Bhagirathi and its change of course in Murshidabad

April 16, 2012, Mon 12:24 am


Bengal Delta
Bengal Delta
I t is believed that the Bhagirathi was the main flow of Ganga, hundreds of years ago. The present channel of the Bhagirathi, with its sacred traditions and ruined cities, marks the ancient course of the river Ganga. Captain Sherwill said it was the main river from Rajmahal (রাজমহল) to Sagar Island (সাগর দ্বীপ) in olden days, practically along the course of the present Hooghly River, which in due course became insignificant. The main river appears to have frequently changed its course below Gour in the last six centuries and successively discharged into the sea at different mouths, such as Matla, Kalinai, Kabadakh and Haringhata in the Sunderbans.
The Bengal Delta region: bengal-delta.pdf

The original river Ganga used to flow across the entire north and east India from Uttarakhand (a new province carved out of Uttar Pradesh on 9th November 2000) to West Bengal (then only Bengal) before the 16th century. Geologists say, before it diverted to the Padma (পদ্মা)eastward, there might have been two major channels, flowing more or less independently and building the deltaic tract in the part of Bengal, west of Madhupur jungle, viz.., the Ganga flowed through central Bengal and the Teesta (তিস্তা)through south Bengal. Earlier, the Teesta was reinforced by the Mahananda (মহানন্দা) and the Kosi (কোসি)and still earlier, perhaps also by the Brahmaputra (ব্রহ্মপুত্র) before it coursed eastward to the Meghna (মেঘনা), i.e., before it merged with the Tsan Po (সান পো) of Tibet as a much smaller stream than now. These north Bengal Rivers flowed and fell together into the sea, probably through the meghna estuary. This hypothesis fits in with the historical and mythological evidences, supporting the contention that the Bhagirathi was the main flow of the Ganga in olden days.

Early in the 16th century, the main course of the Ganga shifted eastward to the present Padma. This may have been due to some tectonic changes and natural calamities, leading to rapid deterioration of the Bhagirathi. At Bandel in Hooghly district, the river bifurcated into the Saraswati (সরস্বতী) and the Bhagirathi (ভাগীরথী), alias Adi Ganga (আদি গঙ্গা) beside and below Kolkata. The Saraswati (not to be confused with the river with same name at Allahabad Sangam) was a major maritime river. A Branch, ostensively a man-made channel at Kolkata, connected it with the Bhagirathi / Adi Ganga. At that time, the main course of the Damodar river used to flow into the main Bhagirathi at a few kilometers north of Triveni. In 1770 AD, following a severe flood, the Damodar changed its course and flowed into the Bhagirathi, about 50 km south of Kolkata, causing a major change in its system. Above the changed confluence point, the Saraswati and the Bhagirathi became extinct and the Bhagirathi flowed along the present course of the Hooghly. The remnant of the Adi Ganga is believed to be the present Tolly’s Nalla (টলি নালা).
The Rivers of West-Bengal in 16th century: river-16century.pdf

Bhagirathi was the main trading link between north India and the south Asian countries, through the Bay of Bengal. Sir William Willcock (the renowned irrigation engineer) described the Bhagirathi, the Jalangi, and the Mathabhanga as the "overflow irrigation systems" in ancient Bengal, built up by great engineers like Bhagirath. Other experts believed that the Bhagirathi was a natural river and was once the main channel of the Ganga, diverting its discharge towards the sea. From time to time like other rivers too Bhagirathi has changed its course affecting the rise and fall of many cities on its banks, as it happened in the case of Murshidabad.
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Bhagirathi Mythology & a reality underlying:

The legend of King Bhagirath persuading Goddess Ganga to descend from her heavenly Himalayan abode on to the plains to save the multitudes might not be an allegory; it may well contain some elements of truth. The legend could well be the historical account of a massive civil engineering project King Bhagirath undertook to break the terminal moraine of a glacial lake to channel the water to irrigate the plains parched by a prolonged drought. Legends and texts such as Gangavataran, when analysed, show that it was the cumulative effort of 5 generations starting from Raja Sagara, to his sons the 60,000 Sagaraputra, their successors Anshuman, Dilip and finally on to Bhagirath who completed the task. Perhaps King Bhagirath was an ancient civil engineer or a hydrologist. Since Bhagirath brought Ganga to Earth, one headwater stream of Ganga is known as Bhagirathi. Further, In our Indian vernacular languages any super human effort is also referred to as Bhagiratha Prayathnam.
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The Old Maritime trade route:

From the Haraha stone-inscription of Maukhari King Ishanavarma dated AD 554-555, it is learnt that in course of his victorious campaigns he ravaged the Gauda people and forced them to retreat towards the sea (meaning southern Bengal). One of the Gauda kings Dharmaditya, Gopachandra and Samacaradeva fought with the Maukhari king Isanavarman about the middle of the 6th century. The Maukhari court-poet, while referring to this struggle between the Maukharis and the Gaudas, speaks of the latter as having been compelled to be samudr-asraya, ie. A people whose shelter is the sea, owing to their defeat at the hands of the Maukhari king.

Ruins of shrines exist in the region round Takua Pa, south of Thiland, which has been identified with Ptolemy's Takkola. An inscription, of 5th century AD, from the Wellesly region of Malay Peninsula (The area contained the southernmost tip of Burma, Peninsular Malaysia, Singapore, and Southern Thailand) refers to "captain (Mahānāvika, the great sailor) Buddhagupta, an inhabitant of Rakta-mrittikā". This suggests the existence of maritime trade links between Bengal and Southeast Asia. It is significant that the Chiruti region is adjacent to the Bhagirathi, which could have served as one of the channels of maritime trade, and Rakta-mrittikā near Karnasubarna (কর্ণসুবর্ণ), the traditional capital city of Shashanka (referred as the Lord of Gauda), was a famous port city at that time.
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Account of Change of Course of Bhagirathi:

Gradually silting of Bhagirathi caused it to change its course. Captain Sherwill, in his Report on the Rivers of Bengal, quotes an extract from a letter written, In January 1666 AD by French traveller Jean-Baptiste Tavernier that he saw the mouth of Bhagirathi by boat, closed by sand bank (Tavernier’s voyages in India). In 1683 AD William Hedges travelled on a Palki (পালকি) on his way to Cossimbazar from Mahula (মহুলা), because of shallow water on the river. John Zephaniah Holwell on his way to Murshidabad by boat, was detained by shallows at Shantipur below the confluence of the Bhagirathi and Jalangi, in 1756 AD. In 1781 AD Major James Rennell, the famous English geographer, historian and a pioneer of oceanography, surveyed Bengal, during his work at India and sketched up the most detail map of river Bhagirathi. From his map of "Cossimbazar island",1781 AD we get a vivid description of the river Bhagirathi in this region.

The common name for the Bhagirathi in English records down to the early years of the nineteenth century was the Cossimbazar river; and the triangular tract enclosed by the Bhagirathi, Padma, and Jalangi was known in the early days of the Company as the Island of Cossimbazar.
The Change of course of Bhagirathi: bhagirathi-course.pdf

Large islands or chars continually appeared in the river channel, some of them many miles in length. Within a year, they were covered with grass known as moonj and tamarisk (ঝাউ jhāu) jungle higher than an elephant. Captain Sherwill, states that he has seen many such islands "become inhabited, cleared, and cultivated; the population increases, large villages start up; the land revenue is collected for ten or twelve year; and then the whole islands disappear within one rainy season". The Deputy-Collector in 1870 AD reported that the largest of one of these chars, was the Baghdanga island, which covered an extent of 20,000 bighas, or more than ten square miles.

The battle-field of Giria (fought between the English and Mir Qasim), at that time was on the brink of the river. Colonel Gastrell, the Revenue Surveyor in 1857 AD states that "It is now some miles distant; but every year of late has seen the river coming back to its old channel." In Stewart's History of Bengal (ed. 1847) it is mentioned that "Siraj-ud-Daulla, fearing lest the English should in their war-ships pass up the Ganges to the east and north of the Cossimbazar island, and so down the Bhagirathi to Murshidabad, caused immense piles to be driven into the river at Suti, by which the navigation of the Bhagirathi has been closed except for boats, and is only open for them during half the year"

River Bhagirathi

First Route

In Murshidabad the Oldest known channel of Bhagirathi was through Moti Jheel lake situated on the north of Murshidabad town [Location Map : 24°9'35"N 88°16'47"E]. According to James Rennell this was an oxbow lake of Bhagirathi. This channel originated from the east of Moti Jheel and passing through the north of Ayeshbagh (আয়েসবাগ), it turned south. A portion of this channel is presently known as "Basbari Bill" (বাঁশবাড়ি বিল). Turning south from Tiktikipara this channel flowed to "Boalia Bill" (বোয়ালিয়া বিল), passing through east of Chunakhali (চুনাখালি), west of Hatinagar (হাতীনগর) and Madapur (মাদাপুর). The Boalia Bill is around 4 miles or 6.4 kilometers in length. From Boalia Bill this channel flowed towards Mahula (মহুলা). The Boalia Bill is connected with the "Bhandardaha Bill" (ভান্ডারদহ বিল) through the "Putijol Bill" (পুঁটিজোল বিল), south of Madapur (মাদাপুর). The Bhandardaha Bill was once an old channel of Bhagirathi. The ancient town of Bholla (ভোল্লা / ভোলনা) is located on the eastern banks of Putijol. The Nikileshwar temple, of Bholla built during the Sena era, states that this channel of Bhagirathi might have existed around 12th/13th century.

Second Route

The second flow of Bhagirathi was through the south of Moti-jheel lake. The channel turned east-wards and flowed through the path of Kati-Ganga , Bisnupur Bill towards the south of Banjetia. Turning south it flowed towards Tarakpur and Kaya. A portion of this track is presently known as Chander Bill. Near Balarampur it flowed west towards crescent shaped Bhakardaha or Bhaskardaha (ভাস্করদহ). In 31st March 1744 AD Alivardi Khan (আলীবর্দী খাঁ) and his general Mustafa Khan planned a conspiracy to kill Maratha general Bhaskar Pandit. Alivardi invited Bhaskar Pandit and his generals to Mankara south of Murshidabad town, for making a peaceful settlement. Eventually Alivardi killed Bhaskar Pandit, and his body along with 21 others was thrown into the abandoned channel of Bhagirathi known as Bhaskardaha / Bhakardaha Bill (named in memory of Bhaskar Pandit). During this period the meandering flow of Bhagirathi created an Island on the north of Cossimbazar, and another track from the south of Chander Bill, flowing east 5 miles and joined with Bhandardaha bill. The second track of Bhagirathi existed during the 17th century when the Dutch at Kalkapur / Kalikapur (in 1632 / 1666 AD), Armenians at Saidabad (in 1665 AD), the French at Farashdanga (in 1688 AD) and the English (in 1658 AD) established their factories.

Third Route

The third course of river Bhagirathi was formed not long after its second route. The river flowed along the path of present "Bisnupur Bill" (বিষ্ণুপুর বিল) and "Chaltia Bill" (চালতিয়া বিল) and then towards Haridasmati at south. During this period in 17th century, the town of Brahampur or Brahmapur was formed on the west bank of river Bhagirathi, and later on the east bank. During this time the Khagra area was covered with bulrush (Bengali: Nalkhagra নলখাগড়া).

Fourth Route

Very soon the river again changed its course. During this period the area north of the Armenian Church got blocked, and just above Farashdanga, the river started to make a loop towards the East, enclosing the then prosperous town of Cossimbazar. Berhampur, with its annex Gorabazar, did not then exist. This condition continued until somewhere about the year 1813 AD, when the Bhagirathi made a straight cut across the loop, thus leaving Cossimbazar and the sites of the French, Dutch, and English factories on the left, or east bank of the river. Another channel advanced straight far west and formed the "Telkar Bill" (তেলকর বিল). The Banki River originating from the Telkar bill, lying about 6 miles to the north, joins the Dwarka alias Babla River. The river Bhagirathi formed a Hairpin curve, starting from Karbala-Pirtala upto west of Farashdanga (ফরাসডাঙ্গা). While Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (বঙ্কিমচন্দ্র চট্টোপাধ্যায়) was Deputy Collector at Berhampore (1869-1874 AD), he was so overwhelmed by the natural beauty of this place near Farashdanga that, it became the scene (place of occurrence) of his famous novel Chandrasekhar (চন্দ্রসেখর). This course of Bhagirathi formed in the 17th century continued until 1788 AD. In Rennell's map of 1780 AD this course is clearly visible. In 1788 AD the hairpin curve between Karbala and Farashdanga was joined by the English. A straight cut was made forming the chord of the curve, thus changing the course of the river and throwing the towns inland. This engineering operation was followed by the breaking out of an epidemic fever. In the course of few years, three-fourth of the population died out; and Cossimbazar, from being at one time a most populous place was covered with jungle and became the abode of wild beasts.

Between the third and fourth course there might be another one flowing from south of Bisnupur Bill towards Chaltia, through Dhopghati. May be because of this during the construction of Barracks in 1767 AD it was mentioned as marshy lowland.

References :
  • A Statistical Account of Bengal - By William Wilson Hunter, Herbert Hope Risley, Hermann Michael Kisch
  • The journals of Major James Rennell written for the information of the governors of Bengal during his surveys of the Ganges and Braghmaputra rivers 1764 to 1767 (1910)
  • Memoir of a map of Hindoostan; or The Mogul Empire: : with an introduction, illustrative of the geography and present division of that country: and a map of the countries situated between the head of the Indus, and the Caspian Sea. (1788) By James Rennell, 1742-1830
  • Only a Barrage Can Save! -- THE GANGA - Water Science and Technology Library, 2009, Volume 64 – By Pranab Kumar Parua
  • Studies In The Geography Of Ancient And Medieval India - By D.C. Sircar
  • Dynastic History of Magadha, Cir. 450-1200 A.D. - By Bindeshwari Prasad Sinha
  • Hydrology And Water Resources of India - By Sharad K. Jain, Pushpendra K. Agarwal, Vijay P. Singh
  • A history of Murshidabad District (Bengal) (1902) - By John Henry Tull
  • An Account of the Ganges and Burrampooter Rivers. By James Rennell, Esq. F. R. S.; Communicated by Joseph Banks, Esq. P.R.S.(January 1,1781)
  • Murshidabad - By L.S.S. O'Malley (Lewis Sydney Steward) (1914)
  • Sahar Berhampore - By Bijoy Kumar Bandopadhyay

Downloads :

1. The Change of course of Bhagirathi: bhagirathi-course.pdf
2. The Bengal Delta region: bengal-delta.pdf
3. The Rivers of West-Bengal in 16th century: river-16century.pdf

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 Debagram Irrigation Sub Division August 12, 2013, Mon 10:50 am

Keep it coming, wrteirs, this is good stuff.

 Jayhawk January 18, 2014, Sat 6:03 am

It is very informative and excellent exercise. Just incredible...

 Somenath Halder March 29, 2014, Sat 10:49 am

Please upload the name of rivers in Murshidabad

 Shaan July 27, 2015, Mon 12:20 pm

 Subham Mondal March 17, 2016, Thu 4:24 pm
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