Circuits of Exchange and Modes of Transportation
"Words cannot describe our gratification on seeing the river
Ganga [Ganges]." The South Indian pilgrim Enugula Veeraswamy penned this line in
1830, upon seeing this holiest of holy rivers for the first time. It was a sentiment
shared by all Hindus, for whom the Ganges is a vital part of religious life and beliefs.
Having started his long journey in Madras, he must have been elated at reaching a juncture
from which his primary destination of Banaras lay within easy reach. So, too, the other
pilgrimage centers (many of which were located on or near the Ganges) he wished to visit
were now accessible. For the Ganges opened up north India to him: he could travel on its
waters as had generations of people before him, or he could follow the well-worn road that
skirted its banks. A seasoned traveler by then, having already been on the road for four
months, he recognized from the thriving commercial town of Mirzapur that this river was a
major communications artery.
To compare the modes of travel employed by Veeraswamy with those alluded
to in the late-eighteenth-century account of the Patna historian Ghulam Husain or those
utilized by the early-seventeenth-century Jain
merchant named Banarsidas is to confirm the observation made by one
commentator that so little change had occurred in the system of transportation in some
areas that the mid-nineteenth-century traveler was said to be moving "as slowly and
as tediously as in the days of [the third-century B.C.E. Emperor] Asoka." Certainly Veeraswamy's travel experiences reveal that he shared much
in common with Banarsidas, who had journeyed across north India conducting business and
undertaking pilgrimages on land by foot, by palanquin, by cart, by carriage, by horseback
and on water, by raft. Indeed, the "tyranny of
distance" Fernand Braudel's evocative metaphor of the constraints imposed by
"antiquated means of transportation" on pre-eighteenth-century society and
economy aptly characterizes the system of transportation in
South Asia in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
By the time of Mahatma Gandhi's birth in 1869, however, new means of
communication were penetrating extensive areas of the region. This change was primarily
ushered in by, to use one traveler's phrase, the "marvel and miracle" of
railways. There was moreover the added benefit of construction
of new roads to serve as feeders to the rail lines. Thus, by the early twentieth century
the triumph over distance appeared to have made its way even into the hinterland. Witness
the whistle-stop tours of Gandhi and other leaders in the early 1920s as they crisscrossed
Bihar spreading their gospel of Noncooperation, a message disseminated through newspapers
and other public media as well.
This chapter examines the effects of these developments in
transportation on circuits of exchange marketing and trade. It shows that "antiquated
means of transportation" that relied on waterways and a limited system of roads in
the prerailway era hindered the development
of trade across great distances. Inherent temporal limitations played
a role, too, as annual disruption caused by the rainy season added to the "tyranny of
distance." So did government policies, because the colonial regime opted not to
expend the funds necessary to build and maintain a system of roads to overcome these
obstacles. What financial commitments it made in this regard were principally directed at
forging links between its seat of power, the port city of Calcutta, and the interior.
I will first consider rivers and roads during the prerailway age,
essentially the first century of colonial rule, and then turn to the development of
railways in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The Ganges navigable throughout the year was the principal river highway
across the vast north Indian Gangetic plain stretching from Delhi to the Bay of Bengal.
Vessels capable of accommodating five hundred merchants were known to ply this river in
the ancient period; it served as a conduit for overseas trade, as goods were carried from
Pataliputra (later Patna) and Champa (later Bhagalpur) out to the seas and on to ports in
Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. During the Mughal period it was
used extensively for hauling bulky merchandise, boats of four hundred to five hundred tons
regularly sailing on its waters. European merchants in the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries traveled the Ganges in their journeys inland from the Bay of Bengal; so did
Europeans coming from Delhi and Agra. For much of the first century of colonial rule, it
functioned as the "channel" of the "greatest part of the inland trade of
Bengal and Behar, and the whole of the maritime trade both of these and of the
The role of the Ganges as a "channel" for trade was enhanced
by its natural links it embraces all the major rivers and streams in both north and south
Bihar. By far the more important channels for trade were the northern tributaries that
flow down from the sub-Himalayan
ranges in Nepal and proceed in a southeasterly direction toward
Calcutta. Of these, the Gandak was the principal river artery for trade. Although
navigable throughout the year, particularly the last eighty miles of its stretch leading
into the Ganges, it was a difficult river to negotiate because of its narrow channels
during the dry season and its terrific currents during the rainy season. Boats of up to
one thousand maunds (approximately thirty-six tons) reached Lalganj in the rains, of up to
five hundred maunds reached Bagaha; upstream boats generally carried half the amount of
their downstream loads. Until well into the nineteenth century the Gandak was a major
conduit for the trade of Champaran and Muzaffarpur. Grain (especially fine rice),
oilseeds, opium, indigo, and saltpeter were sent down this river and coarse rice, salt,
spices, cotton, piece goods, and other goods brought back in exchange. Govindganj in
Champaran and Lalganj and Hajipur in Muzaffarpur were the primary centers of trade on this
river. Hajipur also benefited from its proximity to the junction of the Ganges and Gandak.
Two other important northern tributaries were the Gogra (Ghaghra), which
carried much of the traffic across the administrative boundaries of Saran and the
North-Western Provinces, and the Muzaffarpur River (also known as the Burhi Gandak), which
intersects Muzaffarpur and Darbhanga. Their effectiveness as affluents for trade varied
seasonally: they were best when their waters were swollen with rain. The Burhi Gandak, for
instance, could be plied by boats carrying as much as two thousand maunds as far as
Roshera, and of up to one thousand maunds as far as Muzaffarpur. Khaguria, located at that
river's confluence with the Ganges, and Roshera, Samastipur, and Muzaffarpur, towns
farther upriver, were key sites for "country trade." Much of the trade on the
Gogra was negotiated through Revelganj, which, because of its advantageous location near
the Ganges, emerged as a major trading center in the nineteenth century.
The rivers from the south are another story. Short, dependent on
rainfall, shallow but rapid when in spate, and tending to branch into many channels in
their lower reaches, these tributaries have historically not been significant as lines of
communication and transport. Exemplifying these conditions is the Son, which originates in
the plateau of central India and forms the administrative frontier of Shahabad with Gaya
and Patna. Although the primary river in south Bihar, it never emerged as an important
line of transportation because it could not support boats of substantial weight during the
long dry season, and its waters turned into rapids in the rains. Large boats utilized the
river between July and the end of November; in December it was navigable only by small
boats. Therefore, its primary commercial use was in floating bamboos and other timber.
Daudnagar and Arwal were the primary trade centers on this river for the movement of
Throughout the Gangetic network of rivers and streams, traffic ebbed and
flowed in accordance with the rainy season. Traffic on the Ganges was generally heavier
upstream in the first half of the year, with the pattern reversed in the latter half of
the year when the river, swollen from the rains, carried more traffic flowing downstream.
Furthermore, boats were less likely to get mired in sandbanks in the wet weather.
Especially in the south the "river-borne export trade . . . [was] brisk only during
the months of July, August, September, and October, when the rivers are full of
Traffic patterns were also conditioned by the marketing calendar of the
staple items of the Ganges-borne trade. Rice, available in the Bengal markets in December
and January, was shipped to Bihar and the North-Western Provinces, where demand always
exceeded local supply. In the first six months of the year the surplus rice of the great
alluvial and deltaic plain between the Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal made up a
substantial portion of the up-country traffic. Oilseeds, largely a product of Bihar and
the North-Western Provinces, reversed the trade
flow in the second half of the year when they were dispatched to the
Calcutta market. First appearing in the markets in April and May, oilseeds added
significantly to the downstream traffic in the second half of the year because their
export to Bengal began in July and continued through the rainy season. Together rice and
oilseeds accounted for more than half of the traffic on the Ganges.
Not all commodities traveled in that direction, however. Indigo, sugar, hides, wheat,
saltpeter, and oilseeds moved with the flow toward Bengal, whereas rice, opium, and
tobacco moved against the current back toward Patna and the North-Western Provinces.
Overland transportation also followed this rhythm and pattern.
Champaran's exports of largely grain, corn, pulses, oilseeds, sugar, indigo, opium, ghee,
and hides were conveyed on the roads in their largest volumes between November and May.
This timing coincided with Champaran's two major harvests of bhadai (autumn) and rabi
(spring) crops, which were collected October-November and March-April, respectively. At
the height of the season of overland traffic, in the five peak months from the beginning
of December to the end of April, as many as eight thousand carts and an equal number of
bullocks and tattoos (ponies) operated by the well-known Banjara pack-bullock traders
passed daily over the roads, many of these destined, either directly or indirectly via
intermediate stops, for the major markets along the Ganges. From there the movement
downstream awaited the onset of the monsoon rains, which typically commenced in June and
tapered off in September. Boats negotiating the swollen river generally moved twice as
fast as those going upstream.
Limitations notwithstanding, the Ganges and its affluents constituted
the most effective and efficient network of transportation. "Nowhere in India,"
other than in Bihar and Bengal, as one report noted, "is internal traffic more
active . . . when the rivers are full of water, when every river is turned
into a highway for the country craft laden with merchandise, every stream into a pathway,
and every creek into a harbour for boats." Indeed, rivers
were the primary highways, a natural system of internal waterways, because roads were not
well developed until the late nineteenth century (at the time when railways were built).
Absent an efficient overland system of transportation, water transportation was not only
cheaper but faster. Downstream boats generally could travel forty miles a day; upstream
they managed ten miles a day. And they were more capacious than overland haulage.
Transportation costs reflected the comparative advantages enjoyed by
water transportation. A mid-nineteenth-century source estimated that travel by country
boats proceeding downriver in the Gangetic area cost the least; slightly more expensive
were country boats moving upriver; and steamers ferried goods more expensively than even
country boats carrying loads upriver. Introduced to the Ganges in the 1830s, steamboats
greatly speeded up transportation but acquired "little of the ordinary
traffic . . . . They get twice as much cargo on their up-stream as on
their down-stream trips. They carry very little of the great staples, such as oil-seeds,
rice, and salt; but carry much of the metals and machinery and much of the miscellaneous
European goods which are sent up-country by river." The
costliest way to transport goods was overland: almost double that of country boats heading
Local investigations bear out these figures. Rates in north Bihar were
as follows: 8 pies or three-quarters of an anna ( 12 pies equals one anna) per ton per
mile upstream by country boat, as opposed to 2 annas per ton per mile by country cart;
downstream the price by river fell to 5 pies per ton per mile. In other words, the cost of
transportation by boats ranged from approximately one-third to one-fifth the cost of
overland freight by carts, depending on whether they were moving
upstream or downstream. The "miserable nature of the carts, which will not convey
more than five or five and half maunds [less than five hundred pounds] at a time," as
one local administrator explained, added to the costs, making "land carriage . . .
the dearest mode of transport, returning no profit, and mostly inflicting loss, and . . .
therefore avoided to the utmost." Land traffic therefore
tended to seek out river outlets.
Traffic, furthermore, converged on the river outlets especially the
Ganges because the principal highways paralleled the course of this great river until the
early nineteenth century. Historically, an east-west highway alongside the Ganges has a
long genealogy. A king's road from Pataliputra to the northwest of India via Banaras
existed as early as the pre-Christian era. Under Sher Shah, and
later under the Mughals, this route followed the Ganges, making a detour at Patna, where
it turned southward along the Son, intersecting Arwal and Daudnagar before crossing over
that river to head for Banaras via Sasaram and Jahanabad and then across the Karamnasa. A
second route followed the line of the Ganges, intersecting Buxar at the westernmost point
of Bihar, and then advanced on to Bhojpur and Arrah before entering Patna district, where
it proceeded through Maner, Danapur, Patna, and Barh before heading east toward
Murshidabad via Monghyr and Bhagalpur.
The historic road along the Ganges faded in importance, however, during
the colonial period because the new focal point was Calcutta, which lay south of the major
Mughal settlements in Bengal. Looking outward from Calcutta to its expanding frontier of
interests in the north and northwest, the emerging colonial state recognized, as did its
Mughal predecessors, the urgency of building a highway across north
India. Consequently, the routes that received the most government attention in Bihar were
thoroughfares connecting Bengal to the North-Western Provinces, from which the highways
continued on to Delhi.
From the outset, British policy regarding the construction and
maintenance of roads was guided by "political and military
objects." As early as the 1760s British engineers began
mapping out a "New Road" (also called the "New Military Road"), which
was completed in 1785. From Calcutta, the most expedient and direct connection through
Bihar was to follow a more southerly course, a route that veered away from Hughli toward
Burdwan and then across Hazaribagh, not paralleling the course of the Mughal main route
until it crossed over the Son; from there it proceeded to Banaras along much the same
trajectory as the Mughal route. In part, the new trajectory was also designed to extend
British control into Chotanagpur, a region that had remained beyond the ken of the
Mughals; in part, the southerly direction was aimed at enabling the new regime to meet and
contain Maratha incursions that came through central India.
But this new east-west highway it remained the primary road for some
fifty years never became a major thoroughfare because it was not kept in good repair and
was prone to flooding. Writing in 1855 (almost prophetically because the subsequent events
of the 1857 Mutiny/Rebellion in Bihar had their epicenter in Shahabad), the Patna
commissioner expressed "surprise" at its "imperfect and ill-managed . . .
condition. The first fall of rain renders it in parts quite impassable for wheeled
conveyances, and nearly so for any other mode of transit, and if any emergency should
require the presence of troops at Arrah during the rains, they would have great difficulty
in reaching the station from Dinapore."
Nor did the Grand Trunk Road, which superseded the more southerly
"New Road" by the 1840s, emerge as a major highway for conveyance of goods. But it fulfilled its "paramount importance" as a road
that tied Calcutta to government's "most important provinces and political interest
together with the great proportion of its military force."
Indeed, control of the Grand Trunk Road in the Mutiny/Rebellion of 1857 enabled the
British to keep open the lines of communication and supplies between Calcutta and the
areas of contention in north and central India. "British military formations moved
along it with the sureness of destroyers passing over a dark and turbulent ocean."
Access to this highway enabled the beleaguered colonial regime in 1857 to persist as
"a fragile form of military occupation." To continue in the words of Eric
Stokes, "It was not the last time a colonial power would find that so long as it
could secure the key towns and connecting highways leading to the main military
concentration of rebellion, it could afford from a narrow military viewpoint to ignore its
own loss of control over the intermediate countryside."
Its strategic importance notwithstanding, the Grand Trunk Road was not
in much better condition than the "New Road." In
fact, its eastern segment acquired little of the majesty that Kipling saw in its
northwestern portion in the late nineteenth century. Its "imperfect and ill-managed .
. . condition" made it especially unsuited for supporting
heavy traffic. Take the leg between Calcutta and the Karamnasa River,
for instance. Level for the first 110 miles, then rising into hilly country for the next
165 miles before becoming "dead level" again, this stretch of 391 miles was the
first road to be metaled a process started in earnest after 1839. The quality of its
metaling, however, varied from place to place, not only because of the different materials
used but also because of the different techniques employed to harden the surface. In its
hilly portion the tendency was to metal the road by lining it with stones or granite but
without packing them down with a roller. Instead the expectation was that the traffic
along the road would firm up this bedrock. The result, however, was not as anticipated,
because carts and carriages left a rut that other wheeled traffic attempted to follow or
that traffic sought to avoid by skirting the sides of the roads.
Rains, furthermore, wreaked havoc, narrowing a road that was only
fourteen to fifteen feet wide under the best of conditions and washing away "large
parts." Not until it was completely metaled in the late nineteenth century was this
road finally usable year-round for all kinds of transport.
Unbridged rivers posed another hazard, as one traveler recounted on
reaching the Son, noting that the river
is three miles across; a volume of water for four months in the year a
waste of sand with only one stream of any consequence for the remainder of the year. At
present it takes three good hours to cross it and heavy bullock carts take nearly a day. A
good sized carriage such as the one used by all passengers on the line is dragged by six
bullocks over the waste of sand which reaches from the right bank of the river to the main
stream running along the left bank. Two or three smaller streams are crossed about half
way; but they do not compel passengers to embark their vehicles on boats. At the beginning
of November the water in these minor streams was scarcely higher than the axles and by the
commencement of February it will be quite dried up. The boats used for crossing the main
stream are[,] however, of the most faulty and insecure description.
Familiar with these problems was the Inland Transit Company, whose
"palanquin carriages," drawn by a horse or sometimes two horses, or "parcel
[goods] carts" set off daily from Calcutta on the Grand Trunk Road. Only under
optimum conditions could passenger carriages reach Banaras in three days and goods carts
in forty hours. During the rainy
season, the company manager dissuaded passengers from traveling. The
"difficulties and annoyances are so great," he explained, "owing to the
obstacles . . . that we would rather lose the passengers than run the risk of being blamed
for their disappointments." Included in his list of hazards were the "low level
of the road between Hooghly and Burdwan which renders it always liable to inundation in
the rains. [There is a] want of bridges over some of the principal streams and [a] general
want of supervision along the whole line . . . [, and] proper means are not taken to keep
it in repair."
Far worse off were the secondary roads, which were so critical to the
effective functioning of the principal water or land highways. Like the tributaries from
the north and the south that flowed into the Ganges, the most important secondary roads
were needed as confluents linking up the countryside with the principal highways.
Especially indispensable were north-south roads that could serve as feeder roads for the
east-west water and overland highways. Few and far between were crossroads that cut
laterally across localities along an east-west direction. As late as the 1870s, many areas
reported, as did Shahabad, that not a single "cross-road" existed.
Moreover, secondary roads received little attention until the advent of
the railway era because they were not considered to possess political or military
significance. Essentially fair-weather tracks, these local
roads were largely unpaved, as in the Mughal period, and mostly carved out of dirt
surfaces and constructed without much benefit of en-
gineering principles. As a result, they were beset by problems of
drainage and design. They were, for one, prone to flooding in the level plains either
because of rains or overflowing streams and rivulets. Furthermore, in the absence of
metaling, during the dry season even the best of roads was easily damaged by wheeled
traffic. Lacking bridges over the many streams and rivulets that formed barriers
particularly during the rainy season, many were also not easily passable. Therefore in the
wet months wheeled traffic came almost to a standstill. No wonder roads in this era could
be maintained only at inordinate expense, costs that government was not willing to incur.
Their maintenance, moreover, depended on the initiative and interest of
local administrators and on funds collected from local landholders. Such contingencies
typically meant that most roads were in poor condition. For example, the principal road
along the Ganges was difficult to negotiate because bridges on this road were not kept up.
Zamindars and administrators were equally to blame, reported the local judge, because they
considered the responsibility of maintaining roads "attended with considerable labour
and trouble and . . . a subject of temporary or local expedient by the government, [and
therefore] the Magistrates are [not] inclined nor encouraged to undertake the duty."
An assessment of the Patna-Gaya road, perhaps the most important
north-south route in Bihar, is indicative of the low priority accorded, and the poor
condition of, even the most significant of secondary roads in the prerailway era. Patna had long been connected to Gaya, the second most important
town in Bihar and a major pilgrimage center; Bodh Gaya, six miles south of Gaya, known
historically as the place where Buddha gained enlightenment, was another magnet for
pilgrims. The Patna-Gaya road grew in importance during the colonial period
because it served as the link between Patna and the entire country
south of the Ganges. It also tied together the two principal east-west highways, the
Ganges and the Grand Trunk Road. And its extension beyond Gaya enabled the British to
maintain a colonial presence far into the interior, into the Chotanagpur plateau.
The Patna-Gaya road was also an important trading route. Registration of
traffic along this road in the late nineteenth century shows that rice, wheat, and other
cereals were transported on it, going both ways, but mostly from Gaya to Patna; oilseeds
from Gaya in substantial quantities and salt and tobacco in large amounts from Patna also
traveled this road. In addition, Patna was the source of European cotton manufactures.
During the pilgrimage season the road turned into "one of the most crowded
thoroughfares" in the region as thousands of people converged on it to reach Gaya.
Although the Patna-Gaya road was the best maintained of the north-south
roads in the region, its condition was not much better than that of most local roads. The
first concerted efforts to ensure its upkeep as a principal road, or high road, were not
made until 1811; by 1814 it was widened to twenty feet and raised throughout its length.
By 1832, however, the road was reported to be in the "worst possible state," the
result of poor maintenance, bad drainage, and unbridged rivers that eroded its course.
Five years later in 1837, "all traces of the road were in many places completely
washed away, while the drain bridges were so much injured as to be rendered unsafe, and
impracticable." By then it was said to be "impassable even to foot
travellers." At the prodding of postal authorities, orders were issued in 1850 to
build up the road as a first-class imperial road: to broaden, raise, metal, and bridge it.
But when cost estimates topped eleven lakhs of rupees for this road of 77.5 miles,
authorization was not forthcoming. Consequently, an alternative plan to construct a more
modest road was put forth.
Details regarding other secondary roads add to this picture of their
limited utility, selective range, and defective condition. In Patna and Gaya the
Patna-Daudnagar road (formerly part of the Mughal highway and subsequently extended to the
Grand Trunk Road) and the PatnaBihar road were the other local roads of importance in the
late eighteenth century. (Daudnagar was then a commercial center, a place where the East
India Company had both cloth and opium interests.) In the early nineteenth century a
crossroad was constructed from Daudnagar to Gaya, and from there east to Nawada. Spanning
a distance of more than seventy miles, this road too was used to carry goods between the
towns on the Ganges and the south, and it became "much frequented by pilgrims from
all parts of India." Additional roads linked Bihar to
Gaya, although this route was in poor condition in the early nineteenth century, and Bihar
to Nawada, from which the road continued on to Chotanagpur.
In Shahabad the primary local road was the north-south link between the
two great military highways. Commenced in the 1780s, it was completed in 1793 with Arrah
and Sasaram constituting the nodal points at the two ends of this road. Also completed in
1793 was the road linking Arrah to Nasriganj, an important manufacturing and trading
center on the banks of the Son and across the river from Daudnagar. Additional north-south
lines were formed in the early nineteenth century: Nasriganj was also the terminus of a
road running north from Bhojpur to Dumraon, a road that cut through the heart of Shahabad
and proceeded on to Gaya via Daudnagar. As a result, it supported "a large traffic
for the transport of goods and grains of various kinds . . . and . . . during the greater
part of the year [was filled] with travellers and pilgrims."
Other than these few links, however, most roads, as elsewhere in the
region, were little better than common footpaths. And, as elsewhere, good roads were a
result of the initiative of enterprising local administrators, or zamindars; similarly,
neglect could quickly make the best of roads impassable. Familiar also is this list of
problems responsible for
the poor condition of roads: their location on "low ground [that]
flooded during the rains, the badness of the soil at such places, . . . the total want of
roads sufficiently raised and bridges adequate to meet every contingency of inundation,
and last [but] not least, the poverty of the funds." Small
wonder then that, as late as the 1840s, Shahabad was said to lack a "durable internal
communication as centrically situated as possible, between the great southern Trunk Road .
. . and the river transit . . . [and] a general communication to all the marts and
stations in the centre of the District."
In contrast to south Bihar, north Bihar had no major thoroughfares
spanning its entire breadth. But by the mid-nineteenth century it boasted a much more
extensive and better network of roads than did the south. Its major roads headed toward
the Ganges highway, to connect either with Patna or other trade and marketing settlements
along the banks of the river. The neighboring areas were yet another focus: the
North-Western Provinces, Bengal, and Nepal.
Typifying this pattern were the lines of communication in Saran. Its
best road at the turn of the nineteenth century skirted its southeastern edge, a line
defined by the Ganges and the headquarters town of Chapra. From Chapra the road continued
toward the southeastern tip of the district, from which the city of Patna could be reached
by crossing the river. Because Champaran was administered as part of Saran until 1866, its
better roads also converged on this area. Of the three main arteries in the late
eighteenth century, the high road linked Chapra with the commercial center of Revelganj
and the old town of Chirand, from which a ferry crossed the Ganges to link up with the
military road to Danapur and Patna and to Arrah. Heading northwest from Chapra, this road
continued to Manjhi, from which a road crossed the Gogra into Ghazipur. Chapra was also a
key locale along a second road that proceeded north through Mashrak and across the Gandak;
from there it continued to Motihari, the principal town in Champaran. A third road linked
Chapra to Muzaffarpur. But as in south Bihar in the prerailway era, these roads were
little better than fair-weather tracks because they were impassable in the rains, with wa-
ter waist high in some areas; nor were they adequately bridged over
streams. Of these only the Chirand-Chapra-Manjhi road repaired partly by zamindars and
partly by convict labor was said to be "well calculated for carriages of any
This high road through Chapra received the most administrative attention
in the early nineteenth century. By 1830 it extended beyond Manjhi to Darauli and then
across the Gogra. And from Chirand it extended to Sonepur the site of the region's most
important fair from which it passed on over the Gandak to Hajipur. Apparently because most
traffic people and goods from Chapra headed in the direction of Patna and Danapur, on the
one hand, and Sonepur and Hajipur, on the other, the thirty-mile stretch between Chapra
and Sonepur was kept "in excellent repair and passable for wheeled carriages, nearly
the whole year." The Chapra-Darauli stretch, however, was "wretchedly bad." In addition, crossroads, which began with Chapra at one end of the
line and headed into Champaran and Muzaffarpur, were also built. One important connection
was between Chapra and Siwan, the second largest town of Saran, from which the road
continued through the military cantonment of Baragaon before branching out in opposite
directions toward Gorakhpur and Bettiah, the latter being Champaran's second most
important settlement and the home of that district's premier landholder. Another road
headed directly north from Chapra to Govindganj in Champaran; still other roads headed
northeast and east into Muzaffarpur.
Whereas the Chapra high road provided Saran at least one good road in
the late eighteenth century, Champaran had not a single effective road, according to its
district collector. Within the first decades of the nineteenth century, however, this
district developed many good lines of communication. Much of the impetus for road building
in the area came from "military and political objects," specifically the
outbreaks of war with Nepal. Thus, roads in the early nineteenth century were built to
connect Chapra, Muzaffarpur, and Patna, as well as mili-
tary outposts, the cantonment of Mallai in Muzaffarpur, and the
cantonments along the Nepal boundary. The growing presence of European indigo planters in
the area also proved to be a boon, as planters took an active role in local road-building
By the mid-nineteenth century a number of roads traversed a northsouth
axis, from Champaran's border with Nepal to its boundary on the Gandak: one road to Chapra
intersected Motihari; the ChapraGovindganj route headed into two directions, one to
Motihari, and the other to Sugauli, a village halfway between Motihari and Bettiah, and
the site of a military cantonment during the Nepalese war. Roads also branched out from
Bettiah to Gorakhpur, to Bagaha, in the sparsely inhabited northwest, to Banjaria and to
Sugauli. From there the road continued on through Motihari and became the link to
Muzaffapur via Mehsi. The Mehsi-Motihari-Bettiah road, a stretch of almost fifty miles
across the southeastern half of the district, was said to be in particularly good
condition because of the large number of indigo plantations in the area. Planters
apparently kept this road and a few others in this area in "excellent, and . . .in
good and substantial repair . . .at their private expense."
The condition of roads in late-eighteenth-century Tirhut, which then
comprised Muzaffarpur and Darbhanga, resembled that of Saran. As its district collector
noted, they were "in very bad state." Even the basic road connecting Muzaffarpur
to Patna a route that would have passed through the important town of Hajipur was not
easily negotiable. The conditions existing on the road between Muzaffapur and Chapra a
route over which rice from the terai (jungly and marshy lands in the foothills of
the Himalayas) traveled toward Chapra, along with tobacco, hides, horns, and saltpeter
from Darbhanga exemplify the difficulties faced in this era in using roads for conveying
goods. Whereas the Saran portion of this road was kept in relatively good condition, the
segment from the Gandak to Muzaffarpur required negotiating swollen streams during the
rainy season. Over this twenty-three-mile stretch, a hackery (bullock cart) unloaded and
reloaded five times, a process that added two days to the journey.
The impulse for developing a network of roads in Tirhut, as in the case
of Champaran, came during the Nepalese war and was supported
by the indigo planters. Small wonder then that one road that attracted
considerable official attention was the connection between Muzaffarpur and the cantonment
of Mallai, located almost at the Nepal border. En route it intersected Sitamarhi, and from
Mallai this road continued on to Kathmandu. By the mid-nineteenth century Muzaffarpur was
also linked to Patna via Hajipur, a route that required crossing the Ganges at its
confluence with the Gandak. Other roads connected Muzaffarpur to Chapra, to Motihari and
Sugauli, to Darbhanga (a road that continued on to Purnia), and to Monghyr. Branch roads
had also been built from these main roads to other important towns and villages and also
to indigo factories.
According to one estimate, the roads in north Bihar were as good as, if
not better than, those found anywhere else in Bengal. Better
they may have been but they still were not good enough to function as major arteries of
trade. Even the east-west highways were not consistently usable in this respect because
they could not always support the two-or four-wheeled carts pulled by oxen and buffalo
that were the primary vehicles of transport for goods and people on the subcontinent, or
they were virtually impassable at least during the rainy season. Few loaded carts traveled
on even the major east-west highways during the rainy season. The use of such vehicles was
therefore restricted to the main east-west highways or to the short strips connecting the
major towns, also generally the roads next best to the principal highways. Especially
during the rainy season, when most roads were impassable, people and goods therefore
resorted to the rivers because of their "facility and cheapness of transit." The
absence or poor condition of connecting crossroads further curtailed the volume of cart
In the absence of cartable roads, goods were carried as "back
loads" on oxen or as baggage conveyed by pack bullocks. Indeed, this was the
situation in the early nineteenth century in pargana Bihar in Patna (pargana
is a Mughal unit of revenue administration) and the adjoining pargana of Samai in
Gaya. Surplus grain from this area was transported by pack bullocks because the local
roads could not support
wheeled traffic. But this form of
transportation reduced the cost efficiency of overland transportation: pack bullocks were
capable of carrying only one-fourth or one-fifth of the load that a cart could handle and
were capable of traveling only about half the distance covered by a cart. Conveyance by
pack bullocks was, according to one estimate, twice as expensive as transportation by
Human labor whether one's own or that of coolies was also widely used to
carry goods to neighboring markets in the initial century of colonial rule. But this mode
of transportation had obvious limitations. As one contemporary observer noted, "20
seers [about 44 lbs] is the utmost a man can carry, for any distance . . . not to mention
the expenses they are put to, in disposing of the produce."
Thus, in the first century of British rule, the Ganges persisted as the
primary highway of transportation because roads were uneven and largely in poor condition.
No wonder the data for the traffic between Calcutta and Banaras show that the Ganges
accounted for almost ten times as much tonnage of the trade between those two cities as
did the Grand Trunk Road.
A different statistic shows up, however, if the count is of pedestrian
traffic. An early nineteenth-century estimate indicates that the number of passengers on
boats between Calcutta and Banaras totaled 58,378, whereas the number of "foot
passengers" on the Grand Trunk Road
between those two towns added up to 435,000, or almost eight times as
many. Another 30-40,000 passengers traveled by "conveyances of various kinds."
In other words, roads, their imperfections notwithstanding, were far
better suited to accommodate foot traffic. And one group who relied on them in particular,
the Grand Trunk Road and the "New Road" before it was the military. Generations
of soldiers tramped these highways in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries
en route "to the great military stations . . . principally situated in the
north-western provinces, and especially towards the frontier."
Pilgrims were another conspicuous presence on these roads. Veeraswamy
was one of many pilgrims in the prerailway age who stopped off in Patna en route to the
holy city of Gaya. And for those traveling by the Grand Trunk Road, access to Gaya from
either Banaras or Calcutta was via Sherghati, a town intersected by the highway twenty-one
miles south of Gaya. Not surprisingly, Bholanauth Chunder encountered enterprising Gaya
"scouts" at Sherghati whose purpose was to direct and entice pilgrim traffic.
Beggars of every description also flocked there in order to take advantage of a
"place through which there is not a day that some men or other have not occasion to
pass on to Gaya, distributing alms in their progress, and moralizing to the world that the
path to heaven lies through the gateway of charity."
Well into the late nineteenth century people from all walks of life
joined soldiers and pilgrims on the roads. Ordinary people, especially the less well-off,
were known to walk for days, even weeks, if necessary, to reach distant destinations.
Pedestrians generally covered eight to ten miles a day, much less than the twenty or
thirty miles a litter carried by a team of coolies could manage in a day.
In fact, so many peo-
ple walked to their destinations the cheapest means of transportation
that British administrators often considered a better class of roads to be unnecessary.
For "natives . . . any thing in the shape of a pathway beaten smooth by their naked
feet suits them just as well, as a more costly one."
The development of railways changed both the modes of transportation and
the circuits along which trade flowed. Introduced to the region in the late nineteenth
century, railways rapidly became the most efficient and economical means of
transportation. The highest priority in railroad construction, as in road building, was to
develop a line of communication linking Calcutta to the rest of north India. The Grand
Trunk Road of the railways, the East Indian Railway, was started in 1855, interrupted by
the events of 1857, and finally completed in 1862. A second line was added in 1870.
Political and military considerations weighed heavily, as they did in
the case of the Grand Trunk Road, in determining the location of the East Indian Railway.
So did commercial factors, particularly in forming its Bihar segment. Although the
shortest route would have been to follow a direct line between Calcutta and Banaras, a
course roughly paralleling the path of the Grand Trunk Road, the initial alignment
followed the course of the Ganges, that is, roughly the line of the old Mughal trunk
route. From Banaras the East India Railway proceeded along the north of Shahabad and
Patna, then continued on to Monghyr and Bhagalpur en route to Calcutta. And like the
Banaras-Patna-Calcutta road along the Ganges its major stops were, from west to east,
Buxar, Arrah, Danapur, Patna-Bankipur, Fatwa, Bakhtiyarpur, Barh, and Mokameh, before
This line conformed well with the pattern of settlements that had
emerged to capitalize on the political and economic vitality of the Ganges. The rise of
Pataliputra in the distant past was no doubt related to its location on the Ganges. The
river also provided a link to the major
settlement of Banaras to the west and the prominent town of Champa to
the east. Both Banaras and Patna grew to commercial salience because of their strategic
location on the river and because of their roles as outlets for maritime trade; so did the
centers of trade and commerce in Bengal that stood on the Ganges or its riverine
connections: Murshidabad, Hughli, Calcutta, Dacca, and Satgaon.
The administrative headquarters of virtually every district in the
region also lay along the riverbanks or within easy access of the river. Patna, Monghyr,
and Bhagalpur are cases in point. So too are the headquarters of Shahabad and Saran Arrah
and Chapra, respectively. (Arrah, although at a distance from the river in recent
centuries, formerly overlooked the river when it followed a different course.) Before the
rise of Patna, Hajipur, near the confluence of the Gandak and Ganges, was the political
and commercial hub of the area as well as the seat of the governors of Bihar in the early
Muslim period. The town of Muzaffapur, the administrative capital of Tirhut, stands on the
banks of a Ganges tributary, the little Gandak. So does Darbhanga, the headquarters of the
district of the same name, which was carved out of Tirhut in 1875.
The Ganges also endowed sites with commercial significance. A prime
example is Revelganj (or Godna), which rivaled Patna in the nineteenth century and was a
major commercial center in north Bihar in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth
centuries. From its commanding location at the junction of the Gogra and the Ganges, it
became the focal point of much of the trade in the north until the late nineteenth
century, when the confluence of these two rivers shifted eastward. Buxar in Shahabad was
another nodal point on the river, the site of the 1764 battle whereby British victory over
the nawabs of Awadh and Bengal secured them the control of Bengal. It stood on the
frontier of the East India Company's territories in the late eighteenth century. Until the
early nineteenth century, a garrison of several hundred men was stationed there, the Buxar
fort occupying a high bluff overlooking the river. In Patna district, other than the city
of Patna the secondary centers along the river were Danapur, also the site of a military
ment; Fatwa, a place known for its weaving industry; Barh, a center of
country trade; and Mokameh.
Political and military interests, paramount in developing this
"more northerly course" aimed at tying together the primary towns of south Bihar
as well as providing ready access to north Bihar, therefore fitted in well with the
commercial advantages so vital for the financial viability of the East Indian Railway:
"[T]he first object of the railway from a commercial point of view, was to secure
traffic, [and therefore] it was most desirable that these towns should be served. They
were the marts for the disposal of the produce of the adjoining districts, including the
trans-Ganges districts, which were then, of course, without railroads of any kind. It was
more necessary to open out this part of the country." A
second thoroughfare across south Bihar was developed in 1900, when the Grand Chord line
between Mughalsarai (near Banaras) and Calcutta was inaugurated. Taking a more southerly
route almost paralleling the course of the Grand Trunk Road it intersected Gaya, then
proceeded over the Son to Dehri-on-Sone, and from there crossed the Karamnasa to connect
Rail lines were also laid along a north-south axis. The Patna-Gaya
Railway, completed in 1876, followed the pattern of road building in linking Patna to
Gaya. Another such connection was forged between Arrah and Sasaram in the early twentieth
century. In both instances these north-south lines were important, not only because they
linked major towns but also because they tied together towns that were junctions on the
primary rail highways, the East Indian Railway and the Grand Chord line. Another feature
of the development of railways that paralleled the pattern of road building was their
focus on Chotanagpur. In contrast to the earlier objectives of conquest and consolidation
of control, however, the late-nineteenth-century convergence on the southern plateau was
aimed at tapping the mineral wealth of the area.
Railway links were also developed to tie major junctions on the rail
highways to important settlements in the interior or to junctions on other rail lines. A
branch line between Mokameh junction and Mokameh ghat fulfilled the latter function
because it connected up with the Bengal and North-Western Railway running across north
Bihar, as did the Bankipur-to-Digha-ghat branch line. The latter, however, required taking
a ferry steamer to cross the Ganges and then linking up with the same railway. Branch
lines in Patna tied Fatwa to Islampur, twenty-seven miles away, and Bakhtiyarpur to Bihar
and Rajgir. The South Bihar Railway, completed in 1895, connected Gaya to Nawada, and the
latter to Lakhisarai in Monghyr. Another line was constructed in 1909 between Barun, on
the Son River, and Daltongaj in Palamau district; and yet another in 1906 between Gaya and
Dhanbad. The Dehri-Rohtas Light Railway, a short line of twenty-four miles in Shahabad,
ran between Dehri-on-Sone and Akbarpur.
Railways followed the routes established by roads in another respect as
well: the lines spanning the breadth of the region came first. And because the great rail
thoroughfares received priority and their routes traversed south Bihar railways, except
for the Darbhanga State Railway, were not introduced to north Bihar until the 1880s. The
line between Darbhanga and Bajitpur on the banks of the Ganges opposite Barh was built in
1874 at the prompting of the great estate of Darbhanga. Subsequently, under the
sponsorship of the Bengal and North-Western Railway several additional lines were built
linking all the north Bihar districts. One line, completed in 1883, connected Semaria Ghat
on the Ganges with Bettiah. In between it cut across the southeastern part of Muzaffapur,
intersecting the town of Muzaffapur before proceeding on to Mehsi, Motihari, Sugauli,
Bettiah, and points farther north. Another line, which constituted the main line of the
Bengal and NorthWestern Railway in Saran, entered from Gorakhpur into Mairwa, from which
it continued to Siwan and Chapra and then on to Sonepur. From there it crossed the Gandak
by bridge and continued to Haijipur, and from there to Katihar in Purnia. Tracks laid
between Hajipur and Muzaffapur connected these two branches of the railway. Another line
proceeded due north from Samastipur in Darbhanga and passed through Darbhanga on the way
to Kamtaul and Sitamarhi, with the terminus in Bairagnia. In the early twentieth century
this line was extended
from Bairagnia into Champaran, where it passed through Raxaul and
Bagaha into Gorakhpur, a route that cut across the entire northern rim of that district. A
short line between Sugauli to Raxaul linked two railway lines in Champaran; Raxaul, on the
frontier of Nepal, became the junction for the railway coming down from that country.
Railroad construction had the effect of sparking a boom in road
building. The impetus to improve the existing system was generated, as in the initial
century, by the dynamo of "political and military objects," now stoked by the
events of the Mutiny/Rebellion of 1857. And with railways regarded as the major mode of
transportation, the late-nineteenth-century policy of constructing roads was driven by the
urgency to lay feeder roads directing overland traffic to the stations of the rail lines.
The famines of 1874-75 and 1896-97 were critical moments in road
building too: roads were constructed as a major project of famine relief activity. Also of
significance was the Road Cess (tax) Act of 1875, which established a fund for the
construction of roads, especially their metaling and bridging. A clear picture of these
developments can be gained by comparing the 1861 roads with later descriptions. In 1861
Saran had 895 miles of roads, Champaran 477, Tirhut 1,078, Shahabad 495, Gaya 436,
and Patna 316. Many lacked bridges, and almost all of them were unmetaled, except for the
stretch of 54 miles of the Grand Trunk Road through Gaya, a short strip of 7 miles between
Revelganj and Chapra, and two brief portions of 10 and 6 miles connecting Maner to the
military station of Danapur and Patna to Fatwa, respectively.
Beginning slowly in the 1870s, when the better roads in Saran were still
primarily confined to the vicinity of towns, the district gradually accumulated 1,150
miles of district roads and 1,419 miles of village roads by 1928-29. Of these, 234 miles
were metaled. A similar spurt undertaken during the famines of the late nineteenth century
eventuated in a total of 1,081 miles for Champaran by 1906, and more than 2,300 miles by
the 1930s; 91.5 miles of these roads were metaled.
Equally impressive gains can be documented for other areas. By 1875
Muzaffapur, benefiting from the road building of 1874, already held 719 miles of roads. By
the turn of the twentieth century its roads extended
more than 1,769 miles, of which 82 were metaled, and 543 comprised
village roads. Darbhanga's road building followed a similar trend. The 648 miles counted
at its formation in 1875 increased more than threefold by 1905-6, when it had a total of
1,953 miles of unmetaled road, 52 miles of metaled road, and another 766 miles of village
Statistics paint a comparable picture for south Bihar. By the first
decade of the twentieth century Shahabad boasted 181 miles of metaled, 253 miles of
unmetaled, and 882 miles of village roads. In addition to the Grand Trunk Road, which had
been metaled in 1861-62, the other metaled roads included the Buxar-Arrah portion of the
Banaras-Patna military road and the 61-mile-long Arrah-Sasaram road. By the 1920s the
total mileage of the district's roads exceeded 2,000.
From a total length of 469 miles in the 1870s, Patna's roads in the
early 1920s increased to 157 miles of metaled and 455 miles of unmetaled roads; another
756 miles were village roads. But, as in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries,
these lines of communication focused on the city of Patna. Therefore the western part of
the district had a far better network of roads than the center or the eastern part.
Great strides in road building were also made in Gaya, particularly
during the famine of 1874. By 1906 the district had acquired 30 metaled roads, 69
unmetaled roads, and 193 village roads, comprising 163, 715, and 628 miles, respectively.
Another 67 miles of metaled and 168 miles of unmetaled roads were administered by the
Public Works Department. Not only had the district acquired the most mileage in terms of
metaled roads much of this representing its 68-mile leg of the Grand Trunk Road but it had
also developed links between the major settlements in the interior. In addition to the
roads extending from Gaya to the Grand Trunk Road, to Daudnagar, and to Sherghati, new
lines of communication had been established both in the north and the south, between
Jahanabad and Arwal, and between Rajauli and Nawada, respectively.
In the course of overcoming the long-reigning "tyranny of
distance" in the region, the rise of railways, tied to a growing network of roads,
also precipitated the decline of water transportation. Their speed and reliability, as
well as their competitive prices, increasingly made them the prime mode of transportation.
By the early 1870s they had already
sharply curtailed the flow of goods along the roads, a trend that was
evident in the rapidly declining traffic on the Grand Trunk Road.
And by the end of that decade, railways accounted for 54 percent of the import and export
trade of the region; river transportation, in comparison, carried 39 percent and roads the
remaining 7 percent. Information gathered from traders themselves confirm this growing
dependence on railroads. According to the wholesale dealers of Arrah a substantial portion
of their trade in grains and piece goods was transacted by rail in 1883-84. Even those
goods that were sent along the canals were destined for the railways. Similarly, spring
wheat, grown in north Shahabad for export and formerly transported by boats, was
increasingly shipped to Patna or other stations from which it was carried away by rail.
Thus, by the early 1880s, the district's "exports and imports by road" were
described as "not large" to "inappreciable. Some trade passes by the Grand
Trunk Road . . . mainly in ghee and other supplies for the city [Banaras], and some
between Sasseram and Chota Nagpore."
By the turn of the twentieth century, railways virtually monopolized the
trade of the region. In the five years between 1900 and 1905, 99.9 percent of the imports
and 99.5 percent of the exports of Gangetic Bihar were carried by rail; water
transportation made up the remaining fraction. With the development of railways, Bihar was
bypassed, a situation mirrored by the experiences of the city of Patna, which also owed
its primacy to its strategic location on the river highway. The
extent to which this city served as the central place of the region from the
late-eighteenth-century age of "revolution" onward and maintained that position
in the colonial period is the focus of the opening episode of the next section, which
constitutes the heart of this bazaar narrative. Let us turn first to the Patna historian
Sayyid Ghulam Husain Khan Tabatabai.