Bengal: Physical aspects, c. A.D. 1900

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Note: National, provincial and district boundaries have changed considerably since 1908. Typically, old states, ‘divisions’ and districts have been broken into smaller units, and many tahsils upgraded to districts. Some units have since been renamed. Therefore, this article is being posted mainly for its historical value.

Physical aspects

Bengal contains tracts of very different physical features, including the alluvial plains of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, and the deltas of those rivers, which form the greater part of Bihar and Bengal proper ; the crystalline plateau asnect of Chota Nagpur, including the Tributary States of Orissa, and the hills stretching to the Ganges at Rajmahal ; the narrow strip of alluvium comprising Orissa ; and lastly, a small portion of the sub-Himalayas, the Sikkim State, and a tract which once be- longed to Sikkim but now forms the main part of Darjeeling District.

It is thought that there was formerly a continuous chain connecting the Rajmahal range with the remains of the ' peninsular system,' still in existence in Assam, and that their subsidence was due to the same disturbances that resulted in the elevation of the Himalayas. The hollow thus formed has been filled in by the fluvial deposits of the Himalayan rivers ; but the gradual raising of the surface has been, to a great extent, discounted by fresh subsidences, which have been accompanied by upheavals elsewhere. However this may be, the uplands of Chota Nagpur date from a very ancient period, while the Himalayas were thrown up at a time which, from a geological point of view, is comparatively recent, and the alluvium in the greater part of Bengal proper has been deposited at a much later date than that in the Bihar plain west of Rajmahal.

The sub-province of Bihar occupies the north-western quarter of Bengal. It is divided by the Ganges into two parts — north and south. North Bihar is a level plain falling very gradually from the foot of the Himalayas, and with a belt of fairly high land along the bank of the Ganges. Between these two extremes the general elevation is lower, and considerable areas are liable to damage by floods. The soil consists mainly of the older alluvium or bilngar, a yellowish clay, with frecjuent deposits of kankar ; but in many parts this has been cut away by the torrents that rush down from the Himalayas, and the lowland, through which these rivers have at one time or another found an exit to the Ganges, is composed of more recent deposits of sand and silt brought down by them when in flood. In South Bihar the effects of recent fluvial action are less marked, especially towards the east, where the oudying hills and undulations of the Chota Nagpur plateau trench more and more upon the Gangetic plain until, at Monghyr, they extend as far as the river itself, and offer an effectual opposition to the oscillations in its course which the more yielding alluvial soil is unable to prevent elsewhere. The Bihar of our administration contains two tracts which do not properly belong to it. The Santal Parganas in its physical and ethnic features is an integral part of Chota Nagpur, while Malda* and the eastern part of Purnea belong to Bengal proper.

The latter sub-province naturally subdivides itself into four distinct parts. West Bengal, or the part west of the Bhagirathi, lies outside the true delta. The eastern portion of this tract is low and of alluvial formation ; but farther west laterite begins to predominate, and the surface rises and becomes more and more undulating and rocky, until at last it merges in the uplands of Chota Nagpur. Central Bengal, or the part lying south of the Padma, between the Bhagirathi on the west and the Madhuraati on the east, was formerly the Ganges delta ; but it has gradually been raised above flood-level, and the great rivers which formerly flowed through it, depositing their fertilizing silt, yielding an ample supply of wholesome drinking-water, and draining it, have shrunk to insignificance.

Their mouths have silted up and their banks are often higher than the .surrounding country, which they are no longer able to drain. East Bengal, or the country east of the Madhumati, includes the present delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra, where the process of land-formation is still going on ; but in the south-east the hill range that divides Assam from Burma projects into it, while on the confines of Dacca* and Mymensingh* the Madhupur Jungle*, a tract ofquasi-laterite, rises above the recent alluvium. North Bengal lies north of the Padma and is wholly alluvial, with the exception of the Himalayan State of Sikkim, the greater part of the District of Darjeeling, and an elevated tract known as the Barind*, similar to the Madhupur jungle, which occupies a considerable area on the confines of Dinajpur*, Malda*, Rajshahi*, and Bogra*. In spite of its proximity to the hills, the general level of the alluvial country is very low, especially in Cooch Behar, Rangpur*, and the central part of Rajshahi*; and it suffers from obstructed drainage, due to the silting-up of the rivers and the gradual raising of their beds.

The plains of Orissa are a flat alluvial tract of which the centre and south comprise the delta of the Mahanadi, and the north has been formed by the fluvial deposits of the rivers which drain the southern flank of the Chota Nagpur plateau. Behind these plains rises a belt of hills, which gradually merge in the rocky uplands of the Tributary States.

Chota Nagpur, with the Santal Parganas and the Tributary States of Orissa, belongs throughout to the same geological formation. On the whole, the level rises gradually towards the north and west, but some of the highest peaks are in the south.

The main axis of the Himalayas skirts the northern boundary of Sikkim, dividing it from Tibet ; but one of the loftiest mountains in the world, Kinchinjunga (28,146 feet), lies within Sikkim, and three outliers project far into the plains of Bengal. The Singalila range strikes southward from Kinchinjunga in 88° E., and forms the boundary between Nepal and Darjeeling, its highest peaks being Singalila (12,130 feet), Sandakphu (11,930 feet), Phalut (ii,8ii feet), and Sabargam (11,636 feet), and the connected ranges and spurs covering the greater part of Darjeeling District. Fifty miles to the eastward, the Chola range runs southward from the Dongkya peak (23,190 feet), and divides Sikkim from Tibet and Bhutan on the east ; it is pierced by the Jelep La Pass, at 14,390 feet, and separates the basin of the TIsta on the west from that of the Torsa on the east. At Gipmochi (the tri-junction point of the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet boundary) this range bifurcates into two great spurs ; one runs to the south-east and the other to the south-west, including between them the valley of the Jaldhaka. From Chumalhari (23,933 feet) another great ridge strikes south through Bhutan between the basins of the Torsa (the Chumbi Valley) and Raidak rivers, terminating in the Sinchula hills which form the boundary between Jalpaiguri District* and Bhutan. The sub-Himalayan zone is represented by the Someswar hills (2,270 feet), which form the boundary between Champaran District and Nepal.

The Chota Nagpur plateau is contiguous to the Vindhyan system and attains an elevation of 2,000 feet. There are in reality three separate plateaux divided by belts of rugged hill and ravine ; and a confused mass of hills fringes the plateaux, extending in the Rajmahal Hills and at Monghyr north-east to the Ganges, and southwards over the Orissa Tributary States, while outlying spurs project far into the plains of South Bihar and West Bengal. Parasnath (4,480 feet) in Hazari- bagh District is the loftiest of these spurs, and the Saranda hills in Singhblulm rise to 3,500 feet.

On the south-eastern frontier a succession of low ranges running north and south covers the east of the Chittagong Division* and Hill Tippera*. The Sitakund* hill rises to 1,155 feet; but the ranges in the Chittagong Hill Tracts* attain a greater altitude, the highest peaks being Keokradang (4,034 feet) and Pyramid hill (3,017 feet).

The most distinctive feature of the Province is its network of rivers— the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, with their affluents and distributaries. These rivers are of use in many ways. They furnish an admirable and cheap means of transport ; they contain an inexhaustible supply offish; and they bring down vast quantities of fertilizing silt, which they distri- bute over the surface of the delta. The Ganges, which enters on the western frontier, flows almost due east, with numerous oscillations, as far as Rajmahal, where it escapes from the restraining influence of the hard rocks of the Chota Nagpur formation and enters the loose alluvium of Bengal proper. Until some 400 years ago, its subsequent course was due south, down the channel of the Bhagirathi. By degrees this channel silted up and became unequal to its task, and the main stream of the Ganges was thus obliged to seek another outlet. In this way the Ichamati, the JalangI, and the Matabhanga became in turn the main stream. The river tended ever eastwards, and at last, aided perhaps by one of those periodic subsidences of the unstable surface of the country to which reference has already been made, it broke eastwards, right across the old drainage channels, until it was met and stopped by the Brahmaputra. The river, below the point where the Bhagirathi leaves it, is known as the Padma.

Having its source at no great distance from that of the Ganges, but on the other side of the Himalayas, the Brahmaputra flows eastwards through Tibet, where it is known as the Tsan-po, until it reaches a point due north of the eastern extremity of Assam, when it takes a southerly course and, threading its way through the Eastern Himalayas, emerges in the plains of Assam. It then turns westwards and, after traversing the Assam Valley, enters Bengal from the north-east. It formerly followed the contour of the Garo Hills and, bisecting the District of Mymensingh*, joined the Meghna, or the united channel of the rivers which drain the Surma Valley and the surrounding hills of the Assam range and Lushai. This is the course shown on the maps of Rennell's survey in 1785; and it was not till the beginning of the nineteenth century that, having raised its bed and lost its velocity, it was no longer able to hold its own against the Meghna, and suddenly broke westwards. Its new course runs due south from Dhubri and joins the Padma near GoALUNDO*. From this point these two great rivers travel down a common channel and vie with each other in depositing their silt in the eastern corner of the delta, where the land area is now being rapidly thrust forward. They discharge into the Bay of Bengal down the Meghna estuary.

Along the northern frontier of Bengal numerous rivers debouch from the Himalayas. There are reasons for supposing that formerly, when the Ganges and the Brahmaputra were still 150 miles apart, many of them united to form a great independent river which flowed southwards to the sea, sometimes east of the Barind down the channel of the Kara- TOVA, and sometimes west of it by way of the Mahananda. It has been suggested that the Haringhata was the original estuary of the Karatoya and its affluents, and it is possible that the Bhairab was the ancient channel of the Mahananda. Its tortuous course can still be traced on both sides of the Jalangi and the Matabhanga ; and it is only near the Padma, almost opposite the point where the Mahananda flows into it, that all upward traces of this old river disappear. At the present time the chief Himalayan tributaries of the Ganges in this Province are the Gandak, the Kosi, and the Mahananda, while the Tista — the modern representative of the Karatoya — is an affluent of the Brahma- putra. On its right bank the Ganges receives the Son from Chota Nagpur ; and its ancient channel, the Bhagirathi, which, in the latter part of its course, is called the Hooghly, is augmented from the same direction by the waters of the Damodar and the Rupnarayan. Farther south, in Orissa, several rivers, draining the Chota Nagpur plateau, find an exit to the sea independently of the great fluvial system described above. Of these the chief are the Subarnarekha, Baitarani, BrahmanI, and MahanadI.

In a level alluvial country like Bengal, where the soil is composed of loose and yielding materials, the courses of the rivers are constantly shifting ; land is cut away from one bank and thrown up on the other, and the definition and regulation of the alluvial rights of the riparian proprietors, and of the state, form the subject of a distinct branch of Anglo-Indian jurisprudence.

In spite of the dead level and the consequent absence of variety, the scenery of Bengal proper and Orissa has a distinct charm i.A its own. Even in the dry months the groves of bamboos and of mango, areca and coco-nut palm, tamarind, plpal and other trees, in which the home- stead lands of the people are buried, afford a profusion of green vegeta- tion very restful to the eye, while in the rains, from the time when the young rice seedlings cover the ground with a delicate green sward until December, when the golden heads of the mature plants fall before the sickle, the landscape verges very closely on the beautiful. In South Bihar, the village sites are, for the most part, devoid of trees, and the houses are crowded together in inartistic confusion. Except for occasional mango groves and the trees on the steeper hills or along some of the main roads, there is very little vegetation when the crops are off the ground, and the prospect is bare and arid, until the rains cause the maize, millets, and early rice to germinate. In North Bihar trees are more plentiful, though much less so than in Bengal proper. The Chota Nagpur plateau is a tangled mass of rock and forest. The outlook is always diversified, and from the higher points magnificent views are obtained.

In their upper reaches the rivers have a rapid flow and carry away the soil ; but when they enter the level flats of Bengal proper, their speed is reduced, and their torpid current is no longer able to support the solid matter hitherto held in suspension. They accordingly deposit it in their beds and on their banks, which are thus raised above the level of the surrounding country, until at last the river breaks through to the adjacent lowland and makes for itself a new bed, where it repeats the process. Great marshes or bils are often found within the enclosures thus formed by the high banks of rivers. These are generally connected with the outside rivers by khdls or drainage channels ; but, owing to the tendency of all watercourses to silt up, they remain open only so long as the difference of level between the water in the basin and that outside is sufficiently great to maintain a flow which gives an efificient scour. The natural tendency of these swamps is to fill up ; in the rainy season the rivers drain into them and deposit their silt, and decayed vegetable matter also gradually accumulates. In this way, but for the vagaries of the rivers and fresh subsidences of the surface^ the irregularities in elevation would in course of time disappear.

These marshes are met with all over Bengal proper ; but they are especially numerous in the south of Faridpur* and the west and north-west of Backergunge*, where the whole country is a succession of basins, full of water in the rains, but partially or wholly dry in the winter months. The largest of these depressions is the Chalan Bil*, lying partly in Rajshahi* and partly in Pabna*, which has a water area varying from about 20 square miles in the dry season to 150 in the rains. The average depth of water during the dry season is about 3 feet ; a tortuous navigal)le channel runs through it, with a depth of from 6 t(j 12 feet all the year round. In Bihar the number of these marshes is comparatively small, and they usually dry up during the cold season. The only lakes, pro- perly so called, are found in Champaran, where a chain of them (forty- three in number), covering an area of 139 square miles, runs through the centre of the District, marking the old bed of some extensive river which has now taken another course.

The largest lake, if such it can be called, in the whole Province is the Chilka, in the south of Orissa, a pear-shaped expanse of water, 44 miles long, with an area varying at different seasons from 344 to 450 square miles. It was once doubtless a gulf of the sea, protected on the south by a barren spur of hills and on the north by the alluvial formation deposited by the MahanadI and other rivers. These two promontories are now joined by a bar of sand, thrown up by the winds of the south-west monsoon, which is steadily growing in breadth. Early in the nineteenth century the only opening had silted up, and an artificial mouth had to be cut, which still connects it with the sea. From December to June the water is salt ; but when the rivers which feed it are in flood, the salt water is gradually driven out, and it becomes a fresh-water lake. It is slowly filling up, and its average depth is now only 3 to 5 feet.

The process of land-formation, which is active along the shores of the Bay of Bengal, forms numerous islands, which tend to join the mainland as the intermediate channels silt up ; many of them are, however, still separated from the shore by broad channels. Sagar Island, off the mouth of the Hooghly, has for centuries been famous as the scene of an annual bathing festival, at the point where the sacred Ganges merges its waters in the Bay. Dakhin Shahbazpur*, at the mouth of the Meghna, is the largest of the islands formed by the silt-laden w:aters of the Ganges and Brahmaputra, which have also created Sandwip* and Hatia* ; the former was long notorious as a nest of the Portuguese and Arakanese pirates who harried the coasts of Bengal in the seven- teenth century. Kutubdia* is an alluvial island off the Chittagong* coast which has also been formed by deposits of silt washed down from the Meghna ; the adjacent island of Maiskhal* has a backbone of low hills which rise abruptly from the sea.

The coast-line of the Bay of Bengal is everywhere alluvial, and the harbours are situated up the rivers which until recently carried all the commerce of the country. Calcutta, 80 miles from the mouth of the Hooghly, absorbs almost the entire trade of the Province, the value of its imports and exports in 1903-4 having been 113 crores, or 75 millions sterling, out of a total for all Bengal of rather less than 118 crores. Of the entire volume of its trade 10 1 crores is with foreign ports.

Chittagong*, 12 miles up the Karnaphuli river, on the east side of the Bay, is a much older port than Calcutta, but has until lately served a very limited area, the principal business having been the shipment of jute carried in brigs from Narayanganj*. The Assam-Bengal Railway has now connected it with the Assam Valley, of which it promises to become the principal outlet. The value of its imports and exports in 1903-4 was 4 crores or nearly 3 millions sterling. The Orissa ports include Balasore, False Point, and Puri ; but their trade is declin- ing owing to the competition of the East Coast Railway, and it was valued in 1903-4 at only 83 lakhs.

As has already been stated, the greater part of the plains of Bengal is covered by alluvium. Little is known of the hills in the Chitlagong Hill Tracts* and Hill Tippera*, except that they are composed of Upper Tertiary rocks, and geological interest is confined to the Chota Nagpur plateau and to the portion of the Himalayas contained in Darjeeling and Sikkim.

Cneissic rocks form the nucleus of the Chota Nagpur plateau, and are fringed on all sides by transition rocks, and freely interbedded with micaceous, siliceous, and hornblendic schists. The transition or sub- metamorphic rocks form groups of isolated hills in South Bihar, known as the Rajgir, Sheikhpura, Kharakpur, and Gidhaur hills ; and similar transition rocks are found in parts of Manbhum, Singhbhum, and Ranch! Districts. The transition rocks carry metalliferous lodes of gold, silver, copper, and lead, but so far none of these have proved remunerative.

Sandstones, shales, and limestones belonging to the Sasaram Vindhyan system occur near Rohtasgarh in Shahabad District.

The Gondwana system contains coal-bearing strata, and is represented in the Rajmahal Hills, the Damodar valley, in several of the Chota Nagpur Districts, and in Orissa. At the base of this system lies the Talcher group of shale and sandstone, and above it the Karharbari sandstones, grits, and conglomerates, with seams of coal. This is super- posed by the Damodar series, which comprises in ascending order the Barakar group, ironstone shales, and the Raniganj beds. The Barakars consist of conglomerates, sandstones, shales, and coal ; and above them, in the Raniganj and a few other coal-fields of the Damodar valley, there is found a great thickness of black or grey shales, with bands and nodules of clay ironstone. The Raniganj beds comprise coarse and fine sandstones, with shales and coal-seams.

Laterite (a porous argillaceous rock much impregnated with iron peroxide) is well developed on the west coast, and is traced northward from Orissa, through Midnapore, Burdwan, and Birbhum, to the flanks of the Rajmahal Hills, where in places it is as much as 200 feet thick.

Gneiss of the well-foliated type, frequently passing into mica schist, constitutes the greater portion of the Darjeeling Himalayas ; but sub- metamorphic or transition rocks, known as the Daling series, are well represented in the Tista and the Rangit valleys, and in the outer hills south of Kurseong, while sandstones, conglomerates, and clays, referable to the Upper Tertiary period, occur as a narrow band fringing the base of the Himalayas. Intervening between the sub-metamorphics and the tertiaries there is a thin belt of Lower Gondwana rocks, which includes various alternations of sandstones or quartzite, shales, slates, and beds of friable coal.

The vegetation of Bihar and Bengal proper is 'diluvial' : i.e. it is of the kind usually found in or near places liable to inundation, and most of the species, both wild and cultivated, if not cosmopolitan, are wide- spread in the eastern tropics. In Bihar the older alluvium, with mainly annual turf, has the crops and weeds of Upper India. Inundated tracts near rivers are often under tamarisk. Village shrubberies, except on abandoned sites, are scanty, and the forests in the south are open and park-like. Bengal proper has perennial turf. Except in the extreme north the forests are often mixed with reedy grasses, which are some- times replaced by savannahs. The river-beds are wide and often bare. East of the Bhaglrathi the country is for the most part a half-aquatic rice plain, with patches of jungle on river banks, and shrubberies of semi-spontaneous species on the raised ground found near habitations and roadways. The marshes, pools, and sluggish streams are filled with water-plants. These conditions become intensified eastwards in the blls, which are rice swamps in the dry season but become inland fresh-water seas with grassy floating islets during the rains ; and still more so in the Sundarbans, where the partially-submerged muddy islands lying among interlacing brackish creeks are densely covered with Malayan shore forest and mangrove swamps. The hills on the extreme south-east are covered with forest, Indo-Chinese in character, without sal {Shorea robustd), but with giirjan {Dipterocarpus turhinatiis\ unknown elsewhere.

In the north the flora gradually changes from tropical to Himalayan. The lower ranges and the tarai beneath are covered with dense forest. On sandy or gravelly soils, the sal is the typical tree, while in marshy tracts the gab {Diospyros Pmbryop/eris) and other like species are found. A similar forest skirts and ascends the hills of the Chota Nagpur plateau. The high lands above have a vegetation which is mainly of the Central Indian type, but that on the more elevated peaks is sub-temperate. The Orissa rice plain resembles that of Bengal proper. Except in the delta of the MahanadT, which is occupied by a mangrove swamp, it is separated from the sea by sand-dunes covered with Coromandel coast plants.

In ancient times Bengal was the home of numerous wild animals, and the elephant, rhinoceros, and wild buffalo frequented the dense jungles which ha\t; long since given place to cultivation. I'hese animals have now disappeared from all but the most remote tracts, such as the Sundarbans and the jungles of Chittagong*, Jalpaigurl*, and the Orissa Tributary States. Practically the only large game remaining are tigers, leopards, bears, deer, and wild hog. Tigers are comparatively scarce, but still do a great deal of damage in some Districts ; leopards, deer, and wild hog are common in many parts ; and bears abound wherever there are rocky hills. Owing possibly to the absence of suit- able grazing, the domestic animals are of an inferior stamp. The cattle are small and weakly, and the buffaloes also are a very degenerate breed compared with the wild stock from which they are descended.

Although Bengal is situated almost entirely outside the tropical zone, its climate for about two-thirds of the year, i.e. from the middle of March to the end of October, is of the kind usually characterized as tropical ; it has a high temperature and humidity, and a dry and a wet season. During the other months the temperature is much lower, the humidity is slight or moderate, and the rainfall is generally scanty. The mean temperature during the cold-season months is about 64° and during the hot season about 83°. About the beginning of March, as the sun gains a higher altitude and the days grow longer, the tem- perature increases rapidly. The process is aided, in the greater part of Bengal proper and Orissa, by moisture-laden southerly winds from the Bay of Bengal, which give a fairly copious rainfall when weather is disturbed*, while in Bihar and part of North Bengal hot and dry westerly winds are prevalent in the daytime, but die away at night. From about the middle of May the south-west wind-current steadily strengthens, and, being diverted northwards by the mountain range on the western side of Burma, causes increasing rainfall in East Bengal. By the middle of June, in normal years, the monsoon has attained its full strength, and, flowing northwards, is checked and turned westwards by the Himalayan range. The moist current in its northward course is the cause of heavy rainfall near the coast and in the eastern Districts. Farther west the rainfall is more intermittent, and is due more to the cyclonic disturbances which develop at short intervals of two or three weeks in the north-west angle of the Bay and in Lower Bengal. These invariably move westwards, and in passing over the western Districts cause continuous and occasionally very heavy rainfall for several days at a time. From the beginning of September the south-west monsoon begins to fall off in strength. Cloud and rainfall are more intermittent, and are generally due to cyclonic storms, which begin to move more to the north and north-east than to the west. Temperature increases owing to the longer intervals of bright sunshine. Before the end of October

' '1 he local hot-season storms are known as ' nor'-westers.' They are generally accompanied by heavy rain and occasionally by hail. the south-west monsoon has ceased to affect the Province ; and, as during the latter half of that month pressure becomes higher in Bengal than over the Bay, northerly winds begin to set in. Being land winds, they carry but a small amount of moisture, and coming from the colder region in the north, their advent is followed by an immediate fall of temperature. Hence, during the months from November to f^bruary, fine dry weather, with an almost entire absence of cloud and rainflill, prevails in all parts of the Province. Occasional disturbances originating in, or proceeding from, the north-west of India j)ass from west to east over Bengal in January and February. The cyclonic winds which they cause are followed by the formation of general cloud, with irregular, but at times heavy, rainfall.

Excluding the Darjeeling hills, where the mountain slopes cause an annual rainfall varying from 209 inches at Buxa* to 122 inches at Darjeeling, the areas of greatest precipitation are in the south-east, where the rainfall ranges between 100 and 140 inches. In the rest of East Bengal it is between 70 and 80 inches, but again rises in North Bengal to 84 inches in Rangpur*, and to between 100 and 130 inches in the submontane plains. In the coast Districts of Central and West Bengal and in Orissa, where the effect of cyclonic storms from the Bay is chiefly felt, the annual fall is generally from 60 to 70 inches, but in places it exceeds 80 inches. In the other Districts of Bengal proper, and in the east of Bihar, where the influence of mountain ranges and cyclonic storms is less apparent, the rainfall is lighter and more uniform, being generally between 50 and 60 inches. Farther west it diminishes to 45 inches in Chota Nagpur and to 42 inches in South Bihar. In the submontane tracts of North Bihar the annual fall varies from 50 to 55 inches.

The rainfall depends largely upon local conditions, and the fluctuations are irregular; but generally it was very deficient in 1873, in 1883 and 1884, and in 1895 and 1896. The most marked deficiency was in 1873, when the fall was only between 50 and 60 per cent, of the normal. Heavy rainfall occurred throughout the Province in the years 1876, 1886, and 1899; in other years heavy local falls occurred, e.g. in Lower Bengal in 1893 and 1900. If the variabiHty be shown by the absolute range, that is, the difference between the heaviest and lightest rainfall on record expressed as a percentage of the normal, we find that it is greatest in the north-west of the Province and diminishes southward and eastward. In Bihar it is 108, in Chota Nagpur 87, in Orissa 87, in the central Districts 83, and in North and East Bengal about 72.

One of the most remarkable features of the rainfall of Bengal is the occasional occurrence of excessive local precipitation. Thus, on September 25, 1899, a fall of 19^ inches was registered in Darjeeling, causing numerous landslips and some loss of life. The natural effect of a heavy downpour is to cause the rivers to rise and overflow their banks, especially the rivers flowing from the Himalayas, which collect the rain-water more rapidly than do those in the plains. The most disastrous flood of this nature on record occurred in 1787, when the Tista suddenly burst its banks and spread itself over the whole District of Rangpur*. It is estimated that the direct loss of life due to drowning, and the indirect mortality on account of famine and disease, amounted to one-sixth of the entire District population.

In the case of non-Himalayan rivers, the liability to damage is greatest where embankments have been thrown up to hold the river to its course. The effect of these embankments is that the water, which is flowing at a higher level than the surrounding country, suddenly rushes over them instead of rising gradually, as it would do if there was no embankment. Consequently, when a breach occurs, the water pours over the lower land beyond and does immense damage. In 1885, and again in 1890, when the great Lalitakuri embankment of the Bhagirathi gave way, the flood-water swept right across Murshidabad and Nadia Districts for a distance of more than 50 miles.

The Province suffers even more from cyclones, especially on the sea- coast of East Bengal, where they often cause an inundation of salt water. The most striking features in these cyclones are the great barometric depression in the centre and the magnitude of the storm area. These two causes produce a large accumulation of water at and near the centre, which progresses with the storm and gives rise to a destructive storm-wave when the centre reaches a gradually shelving coast. This conjunction of adverse circumstances occurs more or less regularly at intervals of ten or twelve years. The worst of the recent calamities of this nature was in 1876, when a great part of Backergunge* and the adjoining Districts was submerged to a depth of from 10 to 45 feet.

Nearly 74,000 persons were drowned in Backergunge* alone, and the cholera epidemic which followed carried off close on 50,000 more. On October 24, 1897, Chittagong District* was devastated by a similar but more local catastrophe; 14,000 persons were drowned and nearly three times that number died of the diseases that followed. Tidal waves have more than once caused great damage to the shipping in the HooGHLY ; and although Calcutta itself is so far from the sea, it is by no means certain that it is beyond the reach of a bore of exceptional height and momentum. Great damage is occasionally caused by cyclones on the sea-coast of Orissa, and in 1885 a considerable area in Cuttack and Balasore was inundated and large numbers of human beings and cattle were drowned.

In the earlier part of this article reference has been made to the probability that in the distant past the surface of Bengal had been greatly affected by changes of elevation. Small earth tremors are still of constant occurrence, and on at least seven occasions in the past 150 years — in 1762, 1810, 1829, 1842, 1866, 1885, and 1897 — earth- quakes of considerable severity have taken place. By far the worst of these was that of June 12, 1897. Its focus is believed to have been somewhere near Cherrapunji in the Assam range, but it travelled with such rapidity that it reached the western extremity of Bengal in six minutes or even less. The violence of the shock in this Province was greatest in the Districts bordering on Assam, and it was comparatively slight west of the Bhagirathi. In North and East Bengal most of the older masonry buildings fell or were severely damaged, and even in Central Bengal a considerable proportion of the larger buildings suffered.

Some of the older ones collapsed altogether and many others were rendered unfit for occupation. In the alluvial tracts near Assam numerous long cracks and fissures opened in the ground, and cir- cular holes were formed through which water and sand were ejected ; wells were filled with sand, and many small river-channels were entirely blocked by the upheaval of their beds. The railways in the same localities were rendered impassable owing to the damage done to bridges and to fissures in the embankments, which in some places subsided altogether. The shock fortunately occurred in the daytime and the mortality was thus small ; had it occurred at night, the number killed must have been very large. The previous earthquake (that of 1885) was felt chiefly in the same parts of Bengal, but it was more local ; its area of maximum intensity was in the neighbourhood of Bogra*.

The people of Bengal appear from their physical type to belong to three distinct stocks — Dravidian, Mongoloid, and Aryan, Except on the northern and eastern outskirts, the main basis is everywhere Dravidian ; but in Bengal proper there is a strong Mongoloid element, while in Bihar the Dravidian type has been modified by an admixture of Aryan blood. Philologists hold that the earliest recognizable linguistic formation in India is the Dra- vidian. How the people who brought these languages with them en- tered India is a problem regarding which we can only speculate. They may have come from the north-west by way of Arabia, where (if so) the subsequent intrusion of a Semitic race has since obliterated all trace of them ; or they may, more probably, have come from the south in the prehistoric time when it is thought that India was connected with Madagascar by a land area, known to naturalists as Lemuria, which subsequently broke up and sank beneath the sea, leaving as its only trace several huge shoals and a chain of islands, including the Seychelles, Chagos Islands, the Laccadives and Maldives.

Dravidian languages still survive, not only in Southern India, where Tamil and 'J'elugu are its leading representatives, but also in the Chota Nagpur plateau, where they are spoken by the Oraon, Male, and other tribes. Bengal was next over- run, as far as Bihar and Chota Nagpur, by tribes speaking languages of the family known as Mon-Anam or Mon-Khmer, which is still extant in Pegu, Cambodia, and Cochin China. These tribes probably came from the north-east by way of the Patkai pass and the valley of the Brahmaputra. The only dialect of this family which survives in Assam is the Khasi ; in Bengal not a single representative is left, but indications of its former existence are perhaps disclosed by the Munda family of languages^.

These invaders from the north-east were followed by fresh hordes from the same direction, whose speech was of the type known as Tibeto- Burman, of which Tibetan and Burmese represent the two standards to which the other and ruder dialects tend to conform, and which is believed to have had its origin in Eastern Tibet or in adjacent territory now Chinese. The earliest of these later incomers were probably the ancestors of the Pods of Central and the Chandals of East Bengal, who have long since abandoned their characteristic dialects, while the latest were the Kochs, Mechs, and Garos, many of whom still retain their tribal forms of speech. The Aryan invasion from the north-west, which took place while the incursions of Mongoloid tribes from the north-east were still in progress, was the last notable movement so far as this Province is concerned. Bihar was the seat of rule of Aryan princes, but in Bengal proper the stream of immigration was comparatively thin and attenuated. As the Aryan invasion spread, its character changed, and arms gave way to arts. Aryan priests, adventurers, merchants, and artificers found their way over and beyond Bengal, and by their superior intelligence and culture gradually imposed their religion and language on people whom they had never conquered, and sometimes even snatched the crown from the indigenous ruling families.

See also

For a large number of articles about Bengal, extracted from the Gazetteer of 1908 (as well as other articles on Bengal) please either click the 'India' link (below, left) and go to Bengal (under B) or enter 'Bengal' in the 'Search' box (top, right). Bengal, 1908 Bengal: A history, by British Raj writers Bengal: Agriculture in A.D. 1900 Bengal: Arts and manufactures, 1908 Bengal: Commerce and trade, c. A.D. 1900 Bengal: Famines, 1769-1899 Bengal: Forests, c. A.D. 1900 Bengal: Mines and minerals, c. A.D. 1900 Bengal: Physical aspects, c. A.D. 1900 Bengal: Population, A.D. 1901

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