The Chapati Movement of 1857

Apr 8, 2021 0 comments

The year was 1857. A storm was brewing in British-occupied India. There was growing resentment among the Indians against the rule of the East India Company, and the social reforms the British were trying to push onto the indigenous people. The taxes angered them, the loss of lands incensed them. The sepoys or Indian soldiers were growing restless over the social divide among their ranks on the basis of caste. There was also concern that the Company was trying to impose Christianity on the population.

“The Campaign in India 1857-58” by William Simpson, E Walker. Photo: National Army Museum

In the midst of these growing tensions, a mysterious movement began in the interior of the subcontinent, one that spooked British rulers and puzzled Indians as much as it baffled their white-skinned overlords. According to reports pouring from the villages of North India, thousands of chapatis—unleavened flatbread that’s the staple of every Indian’s diet—were being passed from one hand to another, from village to village. Nobody knew where the breads came from, or what message they carried.

“There is a most mysterious affair going on throughout the whole of India at present,” wrote Dr. Gilbert Hadow, an army surgeon of the East India Company in a letter to his sister in Britain. “No one seems to know the meaning of it. It is not known where it originated, by whom or for what purpose, whether it is supposed to be connected to any religious ceremony or whether it has to do with some secret society. The Indian papers are full of surmises as to what it means. It is called the chapati movement.”

Chapati, the Indian flatbread. Photo: Gaurav Masand/

The chapati movement involved baking four (or any other number) pieces of flatbread and delivering them to the nearest village, usually in the hands of the village chowkidar, or watchman, with instructions to make four more and taking them to the next village. Many chowkidars dutifully followed the instructions, travelling for miles through the jungles to distribute chapatis to nearby villages. Few asked where the chapatis came from, or questioned the motive of this bizarre errand.

The chapati movement first came to the notice of the British through Mark Thornhill, magistrate of the town of Mathura, near Agra, in early 1857, when a bundle of stale bread arrived at his office. Upon questioning, Thornhill was informed that they had been brought in by one of his Indian police officers, who had received them from a puzzled village watchman, who himself received it from another equally clueless chapati runner. Thornhill tried to trace the source of the breads but could not because they were ordinary chapatis cooked in every Indian home, and none of them carried any hidden messages in them. What he did discover was that the phenomenon had a massive presence. Thousands of chapatis were passing through several parts of India, from the Narmada river in the south to the border with Nepal several hundred miles to the north. These chain of chapatis could have originated anywhere—from the east, near Calcutta, or from the north, in the province of Avadh, or from Indore, in the center of the country. Some of these chapatis were advancing across the land at a rate of 200 miles a night.

Two sepoy officers and a private sepoy, circa 1820s. Handcoloured engravings by Frederic Shoberl

The mysterious distribution of such a benign item worried British officers because of their inability to act. Had the Indians been passing seditious letters, they could have been stopped, but what could be more harmless than a few chapatis? How could one stop or arrest a person for distributing food, especially when the runners themselves were often police chowkidars?

Yet, many British officers felt that the passing of chapatis was a signal, an ominous sign of an imminent calamity. “The British regarded with deep suspicion, bordering on paranoia, any type of communication in India which they could not understand,” says historian Kim Wagner. Whenever a bundle of chapatis arrived at a police station, it drove the officers into panic.

There was one popular rumor that the British themselves were behind this. It was suggested that the British were attempting mass conversion of Indians to Christianity by adulterating their flour with bone meal from cows and pigs, which was forbidden to Hindus and Muslims, respectively, and distributing bread made from this befouled flour in the country. Once a man consumed the forbidden meal, he would be ostracized by his co-religionists which would make it easier to bring him into the Christian fold. It was such a rumor, that eventually brought down the East India Company a year later.

Enfield Pattern 1853 Percussion Rifle Musket cartridges. Photo: National Army Museum

A rumor began spreading like wildfire among the sepoys that the British had contrived another diabolical plan for breaking their beliefs and defiling their religion. The British had introduced a new Enfield rifle that came with greased paper cartridges. To load the gun, the cartridges had to torn apart by teeth, because the soldier’s hands were full, so that the powder it contained could be poured down the barrel of the gun. The paper cartridges, where the gunpowder and the bullet came packed with, were greased with tallow or lard. Tallow comes from the fat of cows, a sacred animal for Hindus, while lard was fat from pigs, an animal that Muslims do not eat. Although the East India Company ordered that all cartridges issued to the Indian sepoys be free from grease, the troops were convinced the Company was plotting to defile them.

The Sepoy Mutiny that followed was in many ways India’s First War of Independence, and it was one of the most defining event in British imperial history. It led to the dissolution of a 250-year-old company, and brought India directly under control of the British Crown.

Indian sepoys attack the boats of fleeing British officers and their families during the Siege of Cawnpore in 1857.

Recent studies seem to suggest that the chapati movement might have been an attempt to deliver food to people afflicted with cholera, but somewhere along the line the true meaning of the transmission was lost, and the chain continued through the country as a “blank” message.

Kim Wagner, who made the most recent study of the phenomenon, said:

Although the original specific meaning of the chapattis had been lost early in the distribution, the dire consequences of breaking the chain of transmission remained, and thus ensured their successful circulation over an immense area. In the event, the chapattis were not ‘harbingers of a coming storm.’ They were what people made them into, and the significance attributed to them was a symptom of the pervasive distrust and general consternation amongst the Indian population during the early months of 1857.

# Mike Dash, Pass it on: The Secret that Preceded the Indian Rebellion of 1857, Smithsonian Mag
# Sanchari Pal, Chapati Movement: How the Ubiquitous and Harmless Chapati Had Terrified the British in 1857, The Better India


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