Bengal District Gazetteers - Murshidabad

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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 Murshidabad was published by The Bengal Secretariat Book Depot in 1914.

Murshidabad became the capital of Bengal Nawab when Murshid Quli Khan shifted the Diwani office from Dhaka. Murshidabad remained the administrative capital of Bengal even after the Battle of Plassey. Only in 1772 the khalsa ie treasury and the civil and criminal courts were removed to Calcutta. Murshidabad became a separate district following the administrative redistribution in 1793. The following excerpts from the Gazetteer have been selected from the chapters on History, Agriculture, Natural Calamities and Land Revenue Administration. The selections highlight on the preventive measures to famine that were introduced by Murshid Quli Khan in the region. The famine of 1770 changed the financial condition of the district, it intiated the downfall of the Jagat Seth, the bankers of Eastern India. The gazetteer also acknowledges Richard Becher's detailed report on the famine of 1770. Becher was the British resident at the Murshidabad Court. The chapter of Land Revenu Administration points out how the villages were desolated during the famine of 1770 and were resettled by inviting cultivators from the neighbouring regions.

Selection details

Murshidabad became the capital of Bengal Nawab when Murshid Quli Khan shifted the Diwani office from Dhaka. Murshidabad remained the administrative capital of Bengal even after the Battle of Plassey. Only in 1772 the khalsa ie treasury and the civil and criminal courts were removed to Calcutta. Murshidabad became a separate district following the administrative redistribution in 1793. The following excerpts from the Gazetteer have been selected from the chapters on History, Agriculture, Natural Calamities and Land Revenue Administration. The selections highlight on the preventive measures to famine that were introduced by Murshid Quli Khan in the region. The famine of 1770 changed the financial condition of the district, it intiated the downfall of the Jagat Seth, the bankers of Eastern India. The gazetteer also acknowledges Richard Becher's detailed report on the famine of 1770. Becher was the British resident at the Murshidabad Court. The chapter of Land Revenu Administration points out how the villages were desolated during the famine of 1770 and were resettled by inviting cultivators from the neighbouring regions.


[Page 19]


[Page 29]

According to the ideas of political economy then prevalent, he(Murshid Quli Khan) made careful provision against famine and strictly prohibited the exportation of grain. The Faujdar of Hooghly had express orders to see that no ship, whether European or other, carried away more grain than was sufficient for the victualling of the crew during the voyage; neither were any foreign merchants allowed to have stores of grain. The Indian merchants were also prevented from establishing monopolies. If the importation of grain in any area fell short, he sent officers who broke open the mahajans' hoards and compelled them to sell their grain in the markets. Rice was then commonly sold in Murshidabad at 4 maunds for a rupee.

[Page 32]

The first concern of All Vardi Khan was to reduce Orissa, where the partizans of the late Nawab held out under its Governor Murshid Quli Khan, the son-in law of Shuja-ud-din Khan. This was effected without much difficulty, but this remote province was always a centre of disaffection during his entire reign. In 1741 he was twice called away in person to take the field in Orissa; and on the second occasion, as he was returning in triumph to Murshidabad, he was surprised near Burdwan by the Marathas. This is the first occasion on which these mounted marauders appeared in Bengal. The invaders consisted of 40,000 cavalry, and were sent by the Maratha chief of Berar to enforce his claim to the chauth or one-fourth part of the revenues. The small force that attended the Nawab was utterly unable to cope with this army. It lost all its baggage, and through want of food was put to the greatest distress. After a three days' running fight, Katwa was reached, where All Vardi Khan was rendered secure from further attack, owing to his command of the water communication. During the rainy season of 1741-42 the Maratha remained in the neighbourhood, plundering far and wide, but did not dare to cross the Bhagirathi in any considerable numbers.

[Page 33]

On one occasion, however, instigated by a renegade called Mir Habib, who had held high office under former Nawabs, they made an attempt upon the city of Murshidabad. The following account of this raid is given in the Sair-ul-Mutakharin, "Mir Habib, who had come a simple pedlar from Iran, his country, and was so low-bred as to be unable either to write or read, had now, by dint of merit and services, rendered himself considerable; he had found means to figure as a man fertile in expedients and a general of much resolution. He went so far as to tell the Maratha general that, if money was his object, he would undertake to find a great deal of it for him, and that he requested only the disposal of some thousand cavalry, with which force he would so far avail himself of Allvardi Khan's lying at Katwa as to advance suddenly to Murshidabad, which is a city without walls, and without any defence, where, by plundering only Jagat Seth's* house, he would bring him money enough to satisfy all his wishes. This advice having been supported by a strong reasoning, Mir Habib was furnished with some thousand picked horse, and he departed immediately on his expedition. But this could not be done so secretly as that the Viceroy should not have intelligence of it; and as he knew the circumstances of his capital, and did not trust to the talents of either his brother or nephew for the defence of it, he determined to advance himself to its relief; and he set out directly with much expedition. But Mir Habib, having already performed the journey in a single day, was beforehand with him, and he had already plundered Jagat Seth's house, from whence he carried full two crores away, and also a quantity of other goods. Some other parts of the city were also plundered; and Mir Habib, having advanced as far as his own lodgings, took away his own brother, Mir Sharif, but did not venture farther. For the Viceroy's palace, and also the quarter where lived his nephew, who was Deputy Governor, and likewise the quarter of Ata-ullah Khan, a general officer, were filled with too many troops to be liable to insult; and meanwhile, the enemy, hearing that the Viceroy was at hand, instantly departed from the city. It was about the middle of the day, and in the [Page 34] evening, the Viceroy arrived himself, to the universal joy of his friends, of his whole Court and of all his subjects [...]'' The Viceroy, whose forces had been greatly reduced both by a campaign of twelve months and by labour, sickness and famine, concluded that as the rainy season was at hand it would be too late to think of driving the Marathas out of his country; and that the only part left for him was to content himself with conserving the city and its territory. He therefore came out and posted himself at some distance from it in a suburb called Amaniganj and Tarakpur. But by this time the rainy weather had set in; and the river of Bhagirathi ceasing to be fordable, Katwa remained on the other side, and the country on the Murshidabad side was become safe from the enemy's incursions. But, then, the same circumstance afforded them a full opportunity of extending their ravages all over Burdwan and Midnapore, pushing their contributions as far as Balasore, and even this port fell in their hands. Nothing remained to All Vardi Khan but the city of Murshidabad and the countries on the other side of the Ganges. The peaceful inhabitants of this great capital, who, far from having ever seen such devastations, had not so much as heard of any such things, and whose city had not so much as the cover of a wall, became exceedingly fearful for their properties and families; and they availed themselves of the rainy season to cross over to the countries on the other side of the Ganges, such as Jahangirnagar, Malda and Bampur-Boalia, where most of them built themselves houses, and where they passed their lives. Even the Deputy Governor himself, Nawazish Muhammad .Khan, crossed over with his family, furniture and wealth, and lived at Godagari, which is one day's distance from the city, and where he laid the foundation of an habitation for himself and family. All Vardi Khan's furniture and effects were likewise sent over; from whence, however, the Deputy-Governor returned to the city, where he continued to live with his uncle Ali Vardi Khan."*

In October 1742, All Vardi Khan crossed the Bhagirathi by a bridge of boats, and defeated the Marathas, who were encamped at Katwa. Another raid on the district of Murshidabad followed. Bhaskar Pant, the Maratha general, sent a body of armed Bairagis towards Bihar, and All Vardi Khan hastened to follow them. The Bairagis then doubled back and swooped down on Murshidabad, but All Vardi Khan came upon them while they were busy looting Baluchar and drove them out.

[Page 51]

At this time the zamindaris of Birbhum and Bishnupur (now in the districts of Birbhum and Bankura) were included in the jurisdiction of the Collector of Murshidabad. They formed the most difficult part of his charge, for the land had suffered grievously from the great famine of 1770, and distress and destitution drove the people to acts of lawlessness and violence, in which disbanded soldiers lent willing and expert assistance. Armed bands roved through the country, and in May 1785 the Collector was forced to report that the civil authorities were " destitute of any force capable of making head against such an armed multitude." He therefore asked for troops to act against the banditti, who were gathered in bands four hundred strong. Next month their number had risen to " near a thousand people," and they were preparing for an organised raid on the lowlands. The state of affairs was even worse next year, for the marauders had established permanent camps and even intercepted the revenue on its way to the treasury. It was clear that the system under which two such distant tracts as Birbhum and Bishnupur were administered from Murshidabad could continue no longer, and that they required a responsible officer who could deal with them on the spot. Accordingly, in November 1786, Mr. Foley was sent to Birbhum and Mr. Pye to Bishnupur, and in 1787 the two were united in one district, Mr, Pye being " confirmed Collector of Bishenpore in addition to Beerbhoom heretofore superintended by G. E. Foley, Esq."*

[Page 66]

Tradition dates the decline of the Seths from the time of Khushal Chand. It is said that he refused an annual stipend of 3 lakhs of rupees which was offered to him by Clive, and that his own expenses were at the rate of one lakh per month. He died at the early age of thirty- nine; but during his short lifetime, he was the most lavish benefactor of all his family to the sacred Jain hill of Parasnath. The prodigal expenditure of the Seths, as indicated by their religious donations, may have contributed to drain the inherited resources of the family, but; the real cause of their ruin must be sought in the change which was now taking place in the Government of Bengal. The great famine of 1770, which revolutionized the financial condition of the country, first impaired their position; and, finally in 1772, when Warren Hastings transferred to Calcutta the Khalsa or Government Treasury, they ceased to be any longer the bankers of the English. Instead of accounting for their downfall by these adequate causes, the Seths themselves explain it by the following story. The vast treasures of the family, they say, had been buried under ground by Khushal Chand, and death came upon him suddenly before he was able to disclose the secret. In spite of their reduced circumstances, the Seths appear to have lived in Oriental state, for Raymond, the translator of the Sair-ul-Mutakharin, says: "Even so late as the year 1780 there were 1,200 women in the seraglios of the two remaining brothers and about 4,000 persons of all sorts in their palaces."

[Page 97]


The whole district, with the exception of the, small portion which lies to the north of the entrance of the Bhagirathi, is divided into two tracts of nearly equal size by that river. The characteristics of these two divisions are quite distinct both as regards the configuration of the country and the kind of crops cultivated, as well as the sort of weather required for their cultivation. The Bagri or eastern half is, as a rule, low and subject to inundation, but the alluvial soil is very fertile. The principal crops are aus or early rice and jute, and when they are off the ground abundant cold weather crops are raised; but in the low lands to the southeast, over the tract known as the Kalantar, practically the only crop is aman or winter rice, which depends on floods for successful cultivation. In the Rarh or western portion, on the other hand, and also in thana Shamsherganj and the northern part of thana Suti, the land is generally high, but intersected with numerous bils and old beds of rivers. Winter rice is the main staple grown on the hard clay of the Rarh, and the cold-weather crops are few, but sugar-cane, mulberry, tobacco, potatoes and various vegetables are also grown.

Owing to differences of situation and surface, and of the nature of the crops grown, these two portions of the district are differently affected by the weather. Thus, for the eastern half, early rains are needed in April and May for the proper cultivation of the aus crop, and steady but not too heavy falls until the crop is reaped in August; a premature break-up of the rains is undesirable, as also are very heavy falls when the cold-weather crops are in the ground; finally, some rain is wanted during the cold season. For aman rice, the great staple of the western half of the district, it is not so important that there should be early rain, though it is of advantage that the land should be prepared in good time for the reception of the seed. What is wanted above all is steady rain in the months of July, August, September and the early part of October, without long intervals of dry [Page 98] scorching weather : this is especially the case when the seedlings have been transplanted from the nurseries.

The country to the west is highly cultivated and, except for bils and marshes and a few patches of jungle, there is comparatively little waste land even the beds and banks of the nullahs and bils, as they dry up, are tilled to the fullest extent. The fields of the high lands are almost exclusively devoted to the production of rice. The land, where sloping, is terraced each field having a bank round it to retain the water for the rice crop. When rain is deficient, the fields in the vicinity of tanks, which abound in the western portion of the district, are irrigated from them. This part of the country is prettily wooded with mango, banyan, pipal, sakwa and palm trees; and on some uncultivated patches of land custard apple and gaman bushes form a thick underwood. The produce of the northern low lands consists of abundant and luxuriant crops of different kinds of paddy, gram, peas, mustard, different kinds of pulse, mulberry, pan, yams, and in the vicinity of villages different sorts of vegetables. In the Bagri or eastern half large crops of red chillies are grown. The principal trees are those above enumerated, together with babul, jack, safriam, tamarind, papaya, bel, kath, guluria, plantain, jamalyota, asan, fan-leaf and date palm trees and mangoes.

In the vicinity of the bils, boro dhan, a coarse grained rice, is planted largely. As the bil water dries up, this is transplanted into the bil lands, and is harvested in the latter end of March and April. The long sloping banks of nullahs and khals yield good crops of mustard, wheat, and other grains. The richest soil and that least liable, from height or locality, to inundation, is, chosen for the cultivation of mulberry and is called tut land. The fields thus selected require a fresh layer of good earth every second year. In the course of time they thus become raised above the surrounding country five or six feet high, still further securing the young plants from being drowned by the lodgment of water. The average rent of such land is from three to five times that of any other, except pan gardens : these command the highest rent of all, for very rich soil, well raised, is required for the growth of pan. Sugar-cane cultivation is carried on to a small extent in the west and south-west. Date palm trees are chiefly cultivated for the preparation of toddy, but little datesugar being made in the district.

Artificial irrigation is largely practised in the Rarh, and but seldom in the Bagri. In the former tract, owing to the conforma-[Page 99]tion of the country and the quality of the soil, the crops are almost dependent upon an artificial supply of water; whereas, in the alluvial land between the Ganges and the Bhagirathi, the rainfall and the annual inundations of the rivers furnish sufficient moisture for the crops. Irrigation is conducted either from the bits and tanks, or by leading the water from natural channels. Irrigation wells and artificial canals do not exist.

The machinery employed is of a simple character. Where the dip is great, a bucket is slung at one end of a long bamboo, and the other end is weighted, generally with a lump of stiff clay. This machine, which is known as dhenkli, is dipped and worked by a single man. For a small lift the donga or hollowed-out palm-tree is used. The smaller end is fixed on a pivot between two posts, on a level with the channel into which the water is to be poured, the larger end being dipped into the water below. To this is attached, from above, a long bamboo, weighted with clay at the further end, in order to counterbalance the water in the dip-end of the donga. This engine can be worked by one man. The siuni, or small bamboo and reed basket, is also used for the same purpose. It is made of a very flat shape, and is slung by four strings. Two men, one on either side of the watercut, take a string in each hand, and by alternately lowering and raising the basket swing up the water expeditiously into the fields above.

Several kinds of soils are recognised. Mathal or methel is a clayey soil, which splits up in the hot weather, and is tenaciously muddy after rain. There are various sub-divisions according to colour, consistency, etc., e.g., hende mathal is black and tenacious, bagh mathal is brown, and ranga mathal, which is found on the west of the Bhagirathi is red with a tinge of yellow. The common name for loamy soil is doash, of which several varieties are recognized, such as pali (light brown), shampali (ash -coloured), doma (dark red), etc. These are all very fertile and produce all kinds of crops. Metebali is the name for a sandy loam : if it has a large percentage of sand, it is called domabali Bali or bele is a sandy soil found on the banks or in the beds of rivers. It is unprofitable till a clayey silt has been deposited, when it bears a high value, and is chiefly used for vegetables.

[Page 108]


THE first famine of which there is any detailed record is that of 1769-70, which was a calamity of the first magnitude in this and the neighbouring districts. The following account is taken mainly from the statements made at the time by Mr. Becher, Resident at the Darbar of Murshidabad, which are quoted in Sir George Campbell's Memoir on the Famines which affected Bengal in the Last Century. The first allusion to the impending distress was made in August 1769, when Mr. Becher reported " the alarming want of rain which has prevailed throughout all the upper parts of Bengal, both the last and this season, and particularly the latter, to a degree which has not been known in the memory of the oldest man." On 26th August he added, " There is great reason to apprehend that in all the districts to the northward of Nadia the crops of rice will be very short indeed. Since the season for rain began, they have hardly had any; and if God does not soon bless this country with plentiful showers, the most fatal consequences will ensue not only a reduction in the revenues, but a scene of misery and distress that is a constant attendant on famine." All through the closing months of 1769 the drought continued, and the worst anticipations were realized.

In the beginning of February 1770, the Resident, in conjunction with the authorities of Murshidabad, arranged to have rice distributed daily in the city at six places, at half a seer to each person. The Government, in reply, informed him that he might be assured of their concurrence in measures for the relief of the poor, and earnestly recommended his taking every step towards that purpose. On the 30th March he stated that the districts which had more particularly suffered by the unfavourableness of the season were Purnea, Rajmahal, Birbhum, and part of Rajshahi. The measures of relief which he adopted were advances to ryots, remissions of revenue, and distributions of food. A little later he said that he had intended to proceed on tour, but was deterred for the present, being "persuaded that, though my humanity may be shocked at the numberless scenes of [Page 109] distress that would present themselves to my view, little would remain in my power to contribute to their comfort, while God pleases to hold from them the blessing of rain, and the country remains parched and unfit for cultivation. The distress of the inhabitants does not only proceed from scarcity of provisions, but in many parts they are without water to drink." His Assistants were out in their districts, and all told the same painful story.

In the beginning of June we have another report from the Resident at Murshidabad. " Up to the end of March," he says, " the ryots hoped for rain, but God was pleased to withhold that blessing till the latter end of May. The scene of misery that intervened, and still continues, shocks humanity too much to bear description. Certain it is, that in several parts the living have fed on the dead; and the number that have perished in those provinces which have suffered most is calculated to have been within these few months as 6 to 16 of the whole inhabitants." On the 18th of June he writes,"Misery and distress increase here daily; rice at six and seven seers for the rupee, and there have been several days lately when there was not a grain to be purchased. A happy precaution it was, ordering a supply of rice from Backergunge; without it, many of the Company's immediate attendants even must have starved."

In July the distress reached its climax. On the 12th of that month the Resident reported as follows: "The representations I have hitherto made from hence, of the misery and distress of the inhabitants for want of grain and provisions, were faint in comparison to the miseries endured in, and within 30 miles of, the city. Rice only three seers for a rupee, other grain in proportion, and even at these exorbitant prices, not nearly sufficient for the supply of half the inhabitants; so that in the city of Murshidabad alone, it is calculated that more than five hundred are starved daily; and in the villages and country adjacent, the numbers said to perish exceed belief. Every endeavour of the Ministers and myself has been exerted to lessen this dreadful Calamity. The prospect of the approaching crop is favourable; and we have the comfort to know that the distress of the inhabitants to the northward and eastward of us is greatly relieved from what they have before suffered. In one month we may expect relief from our present distresses from the new harvest, if people survive to gather it in; but the numbers that I am sensible must perish in that interval, and those that I see dying around me, greatly affect my feelings of humanity as a man, and make me as a servant to the Company very apprehensive of the consequences that may ensue to the revenues."

[Page 110]

Rain came at the end of July; but, as often happens, the long-continued drought was succeeded by disastrous floods. The excessive rainfall caused much sickness among the people; and at the height of the famine small-pox had broken out, to which the young Nawab himself fell a victim. As late as September, it was reported that the people near Cossimbazar were suffering from want of food. In October the prospect brightened; and on the 14th December the Government could inform the Court of Directors that the famine had entirely ceased.

The measures adopted to relieve the starving population in the city of Murshidabad appear very inadequate when judged by the modern standard. The account of the Backergunge rice received shows only Rs. 1,24,506 expended on its purchase. A further sum of Rs. 87,000 was sanctioned for the gratuitous distribution of rice; but of this sum the Company was to pay only Rs. 40,000, or less than half, the remaining portion being defrayed by the Nawab and his Ministers. This sum was however, far exceeded; and Mr. Becher writes pathetically to beg the Council to believe that " neither humanity nor policy would admit of a stop being put to the distribution earlier than was done." He continues," I have only to observe that these gentlemen (Muhammad Reza Khan and his officers), independent of this distribution, helped to preserve the lives of many by their charitable donations, as, I believe, did every man of property in these parts. Indeed, a man must have had a heart of stone that had the ability and would have refused his mite for the relief of such miserable objects as constantly presented themselves to our view. I understand it to be esteemed good policy in all Governments to preserve the lives of the people; on this principle of humanity the distribution of rice took place."

[Page 155]


[Page 161]

Except for the ganthi jot and utbandi tenancy, there are no peculiarities in the holdings actually held by cultivators in Murshidabad. The old classification of cultivators' holdings was into those of the khudkasht or resident raiyats and those of the paikasht or non-resident raiyats. In the early history of British land legislation in India, this distinction was of primary importance. After the desolation caused by the great famine of 1770, there was in every village more land than the survivors could properly cultivate, and migratory bands of peasants had to be invited to settle on the deserted tracts. From the necessities, probably, of this situation, there resulted the superior privileges granted to the resident cultivators. But a century and a half of peace and plenty has obliterated the real meaning of this classification, which now survives only as a legal tradition.

This is a selection from the original text


crops, famine, food, grain, paddy, plunder, wheat

Source text

Title: Bengal District Gazetteers - Murshidabad

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

Publisher: The Bengal Secretariat Book Depot

Publication date: 1914

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 29
  • 2 ) pages 32 to 34
  • 3 ) page 51
  • 4 ) page 66
  • 5 ) pages 97 to 99
  • 6 ) pages 108 to 110
  • 7 ) page 161


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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