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Sculpting Tools of Death

Latika Padgaonkar 

A in Corboda, Southern Spain, showcases torture devices.

The old quarter of Cordoba, the once magnificent capital of Moorish Spain, is a tapestry of architectural styles, mainly Moorish and Christian. At the centre lies the or the Great Mosque, whose foundations date back to the 8th century. It was to gradually expand and flower, embedding in its walls, halls and niches work so dizzyingly rich in ornamentation you can only stand and marvel. Parts of the mosque remain while others were destroyed to make room for an equally brilliant cathedral. Fountains and terraces of the royal residence; the little synagogue covered with Hebrew script, bearing aesthetic influences of Islam; the arches and pillars of the are all ecstatic remnants of the wonder that was the Moorish kingdom (8th–14th century), once the site of religious harmony where Muslim, Christian and Jewish traditions not only thrived but were encouraged. The splendour of what remains to this day speaks of a collective gesture of the spirit. For any visitor, it’s a trip that inspires.

But take a walk in one of the narrow, cobbled alleys that run round in a maze in the heart of the Jewish quarter adjoining the There is a little here, somewhat nondescript and often missed by tourists. What it displays stabs at your idea of a wondrous legacy. The Exhibition of Medieval Instruments of Torture is one of the most complete of its kind in Europe. It traces the 700 year history (13th-19th century) of refinement of torture methods used largely, but not exclusively, under the Spanish Inquisition. For the visitor, entering it is a free fall from the sense of grace and peace of the mosque-cathedral, a plunge into a den of madness. A reminder that the Middle Ages were not only about romance, knights and fair maidens, or ballads and religiosity, they were violent and bloodthirsty; that beauty and ugliness went hand in hand; that the most grotesque forms of cruelty lay just under the veneer of some of man’s most amazing deeds.

While torture was pervasive in all of Europe, it held a special place under the Inquisition, this ecclesiastical tribunal that rose in a response to what had been the multi-religious nature of Spanish society. It followed the reconquest of Spain from the Muslims (or Moors — the appellation is used in a general way) who had ruled over large parts of what are today Spain and Portugal (the capital Cordoba fell in 1236, Seville a few years later, while Granada held out till 1492). King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castille — under whose patronage began the great discoveries of the world, mariners setting sail for new lands — including the voyage of Christopher Columbus (she ordered a fleet to be fitted out for him) — intended to replace Medieval orthodoxy with their own Catholic orthodoxy. The rule of Catholic Monarchs (as Ferdinand and Isabella are known), called the Golden Age, strove for religious conformity and for the final reunification of Spain. Thus began the story of forced conversions, expulsions, detentions/torture and expulsions. The last Moorish king, Boabdil, it is said, wept and sighed as he surrendered his beloved Alhambra citadel in Granada. His mother’s response to his tears was icy: “Don’t weep like a woman for the city you could not defend like a man!” 

The jungle of torture instruments in the Cordoba have a longer history. They hark back to the early Middle Ages and would be in use until the 19th century. Torture was a normal way of extracting confessions, discouraging dissent and intellectual freedom and persuading Jews, Muslims, Protestants and heretics of all hues to accept the Catholic faith. But it was also inflicted on those practising bigamy, sodomy, superstition and witchcraft. Sex, age or gender made no difference. Women, children and the aged were all its victims. The arrest of an individual, done stealthily, was the first step in a harrowing path. The trial, or a charade rather, took place in a whimsically formed court, propelled as much by differences of creed as gossip and envy. The collection of authentic instruments shows how ingeniously the human mind worked, and how the process of “finding out the truth” was as crafty as it was vile in the extreme. 

Among the most famous of these devices was the rack. The victim would be laid on this rectangular frame that had a board. His hand and legs would be tied to the ends of the board while the turning of rollers placed at the ends of the board would yank his body in opposite directions till every joint popped. Guy Fawkes (better known for his ‘gunpowder plot’ in Britain), and the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Kyd suffered the rack before they died. So, I believe, did Anne Boleyn, second wife of King Henry VIII.

The Water Wheel, set in a pool of water, had the victim tied on its rim. The wheel would be turned, dunking the victim into water with every spin and inhumanly stretching his joints and muscles.

The garrotte was an ancient Roman contraption. Astonishingly, it was around in Spain till as recently as 1974. In an earlier day, the victim would be tied to a pole. This was later replaced by a chair. A cord, a wire or an iron collar with spikes would be tightened round the neck, leading to both strangulation and the breaking of the vertebrae. 

The Inquisition devised the sickening Judas Cradle or a seat, atop of which was planted pyramid-like metal device. On this, the victim would be impaled, the pyramid penetrating his/her anus or vagina which would then be turned inside the organ. The word head crusher speaks for itself. As the head got crushed by the bloody instrument, it had the victim’s teeth imploding in their sockets, the jaw bones smashing, the eyes popping out and bits of brain squirting from the ears. 

I hesitate to describe more. The museum has an array of torture devices, one more merciless than the other. What, one may ask, is the point of listing them? I realised in Cordoba that the mind is truly unhinged by this sudden plunge from the surrounding glory to a den of perversity. And yet you are trapped in a kind of fascination-revulsion, a deadly thrall, as you might be if you were suddenly pitted against a wild animal. If the aim was to frighten the wits (and life) out of real or fake suspects, these devices certainly did their job. Drowning, starving, whipping, crushing (head crushers were admirably efficient), burning, disfiguring, maiming with as much pain as you could possibly inflict — all this happened simultaneously with the highest feats in science, arts, exploration, navigation, commerce, through the Reformation, through the flowering of the human mind during the Renaissance, and throughout Europe as part and parcel of legal proceedings. The Spanish Inquisition used these methods widely, and the Cordoba museum has a wealth of these vicious relics, all cleaned and polished and neatly labelled. It’s trip into the heart of darkness, a reminder, if ever you needed one, that goodness and evil walk arm in arm, that the medieval kings in all their glory were equally famous for their gory torture chambers, and some of the unique methods of torture were introduced by them. The words that echo in the museum — crime, punishment, justice, detention, interrogation, betrayal — are a world away from those familiar to us: freedom and human rights. And yet, who can deny — despite its prohibition under international and national law — that torture, both psychological and physical, continues to be widely practised today?

Before the horror of what I saw, the guillotine standing in the middle of the room was a breeze.

First Published: Sun, January 03 2010. 00:08 IST