Academic journal article Folklore

Killer Khilats, Part 2: Imperial Collecting of Poison Dress Legends in India

Academic journal article Folklore

Killer Khilats, Part 2: Imperial Collecting of Poison Dress Legends in India

Article excerpt


This article presents the English language collecting histories of seven legends of death by Poison Dress that were recorded in early modern India (set out in "Killer Khilats, Part 1"). The tales express fears of contamination, either symbolic or real, aroused by the ancient Persian-influenced customs of presenting robes of honour (khilats). Rajputs, Mughals, British, and other groups in India participated in the development of tales of deadly clothing from 1600 to the early twentieth century. The tales and their variants share motifs and themes with Poison Dress legends in the Bible, Greek myth, Arthurian legends, and modern American versions, but all seven tales display distinctively Indian characteristics. The historical settings and the contexts of collection demonstrate the cultural assumptions of the various groups who performed poison khilat legends in India.


European adventurers, merchants associated with European mercantile enterprises, and members of the imperial British administration in India collected several tales set in early modern India which feature a poison khil'at (Arabic: "robe of honour"). "Killer Khilat" tales share plots, themes, and motifs with Poison Dress legends, as we demonstrated in "Killer Khilats, Part 1: Legends of Poisoned `Robes of Honour' in India" (hereafter referred to as "Killer Khilats"). Here, we will analyse the collection context for Indian tales of deadly clothing from 1600 to the early twentieth century, paying particular attention to the assumptions and backgrounds of the British collectors. From the seventeenth until the twentieth century, British merchants and administrators claimed the authority to create knowledge about India, claims which were most strident from 1858 until 1947, when colonial India was partitioned into the independent nations of India and Pakistan. The British were predisposed to find parallels to biblical and classical stories in India because they used these as tools to make sense of the cultures they encountered in the subcontinent (Trautmann 1998). Sir William Jones, a scholar-official whose deciphering of Sanskrit led to the discovery of the Indo-European language family in the late 1700s, considered Hinduism to be the "living cousin" of "ancient Greek and Roman texts" and he developed "a series of parallels among Greco-Roman gods and Hindu ones" (ibid., 37-61). Indeed, linguists like Jones and many later British administrators promoted the idea that Indian civilisation was essentially Hindu civilisation (Pandey 1990, 1-65).

Classical references loomed large in the memoirs of individual imperialists. Alexander the Great's conquest of north-west India was well known, and the British assumed a direct Grecian influence on Hindu culture. They found support for this in ancient texts, since both Plutarch and Dio Chrysostom had claimed that the ancient Indians knew Homer's epics (Jenkyns 1980, 331-46; Bowen 1989, 176). It is easy to see how British imperialists, knowledgeable about the European lore of poison robes and biased towards discovering "living" Greek myths in India, were primed to pay attention to familiar-seeming tales in India.

Problems of Interpretation

Poison Dress legends in India swirled around the equivocal custom of receiving a robe of honour from a friend or enemy. The first six narratives elaborate historical events that occurred between c. 1600 and 1752, while Tale 7 is a tribal myth collected in 1914. The evidence indicates that lore about contaminated garments had already developed in India by the time Europeans arrived. The European (and one British-educated Indian) collectors (1688-1931) cited natives, bards and storytellers, old manuscripts, epic poems, family annals, and temple chronicles as their sources. In later editions of the stories and in quotations of each other's publications, variations, asides and contradictions crept into the surviving versions of each of these tales, all in keeping with the characteristics of living folklore. …

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