Page images

ment of Chandernagar still flies the tricolor. In the last century it was bombarded by English vessels of war. A great silt-bank, which has formed outside it, would now effectually protect it from any such attack. A grassy slope has taken the place of the deep water in which the admiral's flagship lay. Captured and recaptured by the British during the long wars, the settlement now reposes under international treaties, a trim little French town land-locked from maritime commerce. A couple of miles above it lies the decayed Dutch settlement, Chinsura; and another mile further on was the ancient Portuguese emporium, Hugli town. Both of these were great resorts of sea-going trade before Calcutta was thought of. In 1632, when the Mohammedans took Hugli town from the Portuguese, and made it their own royal port of Bengal, they captured over three hundred ships, large and small, in the harbor. As one now approaches the old Dutch and Portuguese settlements, a large alluvial island, covered with rank grasses and a few trees, divides the stream into uncertain channels, with lesser silt formations above and below. Noble buttressed houses and remains of the river wall still line the banks of the land-locked harbors. Then the marvellous new railway bridge seems to cross the sky, its three cantilever spans high up in the air above the river, with native boats crawling like flies underneath. Beyond rise the tower and belfry of the Portuguese monastery of Bandel, the oldest house of Christian worship in Bengal, built originally in 1599. The Virgin in a bright blue robe, with the Infant in her arms, and a garland of fresh rosemaries round her neck, stands out aloft under a canopy. Two lamps ever lit by her side served as beacons during centuries to the European ships which can never again ascend the river. They now guide the native boatmen for miles down the decaying channels.

From this point upwards, the Hugli river is a mere record of ruin. An expanse of shallows spreads out among silt formations, stake-nets, and mud. Oval-bottomed country boats, with high painted sterns, bulging bellies, and enormous brown square sails, make their way up and down with the tide. But the distant high banks, crowned by venerable trees, and now separated from the water by emerald-green flats, prove that a great and powerful river once flowed past them. For some miles the channel forms. the dwindled remains of an ancient lake. Old names, such as the Sea of Delight, now solid land, bear witness to a time when it received the inflow of rivers long dead or in decay. From this mighty mass of waters one arm reached the sea south-eastward, by the present Hugli trough; another, and once larger, branch, known as the Saraswati, or Goddess of Flowing Speech, broke off to the south-west. At their point of bifurcation stands Tribeni, a very ancient place of pilgrimage. But the larger western branch, or Goddess of Flowing Speech, is now a silent and dead river, running for miles as a green broad hollow through the country, with a tidal ditch which you can jump across in the dry weather.

Yet on this dead western branch flourished the royal port of Bengal from a prehistoric age till the time of the Portuguese. Its name, Satgaon, refers its origin to the Seven Sages of Hindu mythology, and the map of 1540 A.D. marks its river as a large channel. Purchas in the beginning of the next century describes it as "a reasonable fair citie for a citie of the Moores, abounding with all things." Foreign trade sharpened the wits of the townsmen, and a Bengali proverb still makes "a man of Satgaon" synonymous with a shrewd fellow. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries its river silted up, and the royal port of Bengal was transferred to Hugli town. I walked a few miles along the broad depression where once the river had flowed, and searched for the ancient city. I found only a region of mounds covered with countless fragments of fine bricks, buried under thickets of thorn and stunted palms. I asked a poor nomadic family of sugar-makers, who were boiling down the date juice into syrup in earthen pots under a tree, "Where was the fort?" They pointed to the jungle around. I asked, "Where was the harbor?" For a time they could not comprehend what I wanted. At length the father took me to a dank hollow, and said that some years ago the floods, in the rainy season, had there washed out the timbers of a sea-going ship from deep under the ground.

What caused this ruin? I have said that although the Hugli now receives no important affluent on its western bank, yet at one time a great tributary flowed into it from that side. This was the Damodar, which brings down the drainage of the western plains and highlands of Lower Bengal. It originally entered the Hugli a few miles above the Saraswati branch on which lay the royal port. But between 1500 and 1800 A.D. its floods gradually worked a more direct passage for themselves to the south. Instead of entering the Hugli about thirty-five miles above Calcutta, it now enters it nearly thirty-five miles below Calcutta. The Hugli trough, therefore, no longer receives its old copious water-supply throughout the intermediate seventy miles. Its bed accordingly silted up, and certain old branches or off-takes from it, like the one on which lay the royal Mohammedan port of Bengal, have died away. This great fluvial revolution, after preparing itself during three centuries, ended in fifty years of terrible catas trophes. The ancient mouth of the Damodar into the Hugli above Calcutta had almost completely closed up while the inundations had not yet opened to a sufficient width the new channel to the south. In 1770, for example, the Damodar floods, struggling to find a passage, destroyed the chief town of that part of Bengal. During many years our officers anxiously considered whether it was possible to reopen by artificial means its old exit into the Hugli. "Picture to yourself," writes a Calcutta journal of its flood in 1823, "a flat country completely under water, running with a force apparently irresistible, and carrying with it dead bodies, roofs of houses, palanquins, and wreck of every description."

Proceeding upwards from the old mouth of the Damodar, the Hugli abandons itself to every wild form of fluvial caprice. At places a deep cut; at others a shallow expanse of water, in the middle of which the fishermen wade with their hand-nets; or a mean new channel, with old lakes and swamps which mark its former bed, but which are now separated from it by high sandy ridges. Nadiya, the old Hindu capital, stands at the junction of its two upper head-waters, about sixty-five miles above Calcutta. We reach the ancient city through a river chaos, emerging at length upon a well-marked channel below the junction. It was from Nadiya that the last Hindu King of Bengal, on the approach of the Mohammedan invader in 1203, fled from his palace in the middle of dirner, as the story runs, with his sandals snatched up in his hand. It was at Nadiya that the deity was incarnated in the fifteenth century A.D. in the great Hindu reformer, the Luther of Bengal. At Nadiya the Sanskrit colleges, since the dawn of history, have taught their abstruse philosophy to colonies of students, who calmly pursued the life of a learner froin boyhood to white-haired old age. I landed with feelings of reverence at this ancient Oxford of India. A fat benevolent abbot paused in fingering his beads to salute me from the verandah of a Hindu monastery. I asked him for the birthplace of the divine founder of his faith. The true site, he said, was now covered by the river. The Hugli had first cut the sacred city in two, then twisted right round the town, leaving anything that remained of the original capital on the opposite bank. Whatever the water had gone over, it had buried beneath its silt. I had with me the Sanskrit chronicle of the present line of Nadiya Rajas. It begins with the arrival of their ancestor, one of the first five eponymous Brahman immigrants into Bengal, according to its chronology, in the eleventh century A.D. It brings down their annals from father to son to the great Raja of the eighteenth century, Clive's friend, who received twelve cannons as a trophy from Plassey. So splendid were the charities of this Indian scholar-prince, that it became a proverb that any man of the priestly caste in Bengal who had not received a gift from him could be no true Brahman. The Rajas long ago ceased to reside in a city which had become a mere prey to the river. Nadiya is now a collec tion of peasants' huts, grain shops, mud colleges, and crumbling Hindu monasteries, cut up by gullies and hollows. A few native magnates still have houses in the holy city. The only objects that struck me in its narrow lanes were the bands of yellow-robed pilgrims on their way to bathe in the river; two stately sacred bulls who paced about in well-fed complacency; and the village idiot, swollen with monastic rice, listlessly flapping the flies with a palm-leaf as he lay in the sun.

Above Nadiya, where its two upper headwaters unite, the Hugli loses its distinctive name. We thread our way up its chief confluent, the Bhagirathi, amid spurs and training works and many engineering devices:

now following the channel across a wilderness of glistening sand, now sticking for an hour in the mud, although our barge and flat-bottomed steamer only draw twenty inches of water. In a region of wickerwork dams and interwoven stakes for keeping the river open, we reach the field of Plassey, on which in 1757 Clive won Bengal. After trudging about with the village watchman, trying to make out a plan of the battle, I rested at noon under a noble pipal-tree. Among its bare and multitudinous roots, heaps of tiny earthenware horses, with toy flags of talc and tinsel, are piled up in memory of the Mohammedan generals who fell in the fight. The venerable tree has become a place of pilgrimage for both Mussulmans and Hindus. The custodian is a Mohammedan, but two of the little shrines are tipped with red paint in honor of the Hindu goddess Kali. At the yearly festival of the fallen warriors, miraculous cures are wrought on pilgrims of both faiths.

I whiled away the midday heat with a copy of Clive's manuscript despatch to the Secret Committee. His account of the battle is very brief. Finding the enemy coming on in overwhelming force at day-break, he lay with his handful of troops securely "lodged in a large grove, surrounded with good mud banks." His only hope was in a night attack. But at noon, when his assailants had drawn back into their camp, doubtless for their mid-day meal, Clive made a rush on one or two of their advanced positions, from which their French gunners had somewhat annoyed him. Encouraged by his momentary success, and amid a confusion caused by the fall of several of the Nawab's chief officers, he again sprang forward on an angle of the enemy's entrenchments. A panic suddenly swept across the unwieldy encampment, probably surprised over its cooking-pots, and the battle was a six miles' pursuit of the wildly flying masses.

A semicircle of peasants gathered round me, ready with conflicting answers to any questions that occurred as I read. Fifty years after the battle of Plassey the river had completely eaten away the field on which it was fought. Every trace is obliterated," wrote a traveller in 1801, "and a few miserable huts overhanging the water are the only remains of the celebrated Plassey." In a later caprice the river deserted the bank, which it had thus cut away, and made a plunge to the opposite or western side. The still water which it left on the eastern bank soon covered with deep silt the site of the battlefield that it had once engulfed. Acres of new alluvial formations, meadows, slopes, and green flats gently declining to the river, take the place of Clive's mango grove and the Nawab's encampment. The wandering priest, who served the shrines under the tree, presented me with an old-fashioned leaden bullet which he said a late flood had laid bare. Some distance above Plassey lies Murshidabad, once the Mohammedan metropolis of Lower Bengal, now the last city on the river of ruined capitals. Here, too, the decay of the channel would have sufficed to destroy its

oid trade. But a swifter agent of change wrought the ruin of Murshidabad. The cannon of Plassey sounded its doom. The present Nawab, a courteous, sad-eyed representative of the Mohammedan Viceroys from whom we took over Bengal, kindly lent me one of his empty palaces. The two Englishmen whom His Highness most earnestly inquired after were the Prince of Wales and Mr. Roberts, Jun. Indeed he was good enough to show me some pretty fancy strokes which he had learned from the champion billiardplayer. Next evening I looked down from the tower of the great mosque on a green stretch of woodland, which Clive described as a city as large and populous as London. The palaces of the nobles had given place to brick houses; the brick houses to mud cottages; the mud cottages to mat huts; the mat huts to straw hovels. A poor and struggling population was invisible somewhere around me, but in dwellings so mean as to be buried under the palms and brushwood. A wreck of a city with bazaars and streets was there. Yet, looking down from the tower, scarce a building, save the Nawab's palace, rose above the surface of the jungle.

Of all the cities and capitals that man has built upon the Hugli, only one can now be reached by sea-going ships. The sole survival is Calcutta. The long story of ruin compels us to ask whether the same fate hangs over the capital of British India. Above Calcutta, the headwaters of the Hugli still silt up, and are essentially decaying rivers. Below Calcutta, the present channel of the Damodar enters the Hugli at so acute an angle that it has thrown up the James and Mary Sands, the most dangerous river-shoal known to navigation. The combined discharges of the Damodar and Rupnarayan rivers join the Hugli, close to each from the same bank. Their intrusive mass of water arrests the flow of the Hugli current, and so causes it to deposit its silt, thus forming the James and Mary. In 1854 a committee of experts reported by a majority that, while modern ships required a greater depth of water, the Hugli channels had deteriorated, and that their deterioration would under existing conditions go on. The capital of British India was brought face to face with the question whether it would succumb, as every previous capital on the river had succumbed, to the forces of nature, or whether it would fight them. In 1793 a similar question had arisen in regard to a project for reopening the old mouth of the Damodar above Calcutta. In the last century the Government decided, and with its then meagre resources of engineering wisely decided, not to fight nature. In the present century the Government has decided, and with the enlarged resources of modern engineering has wisely decided, to take up the gage of battle.

It is one of the most marvellous struggles between science and nature which the world has ever seen. In this article I have had to exhibit man as beaten at every point; on another opportunity I may perhaps present the new aspects of the conflict. On the one side nature is the stronger;

« PreviousContinue »