Bengal District Gazetteers - Bhagalpur

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Introductory notes

The Bengal District Gazetteers were published in the first two decades of the 20th century. The bulk of the series was published under the supervision of Lewis Sydney Stewart O'Malley. This particular volume on the district of Bhagalpur was compiled by J.Byrne, a member of the Indian Civil Service. The volume follows the model set by O'Malley for the other volumes of the series. The Gazetteer volume on Bhagalpur was published by The Bengal Secretariat Book Depot in 1911.

The region of Bhagalpur was initially subordinate to the supervisor of Rajmahal, later it received the recognition of a separate district. The following excerpts from the Gazetteer have been selected from the chapters on Agriculture and Natural Calamities. The selections highlight the severity of the Famine of 1770 on the district and the changes that took place in the district following the Famine. Bhagalpur also witnessed during the crisis of 1783.

Selection details

The region of Bhagalpur was initially subordinate to the supervisor of Rajmahal, later it received the recognition of a separate district. The following excerpts from the Gazetteer have been selected from the chapters on Agriculture and Natural Calamities. The selections highlight the severity of the Famine of 1770 on the district and the changes that took place in the district following the Famine. Bhagalpur also witnessed during the crisis of 1783.


[Page 69]


THE portions of this district lying north and south of the Ganges differ considerably, regarded from the standpoint of the agriculturist. The northern portion is purely alluvial. The southern portion comprises, in addition to alluvium, various geological formations, as already described in Chapter I. The outstanding feature that distinguishes the agriculture of the southern portion from that of the northern is that in the latter irrigation is only needed when the rainfall is in large defect or very badly distributed; in the former, the southern portion, irrigation in one form or another, is very widespread and is indispensable. Bunds are thrown up across the streams that flow northwards from the hilly southernmost portion of the district, and a network of distributaries, taken from this, lead the waters from field to field. Custom regulates the question of the supply. During the cadastral survey operations that have recently been brought to a close, an attempt was made to record the customary rights of various tenants and villages with regard to the use of the stock of water. It is, however, stated that the villagers generally speaking did not evince much interest in this part of the proceedings. At the end of this chapter are to be found details as to the various methods of irrigation in vogue.

[Page 71]

In spite of some marked variations from the normal it is obvious that the rice crop is far and away the most, important crop in the district. Under the heading "Oil seeds" there is a marked tendency to an increase and probably the accepted figures for normal acreage will need to be revised soon in respect of these crops just as a permanent diminution is indicated under the headings Indigo (17) and Sugarcane (14).

The principal types of soil in this district are clay, loam and sandy soils. The different kinds of clay soils are as follows, accordingly to a note on the soils of Bengal, published by the Department of Agriculture :-

(a) Kharar or Kaiari.-This soil is blackish in colour: it is Clays. sticky when wet and rather difficult to plough when dry. It is best suited for the growth of winter rice. When the rice crop is reaped, peas of various sorts, khesari dal, gram and linseed are sown broadcast in the mud before it dries up and luxuriant crops are frequently raised in this way at practically no cost beyond that of the seed.

(b) Khewal.-This soil is also of a blackish colour, but is more friable when dry than kharar. It is suitable for almost all crops except maize, kurthi, etc. If it lies very low and goes under water when the Ganges is in flood, the laud is called char. Such soils grow only rabi crops.

(c) Gorimati.-This soil is of a reddish yellow hue, and produces all kinds of crops if irrigated.

(d) Harin chukai and pas oti are whitish in colour and are suitable for winter paddy.

(2) Loamy soils are known as doras. If low-lying, winter Loams. rice is grown on them generally; if high, various bhadoi and rabi crops do well on them. This class of soil is found around old village-sites where it receives cow-dung and all sorts of household refuse. It is then generally called dih or yeora, and it is sown with potatoes, vegetables, tobacco, chillies, etc. In low situations, loamy soils are called tari, and all crops except maize, kurthi, etc., will do well on them.

(3) Balmut is a sandy loam that will grow anything, Dhus is the name given to sandy loam in the Gangetic diara. As it is soils. submerged when the river is in flood, it is used for rabi crops only. These crops thrive in it exceedingly.

Soil that is almost pure sand is called simply balu. When a thin layer of silt (three to six inches thick) is deposited on the top of sand, it is called palpar. In this state it grows mustard well, but as the layer of silt gets deeper it becomes also flt for barley, oats, etc. Diara lands covered with sand are called balu burd. [Page 72] Water-melons do very well in such lands as the melon, when formed, can lie on the sand without rotting, while the roots are far down in the clay beneath.

The gradual growth of diaras is an extremely interesting process of soil formation. Where an eddy in the current is the result of a curve or backwater in the stream, the velocity of the water is checked sufficiently to allow the suspended matter to be deposited. The building-up process continues until the sand bank appears at ordinary water level. The water lying stagnant deposits clay and silt on the sand, and each succeeding flood deepens the layer of clay until at last the diara rises above floodlevel. If from any cause the deposit of clay and silt is arrested, the diara remains mere barren sand. Excellent crops can be raised from such lands, but there is no stability nor certainty about diara cultivation. When unable to bear a crop, no one troubles about them. When fertile, they are not infrequently the source of sanguinary ryots and the cause of perpetual litigation.

(4)Soils over which there is a saline efflorescence due to the presence of alkaline salt, reh or sodium salts, etc., which are called usar, kharwa, etc., are unfertile. Washermen use kharwa, so it may be inferred that sodium carbonate or 'black alkali' is found in that earth. In usar, it is probably the 'white alkali' or sodium sulphate that is found. The want of subsoil drainage, owing to impermeable strata beneath, causes the accumulation of these alkaline salts.

In the extreme south of the district is found a reddish gravelly soil of lateritic origin. It produces arhar, castor, etc.

The prosperity or otherwise of the agriculturists-and by far the influences greater portion of the population is dependent for its livelihood on agriculture is determined by the rainfall. It must be adequate and seasonable. As rice is the most important crop grown in the district, the rains that benefit this crop exceed all others in importance. For the winter rice crop, rain is needed early in June to facilitate the preparation of the ground and the growth of the seedlings. In July and August rain is needed to prepare for the transplantation. Finally copious rain is essential about the time of the Hathiya asterism, at the end of September or early in October, as without this the rice never comes properly to maturity and the produce is inferior in quality and indifferent in quantity.

Rain at these same intervals is also extremely beneficial for the bhadoi and rabi crops. For the latter especially, the September- October rains if copious give the supply of moisture essential for a good spring crop.

[Page 78]

Artificial irrigation which is indispensable over a large area of South Bhagalpur is generally effected by leading off from a natural stream or from a head of water collected in a bandh or tank. The channels are called Danrhs and their smaller branches are called Singhas. They are maintained and repaired by the maliks, the raiyats supplying labour in case of small and ordinary repairs. Danrhs and Singhas are used mainly for the irrigation of paddy fields from Asarh to Kartik (July to November).

Wells are also used, but only for the irrigation of special crops, eg. sugarcane or Kachu They are cheap and are dug by the raiyats at their own expense. In some villages pukka wells are dug at the expense of the malik for the irrigation of sugarcane fields.

The Rabi crops are often irrigated from Danrhs if water is available in them at the time. But the maliks do not take any interest in this and only the raiyats occasionally dig holes (called Bhaw) hero and there in the sandy bed of a Danrh and draw out water with buckets, etc., for irrigating Rabi fields in the dry season. Little importance is attached to this kind of irrigation. It is only during the irrigation of rice fields from July to November that disputes arise, and it is to this irrigation only that all rules and limitations of rights of different parties, whether established by custom or by contract, refer.

[Page 93]


THE earliest famine in this district, regarding which any authentic information is still extant, was the great calamity of 1770; but, as at that time Bhagalpur had not been made a separate revenue centre, being subordinate to the Supervisor of Rajmahal, no records exist in the Bhagalpur Collectorate referring to that disastrous year. The proceedings of the Provincial Council of Murshidabad however show that, in April of that year, the condition of the district was very bad. Mr. Harwood, the Supervisor, referring specially to Bhagalpur, reported that the zamindars are ruined, the lands not having yielded half produce for the last twelve months." He had already, on the 28th March 1770, in alluding to some lenient revenue arrangements, written:" Had the misery of the inhabitants been reported to you sooner, and had the ryots received this ease at the proper time, your beneficent intentions would have been fully answered, and many thousands who are now reduced to poverty might have enjoyed ease, if not affluence. But from motives of false policy and self-interest, the (native) collectors in the different parts, during this calamitous season, have pressed so hard upon the ryots to oblige them to make good their engagements to Government, that their total ruin has invariably followed." It is a matter of history how the famine progressed, till the beginning of the new year brought relief in the form of an abundant harvest. In November, Mr. Harwood, in forwarding the abstract revenue settlement for the current year, attributes the deficit to the "impoverished, ruined, and miserable state " of the district.

During the fifteen years following, there are frequent references to drought and scarcity. In September 1775, the Collector reported to the Governor-General and Council that, "as the drought still continues, the approaching harvest affords a very bad prospect throughout my districts, but particularly in those parganas where the chief cultivation is the early grain. The late crops were good; but grain has for some time past sold at an advanced price, from the unfavourable appearance of the next harvest. The settlement has been made good, but very [Page 94] much apprehend great deficiencies in the revenue in the ensuing year. The growth in the most plentiful year not being sufficient for the consumption of the inhabitants, the price grain bears in the markets of my district depends in a great degree on the adjacent provinces from which supplies are drawn." The statement that the grain outturn of the most plentiful year fell short of the consumption, will startle those who are acquainted with the present large export from this district, but it must be remembered that the tracts in the north that are now highly productive were then attached to Darbhanga and Purniah, that the low country south of the headquarters station was a swamp cultivable neither in summer nor winter, and that the jurisdiction of the Collector then included the rocky waste of Rajmahal.

In May 1779 a severe drought is reported. "As there is no appearance of a change in the weather," writes the Collector, "it is with much concern I am under the necessity of representing to the Honourable Board, that the severe drought which we have experienced in this part of the country for some time past, has alarmed the landholders in general to so great a degree that trey absolutely refuse to make themselves responsible for the current year's revenue, without a considerable remission; or upon such terms as must in the end prove very disadvantageous to Government. The country is certainly in a most alarming situation. The lands which ought to have been cultivated six weeks or two months ago, are still lying waste for want of rain, as a result of which little or nothing is to be expected from the bhadoi harvest; and the aghani or principal rice harvest, which should be sown by this time, will suffer materially if we have not a change of weather very shortly. To add to the distress which the inhabitants must necessarily experience from the extreme heat, the tanks and wells in the interior parts of the country are entirely dried up; scarce a village in the district has escaped being burnt to the ground; the cattle are dying for want of grass; and grain in general, notwithstanding every method is taken to supply the markets as usual, is every day apparently more difficult to be procured, and of course rising in price. The country being in this situation, I have in vain used my endeavours with the zamindars to prevail on them to renew their leases for the present year's revenue, agreeably to your orders. They absolutely refuse, except on terms which will reduce the revenue about one-eighth, or from. Rs. 1,71,771 to Rs. 1,50,800."

Again, in 1783. the same officer, in noticing a partial failure of the crops, gives the following interesting information concerning [Page 95] the food supply of the district:-" The produce of this district consists chiefly of wheat, barley, kalai, hul or gram, and mustard seed, the greatest part of which is generally exported in the months of May, June and July to Murshidabad and Calcutta; and so trifling is the proportion of rice that none is ever exported, and above three-fourths of what is consumed in the district is imported from Purniah. This resource, however, has of late fallen off very much, and rice is certainly become scarce; but the bhadoi harvest which was cut in August and September, and consists of Indian corn, marua, and other small grain, will effectually secure us from any real distress. At the same time, he declared himself unable, without taking special measures, to supply from local sources any troops or travellers passing through his district. He accordingly obtained sanction for the purchase of 20,000 maunds of rice in Purniah, for which he paid Rs. 21,800. In 1795, a similar difficulty presented itself; and 50,000 maunds of rice were stored at different points along the main toad through Rajmahal to Monghyr.

This is a selection from the original text


agriculture, crops, drought, famine, grain, harvest, irrigation, rain, rice

Source text

Title: Bengal District Gazetteers - Bhagalpur

Editor(s): J. Byrne

Publisher: The Bengal Secretariat Book Depot

Publication date: 1911

Edition: 1st Edition

Place of publication: Calcutta

Provenance/location: This text was transcribed from images available at the Digital Library of India:

Digital edition

Original editor(s): J. Byrne

Language: English

Selection used:

  • 1 ) page 69
  • 2 ) pages 71 to 72
  • 3 ) page 78
  • 4 ) pages 93 to 95


Texts collected by: Ayesha Mukherjee, Amlan Das Gupta, Azarmi Dukht Safavi

Texts transcribed by: Muhammad Irshad Alam, Bonisha Bhattacharya, Arshdeep Singh Brar, Muhammad Ehteshamuddin, Kahkashan Khalil, Sarbajit Mitra

Texts encoded by: Bonisha Bhattacharya, Shreya Bose, Lucy Corley, Kinshuk Das, Bedbyas Datta, Arshdeep Singh Brar, Sarbajit Mitra, Josh Monk, Reesoom Pal

Encoding checking by: Hannah Petrie, Gary Stringer, Charlotte Tupman

Genre: India > gazetteers > district

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