Time of Great Bengal Famine and Isvar Chandra Vidyasagar-1866

The Great Famine.

In the middle of 1866, Raja Pratap Chandra Sinha of Paikpara was severely ill at Kandi, his ancestral home. When the news reached Vidyasagar, he hastened to Kandi, accompanied with the best native medical practitioner, Dr. Mahendra Lal Sarkar. But the illness grew more serious every day, and at last his life was despaired of. He was removed to Paikpara, where he expired at 3 o’clock in the morning of the 19th July, 1866. The deceased Raja was a great friend of Vidyasagar’s. Before his death, he had requested his friend to be a Trustee of his estate, but Vidyasagar declined. The Hindoo Patriot of the 23rd July of the same year thus spoke of the Raja:—”He (i.e. Raja Pratap Chandra) was one of the principal supporters of the female schools established and managed by Pandit Issur Chandra Vidyasaghar.” Vidyasagar was heartily grieved at the untimely death of his dear friend.

On the death of the Raja the state of his family and estate was most deplorable. For arrears of land revenue the estate was about to be put to auction. At the request of the deceased Raja’s grandmother (father’s mother), Rani Katyayani, Vidyasagar, accompanied with the Raja’s minor sons, interviewed Sir Cecil Beadon, the then Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal. At his earnest solicitation, Beadon saved the estate from revenue sale and placed it under the management of the Court of Wards. It was at the instance of Vidyasagar, that the minor sons of the Raja were saved from the hands of the Wards’ Institution. They were placed under the care of Rani Katyayani, and several European and native gentlemen were appointed their guardians, among whom Vidyasagar was one.

He had thus to visit the Raj-bati often. One day, on his way thither, he was confronted by a poor shopkeeper, by name Ramdhan, an old acquaintance of his, who saluted him, and asked him respectfully to step over to his shop. Vidyasagar followed him to his place, which stood by the wayside, and there took his seat upon the grass in front of the shop, and began smoking a hookah offered by Ramdhan. In the meantime, some officers of the Paikpara estate saw him in that situation. At last, when Vidyasagar called at the Raj-bati, the officers winked at him, and some of them even ventured to remonstrate with him on the impropriety of his mixing with such vulgar people. Vidyasagar smiled, and said with, great emphasis, that the rich and the poor were all alike in his eyes.

On another occasion, as he was sitting in the Raj-bati, a beggar approached the gates and asked for alms. The Darwans drove him away. Vidyasagar was deeply afflicted at the sight. Some say, that henceforth he scarcely visited the Raj-bati. But we have been informed from a reliable source, that there arose a graver cause, which made Vidyasagar cease his visits to the Raj-house. Some of the Kumars (sons of the Raja) had grown wanton, and Vidyasagar was afraid of the loss of his respect. But the Kumars’ respectful demeanour towards him never diminished for a moment. Kumar Indra Chandra often paid him respectful visits. If any one ever advised him to put a Darwan at his gates, he would at once point to the Paikpara Raj-bati. He was generally heard to say,—’If I place a Darwan at my gates, the beggar shall be deprived of his handful rice, and the visitor shall be prevented from having an easy interview with myself. Death is by far preferable to that.’ Sometimes he warned his grandsons,—’If I ever hear that a visitor has been prevented by any one of my house from coming up to me, I shall at once drive the offender out. I have witnessed inconveniences caused by the placing of Darwans at rich men’s gates and I do not wish to bring those inconveniences into my own house.’

He never put the slightest obstacle in the way of a visitor’s easy entrance into his house. On one occasion, as he was sitting one day at about noon-time with a hookah in hand after dinner, a man with a very irate appearance appeared hurridly before him, and enquired for Vidyasagar. It is needless to say that the man did not know Vidyasagar in person, but only in name. The man was an inhabitant of East Bengal, and had come to Calcutta on business. He had, that day, tried to have an interview with two or three wealthy persons of the city, but had failed to see them, and hence had lost his temper. Vidyasagar asked him to take his seat. But the man said, not until he could see Vidyasagar. He also said that he had been baffled in his endeavours to have interviews with some other great men of the city, whose names he had heard before, and he now wanted to see if Vidyasagar was also a great man of that nature. Vidyasagar then asked the man if he had eaten anything that day. The visitor answered in the negative, and said that he was too intent on having an interview with Vidyasagar to give heed to the demands of nature. He repeatedly insisted on instantaneous visit with Vidyasagar. In the meantime, refreshments were ready for the man at Vidyasagar’s hints. He then said to the man,—’You shall have your intended visit, as soon as you have partaken of the refreshments.’ When the visitor had thus been made to refresh himself, he was somewhat pacified. Vidyasagar then disclosed himself, to the utter amazement of the visitor, who now acknowledged that Vidyasagar was really equal to his great name.

But this unrestricted admittance caused him now and then no small amount of inconvenience and annoyance. Once on a time, several residents of Uttarpara came to his residence to see him with the object of securing his recommendations for employment. It so happened at that time, that his youngest daughter was critically ill. He was on the upper floor tending the sick girl. He was very anxious for the child’s life; his mind was in a most perturbed state. The medical attendant, Dr. Amulya Charan Basu, who was sitting in a room on the ground floor, inform ed the visitors of the state of Vidyasagar’s, mind, and told them to come some other day. They would not listen to him, and sent word to Vidyasagar by a servant. The domestic returned and said that he was instructed by his master to inform them of the serious illness of his master’s daughter, and to request them to call another day, as his master was quite unable to leave the bedside of his dear girl. The men would hear of no denial. They began to ascend the stairs. Vidyasagar was now compelled to come down, but he was somewhat annoyed, and thus addressed the intruders;—’I see, you understand your necessity best. You have not the slightest pity or mercy in you. Please, leave me alone for this day, and call some other day.’ The impudent trespassers hung down their heads in shame, and precipitately left the house.

In 1866, a Bill was introduced into the Legislative Council for legislation on the Alienation of Devatra property. The Board of Revenue asked Vidyasagar for his opinion on the subject based on Hindu Law. Vidyasagar communicated his opinion by a letter, which speaks for itself, and is therefore given below:—

⁠”R. B. Chapman Esquire
⁠”Secretary to the Board of Revenue.


“With, reference to the correspondence forwarded to me under docked No. 656 B. dated 13th ultimo, I beg to state that there do not appear to be any texts in the Books on Hindu Law which either permit or prohibit the alienation of Devatra property. But the general practice of the country does not sanction the disposition of such property in any shape. In fact, when Endowments of this description are made by Hindus, they make them with the sole object of securing the property endowed from any sort of alienation, and attach conditions accordingly. Trustees are consequently prohibited from disposing of the property. Though no distinct ruling on the point is traceable in any of the Text Books, no alienation can be permitted in accordance with the principles of Hindu Law. According to that Law, alienation cannot take place except with the express consent of the owner, and as in the case of Devatra property the Idol, to which it is consecrated, is the owner, it cannot be disposed of except with its consent, which, as a matter of course, can neither be given nor extorted. Hence, Devatra property has become inalienable.

“2. I am fully aware of the difficulties which may occasionally be felt by trustees in the execution of the trusts in connection with Religious Establishments. Circumstances may arise, which may compel them to incur liabilities, which the fixed income of the Trust will never enable them to meet; because, in many cases, the endowers appropriate the income in such a way as to leave little or no margin for any extraordinary or unforeseen expenditure connected with the endowments, such as repairs of temples, payment of Government Revenue in cases when it is not realized from the Ryots in consequence of draught, inundation or other causes &c. It cannot be expected that Trustees will meet this expenditure from their own funds or from subscriptions. Some provision must therefore be made by Law for the purpose, and on this consideration, I see no objection to section 1 of the Bill No 8 of 1866, if it be so worded as to express distinctly that the funds raised by the disposition of the property are to be appropriated solely to meet extraordinary or unavoidable expenditure connected with Religious Endowments. Disposal of Devatra property for such purposes would not, in my humble opinion, be inconsistent with the principle of Hindu Law. The chief object of all endowments is to guard against misappropriation, and as the extra expenditure referred to is solely and entirely required for Devatra purposes, it can, on no account, be considered in the light of misappropriation. Nay, if the Idol could be made to speak, it would certainly not only have given its consent, but would have also insisted on the disposition of its property under such contingencies.

“3. Alienation being allowable only under the circumstances above set forth, section 11 of the Bill appears to me to be objectionable, as it confers undue powers on Trustees, and prescribes that it is not necessary for purchasers or mortgagees of Devatra property to enquire into the necessity or expediency of the sale or mortgage or to see that on more than is absolutely required is raised. With such unlimited powers on the part of Trustees, and freedom from all responsibility on that of the purchasers or mortgagees, the property may probably be liable to misappropriation against which it is absolutely necessary to guard. I believe that the Law in regard to the disposition of other Trusts enjoins upon purchasers or mortgagees to make reasonable enquiries about the immediate necessity for the alienation. The benefit to be conferred or the danger to be averted by alienating a portion of the Trust property must be the criterion by which the validity of such alienation is to be judged of. With such provisions in cases of other Trusts, it is not clear why similar conditions should not be attached to transfers of Devatra Trusts. I would therefore take the liberty to suggest that section II may be so modified as to guard against any possible chance of misappropriation. With such modifications, the Bill would, I believe, be opposed neither to the spirit of Hindu Law nor to the general feelings of the Hindu community on the subject.

Calcutta, “I have the honor to be Sir
“Your Most obedt. servant

(Sd.) Issurchandra Sarma.”

The 6th August 1866

The Government saw the soundness of Vidyasagar’s arguments, and the Bill was ultimately rejected.

In the beginning of 1867, Vidyasagar visited Birsingha. About this time, the relations of a helpless widow were endeavouring to misappropriate her landed property. The widow came to Vidyasagar, and with tearful eyes besought his help. He sent for the widow’s relations, and requested them not to meddle with the helpless woman’s affairs, but they would not listen to him. They brought a suit against the widow; but when they heard that Vidyasagar was determined to help the poor woman by all means, they desisted from their unlawful attempts, and never more appeared in court.

At this time, he made arrangements for separate boarding of his second and third brothers, and of his only son, Narayan Chandra, and provided for their monthly allowances in proportion to their respective needs. The main cause of this disruption was intermittent quarrel among the members of the large family, which disturbed now and then the tranquility of the household. Separate houses had already been built for his two sisters, some time before this. Servants were engaged and provisions made for the separate boarding of the boys of other places, who lodged in his house and read in his free school. Shortly afterwards, a separate house was erected for his son, and arrangements were made of keeping his mother with himself in Calcutta.

Form this, it is apparent that Vidyasagar was not well disposed towards the Hindu system of joint family. It was not his innate fault. It was his English education that produced in him this failing. It was his want of insight that led him to meddle with the customs of Hindu Society, which is self-evident from the dismemberment of his joint family. The practice of the Hindu in his own household, in his dealings with Society, and in everything else is conducive to the attainment of spiritual knowledge. Eevry usage, every custom, every practice has been prescribed by the saintly Rishis with a view to enable the common laymen to begin to learn the secrets of the Hindu religion. Joint family is a prominent member of Hindu Society—the principal means of the realisation of Yoga—the royal road to salvation. What is Yoga? It is nothing but union or communion—complete absorption—in Divinity. It is nothing but the combination of one with the other—the conversion of duality into unity. The union of self with the whole world, the annihilation of the universe in self, the feeling of the existence of every external thing in self, this is the high way to redemption for the Hindu. This idea begins in one’s own family. It begins between one and one—viz. between preceptor and disciple, or between husband and wife, or between parent and son, or between brother and sister, and so forth. When two are united, it is easy to attract a third by the double force, when the three are united, the receipt of a fourth and fifth and sixth becomes still easier and easier. When one has thus absorbed others in him, one does not feel their separate individuality, but bears equal feelings of love and humanity for each of them. In the commencement, this sort of union is easily realisable in one’s own family, the members having natural ties of affection for one another. It is for this reason, that the system of joint family is so highly commendable to the true Hindu.

The scarcity of rainfall in Bengal in the year 1866 caused a great scarcity of food grains. In the beginning of the next year, a fearful famine broke out in the country, which assumed a serious aspect in the months of May, June and July. The whole of Orissa and the southern part of Bengal was ravaged by it. Language is inadequate to describe the sufferings of the people of those parts. The very recollection of their miseries even at the present day sends a thrilling sensation throughout the frame and makes the hairs of the body stand on their ends. They knew not how to appease their hunger. They ate leaves and roots of weeds and plants indiscriminately, whether these were esculent or not. They deserted their homes and ran to distant lands in search of a handful of rice. The mother deserted her dear baby; the father, his child; the son, his parents; the husband, his wife; the wife, her husband; the brother, his sister, the sister, her brother; and fled to towns in hopes of getting something to put into their burning stomachs. But many of them could not reach their destinations. They were reduced to mere skeletons, and, what with faint and what with continued want of food and consequent illness, lay dead in numbers by the wayside. The small space at our command will not permit us to enter into a detailed account of the state of the country at that time. We will confine ourselves to that portion only, with which our benevolent, heroic Vidysagar was connected.

He was at that time in Calcutta, and had no information of the great scarcity that raged fearfully in his own native village and its neighbourhood, till he saw some correspondence on the subject in the Hindoo Patriot and shortly afterwards received a letter from his own home bearing the horrible news that people were dying in numbers from want of food. The news gave him, tender-hearted as he was, a terrible shock, and he was moved to a flood of tears. He at once informed the Government of the fatal calamity and requested for speedy succour. They listened to him and instituted immediate enquiries. They opened feeding camps in the different parts of the country, but these were not amply adequate to meet the urgent demands. The correspondent of the Hindoo Patriot said, that Babu Hem Chandra Kar, Deputy Magistrate of Garbeta was taking much pains to visit personally the villages under him and provide for the relief of the poor villagers, hut that Babu Issan Chandra Mitra, Deputy Magistrate of the Jehanabad Subdivision of the Hugh district did not attend to it seriously. It may not be out of place to mention here that Birsingha and its neighbouring villages were at that time under the Hugh district, but were subsequently transferred under Midnapur in the time of Sir George Campbell.

Vidyasagar then hurried to the scene of occurrence, and was glad to find that his kind mother had already begun feeding the hungry people. She cooked the food with her own hands, and fed on an average one hundred persons daily. As was the son, so was the mother! But Vidyasagar was not content with this. He opened feeding houses at his own cost for Birsingha and the surrounding villages. The number of hungry people increased every day; from one hundred it finally rose to one thousand. As the number increased daily, Vidyasagar raised his scale of expenditure. On this occasaion he wrote to his third brother, Sambhu Chandra, who had been charged with the management of the feeding houses, not to show stint of expenses on this account, however large the amount might be.

He had returned to Calcutta after completing all arrangements, but visited Birsingha often. Provisions were at first made for supplying the hungry with Kheckaranna every day; but on the occasion of his second visit they applied to him for plain rice now and then. Vidyasagar granted their application and made provisions for the supply of plain rice with fish and curd once a week. But unfortunately on the very first day of this new arrangement, a sad incident occurred, which grieved the tender-hearted, benevolent reliever most seriously. A poor, hungry fellow in his eager desire for food, thrust a handful of the dry, plain rice into his mouth, which choked him to death. Vidyasagar took up the unfortunate man’s corpse into his lap, and lamented bitterly that a fellow-creature should thus die a miserable death from want of food.

We have said that Babu Isan Chandra Mitra was a little indifferent at the outset. But subsequently he felt the severity of the situation, and visited the different villages under him, in company with Vidyasagar’s second brother, Dinabandhu Nyayratna. He requested the Government for feeding camps, which were opened in some important villages, where the hungry were fed up to the month of October.

It is said, that Vidyasagar anointed the heads of the poor females of the lowest classes with his own hands, and thus set an example to his son, brothers and other relations, to emulate him in taking tender care of the poor sufferers. He also opened nurseries for the pregnant, hungry females, and provided for their safe delivery and supply of milk to the new-born babies. The poor people in gratefulness changed his name from Vidyasagar to Dayar Sagar (an ocean of kindness). Gradually the number of the hungry rose to such a height that the 12 cooks engaged for preparing the food and the 20 men employed to distribute it felt quite used up with their work. As the hungry sat to their meals, they rent the air with repeated loud cheers for their “ocean of kindness.” These people were fed by him up to the close of the year, when the new corn being ripe, they left the feeding camp one by one and returned to their respective houses, blessing with all their heart their benevolent protector, and praying to God for his long life.

He was not content with merely feeding the hungry people in his camp, but he visited the houses of his neighbours one after the other, and enquired after every one of them. The poor of the upper classes felt a great humiliation in resorting to the feeding camps. He helped them with money and articles of food, supplied at their houses, In fact, the unbounded kindness of Vidyasagar, who was by no means a man of money, put the great millionaires of the country to shame, Even the Government was obliged to acknowledge his generous bounty for the relief of the sufferers. The Commissioner of the Burdwan Division wrote to him as follows:—


“Pundit Isvar Chandra Vidyasagar,



“I have been instructed by the Secretary to the Government of Bengal under order of the 20th instant to express to you the warm acknowledgement of Government for your generous exertions in relieving the poor during the recent scarcity in the Hoogly District.

“I have the honour to be,
“Your most obedient servant
(Sd.) “C. T. Montrisor
“Commissioner, Burdwan Division.”

Vidyasagar’s third brother, Sambhu Chandra, says:—

“In the meantime, Babu Hem Chandra Kar, Superintendent of the feeding Camp at Garbeta, and his brothers appealed to my eldest brother (Vidyasagar) for help. He sent through my hands 100 rupees,—50 rupees for food, and 50 rupees for cloth. Besides this, some gentlemen came to him praying for aid towards the celebration of the Sraddha of their deceased parents. He gave to some of them 50, to some 100, and to the rest 200 rupees. A separate feeding camp was opened on the 28th Sraban, which was closed after the feeding on the 1st day of Paush. But the helpless poor of distant places stopped there up to the 8th Paush. Consequently, about 60 feeble and helpless persons had to be fed for a few days more.’

Source: Isvar Chandra Vidyasagar(1820–1891), a story of his life and work by Subal Chandra Mitra-1902

Bhagabati Devi, Vidyasagar's mother.

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