensive, coherent and credible picture has yet been constructed of community and individual responses to disabled people. That being so we are unlikely to achieve more than a tentative sketch of earlier times.

There is probably a link between these two lacunae. Until a more substantial account has been rendered of disabled people in South Asian history and their place in communities and society, it will remain difficult to construct a credible picture of their place and roles now, and the current responses of individuals and communities to disablement, or the most appropriate ways to plan or influence social responses in future. The present situation is almost certainly rooted deeply in the cultural heritage from the past. Most of the words and phrases that are available for discussing difference and disablement have long roots in the past and are embedded in the cultures and mutual relationships of Asian families and communities from centuries ago. Conversely, disabled as well as able-bodied South Asians now should play their part in putting together the earlier histories, bringing their own personal and group experiences to bear on the interpretation of earlier evidence. Such participation will not make the process any easier; it is likely to make it more difficult! Yet the outcome should be stronger, because historical accounts of how society responded to some of its minority groups naturally involve many contested issues.

Here it becomes easy to see why historical perspectives are necessary in any discussion of "Disability and rehabilitation issues in South Asia". The contested issues of the past continue to be contested issues now, and disabled people have begun to play an increasing part in debating them and in depicting the realities of 'community and individual responses' from the receiving end. Some disabled people are also becoming more actively engaged as members in their communities, whether they are working specifically on changing responses to disablement, or are taking community roles in which their disability is incidental to their work. In doing so they are both following an old tradition, and breaking new ground. There have been some notable disabled people in South Asian history, whose lives and activities should be better known as role models for modern change agents. At the same time, disabled people are now living amidst social changes of an unprecedented pace and range. Whatever they may learn from the past, it must be applied in new situations in which the results are seldom easy to predict.

The materials used below, especially those from antiquity, appear in a rather unsophisticated way, i.e. with little or no discussion of their provenance, 'factual' historicity and so forth. That is partly for reasons of space, but more importantly because such questions are unlikely to concern the vast majority of readers. The blind King Dhritarashtra exists as a well-known fact of South Asian cultural history, as does King Arthur in British cultural history, a fact entirely unmoved by any academic debate about whether he corresponds with an identifiable man who reigned in a particular place during a specific period that can be confirmed from archaeological evidence. Later cultural history, especially after the coming of the Muslims to South Asia, has more reference to texts written as historical records. These may have more value for pinpointing specific instances of community or individual responses; but about responses in general they do not necessarily tells us more than the heritage of legend and folklore.


Disabled people in their families

By far the greatest category of informal community and individual responses experienced by disabled South Asians has presumably been within their own families, whether as children, adults or elderly people; yet this category is also the least documented in history, precisely because it was private and 'homely'. The care of infants and children with disabilities, and of elderly people with failing vision, hearing and movement abilities, has fallen largely upon the women of the household, as it does down to the present - and women's caring duties are notoriously under-recognised. The vast majority of women have not been able to make any written record of their own activities, while male historians traditionally have taken them for granted. Curiously, even a male teacher reported in the Buddhist 'Jataka' as taking care of the personal needs and hygiene of his ancient, blind mother was said to have aroused his neighbours' derision -- though whether by his excess of filial devotion, or perhaps the physical involvement of it, is unclear (3). A more complicated ancient case was that of Kayavya who, though a robber, still succeeded in reaching paradise. Part of his merit was that "He worshipped his old, blind, and deaf parents in the forest every day" and clearly also provided for their daily needs (4). Against these two unusual male carers may be set the archetype of Draupadi, who had not only her five husbands to serve but also an accumulation of other people. She daily served all the company, "including even the deformed and the dwarfs", before taking food herself (5).

These three cases hardly give an adequate representation of the time and effort of millions of women involved in daily family care of disabled relatives, nor of the small adjustments and assistive devices that disabled people acquired with the help of their families. The small cart on which some physically disabled people pushed themselves about, or were pulled along by a boy, appeared in the Salittaka Jataka (6). This and other gadgets presumably represented some family time in acquisition, maintenance and operation, as also would the custom of blind men being led about by boys.

The traditional response expected of women, i.e. a total self-abnegation and dedication to caring for a helpless (usually male) disabled person, appears prominently in Bengali folklore, for example in the ballads collected by Dinesh Chandra Sen (7). Yet this too could be partly a mythical tradition constructed by male (and sometimes blind) bards to reinforce women's subordination. How otherwise could male authority be sustained in a household where a blind husband's affairs were being managed by his sighted wife? The risks were illustrated in the Mahabharata story of Pradweshi, who got tired of supporting her learned blind husband Dirghatamas ('enveloped in perpetual darkness'), and made her sons abandon him to the river (8). Not surprisingly, Pradweshi failed to make the grade in the male canon of ideal women. An acceptable 'strong woman' was Savitri, who rescued her blind, exiled father-in-law Dyumatsena and had both his sight and his kingdom restored to him, charmed Yama the god of death into sparing her husband Satyavat, and achieved all this without shouting or unseemly conduct (9).

It is hard to find husbands exerting themselves to care for blind wives. Such a situation is seldom recorded. By contrast, the blind wife of Binne Chand reportedly carried on serving the family for 22 years without her husband even being aware that she had lost her sight (10). Behind these fragments, with their sometimes unexpected turns, it is not difficult to imagine that ordinary families had many ways of accommodating disability in everyday life, but were not always keen for the details to be known. For comparison, one might ask whether some men really did take their turn at getting up in the night "to lull the howling child to sleep" and shamefacedly washing the dirty nappies, as in Arthur Basham's hilarious translation from the Jaina Sutrakritanga (11). If they could do that, they could well have been involved in some of the less public aspects of disability service.

North Indian folklore preserves some wonderfully subtle and ambiguous accounts of disability in family and community, as for example in the character of the mother of "Lull the Idiot". One tale from Lull's rollicking life illustrates the perennial dilemma of parents whose mentally retarded young person wants the social status of being married but without having the necessary social awareness of gender relations. When Lull accidentally kills a village girl with whom he was trying a session of slap and tickle, his widowed mother employs great cunning to retrieve the disastrous situation. She turns Lull's stupidity to his advantage so that even when he boasts of the killing he brings a ridiculous element into the story and is thus not believed. The 'proof' he later fishes up from the village well serves to confirm the villagers' belief that he is merely an innocent fool (12). The story is remarkable for its sympathy with the mother's predicament. Although Lull seems to have a charmed life, the details are not necessarily unrealistic. The anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer lived in a Lepcha village in the 1930s, and described some village fools there. He found one of them very irritating; but the villagers could not understand Gorer's attitude. The fool was a natural fool, it was his nature to be a fool, there was no reason to dislike him for it, whatever inconvenience might arise (13).


Disabled indigents supported in the community

Beggars appear in records from antiquity to the present, and begging was not necessarily a despised activity. It was practised by religious mendicants who embraced holy poverty, also holy indifference to personal hygiene, begging "with hairy armpits, hairy heads, stained teeth, and dust on poll" (14). Many disabled people with no other means of livelihood resorted to begging, or may have been pressed into it by helpless family members. The bedrock of 'beggar survival' in both rural and urban areas for two and a half millennia seems to have been food charity from householders. Traditionally the householder "offers food not only to his immediate dependents but also to other human beings who depend on him for food on a temporary or permanent basis: beggars, religious mendicants, travellers, and guests" (15). Patrick Olivelle dates the creation of this 'ashrama' system to a period "roughly between the sixth and the fourth century B.C.E. ... a time of radical social and economic changes in northern India" (16). In the periodically recurring famines, ordinary householders' provisions would have been insufficient, and the burden shifted then to those rulers who, having prudently stored provisions, could open soup kitchens and almonries. During post-famine recovery, these institutions would have continued for a while to serve weaker parts of the populace; but that did not detract from the major role of householders when their means once again sufficed for 'local' social feeding.

Across the subcontinent disabled people certainly figured through the centuries among the hordes of "miserable beings, clothed in torn rags, tortured by hunger, protected by nothing for the sun's burning rays or from the rain. Standing there humbly before the rich man's door, desperate, without refuge" (17). Crowds of disabled beggars were fed daily by Manimekhalai, the rebellious and pretty young social worker with a high media profile. Her philanthropic activities, recorded in the Tamil canon, were refreshingly free from boring morality. (They nonetheless enraged Manimekhalai's mother who thought she would be better occupied in the family profession of courtesan...) A more orthodox example was Janasruti, "a pious dispenser, a liberal giver, a preparer of much food. He had rest-houses built everywhere with the thought, 'Everywhere people will be eating my food'" (18). Without being quite as organised as MacDonalds, Janasruti's rest-house chain perhaps went a little beyond the 'informal sector' response to poverty and disability.

Many Jataka stories mention alms, alms-halls and charitable practices. A typical rebirth was portrayed as taking place in a kingly or noble family in northern India. The prince or noble grew up, graduated from Taxila University and succeeded to the throne or to his father's estate. Either he built six almonries or he maintained the existing six, one at each of the four city gates, one in the city centre and one by his own palace gates. He gave lavishly to the poor through these outlets, personally supervising the distribution of alms either daily or several times per month (19). The relevant Jataka stories (see references in endnote 19) do not all follow an orthodox 'virtuous' pattern. For example, in Jataka No. 78 (I: 195-201) there is some relief from the chronicle of do-gooding, when a lame, crook-backed, squinting, miserly King's Treasurer breaks with family tradition, destroys the almonry and kicks out the poor. In No. 424, the generous monarch gets tired of having his alms "devoured by worthless greedy people", and seeks to feed only the deserving poor. The latter story refutes the idea that discriminating between the 'deserving poor' and the 'sturdy but idle beggar' was unknown in India before the arrival of the hard-headed, utilitarian British.

The law code of Brihaspati, possibly dating from between the 4th and 6th centuries CE, has an interesting section on association agreements and their violation, in which the example is given of what appear to be village cooperatives or artisans' guilds binding themselves to perform certain charitable activities, e.g. construction of a travellers' rest-house and relief to helpless or poor people (20). Normally the profit or benefits accruing to an association were to be divided properly between its members; yet there seems to have been an informal and discretionary alternative option: "it shall be bestowed on the idiotic, the aged, the blind, to women or children, to afflicted or diseased persons, to persons having issue, or the like (worthy persons)" (21). It is unclear from what date, where, or how widely such cooperatives and their charitable activities actually functioned, and whether this portrayal represents a somewhat romantic view of an early society. However, there is little reason to doubt that some modest support to disabled people was organised by local communities at some times and places in South Asian antiquity.

As the Muslim presence in South Asia became more powerful, further community provisions were made for some disabled people. In the reign of Sultan Balban (1266-1287) there was a sort of elderly and disabled veterans' pension arrangement recorded by the historian Barni. Military men had received land as an income, with the obligation of continuing military service when it might be required. Later they had become old and infirm, and no longer functional. Balban at first planned to reform the system, but after a protest movement the reform was scrapped and the men and their families were allowed to continue receiving the land income (22). Later still, Firoz Shah (regn. 1351-1388) instituted a 'wrongful disablement' scheme to compensate people who had unreasonably been "deprived of a limb, nose, eye, hand, or foot" under the stern rule of his predecessor Muhammad Shah (23). In the 1540s, the administration of the Afghan Sher Shah Suri (c. 1472-1545) briefly extended from Eastern Bengal to Western Punjab. It was reported that:


"Destitute people, who were unable to provide for their own subsistence, like the blind, the old, the weak in body, widows, the sick, etc, to such he gave stipends from the treasury of the town in which they were resident, and giving them the expenses of their journey sent them away" (24).

It appears that the indigent or blind person needed to gain Sher Shah Suri's ear in person for a stipend order to be issued to the local town treasury. Had Sher Shah lived longer and consolidated his rule, his undoubted administrative gifts and perseverance might have resulted in a more durable and decentralised system. His heir Islam Shah (d.1554) tried to decentralise almsgiving, using and extending the system of sarais constructed at intervals along main roads, but lacked his father's integrity and talent for administration (25). Sultan Jehangir (1569-1627) undertook the development of some city hospitals, but seems also to have maintained a personal mode of almsgiving for disabled people. Every Sunday:


"A large number of invalids, the lame, the maimed, and the blind, were collected under the jharoka [audience window], and the Emperor Jahangir distributed large sums of money among them with his own hand" (26).

These Muslim historical activities did not remove or replace the daily ministrations of Hindu householders and temple priests in providing basic food and care to many disabled people. Inscriptions from Mysore and Kannada in the 11th and 12th centuries CE tell of treatment and care given at monasteries (mathas) to people with various disabilities (27). There can be little doubt that such assistance continued down to the British period, though of course it was given less attention by the Muslim historians who are the major sources from the 13th to 18th centuries.


The royal tradition

The personal response by the Muslim ruler Jahangir also followed a very long tradition among Hindu and Buddhist monarchs. Part of the nobility of kings was represented by their sustenance of "widows and orphans, the maimed and the poor" (28). Yudhishthira, sending greetings to Dhritarashtra's court, included "the many hump-back and lame ones" among the servants; and enquired after the welfare of those who are "defective in limb, those that are imbecile, the dwarfs to whom Dhritarashtra gives food and raiment from motives of humanity, those that are blind, and all those that are aged, as also to the many that have the use only of their hands being destitute of legs" (29). Amidst his enquiries after the welfare of these disabled folk, Yudhishthira also noted that, "no doubt, sins must have been committed by you in your former lives" (30).

The Buddhist ruler Ashoka (3rd century BC) is said to have organised care institutions for people with disabilities, though little is known of how they functioned (31). Kenneth Zysk has pointed out that such institutions cannot be proved from the rock edicts of Ashoka, and discusses the evidence for Buddhist hospitals and monastic infirmaries, 'health houses' or 'halls of the sick' (32). The practice attributed to Ashoka was reproduced with greater detail in the 4th century CE by the Ceylonese ruler Buddhadasa: "For cripples [who moved about with the help of a chair-like frame] and for the blind he built refuges in various places" (33).


Motivation & "Worthiness"

Some incidental discussion is recorded on the motives and aims of doling out food or other assistance in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. It is often portrayed as a righteous act, and sometimes an heroic one. Sometimes the heroic almsgiver donates or loses everything, down to his own eyes, wife, children etc, either through his own poor accounting, excessive ambition to be a donor, or divine temptation; but he is usually rewarded by a return of these items, and is 'living happily ever after' by the end of the tale (34). Yet aid was not entirely unproblematical. Yudhishthira, while admonishing Arjuna that wealth is not everything and that "good deeds are very rare in those that amass riches", warned him:


"That men give unto the undeserving and refrain from giving unto the deserving is due to inability to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving. For this reason the practice of even the virtue of charity is difficult" (35).

Problems might easily arise in the motivation of the giver. Listed among various emotions, flaws and passions disturbing the tranquil progress of the soul:


"Compassion proceeds from a sight of the helpless and miserable persons with whom the world abounds. That sentiment disappears when one understands the strength of virtue" (36).

This sort of caution, though seldom a dominant theme, does recur down the ages, adding to the ambiguities of interpretation. The long list given of 'undeserving' recipients of course includes the usual "immoral persons", but also people with physical and mental disabilities, who are all assumed to have been immoral in an earlier existence. Such thoughts were not lightly formulated. They appear in the Shanti Parva as part of a lengthy deathbed discourse (over 700,000 words in translation) by the venerable Bhishma, on how to run a country properly while also saving one's soul. Feeding an unrighteous person might merely have the effect of assisting that person to continue in evil ways, thus reinforcing immorality.

A rather different sort of teaching on donors' motivations appeared in the Kesava Jataka, where a king arranged for the daily charitable feeding of 500 Buddhist monks after seeing a similar arrangement at the house of Anathapindika the Treasurer. Although the king's provisions were munificent, the service did not become popular. The monks perceived that the king's motive was not a genuine wish to serve them, but rather a desire to emulate the philanthropic Treasurer. There was "none to give it with their own hands, with marks of affection and love, but the king's ministers dispense the food, and the Brethren do not care to sit down and eat it" (37). Here, the recipients were deemed fully worthy, but the donor's motives were imperfect. He was not 'mistakenly' swayed by compassion for the helpless (and sinful), but he desired something secondary, i.e. the warm feeling of being a philanthropist, or the thought of having so many holy men under his roof, rather than desiring to serve them personally and to participate in their holy fellowship. Like many homilies, this story has various possible interpretations. The main lesson drawn by the Master was that "The best food is that which is given in love".

Later, in the period of Muslim rule, the worthiness of recipients also came under scrutiny. Sikander Lodi (regn. 1489-1517) ordained that:


"Twice a year he should be furnished with detailed accounts of the meritorious poor of his Empire, whom he then supplied with means sufficient to support them for six months, each receiving according to his wants" (38).

S.K. Rashid translates a Persian manuscript reporting to Akbar's court (1556-1605) on 'Yaumia daran' (people receiving a daily allowance). It stated that:


"If an investigation is made, the substance of the complaint of Yaumia daran will be unfolded, for a large number of undeserving cases have multiplied. If a judicious person be appointed to enquire into the matter, a distinction could be made between the deserving and the undeserving" (39).

A distinction deeply engrained in Islamic thinking must here be visited briefly, between `adl and ihsan. On these two terms, according to Rhoads Murphey:


"Rests the entire framework of Islamic justice. `Adl refers to an essentially pre-Islamic concept of equality in recompensing which was the basis of Hammurabi's law code. One step beyond the simple balancing of accounts implicit in `adl was the concept of ihsan which meant the renouncing of a right or free giving without obligation. In the Islamic view, without the extra measure of ihsan the exercise of justice was conceived to be an empty pretence" (40).

The distinction is expressed in different terms by a modern Pakistani commentator, S.A. Wadud:


"Ehsan is the next higher stage after Adl [justice] in the Quranic social order. Ehsan means a condition wherein an individual lagging behind in spite of his best efforts gets his deficiency made good by others to restore the disturbed balance of society. This is not by way of charity but as a matter of right" (41).

Wadud was writing neither about disabilities nor to impress westerners, yet his explanation suggests some convergence between 'a matter of right', i.e. a Muslim community acting rightly, and the 'rights, not charity' demand of modern western disabled activists. Wadud's perception is perhaps more holistic. Charity (zakat) is still enjoined upon individual Muslims as a basic pillar of Islam. Traditional community arrangements for administering zakat were designed to minimise the stigma of need, for ideally the community would act both to benefit the individual and to put right a flaw within itself.

While mentioning the high ideals of communities based on the major religions, it is useful to keep a sceptical eye on some of the recipients of bounty. The observant Abbe Dubois (c.1765-1848), after long years in South India, remarked that:


"A native's house is besieged as soon as he is known to be a wealthy man, and this is not only by his own relatives, but also by the indigent of his caste, and by a horde of parasites of every description, including poverty-stricken Brahmins, religious mendicants, ballad-mongers, and low flatterers ... All these dependants stick to the wealthy native like leeches, fighting with each other as to who shall carry off the largest share of the prize, and never releasing their hold on their victim until they have stripped him of everything" (42).

The 'parasites' would undoubtedly have included some actors whose particular talent was to simulate disability, a practice well documented also across the Muslim world (43).


Self-supporting disabled people

Although the informal and semi-formal responses indicated above might now be viewed as largely in the charitable, top-down, dependency-enhancing mode, South Asian social histories have also transmitted a heritage of role-models for independent living, even if these might sometimes tend to go overboard on the other side. A legendary example of the latter was the 'eight-ways-deformed' Ashtavakra, who met his doom through being too clever even while in utero. Already well-versed in the Vedas, the foetus made the mistake of criticising flaws in his father's Veda recitation, earning a quite understandable paternal curse. Severely disabled at birth, he grew up to become a 'super-crip' who browbeat the guards to gain entry to King Janaka's court, then defeated the resident intellectual champion. The triumph caused his father, who had died after failing in a championship bid, to reappear for a curtain call and to enunciate the surprising lesson that "Weak persons may have sons endued with strength; dunces may have intelligent sons; and the illiterate may have sons possessed of learning" (44). Ashtavakra's foibles and his ready identification (by younger or less gifted people) with many a crusty old scholar, made him a suitable case for humorous treatment. A sketch from a 17th century Bengali writer, Vansivadan, has Ashtavakra terrorising some junior gods with his verbal abuse of their seniors. He suspected them of laughing at his deformities (45). Various other tales have Ashtavakra cursing people for reacting adversely to his appearance.

A similar misdemeanour, i.e. imitating the stoop of a deformed holy person, earned a 'corrective' rebirth as a hunchback for Khujjutara who appears in the Jatakas and later Buddhist literature. Khujjuttara played a substantial comedy part in Kusa-Jataka (46). taking ample advantage of her role as privileged nanny, even locking her royal mistress Pabhavati into a room and generally throwing her weight around. Her more serious role came when, as servant to Queen Samavati, she was converted under the teaching of the Buddha and promptly reformed her previous fraudulent practice with the queen's petty cash. The same day, she was invited to preach the Law to five hundred women at court, and soon attained a pre-eminent position as a teacher (47). This rapid rise from deformed female servant to teacher of the Law was endorsed by the Supreme Teacher. The 'positive' role of the hunchback Khujjutara may also have gone some way to balance the highly 'negative' role of the better-known hunchback Manthara in the Ramayana, whose machinations resulted in the forest exile of Rama.

In more clearly historical time, Timur Leng (Timur the Lame, 1336-1404) had long been appreciably disabled in his right leg and right arm when he invaded Northern India in 1398, as has been confirmed by pathological skeletal examination (48). Had Timur lived in more civilised times he might have entered a sheltered workshop and learnt to weave ornamental baskets for sale to the tourists. Lacking such opportunities at Samarkand in the 14th century, he supported himself adequately by conquering half of Asia on horseback, occasionally having himself hoisted in a large wicker basket down the more awkward parts of snowbound mountains that his army was traversing (49).

The 16th century Sur Das has been a kind of archetype for South Asian blind musicians. The name 'Surdas' tended thereafter to attach itself to any (male) blind Hindu or Sikh, especially one who sang or played an instrument (50). Nevertheless, in almost a parody of western lit. crit. applied to Indian material, John Hawley (51). questions whether the 'original' Sur Das was actually blind. The question may be legitimate - but after Hawley has disposed of, doubted or sidestepped various sorts of literary evidence, it is hard to know what he would regard as convincing, once the step is taken of dismissing Indian tradition. Based on the remains of Sur's poetry, Hawley concludes that if Sur was blind, "he did not make a great point of it before the world" (52). This is the sort of interpretation where the views of blind Asian commentators might be more valuable than those of sighted westerners. Not all blind people wish to make a big public item of their blindness. To take a modern example, if in 300 years' time only some of the later travel-cum-biography books survive from the work of the Indian writer Ved Mehta, with their detailed 'eyewitness' descriptions of people and places, literary critics might seem to have grounds for dismissing as forgeries Mehta's earlier writing e.g. on his time in schools for blind children; but they would be entirely mistaken.

This section deliberately refers to "self-support" as an alternative to the western "independent living". The latter phrase seldom sounds an appropriate goal in South Asia, where children are normally brought up with an idea of mutual support and interdependence within family and community, rather than the goal of becoming 'independent, autonomous individuals'. Nevertheless, there have been examples of disabled South Asians guarding their independence quite as fiercely as any modern western campaigner. One such was the Sufi teacher Mir Nasiruddin Harwi (d. 1708) of Burhanpur, who:


"lost the use of both his legs and his left arm early in his youth, and subsisted on what he could earn by copying out the Qur'an and other books. ... He rarely accepted any gifts, and if he did, he gave much more in return." (53).

This disabled Sufi lived an austere life of fasting and meditation, and was also famously rude to the rich and powerful, repudiating their efforts to enlist his support. Similar irascibility seems to have characterised the blind Vedic scholar Virjananda Saraswati (1779-1868) in the Punjab, whose personal teaching had a profound influence on Dayananda Saraswati and thus on the Arya Samaj (54). Virjananda's students "flocked to him, though few could remain long enough to receive the full benefit since he was rather short-tempered" (55).

Other capable blind people supported themselves by serving their community more peacefully, such as Muhammad Qasim the 19th century hakim of Gujrat who was "unrivalled in the practice of medicine and diagnosis. In spite of his blindness, he was superior to thousands of men of medicine possessing eye-sight" (56). Dr Leitner's lists of hundreds of notably educated men across the late 19th century Punjab included "the blind Hafiz Gholam Rasul Wiran"; "a learned Pandit, named Sripat Brahmin (a blind man)"; "Hafiz Khuda Bakhsh, the blind"; "a patshala ... in which Ganga Das Fakir Bairagi (a blind man) teaches Sarsut, Chandraka, Kavia-kosh to 20 pupils, and lives on alms"; "school is attached to the village mosque and is conducted by Hafiz Qadir Bakhsh (a blind man), who teaches gratuitously and lives upon the produce of his lands"; "a large Gurmukhi school attached to the Dharmasala, in which Bhai Sant Ram and Bhai Ratan (blind) teach at Rs.2 per mensem in money and kind, Gurmukhi to 30 pupils"; "Hazara, with 25 pupils, and teacher Rukunddin (a blind man), who gets nothing" (57). This phenomenon is well known - but it is interesting that Leitner, a hard-boiled critic of educational efforts, took the trouble to mention some blind teachers by name. He also mentioned that, "Many Hafizes, who are blind in this circle, and live in the mosques, teach the Koran by rote" (58). There must also have been many in every century like Ghaziuddin Khan Firoz Jang, an experienced army commander and statesman, whose eyesight failed later in life, but "though blind of sight, could clearly perceive the mind of man" (59). The vast majority of blind people of course, like their sighted fellows, lived and died unnamed and unknown beyond their immediate vicinity.

Deaf people have attracted even less notice as they went about their daily lives in the neighbourhood. Many rural occupations required bodily strength and reasonable eyesight but were not heavily dependent on spoken communication. Tailoring seems to have been an attractive skill for urban deaf people, and was specifically taught in special schools from the late 19th century. Some evidence suggests that during the Muslim period, deaf sign language had a measure of recognition in law. The Hedaya, a 12th century guide to Muslim law by al-Marghinani, was widely used across South Asia for several centuries and it recognised that "the intelligible signs of a dumb person" were legally valid in many situations concerning that person's own business (60). In Indian antiquity the learning of sign language was one of the Sixty Four Arts or skills to be acquired by cultured persons of the leisured classes, but it is not clear what part deaf people played in maintaining that language (61). Compared with blind people, there is far less evidence of notable deaf Asians through history. However, at the end of the 17th century there was a Prince of Srirangapatanam known as Kanthi Rae, the 'Dumb Rajah' because of his deafness since birth. An historian of Mysore noted that "despite the infirmities he suffered from, it must be said to the credit of Kanthirava that he was able to preserve the glorious traditions of his predecessors" (62).


Formalising the informal?

At various periods of South Asian history there have been local efforts to systematise or institutionalise the informal community and individual responses to poverty and disability. Where these have been locally-inspired efforts, as for example in Janasruti's private chain of free eating-places, the artisan's guilds mentioned by Brihaspati or the kitchens attached to temples and saints' shrines, they have sometimes lasted as long as the founder or perhaps for a century more as a local custom. There is little evidence that the top-down organisation of informal efforts has ever lasted very long. Self-help organisations of disabled people were also very sparse before the late 20th century.

During the 19th century British officials became aware of a tradition of individual charitable feeding of the poor by some wealthy Hindus. While some of the foreigners considered this an admirable practice from the humanitarian point of view, regret was also expressed that it appeared to be undiscriminating and tended to pauperise people who might otherwise have made efforts to help themselves (63). Various schemes such as the 'District Charitable Society' were initiated by Presidency governments with a view to systematising charitable endeavours and channelling funds into what the foreigners believed to be more worthy causes. Rajat Sanyal (64). has usefully documented some of these activities and their adoption by a coterie of wealthy Calcutta families, while perhaps overstating a contrast between Indian and British views of charitable practice. Certainly, both the wealthy urban donors and their rural cousins had no lack of capacity to discriminate between more and less worthy recipients; and if Indian philanthropists were sometimes motivated by 'name and fame' or the acquisition of religious merit, the British can hardly have been ignorant of similar motives influencing wealthy people in Britain. Nor can they have been unaware that foreign missionary efforts to feed and care for destitute or disabled South Asians were often attributed to a desire to win converts, rather than to any 'purely humanitarian' motive. Studies by Douglas Haynes further suggest that British officers were unaware that it was often the wealthy Indians:


"most prominent in spending money for purposes the British regarded as wasteful who were in the forefront of the charitable causes the British most fervently espoused. The greater the sheth, the greater the diversity in his portfolio of charitable activity." (65).

To document and discuss the rise of 'civil society' in South Asia during the past two centuries and its results in disability-related NGOs is beyond the scope of this paper, and is in any case a field still under vigorous scholarly debate (66). This very fact, however, would suggest the need for caution in descriptions of the development of formal Community-Based Rehabilitation in South Asia during the past 20 years, and evaluations of its impact and efficacy. Undoubtedly when formal CBR was 'introduced' to South Asian countries there was a severe dearth of research within the region on the long cultural-historical heritage of informal community and individual responses to disablement and people with disabilities. This dearth does not entirely excuse the fact that even after 25 years of experience, much of the discussion of CBR development in South Asia still proceeds with a cheerful indifference to that heritage. Developers sometimes even bring the view that 'local cultural beliefs' are barriers to be 'overcome' by a more vigorous application of modern (i.e. western) scientific knowledge (or belief), rather than being an appropriate place to begin learning and understanding local cultures.

One antidote for this impertinence could be a more vigorous publication of the results of CBR projects entered upon with insufficient cultural awareness, as described for example by Isabel Leotard in Baluchistan (67). Rafiq Jaffer in the Punjab (68). and Ajit Dalal in Allahabad District (69). With rare humility, Leotard notes the cultural blunders of the foreign team to which she belonged. Jaffer records the distress of local advisors whose cultural experience was dismissed and overridden by Nordic partners who believed they "knew better" than the local team. Dalal caustically describes how a visit from Canadians gave the false impression that big money was available, attracting crooks from miles around, while the most visible success of the CBR project was the acquisition by 120 disabled people of certificates entitling them to government handouts and concessions.

It may be possible to strengthen the informal efforts and to encourage self-help among disabled adults and children, by redesigning the public environment (schools, clinics, shops, streets, temples and mosques, leisure facilities etc) and making more training and resources available. Yet while the wealth of experience in other development fields could be borrowed and learnt from, there is little sign of this taking place in CBR development. South Asia has substantial records of community-based health and education development experiences dating from the 1860s (or earlier) to the present. Yet a recent educational evaluation refers to "an appalling discrepancy between the intended effects and the practical outcomes" (70). a phrase equally applicable throughout the period. The author, Muhammad Hossain, shows the modernisation and 'education rights' drive generating "punishment-centred bureaucracy", "dysfunctional supervision", conflict, alienation and red-tapism, in contrast with the traditional trust, mutual assistance and personalisation of transactions in rural Bangladesh. Lessons can drawn from this recognisable situation, for the likely effects of trying to modernise disability services in the depersonalised 'rights-based' fashion that has become popular with European agencies:


"Paper-based 'disability rights', backed (almost inevitably) by a mere fraction of the structural and attitudinal changes and resource provisions needed to give them substance, would increase the gulf between rhetoric and reality while relieving families and communities of even the 'charitable obligation' they at present feel, however half-heartedly, to give disabled children some help. For substantial numbers of have-nots, even what little they have would thus be snatched away and replaced by a fine-sounding slogan" (71).

The attempt by foreign agencies to smooth over the contradictions between a 'rights-based' approach for the disabled 'individual', with a 'community-based' approach to disability services in Asian societies where community and individuality are understood very differently, was one of the more ludicrous spectacle in the aid game of the 1990s.



A great variety of efforts by communities and individuals to assist disabled people, and of self-help efforts by disabled individuals, can be found in the South Asian cultural-historical heritage from antiquity to the present, with a range of apparent motivations and outcomes. The diversity of this heritage has only recently begun to be documented and researched, and continues to be little known to people developing disability services that are supposedly 'community-based'. The development of historical accounts will itself be a difficult and contested area between people of different backgrounds wishing to secure various interpretations of traditional practices. While many possibilities exist for enlisting local human resources in developing South Asian societies in which disabled people can live better lives, the most durable solutions are likely to have long roots in the cultures and perceptions of the people and their communal histories. An investment of study in these histories would be useful to all who feel the need to import practices and ideologies from distant countries.


Notes & References

1. The post-1800 period is discussed in papers such as: M Miles. Including disabled children in Indian schools, 1790s - 1890s, Paedagogica Historica 2001; 37: 291-315. Ibid. Professional and family responses to mental retardation in East Bengal and Bangladesh, 1770s-1990s, International Journal of Educational Development 1998; 18: 487-499. Ibid. Blind and sighted pioneer teachers in 19th century China & India. 1998. At: Ibid. Further excerpts from Indian disability history. Asia Pacific Disability Rehabilitation Journal 1997; 8 (1) Supplement, 9-14. Ibid. Disability care and education in 19th Century India. ActionAid Disability Newsletter 1994; Supplement to volume 5.

2. See annotated bibliographies: Sign, Gesture & Deafness in South Asian & South-West Asian Histories. At: Historical Bibliography on Educational & Social Responses to Disabilities & Childhood in some Middle Eastern & South Asian Countries, from Antiquity to the 1950s. At:

3. Cowell EB. (ed.) The Jataka (No. 61; I: 147-150). Delhi: Low Price Publications, reprint 1993. (Further references to this work will appear as: "Cowell, Jataka").

4. The Mahabharata, transl. Ganguli KM. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1970 edition, reprint 1993. Santi Parva (i) chapter 135, (p. 289). Further references to this work will appear as: "MhB". NB: many chapter references are slightly different in the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata in Sanskrit, and in translations based on it.

5. MhB (see note 4). Sabha Parva 51, (Ganguli, 106).

6. Cowell, Jataka No. 107 (see note 3). I: 249.

7. Sen DC. Eastern Bengal Ballads. University of Calcutta, 1926-1932.

8. MhB: Adi Parva 104, (Ganguli, 224-226).

9. MhB: Vana Parva 292-296, (Ganguli, 572-585).

10. Ibbetson D, MacLagan ED, Rose HA. A Glossary of the Tribes and Castes of the Punjab and North-West Frontier Province (III: 39). Lahore: Aziz, reprint 1978.

11. Basham AL. The Wonder That Was India (462). London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1954.

12. Swynnerton C. Folk Tales from the Upper Indus. Islamabad: National Institute of Folk Heritage, reprint 1978.

13. Gorer G. Himalayan Village (271). London: Michael Joseph, 1938.

14. Cowell, Jataka No. 547. VI: 253.

15. Olivelle P. The Asrama System (55). Oxford UP, 1993.

16. Olivelle, Asrama System (55).

17. Daniélou A, Gopala Iyer TV (transl.) Manimekhalai (47). New Delhi: Penguin, 1993.

18. Hume RE (transl.) The Thirteen Principal Upanishads, 2nd edition revised. Delhi: Oxford UP, reprint 1993. Chandogya Upanishad 4.1.1.

19. Cowell, Jataka. See e.g. numbers 40 (I: 100-105); 51 (I: 128-33); 193 (II: 81-85); 276 (II: 251-260); 340 (III: 85-87); 415 (III: 244-248); 424 (III: 280-282); 442 (IV: 9-13); 468 (IV: 109-111); 494 (IV: 223-227); 499 (IV: 250-256); 524 (V: 84-91); 537 (V: 246-279); 539 (VI: 19-37); 541 (VI: 53-68); 547 (VI: 246-305).

20. Jolly J (transl.) The Minor Law-Books, Part I, Narada, Brihaspati (347-348). Oxford: Clarendon, 1889. Brihaspati XVII: 10-12. Majumdar disagrees with Jolly's translation, believing that the assistance to poor people is to enable them to perform religious duties. Majumdar RC. Corporate Life in Ancient India (17). Calcutta: Surendra Nath Sen, 1918.

21. Jolly (349). Brihaspati XVII: 22-23.

22. Elliot HM, Dowson J (eds) The History of India as told by its own historians (III: 107). Lahore: Islamic Book Service, reprint 1976/1979. (Hereafter referred to as: Elliot & Dowson).

23. Elliot & Dowson III: 385-386.

24. Elliot & Dowson IV: 423, 549.

25. Elliot & Dowson IV: 479-480.

26. Elliot & Dowson VI: 449.

27. Subba Reddy DV. Medical relief in medieval South India. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 1941; 9: 385-400.

28. MhB, Adi Parva 49, (Ganguli, 102). See also Sabha Parva 5, (15); Virata Parva 70, (124); Udyoga Parva 30, (54); Santi Parva (i) 43, (86); Aswamedha Parva 59, (107); Aswamedha Parva 90, (155).

29. MhB, Udyoga Parva 30, (Ganguli, 54).

30. MhB, Udyoga Parva 30, (Ganguli, 54).

31. Smith V. Asoka, 3rd edition (66, 162). Oxford: Clarendon, 1920.

32. Zysk KG. Asceticism and Healing (44-46, 118, 148). Delhi: Oxford UP, 1991. See also the sceptical view of Basham AL. The practice of medicine in ancient and medieval India. In: C. Leslie (ed.) Asian Medical Systems (18-43). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

33. Geiger W (transl.) (1929) Culavamsa. Being the more recent part of the Mahavamsa, Part 1 (13-14), further transl. by Rickmers CM. London: Pali Text Society, 1929.

34. See e.g. Cowell, Jataka No.s 340, 442, 499, 547.

35. MhB, Santi Parva (i) 26, (Ganguli, 48).

36. MhB, Santi Parva (i) 163, (Ganguli, 354).

37. Cowell, Jataka No. 346; IV: 93-96. See also Nath V. Dana: Gift System in Ancient India (117-118). Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1987. Vijay Nath suggests that alms-halls could have arisen as a way of avoiding personal contact with beggars whose condition might be repulsive, e.g. if maimed or leprous. Nath cites this Jataka as evidence, perhaps without strong justification.

38. Elliot & Dowson IV: 446.

39. Rashid SK. Wakf Administration in India (5). New Delhi: Vikas, 1978.

40. Murphey R (transl.) Kanun-name-i Sultani li `Aziz Efendi (49-50). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1985.

41.Wadud SA. Why Islamic order could not be introduced. The Pakistan Times, Magazine section, 28 March 1986.

42. Dubois JA. Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies (92), 3rd edition, transl. Beauchamp HK. Oxford: Clarendon, 1906.

43. Boswell CE. The Mediaeval Islamic Underworld (I: 36-47, 84-85, 110). Leiden: Brill, 1976.

44. MhB, Vana Parva 132-134, (Ganguli, 273-280).

45. Sen DC. Glimpses of Bengal Life (222-223). Calcutta UP, 1925.

46. Cowell, Jataka, No. 531 (V: 141-164)

47. Burlingame EW (transl.) Buddhist Legends (I: 281-282). London: Luzac, reprint 1969.

48. Froggatt P. The albinism of Timur, Z_l, and Edward the Confessor. Medical History 1962; 6: 328-342 (see 333, 339). Several web sites state that Timur's left leg and arm were disabled, but the skeletal examination in 1941 reported right side damage.

49. Elliot & Dowson III: 402-403.

50. Ibbetson D, et al. A Glossary of the Tribes and Castes of the Punjab and North-West Frontier Province (III: 445). Lahore: Aziz, reprint 1978.

51. Hawley JS. S_r D_s (22-33). Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984.

52. Hawley, Sur Das, 32.

53. Mujeeb M. The Indian Muslims (313). London: Allen & Unwin, 1967.

54. Lajpat Rai. A History of the Arya Samaj (21-25). Bombay: Orient Longmans, 1967. Jordens JTF. Day_nanda Sarasvat_ (33-39). Delhi: Oxford UP, 1978.

55. Lajpat Rai, History, 24.

56. Grewal JS, Banga I. (1975) Early Nineteenth Century Panjab (61). Amritsar: Navrang, 1975.

57. Leitner GW. History of Indigenous Education in the Punjab (Part II: 1, 17, 21, 35, 36, 148, 161). Lahore: Republican Books, reprint 1991.

58. Leitner, History, Part II: 148.

59. Elliot & Dowson VII: 553.

60. Al-Marghinani. The Hedaya or Guide (IV, book LIII, 707-708), transl. Hamilton C, 2nd edition, Lahore: Premier Book, reprint 1975.

61. Miles M. Signs of development in deaf South & South-West Asia: histories, cultural identities, resistance to cultural imperialism. In: A Callaway (ed.) Deafness and Development. Bristol: University of Bristol, Centre for Deaf Studies, 2001. Also at:

62. Hayavadana Rao (1943-1946) History of Mysore (II: 1-17). Bangalore.

63. See e.g. Report of the Indian Famine Commission, Part I (60). London: HMSO, 1880.

64. Sanyal R. Indian participation in organized charity in early Calcutta, 1818-1866. Bengal Past and Present 1977; 96: 97-113.

65. Haynes DE. From tribute to philanthropy: the politics of gift giving in a Western Indian city. Journal of Asian Studies 1987; 46: 339-360.

66. A preliminary discussion appears in: M. Miles (1999) Some historical responses to disability in South Asia and reflections on service provision. Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Birmingham, UK, pp. 270-299.

67. Leotard I. Outreach rehabilitation in Baluchistan, who does it for whom? In: H. Finkenfluegel (ed.) The Handicapped Community. Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1993.

68. Jaffer R, Jaffer R. The WHO-CBR approach: programme or ideology. In: Thorburn M, Marfo K (eds) Practical Approaches to Childhood Disability in Developing Countries (277-92). St John's, Canada: Project SEREDEC, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1990.

69. Dalal A. CBR in action - some reflections from the Sirathu project. Asia Pacific Disability Rehabilitation Journal 1998; 9 (1) 29-31.

70. Hossain MH. Traditional Culture and Modern Systems. Administering Primary Education in Bangladesh. New York: University Press of America, 1994.

71. Miles M & Hossain F. Rights and Disabilities in Educational Provisions in Pakistan and Bangladesh. In: Armstrong F, Barton L (eds) Disability, Human Rights and Education: cross-cultural perspectives. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press, 1999.