Of salt smuggling and dak bungalows

Having always been fond of reading, I am constantly on the lookout for new authors. So recently I discovered a man called Roy Moxham. In 2002, he wrote a book about a hedge. Yes, a hedge. The book is called, rightly, “The Great Hedge of India”. Why would anyone write such a book? Well, it seems that in the latter part of the 19th century the English bandits who ruled India then built a 2,300-mile-long hedge to prevent smuggling of salt between British India and the Indian states. The smuggling happened because salt in British India cost at least five times as much, if not more because of British taxes on it. The hedge was 20 feet deep in some places and about that high as well.

The book also contains a detailed account of the history of salt taxes in India. They started during the Chandragupta Maurya’s time.

One day in 1994, Moxham discovered this long-forgotten nugget by accident. Piqued at how anyone could have thought this up, he decided to see if any of it was still left. So he turned up in India in 1996 and kept coming back until he found it five years later somewhere in UP. He has described his adventures in this book, including an incident when a crocodile turned up when he was taking a dip on the banks of a river.

The thing is, says Moxham, no one protested about these taxes until the avaricious criminals of the East India Company raised the rate a hundred-fold. And because they were pocketing the proceeds — a few billion pounds over 100 years from 1760 — the British government, which took over British India in 1860, decided to build the hedge because there was no money to build a wall. The customs department — corrupt as ever — built the hedge, complete with watch towers and little forts along its length. Their remnants is what Moxham found.

The smuggling happened because salt in British India cost at least five times as much, if not more because of British taxes on it.

This crazy idea lasted for just a decade from 1879 to 1890 when it was abandoned. The man who made it truly affective was none other than the founder of the Congress party — Allan Octavian Hume. At its peak it wound its way from Multan all the way to Bihar. It is amazing that some villagers in UP remembered it when Moxham met them 120 years later. They said it was known as “parmat lane” (Permit Line) and took him to it. Moxham says he felt most gratified that a six-year-old search had come to fruition. He had gone to enormous pains over it while looking for old British customs maps.

But there are many such examples of English nuttiness. It is portrayed as eccentricity now but it was never without a self-serving purpose. For example, the circuit houses and the dak bungalows they built in remote and picturesque places all over India had a hidden purpose as well, of clandestine liaisons when the memsahib was away in England. They serve the same purpose even now, I am told. The circuit houses were for the higher ranks and the dak bungalows for the lower ones in the middle of dense forests.

To add spice to all this there were some circuit houses and dak bungalows which came with a ghost attached, like the dak bungalow at Misrod near Bhopal. It seems one Miss Rod — Misrod, get it? — committed suicide there after her heart was broken by some Englishman. There is also circuit house near Jabalpur which was visited by an Englishman’s ghost over Christmas. He had killed himself out of sheer loneliness.

Much of all this was captured in a book on the Raj’s ‘babu’ resorts by Rajita Bhargava a few years ago. Like Moxham with the hedge, she decided to find out what these things were. Unfortunately, the book is out of print and I can’t remember its name.

In this context of British craziness, I must mention another book that I read some years ago. It is called The Fishing Fleet by Anne de Courcy. It is about the annual influx of English spinsters who came to India looking for a husband. It is a fascinating book about that period.

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