Lunatic Asylums in Colonial Bombay: Shackled Bodies, Unchained Minds (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018)

This book traces the historical roots of the problems in India’s mental health care system. It accounts for indigenous experiences of the lunatic asylum in the Bombay Presidency (1793-1921). The book argues that the colonial lunatic asylum failed to assimilate into Indian society and therefore remained a failed colonial-medical enterprise. It begins by assessing the implications of lunatic asylums on indigenous knowledge and healing traditions. It then examines the lunatic asylum as a ‘middle-ground’, and the European superintendents’ ‘common-sense’ treatment of Indian insanity.  Furthermore, it analyses the soundscapes of Bombay’s asylums, and the extent to which public perceptions influenced their use. Lunatic asylums left a legacy of historical trauma for the indigenous community because of their coercive and custodial character. This book aims to disrupt that legacy of trauma and to enable new narratives in mental health treatment in India.


Charlotte Macdonald, Professor of History, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

“Original, courageous and evocative, Sarah Pinto’s history of colonial asylums is a powerful work. Attending to the experiences of patients and their families, the soundscapes and spaces of the asylum, Pinto goes beyond existing understandings to show us the persistence, the failures and the consequences of a painful past. The book is a rich addition to the histories of colonial India and to health, and introduces a historian with a skillful sensitivity to people and difficult predicaments in the past and present.” 

Barbara Brookes, Professor of History, University of Otago, New Zealand

In this pioneering study of asylums, Sarah Pinto argues that the colonial imposition of asylums quickly became subverted. Superintendents gradually distanced themselves from western psychiatry and developed hybridised methods of treatment that responded to the needs of their local communities. In this way asylums became a ‘middle ground’ in which the aspirations of colonial officials were tempered by the traditions and languages of the local communities.


Pinto’s innovative study explores the material conditions of asylum life, examining clothing, food and occupational therapy. She demonstrates how clothing requirements, for example, were part of the ‘civilising mission’ and served to ignore local cultural preferences. Finding suitable occupations for patients proved difficult but the desire to do so was propelled by financial imperatives.


Attention to the material circumstances of the asylums is supplemented by Pinto’s close analysis of the soundscapes within them and the cacophony of voices that might be heard. English superintendents came up against an array of local languages which challenged any sense of colonial hegemony. If hegemony could not be achieved, wounds were inflicted on the local society. The authority of medical superintendents, for example, relied on medical somatic understandings of mental illness which regarded Indian beliefs in the inseparability of the somatic and the spiritual as stagnant and superstitious. This western view undermined the credibility of local practitioners of Indian medicine. In addition, the removal of mentally ill individuals from their families caused trauma both to families and to patients.


Pinto convincingly concludes that the Bombay asylums represented a failed colonial-medical enterprise, arguing that the everyday incidents weakened the trust of local people in the curative potential of the institutions. Attentive to the everyday workings of the asylums and the views of them by the communities in which they operated, this study suggests how understanding the history of the treatment of the mentally ill is vital to reconceptualising their treatment today.

© 2018 by Dr Sarah Ann Pinto