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09 April 2013

Meteorites and other extraordinary phenomena in northern India

In July 1860, Mr Saunders, the Deputy Commissioner stationed at Dhurmsalla in northern India, sent a report to the Punjab Government giving an account of a meteorite strike in the area and his investigation of the event.

He wrote that: “In the afternoon between the hours of 2 and 2.30pm, the station of Dhurmsalla was startled by a terrific bursting noise, which was supposed at first to proceed from a succession of loud blastings, or from the explosion of a mine in the upper part of the Station, others imagining it to be an earthquake or very large landslip, rushed from their houses in the belief that they must fall upon them”. The first noise was followed by several more and with such violence that the ground trembled and shook convulsively! Eye-witnesses reported seeing a flame of fire about nine feet in length darting in an oblique direction above the Station after the first explosion had taken place. Fragments of aerolite fell in several places in a line N.N.W. to S.S.E. and buried themselves up to a foot and half in the ground, sending up a cloud of dust in all directions. Some local people passing close to where one fragment fell, picked up the pieces, but had to quickly drop them owing to the intensity of the cold which quite benumbed their fingers.

Meteor of 18 August 1783 as it appeared from the terrace at Windsor CastleThe meteor of 18 August 1783 as it appeared from the terrace at Windsor Castle - Thomas Sandby Online Gallery  Noc

Like many of the officials in India in the 19th century, Saunders seems to have had a genuine interest in science, and he devoted part of his report to discussing the causes of such events, and the origins of meteorites. He commented on a belief held by some at the time that if one of the minor Planets, or asteroids, came in contact with the tail of a Comet, it would be annihilated instantaneously! It was even said by some that the Planet Earth was in danger of destruction in just such a way from a Comet which was predicted to soon appear. Saunders also claimed that he was the first at Dhurmsalla to discover a new Comet then visible in the sky.

After describing reports of strange lights in the sky on the evening of the same day the meteorite struck, Saunders takes on a somewhat medieval tone, declaring: “Verily this has been an extraordinary season in more ways than one”. He then lists a number of “extraordinary phenomena” all occurring within the previous few months:

•    An aerial meteor or water-spout in the neighbourhood of Bhurtpore
•    A luminous meteor or something described to be like an Aurora Borealis at Delhi
•    A shower of live fish at Benares
•    A shower of blood at Farrukhabad and Meerut
•    A dark spot observable on the disc of the Sun
•    At Dhurmsalla, an unnatural yellow darkness of some duration, followed by a violent wind storm one afternoon earlier that month.

A copy of Saunders' report was sent to the India Office in London, and is available at the British Library as part of the India Office Records. The report was also published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Vol 29 – 1860.

John O’Brien
Curator, India Office Records

Further reading:
Letter from the Deputy Commissioner, Dhurmsalla, to R H Davies, Esquire, Secretary to Government Punjab No.927, dated 30 July, 1860 [IOR/L/PJ/3/1088 No.120]



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