By Tessa Harris, author of ANATOMIST’S APPRENTICE
We’ve all heard of the expression ‘to cut off your nose to spite your face’, but historically in parts of Asia, and in particular in India, this practice was engaged in for a very long time. In the course of my research for my latest novel, part of which is set in Hyderabad, I delved into the terrifying world of torture and execution in 18th century India. Even I – someone very used to the horrors of the anatomist’s dissecting table – winced when I came across the extraordinary and frequently brutal practices of the period.
For thousands of years it seems that both law enforcers and armies in India were keen on punishing those they saw fit by cutting off their noses for a variety of ‘crimes.’ These ranged from adultery and theft, to just being on the opposing side in a war. Then again, even today, there are cases of such mutilation being practised against women in Afghanistan. In 2010, Time magazine featured on their front cover the disturbing image of an 18 year-old who had her nose cut off by the Taliban for fleeing her abusive in-laws, and only earlier this year, another young wife made world news when her husband punished her in a similar way.
The first recorded account of nasal amputation was in 1500 BC in the Hindu epic Ramayana when Prince Lakshmana cut off the nose of Lady Surpanakha. However, the lady’s brother, King Ravana, came to her rescue and arranged for reconstruction.
In the case of adultery, the practice was so widespread that it would be performed either by the injured party or by a chuckler or local cobbler, presumably because he had the appropriate tool for the job.
In India there are also many recorded instances of conquering armies depriving their enemies of their olfactory organs. As Dr Richard Seltzer puts it in his book Confessions of a Knife: “It was not uncommon for a conquering Indian army to commit metropolitan rhinocide, putting to the sword the nose of every man, woman and child in the vanquished city.”
An Italian traveller and surgeon, Manucci (1653-1708 AD) related that when horsemen passed through their forest, the inhabitants of Mysore would often run at them, place their hands on their horses’ quarters and spring up at them from behind to cut off the Mughal enemy riders’ noses! This they did with a specially designed iron instrument shaped like a half-moon. This form of physical humiliation was taken a step further when, in the 18th century, the Naik of Mysore offered a reward for every enemy nose and upper lip brought to him by his soldiers. The Sikhs of Punjab also followed this custom.
Depriving large numbers of people of their noses did, as you might imagine, caused many problems to the local population, but help was at hand from an unlikely source. For several hundred years a small band of potters put their dextrous hands to work operating on unfortunate victims. Their skill spawned the branch of plastic surgery known today as rhinoplasty. (The term ‘plastic’, has nothing to do with the modern synthetic material, but derives from the Greek ‘plastikos’, meaning to mould or shape.) The caste of koomas or khumars, were apparently performing this reconstructive surgery as long ago as 1000 B C. Based on their skill at working with clay, they developed a technique using a skin graft taken from the forehead to ‘regrow’ the nose. However, it was not until the late 18th century, when two English surgeons witnessed the reconstructive procedure for themselves that the West became aware of such practice and adopted it.
In the brutal wars between the formidable Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan against the British during the mid-to-late 18th century, it was a common practice for the Indian soldiers to cut off their enemies’ noses. During one of the campaigns five men – one cart driver and four Indian soldiers serving the British army – fell into enemy hands. Treated as traitors, their punishment was to have their noses and right arms cut off. Thus mutilated, they were sent back to their British masters.
The English commanding officer obviously heard about their appalling injuries. By chance, a few days later, he met a merchant whose nose had been cut off as a punishment for adultery. This man had, however, been fitted with a substitute made by a doctor from the potter caste. Impressed by the surgery, the officer sent for the physician in question and asked him to reconstruct the noses of his mutilated men.
An illustrated account of the first operation appeared in the Madras Gazette. Performed near the city of Pune, it was observed by two English doctors, Thomas Cruso and James Findlay. The article was given a much wider audience when it was reproduced in the Gentleman’s Magazine of London in October 1794. The first part of the operation is described as follows: “A thin plate of wax is fitted to the stump of the nose so as to make a nose of good appearance; it is then flattened and laid on the forehead. A line is drawn
around the wax, which is then of no further use, and the operator then dissects off as much skin as it had covered, living undivided a small slip between the eyes. This slip preserves the blood circulation till a union has taken place between the new and the old parts.”
The accounts went on to describe in detail how the scar of the stump of the nose was paired off, and the skin from the forehead was twisted and inserted into this incision. The remaining complex procedures were carried out over the next month or so. For five or six days after the operation, the patient was made to lie on his back, and on the tenth day, bits of soft cloth were put into the nostrils to keep them sufficiently open. The article concludes cheerily: “This operation is always successful. The artificial nose is secured and looks nearly as well as the natural nose, nor is the scar on the forehead very observable after a length of time.”
Such a description inspired a young English surgeon by the name of Joseph Carpue to reproduce the operation in London in 1814. This reconstruction, which involved using a flap of skin taken from the forehead, was to become known in Europe as “Carpue’s operation” even though it had originated in India. A German surgeon, called von Graefe, performed similar plastic operations of the nose using skin from the arm.
After such successes plastic surgery became widespread throughout Europe. Today, all replacement operations using a flap of skin in the immediate area of the loss are known as Indian plastic surgery. It’s a positive bi-product of a terrible custom. In other cases of physical punishment, however, there were no good outcomes, and far worse practices increased the suffering of victims. In the second installment, I shall delve further into some of these forms of penalty and execution. But be prepared! It isn’t always easy reading…
Secrets in the Stones, by Tessa Harris, is the sixth novel in the Dr. Thomas Silkstone Mystery series. It is published by Kensington and is out now.Tessa Harris is an English journalist and historian. She is the author of six novels in the Dr. Thomas Silkstone series, featuring an 18th century American anatomist working in London. *Winner of the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Best First Mystery Award 2012