The virus in the rivers: histories and antibiotic afterlives of the bacteriophage at the sangam in Allahabad
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The confluence (sangam) of India's two major rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna, is located in the city of Allahabad. Ritualistic dips in these river waters are revered for their believed curative power against infections, and salvation from the karmic cycles of birth and rebirth. The sacred and geographic propensities of the rivers have mythic valences in Hinduism and other religious traditions. Yet the connection of these river waters with curativeness also has a base in historical microbiology: near here, the British bacteriologist Ernest Hanbury Hankin, in 1896, first described the ‘bactericidal action of the waters of the Jamuna and Ganges rivers on Cholera microbes’, predating the discovery of bacterial viruses (now known as bacteriophages) by at least two decades. Pursuing the record of these purificatory waters in sacred writings and folklore, and later elaboration in the work of Hankin, this paper traces an epistemology of time that connects the mythic to the post-Hankin modern scientific, asking how imaginations of the waters’ antibacterial properties are articulated through idioms of faith, filth and the phage. The paper explores how the bacteriophage virus comes to be spoken about within secular and sacred epistemes of infection and riverine pollution, among contemporary historians, biologists and doctors, and in the city's museums. At the same time, it traces the phage in histories arcing from the ancient religious literature, to colonial disease control efforts, to today, where bacteriophages are being conceived as a potential response to the crisis of planetary antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Allahabad presents a ‘cosmotechnics’ where faith, filth and phage are inextricably intertwined, generating complex triangulations between natural ecologies, cultural practices and scientific imaginations. Cosmotechnics therefore opens up novel avenues to reimagine the phage as a protean object, one that occupies partial and multiple spaces in the historico-mytho-scientific arena of Allahabad today.
DepartmentMassachusetts Institute of Technology. Program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society
Notes and Records: The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science
Royal Society Publishing
Kochhar, Rijul. "The virus in the rivers: histories and antibiotic afterlives of the bacteriophage at the sangam in Allahabad." Notes and Records: The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science 74, 4 (July 2020): 625–651 © 2020 The Author(s)
Author's final manuscript