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Writings about famine and its history in India

C.A. Kincaid & D.B. Parasnis, "A History of the Maratha People" (2nd. ed., 1931)
pp212-3: "To the Marathas the Godavari is the holiest of all southern streams ... When King Bhagiratha by his prayers and penances brought down from heaven the divine Ganges, the god Shiva caught her in his hair. There he held her imprisoned for a year, Parvati, Shiva's wife, grew jealous of the stately lady, whom her husband carried always with him. She called to her aid her son, the elephant-headed Ganapati. Now it so happened that near Trimbak a great sage called Gautama had his hermitage and close to it he grew a small patch of corn to gratify his scanty needs. Ganapati turned himself into a cow and began to eat the hermit’s corn. The angered Gautama rushed out and struck the trespasser a violent blow with his staff. Instantly the cow fell down dead. The next year the rains failed and for miles round the peasants ascribed their failure to Gautama’s slaughter of the cow. They insisted that by way of reparation he should procure other water and save them from a famine, Gautama, conscious of his guilt, began a series of penances to induce the god Shiva to release from his hair at least a part of the Ganges, to water the arid plains. Shiva at last consented and let fall from his hair the fairest portion of the imprisoned river. It fell at Trimbak and became the Godavari river. The peasants’ crops were saved and the Ganges, bereft of her fairest waters, no longer roused the jealousy of the great god’s queen."
Monahan, F.J. "The Early History of Bengal" (1925)
p114 [study of the the fourth book of the "Kautiliya Arthasastra", possibly dating from the early Maurya period, c320 BC]: "Divine or providential dangers ... are said to be eight in number, namely: fire, flood, pestilence, famine, rats, tigers, serpents, and demons.
In times of famine the king should provide the people with seeds and food. he may have recourse to allied states for help, may start relief works, or force the miserly rich to give up their hoards. Migration from the famine-stricken area to a district where the harvest has been good, or to the sea-coast or the shores of lakes, is also recommended. Catch-crops of grain or vegetables, roots or fruit may be grown on irrigated land, or hunting expeditions may be organized."
Julius Jolly (ed.) "Sacred Books of the East: The Minor Law-books" (part 1, 1889)
pp55-6 (from the Narada-smriti or Naradiya Dharmasastra, an ancient analysis of the Law Code of Manu): "In times of distress, a Brahman is allowed to gain his substance in the mode prescribed for the caste next to him in rank; or he may gain his substance like Vaisya. But he must never resort to the mode of livelihood prescribed for a member of the lowest caste." [Footnote: " 'The class next to him in rank,' i.e. the Kshatriya or warrior caste. ... At the time of a drought or famine, he may gain his substance like a Vaisya even."]

pp134-7 (Narada ctd.): "... Hired servants are of three kinds ... Soldiers constitute the highest class, agriculturists the middle class, and porters the lowest class ... One appointed to manage the property (of the family) and to superintend the household, must also be regarded as a labourer. ... Thus have the four classes of servants doing pure work been enumerated. All the others do dirty work and are slaves, of whom there are fifteen kinds ... [fifth kind] one maintained during a general famine ...
One maintained during a famine is released from bondage if he gives a pair of oxen. [Footnote: explains that, although slaves could not own property, "the dominion of slaves over affectionate gifts and the like is universally acknowledged ..."] It is not by labour (alone) that the value of the food consumed during a famine can be repaid."
J.H. Nelson, "The Madura Country: A Manual …" (1868)
Part 3, p20: [stories from the "Mad'hura St'hala Purana"] "31st STORY.- This king [Kula B'hushana] was not at all charitable. Indeed,. He neglected the Brahmans to so great an extent, that they were compelled to labor with their hands for their daily bread; and were quite unable to keep up their daily ablutions, prayers and offerings of incense. The consequence was, the gods grew angry and refused to send rain. Soon a terrible famine overtook the country: and the inhabitants were reduced to the greatest distress, and sought relief by emigrating in thousands to neighbouring countries. The king was grieved to see the misfortunes of his people, and prayed for help for a long time in the Pagoda: but to his mortification received no answer. He then returned to his palace, and passed the night on the floor, meditating upon the god Sundara linga. His meditation ended in sleep; and the god appeared to him in a dream, and promised to give him a purse of money which should never become empty, as long as he applied its contents to the relief of Brahmans and the poor. Waking up, the king found the purse beside him; and soon set to work to test the truth of Sundara linga's promise. Endless donations were given to the Brahmans and the poor in general: and the purse remained full as ever. Buildings were then built in honor of Sundara linga; the Brahmans returned to their prayers, ablutions and offerings; rain fell in abundance; and the country became more fertile than ever."
Duarte Barbosa, "Livro de Duarte Barbosa" (in "Collecção de noticias para a historia e geografia das nações ultramarinas …" vol. 2, 1812)
pp358-9: [description of Coromandel / Charamandel as Barbosa knew it around 1510 CE] "He esta tera ha mais abastada que ha nestas partes da India, tirando Cambaya; porém se alguús anos acontece de nom chouer, he tamanha antreles ha fome, que dela morem muytos, e per caso dela uendem hos filhos por quatro e sinco fanões; hos Malabares lhe trazem neste tempo muyta soma daros, e quoquos, e leunom has naos careguadas descrauos: ha maior parte ou todolos mercadores gentios e Chatis que viuem por toda ha India, saom naturaes daquy, e saom homeis muy agudos em todo trato de mercadorias: nos portos de maar uiuem muytos Mouros naturaes da tera, grandes mercadores, e tem muyos nauios."
Duarte Barbosa (trans. Mansel Longworth Dames), "The Book of Duarte Barbosa" (vol. 2, 1921) [Translation of the above]
pp125-6: [from the description of Coromandel] "This is the best supplied of all the lands in this part of India, saving only Cambaya, yet in some years it so happens that no rain falls, and then there is such a dearth among them that many die of hunger, and for this reason they sell their children for four or five fanams each. At such seasons the Malabares bring them great store of rice and coco-nuts and take away ship-loads of slaves.
The more part or all of the Heathen merchants or Chatis who live throughout India are natives of this country, and are very cunning in every kind of traffic in goods. At the seaports also are many Moors, natives of the land; who are great merchants and own many ships."
"Documentação para a história das missões do padroado português do oriente ... India"
[The documents in this series, covering the early decades of Portuguese missionary work in 16th-century India, rarely mention droughts, but present hunger as endemic:]
e.g. Vol. 1 (1947) pp450-451: [Report from Bishop de Dume, Cochim (now Kochi, Kerala), 12 Jan 1522] "os pobres se vem tam desesperados que com fome pura vendem as armas aos mouros e depois que nam tem donde de sustentar, vão se ao Balagate [i.e. Balaghat], honde depois que perdem este verdadeyro conhecimento de Deus ..."

Vol. 7 (1952) p36: [From an explanation of the local slave trade, in a report from Padre Nicolau Lanciloto, Coulão (now Kollam, Kerala), 5 Dec 1550] "Hé geral custume nestas partes cada hum que se quer vemder a si mesmo se venda; e portanto cada dia se vemdem milhares por todas estas partes, alguns por fugirem à má vida que lhe dam em suas terras, outros pera nam morrerem de fome, e outros pera furtar o dinheiro que lhe deram por si mesmos e fugirem com ele ..."
Zahiru'd-din Muhammad Babur (trans. Annette S. Beveridge), "Babur-Nama (Memoirs of Babur)" (1922)
pp487-8: [from Emperor Babur's geographical summary of India in the 1520s] "Under the monsoon-rains the banks of some of its rivers and torrents are worn into deep channels, difficult and troublesome to pass through anywhere. In many parts of the plains thorny jungle grows, behind the good defence of which the people of the pargana become stubbornly rebellious and pay no taxes. ...
In Hindustan hamlets and villages, towns indeed, are depopulated and set up in a moment! If the people of a large town, one inhabited for years even, flee from it, they do it in such a way that not a sign or trace of them remains in a day or a day and a half. On the other hand, if they fix their eyes on a place in which to settle, they need not dig water-courses or construct dams because their crops are all rain-grown, and as the population of Hindustan is unlimited, it swarms in. They make a tank or dig a well; they need not build houses or set up walls- khas-grass abounds, wood is unlimited, huts are made, and straightway there is a village or a town ! "
T. Raychaudhuri & I. Habib (eds.) "The Cambridge Economic History of India" (vol. 1, 1982)
p225: "It has been argued that since the land revenue covered practically the entire surplus produce raised by the peasant, and that since, representing a fixed share of the produce or a fixed cash-rate on the crop per unit of area, it was a retrogressive tax, it fell excessively heavily on the smaller peasantry. In addition, the system of jagir transfers encouraged an unchecked spoliation of the peasantry by the potentates. The result was a phenomenon implied in Mughal official documents, and described by contemporary observers like Bernier [1660s], namely, the large-scale abandonment of land by peasants. ...
… the jama-dami (assessed revenue) statistics show an increase in money terms between 1595 and 1707; but when adjusted to the general upward movement of prices, the increase either disappears or turns out to be marginal."
London Gazette 18 Jun 1677

Advert from the London Gazette, issue 1209 (18 June 1677)

[a newspaper which was an early attempt to combat "fake news" and is still published for official Government announcements today]
A few days after Gregory King and others advertised the large map (probably John Adams's, for which King had engraved the printing plates, and helped the late John Ogilby with the surveying), he gained an official post in the College of Arms, and in 1695 his business skills earned him a second official career in Government accountancy and taxation. In the latter capacity he produced some of the earliest detailed works on population and resource statistics, including the provision of commodity figures which, analysed by his friend Charles Davenant in 1699 (in "An Essay upon the Probable Methods of making a People Gainers in the Balance of Trade") became known as the King-Davenant Law:

"It is observed, that but 1/10th defect in the harvest may raise the price 3/10ths, and when we have but half our crop of wheat, which now and then happens, the remainder is spun out by thrift and good management, and eked out by the use of other grain; but this will not do for above ne year, and would be a small help in the succession of two or three unseasonable harvests: For the scarcity even of one year is very destructive, in which many of the poorest perish, either for want of sufficient food, or by unwholesome diet.
We take it, that a defect in the harvest may raise the price of corn in the following proportions:

Defect  Above the common rate
1 Tenth 3 Tenths
2 Tenths Raises 8 Tenths
3 Tenthsthe16 Tenths
4 TenthsPrice28 Tenths
5 Tenths 45 Tenths
G. Herklots (Fiscal of Chinsurah), "Table shewing the market price of Grain &c. in lower Bengal from the year 1700 to 1813, extracted from authentic documents of one month in each year, for which, generally, the month of August was selected" (in "Gleanings in Science" vol. 1, 1829, p368)
see below
all remaining columns from Herklots:## given as Rupees per Maund, so
converted to fractions of a Maund per Rupee
Delhi wheat
Seers per Rp
Bengal S/Rp
Best rice
Bengal S/Rp
Coarse rice
Bengal S/Rp
Bengal S/Rp
Bengal S/Rp
But gram
Bengal S/Rp
Bengal ##
Bengal ##
Mustard oil
Graph of food prices from Herklots & Everest data; click to enlarge
Rev. Robert Everest, "On the Famines that have devastated India, and on the probability of their being Periodical" (in "Journal of the Statistical Society of London" vol. 6, 1843, pp246-8)
"In comparing the devastating effects of drought, which I have more than once witnessed in India, with the accounts of similar calamities in the history of that country, it occurred to me that no one had ever ascertained whether, in that part of the world, such unfavourable seasons had anything like a periodical recurrence. For the purposes of such an inquiry it was impossible to refer to Meteorological Registers for a long series of years, as no such documents existed. The only alternative, therefore, was to examine the prices of corn as far back as they could be obtained; assuming that they would roughly indicate the character of the seasons." [He reports that he was able to obtain manuscript lists of prices "from most of the principal cities to the west and north-west of Calcutta, for a distance of 1000 miles" from which he identified a 56-year periodicity with maxima in 1779 and 1835; sadly, the only list he quotes is that for Delhi, which I have included in the first price column of the table above.]

[See also my page on Dutch accounts of the 1769-1770 famine, for monthly prices at Chinsurah in that period]
"Famine and Dearth" website [ famineanddearth.exeter.ac.uk/displayhtml.html?id=fp_00561_en_bazarpricepurneadinagepoor ]
Table of market prices of different varieties of rice in Purnea and Dinajpur, 1761-8, compiled by Richard Becher of Murshidabad [not included in the table above].
Lieut. Col. A.T. Etheridge, "Report on Past Famines in the Bombay Presidency" (1868)
p1: "Instead of the ample materials which I imagined might be at hand, or could be collected with but little trouble, I found an almost total absence of authentic account of any past famine or drought whatever. It was not, apparently, a part of the system of revenue management under the Native Governments to register statistics of famines or droughts, and all the information that can be gleaned from ancient records forthcoming of a nature to throw light upon the subject is the extent of the remissions of revenue, &c. ...
Nor have matters improved in this respect in Native States since the introduction of the British Government, for from the important State of Baroda even the resident reports that no authentic details are forthcoming. …"
[Years of pre-1765 famines reported to Etherington from each district: in this list "living memory" usually starts with the famine of 1791 (which was very widespread), occasionally 1783. Scinde, inc. Thurr & Parker: 1527, 1540, 1703, 1745 (to 1752, Narra districts), 1752 (to 1755, Omerkote Talooka), 1759; Kutch: 1577, 1746, 1757, 1766; Pahlunpoor: oral traditions re 1747, 1756; Ahmedabad: 1623, 1650, 1718, 1747, 1759; Surat (general): 1746, then living memory; Surat area individual districts: 1628, 1682, 1717, 1746, 1759; Rewa Kanta: 1746, then living memory; Sholapoor: c1520, then living memory; Mahee Kanta: Living memory only; Kattyawar: Living memory only; Kaira: Living memory only; Baroda: Living memory only; Broach: Living memory only; Candeish: Living memory only; Ahmednuggur: Living memory only; Poona: Living memory only; Deccan Sirdars: Living memory only; Sattara: Living memory only; Kolapoor: Living memory only; Belgaum: Living memory only; Kulldaghee: Living memory only; Dharwar: Living memory only; Tannah: Living memory only; Colaba: Living memory only; Rutnagherry: Living memory only; Sawunt Warree: Living memory only; North Canara: Living memory only.]
Pandit Anand Koul, "Geography Of The Jammu And Kashmir State" (2nd ed., 1925)
pp103-4: "Kashmir has suffered terribly from famines. Owing to its isolated position it is very difficult to obtain grains from other countries and a failure of crops results in a famine often prolonged. The whole Valley is practically independent of rain. A fairly hard winter, storing a sufficiency of snow on the mountain tops so that the gradual thaw through the summer keeps the irrigation canals constantly brimming, is all that is wanted to ensure an abundant harvest. Every great famine that occurred in Kashmir was caused, not by summer drought, but by too mild winter or by heavy rains in harvest season which destroyed the crops."
"Famine and Dearth" website [ famineanddearth.exeter.ac.uk/displayhtml.html?id=fp_00715_en_waqiatekashmir ]
(Quotations from the chronicle "Waqiat-e-Kashmir" by Muhammad Azam (1747) on various famines in Kashmir)
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