Bengal District Gazetteers - Birbhum

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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. L.S.S. O'Malley who entered Indian Civil Service in 1898, joined as Assistant Magistrate and Collector in Bengal. O'Malley was later promoted to the post of Under Secretary to Government and General and Revenue Department when he took upon his work on the Bengal District Gazetteers. The Gazetteer volume on Birbhum was published by The Bengal Secretariat Book Depot in 1910.

The district of Birbhum was under the control of local Bir rajas. After the Grant of Diwani to the East India Company in 1765, Birbhum came to be administered from Murshidabad until 1787. In that year it was constituted as district with Vishnupur and this arrangement continued till 1793, when Vishnupur was transferred to the Burdwan Collectorate. In 1809, the collectorship of Birbhum was abolished, and the district was again administered from Murshidabad. In 1820, Birbhum was reconstituted as a separate district and restored to its former area, with the exception of a few estates were transferred to the Jungle Mahals. The following excerpts from the Gazetteer have been selected from the chapters on History, Agriculture, Natural Calamities and Land Revenue Administration. The selections highlight the severity of the Famine of 1770 in the district. The years following the famine witnessed desolation of villages, the law and order of the region was also markedly affected. The selections also reveal how the devastations of 1770 paved way for precautionary policies such as erection of golahs on part of the East India Company.

Selection details

The district of Birbhum was under the control of local Bir rajas. After the Grant of Diwani to the East India Company in 1765, Birbhum came to be administered from Murshidabad until 1787. In that year it was constituted as district with Vishnupur and this arrangement continued till 1793, when Vishnupur was transferred to the Burdwan Collectorate. In 1809, the collectorship of Birbhum was abolished, and the district was again administered from Murshidabad. In 1820, Birbhum was reconstituted as a separate district and restored to its former area, with the exception of a few estates were transferred to the Jungle Mahals. The following excerpts from the Gazetteer have been selected from the chapters on History, Agriculture, Natural Calamities and Land Revenue Administration. The selections highlight the severity of the Famine of 1770 in the district. The years following the famine witnessed desolation of villages, the law and order of the region was also markedly affected. The selections also reveal how the devastations of 1770 paved way for precautionary policies such as erection of golahs on part of the East India Company.


[Page 16]


The early period of British administration was a time of trouble for Birbhum. In 1770, five years after the grant of Diwani to the East India Company, it was devastated by famine, the severity of which is apparent from the report submitted in February 1771 by Mr. Higginson, Supervisor of Birbhum. Writing of the eastern parganas, which were most afflicted, he said:- "Truly concerned am I to acquaint you that the bad effects of the last famine appear in these places beyond description dreadful. Many hundreds of villages are entirely depopulated; and even in large towns there are not a fourth part of the houses inhabited. For want of ryots to cultivate the ground, there are immense tracts of a fine open country which remain wholly waste and unimproved." He begged that the Council would allow him to suspend the collection of arrears of revenue from "the remaining poor ryots, who have so considerably suffered from the late famine, that by far the greatest part of them are rendered utterly incapable of paying them. By obliging them to sell their cattle and utensils for agriculture, a small portion might be recovered; but this would certainly be the means of their deserting the province, and preventing the cultivation for next year, which would be much more fatal to the revenue of the [Page 17] country than the whole loss of the balances. The Council replied:-" Though we can by no means recede from the demands for mofussil balances due from your districts, yet we cannot but agree with you in the propriety of suspending them for the present, as continuing to harass the ryots for them at the present season would be attended with prejudice to the ensuing year's cultivation and collection. Should the approaching year, however, prove a prosperous one, we flatter ourselves an adjustment might be made for the recovery of these balances; and it is an object we must recommend to your attention in that event."

It took the district a long time to recover from the famine In 1771-72 it was reported that only 4,500 villages were left, whereas in 1765 there had been nearly 6,000. Much of the cultivated land had relapsed into jungle, through which, in 1780, a small body of sepoys could with difficulty force their way. "For 120 miles," says a contemporary newspaper correspondent, they marched through an extensive wood, all the way a perfect wilderness; sometimes a small village presented itself in the midst of these jungles, with a little cultivated ground around it, hardly sufficient to encamp the two battalions. These woods abound with tigers and bears, which infested the camp every night. Distress and destitution drove the people to acts of lawlessness and violence, in which disbanded soldiers lent a willing hand, bands of dacoits gathering along the western borders and in the jungles across the Ajai. In May 1785, the Collector of Murshidabad, at the extremity of whose jurisdiction Birbhum lay, formally declared the civil authorities "destitute of any force capable of making head against such an armed multitude," and petitioned for troops to act against bands of plunderers four hundred strong. A month later, the dacoits had grown to "near a thousand people," and were preparing for an organized invasion of the low lands. Next year (1786) they had firmly established themselves in Birbhum, and occupied strong positions with permanent camps. The Raja was unable to take any effective measures against them; the public revenues were intercepted on the way to the treasury ; and the commercial operations of the Company within the district brought to a standstill, many factories being abandoned. It was clear that the system under which both Birbhum and Bishnupur (the eastern portion of the Bankura district) were administered from Mursbidabad could continue no longer, and that the anarchy prevailing demanded the presence of a responsible officer on the spot. Accordingly, in November 1786, a British civil officer, [Page 18] Mr. G. R. Foley, was deputed to Birbhum with orders to support the Raja against the marauders.

Next year Lord Cornwallis determined to unite Birbhum and Bishnupur into a compact British district ; and in March 1787 a notification was issued in the Calcutta Gazette to the effect that Mr. Pye was" confirmed Collector of Bishenpore in addition to Beerbhoom heretofore superintended by G. R. Foley, Esq." Mr. Pye's tenure of office was brief, for he left the district in 1787 ; but even in this short time some towns in Bishnupur were sacked by banditti. His successor was Mr. Sherburne, during whose administration of a year and-a-half the head-quarters o:f the united district were transferred from Bishnupur to Suri. Short, however, as was his term of office, " the two frontier principalities had," according to Sir William Hunter, "passed from the condition of military fiefs into that of a regular British district administered by a Collector and covenanted assistants, defended by the Company's troops, studded with fortified factories, intersected by a new military road and possessing daily communication with the seat of Government in Calcutta." Towards the close of 1788 Mr. Sherburne was removed under suspicion of corrupt dealings, and Mr. Christopher Keating assumed charge of the district. For some time after his appointment a considerable armed force had to be maintained for the repression of the bands of dacoits along the western frontier, and under the title of Collector he discharged the functions of a commander-in-chief and civil governor within his jurisdiction. At the beginning of each cold weather when the great harvest of the year approached, he furnished the officer at the head of his troops with a list of passes which the sepoys were to defend until the robber bands should retire into quarters for the next rainy season. On a proposal being made to reduce the strength of his force, he plainly stated that he would not in that case be responsible for holding the district.

Mr. Keating had not held his post two months before he found himself compelled to call out the troops against a band of marauders, five hundred strong, who had made a descent on a market town within two hours' ride of Suri, and murdered or frightened away the inhabitants "of between thirty and forty villages." In February 1789 the hill men broke through the cordon of outposts en masse, and spread their depredations through the interior villages of the district.' The outposts were hastily recalled from the frontier passes, and a militia was levied to act with the regulars against the banditti, who were sacking the country towns ' in parties of three and four hundred men, well [Page 19] found in arms.' Eventually it was found necessary to direct the Collectors of several neighbouring districts to unite their forces; a battle was fought, and the marauders were driven back.

In June 1789 Ilambazar, the chief manufacturing town of Birbhum, was sacked in open daylight. Next month Mr. Keating reported to Government that the marauders having crossed the Ajai "in a large party armed with tulwars and matchlocks" had established themselves in Birbhum, and that their reduction would simply be a question of military force. The rainy season then intervened, and the robber bands retired to their strongholds. During the interval Mr. Keating elaborated a plan of outposts held by troops along the principal ghats or passes to check their inroads. By November the six most important passes were occupied, a detachment was posted at Bishnupur, and another was stationed at Ilambazar to prevent dacoits from crossing the river. The posts, however, were forced, and to all appearance the district was no safer than when Mr. Keating took over charge. The military, harassed by night marches, and scattered about in small bands, were unable to cope with the dacoits or even to protect the principal towns. On the 25th November 1789 the Commanding Officer reported that only four men remained to guard the Government offices at Suri; and a few weeks later he declared himself unable to furnish an escort sufficient to ensure the safety of a treasure party through the district. On the 5th June 1790, Rajnagar fell into the hands of the banditti, and an express was sent to summon the detachments from Bishnupur by forced marches to the rescue of Birbhum. After this, the outposts, strengthened by reinforcements, were maintained intact; and the banditti, unable to find an entrance, made a detour southwards, and massed themselves on the south of the Ajai. There the inhabitants joined heartily with the Government against the common enemy, and the destruction of the robber hordes of Birbhum was accomplished.

The state of desolation and misery to which the country was reduced by these years of tumult, may be inferred from the following extract from a letter written by Mr. Keating in June 1792. Birbhum,' he wrote, 'is surrounded on the southwest and west by the great western jungle, which has long protected from the vigilance of justice numerous gangs of dacoits who there take refuge and commit their depredations on the neighbouring defenceless cultivators. Towns once populous are now deserted; the manufactures are decayed; and where commerce flourished, only a few poor and wretched hovels are seen. These pernicious effects are visible along the whole course of the [Page 20] Ajai, particularly in the decay of llambazar, and the almost complete desertion of the once large trading town of Lakrakunda. When these places on the frontier became, from their poverty, no longer an object to the dacoits, their depredations were extended into the heart of the district; and towns have been plundered and people murdered within two kos (i.e., four miles) of the Collector's house by banditti amounting to upwards of three thousand men.'

The desolation of the district was accentuated by the ravages of wild beasts. The early records show that the clearings of the iron-smelters in the forest were deserted; the charcoal-burners driven from their occupation by wild beasts; many factories abandoned; the cattle trade at a standstill; and the halting places, where herds used to rest and graze on their way to the plains, written down as waste. The records also frequently speak of the mail bags being carried off by wild beasts, and after fruitless injunctions to the land-holders to clear the forests, Lord Cornwallis was at length compelled to sanction a public grant to keep open a new military road that passed through Birbhum. The ravages of wild elephants were on a larger scale, and their extermination formed one of the most important duties of the Collector. In 1790 it was reported that in two parganas 56 villages 'had all been destroyed and gone to jungle, caused by the depredations of the wild elephants ' and an official return stated that forty market towns had been deserted from the same cause. The Raja of Birbhum petitioned the Company to use its influence with the Nawab of Bengal to procure the loan of the Viceregal stud of tame elephants in order to catch the wild ones. This assistance not being obtained, the Raja formally applied for a reduction of revenue, in consequence of the district being depopulated by wild elephants. The claim was said to be just by the Collector, who reported in 1791 :-" I had ocular proof on my journey to Deoghar, marks of their ravages remaining. The poor timid native ties his cot in a tree, to which he retires when the elephants approach and silently views the destruction of his cottage and all the profits of his labour. I saw some of these retreats in my journey, and had the cause of them explained. In Belpatta very few inhabitants remained, and the zamindar's fears for the neighbouring parganas will certainly be realized in the course of a few years, if some method is not fallen on to extirpate those destructive animals."

In spite of the raids of dacoits and the lapse of cultivation into jungle, European commercial enterprise was busy in the district The East India Company had a monopoly of the silk [Page 21] industry, and carried on its trade by means of a Commercial Resident. This trade was on a large scale, the sum spent on the mercantile investment in the district during the latter years of the 18th century varying from 4 1/2 to 6 1/2 lakhs; at times the Collector was unable to meet the heavy drafts by the Resident on the treasury. The weavers worked upon a system of advances, every head of a family in a Company's village having an account at the factory, which he attended once a year for the purpose of seeing his account made up, and the value of the goods which he had delivered from time to time set off against. the sums he had received. The balance was then struck, a new advance generally given, and the account reopened for the ensuing year. The interests of the weavers were zealously guarded by the Resident, who brought to the notice of the Collector or the Government any matter he considered prejudicial to the Company's trade. In 1789, for instance, a military guard was sent to Ilambazar to protect the weavers from dacoits, and shortly afterwards the Governor-General, on the representation of the Resident, ordered a zamindar, in whose estate there had been a robbery of goods belonging to the Company, to produce either the robbers or the goods; otherwise, a portion of his lands would be sold and the price of the stolen property realized from the proceeds.

[Page 50]


THE western portion of the district consists of undulating uplands broken up by wedge-shaped depressions, which receive detritus from the high lands that hem them, and have a plentiful supply of water from the drainage of the slopes. Rice is grown in these depressions and in terraces up the slopes, but the crests of the ridges, being composed of a sterile laterite soil, do not admit of its cultivation. Generally, the surface for a few feet in depth is occupied by a red soil derived from the decomposition of the solid laterite lying below, but frequently the rook crops up in large masses. In the east of the district the land is low and of alluvial formation. The soil is mostly a light sandy loam, which is enriched in some cases by detritus from the uplands and sometimes by silt from the overflow of the rivers which traverse this part of the country. As a rule, however, these rivers, when in flood, only deposit sand, and embankments have been built in many cases to protect the area under cultivation from its drifts . Aman or winter rice is the most important crop of the district, the bulk of the cultivable land being reserved for it. The only other crop of importance is aus rice, for other bhadoi crops are but little grown, while rabi crops occupy a very small area, mainly in the Nalhati and Murarai thanas.

[Page 54]

The district having, for the most part, a porous soil and rapid drainage, artificial irrigation is necessary in years of scanty rainfall, especially for rice grown on terraced slopes. When the rainfall is ample and. seasonable, there is little need of it, for the cultivators divide their fields into numerous little plots and enclose each by a raised bank which retains the rain water. Each plot is thus a small reservoir, and the lower fields can be irrigated by letting water into them from those at a higher level. Well irrigation is not practised except in the case of garden produce, and tanks are the most usual source from which the fields are watered. Several of these tanks are old and of large size, e.g., the Dantindighi one mile from Dubrajpur, the Raipur Sair four miles south of Suri, and the Lambadarpur Sair a mile north-west of the same place. Smaller tanks are very numerous, and it has been estimated that each village has at least five on the average. In the village of Sankarpur, for instance, there are 111 tanks occupying 167 acres, and 46 are so close to each other, that mere footpaths on the top of the banks separate one from another. Owing, however, to the neglect of the zamindars (many of them absentees) and the apathy of the population at large, many of the irrigation tanks have silted up and become useless; some of them have become so dry that they are let out for cultivation.

When the tanks are full, water is let into the fields through a out in their banks. When the water is low, the cultivators raise it by means of the cheni, or swing basket, or by an instrument called dhuni. The former is merely a scoop made of matting with ropes attached to its four corners. It is worked by two men, each of whom holds two of them; after dipping the scoop in

[Page 55]

the water, they tilt its contents into the channel leading to the field to be irrigated. The dhuni or drauni consists of a trough with a bend in the middle, or rather towards one end, the two portions of the trough being of unequal length. The shorter end is closed, and is called the ankra. The whole moves upon a pivot; and to the end of the ankra is attached a rope, which is fastened to one end of an elevated lever, the other end of the lever bearing a counter-balancing weight. The ankra is dipped into the tank, and when filled, the weight is released and drags up the closed end, pouring the water through the open end of the trough into the irrigating channel. Irrigation by the teura, a kind of Grecian lever, is also common. The do fields on the banks are largely irrigated by this means, the crops for which the teura is used being sugarcane, oil-seeds, flax and vegetables.

[Page 58]


BIRBHUM is not liable, in any marked degree, to famine or flood, and no drought or inundation has occurred during the experience of the present generation on a scale sufficiently large to affect its general prosperity. This immunity from famine is largely due to the fact that the means of transit are sufficient to prevent the danger of isolation in the event of a local failure of the crops, and to avert widespread suffering by importation from other districts. The old records show, however, that formerly Birbhum frequently suffered from droughts and failure of the harvests. As already stated in Chapter II, it was devastated by the famine of 1770, more than one-third of the cultivable land being returned as deserted in 1771, while in 1776 four acres lay waste for every seven that remained under cultivation. In 1791 the crops suffered so severely from drought, that the Collector recommended a suspension of revenue to the extent of nearly Rs. 60,000; and, to avoid such disasters, large golas, or granaries of rice, were erected near Suri. This expedient having proved a failure, the 18 golas which had been built were sold in 1796 for Rs. 200, and 26,000 maunds of rice and 600 maunds of paddy for less than Rs. 9,000 - a heavy loss, for the price of rice was nearly Rs. 2 per maund. In 1800, and again in 1803, there was drought owing to a failure of the rains, that of 1803 being described as "an extraordinary drought." The prices were so high, that the Collector, Mr. R. Thackery (father of the novelist), proposed a special enquiry to ascertain how much grain the district could properly export and then to have the remainder sold at fixed prices.

This is a selection from the original text


agriculture, cultivation, depopulation, famine, rice, ryot, trade, waste

Source text

Title: Bengal District Gazetteers - Birbhum

Editor(s): L.S.S. O'Malley

Publisher: The Bengal Secretariat Book Depot

Publication date: 1910

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): L.S.S. O'Malley

Language: English

Selection used:

  • 1 ) pages 16 to 21
  • 2 ) page 50
  • 3 ) pages 54 to 55
  • 4 ) page 58


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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