Bengal District Gazetteers - Purnea

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

The East India Company procured the revenue rights of Purnea along with rest of Bihar with the Grant of Diwani in 1765. The District presently part of the state of Bihar, was created after the Famine of 1770. The following excerpts from the Gazetteer have been selected from the chapters on History, the People, Agriculture and Natural Calamities. The district suffered terribly during the Famine of 1770 and again during the Chalisa famine of 1783. The law and order of the district also suffered as result which was evident in marked rise of banditry.

Selection details

The East India Company procured the revenue rights of Purnea along with rest of Bihar with the Grant of Diwani in 1765. The District presently part of the state of Bihar, was created after the Famine of 1770. The following excerpts from the Gazetteer have been selected from the chapters on History, the People, Agriculture and Natural Calamities. The district suffered terribly during the Famine of 1770 and again during the Chalisa famine of 1783. The law and order of the district also suffered as result which was evident in marked rise of banditry.


[Page 32]


[Page 49]

The early years of British rule were years of trouble for Purnea. The district suffered terribly during the great famine of 1770, about one-third of the inhabitants dying. There was scarcity in 1783, and again in 1791, the rice crop being almost an entire failure, while in the latter year there was a virulent epidemic of disease. There was no little difficulty in establishing the land revenue administration on a firm basis, and, to add to the troubles of the British officials, there was constant trouble along the northern frontier. In October 1788 one of the Nepalese sardars raided the village of Churli, carrying off one of its inhabitants. The remonstrances of the British succeeded in securing his release, but he had been so brutally handled, his wounds mortifying and being full of maggots, that he died a few days later. "This affair," it was reported, ''has caused a general alarm along the frontier, and I am very certain if it is overlooked, the consequence will be a total desertion of that part of country, for no man will choose to hold his life and property at the mercy of a set of inhuman barbarians, which without the protection of Government must be the case in future.'' A fortnight later the Collector reported to the Board of Revenue another outrage committed by the Nepalese and wrote:-"The conquest of Morung by the Goorca. in defiance of Mr Hastings' order to them not to cross the Oossy, the assassination of the young Rajah of Morung who had taken protection in Purnea, and their repeated ravages on our frontier, by which the revenue has at times suffered considerably, having been overlooked or not resented, have given them such an opinion of the moderation and forbearance of our Government, that nothing but a decisive step will be sufficient to restrain them within proper bounds." Again in 1793, we find that a band of fakira, said to be 'of the same description as the fakirs who for some time have been in the habit of plundering in the eastern provinces,' came in from Nepal, raided several villages [Page 50] on the boundary and made an unsuccessful attempt on one of the frontier posts.*

[Page 53]


[Page 67]

Chapual or Chaupal is the name of a small caste of weavers Chipuil. found only in the Kishanganj subdivision, whither they are supposed to have migrated from Nadia in a famine year. They are quite independent of any other caste, and there is low no trace of their caste of origin. They have Maithil Brahmans as their priests. They worship Siva and the other Hindu gods, but pay special homage to Bishahari, the god of serpents. They perform the sraddha on the 12th day after death. Infant and widow marriage are practised; divorce is not allowed.

[Page 83]


THE district is a low alluvial plain subject to floods caused by the many rivers flowing southwards, as well as by the overflow of the Ganges. For practical purposes it may be divided into three different tracts in which agricultural conditions vary considerably, viz., (1) the country west of the Panar river, (2) a triangular tract in the extreme south-east, of which the three corners lie at Dingraha., Manihari and Barsoi, and (3) the remainder of the country on the east of the Panar. The extent of cultivation is much larger, and the population is also more dense in the eastern than in the western tract; while the triangular subdivision above referred to partakes of the characteristics of both the main divisions, being less open than the western portion and more sparsely cultivated than the eastern portion. The eastern portion is intersected by rivers and water channels, contains numerous marshes, and has a loamy soil rich in alluvial deposit. The principal crops cultivated in this tract are rice and jute. In the western portion the soil is sandy, owing to the frequent changes in the course of the Kosi, which has gradually moved westward and buried under a deep layer of sand what was once a very fertile rice tract. In this portion of the district, moreover, bhadoi and rabi crops are extensively cultivated, besides winter rice and, in the north, jute. There are also wide stretches of waste land and grassy plains, which afford pasturage to great herds of cattle.

Irrigation is little practised and little needed. The rainfall is ordinarily ample, and it begins early. There are usually storms from March onwards; rain falls in April and May, which is of great service to jute and indigo; and the monsoon is well established in June. The soil also in most parts retains moisture well, and there are numerous rivers and-marshes, no less than 5 percent. of the total area being under water. Besides this, the rivers usually rise early in May owing to the melting of the Himalayan snows, and the dry channels also carry down turbid water from the hills. These floods are often disastrous, so that Purnea has more to fear from inundation than from deficient rainfall.

[Page 89]

Enquiries made during the course of the recent settlement show that the area under irrigation is only 1.5 per cent. of the net cropped area, and that practically the only crops irrigated are tobacco and other crops, such as garden produce, grown on homestead lands. These crops are watered from kutcha or temporary wells sunk in the plot requiring artificial irrigation. Such a well costs very little to make, as water is usually found at a depth of 10 or 12 feet even in the cold season, except in Damdaha than where the sub-soil is too sandy to retain moisture long. If not lined with earthenware rings, these wells do not last longer than the next rainy season. Occasionally onions and similar crops are raised on the slopes of a partially dry tank and are irrigated from it, but tanks are rarely used because they rapidly silt up, unless constantly looked after.

The soil is all alluvial, and its character is determined by the rivers, that in the country watered by the Kosi being sandy, and that watered by the Mahananda being loamy. There are different terms for the different soils according to their composition. A clay soil is known as karari, but there is very little of it, except in the south-east. Another name given to a soil in which clay predominates is matiar. Loamy soil is called doas or mansimati, and a sandy soil is baluar or simply balu. In a considerable area the soil is generally so poor, that every few years the fields are left fallow and given rest for a number of years to enable them to regain their fertility.

[Page 97]


PURNEA appears to be less liable to famine than other parts of North Bihar, though it does not escape periods of scarcity. This comparative immunity is due to several causes. In the first place, the crops of the district are not entirely dependent on the rainfall, for the overflow of its rivers supplies ample moisture to the soil. Another safeguard against famine is the fact that the rice crop is by no means the only support of the people, the area under cultivation being distributed between the three crops of the year, viz., aghani, bhadoi and rabi, in the proportion of 56, 34 and 39 per cent. respectively. Though the proportion of the bhadoi and rabi crops is smaller than that of aghani, which is composed mainly of winter rice, the former includes the valuable jute crop and the latter a large crop of oil-seeds, which also brings the cultivators good profits. In the east winter rice predominates, but jute is also very largely grown. In the west wheat, oats and barley are extensively raised, and in the cold season there is a large area under pulses and oil-seeds. The level of the country again is diversified by old river beds and other depressions, which form catchment basins and may be relied on for a good crop even in years of drought. In years of heavy rain the crops of these low lands are damaged, but on the other hand the high lands bear a good crop, so that., whether there be too much rain or too little, some portions of the land bear produce. Finally, a considerable portion of the population do not depend entirely on agriculture, but find cattle breeding and dairy farming a profitable occupation. The following is a brief account of the famines from which Purnea has suffered. The great famine of 1770 was attended with frightful mortality in Purnea. As early as the 28th April 1770 the Faujdar , Muhammad Ali Khan, reported that multitudes had already perished and continued to perish of hunger. Children were offered for sale, but there were no buyers. Mr. Ducarrel, the English Supervisor, also reported that the miseries in the town [Page 98] of Purnea were not less shocking than in the rural tracts. Pestilence had to be guarded against by the removal of the dead bodies, upwards of 1,000 being buried in three days after his arrival in the town. He estimated that one-half of the cultivators and payers of revenue would perish with hunger, whilst those able to purchase a subsistence would have to pay at least 500 per cent. advance in the price of food. " On the high and sandy soils," he added, " more than half the ryots are dead." That this was not an exaggerated account is apparent from the report of the President and Council submitted to the Directors of the East India Company on 9th May 1770, in which they said : "The famine, the mortality, the beggary, exceed all description. Above one-third of the inhabitants have perished in the once plentiful province of Purneah."

A week later the Minister of State, Muhammad Reza Khan, gave a vivid account of the condition of the country. "How," he wrote, "shall I describe the misery of the country from the excessive droughts, the dearness and scarcity of grain hitherto, but now a total failure ? The tanks and springs are dried up, and water grows daily more difficult to be procured. Added to these calamities, frequent and dreadful fires have happened throughout the country, impoverished whole families, and destroyed thousands of lives. The small stores of grain which yet remained at Raje Gunge, Dewan Gunge, and other places within the districts of Dinagepore and Pooreah, have been consumed by fire. Before each day furnished accounts of the fate of thousands; but not withstanding, some hopes were still left that during the months of April and May we should be blessed with rain, and the poor ryotts able to till their ground; but to this hour not a drop has fallen." In spite of this, he reported on the 2nd June that he had, by exerting his utmost abilities, collected the revenue of 1770, "as closely as so dreadful a season would admit. The remainder cannot be collected without evident ruin to the ryots, desolation to the country, and a heavy loss in the ensuing year.''

The state of affairs by the end of the year can be gathered from Mr. Ducarrel's account (dated 13th December 1770) of four parganas which he had personally visited. " There having been little or no harvest, the people either perished or went elsewhere for subsistence, and they (i.e., the lands) were really sunk in one year almost half their value, on which point I should not have been satisfied if I had not received every proof that the closest examination could give me. They are now really lying waste for want of inhabitants, particularly Hyvelee Poorneah [Page 99] which contained more than 1,000 villages; and it is the deficiency which takes place here that renders the Poorneah revenue less this year than heretofore." Further on, he said:-" The Gunge, called Alumgunge, the principal receipts of which depended on the consumption of grain in the town, has declined greatly by reason of the considerable decrease of inhabitants during the last famine, a great part of the town having become a jungle and literally a refuge for wild beasts. In respect to the improvement of the country, I must, in answer, premise that, according to the attested accounts I have received from the Pergunahs, there have perished near two lacks (i.e., 200,000) of people in this district.'' To this it may be added that on the 20th December 1770 a letter from Mr. Reed of Murshidibad states that ''in Dacca, Pooreah and Hooghly, collections are regularly kept up, and some of them paid in advance !''* It is a somewhat striking commentary on this, and also a sign of how long the effects of the famine lasted, that as late as 1788 it was reported that the lands in about one fourth of the whole Dharampur pargana had been depopulated during the famine and that. most of them continued out of cultivation down to that year, On the other hand, in 1772 there was such an abundant rice crop that it was unsaleable and the revenue was far less than in 1770.

Some periods of scarcity ensued at the close of the 18th century. On 23rd September 1783 Mr. W. Douglas, the Acting Chief of Purnea, reported :-"The uncommon drought which has be en expenence this season in most of the parganas in this district has occasioned almost a total failure of the rice crops; that article has consequently become remarkably dear. The common sort, which sold last year for 4 maunds the rupee, now sells from 1 maund to 1 maund 10 seers for the rupee. So great an increase in the price has thrown the poorer class of the inhabitants (whose sole dependence for subsistence is on that grain) into the utmost consternation. Many of them recollect with honor the melancholy effects of the dearth of 1769-70 and are fearful of experiencing like calamity this year. They have pointed to me in the strongest colours their apprehensions, and represented the uncommon distress they now labour under and the apparent probability of their suffering still greater hardships, unless some speedy and effectual steps are taken to prevent the exportation of rice out of this district. Finding upon particular inquiry that vast numbers of merchants resorted here from different parts of the country for the express purpose of purchasing rice, I have [Page 100] therefore thought it highly necessary, as well for the present case and relief of the poor as to avert the dreadful effects of a scarcity, to issue an order to the farmer prohibiting any further exportation of that article, suffering, however, such merchants to convey away whatever quantity they may have already loaded on their boats."

A further report on the state of affairs on 28th October 1783 submitted by Mr. S. Heatly, the Chief of Purnea, throws light on the resources of Purnea as a great rice-producing area. " The districts of Raje Mahal, Boglepore, and Mongheer,'' he wrote, "draw their supplies immediately from Purnea and must at this alarming crisis look up to it for their subsistence; and I do conceive, if the exportation is extended no further, that Purnea might hold up her head and give support to the adjacent districts, but when the army contractors and others of all denominations are suffered to carry whatever quantity of grain out of the district they deem proper, I confess, gentlemen, I am alarmed for the situation of the poor inhabitants and expect they will be suddenly in danger of experiencing the melancholy scene of 1769."

There was again deficient rainfall in 1788; and in 1791 the rains set in a month earlier than usual and failed prematurely. The result was that there were floods in May and a continued drought after the 15th August, but the failure was estimated at not more than one-fourth of the usual annual produce. It is noticeable, moreover, that the officials mote frequently dreaded the effects of an excessive than of a deficient harvest. Thus, in 1786, it is stated that the revenue of pargana Badaur had fallen from Rs. 1,50,000 a year to Rs 75,818 'solely from the too great abundance of rice; and that, in the district generally, much land had fallen out of cultivation in consequence of the excessive production of previous years, and of the immense stores of rice in the country rendering grain crops so valueless as not to suffice to pay the rents of the lands producing them.

This is a selection from the original text


agriculture, crops, drought, famine, rice, scarcity, suffering

Source text

Title: Bengal District Gazetteers - Purnea

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 ) pages 49 to 50
  • 2 ) page 67
  • 3 ) page 83
  • 4 ) page 89
  • 5 ) pages 97 to 100


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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