Advice to Officers in India/Chapter 5

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1. CLIMATE AND SEASONS.—This is a very extensive subject to handle; and from the immense extent of the Bengal presidency alone, no one description would be applicable to all its parts. I shall, therefore, dwell more particulary upon its four grand divisions,—Bengal (proper), the North-Western Provinces, the Punjaub, and Burmah.

Much difference of opinion exists respecting the climate of the lower and the upper provinces. This most probably arises from some idiosyncracy, rendering a sojourn in the one or the other prejudicial to health. One man may enjoy better health in the one than the other, and vice versá. If I could command a choice I should prefer Bengal in the summer season, and the north-western provinces in the winter. Bengal is less debilitating in summer, but less invigorating in winter. Those who have resided long in the upper provinces are strongly prepossessed in their favour, and on visiting Calutta, their robust persons and ruddy countenances contrast strongly with the sallow complexions and unstrung sinews of those long resident in Bengal.

It is somewhat curious that strangers do not feel the heat so oppressive for the first year after their arrival as they afterwards do, a proof that their constitution becomes enervated; and, on the same principle, an invalid is more overcome by the heat than a man in good health. On the other hand, it is generally believed that Indian residents on returning to England are not so sensitive to the cold as those who have never left their native shores. This has been quaintly explained by supposing a quantity of latent heat, absorbed during their broiling in India,acting as a sort of Promethean fire which,until dissipated, protects them from the cold. Whatever may be the cause, I think I can affirm from personal experience that it is a fact.

Public health is often affected by epidemics without any apparent change in the locality;and stations generally healthy sometimes change their nature and become so sickly as to be abandoned. Kurnaul is a remarkable example of this; the abuse of irrigation converting the neighbourhood into a marsh.

2. OF BENGAL.—The seasons throughout Bengal are divided into the Hot, the Rainy, and the Cold. The hot season in Calcutta may be considered to begin about the middle of March, increasing in intensity during April May and June. The rains generally begin about the 20th June, and end with September. The 20th October may be taken as the beginning of the cold weather.

The best season to arrive in India is December, January and February, and it is desirable not to enter the country before the 15th November, nor after the 15th March. Of course, circumstances will oblige many to arrive at all seasons, but the hot season is a very fiery ordeal to a newcomer, and to be avoided.

In Calcutta during April, May, and June, the thermometer is seldom under 86° at any hour, and in the afternoon is as high as 90° or 100° in-doors, and 120° or 130° in the sun. During the day this is found very oppressive, but a fine sea-breeze generally sits in about eight o'clock in the evening, and blows cool and refreshing all night. At this season there are occasional north-westers, accompanied with rain and sometimes with hail, which cool the air for a day or two, and allay the dust, and are as welcome and as grateful as an oasis in a desert. Great care should be taken to avoid exposure to the direct rays of the sun, for few people, unless called upon by duty, go out of doors during the heat of the day.

Carriages of all sorts ought to have a thick cover of white, quilted with cotton to shield them from the sun; and the rider or pedestrian when emergencies require it, will do well to protect himself by a double umbrella and a warm great coat, for the same means that are necessary to keep off cold are equally effective in keeping off heat.

The thermometer, though a correct register of heat, is by no means correct as to our feelings. One feels more oppressed in a stagnant atmosphere with a temperature of 80° than in a breeze with it at 90°, as, on the other hand, one is more affected with cold in a windy day with the thermometer at 32° than in a calm day at 22°. It is very remarkable how small the range is between what is agreeable and what oppressive, not more than 5° or 7° ceteris paribus; all heat under 80 is pleasant, at least not complained of, but all above 86 oppressive. Prickly heat is very generally felt in the hot season. It shows itself inform of a rash or papilliary eruption on all parts of the body most liable to perspiration, with a very uncomfortable disposition to scratch. Though very annoying, it is consoling to think that it is one of the best certificates of good health.

The nature of the wind also modifies our feelings very materially,though the temperature remains the same. Of all winds,the east is the most oppressive when the thermometer stands high, as it is also felt the coldest when the thermometer is low. This is the wind that blows nobody any good, and it must be an ill wind. It has little or no effect in cooling a tattie. Convalescence is retarded by it,putrefaction hastened by it, and animals as well as vegetables are acutely sensitive to its baneful influence. A horse perspires in half the time when at work in an east wind than he would do in any other wind, and the leaves hang flaccid on their stems as if heated by steam. The electric state of the atmosphere has no doubt a great effect upon the constitution, though its mode of action may not be well ascertained. The moon in all countries is blamed for her evil eye, but heat and electricity must exert an equal influence, and the moon is blamed for all; predictions of the weather founded upon the phases of the moon are vague and uncertain,and I think that her effects upon public health are equally difficult to be anticipated.

During the months of May and June there is seldom a fleecy cloud upon the sky to screen the inhabitants from the intensity of the solar ray. A tide of flickering exhalations is seen streaming from the plains, assuming the fantastic forms of the mirage; resembling lakes where no water exists, and trees and forests where no vegetation exists. The earth is parched up, rent and riven as if baked over a volcano; the luxuriant leaves and gigantic flowers upon the trees are collapsed and suspended from the branches, as if they had been some hours lopped from the parent stem. Not a breath is in motion, and one becomes conscious of an increased frequency of inspiration to make up for the rarefaction of the atmosphere. The slightest exertion fatigues one; streams of perspiration trickle down the back while sitting writing at table, and at night the very bed clothes are wet, notwithstanding the indispensable punkah.

Appetite fads one, food becomes loathsome, sleep deserts the couch, strength leaves the muscle, life is an existence little better than a vegetation, and as Bishop ——— has been heard to express himself from the pulpit "one feels like a boiled cabbage."

The European now shuts up his house to keep out the heat as carefully as the Laplander does his, to keep out the cold; and not content with that, he shuts out the light of day also, allowing no more to enter than suffices to read or write by, and spends a good part of the day recumbent. After dark he throws open his doors as a besieged garrison throw open their gates when an invading army has withdrawn, and luxuriates in the welcome sea-breeze that whistles delightful music to his ear as it rustles through his chamber.

3. OF THE N. W. PROVINCES.—In the Upper Provinces, contrary to what might be expected, the hot weather is much more intense than in Bengal. The hot winds blow with all the ardour of a blast from a furnace, and, what adds to their annoyance, so laden with dust, that it insinuates itself by every crevice, and encrusts every article of furniture; the tables are very convenient for teaching children their letters: the nostrils become encrusted with it, the lungs themselves are open to its deposit, and frequent expectoration is necessary to get rid of it. The doors now warp, the furniture twists and cracks as if exposed to the heat of a fire; and if iced water be poured into a glass, it is as liable to break, as if boiling water in a cold temperature were poured into it. Nothing can exceed the sterile, burnt-up appearance of the country; during the prevalence of the hot winds the trees keep their foliage, but the earth is stripped of all herbage as if a flood of lava had flowed over it, drinking its rivers dry and leaving it calcined and strewed with ashes. As the wind generally lulls at night, the house is heated to a degree not to be endured, and many have their beds carried out of doors under the open sky with no other covering but the starry firmament. No regiments move at this season unless under great emergencies,and if a march is made,many fatal cases are unavoidable. With all the inconveniences of the hot winds, troops in cantonments are more healthy than in the cooler season of the rains which succeeds them. Fortunately, the hot winds carry their own antidote along with them and their action upon a wet tatty, keeps the house comparatively cool.

4. THE PUNJAUB.— The climate of Lahore is very different from that of the Central Provinces along the Ganges, and is quite uninfluenced by the monsoon. The prevailing wind during the hot season is from the east, its cooling properties on a tatty are very feeble, and the delicious coolness and comfort derived from tatties in Upper India are little known at Lahore.

An occasional shower, perhaps once in eight, ten, or fifteen days, falls during April, May and June, and though it cools the atmosphere for a couple of days, yet the dampness it engenders prevents the action of the tatty. The heat is consequently very great, and the thermometer ranges from 85° to 95°, or even 100°, in the best houses, rendering punkahs, both night and day, indispensable. The hot weather, really distressing hot weather, however, does not commonly commence till 15th April.

The dust is something incredible. People in England, or even in the Upper Provinces, will not believe, that for days and weeks together the azure vault of heaven, with not a cloud upon it, is as completely eclipsed by impalpable dust as during the densest London fog; and when the wind is high, an elephant might pass by unseen only a few yards away. The slightest wind raises it in clouds, a string of camels darkens the horizon, a cavalry parade obscures the whole hemisphere for hours after; once or twice in a month, in a week, or sometimes in a day, a storm of dust takes place that baffles all description; yet the following transcript from my note book may give some idea of it:—

"The weather had been unusually calm and sultry for some days previous; during the forenoon the sky was heavily overcast, a slight breeze only was fanning the date trees at intervals, and now and then a magnificent column, like a vidette of the approaching hurricane, wheeled spirally over the parade, and with its foot upon the earth, and its head in the heavens, disappeared upon the horizon. The thermometer was only 85°; the weather-door was left ajar to invite in a gentle current of air; the punkah was hanging motionless from the ceiling; the tatty reclining dry and dusty against the pillars of the verandah; and the punkah-walla and the bheestie were taking their araum in the open air, and plying their hookah. Old tyrant Sol never looked so bewildered before, he could not show his naked face anywhere; one could form no conception of his locality: no shadow followed his footsteps; his standing orderly, the sundial,had a perfect sinecure of it, and stood at ease all day long. It might have been morning or evening twilight for any evidence he gave to the contrary, and one felt a sort of independence and impunity in stalking about under a sola topie at noonday, without the dread of being stared into night blindness,or knocked to the ground by one of his vertical beams. About 2 p.m. the breeze had died away to a perfect calm; not a leaflet was in motion; but allow dark arch of dust became perceptible on the northern horizon, gradually approached the zenith, and descended the southern hemisphere without being felt below. The hum of the crowd hurrying to their homes portended a coming storm; and man and beast were seen running for shelter in all directions. On came an army of clouds rolling, reeling and tumbling over one another in silent yet stupendous grandeur. Now it began to blow, increasing to a perfect hurricane, so laden with dust that neither man nor beast could stand against it,nor see to move a step; but lay down on the ground or in a ditch, where they happened to be. Day seemed suddenly changed into night; candles were lighted to see one's way across the room; on blew the wind for an hour, and on seemed to run a horizontal stream of dust: on looking out of the window the sky, if such could be called sky, presented a lurid blood-red hue as if it were charged with red-hot dust and ashes. Such might have been the last days of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and had the same quantity of material fallen from the heavens that drifted along with the wind, Lahore would no doubt long ago have shared the fate of these celebrated cities. Not a flash of lightning illuminated the darkness, not a clap of thunder broke the monotony,not a drop of rain nor a hailstone fell, and even the wind was silent, as if stealing a march on some distant province; the storm sank exhausted towards evening, and the night became cool, calm, and serene. Next morning every article of furniture was embedded in dust, and if it had had adhesion enough, it would have furnished correct casts of domestic economy. The besom of destruction seemed to have swept the earth of every particle of dust, leaving only coarse gravel, konkur and brick bats, and one felt inclined to hope that matter for such another storm could not be pounded up for a month thereafter. But the sun of the Punjaub, and the sons and daughters of Lahore produce dust enough for such a storm once or twice a week. The roads of the old regime are ankle deep in dust, it plunges under the horses' feet like so much water, a carriage moving along at an easy pace reminds one of the old paintings of Aurora, the wheels enveloped in clouds and the rider only free.

Whirlwinds are very common in these arid regions; and in a calm day, when not a breath of air is stirring, four, six or more of such columns may be counted at one time. A spiral column of dense dust first makes it appearance on the ground, with abase of ten or twelve feet diameter, and gyrations from twenty to forty in a minute. Every light body is caught in its eddies, and twisted up with great velocity to the sky. Its onward motion is crooked and irregular, perhaps only one or two miles an hour, and the noise as it advances resembles the crackling of a large fire. The atmosphere beyond the gyrations is not in the least agitated; and one may walk in company with it, only a few yards apart, and watch its phenomena without being sensible of its force or sprinkled with its dust. After traversing the earth for a mile or two, it gradually becomes expended, and its tract remains on the sky for some time after all is quiet on the ground. I feel at a loss to account for such winds by any known theory, though the cause is probably the same as that of the waterspout: they occur only in calm weather, and are not known in a stormy day, nor does either thunder or lightning accompany them, or any change of weather follow them. These whirlwinds strikingly exemplify the lately-discovered law of storms, though only in miniature; and I have no doubt if their scientific authors were in the Punjaub, they would be able to make most valuable notes in their horn book.

The mirage is also seen in great perfection in the Punjaub, and an arid waste of sand is apparently as if by magic transformed into a beautiful lake, fringed with foliage.

Meteors are very frequent, with a degree of splendour and duration seldom equalled; thunder and lightning are less frequent and less vivid than in other parts of India.

The rains that afford so much relief in the Central Provinces, and are looked forward to as an oasis in the desert, are merely nominal at Lahore, and very little more falls during July, August and September than during the three previous months. Withal the rivers rise high, owing to supplies from the mountains, and if two or three days' rain take place, when it is so swollen by the snow, a large part of the country is inundated, as the following extract from my Note Book of July, 1847, will show:—

"A change is now come o'er the spirit of the dream; the rebellious dust that wont to fly into every body's face is now become a kneaded clod, a plastic mass of clay, fit for the mould of the brick-maker, or the trowel of the sculptor; the windows of heaven have been opened wide, and copious showers of welcome rain have fallen upon the fevered earth and the no less fevered inhabitants. The Ravee is full to overflowing, and has extended its dimensions up to the city walls and entered some of its gates; every ditch is now become a canal, every hole a pool of water, every hollow a placid lake; islands, isthmuses and peninsulas have started into existence, and given new forms and features to the arid landscape, otherwise so tame and dreary. Large boats navigate the public thoroughfares, and excite nearly as much curiosity as an alligator or a dolphin would do; and if the water rises only three feet higher the whole cantonment of Anarkuullee will be under water, and become a peopled jeel."

Again, on the 13th July, I find—

"A week only has passed since a heavy fall of rain took place, yet the weather has become oppressively hot. The thermometer 87° to 90°; the atmosphere is loaded with vapour, so that objects cannot be seen a mile off. One feels as if in a vapour bath; and when sitting on a chair under a punkah, the perspiration trickles down the back in streamlets. I have no strength nor spirits to do any thing, both being below zero, and roll upon a couch most of the day." By the middle of September the heat begins to moderate, and by the 1st October the weather is temperate and agreeable. By the 1st November the temperature is delightful, sharp and frosty, and until the middle of April nothing could surpass the climate, yet six or eight months pass away without an inch of rain falling. Much cloudy weather occurs in the cold season, sometimes for weeks together, every day betokening rain, but it either ends in a dust storm or a few drops.

The peculiarity of the climate of Lahore, I may say of the Punjaub, is the extraordinary drought that exists throughout the year, so that where artificial means are not used to irrigate the soil, the country becomes a desert,hence the excessive aridity, the dust and heat. It has lately become a speculation whether the absence of vegetation and forest is a cause of drought, or whether in the event of these being increased to a large extent, rain would be more copious. That they stand in the relation of cause and effect, I think most certain, but which takes precedence, I imagine it is very difficult to decide. I have studied the phenomen a of clouds and rain in the Himalayah, but have not been able to trace any difference between what fell on a bare range of mountains and what on a range covered with forest; both seemed to partake of it alike according to their elevation; the higher the mountain the more cloud and rain; not the greater the forest the more rain.

Still we have well authenticated instances, where the cutting down of extensive forests greatly reduced the average fall of rain, but we want the counter argument to prove that the extension of forests added to the humidity of the climate; nevertheless, the presumption is that it would, and were it possible to overrun the Punjaub with forest or vegetation more rain would fall, and the climate would be cooler.

As to the seasons of the Punjaub, they are nearly similar to those in upper India. The crops of wheat and barley, &c. being cut down in April, and those of the hot season in October.

The climate of the Punjaub does not seem favourable to animal life, especially of those parasite classes that frequent large cantonments in the north-west provinces. Mosquitoes are few, as well as fleas and bugs, white-ants, and ants in general; lizards, scorpions, jackdaws, hawks, vultures, jackalls, are far below the average; but flies, (the commonblack-fly), fire-flies, sand-flies, and crickets, swarm in every house. By means of good chicks the house-fly may be kept at bay,but the sand-fly abounds in every room. Though mere phantoms of material creatures, imperceptible to the ear and nearly so to the eye, and best discovered by their own shadow on the wall,and so fragile as to be broken into pieces by the stroke of a horse's hair, yet their bite is like the prick of a red-hot needle; and so venomous that the part swells to the size of half a cherry, remaining for days intolerably itchy, and requiring the greatest self-restraint to refrain from tearing it open: without noise, their assaults are unheard; their size enables them to enter curtains where a mosquito would not penetrate; and a thin covering of silk, or cotton or woollen gives no protection, for their fangs penetrate them all. A mosquito is a trifle to it, a bug or a flea easily repelled in comparison. More sleep is lost by this little wretch than by all other domestic plagues put together, and nothing but a punkah gives one a chance of a night's sleep.

Next to the sand-flies, the crickets are the great annoyance; they keep up a deafening chatter all night long;nor are they free from offence, but gratify their palates upon most things that lie about the room; boots and shoes, brushes,combs, backs of books and leather and cloth of most kinds; nay, I believe, they attack the very nails of our toes and fingers, for I never could account for the notches being made in any other way.

Next in precedence of annoyance comes a species of insect known from their shape by the name of "fish." They are equally modest and retiring as the sand-fly and the cricket, but do not prey upon humanity. Their particular taste lies in dress coats and warm clothing, paper, and pastry work and furriery; and, unless the owner is constantly on the alert and musters his wardrobe, he will most likely require a new outfit next cold season, when he comes to stand muster himself.

5. OF BURMAH.— The climate of Burmah resembles a good deal that of Bengal Proper, the country within the delta of the Irrawaddy being equally flat and liable to inundation; but the monsoon sets in much earlier, generally about the 12th of May, the rains continuing with occasional glimpses of sunshine, until the middle of September; during the rains the atmosphere is so excessively moist that every article in the house becomes mouldy, and unless dried once a week over a charcoal fire, one's clothes would rot in their trunks. Hence, every careful man, who consults his health and his economy, has a standing brazier of burning charcoal with a large frame of basket-work, to place over it, which he uses as a kiln to dry his clothes and everything else of value. For a month previous to the monsoon the heat of the day is very great; every article is of a temperature above blood-heat, and on sitting down on a chair one has the idea that some playful person has been heating it as a practical joke. However, the nights are at all seasons cool and admit of a sound night's sleep. Though most of the trees shed their leaves and remain bare during the cool weather, yet fires are unknown, and an Alpaca coat is warm enough even in what is called winter.

6. THE RAINS.— During such an ordeal, as the hot season, the rains are looked for with intense interest, and the exile awaits their approach as the captive does the tread of the deliverer that is to set him free, and hails the first nimbous cloud upon the horizon as the traveller does the oasis in the desert—as the cast away mariner does the coming sad. The first roll of the thunder is welcome to his ear, as the signal gun of approaching assistance to the almost despairing warrior, and the first drops are as refreshing as a cup of cold water to a feverish patient, as auspicious as the first dew of perspiration on his burning forehead.

In Bengal, about the 20th of June, a change comes o'er the spirit of the atmosphere,and symptoms indicate the approach of the South West monsoon. The view is circumscribed with mist and haze: the air feels damp, and the tatty loses its cooling properties, the punkah is insisted on more urgently; the system feels more relaxed, the perspiration more clammy and profuse, and prickly heat more annoying. A nimbous cloud, with a fine cauliflower head, is seen on the western horizon, gradually ascends, accompanied by a whole army of others, which soon occupy the whole hemisphere. A portentous stillness prevads; the leaflets upon the trees hang motionless; the cattle of the field startle home; the birds of prey soar far aloft above the clouds; the natives are seen running for shelter in all directions, and the hum of the multitude in the bazars denotes active preparations being made for a coming storm. Soon the forked lightening flashes among the clouds, the thunder rolls high over head, the sun is eclipsed with dust, and darkness prevails, rendering candles in the house indispensable.

The storm now breaks with great fury, unroofing houses, upsetting carriages, tearing up trees by the roots; the electric fluid not unfrequently striking the earth and causing loss of life. The first drops of rain hop upon the dust like globules of mercury, and had stones, as large as pigeons' eggs, come tumbling down like grape shot. Now the monsoon is begun in real earnest, and the arid soil drinks deep of its abundance by its thousand fissures. Few people can contain their joy upon this occasion, and many rush out bareheaded into the shower, and saturate their clothes to the skin before they return.

The thermometer which wont to stand about 90° or 96° now falls 10°, and if the rains continue abundant seldom rises above 80° at sunrise and 85° at noon. Strangers are apt to believe that during this season the rain pours down incessantly by night and day. But so far is this from being the case, that it seldom rains for twelve hours in succession, and on an average seldom more than six hours out of the twenty-four. The forenoons are generally dry. The greater part of the rain falls in the afternoon or at night, and two or three days of continued rain do not happen above four or five times during the monsoon. Withal, the quantity of rain that fails is almost incredible in some provinces amounting to no less than eighteen or nineteen feet.

7. INUNDATION.— The Ganges now rises from forty to fifty feet, overflows its banks and inundates the country,like a sea. Boats pursue their course through the interior of the country, over corn fields and orchards, along the highways, or through lately populous streets, the streams of population being replaced by muddy water. The natives embark their goods and chattels to keep them dry, and tie their boats to the door posts; where the oxen lately trod out the corn, they swim across to higher pasture; the timid deer is driven from its haunts and glad to claim protection in a cow-house; the elephant and the wild hog swim from island to island and are often captured in the transit; and even the sulky tiger, tamed of his ferocity, has on such occasions sneaked into a cottage,and, docile as a dog,laid himself down an unwelcome guest in a corner. Contrary to what might be expected, these inundations carry little devastation and no care nor despondency along with them. In proportion to the inconvenience suffered now is the abundance of the coming harvest; according to the height to which the waters rise, so high rise the hopes of the husbandman: for a copious sediment of rich alluvial earth is deposited on the lately cropped soil,which requires only to be stirred and sprinkled with grain to return fruit, some thirty, some sixty and some a hundred fold. The earth now teems with vegetation; the arid soil becomes a jungle; the growth of plants may almost be watched with the naked eye; and tender shoots run up into stems sixty or eighty feet in height in one season. Animal life is equally prolific; the soil is literally encrusted with toads and frogs and creeping things of every description, and the noise of insects is quite deafening.

The rains are more and more scanty and irregular towards the north-west. In the Punjaub very little falls during the hot season, and beyond the main chain of the Himalayah the monsoon is unknown.

8. THE COLD WEATHER.— About the middle of September the rains begin to intermit; about the 1st of October there is only an occasional shower; about the middle of October the monsoon generally changes, often with as much violence as it set in with;the wind settles in the north-east; and the weather becomes calm, cool and clear. By the 1st of November the temperature is very congenial, and till the middle or end of March no climate in the world could surpass it, especially in the north-western provinces. The thermometer ranges from 40° to 60°. The invalid leaves his couch; the convalescent rapidly recruits his condition; the European feels new health and vigour diffused through his frame; enters upon a new lease of life, and feels a buoyancy of spirits and an elasticity of gait that is most delightful; he now glories in his strength; exercise is the greatest enjoyment; he becomes in a great measure reconciled to the fiery ordeal from which he escaped, and thinks it was all worth enduring to obtain such heavenly weather. The climate of the north-west provinces is, from 15th October to 15th April, unsurpassed by any region in the world.