A Land Of River and Plain

CHAPTER I

Flat like a map, Eastern Bengal lies spread out vast and limitless, a land of river and plain. The plough of the gods, runs the legend, wielded in swift anger, had in days gone by torn down this way from the Himalayas to the sea, furrowing hill and valley, mountain and plain, to one immense dead level. From the foot of the rocky tree-clad Rajmahal Hills on the west to the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra on the east, from the snow-clad ranges of Sikhim and Nepal on the north to the shores of the Bay of Bengal on the south, it is one great wide-sweeping plain, low lying and fertile, drained by some of the mightiest rivers of the East as they forge their impetuous way through many and ever-changing channels to the sea. Watered abundantly by nature in generous mood, the trim rice-fields stretch mile on mile, locked close in the embrace of countless streams and rivulets, luxuriant in every exquisite shade of green, like emeralds set in a silver sheen. In the very heart of this land of river and plain the successive races that have dominated it have built their capital. Time and again, as empires rose and fell, its site has changed. At the whim of kings and conquerors, eager to perpetuate their fame, new cities have arisen with startling rapidity, often but to be deserted in their turn well nigh before the last stones have crowned the minarets and pinnacles of their mosques and palaces. Yet, variable as its site has been, the chief city of Eastern Bengal for over two thousand years has never been far removed from the junction of the great rivers where Meghna and Ganges, Brahmaputra and Ishamutti meet at the head of the delta, a hundred miles from the sea. Here, in the days of legend and myth, Vikramadit founded the first capital of which the fame remains. Here today, scarce twenty miles away, still stands the time-worn city of Dacca, the once imperial capital of all Bengal, which, so long fallen from its early greatness, now again assumes the proud position of a capital, the capital of the newly formed Province of Eastern Bengal and Assam. In all India, with its varied interests and its wonderful diversity of character, no province of similar importance has met with less notice and appreciation than Eastern Bengal. Though close within reach of Calcutta, in which, early and late, so much of the interest of the British Empire in India has centred, it yet remains apart, unknown and unappreciated, its vast expanse of river and plain unexplored save by those whom duty takes this way. Even the average official, caught by the glamour of Behar, avoids the eastern districts, and the makers of books have left it for the most part severely alone. Until it sprang into prominence recently in English politics, the very name of Eastern Bengal conjured up in the average English-man’s mind nothing but vague visions of a land of jungle and swamp, and the meeting-place of many rivers. Dacca alone, with the fame of its muslins, was familiar to English ears. The globe-trotter, absorbed in the great spectacular panorama of the beaten track, has passed it by. Treading with unvarying monotony and a strange absence of originality a certain set itinerary, he has gone home, primed with scant knowledge of the real India, to rhapsodize over the great wonders of the East that have been described again and yet again until one well nigh wearies on paper of the beauties of the Taj, the magnificence of Delhi and the memories of Lucknow. Scarce one has turned aside to explore this new field so near at hand. Calcutta seems to have fixed itself as the eastern limit of the tourist’s travels in Bengal, and the great Province that lies beyond, making no dramatic bid for the notice of the passer-by, still remains but a name, its story untold and its charm unknown. Yet it is there, a charm unique among all the wonders of the East. From the dry, sun-baked land of the beaten track, one turns gratefully to rest the eye upon the fair luxuriance of this well nourished land. Small wonder that ancient chroniclers, reveling in picturesque description, called it ‘a land of emerald and silver,’ ‘a garden fit for kings.’ Even in official documents it is styled ‘Jannat-ul-bilad,’ the Paradise of Countries. Its perennial freshness knows but the lightest touch of autumn. Its wealth of green, in every wonderful shade, from the deepest of olives to the tender green of the earliest rice, covers the earth like a carpet lovingly spread by the gods. Here nature in luxuriant mood has lavishly bestowed the boon most craved by the sun scorched plains of the East, watering it with the thousand streams that twist and turn like the paths of a maze through all its length and breadth. Almost all the terrible calamities that time and again have fallen upon the Indian people this favored province has been spared. Plague has not yet forced its way across the network of rivers that stand like a barrier to bar its path. Famine is almost unknown within the memory of man. Yearly the dense population of Eastern Bengal imposes a heavy burden upon the land, but the rich alluvial soil proves equal to the task. In the trim, well-watered rice-fields, men labor with the joy of certain harvest, knowing that bread cast upon the waters, after no long tarrying, will faithfully render up its full return. It is a scene full of life and interest, as one passes up the great rivers on one of the many steamers that run through the heart of Eastern Bengal, linking the first city of India with the furthermost limits of empire towards the East. There is no easier mode of travelling in all India than this. To the tourist jaded with the noise and rush of the long rail journeys that India entails, and sated with the stir and ceaseless activity of cities, there comes a strange sense of peacefulness and rest. Smoothly the huge steamer glides onward, forging its even way ahead, gallant and determined, buoyant with a sense of joyousness and power. A soft cool breeze blows gratefully. At ease in a long deck-chair, one watches the fascinating life of the river unfolded in brief flashes before one’s view like a kaleidoscope, each glimpse a picture in itself more illuminative of the real India than many pages of description. The morning sun comes slowly over the water’s edge, bathing the river in exquisite tints of pink and silver and gold. All is still with the wonderful stillness of dawn. Only the river moves ceaselessly, now smooth like glass, mirroring every passing glory of the sky, now murmuring on its way in a thousand laughing ripples, now angry and storm-tossed like a sea in miniature, ever changing, yet fascinating in all its moods. Strange craft glide swiftly by, sails set and bellying proudly in the wind. Tiny fishing-boats curved and narrow, swift goyna boats long and pointed fore and aft, larger craft heavy and slow-moving, houseboats snug and neat with mat walls and roof, all pass by, busy, alive, intent, speeding onwards each to its appointed goal. White sails, brown sails, sails in yellow and blue, add exquisite touches of colour as they fall and dip and strain at the mast like things alive with joy in the breeze and the light of the sun. The river throbs with life, yet a life so smooth, so noiseless, that passing it leaves unbroken the exquisite sense of peace that the river has made its own. Close within hail of the bank the steamer passes, each moment disclosing some new glimpse[1] of the daily round of Indian life. A group of women, ornaments jingling on wrist and neck and ankle, come gossiping to the water’s edge, poising their water-pots upon their heads with the grace that only Eastern women know. A straggling village, mat-walled, thatch-roofed, peeps out among the trees, raised but a foot above the river level. Its inhabitants, slow-moving and deliberate, pursue the daily round seemingly unmindful of the threatened inundation of their homes. A crowd of tiny urchins, innocent of clothing, happy and free in a string of beads, play lazily in the sun. A youth, scarce bigger than they, but with an air, lustily belabors a herd of buffalo, urging them far out into the river until only their great black heads appear as they wallow contentedly in the grateful coolness of the stream. As the sun mounts high in the sky, every bathing ghat along the banks is crowded, picturesque groups of men, women, and children punctiliously performing the daily ablution that their faith enjoins. Then the heat of the day, and life for a space seems lulled to slumber. One by one the bathers quit the banks and every sign of life creeps into the shade. Even the breeze is still, and the sails of the countless craft on the river all lay furled. Only the river itself moves on, ceaseless and untiring. Then a glorious sunset, such as one sees but seldom, save in Eastern Bengal across the face of the waters, that reflect every fleeting shade of brilliance, of amber and red and purple and orange and gold. Then night and a new world of the deep blue vault of the starry sky above and dim shadows beneath, broken only by dazzling flashes from the searchlight as it makes clear the path ahead, throwing upon river and land its ghostly mystic radiance, revealing in brief flashes the secrets of the night as limelight throws a picture on a screen. In sharp contrast with the peacefulness and quiet charm of Eastern Bengal are the streets and story of its capital. Here there is a charm of another kind, the fascination that a great historic city never fails to cast upon him who treads its streets with the seeing eye, with sympathy and understanding. Mystery, that is as the breath of Eastern cities, baffles one at every turn in Dacca. The crumbling walls of its mosques and palaces rise grim and time-worn, hiding within their ruined turrets and dim walled chambers a thousand unrecorded secrets that no man living knows. Strange things have passed within their ken. They have listened to the whispered mutterings of intrigue, the plotting of foul crimes and dark mysterious deeds, and the softer voices of the fleeting loves and passions of a race swift in love as in war. They have watched the tragic passing of great Viceroys and Princes, and the triumphant entry of those who followed in their wake, to enjoy their brief spell of glory ere their own knell sounded. In rapid flight they have witnessed splendour and decay, triumph and exile, victory and defeat, a very sermon on the vanity of human strivings and desires. But silent, inscrutable, they make no sign, holding fast to their own that no man may wrest it from them. Even the winding alleys and tortuous ways that lead into the heart of the great city seem designed with jealous care to shroud a mystery from the outside gaze. So little is known, so little there is that can now be rescued from the limbo of the past, that one turns aside baffled, foiled in the attempt to wring from the great city the countless mysteries that lie hidden deep within her heart.

Time and man have treated the once imperial city with but scant respect. Many storms and the great humidity of Eastern Bengal have wrought havoc with brick and stone, wearing away at last the wonderful workmanship of a race of great architects and builders. Man, with incredible vandalism, has even outdone Time, pulling down the exquisite structures that he could never rival, to build with the selfsame bricks some hideous modern structure of his own base design. But even in its decay the charm of the city remains. Neither time nor the vandal hand of man can rob it of the wonder and romance of its many vicissitudes, and the great memories that for all time remain its own.

Bound all that concerns the early days of Eastern Bengal there is the same impenetrable mystery that has fallen like a veil over so much of the past throughout India. Of the time before the Muslim invasion well nigh all is legend and myth. The Buddhists and Hindus who then peopled the land were no chroniclers. The compilation of pedigrees seems to have been almost the limit of their literary skill. Of passing events and the strange happenings that befell men in those far-off days they made no note. Life was too strenuous, the struggle for existence too keen, to foster the development of an impersonal interest in the history of the time. In the midst of a life so precarious, of alarms so constant and insistent, there was no time for the chronicling of events. If such was done, the records must have perished with their makers. A few inscriptions, a mass of vague traditions, and brief glimpses of them in the records of their conquerors, are all that remain to tell what manner of men they were, and how life fared with them in the Eastern Bengal of the olden days.

Round Vikrampur, where Dhaleswari and Meghna meet, the first traditions cluster. Here for centuries a Buddhist dynasty flourished, yet finally passed away leaving but little trace of its long dominion, and not a single descendant of its faith in all Eastern Bengal. Opposite Vikrampur, across the Ishamutti, in Sonargaon, a long line of Hindu kings held sway, but all that remains today in their one-time capital is a single building, once the Eoyal Treasury. Almost without a struggle the Hindu kingdom in Sonargaon fell before the Muslim invaders. Bukhtiyar Khiliji, at the head of an Afghan army, speedily drove Lakshman Sen, the last Hindu King of Bengal, from his capital at Lakhnauti, and pressing eastwards, took possession of Sonargaon, founding a great Muslim viceroyalty under the imperial authority at Delhi.

In pre-Muslim days there seems to have been no general name for the land now known as Bengal. The Muslim s themselves first knew their newly conquered province as Lakhnauti, the name of Lakshman Sen’s capital, since known as Gaur. The word ‘Bengal ‘first appears in Indian history as ‘Banga,’ possibly derived from Anga, the East, as in Vangala-Agadha, the Eastern Ocean. It was not till near the end of the thirteenth century that the name apparently reached England. Marco Polo, the famous traveler, is the first European to use it in the form of Bangala, and he gives it as a general name to all the land at the head of the Bay of Bengal, the Vangala-Agadha.

Under Muslim rule Eastern Bengal suffered many strange vicissitudes. On the furthest frontier of the empire, it was a far cry from the central power at Delhi, and none but the strongest arm could make its power felt as a reality so far afield. The weakness of emperors was the opportunity of ambitious viceroys, and little more than a hundred years after the first Muslim conquest, Fakiruddin threw off his allegiance to the Imperial Court and proclaimed himself independent king of Bengal.

Then for well nigh two hundred years the kingdom went to the strongest. The mass of the people, still almost entirely Hindu, cared little. The Muslims, who had imposed themselves upon Bengal as the ruling race by the sword and by their genius for rule, were still but a small portion of the population. The people, conquered and apathetic, knowing that the oppressor must needs be, stood by indifferent while kings and princes fought out their feuds. It is a terrible record that fills these two hundred years of rebellion and intrigue, of father fighting against son and brother against brother. The strong man arose, sweeping all before him,’ and while he lived enforced his rule. With his death came anarchy and a fierce struggle for the throne, a reckless rayot[2] of plunder, murder, and fratricide. Out of the contest one stronger than the rest at last emerged, ruthlessly forging his way to empire and giving a brief uncertain rest to the exhausted land. With his death, and death came suddenly in those days, anarchy once more reigned. And so the monotonous round goes on. It is a confusing chronicle. Euler succeeds ruler, only with startling rapidity to meet the fate of his predecessor, and another reigns in his stead, until one grows weary of the oft-repeated tale of treachery and intrigue.

The Afghans were a fighting race, and it was not without a determined struggle that they gave way before the all-conquering Mughal. Once again under their magnificent leader, Sher Shah, they wrested back from the conqueror not only Bengal but the empire itself, and Sher Shah reigned in Humayon’s stead. But it was their final effort, and thirty years later the great Akbar’s forces destroyed the last hope of the Afghans in Bengal.

These were the days of the greatest prosperity of Sonargaon. The art of weaving, the gift of the Muslim conqueror, had here attained a perfection wellnigh unrivalled in the East. The fame of the exquisite muslins that its artificers alone could produce had already reached Europe and excited the wonder and admiration even of the most skilled workmen of Italy and France. Travelers dwell in astonishment on the cheapness of provisions, and Kalph Fitch, visiting the district in 1586, speaks of it as ‘abounding in rice, cotton, and silk goods.’ Not even the wars and alarms of the most turbulent period of Muslim rule could wholly rob this much favored land of its prosperity. Even from the repeated attacks of the river pirates, Mughs and Arracanese, aided and abetted by a roving company of Portuguese adventurers, it revived with wonderful vitality, nature rapidly making good the ravages of man.

But with the final triumph of the Mughal in Bengal, and the reinforcement of imperial authority, the days of Sonargaon drew rapidly to an end. A new ruler, eager to perpetuate his fame and moved thereto by the exigencies of the time, desired a new capital, and the ancient city was left to crumble to decay or forced to yield its very bricks and stones and monuments to grace its rival’s triumph. Twenty miles away, on the banks of the Buriganga, raised the new city of Dacca, designed by Islam Khan from its inception to be the capital of all Bengal.

The hundred years that followed were momentous years in the history of the new capital. It was the time of the great viceroys, and distinguished names crowd thick upon its roll of fame. First the name of Islam Khan its founder, the conqueror of the Afghan, and the trusted minister of Jehangir; then Ibrahim Khan, the victorious in war and patron of the arts and commerce; Shahjahan, the builder in after-days of the world-famed Taj Mahal, a fitting shrine for the beauty of his queen; Sultan Shuja, foiled in his bid for empire, an exile at its gates, hastening to his ignominious death at the hands of the Arracanese; Mir Jumla, the invader of Assam, whose soaring ambition and consummate ability made even the great Aurungzeb fear; and, greatest of all, Shaista Khan, Lord of the Nobles, brother of the famous Empress Mumtaz Mahal, who has left his mark for all time upon the city he so long ruled.

But this brilliant period in the history of the city came to a sudden end. At the whim of a viceroy it had risen. In like manner it fell. Murshid Kuli Khan, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, transferred his capital to Murshidabad, and Dacca, deserted by the viceroy and all the paraphernalia of courts, was shorn of half its glory. Left to the rule of its Naib Nazims or Deputy-Governors, it sank in dignity and importance, and henceforth its name is heard but seldom in the larger issues that convulsed Bengal. So for fifty years it remained with varying fortunes, prosperous and content under the wise guidance of a Juswant Roy, or harassed and oppressed under the rapacious rule of a Murad Ali. The central power, exhausted by Aurungzeb’s life-long struggle, was rapidly falling to decay, and Eastern Bengal, on the outskirts of the empire, was quick to feel when the strong hand had relaxed its hold. Unchecked, the local governors wreaked their will upon the province, and well it was for the people of Eastern Bengal that, in the midst of all the self-seeking violence and oppression that marked the last days of Muslim rule, there were still from time to time wise administrators and just judges numbered among its rulers.

Then at last, when the Muslim Empire had reached its lowest ebb, when the Mahrattas were knocking at its gates with no uncertain hand, when imperial rescripts no longer ran, and a despot of the worst type ruled at Murshidabad, there came an unexpected end. A little company of English merchants, bent only upon trade, had made the smallest of beginnings in Bengal some hundred and twenty years before. Battling with true British pluck against innumerable difficulties, they had doggedly pushed their way, checked and harassed at every turn, but insistent, ignorant of defeat, turned aside from their purpose by no let or hindrance. So after many vicissitudes they had won for themselves a place, and the founding of Fort William at the close of the seventeenth century, though they knew it not, was only the first step to far greater things. But a long series of events, culminating in the attack upon Calcutta in 1750, forced the reluctant East India Company, in the protection of its own interests, to assume the functions of government which the ruined and dismembered Mughal[3] Empire was no longer able to perform. To obtain freedom and security of trade it was necessary to enforce law and order, and this the local native authorities had signally failed to do. It was left for the English Company to bring peace and good government to the harassed province. Just over a hundred years after the English factory had been established in Dacca, the first Collector was appointed there to take over the administration of Eastern Bengal.

It was by a strange irony of fate that the commercial prosperity of Dacca should decline with the assumption of power by a Company whose very raison d’etre was trade and commerce. Such a result, due to a number of causes over which the Company had no control, was as unforeseen as it was unavoidable. But if Dacca suffered through changed conditions in one direction, she gained immeasurably in many another. The days of unrest, when battle, murder, and sudden death stalked everywhere, were past. For the first time in its history Eastern Bengal knew the blessings of a prolonged peace, and, secure in life and property, the long down-trodden people saw the dawn of a new era of prosperity and content. The rayot , assured of the fruit of his labor, and confident that now no longer others would reap where he had sown, rapidly extended his cultivation of the responsive soil, and, deserting Dacca as manufactures declined, sought a new home in the most remote corners of the district, felling the jungle and driving the beasts of prey that once carried off his flocks and herds on the outskirts of the capital itself into the far-distant patches of jungle that still remained.

Today a new era in its history has dawned for Dacca. After eclipse for just two hundred years, it once more regains the proud position of a capital. Eastern Bengal, withdrawn from its one-time alliance with Bengal Proper, Behar and Orissa, now joins Assam, forming the new Province of Eastern Bengal and Assam, with its own Lieutenant-Governor, and Dacca as its capital. The old Province of Bengal had long been held to be too heavy a burden for one administration; and Eastern Bengal, being in many directions considerably behind the western portion of the Province, had failed to keep pace with the general progress of the whole, and, from press of interests, to receive the attention on the part of Government that it demanded. The object of the Partition was, therefore, twofold. In the first place it sought to relieve Bengal of a portion of its unduly heavy charge, and in the second place it was hoped, by giving to it its own local government, that the interests of Eastern Bengal would be more jealously safeguarded and its general progress accelerated. The division was carried out as far as possible with due regard to racial distinctions. In the old Province there now remain no fewer than forty-two million Hindus as compared with nine million Muslims[4]. On the other hand, in the new Province the Muslims predominates to the extent of eighteen millions as against twelve million Hindus. One of the chief objections urged against the Partition was that it severed old ties and split up an ancient Province which long custom had indissolubly made one. Such an argument, however, can have little weight with anyone who is at all familiar with the history of Bengal. Unity and permanence were noticeably absent in Muslim days. Not only was the capital continually changed by successive viceroys, but the Province as then constituted bore little resemblance to the Bengal of British rule. Behar and Orissa were for the most part provided with their own governors direct from Delhi, Chotanagpur and the Damon-i-Koh remained practically unconquered, while Bengal itself was continually divided up into deputy governorships under its viceroy. The formation of Bengal into a Lieutenant-Governorship was an entirely modern scheme, that was only carried into effect by the British Government, long after its rule had been firmly established in India, during the first half of the nineteenth century. The Province, as constituted, was therefore considerably less than a century old when the Partition took place on October 16, 1905.

Practically unanimously welcomed by the Muslims, it can hardly be doubted that it will immensely promote their welfare in the near future. An extremely backward and ignorant people for the most part in Eastern Bengal, they had shown little of the keenness and adaptability to modern conditions which the Hindus have so strikingly exhibited. The large native press is almost entirely in the hands of the Hindus, and the Muslims, without the art of agitating and too ignorant and apathetic to make their grievances known, have inevitably fallen behind in the general advance. Now, included in a splendid Province some one hundred and six thousand square miles in extent, and with great possibilities as yet untried, in which they largely predominate, their interests will meet with the fullest and most sympathetic consideration on the part of their own local government. Already under their first Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Bampfylde Fuller, K.C.S.I., much has been done, and his resignation, which took effect on August 20 last, was deeply deplored by the Muslim community. Under the Honorable Mr. Hare, however, who has succeeded him, the progress begun will doubtless continue and justify beyond dispute in the near future the creation of the new Province.

To Dacca itself the Partition has brought a wonderful revival. Already there is an unwonted stir of life and interest in the old imperial city. The sense of awakening is in the air. New buildings are rapidly rising to accommodate the army of officials, and all the following that Government necessarily carries in its train. The pulse of the city, so long weak and listless, throbs with renewed vigor. Once more it is the centre of affairs where great issues are fought out, and important decisions arrived at, affecting no fewer than thirty millions of people. The long sleep of the city is past. It may even be that, with the present movement to resuscitate native arts and commerce, the weaving of muslins may be revived in Dacca, and its workmanship once more excite the wonder and admiration of the West. The art is not yet lost, and the encouragement that it has so long lacked may even now revive it. The crumbling walls of its mosques and palaces, also, it is not too much to hope, may be at last arrested in their decay and carefully preserved among the rising evidences of the city’s restored prosperity, as perpetual reminders of her great historic past. Dacca, so long folded in the fatal sleep that falls upon all Eastern cities once their greatness has departed, has at length awakened, and standing at the parting of the ways, midway between the memories of her past and the possibilities of the future, looks hopefully along the vista of the coming years, and awaits with confidence the fulfilment of their promise.

[1] Photography: 1 in the kingdom of vikrampur and 2 on the buriganga

[2] Birt wrote riot.

[3] Birt wore Moghul.

[4] Bradlay-Birt wotes Mahomedans.

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