Lower Bengal exhibits the two typical stages in the life of a great river. In the northern districts the rivers run along the valleys, receive the drainage from the country on either side, absorb broad tributaries and rush forward Rivers. with an ever-increasing volume. But near the centre of the provinces the rivers enter upon a new stage of their career. Their main channels bifurcate, and each new stream so created throws off its own set of distributaries to right and left. The country which they thus enclose and intersect forms the delta of Bengal. Originally conquered by the fluvial deposits from the sea, it now stretches out as a vast dead level, in which the rivers find their velocity checked, and their current no longer able to carry along the silt which they have brought down from northern India. The streams, accordingly, deposit their alluvial burden in their channels and upon their banks, so that by degrees their beds rise above the level of the surrounding country. In this way the rivers in the delta slowly build themselves up into canals, which every autumn break through or overflow their margins, and leave their silt upon the adjacent flats. Thousands of square miles in Lower Bengal annually receive a top-dressing of virgin soil from the Himalayas,—a system of natural manuring which renders elaborate tillage a waste of labour, and defies the utmost power of over-cropping to exhaust its fertility. As the rivers creep farther down the delta, they become more and more sluggish, and their bifurcations and interfacings more complicated. The last scene of all is a vast amphibious wilderness of swamp and forest, amid whose solitudes their network of channels insensibly merges into the sea. The rivers, finally checked by the sea, deposit their remaining silt, which emerges as banks or blunted promontories, or, after a year’s battling with the tide, adds a few feet or it may be a few inches to the foreshore.
The Ganges gives to the country its peculiar character and aspect. About 200 m. from its mouth it spreads out into numerous branches, forming a large delta, composed, where it borders on the sea, of a labyrinth of creeks and rivers, running through the dense forests of the Sundarbans, and exhibiting during the annual inundation the appearance of an immense sea. At this time the rice fields to the extent of many hundreds of square miles are submerged. The scene presents to a European eye a panorama of singular novelty and interest—rice fields covered with water to a great depth; the ears of grain floating on the surface; the stupendous embankments, which restrain without altogether preventing the excesses of the inundations; and peasants going out to their daily work with their cattle in canoes or on rafts. The navigable streams which fall into the Ganges intersect the country in every direction and afford great facilities for internal communication. In many parts boats can approach by means of lakes, rivulets and water-courses to the door of almost every cottage. The lower region of the Ganges is the richest and most productive portion of Bengal, abounding in valuable produce. The other principal rivers in Bengal are the Sone, Gogra, Gandak, Kusi, Tista; the Hugli, formed by the junction of the Bhagirathi and Jalangi, and farther to the west, the Damodar and Rupnarayan; and in the south-west, the Mahanadi or great river of Orissa. In a level country like Bengal, where the soil is composed of yielding and loose materials, the courses of the rivers are continually shifting from the wearing away of their different banks, or from the water being turned off by obstacles in its course into a different channel. As this channel is gradually widened the old bed of the river is left dry. The new channel into which the river flows is of course so much land lost, while the old bed constitutes an accession to the adjacent estates. Thus, one man’s property is diminished, while that of another is enlarged or improved; and a distinct branch of jurisprudence has grown up, the particular province of which is the definition and regulation of the alluvial rights alike of private property and of the state.
Geology.—The greater part of Bengal is occupied by the alluvial deposits of the Ganges, but in the south-west rises the plateau of Chota Nagpur composed chiefly of gneissic rocks. The great thickness of the Gangetic alluvium is shown by a borehole at Calcutta which was carried to a depth of about 460 ft. below the present level of the sea without entering any marine deposit. Over the surface of the gneissic rocks are scattered numerous basins of Gondwana beds. Some of these are undoubtedly faulted into their present positions, and to this they owe their preservation. In the Rajmahal Hills basaltic lava flows are interbedded with the Gondwana deposits, and in the Karharbari coalfield the Gondwana beds are traversed by dikes of mica-peridotite and basalt, which are supposed to be of the same age as the Rajmahal lavas. The Gondwana series is economically of great importance. It includes numerous seams of coal, many of which are worked on an extensive scale (at Giridih, Raniganj, &c.). The quality of the coal is good, but unfortunately it contains a large amount of ash, the average being as high as 17%.
People.—In the sub-provinces under the lieutenant-governor of Bengal dwell a great congeries of peoples, of widely diverse origin, speaking different languages and representing far separated eras of civilization. The province, in fact, became so unwieldy that this was the chief reason for its partition in 1905. The people exhibit every stage of human progress, and every type of human enlightenment and superstition from the educated classes to primitive hill tribes. On the same bench of a Calcutta college sit youths trained up in the strictest theism, others indoctrinated in the mysteries of the Hindu trinity and pantheon, with representatives of every link in the chain of superstition—from the harmless offering of flowers before the family god to the cruel rites of Kali, whose altars in the most civilized districts of Bengal, as lately as the famine of 1866, were stained with human blood. Indeed, the very word Hindu is one of absolutely indeterminate meaning. The census officers employ it as a convenient generic to include 42 millions of the population of Bengal, comprising elements of transparently distinct ethnical origin, and separated from each other by their language, customs and religious rites. But Hinduism, understood even in this wide sense, represents only one of many creeds and races found within Bengal. The other great historical cultus, which during the last twelve centuries did for the Semitic peoples what Christianity accomplished among the European Aryans, has won to itself one-fifth of the population of Bengal. The Mahommedans number some 9,000,000 in Bengal, but the great bulk of their numbers was transferred to Eastern Bengal and Assam. They consist largely of the original inhabitants of the country, who were proselytized by the successive Pathan and Mogul invasions. In the face of great natural catastrophes, such as river inundations, famines, tidal waves and cyclones of the lower provinces of Bengal, the religious instinct works with a vitality unknown in European countries. Until the British government stepped in with its police and canals and railroads, between the people and what they were accustomed to consider the dealings of Providence, scarcely a year passed without some terrible manifestation of the power and the wrath of God. Mahratta invasions from central India, piratical devastations on the sea-board, banditti who marched about the interior in bodies of 50,000 men, floods which drowned the harvests of whole districts, and droughts in which a third of the population starved to death, kept alive a sense of human powerlessness in the presence of an omnipotent fate. Under the Mahommedans a pestilence turned the capital into a silent wilderness, never again to be re-peopled. Under British rule it is estimated that 10 millions perished within the Lower Provinces alone in the famine of 1769-1770; and the first surveyor-general of Bengal entered on his maps a tract of many hundreds of square miles as bare of villages and “depopulated by the Maghs.” But since the advent of British administration the history of Bengal has substantially been a record of prosperity; the teeming population of its river valleys is one of the densest in the world, and the purely agricultural districts of Saran and Muzaffarpur in the Patna division support over 900 persons to the square mile, a number hardly surpassed elsewhere except in urban areas.
Language.—Excluding immigrants the languages spoken by the people of Bengal belong to one or other of four linguistic