Bengal District Gazetteers - Manbhum

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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 Manbhum was published by The Bengal Secretariat Book Depot in 1911.

The Grant of Diwani in 1765 allowed the East India Company to collect revenues from his Jungal Mahals. For administrative convenience the region witnessed reorganisation quite a few times. In 1805 a Jungle Mahals district was composed with 23 parganas. Later in 1833 the erstwhile Jungle Mahal district was reconstituted to form Manbhum. The district of Manbhum is presently part of Purulia district in the state of West Bengal. The following excerpts from the Gazetteer have been selected from the chapters on Physical Aspects, History, Agriculture and Natural Calamities. The selections highlight the diversities of flora in this region, which provide the people with alternative sources of food during times of scarcity and famine.

Selection details

The Grant of Diwani in 1765 allowed the East India Company to collect revenues from his Jungal Mahals. For administrative convenience the region witnessed reorganisation quite a few times. In 1805 a Jungle Mahals district was composed with 23 parganas. Later in 1833 the erstwhile Jungle Mahal district was reconstituted to form Manbhum. The district of Manbhum is presently part of Purulia district in the state of West Bengal. The following excerpts from the Gazetteer have been selected from the chapters on Physical Aspects, History, Agriculture and Natural Calamities. The selections highlight the diversities of flora in this region, which provide the people with alternative sources of food during times of scarcity and famine.


[Page 1]


[Page 12]

Of trees and plants yielding good timber, or of which various parts and products serve useful economic purposes, Dr. A. Campbell, of Pokhuria, gives the following account of the most important; he mentions at the outset that the list is not exhaustive, and that, apart from the trees and shrubs referred to, there are over 90 species of plants which minister to the necessities of the people by providing food of a sort during scarcity or famine.

[Page 19]

Labiatae.-There are several plants belonging to this genus found in the district, but all are herbaceous. Three species of Leucas afford food in times of famine.

[Page 47]


[Page 67]

The proneness of the Bhumij population of this area to revert to their old " Chuari " habits has been displayed on the occasion of every famine and period of scarcity in the regularly recurring outbreaks of dacoity, but nothing in the shape of organised opposition to constituted authority has been noticeable. The latent possibilities of such organisation among the Sonthals, who within the last 20 years have become a very considerable part of the district population, were just suggested in 1907, when after a bad harvest prices rose to what would, ten years earlier, have been treated as indicative of famine conditions. On that occasion a decision was come to by the Sonthals, assembled for their annual hunt on the Baghmundi hills, that rice should be obtainable at 10 seers per rupee, and as a result of that decision and the refusal of the, merchants to supply at that rate, several of the "Hats" were systematically looted within a few days, and there was every prospect of this being repeated. Prompt police measures, and a rapid rush by the Deputy Commissioner and the Superintendent of Police through the country affected brought the Sonthatls very quickly to a sense of the folly and futility of their action, and the trouble promptly ceased.

[Page 113]


THE surface of the district consists generally of a succession of rolling uplands with intervening hollows, along which the drainage runs off to join the larger streams. The soil is naturally an infertile laterite of, as a rule, no great depth, and the general tendency is towards continual detrition, the process being continued till the underlying rock or heavier gravel is exposed, wherever the higher lands are denuded of vegetation and nothing done to bring them under cultivation, before the disappearance of such vegetable loam as had formed there in the days when the forest or vegetation remained. Similarly, the more level spaces between the ridges and undulations require constant protection, if they are to retain the soil that has been washed down from the higher slopes, as every heavy shower tends to wash the soil down, first into the smaller streams and finally into the larger rivers. The first essential, therefore, from the cultivator's point of view, is to break up this constant surface drainage and stop the consequent detrition, and the result is to be seen at the present day in the conversion of the slopes and hollows, wherever practicable, into terraces of different levels, these again being cut up into smaller patches each with its protecting embankment, varying in height from a few inches to several feet. The rainfall is thus retained on each particular terrace and field, and cultivation of a wet rice-crop made possible. The power of retaining moisture varies, largely, of course, with the nature and depth of the soil, and percolation from one terrace to another is more or less slow er rapid; the lower, however, the level, the more the field benefits by the moisture percolating from those above it, and except where the nature of the soil and the absence of proper drainage is such that they become water-logged, the lowest levels ordinarily furnish the best and most secure rice lands.

A system of cultivation, such as is described above, is suitable mainly for rice, and rice is the main crop of the district. Land on the ridges, where there is a sufficiency of soil, is cultivated without the preliminary process of levelling with a crop of early (gora) rice sown, broadcast, or with kodo, or one of the pulses [Page 114] urid and mung, known locally as biri, in the early rains, May to October, and with various oil-seeds in the cold season. High lands near the village sites, which are within reach of such manure as is available, are cultivated in the autumn with maize, kodo and biri, and in the spring such lands may also yield a crop as oil-seeds, or occasionally of wheat or barley.

The extent of cultivation varies with the predominance of particular characteristics. South of the Damodar in the northern half of the Sadar sub-division, an area of some 1,500 square miles, the undulation of the country is comparatively slight, and except along the eastern and western border, where much scrub jungle still remains, cultivation is fairly close, and the eye is met, as one tops each ridge, with the view of a large expanse of terraced rice fields, dotted with numerous small tanks and here and there clumps of trees, marking the village sites. In places, more especially in thana Raghunathpur and the eastern portion of thana Chas, the ridges are comparatively low and the intervening hollows so extensive that the terracing is barely noticeable except to a close observer, and the impression obtained is rather that of a stretch of ordinary Bihar or Eastern Bengal rice fields; such favoured tracts are, however, rare.

South of Purulia itself and a line drawn east and west, practically coinciding with the Bankura and Ranchi roads, conditions are less favourable, bare uncultivated stretches of high land are more in evidence, the country is more broken up as it falls rapidly away to the Kasai river. Towards the west the rugged Ajodhya range rises abruptly from the plain south of, and at no great distance from, the Kasai. To the east the country is better clothed with vegetation, but scrub jungle and bare high lands are more in evidence than cultivation. South of this again is an area of fairly close cultivation stretching towards the hilly range which, with the Subarnarekha below it on the south, divides the district from Singhbhum. As the hills are approached cultivation become scattered, giving way as one advances further to stretches of scrub jungle and when the foot hills are reached to traces of the great forests which once clothed this range.

The second main condition on which the nature and extent of the agriculture depend is the climate and, more especially, the rainfall. As will be seen from the account just given of the physical conditions which prevail in the district of Manbhum, rainfall is necessarily a mutter of prime importance. Without adequate rain in due season, both preparation of the soil and sowing of the crop is impossible, the soil itself not being naturally one that can retain moisture for any considerable length of [Page 115] time. The normal annual rainfall of the district is 53 inches of which nearly 44 represent the ordinary fall in the months of June, July, August and September; 3 inches may be expected in October and November, less than 11/2 inches in the three succeeding months, and somewhat under 5 inches in the months of March, April and May. The ideal distribution for the cultivator who relies mainly on his winter rice crop, is a sufficiency of showers in early May to enable him to get his fields dug over and ploughed. He then requires fairly heavy rain at the end of May in order to prepare his seed beds, sow his seedlings and have sufficient moisture to keep the young plants green till the regular ruins commence. This should be between the 15th and 20th of June, and to be really useful the fall during the latter half of June should measure some 8 to 10 inches. While he is going on with the preparation of his fields, which includes several ploughings, the repairing and strengthening of the ails and embankments and other preliminary preparations, his seedlings are growing rapidly and by the second week of July he should be able to begin transplantation, and with fairly regular but not too heavy rain throughout July and in the earlier part of August, he should complete this in fields of all levels by the middle of that month. Thereafter, all that is required is sufficiently heavy rain at intervals to keep the young crop almost continuously standing in a few inches of water. About the second week of September, it is usual to run off the surface water with the idea of encouraging the formation of the grain but in doing so the cultivator incurs a considerable risk and this practice makes a heavy fall of rain at the end of September an absolute necessity. Given this, however, and some 3 or 4 inches in the first fortnight of October his crop, even if no further rain is received, should be a bumper one.

It will thus be seen that it is not merely the quantity of rainfall which is important, but also the timeliness or otherwise of the different fulls. If, for instance, the May rains fail, the preparation of the fields, the sowing of the seeds in the seed beds and their subsequent transplantation are all delayed, and the crop ultimately suffers in a greater or less degree, even though the rains in the latter months are timely and adequate. Again, when after suitable rains in May the June rains are delayed, the cultivator will have his time cut out to keep his seedlings alive; in extreme cases he may have to begin over again, when the rains do come, by sowing fresh seed at the time when he ought to be transplanting, with the result that by the time the fields are planted out the best part of the rainy season will have gone by and his chances of getting anything more than a poor crop will be very small. Again [Page 116] when all conditions have been favourable down to the middle of September, the absence of rain during the succeeding three weeks or a month will mean probably the entire loss of his crop on the higher level fields, and at the most a 50 per cent. crop on those on the lowest level, unless by irrigation he is able to make up for the deficiency in the necessary moisture. For the bhadoi crops an early cessation of the rains does not so much matter, but the earlier rains must be ample. For Indian corn, though ample rainfall is necessary, ample sunshine is almost equally important as without it the grain will neither fill out nor ripen. For the rabi crops the September rains are all important, as without them the fields will not contain sufficient moisture to germinate the seed, and to ensure a full crop periodical showers from December to February are also necessary.

The dependence of the crop on rainfall is thus such as to make it very necessary that the cultivator should be prepared to supplement deficient rainfall by irrigation. Unfortunately, the nature of the country lends itself to one system only, viz., that of irrigation from ahars and bandhs themselves dependent for their supply of water on the rainfall. In other districts, as for example in Gaya, it is possible to feed the ahars by channels or pains taking off from the different streams which depend for their water not on local rainfall but on the rainfall of the hilly regions where they have their source. In this district all the larger rivers, and most of the smaller streams, run a very rapid course along beds which are usually very much below the general level of the surrounding country and, in order to utilize their water for irrigation purposes, it would ordinarily be necessary to construct channels of great length and through very difficult country at an expense which would be prohibitive.

[Page 118]

The District Famine Programme provides for the construction or improvement of bandhs in a large number of villages. Such bandhs make cultivation possible, and they reduce the chances of entire failure of the crop in years of hardly distributed rainfall, though, as already explained, in a year of deficient rainfall they are liable to fail as sources of irrigation just when they are most needed. Still a degree of protection is better than none at all, and, in the absence of any workable scheme to ensure complete protection, it seems desirable that the construction and improvement of bandhs should be encouraged in every possible way.

The prevailing characteristic of the soil is hard ferruginous gravel with a thin overspread layer of vegetable mould, where protected by jungle growth or otherwise from detrition. The system of cultivation as well as the rapid denudation of the jungle, prevents any great addition being made to the alluvium, and for its phosphates and nitrates the cultivated area has to depend mainly either on rotation of crops which is barely practised at all except on the high lands, or on such manure as the cattle which graze unrestrained after the rice harvest provide, or the mud dug out periodically from the dried up bandhs and tanks. Except on the high lands adjoining the homesteads and on lands selected for sugarcane, regular manuring with cattle dung is rarely gone in for, and the increasing difficulty of getting wood tends to make the cultivator trench more and more on the available supply of cattle dung as a substitute for firewood.

[Page 128]


THE extent to which Manbhum as a whole is dependent on a single crop, i.e., the rice crop, and that again on the amount and the distribution of the rainfall, has been referred to in the preceding chapter, and it will not, therefore, be a matter of surprise to find that the district is classed as one liable, throughout its whole extent, to famine, though for reasons now to be explained it does not fortunately rank with those districts in which a failure of the crops involves 'intense' famine. The primary reason for comparative immunity is the extent to which in hard times jungle products afford a source of food supply, which, though neither specially nutritious nor specially conducive to good health, yet suffices to keep the poorest classes of people alive for several weeks, if not months, at a time. In Dr. Campbell's account of the botany of the district, reproduced in earlier chapter, it is mentioned that there are no less than 90 species of plants which minister to the necessities of the people by providing food of a sort during scarcity or famine. Of these the most important is the mahua, both as a flower and as a fruit. Even in ordinary years and in spite of the large demand for export for distillation and other purposes, the flowers of the mahua tree form a considerable part of the ordinary diet of the villagers, wherever the trees survive, during the months of April, May and June. Other important jungle products used by the poorest classes in ordinary years and resorted to by all classes in times of distress are the seeds of the sal tree, the fruit of the banyan and pipal, wild yams, the bhela(fruit of the Semecarpus anacardium), the piar(Buchanania latifolia), and the bair(Zizyphus jujuba), besides innumerable others whether seeds, fruits or roots. The value of such products of the jungles as a safeguard was, perhaps, hardly realised prior to the famine of 1897, and of course there is now a danger of over-estimation, as not only has the population increased but the jungles have very considerably decreased in area since then, but even now it is probably well within the truth to say that intense famine is improbable, if not impossible, in the wilder parts of the district.

[Page 129]

Another most valuable jungle product, though not an edible one, is lac which provides a considerable cash income to very many of the smaller cultivators not only in the more outlying villages, where the wild palas and kusum are available for the culture of the lac-producing insect without any great capital expenditure, but also to those in the more settled areas, who are sufficiently enterprising to grow the common, kul or plum tree (Zizyphus jujuba) for the purpose. Nor is the benefit confined to the cultivator, a considerable amount of labour is required for the collection of the crop and its transport to the markets, and at the centres where manufacture is carried on, both skilled and unskilled labour command good rates of pay.

[Page 130]

Of the great famine of 1769-70 there are no detailed records to show the extent to which this district suffered; we know, however, that Birbhum in which, so far as the district was under British control, the area of the present district of Manbhum was for the most part included, suffered extremely, and the description given of the state of that district in 1771 " many hundreds of villages are entirely depopulated, and even in the large towns not a fourth of the houses are inhabited" probably applied to the northern part of Manbhum with equal accuracy. In Birbhum district as then constituted there had been close on 6,000 villages under cultivation in 1765; three years after the famine there were little more than 4,500. So far as we know now this famine was due to the failure of a single crop, the rice crop of December 1769, following on a comparatively short crop the year before; its intensity was due to the failure being wide-spread, extending over the greater part of Bengal and Bihar, and to the entire absence of easy communications.

This is a selection from the original text


agriculture, class, crops, cultivation, food, irrigation, plants, rainfall, rice

Source text

Title: Bengal District Gazetteers - Manbhum

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

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): L.S.S. O'Malley

Language: English

Selection used:

  • 1 ) page 12
  • 2 ) page 19
  • 3 ) page 67
  • 4 ) pages 113 to 116
  • 5 ) page 118
  • 6 ) pages 128 to 130


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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