An almost-capital, salubrity, & the thing with reputation

03 Nov, 2017

Sometime in 1863-64, Captain G Hunter Thompson, Revenue Surveyor with the British Raj, proposed Hazaribagh to be the new capital of India. Thompson enjoyed the “salubrity of the station of Hazaribagh” and reasoned that the plateau’s proximity to coal mines and the sea, along with its connectivity with Kolkata and Mumbai (should a short branch railway be constructed through Hazaribagh town - which eventually was, more than a century later, in 2016) made it an ideal place for the new seat of “the Supreme Government of India”. For Thompson, access to the sea was of utmost importance, which, when considered in terms of trade and economy, makes sense. I think it must have surprised him when a year after the publication of his survey of Hazaribagh plateau, Shimla became the summer capital, and in 1911, the landlocked Delhi with no pleasant elevation or salubrity was made the capital of India.

Looking at the infrastructural challenges which Shimla faces today and the environmental nightmare that Delhi has become, I have few reasons to mourn Hazaribagh's loss.

Thompson’s recommendation was rooted in the fact that from 1780, when the Ramgarh Battalion was raised and stationed at the place which would soon become Hazaribagh, the resulting town, in the course of eighty years, had grown into a prominent military station, where, a regiment that had “suffered severely from sickness at its last station’’ was sent to recuperate. Thompson notes that “a great number of men consequently arrive in bad health, but notwithstanding this unfavourable circumstance, the percentage of sickness during the worst part of the year, is always very much lower at Hazareebaugh, than it is at most other stations, and Regiments always leave the place in excellent health and with many regrets.”

An 1862 report presented before the British Parliament by the Army Medical Department had similar praises for Hazaribagh. Along with a general commentary on the town, it contained summaries of and excerpts from other, smaller reports submitted by doctors and surgeons. The report, in an effort to establish the compatibility of Hazaribagh with the Europeans, states that “in the private gardens in the station, as well as at Seetagurrah (Sitagarha), every description almost of English vegetables is produced, cabbages, peas, beans, onions, lettuces, celery, radishes, with potatoes, carrots, turnips, & and with proper care everything of this kind required for European troops could be cheaply provided. Many of the European and Caubul flowers and fruits that will not grow in many other parts of India thrive admirably in the gardens of Hazareebaugh.’’

Similarly about the salubrity of the town, in 1862, we have Surgeon Houlton say: “In fact I look upon it as a sanitarium. In support of this statement I wish to mention that when called upon in the beginning of the year to select men for the sanitarium at Darjeeling, I felt averse to send any there from the experience I had already of the benefit derived by the regiment from the year spent at Hazareebaugh. However, I selected a few men most likely to be benefited by the change and sent them, keeping back others in much the same condition and I have no hesitation in stating that on the arrival of some of these men from Darjeeling a few days ago, they were not in as good condition as the men who were kept at Hazareebaugh.’’

Hazaribagh was formally abandoned as a military station in 1874 after battling with a series of typhoid outbreaks during 1865-72. In 1873, we have Dr. Frederic J Mouat, Inspector-General of Prisons, saying in his book The Value of European Life in India: “As regards Hazareebaugh, one of the healthiest places in Bengal, I happen to know that it was for many years abandoned as a golgotha, in consequence of the frightful sickness and mortality in its European garrison.” After the last of the regiments departed from Hazaribagh, the town was left only with the infrastructure. Barracks, et al, which one doesn’t find today, not even the ruins. 1874 onwards, Hazaribagh became a town, a “real” administrative centre, with a circuit house and new bridges along the present NH 100. 1874 also saw the Viceroy of India Thomas Baring, Earl of Northbrook, visiting Hazaribagh on his way to Ranchi. Baring was the only viceroy to have ever set his foot in the Chhotanagpur.

I find it hard to believe that typhoid resulted in the abandonment of Hazaribagh by the regiments who had once so cherished the place. I mean, by Mouat's own admission, Hazaribagh was still “one of the healthiest places in Bengal”, even after the typhoid of 1872. It seems to me a sudden and unfortunate end for a reputation. Hazaribagh’s salubrity which I read about in these texts was always so poetic to find in the pages. A character which was always so fixed, unwavering. I almost believed that nothing could have made a dent in it.

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