A chapati is a type of whole wheat unleavened bread popular in Northern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Nothing could be more simple. During the British Raj however, the coarse bread became the source of speculation and concern. In the year 1857, tension was building against the British owned East India Company. The company, responsible for much of the trade originating in India was heavy-handed in annexing land, taxes and spreading Christianity. Additionally, there were factors such as favoring certain castes or religions over others. The final straw was “….reached when the soldiers were asked to bite off the paper cartridges for their rifles which were greased with animal fat, namely beef and pork. This was, and is, against the religious beliefs of Hindus and Muslims, respectively.”
In February of that year a strange thing began to occur. Thousands of chapatis were passed from one person to another, village to village, throughout India.
One of the first officials to encounter it was Mark Thornhill, magistrate in the little Indian town of Mathura, near Agra. Thornhill came into his office one morning to find four “dirty little cakes of the coarsest flour, about the size and thickness of a biscuit” lying on his desk. He was informed that they had been brought in by one of his Indian police officers, who had received them from a puzzled village chowkidar (watchman). And where had the chowkidar got them? “A man had come out of the jungle with them, and given them to the watchman with instructions to make four like them and to take these to the watchman in the next village, who was to be told to do the same.”
When intercepted, they contained no messages inside. They had no known religious significance. “Extensive inquiries into the meaning of the breads produced plenty of theories but few facts; even the runners and watchmen who baked them and carried them from village to village “did not know why they had to run through the night with chupatties in their turbans,” though they took them just the same.”
The British were right to be fearful because the chapatis traveled faster than regular post, so if it was a message it would’ve been difficult to stop. The press speculated that “the movement” was a signal that something revolutionary may be happening. Conclusive evidence was never found however. But if a stranger on the street hands you some chapatis, keep it moving just in case.