Indian Recreations Vol.II

About this text

Introductory notes

Reverend William Tennant was a chaplain of the Bengal Army. Tennant's job allowed him to travel widely across the Bengal province. In Tennant's own words, he had the opportunity of residing at different parts of the country and used his time to examine the custom and practices of the "Hindoos" and "Mahommedans", particularly pertaining those to the rural economy. Tennant's penned his experiences and observations in two volumes. The second was published by C. Stewart at London , in the year 1804.

The selections from the text have been made from the chapters on Imperfections on Hindoo, Husbandry and obstacles to its improvement, Hindoo method of cultivating sugarcane, Of the culture of Potato, Of the Cart and the Plough, Of the breed of Sheep and the treatment of Hog, Effects of the Ganges on the Agriculture of Bengal, Cultivation of the Districts of Mongheer and Patna, Of the Cochineel. The above chapters highlight the problems and limitations of the cultivators as Tennant observed during his visits. Tennants also discusses the potential of cultivating sugarcanes and potato, particularly during unfavorable seasons.

Selection details

The selections from the text have been made from the chapters on Imperfections on Hindoo, Husbandry and obstacles to its improvement, Hindoo method of cultivating sugarcane, Of the culture of Potato, Of the Cart and the Plough, Of the breed of Sheep and the treatment of Hog, Effects of the Ganges on the Agriculture of Bengal, Cultivation of the Districts of Mongheer and Patna, Of the Cochineel. The above chapters highlight the problems and limitations of the cultivators as Tennant observed during his visits. Tennants also discusses the potential of cultivating sugarcanes and potato, particularly during unfavorable seasons.



[Page 8]


Berhampore, 1797
[Page 10]

THERE is great want of green crops for house feeding: a circumstance the more remarkable, since, during the dry months, the fields not in crop, are reduced to a state of absolute sterility, and the stock barely kept alive. This is the more inexcusable, because there is in the occupation of husbandry here every variety of pulse that is known. No season is without its appropriate species; but most species are sown or ripen in the winter.

As all these thrive on poor soils, and require but little cultivation, they would prove most valuable products in husbandry, could they be administered as green food, or applied as hay. The millets are also in great variety: they bear a low price; and are the food of the poorest classes. Several of these grains are restricted to no season; vegetate rapidly, and occupy intervals between other crops: yet no contrivance has been fallen upon to have a sufficient supply of them for the sustenance of live stock during winter and spring. The maize, though the most productive of all corn, and not inferior as human food, has not yet been converted to this purpose. The coarse straw of this and some other sorts of corn seem to make up the whole of the wretched provender of this country, where the cattle that survive hunger, at certain seasons are barely able to walk.

[Page 31]


Berhampore, Oct. 1797
[Page 34]

THE soil that suits the cane best, in this climate, is a rich vegetable earth, which, on exposure to the air, crumbles down into a very fine mould: it is also necessary for it to be of such a level, as allows it to be watered from the river, by simply damming it up, which almost the whole land adjoining to this river admits of, and yet so high, as to be easily drained during heavy rains.

SUCH a soil, and in such a situation, having been well meliorated, by various crops, of leguminous [Page 35] plants, or fallowing for two or three years, is slightly manured, or has had cattle pent upon it. A favourite manure with the Hindoo farmer, is the rotten straw of the green and black pessalloo. During the months of April and May, it is repeatedly stirred with the common Hindoo plough, which soon brings this rich loose soil into very excellent order. About the end of May or beginning of June, the rains usually set in, by frequent heavy showers. Now is the time to plant the cane: but should the rains hold back, the prepared field is watered by flooding from the river, and when perfectly wet like soft mud, whether from the rain, or from the river, the cane is planted.

THE method is most simple: labourers with baskets, of the cuttings, with one or two joints each, arange themselves along one side of the field; they walk side by side, in as straight a line, as their eye or judgement enables them, dropping the sets at the distance of about eighteen inches in the rows, and four feet asunder from row to row: other labourers follow, and with the foot press the set about two inches into the soft mud-like soil: this with a sweep or two with the sole of the foot, they most easily and readily cover: nothing more is done. If the weather is moderately showery, till the young shoots are some two or three inches high, the earth is then loosened a few inches around them, with a small weeding iron, something like a carpenter's chisel: should the season prove dry, the field is occasionally watered from [Page 36] the river, continuing to weed, and to keep the earth loose about the stools.

IN August, two or three months from the time of planting, small trenches are cut through the field, at short distances, and so contrived as to drain off the water, should the season prove too wet for the canes, which is frequently the case, and would render their juices weak and unprofitable: the farmer, therefore never fails to have his field plentifully and judiciously intersected with drains, while the cane is small, and before the time of the violent rains. Should the season prove too dry, these drains serve to conduct the water from the river, through the field, and also to carry off what does not soak into the earth in a few hours: for, say they, if water is permitted to remain upon the field for a greater length of time, the cane would suffer by it, so that they reckon these drains indispensibly necessary; and on their being well contrived depends, in a great measure, their future hopes of profit. Immediately after the field is trenched, the canes are all propped; this is an operation I do not remember to have seen mentioned by any writer on this subject, and is, perhaps, peculiar to these parts. It is done as follows:

THE canes are now about three feet high, and generally from three to six from each set that has taken root, and from what we may call the stool; the lower leaves of each cane are first carefully wrapt up round it, so as to cover it completely in every part, [Page 37] a small strong bamboo, eight or ten feet long, is then stuck into the earth in the middle of each stool, and the canes are tied to it: this secures them in an erect position, and gives the air free access round every part. As the canes advance in size, they continue wrapping them round with the lower leaves, as they begin to wither, and to tie them to the prop bamboos higher up, during which time, if the weather is wet, they keep the trenches open; and if a drought prevails, they water them occasionally from the river, cleaning and loosening the ground every five or six weeks. Tying the leaves so carefully round the cane, they say, prevents them from cracking and splitting with the sun, helps to render the juice richer, and prevents their branching out round the sides : it is certain that you never see a branchy cane here.

IN January and February, the canes are ready to cut, which is about nine months from the time of planting; of course I need not describe it. Their height when standing in the field, will now be from eight to ten feet, foliage included; and the naked cane from an inch to an inch and a quarter in diameter.

[Page 45]


Berhampore Oct. 1797
[Page 47]

A DRY season is unfavourable to the rice crop; but is certainly the best for this vegetable: it would appear, then, that nature points out the one crop as a substitute, when the other fails. In order to second her views, however, a certain quantity of land in every farm should be planted with the potatoe; for nothing short of this precaution will ever secure an adequate support during a failure of the usual crop to so numerous a people, and so improvident as the Hindoos. The encouragement, and sometimes the interference, of government might be necessary, at first, to establish the practice: but if it once were introduced, the tenaciousness of the Hindoos to their ordinary routine of culture, would prove a full security for its preservation. Some years ago, a gentleman distributed two boat-loads as feed to the natives in the neigh [Page 48] bourhood of Cawnpore; and the crop has gradually increased ever since.

THE abatements of rent unavoidable in years of scarcity, and the no less inevitable expence of purchasing rice, and selling it at a low price to preserve the lives of the poor, fall so heavily upon government; that the introduction of the potatoe into every farm, by the interference of authority, seems to be equally a dictate of economy and prudence, as of common humanity.

At Madras, and some other parts of the Coromandel coast, I am informed, that the benevolent exertions of some well disposed persons, have introduced the bread-fruit tree: if this has succeeded, and in some degree it has, it was accomplished by the projectors of it, on views of advantage far less certain or immediate, than the introduction of the potatoe.

IT frequently is not the discoveries which yield the most substantial benefit to human society, that make the most splendid figure in the annals of history.

THE man who first introduced into Europe the use and culture of the potatoe, has conferred a real and permanent benefit upon the poor, which, in every country, comprehends nine-tenths of mankind. He has relieved the importunate calls of hunger in many a family; and in the inside of the cottage, he has gladdened many a countenance, that, before his day, was [Page 49] sullen with hunger, or shrivelled with want. This person, though unrecorded in the annals of Fame, ought, in simple justice, to occupy one of the first seats in her temple.—This honour is said to be due to that adventurous but ill requited statesman Sir Walter Raleigh.

[Page 50]

THE uncertainty of a rice crop, as the only support of a numerous people, is sufficient of itself to justify every attempt, however unpromising, to introduce other staple articles to come in aid of it in times of scarcity. A grain which depends upon the quantity of rain, and on the number of inches to which the stream rises on the Ganges, experience has often proved to be an awfoul contingent to hang the lives of millions of our fellow-creatures on. If a stimulus to their indolence, or even a small violation of some of their customs, could rescue them from the danger, the means would be as completely sanctified by the end, as the evil would be overbalanced by the advantage.

SHOULD the culture of the potatoe never become so general in Bengal, as to answer the intended purpose, its place might still be supplied by the yam, or sweet potatoe, a vegetable resembling it in taste, but far larger in size, and, in this country, more easily ,raised. It has been cultivated and used by the natives [Page 51] to a certain degree, I believe from time immemorial: the cultivation of this plant to a greater extent might thwart the indolence, but could violate no religious prejudice of the Hindoo. Such precautions in his behalf are the more necessary; because in all his conduct, he betrays a want of foresight, and indifference to futurity, that totally disqualify him from providing in any degree against famine, which has ever been the great scourge of India.

THAT the resources promised by the bread-fruit tree will prove equal to what might be expected, either from the potatoe or the yam, is more than problematical. The planting of a tree, and the care of its preservation till it become productive, there is reason to believe, is beyond the usual effort of foresight possessed by this improvident race. This neglect, however, must be imputed to themselves; it cannot derogate from the honour of those benevolent persons, who have attempted to alleviate one of the most urgent of their distresses.

[Page 75]


Kissengunge Oct. 1797
[Page 78]

As Bengal is, perhaps, more remarkably defective in its breed of cattle, than most other parts of India; I cannot leave this subject without mentioning a few other animals by which they endeavour to supply this want. They have a small species of horses, which, from their poor feeding, are still more ugly than small: these they employ chiefly in riding, as often as they travel from home. The accoutrements which supply the place of a saddle and bridle, are perfectly suitable to the appearance of the horse and rider; but [Page 79] in no other point of view can they be recommended. Among the Ryuts, to whom this account is meant to apply, any thing like a handsome horse is a thing of all others the most uncommon, except that of meeting with one in good condition. This is the more worthy of notice, as l have not observed any work assigned the horse in this part of the country, excepting that just mentioned, of carrying his master such easy journeys as occasion may require: nor is this, in general, to be ascribed to the want of pasture: the grounds may, in some instances, be overstocked; but this is by no means universal. The defect must lie, therefore, rather in the quality, than the quantity of pasture. During the rainy season, I apprehend that there is hardly any pasture less nutritive than that of the province of Bengal. That strong sprit, already mentioned, is, at that season, the prevailing growth of the whole province. It pushes up a single seed stem, which is as hard as reeds, and is never touched by cattle so long as any other vegetable can be had. Other grasses of a better quality are sometimes intermixed with this unpalatable food; but, during the rains, are of so rapid a growth, that their juices must be thin, and ill fitted for nutrition.

A VARIETY of circumstances concur to demonstrate the inferior quality of the pasture of this province. No person ever trusts to it alone in fattening either a bullock or a sheep. Whatever is intended for the table must be, either kept upon dry food, or served regularly with gram twice a day. The [Page 80] case is the same with Europeans who keep Arabian or Persian horses for the saddle: they are fed with the roots of the finer grasses picked, carefully dug up by a groom, and are served twice a day with grain. The watery insipidity of tropical plants is a circumstance universally noticed by Europeans on their first arrival in the East or West Indies. Asparagus, Cauliflower, Cabbages, and all the esculent vegetables used at the table, are raised in considerable plenty; but they are comparatively tasteless; and consequently deficient in their nutritious powers.

[Page 105]


Chandernagore 1797
[Page 110]

THE sacred character of the cow probably gives this fuel a preference to every other, in the imagination of a Hindoo; for it is used in Calcutta, where wood is in abundance. M. De Voltaire has displayed at once his superficial acquaintance with Asiatic manners, and his propensity to ridicule, in his attempt to vilify the sacred writings, on account of some expression relating to this subject, uttered by the Prophet Jeremiah.

ON certain occasions, it is customary for the Hindoos to consecrate a bull, as an offering to the deities: particular ceremonies are then performed, and a mark is impressed upon the animal, expressive of his future condition to all the inhabitants. No consideration can induce the pious Bengalee to hurt or even controul one of these consecrated animals. You may see them every day roaming at large through the streets of Calcutta, and tasting rice, gram, or flour in the Bazar, according to their pleasure. The utmost a native will do, when he observes the animal doing too much honour to his goods, is to urge him, by the gentlest hints, to taste of the vegetables or grain, on his neighbour's stall.

A remarkable example of Oriental superstition occurs in the treatment of one of the most useful do [Page 111] mestic animals, the hog. The Mahommedans, whose numbers are considerable in almost every part of Hindostan, are prohibited from eating this animal by their law; and however slightly they regard its moral precepts, like every ignorant people they pay implicit veneration to its ceremonial and superstitious injunctions. In rearing this useful animal, they are out of the question. To the far greater part of the Hindoos, this economy is denied by a prohibition still more pernicious, because more general, which forbids the higher classes the use of every terrestrial animal, in the class of quadrupeds, as an article of food. Some there are, I am aware, of the dregs of both people, who either from misdemeanours of their own, or from hereditary meanness, are destitute of all rank, and consequently are free from the tyranny of opinion. These may eat pork, or any kind of flesh, but unfortunately they are unable to pay for it; for they are in general employed in the lowest menial offices about Europeans, and subsist on what is carried away from their tables, after it has been rejected by the Portugueze, and upper servants. In this instance, then, the farmer is deprived of a market for one of the most wholesome, and the most easily reared of all kinds of alimal food. What relief might not be found, during a scarcity of grain, by resorting to pork, where fruit and other nourishment for it is so abundant!

TILL lately, a similar prejudice against this kind of food was entertained in some parts of Scotland : but [Page 112] the knowledge lately disseminated through rhat kingdom, by the means already mentioned, has in part already done it away. A judicious farmer; in that country, lately told me that he had begun to rear swine upon the refuse of his dairy and of his grain; and to fatten them with potatoes or meal as opportunity offered. On a comparison of his profits in this method, with those made by the same articles sent immediatety to market, he found a very considerable balance in favour of feeding; a practice which he has since continued.

[Page 130]


Ganges 1797

Some of the disasters of Bengal, are imputable to the river; for the Ganges, though unquestionably a source of much wealth and fertility to a vast extent of country, is also at times the dispenser of mischief, and the cause of famine, the most serious calamity of Bengal. This season, from a deficiency of rain in the upper parts of the country, the waters have not risen to their usual height; those low-lying rice fields, of whose fertility they are the principal cause, from want of their usual stimulus, are certainly deficient in crop, and serious apprehensions are begun to be entertained of the supplies for another year. A single bad season is not of itself sufficient to produce a real scarcity of grain, so abundant in general are the resources of this country; but unfortunately [Page 131] the very report of a defective crop sets to work all the jobbers and speculators in the country.

No movement of this great river is uninteresting to the Bengalese peasantry: if when he subsides be causes distress; when he unusually overflows he is equally detrimental, and tremendous. Last year, at the period in which I now write, whole districts were buried under water for several feet; and you might fail for many days over corn fields, from which the grain was either swept away or destroyed: cottages, and whole villages were surrounded; and many of the native huts were laid in ruins, along with the owners, where they could not make their escape in boats. The destructive ravages of the last season were however followed by no general scarcity: the abundance of one district made up for the loss in another; and amidst the general plenty individual distress is easily overlooked, or soon forgotten.

EVEN in its ordinary state, the river is an expensive instrument of fertilization, and internal commerce. The ordinary channel necessary to carry along the usual quantity of water discharged by the river, includes a waste of many thousands of acres, which, during the dry season, are so many dreary sand-banks, miles in extent, which are drifted by the winds, to the annoyance of every living creature in their vicinity. Nor is this all; the soil of this province is a dark, sandy loam, fourteen, and in some places twenty feet deep; which offers but feeble re [Page 132] sistance to the constant action of such a stream of water. Wherever a bank of such materials is opposed to the current, it is constantly eating it away; large portions of the soil you hear as you pass along, falling with a loud noise into the water; and if your boat happens unfortunately to be carried by the stream under one of these banks, you are in danger of being buried under its weight. It is true, indeed, that a portion of land, equal to that destroyed, is beginning to appear on the opposite shore; but this is merely a bed of barren sand, which the progress of vegetation, for many years, is incapable to cover with sufficient soil for the purposes of husbandry.


Mongheer 1798
[Page 171]

ALMOST every common article of food is here remarkably cheap; fowls from six to ten a rupee; and ducks come at nearly the same price. Turkeys, though cheaper than in Calcutta, are six. rupees each; a circumstance which seems to evince a degree of improvident indolence in the natives, bordering on stupidity. In this climate that bird is not so difficult to rear as it is in Europe. A woman therefore, who, in a year, could breed, and bring an hundred to the market, would secure an independent fortune to her family for the rest of her days: she would receive six hundred rupees; a sum which, at the common rate of interest, yields six rupees per month, an income sufficient for the maintenance of a pretty large family. From this, though you deduct a plentiful allowance for grain, there will still remain a sufficient profit. to stimulate that indolence of any being but a Hindoo.

THE retail price of gram in the Bazar is only one rupee for sixty-four English pounds, or thirty seer; while rice and dohl are somewhat lower. These [Page 172] prices are noted here, as the present season is neither remarkable for scarcity nor abundance; and as the town of Patna is perhaps the most central part of our territories in this part of India,. it must have an influence upon the whole.

[Page 175]


Benares 1798

IN our progress from Patna to Buxar, Gazipour, Benares, and Mirzapour, much cultivation, and a rich passage of country, presents itself to the eye of the traveller: at the last mentioned place, however, his approbation must cease: both sides of the Ganges a little way above that village, are subject to the Nabob of Oude, whose territories, in defiance of the bounty of nature, display an uniform sterility.

[Page 178]

IN point of health, Benares must be more hostile: the streets are only a few feet broad, confined with high buildings on each side, so that the rays of the sun can hardly penetrate the bottom of the lanes, which are impervious to wind, and covered with cow-dung, foul water, and every kind of filth. That the plague should occasionally break out in eastern towns is unavoidable: here it is unknown, though you are rather surprised how human beings can support life in such a noxious atmosphere.

AT Benares the number of Europeans is very small: a judge, register, collector, with a few civil servants, constitute the whole of the Company's establishment there; a few private merchants and planters make up the whole society. Of natives, however, the number is great; and many of the bankers are the principal creditors of the India Company, and possess immense fortunes. The poor in Benares are still more numerous, owing to the number of pilgrims who come from all parts to visit so sacred a place. In going into a mosque, thousands crowded around us, soliciting charity with an importunity I never before witnessed, and which I could not then refill. Hunger, wretchedness, and dis [Page 179] ease seemed to meet your eye in every direction; what increased our uneasiness was the impossibility of affording any relief to such crowds; where famished multitudes pressed forward to succeed such as you had sent away with a pittance of supply. It is not any scarcity, or any extraordinary degree of poverty that occasions this concourse of beggars, but the number of pilgrims who come from all parts for the purpose of devotion and charity: and wherever there is a fund for the poor, there will in every country be found a sufficient number to consume it: begging, hard as it seems, is still easier than labour; and where it answers the same purpose, that of subsistence, it will often be preferred.

[Page 217]


Benares 1798

THE indigo manufacture which has given a considerable spur to the industry of the natives of India, was soon succeeded by an attempt highly comnendable, to establish that of cochineal. Dr. Nicolas Fontana, a gentleman of great literary knowledge, has detailed the advantages to be derived from this culture, in a very satisfactory manner.

[Page 220]

" THE anxiety and impatience natural to all, who indulging in ardent expectations, undertake new enterprises, induced some of the planters of the Nopal to put the insect upon it, when the plant had just emerged from the ground. Others, through inattention, kept their insects in places too near to where the Opuntia was growing young, which in that tender and premature state was devoured by these creatures, when hard pressed by hunger. The unskilful mode of drying was likewise adopted: and some of those persons whose opinions lead the multitude, declared in the most decided and positive manner, that the cochineal would never answer, as it would not be found worth the trouble and expence attending the cultivation of it. All these considerations damped in a great measure the ardor of the enterprise. Many abandoned the pursuit, and left the insects to provide for themselves, after the plans destined for their use were destroyed, wherever they could find nourishment. They were seen flying about indiscriminately on various other plants, and thus perishing; while others rooted out the plantations, and employed the ground for other purposes .

[Page 221]

"Besides the discouraging circumstances already mentioned, it was urged that the species imported into India, was only the Grana Silvestris, and that the first specimens sent home had been of no value. They had grown lumpy and musty for want of being properly dried, or thoroughly divested of the cottony substance with which the insect is covered. But supposing, it was .added, that a proper mode of drying and preparing it could be found out, and the cultivation of it brought to the greatest perfection, it would soon overstock the market; as there is a certain quantity only, and that was not very great, which is required for Europe. This would soon be supplied, and loss instead of gain would accrue to the planters. This excess, however, it was farther urged, was to be presumed only in the case of the country being able to supply plants sufficient for the food of the insect, which was very doubtful on account of its quick reproduction, as it sends forth a new generation every forty days.

[Page 259]

FORMERLY the towns in these provinces were governed by a certain number of magistrates, and their policemen, who inspected the markets and maintained the public order. A cutwal, a jemidar, and a wretched remnant of their establishment, still remains. Happily the Hindoo peasantry can be controuled with a smaller weight of authority than almost any people. If countenanced in their complaints they are litigious in the extreme; yet their misunderstandings are chiefly pecuniary; and from the small value of the contested property, they generally admit of an easy and summary decision.

UNDER the wretched government of the Vizier, you can hardly have any thing that merits the name of a judicial establishment. Every petty officer is the despot of his little district, whose fiat determines every question without appeal. Hence corruption is the very principle of the administration, and it pervades [Page 260] every part. As if law, equity, or humanity did no exist, the person aggrieved does not appeal to them, but approaches the magistrate with a present to interest his selfishness. A method invariably successful, unless counteracted by placing a heavier largess in the opposite scale.

THE defects of this miserable system of judicature, are in many instances supplied by calling in the aids of superstition. A person who has a debt owing him which he wants influence or money to recover by a judicial sentence, applies to his Brahmin, who places himself directly before the door of the debtor, where he remains day and night without eating till the claim is discharged. In the mean time, no provisions, fire or water, can be introduced into the house, which is thus beset by a Brahmin. Should the debtor prove refractory till the Brahmin died, nothing on earth can redeem his family from the infamy thus incurred. The strength of prejudice, or the cravings of hunger, generally induce the debtor to satisfy the demand without incurring the dreadful sentence of disgrace in this life, and misery in the next.

THE British government which promises to hear and determine all disputes, has in some degree superseded this singular mode of prosecution; but in the Vizier's country, where I now write, the expedient is still necessary, and is sometimes put in practice: although even there the Brahminical rigour of discipline is somewhat abated. A Hindoo of con [Page 261] siderable rank has assured me, that in former times not only the litigants but the whole village fasted so long as the Brahmin performed Dh'urnah * before any house belonging to it.

This is a selection from the original text


agriculture, animals, famine, food, grain, rain, rice, scarcity

Source text




Publisher: G.STEWART

Publication date: 1804

Original date(s) covered: 1796-1803

Edition: 1st Edition

Place of publication: London

Provenance/location: This text was transcribed from images available at Internet Archive: Original date(s) covered: 1796-1803

Digital edition

Original author(s): Rev. William Tennant

Language: English

Selection used:

  • 1 ) page 10
  • 2 ) page 34 to 37
  • 3 ) page 47 to 51
  • 4 ) page 78 to 80
  • 5 ) page 110 to 112
  • 6 ) page 130 to 132
  • 7 ) page 170 to 172
  • 8 ) page 175
  • 9 ) page 178
  • 10 ) page 217
  • 11 ) page 220 to 221
  • 12 ) page 259 to 261


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