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ART. I.-1. The Bengal and Agra Gazeteer, 1840-41.
2. Tassin's Map of Bengal.
THE remark of Heeren relative to the varied appearance of nature in the great continent of Asia, would equally apply to that smaller division of it, which forms our Indian empire, and to that yet smaller subdivision, known as the tract on both sides of the Lower Ganges, or the Plains of Bengal. Even in a country marked by one grand characteristic, there are several specific distinctions, which, in a slight measure, redeem it from the charge of uniformity. Nature is not exactly the same in the Sunderbunds and towards the line of hills, which form our eastern Frontier, nor in the dry and arid rock of Midnapore and Bírbhúm, nor in the wooded hills of Chittagong, nor in the unbroken cultivation of the districts, immediately north and east of the City of Palaces. But it cannot be denied that although highly favoured by nature, in point of fertility, Bengal presents few of those attractions, which striking scenery or historic association, have thrown around Hindustan or the countries of the Dekhan. Mysteriously created by the changing courses of a hundred streams, Bengal is, as it were, a land of yesterday. Here no crowds of pilgrims wear away the road to shrines, which the giant superstition of centuries has hallowed. No monuments raised by the unremitting labour of multitudes attract the gaze of the pious Hindu. Here Mussulman reverence or ambition never called in the aid of Italian workmen to erect the light and elegant fabric, wherein the dead might repose. No hill fort, in Bengal ever presented, those formidable obstacles, which British valour, in the early rise of our empire, delighted to overcome. The interest created by varied nature, antique monuments and dauntless courage are wanting in the Lower Provinces, and the enquiring traveller will here find few objects of greater antiquity or veneration than the hot spring of Sita in Eastern, and the temple of Tribeni, in Western Bengal.
The estimation in which Bengal proper was held by its conquerors, will be found generally to have been lowered by
the very facilities of its conquest. It has always yielded easily, after one or at most two battles, and has therefore been little thought of and almost thrown aside at once. Akbar's generals won it in two combats from the Affghan king, and his son enlarged the capital of Dacca, till it was transferred to Múrshedabad at the beginning of the last century. A Subadar governed it and remitted that portion of its revenues to imperial Delhi, which policy or power dictated. We gained it in one battle and have hardly fired a shot in its plains since then, and yet even that single battle field is, or will ere long have become the heritage of the encroaching river. The few travellers, who have as yet visited India for the sole avowed purpose of seeing the wonders of its empire, with good reason, have had little to do with Bengal. India to them was the India of Kanouj, of Delhi or of Agra, where the Hindu Rajah had been Lord, and the Mussulman emperor had succeeded. The late Dwarkanath Tagore on his first visit to England, if we mistake not, astonished an enquirer of the West end, who was anxious to elucidate some disputed point in the architecture of the Taj Mahal, by informing him that he had never seen the building in question, and yet we do not wonder either at the question or the answer. Ruins and Temples, relics of magnificence and wrecks of time, are those things, which speak to the eye and heart of the Tourist and Draughtsman; nature's fertility and the productiveness of civilization arrest the regards of the philosophic historian, who attempts to read something of a nation's character from their climate and their soil. And yet Bengal proper well deserves to be thoroughly known. Its amazing fertility, its importance hitherto in a financial, and hereafter perhaps in a commercial point of view, render it by far the most valuable of our Indian possessions. Its present revenue surpasses that of the most able Mussulman viceroy. From it we draw the return, which hinders India from becoming a burden on the mother country. If its looms are no longer plied by a thousand hands, and the muslins of Dacca have lost their importance in the market, yet neither Act nor Regulation, nor the views of political economists, can effect the richness of a soil, which a fierce sun and a deluging rain only combine to render more abundantly fruitful. If it wants the pure cold season of the North West Provinces, it is also free from its fiery furnace blasts. If it has not got Simla and Landour, it can yet boast of Darjiling and Cherra Punjí, and its temperature, more equable during the twelve months of the year, is perhaps as well fitted for an European constitution as the greater range of the thermometer in the districts of the North West.
Few readers either in India or in England require to be told that the distinguishing characteristic of Bengal is uniform flatness. Even the amusing and accomplished writer who talked about the hills of Húgly and the mountains of the twenty-four Pergunnahs could hardly have expected to impose on the most untravelled reader of the Oriental Magazine. The elements of ruggedness, solidity, and gloom which Burke laid down as the causes of the sublime and that of gradual variation which he claimed for the beautiful, are here utterly wanting. Smoothness and infinity, to which lower Bengal, has an undisputed title, are too apt to degenerate into tameness. A striking and grand result is wanting. The eye demands change, a succession of rise and descent, a prominence here and a sudden break there. We are wearied with the same, dull, recurring level, and turn away saying, that there is neither beauty in lower Bengal, nor good in the Bengali. Yet to the artist and the true lover of nature we doubt if any country exhibits a greater number of detached objects of beauty, or of more intensity in colouring. The painter, wandering over the plains, might fill his scrap book in a week with sketches not unworthy of a place side by side with those of Italy or the Tyrol, as those can testify who have ever been admitted to a peep at the portefeuille of the accomplished amateur to whom we owe the picture of the arrival of the Sikh guns. In luxuriance of foliage, in the graceful proximity of tall tree and humble creeper, in that strange vegetation which we hardly know whether to class with plant or with timber, Bengal is unrivalled. Our attention is excited now by the graceful bend of a river crowned with clumps of bamboos, drooping in negligent confusion like the weeping ash or willow: or by an old ruined temple overgrown with hanging creepers; or by a dark and isolated grove sacred to some Hindu Thakur or Mussulman Faqír: or by a mandari tree in the full blossom of its gorgeous red or by a wide spreading banyan under whose shade whole squadrons might repose: or by an old tank with raised embankments crowned with underwood and full a quarter of a mile long, the monument of pious Rajahs, for whose devotional works labourers flocked in abundance. And if the Rambler was right in supposing that confined spaces and vallies inclosed by high ranges of mountains hindered the mind from wandering, there is surely no obstacle to discursiveness of thought on those vast plains, which in one district are covered with a teeming rice crop far as the eye can reach, and in another with nought but the unfruitful jungle grass, the undisputed haunt of the wild hog and the buffalo herd.
We begin at once with the staple cultivation of the banks of the lower Ganges. The principal object to which the labours of
the Bengal Ryot are directed, is, as all our readers know, his rice crop. In England an opinion is or was generally prevalent, that rice forms the staple food of all the inhabitants of the Indian Peninsula, and the Historian's pen has been already employed to dispel this illusion. The Bengal and Madras districts, the first countries subjugated by us, are the rice fields of India, and with a disposition to generalize from special occurrences only too common to all discoverers, it was at once assumed that rice was the only means of subsistence to the peasantry of India from the Himalayas to the sea, and from Assam to Gujarat. Our readers here well know that up-country men do not live on rice any more than Bengalis on tea, as was gravely stated in the senate by a noble Lord. But there is no doubt that rice is the main object of the Bengal Ryot's hopes and fears, and we therefore propose giving a few of the main features of rice cultivation, both as curious in themselves, and also in the hope that they may not be altogether unacceptable to some of our readers. Of the rice itself which is exposed for sale in the bazar, there are some dozen cacophonous denominations; but of that actually cultivated in the field, there are three principal varieties, almost the same in every district. The two first are universally known as the Aous and the Aumon, and philology has busied itself in deriving, with some appearance of truth, the former from the Sanskrit Ashuvrihi or quick-growing, and the latter from Himanto or the season of cold. The third and least common of the three is known as the Boru, and as it is always found on the edges of large jhíls, where cultivation is possible only during the dry months of the year, it has been imagined that Boru is identical with Varuna (!) the Hindu Neptune or Regent of waters. But all speculations of philology apart, the features of the cultivation are in general as follows. The commencement of operations is of course entirely dependent on the showers which temper the hot weather from the end of March to the setting in of the rainy season, and in the common course of things, the sooner the ground is moistened and the seed sown, the better chance it will have of gaining head before the heaviest rains fall. As a general rule it is sown from the end of March or the beginning and middle of April to the end of May, and as it ripens in about ninety days, it is cut variously from the beginning of August or even the end of July to the middle of September. The Aous may be grown on those high sloping and sandy situations which no amount of rain can ever innundate. The Aumon on the other hand is generally sown on the black rich loam of the lower lands which hold water like a cask, and are impassable for man or horse during six or seven months of the year. This crop is sown from the middle of May
to the end of June and cut after the space of about five months in November, December, and even January. As the produce of this crop is much more valuable than the Aous, so it is much more liable to injury from the capriciousness of the weather. If too much rain falls in May or June, the Ryot cannot sow: if he delays owing to the above cause, the tender plant is deluged by heavy falls in July and August, and consequently ruined. We all know how it does rain in lower Bengal in the months of July and August, and if a sudden and protracted downfall ensues ere the stalks have made head, the consequences are often total ruin to the crop. A night and day spent actually under water, are however productive of little or no injury. It might almost be said, that, like the Republic of old, "should you plunge it in the deep, it emerges, in greater beauty;" and Abul Fazl was not guilty of much exaggeration, when he wrote that the rice stalks of Bengal would grow six inches in a night, had they once but a fair start of the inundating rains. Give them this reasonable advantage, and they rise with the rising waters. A race commences as full of interest to those concerned as the most stirring fox hunt, or the most prolonged stern chase at sea, and just such as Dickens would love to describe. It is Neptune versus Pomona Shiva against Vishnu: the destructive power in Hindu mythology in opposition to that of preservation. And the good genius often wins the day. The rice stalks mounting till the inundation begins to recede, often reach to the length of eight, ten, and even twelve feet, and then dropping quietly down in a recumbent posture on the departing waters, they await the sickle, in the expressive phraseology of the Ryot, a perfect "jungle of a crop."
But once the inundation gains way and remains without decreasing for five or six days, the Ryot who depends on this crop for his subsistence, may starve, steal, or abscond. It follows then that although the Aumon crop is in good years by far the most valuable, returning, as it does, seven, eight, and even ten rupees a bigah, yet the Aous which only yields perhaps from three to four, is much safer to depend on. No amount of rain, however unseasonable, can utterly overwhelm it, though it may impoverish the return, and it is often cut and garnished before the heaviest rain falls. There is also another point of view in which the Aous crop is more valuable than its colleague. The rich soil of Bengal, in which a crop ripens within three months, must not be suffered to be idle during the remaining nine. The old Virgilian line is applicable in the strictest sense in most districts of the Lower Provinces
Bis gravidos cogunt fœtus, duo tempora messis. Hardly has the rice straw been thrashed out in the Kalian,