Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Gwālior Plain once the Bed of a Lake—Tameness of Peacocks

On the 19th, 20th, and 21st[1] we came on forty miles to the village of Antrī in the Gwālior territory, over a fine plain of rich alluvial soil under spring crops. This plain bears manifest signs of having been at no very remote period, like the kingdom of Bohemia, the bed of a vast lake bounded by the ranges of sandstone hills which now seem to skirt the horizon all round; and studded with innumerable islands of all shapes and sizes, which now rise abruptly in all directions out of the cultivated plain.[2]


The plain is still like the unruffled surface of a vast lake; and the rich green of the spring crops, which cover the surface in one wide sheet unintersected by hedges, tends to keep up the illusion, which the rivers have little tendency to dispel; for, though they have cut their way down immense depths to their present beds through this soft alluvial deposit, the traveller no sooner emerges from the hideous ravines, which disfigure their banks, than he loses all trace of them. Their course is unmarked by trees, large shrubs, or any of the signs which mark the course of rivers in other quarters.


The soil over the vast plain is everywhere of good quality, and everywhere cultivated, or rather worked, for we can hardly consider a soil cultivated which is never either irrigated or manured, or voluntarily relieved by fallows or an alternation of crops, till it has descended to the last stage of exhaustion. The prince rack-rents the farmer, the farmer rack-rents the cultivator, and the cultivator rack-rents the soil. Soon after crossing the Sindh river we enter upon the territories of the Gwālior chief, Sindhia.


The villages are everywhere few, and their communities very small. The greater part of the produce goes for sale to the capital of Gwālior, when the money it brings is paid into the treasury in rent, or revenue, to the chief, who distributes it in salaries among his establishments, who again pay it for land produce to the cultivators, farmers, and agricultural capitalists, who again pay it back into the treasury in land revenue. No more people reside in the villages than are absolutely necessary to the cultivation of the land, because the chief takes all the produce beyond what is necessary for their bare subsistence; and, out of what he takes, maintains establishments that reside elsewhere.


There is nowhere any jungle to be seen, and very few of the villages that are scattered over the plains have any fruit or ornamental trees left; and, when the spring crops, to which the tillage is chiefly confined, are taken off the ground, the face of the country must have a very naked and dreary appearance.[3] Near one village on the road I saw some men threshing corn in a field, and among them a peacock (which, of course, I took to be domesticated) breakfasting very comfortably upon the grain as it flew around him. A little farther on I saw another quietly working his way into a stack of corn, as if he understood it to have been made for his use alone.


It was so close to me as I passed that I put out my stick to push it off in play, and, to my surprise, it flew off in a fright at my white face and strange dress, and was followed by the others. I found that they were all wild, if that term can be applied to birds that live on such excellent terms with mankind. On reaching our tents we found several feeding in the corn-fields close around them, undisturbed by our host of camp- followers; and were told by the villagers, who had assembled to greet us, that they were all wild.


'Why', said they, 'should we think of keeping birds that live among us on such easy terms without being kept?' I asked whether they ever shot them, and was told that they never killed or molested them, but that any one who wished to shoot them might do so, since they had here no religions regard for them.[4]


Like the pariah dogs the peacocks seem to disarm the people by confiding in them—their tameness is at once the cause and the effect of their security. The members of the little communities among whom they live on such friendly terms would not have the heart to shoot them; and travellers either take them to be domesticated, or are at once disarmed by their tameness.


At Antrī a sufficient quantity of salt is manufactured for the consumption of the people of the town. The earth that contains most salt is dug up at some distance from the town, and brought to small reservoirs made close outside the walls. Water is here poured over it, as over tea and coffee. Passing through the earth, it flows out below into a small conduit, which takes it to small pits some yards' distance, whence it is removed in buckets to small enclosed platforms, where it is exposed to the Sun's rays, till the water evaporates, and leaves the salt dry.[5]


The want of trees over this vast plain of fine soil from the Sindh river is quite lamentable. The people of Antrī pointed out the place close to my tents where a beautiful grove of mango-trees had been lately taken off to Gwālior for gun-carriages and firewood, in spite of all the proprietor could urge of the detriment to his own interest in this world, and to those of his ancestors in that to which they had gone.


Wherever the army of this chief moved they invariably swept off the groves of fruit-trees in the same reckless manner. Parts of the country, which they merely passed through, have recovered their trees, because the desire to propitiate the Deity, and to perpetuate their name by such a work, will always operate among Hindoos as a sufficient incentive to secure groves, wherever man has be made to feel that their rights of property in the trees will be respected.[6]


The lands around the village, which had a well for irrigation, paid four times as much as those of the same quality which had none, and were made to yield two crops in the year. As everywhere else, so here, those lands into which water flows from the town and can be made to stand for a time, are esteemed the best, as this water brings down with it manures of all kinds.[7]


I had a good deal of talk with the cultivators as I walked through the fields in the evenings; and they seemed to dwell much upon the good faith which is observed by the farmers and cultivators in the Honourable Company's territories, and the total absence of it in those of Sindhia's, where no work, requiring an outlay of capital from the land, is, in consequence, ever thought of—both farmers and cultivators engaging from year to year, and no farmer ever feeling secure of his lease for more than one.


Notes:


1. December, 1835.


2. The anthor's favourite theory. See ante, Chapter 14 note 7, Chapter 24 note 6, on the formation of black cotton soil. The Gwālior plain is covered with this soil.


3. It has a very desolate appearance. The Indian Midland Railway now passes through Gwālior.


4. In many parts of India, especially in Mathurā (Mattra) on the Jumna, and the neighbouring districts, the peacock is held strictly sacred, and shooting one would be likely to cause a riot. Tavernier relates a story of a rich Persian merchant being beaten to death by the Hindoos of Gujarāt for shooting a peacock. (Tavernier, Travels, transl. Ball, vol. i, p. 70.) the bird is regarded as the vehicle of the Hindoo god of war, variously called Kumāra, Skanda, or Kārtikeya. the editor, like the author, has observed that in Bundēlkhand no objection is raised to the shooting of peacocks by any one who cares for such poor sport.


5. In British India the manufacture of salt can be practised only by persons duly licensed.


6. The Revenue Settlement Regulations now in force in British India provide liberally for the encouragement of groves, and hundred of miles of road are annually planted with trees.


7. Sanitation did not trouble native states in those days.