Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Rent-free Tenures—Right of Government to Resume such Grants

ON the 27th[1] we went on fifteen miles to Bēgamābād, over a sandy and level country. All the peasantry along the roads were busy watering their fields; and the singing of the man who stood at the well to tell the other who guides the bullocks when to pull, after the leather bucket had been filled at the bottom, and when to stop as it reached the top, was extremely pleasing.[2]

It is said that Tānsēn of Delhi, the most celebrated singer they have ever had in India, used to spend a great part of his time in these fields, listening to the simple melodies of these water-drawers, which he learned to imitate and apply to his more finished vocal music. Popular belief ascribes to Tānsēn the power of stopping the river Jumna in its course. His contemporary and rival, Birjū Baulā, who, according to popular belief, could split a rock with a single note, is said to have learned his bass from the noise of the stone mills which the women use in grinding the corn for their families.[3]

Tānsēn was a Brahman from Patna, who entered the service of the Emperor Akbar, became a Musalmān, and after the service of twenty-seven years, during which he was much beloved by the Emperor and all his court, he died at Gwālior in the thirty-fourth year of the Emperor's reign. His tomb is still to be seen at Gwālior. All his descendants are said to have a talent for music, and they have all Sēn added to their names.[4]

While Mādhojī Sindhia, the Gwālior chief, was prime minister, he made the emperor assign to his daughter the Bālā Bāī in jāgīr, or rent- free tenure, ninety-five villages, rated in the imperial 'sanads' [deeds of grant] at three lākhs of rupees a year.

When the Emperor had been released from the 'durance vile' in which he was kept by Daulat Rāo Sindhia, the adopted son of this chief,[5] by Lord Lake in 1803, and the countries, in which these villages were situated, taken possession of, she was permitted to retain them on condition that they were to escheat to us on her death. She died in 1834, and we took possession of the villages, which now yield, it is said, four lākhs of rupees a year.

Bēgamābād was one of them. It paid to the Bālā Bāi only six hundred rupees a year, but it pays now to us six hundred and twenty rupees; but the farmers and cultivators do not pay a farthing more—the difference was taken by the favourite to whom she assigned the duties of collection, and who always took as much as he could get from them, and paid as little as he could to her.[6] The tomb of the old collector stood near my tents, and his son, who came to visit it, told me that he had heard from Gwālior that a new Governor-General was about to arrive,[7] who would probably order the villages to be given back, when he should be made collector of the village, as his father had been.

Had our Government acted by all the rent-free lands in our territories on the same principle, they would have saved themselves a vast deal of expense, trouble, and odium. The justice of declaring all lands liable to resumption on the death of the present incumbents when not given by competent authority for, and actually applied to, the maintenance of religious, charitable, educational, or other establishments of manifest public utility, would never have been for a moment questioned by the people of India, because they would have all known that it was in accordance with the customs of the country.

If, at the same time that we declared all land liable to resumption, when not assigned by such authority for such purposes and actually applied to them, we had declared that all grants by competent authority registered in due form before the death of the present incumbents should be liable on their death to the payment to Government of only a quarter or half the rent arising from them, it would have been universally hailed as an act of great liberality, highly calculated to make our reign popular.

As it is, we have admitted the right of former rulers of all descriptions to alienate in perpetuity the land, the principal source of the revenue of the state, in favour of their relatives, friends, and favourites, leaving upon the holders the burthen of proving, at a ruinous cost in fees and bribes, through court after court, that these alienations had been made by the authorities we declare competent, before the time prescribed; and we have thus given rise to an infinite deal of fraud, perjury, and forgery, and to the opinion, I fear, very generally prevalent, that we are anxious to take advantage of unavoidable flaws in the proof required, to trick them out of their lands by tedious judicial proceedings, while we profess to be desirous that they should retain them. In this we have done ourselves great injustice.[8]

Though these lands were often held for many generations under former Governments, and for the exclusive benefit of the holders, it was almost always, when they were of any value, in collusion with the local authorities, who concealed the circumstances from their sovereign for a certain stipulated sum or share of the rents while they held office. This of course the holders were always willing to pay, knowing that no sovereign would hesitate much to resume their lands, should the circumstance of their holding them for their private use alone be ever brought to his notice.

The local authorities were, no doubt, always willing to take a moderate share of the rent, knowing that they would get nothing should the lands be resumed by the sovereign. Sometimes the lands granted were either at the time the grant was made, or became soon after, waste and depopulated, in consequence of invasion or internal disorders; and remaining in this state for many generations, the intervening sovereigns either knew nothing or cared nothing about the grants. Under our rule they became by degrees again cultivated and peopled, and in consequence valuable, not by the exertions of the rent-free holders, for they were seldom known to do anything but collect the rents, but by those of the farmers and cultivators who pay them.

When Saādat Alī Khan, the sovereign of Oudh, ceded Rohilkhand and other districts to the Honourable Company in lieu of tribute in 1801, he resumed every inch of land held in rent-free tenure within the territories that remained with him, without condescending to assign any other reason than state necessity.

The measure created a good deal of distress, particularly among the educated classes; but not so much as a similar measure would have created within our territories, because all his revenues are expended in the maintenance of establishments formed exclusively out of the members of Oudh families, and retained within the country, while ours are sent to pay establishments formed and maintained at a distance; and those whose lands are resumed always find it exceedingly difficult to get employment suitable to their condition.

The face of the country between Delhi and Meerut is sadly denuded of its groves; not a grove or an avenue is to be seen anywhere, and but few fine solitary trees.[9] I asked the people of the cause, and was told by the old men of the village that they remembered well when the Sikh chiefs who now bask under the sunshine of our protection used to come over at the head of 'dalas' (bodies) of ten or twelve horse each, and plunder and lay waste with fire and sword, at every returning harvest, the fine country which I now saw covered with rich sheets of cultivation, and which they had rendered a desolate waste, 'without a man to make, or a man to grant, a petition', when Lord Lake came among them.[10]

They were, they say, looking on at a distance when he fought the battle of Delhi, and drove the Marāthās, who were almost as bad as the Sikhs, into the Jumna river, where ten thousand of them were drowned. The people of all classes in Upper India feel the same reverence as our native soldiery for the name of this admirable soldier and most worthy man, who did so much to promote our interests and sustain our reputation in this country.[11]

The most beautiful trees in India are the 'bar' (banyan), the 'pīpal', and the tamarind.[12] The two first are of the fig tribe, and their greatest enemies are the elephants and camels of our public establishments and public servants, who prey upon them wherever they can find them when under the protection of their masters or keepers, who, when appealed to, generally evince a very philosophical disregard to the feeling of either property or piety involved in the trespass.

It is consequently in the driest and hottest parts of the country, where the shade of these trees is most wanted, that it is least to be found; because it is there that camels thrive best, and are most kept, and it is most difficult to save such trees from their depredations.

In the evening a trooper passed our tents on his way in great haste from Meerut to Delhi, to announce the death of the poor old Bēgam Samrū, which had taken place the day before at her little capital of Sardhana. For five-and-twenty years had I been looking forward to the opportunity of seeing this very extraordinary woman, whose history had interested me more than that of any other character in India during my time; and I was sadly disappointed to hear of her death when within two or three stages of her capital.[13]


1. January, 1836.

2. Mr. Fox Strangways gives specimens of songs sung at wells in his learned and original book, The Music of Hindostan (Oxford, 1914, pp. 20, 21).

3. Brij Bowla in the original edition. The name is correctly written Birjū Baulā or Baurā. A legend of the rivalry between him and Tānsēn is given in Linguistic Survey of India, vi, 47. His name is not included in Abūl Fazl's list of eminent musicians, or in Blochmann's notes to it (Āīn trans. i, 612), and I have not succeeded in obtaining any trustworthy information about him. Marvellous legends of the rival singers will be found in N.I.N. & Qu. vol. v, para. 207.

4. Abūl Fazl describes Tānsēn as being of Gwālior, adding that 'a singer like him has not been in India for the last thousand years'. Nos. 2-5 and several others in Abūl Fazl's list of eminent musicians in Akbar's reign are all noted as belonging to Gwālior, which evidently was the most musical of cities (Blochmann, transl. Āīn, i, 612). Sleeman appears to have been mistaken in connecting Tānsēn with Patna.

But the musician must really have become a Musalmān, because his tomb stands close to the south- western corner of the sepulchre at Gwālior of Muhammad Ghaus, an eminent Muslim saint. No Hindu could have been buried in such a spot (A.S.R., vol. ii, p. 370). According to one account Tānsēn died in Lahore, his body being removed to Gwālior by order of Akbar (Forbes, Oriental Memoirs, London, 1813, vol. iii, p. 32). The leaves of the tamarind-tree overshadowing the tomb are believed to improve the voice marvellously when chewed.

Mr. Fox Strangways notes that Hindu critics hold Tānsēn 'principally responsible for the deterioration of Hindu music. He is said to have falsified the rāgs, and two, Hindol and Megh, of the original six have disappeared since his time' (op. cit., p. 84).

Akbar, in the seventh year of his reign (1562-3), compelled the Rājā of Rīwā (Bhath) to give up Tānsēn, who was in the Rājā's service. The emperor gave the musician Rs. 200,000. 'Most of his compositions are written in Akbar's name, and his melodies are even nowadays everywhere repeated by the people of Hindustān' (Blochmann, op. cit., p. 406). Tānsēn died in A.D. 1588 (Beale).

5. Shāh Alam is the sovereign alluded to. Māhādajī (Mādhojī or Mādhava Rāo) Sindhia died in February, 1794. His successor, Daulat Rāo, was then a boy of fourteen or fifteen (Grant Duff, History of the Mahrattas, ed. 1826, vol. iii, p. 86). The formal adoption of Daulat Rāo had not been completed (ibid., p. 91).

6. This observation is a good illustration of the tendency of administrators in a country so poor as India to take note of the infinitely little. In Europe no one would take the trouble to notice the difference between £60 and £62 rental.

7. Lord Auckland, in March, 1836, relieved Sir Charles Metcalfe, who, as temporary Governor-General, had succeeded Lord William Bentinck.

8. The resumption, that is to say, assessment, of revenue-free lands was a burning question in the anthor's day. It has long since got settled. The author was quite right in his opinion. All native Governments freely exercised the right of resumption, and did not care in the least what phrases were used in the deed of grant. The old Hindoo deeds commonly directed that the grant should last 'as long as the sun and moon shall endure', and invoked awful curses on the head of the resumer. But this was only formal legal phraseology, meaning nothing. No ruler was bound by his predecessor's acts.

9. This is not now the case.

10. 'It is difficult to realize that the dignified, sober, and orderly men who now fill our regiments are of the same stock as the savage freebooters whose name, a hundred years ago, was the terror of Northern India. But the change has been wrought by strong and kindly government and by strict military discipline under sympathetic officers whom the troops love and respect.' (Sir Lepel Griffin, Ranjīt Singh, p. 37.)

11. Gerard Lake was born on the 27th July, 1744, and entered the army before he was fourteen. He served in the Seven Years' War in Germany, in the American War, in the French campaign of 1793, and against the Irish rebels in 1798. In the year 1801 he became Commander-in-Chief in India, and proceeded to Cawnpore, then our frontier station. Two years later the second Marāthā War began, and gave General Lake the opportunity of winning a series of brilliant victories.

In rapid succession he defeated the enemy at Kōil, Alīgarh, Delhi (the battle alluded to in the text), Agra, and Laswārī. Next year, 1804, the glorious record was marred by the disaster to Colonel Monson's force, but this was quickly avenged by the decisive victories of Dīg and Farrukhābād, which shattered Holkār's power. The year 1805 saw General Lake's one personal failure, the unsuccessful siege of Bharatpur. The Commander-in-Chief then resumed the pursuit of Holkār, and forced him to surrender.

He sailed for England in February, 1807, and on his arrival at home was created a Viscount. On the 21st February, 1808, he died. (Pearse, Memoir of the Life and Military Services of Viscount Lake. London, Blackwood, 1908.) The village of Patparganj, nearly due east from Humāyūn's Tomb, marks the site of the battle. Fanshawe (p. 70) gives a plan.

12. The banyan is the Ficus indica, or Urostigma bengalense; the 'pīpal' is Ficus religiosa, or Urostigma religiosum; and the tamarind is the Tamarindus indica, or occidentalis, or officinalis.

13. The history of the Bēgam is given in Chapter 76, post.