Sunday, September 2, 2012

The door opens Inside!

In the post of August 15, 2012 titled "Knock on the door" (Please click here to read it)  I had made a mention of the Bengal famines of 1943 and 1770.  Some friends from the younger generation have desired to know about these famines and their intensity.  My recent visit to Patna took me to a monument that reminded the horrors of these famines.  I saw a structure called "Gol Ghar" that was never put to actual use due a small defect in its design and construction.  It has remained as a monument and tourist attraction only.  It is also a huge building that keeps reminding every visitor about the horrors of the devastation that a famine brings.

The "Big Bengal Famine" of 1943 is estimated to have consumed 4 million (40 lakh) human lives besides a big catch of animals.  Bengal at that time was reckoned as the entire eastern part of India comprising of the present West Bengal, Bangladesh, Bihar and parts of Orissa. Burma was a major supplier of rice to parts of India and Ceylon. Following the Japanese occupation of Burma, this source of rice supply dried up. Food items became extremely scarce.  Many able bodied men were directly and indirectly involved in the war.  Whatever income and resources that were available with the families were diverted in full for meeting food needs.  Small time traders, artisans and rural workers were deprived of their livelihood.  Diversion of large volumes of food items to the war front put additional strain on the already dwindling supplies.  Failure of rains and the resultant crop failure compounded the problem.  A severe cyclone that hit the area destroyed whatever standing crops that were left.  Economists like Dr Amartya Sen have argued that the famine was more a result of the hype created by World War II rather than shortage of food.  This famine gave birth to voluminous literature on the horrible effects of the famine.  Many plays and novels were written with the famine and resultant suffering as their theme.  British government  even confiscated a play by one Chittroprasad on the suffering in Midnapore district.  Well-known film maker Satyajit Ray's movie "Asani Sanket", based on Bibuthibushan Banerjee's novel by the same name, deals with this famine and its effects on the poor rural folk.  Bibuthibushan Banerjee is also the author of "Aparajito" and "Pather Panchali", two other Satyajit Ray's films.   Asani Sanket graphically depicts a character, a girl by name Chutki, who is forced to go with a scar-faced (burnt-faced) man whom she utterly dislikes, only because he has some rice with him and that is her source of survival through famine.  In fact, Asani Sanket ends with the message on the screen reading "Over five million died of starvation and epidemics in Bengal in what has come to be known as the man-made famine of 1943."

The Bengal Famine of 1770, that struck between 1769 to 1773, was perhaps even worse.  It is estimated that one out of  three living persons died in the famine taking the toll to an astounding One Crore (10 million) lives. Birbhum and Murshidabad in Bengal along with Champaran and Bettiah in Bihar were worst hit. This famine was an indirect contribution of the East India Company and its unimaginative and exploiting tax policy.  Land revenue tax was increased in several doses, taking it from a mere 10% of the agriculture produce to as high as 50%!  Reminds us old-timers of the 97% income-tax slab in the 1980s.  Insistence on growing of Opium and Indigo (for dyeing of cloth) left lesser and lesser lands for food crops.  The incidence of high land revenue led to more areas becoming depopulated and growth of jungles. Bands of decoits and thugs ruled the area making the common man's life even more difficult.  All the factors contributed the Great Famine of 1770 that killed 10 million people.

Warren Hastings was appointed as Governor of Calcutta in 1771, during the days severe famine.  He became Governor General of India in 1773.  Having understood the seriousness of the problem, before he resigned and left for England in 1784, he ordered the construction of a beehive shaped structure for the purpose of storing grains for the British Army.  A plot on the western side of Patna known then as "Patna Lawns" (presently known as Gandhi Maidan) on the banks of the river Ganga was chosen for construction of the granary.  Captain John Garstin, an engineer with East India Company, was entrusted with construction of the granary.  A picture of the granary taken from the internet and given above shows the "Stupa Architecture" used for its construction.  The 29 meter (95 feet) high structure has a base of 125 meters (410 feet).  Its storage capacity is as much as 1,40,000 metric tons!  It is a fantastic structure without any pillars supported by walls of 3.6 meter (12 feet) thickness at the base.  The 300 step spiral stairway that can be seen in the picture was to facilitate passage of laborers carry grain bags to the opening at the top, deliver the load through a hole at the top and descend the stairs.

What is the startling and funny about this structure is that it was never filled to its capacity and never used!  The main reason was a structural defect; while designing the structure, the doors were designed to open inside.  When the granary was filled, the doors could never be opened.  The structure, known as "Gol Ghar", meaning the "Round House" in Hindi, has just remained a tourist attraction and a specimen of how a minor flaw in designing can render a great structure totally useless.

Our mind is very similar to this Gol Ghar.  The Lord has designed our mind and brain like this Gol Ghar.  But he has allowed us the freedom to open its doors either inside or outside, as we deem fit.  When it opens only inside, it remains an empty monument like the Gol Ghar.  If we let the doors open outside, it is the most wonderful piece that has ever been designed by anybody and it can be put to unlimited use!        


  1. I doubt very much if there is any famine which is not man made.Even in the worst years nature provides enough . The problem is and will always be how it is shared.
    On a lighter note your title reminded me of a major in the indian army who wrote in the assessment of a junior officer " Lt. X uses all his energy bursting through doors marked PULL"

  2. Gol Ghar is like filling up our hearts with love and happiness which can be open all the time.

  3. Great analysis on the folly of the masses...sadly these parts of India also has the vague vice of superiority complex which needs the poor to be downtrodden and illiterate...


  4. The article enabled me to have a peep into an important aspect of Indian history which earlier never attracted my attention despite my father talking about it in my childhood.A very informative article and the lucid narration makes it more absorbing. I admire the author's ability to utilise a stray opportunity like the visit to Patna to explain a historical context. The moral he has drawn in the concluding remarks is worth pondering over.

  5. You are right that GOL GHAR WAS BUILT FOR STORING GRAINS, but it is wrong to say that it was never used as granary. It was used in British period and even today it is as granary by Food Corporation of India.

  6. Is it symbolising emptyness of Bihar?(I mean development of Bihar uptill take over from Nithish Kumar0

  7. Fantastic. Thought provoking...

    R Jagannathan