Bengal District Gazetteers - Saran

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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 Saran was published by The Bengal Secretariat Book Depot in 1908.

The East India Company procured the revenue rights of Saran along with rest of Bihar with the Grant of Diwani in 1765. Saran and Champaran were combined to form a single unit and was identified as a district under Patna division in 1829. In 1866, Chamaparan was separated to form another district. The following excerpts from the Gazetteer have been selected from the chapters on Agriculture and Natural Calamities. The selections highlight on how the district suffered during the 1770 and 1783 and how the relief administration reacted to those crisis periods.

Selection details

The East India Company procured the revenue rights of Saran along with rest of Bihar with the Grant of Diwani in 1765. Saran and Champaran were combined to form a single unit and was identified as a district under Patna division in 1829. In 1866, Chamaparan was separated to form another district. The following excerpts from the Gazetteer have been selected from the chapters on Agriculture and Natural Calamities. The selections highlight on how the district suffered during the 1770 and 1783 and how the relief administration reacted to those crisis periods.


[Page 56]


SARAN is a fertile triangle of rich alluvial soil washed on two sides by the Gogra, the Ganges and the Gandak. It possesses a so-called system of canals which are of little practical value, but its surface is pitted with innumerable wells, and it, is cultivated by the most adroit agriculturists in the whole of Bihar. Unlike other districts which depend on one or perhaps two harvests, and stand or fall by them, the crops of Saran are fairly evenly divided among the three great harvests of the year, so that it is practically impossible for it to lose the whole of its crops. This equality in the distribution of the crops is due largely in the conformation of the country. Besides the existing canalized riverbeds, Saran is seamed with a line of swamps marking the beds of still older channels, and there are many other large swamps in isolated localities. All these grow vast stocks of rice, while the higher lands between them, and the riverain diaras, produce in the cold weather all the cereals of Upper India, many of them also yielding a crop of maize and millets in the autumn. Some parts are subject to floods caused either by excessive local rainfall or by the overflow of the three great rivers which surround the district. But the evil effects of floods are as nothing compared with those of drought, for apart from the loss of human life and of cattle, which are often insignificant, the destruction of a single crop by flood is usually compensated for by the resulting enrichment of the soil due to the deposit of silt.

For practical purposes, the land under cultivation may be divided into three classes,-the lowlands, the uplands, and the diara lands. In the lowlands the main crop is rice, while the uplands are used for growing rice, opium, indigo, barley, wheat, sugarcane, pulses and oil-seeds. The lands along the banks of the rivers yield magnificent rabi or cold weather crops, but the bhadoi or autumn crops are liable to damage from the rivers overflowing their banks at harvest time, except in the tracts to the north and east which are protected by the Gandak embankment. The quality of the diara lands varies very greatly. Some are of unsurpassed fertility and grow marvellous crops of wheat and [Page 57] barley, peas and mustard. The soil is soft and friable, extending down only a few inches, a mere top dressing on the land. It requires little labour from the plough and is renewed by the fertilizing deposit of the river year after year. Other diaras again are sandy and worthless; and the good field of one year may be spoilt by a deposit of sand in the next.

The natural drainage of the district is from north to south, and the line of drainage is crossed at right angles not only by the Bengal and North-Western Railway embankment, but also by numerous raised roads, in which the waterway allowed is sufficient in ordinary years, but insufficient when the rains are exceptionally heavy and the big rivers in high flood. The result is that the crops are peculiarly dependent on seasonable rainfall, for excessive moisture cannot be drained off easily, while the harm caused by defective rain is just as great. The very fact, moreover, that the crops are fairly evenly divided among the three great harvests of the year renders a well-distributed rainfall specially necessary, though, on the other hand, it frequently enables the district. to show greater powers of resistance to the effects of partial drought.

Good rainfall, from the cultivator's point of view, is not rainfall which roaches or exceeds a certain annual total, but which is well distributed and seasonable. Showers throughout the cold weather are required for the rabi crops, but storms in February and March frequently damage the flowering poppy and ripening grain. Thereafter little rain is expected or required till the middle of May, when a good fall, in what is called the chota barsat, facilitates the preparation of the ground for the autumn crops. This should be followed by fairly heavy rain in June and July, when ample moisture is needed to bring on the seedlings and to permit of the transplantation of winter rice. Not much rain is required from the middle of August to the middle of September : indeed, excessive rain during this period may injure the ripening bhadoi crops. But the crucial period is during the last half of September and the Hathiya asterism at the beginning of October; for drought at this time will not only ruin the winter rice, but will deprive the thirsty soil of the moisture necessary for the subsequent rabi crop.

Irrigation is resorted to wherever the means are present, either from wells, tanks, streams or aharas, i.e., reservoirs formed by constructing embankments across the line of drainage. Nearly 200,000 acres, or 15 per cent. of the cropped area, are irrigated, and of every 100 acres irrigated, 72 are watered from wells, 18 1/2 from tanks and reservoirs, 2 1/2 from private channels, and the [Page 58] remainder from other sources. The crops which mainly benefit are those of the rabi or spring harvest, and the greatest activity in providing and extending the means of artificial irrigation has been shown in the Siwan subdivision, owing to the exertions of officers of the Opium Department and the help afforded by the Hathwa Raj.

[Page 59]

The soils are alluvial and vary from the hard clay found in the low swamps, which is known locally as bangar, to the light sandy loams of the uplands, which are called bhath. The former grows winter rice only, while from the latter an autumn rice [Page 60] crop is generally obtained, followed by a spring crop of opium, indigo and. various cereals, pulses and oil-seeds. In the district, as a whole, these two soils are found in fairly regular proportions. Bhath soils predominate in the northern tracts to the west of the Jharahi river; while bangar soil is found in patches nearly all over the district. In this respect Saran is peculiar, for in other districts of North Bihar bangar is confined mainly to one tract. Without seasonable rainfall, and in the absence of moans of irrigation, bangar is unproductive, and the areas in which it prevails are the first to be affected and the last to recover in a season of drought. Bhath soil, yielding as a rule two crops in the year, at the autumn and spring harvests, is much loss dependent on the monsoon rainfall, owing to the greater variety of crops which it is capable of producing. A third class of soil universally recognized by the cultivators is that known as goenr, i.e., the land immediately surrounding the village site. This is, as a rule, highly manured and is consequently reserved for the most paying crops, such as opium, wheat, vegetables and condiments, and, in the rainy season, maize and china.

[Page 71]


IT has been explained in the previous chapter that Saran is not dependent on any one crop, the area under cultivation being fairly evenly divided among the three great harvests of the year. No one harvest has such a predominance as to dwarf the others, and past experience has shown that it requires the failure of two of the three harvests of the year to cause famine. In this respect, Saran is different from other districts of Bihar, where the cultivators are mainly dependent on winter rice; and there is also this marked distinction that in Saran the latter crop is not confined to any one tract as it is elsewhere, but is found in scattered portions throughout the district. Still, nearly one-fifth of the district is, to a large extent, dependent for its prosperity on the aghani harvest, and is liable to suffer severely in a year of drought. Every thana, except Sonpur, contains a considerable proportion of this area, and its scattered nature makes famine administration in Saran an anxious and difficult task. One of the most striking features of the district is the presence, in nearly all parts of it, of large low-lying tracts of land in which only aghani rice can be grown. If the aghani crop is a failure, such tracts are bound to suffer severely, even although the high lands by which they are surrounded may have secured a good bhadoi and rabi harvest. Thus, in the famine of 1897, though general distress was averted from Saran, the stress in certain parts of the district was greater than elsewhere. The rice crop was the greatest failure; and it was in the tracts where rice was the only or the principal crop that serious distress occurred.

In five out of the ten thanas, viz., in Mirganj, Gopalganj, Mashrak, Parsa and Sonpur, bhadoi occupies over 40 per cent. and rabi over 55 per cent. of the net cropped area; and of these thanas it may be safely said that they are, as a whole, practically secure from famine, unless a failure of the rains, resulting in disaster to the bhadoi and aghani crops, is followed by a failure of the rabi. The Siwan subdivision, on the other hand, with a comparatively large area under aghani crops and a small area under rabi, is liable to suffer first in case of a failure of the [Page 72] rains. At the same time, famine could never be really severe for more than a few months, unless the rabi crops failed also. In the remaining thanas, Manjhi and Chapra, the area under bhadoi and aghani crops is equally distributed, while the percentage under rabi is considerably above the district average. In these thanas, too, severe and widespread famine is said to be an impossibility, unless there is a failure of all the harvests of the year.

Taking the district as a whole, it is less dependent on the winter rice crop than any other district in North Bihar, though there are tracts in various parts in which winter rice is predominant. In these limited areas the failure of that crop is followed by severe distress; but in Saran, as a whole, the rice is the least important crop of all and the rabi the most important. Thus, though a failure of the winter rice does not plunge the district, as a whole, into such dire distress as Muzaffarpur, Champaran or Darbhanga, large tracts must always be seriously affected by a failure of the monsoon; and its dense population, almost entirely dependent on agriculture, the indebtedness of a large part of the agricultural class, and the small average size of holdings must always make it a source of anxiety in any year of short harvests and high prices.

Since Saran came under British rule there have been five severe famines, viz., in 1770, 1783, 1866, 1874 and 1897, the history of which is an interesting study of the development of the administration of famine relief.

There are few details regarding the course of the terrible famine of 1770 in Saran. It appears from the record left by Muhammad Reza Khan and from letters of Mr.Thomas Humbold, Chief of Patna, that there were heavy floods in August 1768 in several parts of Bihar, followed by intense and continued drought, relieved only by showers during the rainy season of 1769. In 1770 terrible and widespread famine ensued, and in April 1770 we find Mr. Alexander, the Supervisor of Bihar, reporting that the depopulation in the interior was more rapid than could be imagined by any one who had not witnessed it: while in June 1770 the Hon. John Cartier, the President and Governor, informed the gentlemen of the Select Committee that the mortality among the people in the Bihar Province had already amounted to nearly two hundred thousand. Practically the only step taken to relieve the general distress was a composition with the farmers, by which the demand was proportioned to their actual ability to pay; two-thirds of the actual crops being taken, and no demand made from those who had nothing. The result [Page 73] was that collections, though poor, were much better than was anticipated, owing to the high price at which grain was sold. On the recommendation of Mr. Rumbold, a sum of one lakh was remitted from the revenue in Sarkar Saran, and Rs. 1,50,250 in Sarkar Champaran at the end of 1769; besides a deduction from the demand to the extent of Rs. I ,25,000, which had already been sanctioned at the beginning of that year.

There is some interesting correspondence showing the action taken by the Collector of Saran in 1783 to prohibit exportation, and to force the dealers to sell to any person who wanted grain, and to break down monopolies. He proposed, among other things, that all grain which any one should attempt to export, contrary to the meaning of the prohibition, should be confiscated and deposited in a safe place by the Collector, to be delivered by him gratis to the poor. He justified these extraordinary proposals on the grounds that the conduct of the monopolists during the famine of 1770 tended in a great degree to bring on and afterwards to continue that calamity. We find, however, that on the 19th October 1783, Mr. (afterwards Sir John) Shore (Lord Teigmnouth) wrote from Patna, to which place he seems to have been specially deputed, that he had directed the Collectors of Saran and Tirhut to remove every embargo on the free exportation of grain from their districts, holding that the greatest distress required relief first, and that merchants would dispose of their grain wherever they could do so to the best advantage; and that they would only continue to export it as long as the scarcity was greater than within their district. The Council fully approved the measures taken by Mr. Shore.

This is a selection from the original text


agriculture, climate, crops, flood, husbandry, irrigation, rain

Source text

Title: Bengal District Gazetteers - Saran

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

Publisher: The Bengal Secretariat Book Depot

Publication date: 1908

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 56 to 60
  • 2 ) pages 71 to 73


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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