Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.

Basaltic Cappings of the Sandstone Hills of Central India—Suspension Bridge—Prospects of the Nerbudda Valley—Deification of a Mortal.

On the 29th[1] we came on to Pathariā, a considerable little town thirty miles from Sāgar, supported almost entirely by a few farmers, small agricultural capitalists, and the establishment of a native collector,[2] On leaving Pathariā, we ascend gradually along the side of the basaltic hills on our left to the south for three miles to a point whence we see before us this plane of basaltic cappings extending as far as the eye can reach to the west, south, and north, with frequent breaks, but still preserving one uniform level.


On the top of these tables are here and there little conical elevations of laterite, or indurated iron clay.[3] The cappings everywhere repose immediately upon the sandstone of the Vindhya range; but they have occasional beds of limestone, formed apparently by springs rising from their sides, and strongly impregnated with carbonic acid gas. For the most part this is mere travertine, but in some places they get good lime from the beds for building.


On the 1st of December we came to the pretty village of Sanodā, near the suspension bridge built over the river Biās by Colonel Presgrave, while he was assay master of the Sāgar mint.[4] I was present at laying the foundation-stone of this bridge in December 1827. Mr. Maddock was the Governor-General's representative in these territories, and the work was undertaken more with a view to show what could be done out of their own resources, under minds capable of developing them, than to supply any pressing or urgent want.


The work was completed in June, 1830; and I have several times seen upon the bridge as many as it could hold of a regiment of infantry while it moved over; and, at other times, as many of a corps of cavalry, and often several elephants at once. The bridge is between the points of suspension two hundred feet, and the clear portion of the platform measures one hundred and ninety feet by eleven and a half.


The whole cost of the work amounted to about fifty thousand rupees; and, under a less able and careful person than Colonel Presgrave, would have cost, perhaps, double the amount. This work has been declared by a very competent judge to be equal to any structure of the same kind in Europe, and is eminently calculated to show what genius and perseverance can produce out of the resources of a country even in the rudest state of industry and the arts.


The river Nerbudda neither is nor ever can, I fear, be made navigable, and the produce of its valley would require to find its way to distant markets over the Vindhya range of hills to the north, or the Sātpura to the south. If the produce of the soil, mines, and industry of the valley cannot be transported to distant markets, the Government cannot possibly find in it any available net surplus revenue in money; for it has no mines of the precious metals, and the precious metals can flow in only in exchange for the produce of the land, and the industry of the valley that flows out.


If the Government wishes to draw a net surplus revenue from the valley or from the districts that border upon it, that is, a revenue beyond its expenditure in support of the local public establishments, it must either draw it in produce, or for what can be got for that produce in distant markets.[5] Hitherto little beyond the rude produce of the soil has been able to find its way into distant markets from the valley of the Nerbudda; yet this valley abounds in iron mines,[6] and its soil, where unexhausted by cropping, is of the richest quality.[7]


It is not then too much to hope that in time the iron of the mines will be worked with machinery for manufactures; and that multitudes, aided by this machinery, and subsisted on the rude agricultural produce, which now flows out, will invest the value of their labour in manufactured commodities adapted to the demand of foreign markets and better able from their superior value, compared with their bulk, to pay the cost of transport by land. Then, and not till then, can we expect to see these territories pay a considerable net surplus revenue to Government, and abound in a middle class of merchants, manufacturers, and agricultural capitalists.[8]


At Sanodā there is a very beautiful little fortress or castle now unoccupied, though still entire. It was built by an officer of the Rājā Chhatar Sāl of Bundēlkhand, about one hundred and twenty years ago.[9] He had a grant, on the tenure of military service, of twelve villages situated round this place; and a man who could build such a castle to defend the surrounding country from the inroads of freebooters, and to secure himself and his troops from any sudden impulse of the people's resentment, was as likely to acquire an increase of territorial possession in these parts as he would have been in Europe during the Middle Ages.


The son of this chief, by name Rāi Singh, was, soon after the castle had been completed, killed in an attack upon a town near Chitrakōt;[10] and having, in the estimation of the people, become a god, he had a temple and a tomb raised to him close to our encampment. I asked the people how he had become a god; and was told that some one who had been long suffering from a quartan ague went to the tomb one night, and promised Rāi Singh, whose ashes lay under it, that if he could contrive to cure his ague for him, he would, during the rest of his life, make offerings to his shrine.


After that he had never another attack, and was very punctual in his offerings. Others followed his example, and with like success, till Rāi Singh was recognized among them universally as a god, and a temple raised to his name. This is the way that gods were made all over the world at one time, and are still made all over India. Happy had it been for mankind if those only who were supposed to do good had been deified.[11]


On the 2nd we came on to the village of Khojanpur (leaving the town and cantonments of Sāgar to our left), a distance of some fourteen miles. The road for a great part of the way was over the bare back of the sandstone strata, the covering of basalt having been washed off. The hills, however, are, at this distance from the city and cantonments of Sāgar, nicely wooded; and, being constantly intersected by pretty little valleys, the country we came over was picturesque and beautiful.


The soil of all these valleys is rich from the detritus of the basalt that forms or caps the hills; but it is now in a bad state of cultivation, partly from several successive seasons of great calamity, under which the people have been suffering, and partly from over-assessment; and this posture of affairs is continued by that loss of energy, industry, and character, among the farmers and cultivators, which must everywhere result from these two evils.


In India, where the people have learnt so well to govern themselves, from the want of settled government, good or bad government really depends almost altogether upon good or bad settlements of the land revenue. Where the Government demand is imposed with moderation, and enforced with justice, there will the people be generally found happy and contented, and disposed to perform their duties to each other and to the state; except when they have the misfortune to suffer from drought, blight, and other calamities of season.[l2]


I have mentioned that the basalt in the Sāgar district reposes for the most part immediately upon the sandstone of the Vindhya range; and it must have been deposited on the sand, while the latter was yet at the bottom of the ocean, though this range is now, I believe, nowhere less than from fifteen hundred to two thousand feet above the level of the sea. The marks of the ripple of the sea may be observed in some places where the basalt has been recently washed off, beautifully defined, as if formed only yesterday, and there is no other substance to be seen between the two rocks.


The texture of the sandstone at the surface, where it comes in contact with the basalt, has in some places been altered by it, but in others it seems to have been as little changed as the habitations of the people who were suffocated by the ashes of Vesuvius in the city of Pompeii. I am satisfied, from long and careful examination, that the greater part of this basalt, which covers the tableland of Central and Southern India, must have been held for some time in suspension in the ocean or lake into which it was first thrown in the shape of ashes, and then gradually deposited.


This alone can account for its frequent appearance of stratification, for the gentle blending of its particles with those of the sand near the surface of the latter; and, above all, for those level steps, or tables, lying one above another horizontally in parallel bars on one range, corresponding exactly with the same parallel lines one above another on a range twenty or thirty miles across the valley.


Mr. Scrope's theory is, I believe, that these are all mere flowing coulées of lava, which, in their liquid state, filled hollows, but afterwards became of a harder texture, as they dried and crystallized, than the higher rocks around them; the consequence of which is that the latter has been decomposed and washed away, while the basalt has been left to form the highest elevations.


My opinion is that these steps, or stairs, at one time formed the beds of the ocean, or of great lakes, and that the substance of which they are composed was, for the most part, projected into the water, and there held in suspension till gradually deposited. There are, however, amidst these steps, and beneath them, masses of more compact and crystalline basalt, that bear evident signs of having been flows of lava.[l3]


Reasoning from analogy at Jubbulpore, where some of the basaltic cappings of the hills had evidently been thrown out of craters long after this surface had been raised above the waters, and become the habitation both of vegetable and animal life, I made the first discovery of fossil remains in the Nerbudda valley. I went first to a hill within sight of my house in 1828,[14] and searched exactly between the plateau of basalt that covered it and the stratum immediately below, and there I found several small trees with roots, trunks, and branches, all entire, and beautifully petrified.


They had been only recently uncovered by the washing away of a part of the basaltic plateau. I soon after found some fossil bones of animals.[15] Going over to Sāgar, in the end of 1830, and reasoning there upon the same analogy, I searched for fossil remains along the line of contact between the basalt and the surface upon which it had been deposited, and I found a grove of silicified palm-trees within a mile of the cantonments.


These palm-trees had grown upon a calcareous deposit formed from springs rising out of the basaltic range of hills to the south. The commissariat officer had cut a road through this grove, and all the European officers of a large military station had been every day riding through it without observing the geological treasure; and it was some time before I could convince them that the stones which they had every day seen were really petrified palm-trees. The roots and trunks were beautifully perfect.[l6]


Notes:


1. November, 1835.


2. In the Damoh District, twenty-four miles west of Damoh. The name appears to be derived from the 'great quantity of hewn stone (Hind. patthar or pāthar) lying about in all directions'. The C. P. Gazetteer (1870) calls the place 'a considerable village'.


3. A peculiar formation, of 'widespread occurrence in the tropical and subtropical regions of the world'. It is ordinarily of a reddish ferruginous or brick-dust colour, sometimes deepened into dark red. Apparently the special character which distinguishes laterite from other forms of red-coloured weathering is the presence of hydrous oxide of alumina in varying proportions. . . . '


Though there is still a great deal of uncertainty about the way in which laterite was formed, the facts which are known of its distribution seem to show that it is a distinct form of weathering, which is confined to low latitudes and humid climates; its formation seems to have been a slow process, only possible on flat or nearly flat surfaces, where surface rain-wash could not act' (Oldham, in The Oxford Survey of the British Empire, vol. ii, Asia, p. 10: Oxford, 1914). It hardens and darkens by exposure to air, and is occasionally used as a building stone.


4. The Sāgar mint was erected in 1820 by Captain Presgrave, the assay master, and used to employ four hundred men, but, after about ten or twelve years, the business was transferred to Calcutta, and the buildings converted to other uses (C. P. Gazetteer, 1870). Mints are now kept up at Calcutta and Bombay only. The Biās is a small stream flowing into the Sunār river, and belonging to the Jumna river system. The name is printed Beeose in the original edition.


5. Since the author's time the conditions have been completely changed by the introduction of railways. The East Indian, Great Indian Peninsular, and other railways now enter the Nerbudda Valley, so that the produce of most districts can be readily transported to distant markets. A large enhancement of the land revenue has been obtained by revisions of the settlement.


6. Details will be found in the Central Provinces Gazetteer (1870). The references are collected under the head 'Iron' in the index to that work. Chapter VIII of Ball's Economic Geology of India gives full information concerning the iron mines of the Central Provinces and all parts of India. That work forms Part III of the Manual of the Geology of India.


7. The soil of the valley of the Nerbudda, and that of the Nerbudda and Sāgar territories generally, is formed for the most part of the detritus of trap-rocks that everywhere covered the sandstone of the Vindhya and Sātpura ranges which run through these territories. This basaltic detritus forms what is called the black cotton soil by the English, for what reason I know not. [W. H. S.] The reason is that cotton is very largely grown in the Nerbudda Valley, both on the black soil and other soils.


In Bundēlkhand the black, friable soil, often with a high proportion of organic matter, is called 'mār', and is chiefly devoted to raising crops of wheat, gram, or chick-pea (Cicer arietinum), linseed, and joār (Holcus sorghum). Cotton is also sown in it, but not very generally. This black soil requires little rain, and is fertile without manure.


It absorbs water too freely to be suitable for irrigation, and in most seasons does not ne