Famines and Relief in Pre-colonial Rajasthan

Dr Tanuja Kothiyal, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi


A popular saying in Rajasthan underlines the ever presence of famines in Rajasthan in the following manner, “My feet are in Pugal, my torso in Merta, my stomach in Bikaner, I often visit Jodhpur but I reside permanently in Jaisalmer”. Conventional wisdom in the region expects 7 years of acute scarcity in a century. Famines, like other north Indian regions, are called kaal in Rajasthan, meaning both time and death. They are classified as jalkaal, tinkaal and mahakaal, which refer to a scarcity of water, fodder and food. Wide ranging documentation of the chappaniya kaal in Rajasthan, details the acute distress experienced by local people who were forced to emigrate in large numbers, as well to consume inedible seeds and grasses, animal carcasses and hides. Relief measures in the form of distribution of food grains, food kitchens, canal construction works etc. appear to have been initiated in order to mitigate the severity of supposedly one of the worst famines in the region.

However, even though in the rich folklore of the region, famines find frequent mention, the information on pre-colonial famines is rather scant. Seventeenth and eighteenth century histories from the region, do not appear to mention any famines as major events, as nineteenth century documentation does. Numerous references to tax reliefs offered to peasants in order to prevent desertion of villages in the eighteenth century records of the Jodhpur state, however suggest the existence of an institutional system of relief.

My paper would attempt to examine the manner in which ideas about famines and relief were captured in the seventeenth and eighteenth century in Marwar or the Jodhpur state, large parts of which were arid. In this dry arid region, agriculture was rather precarious, dependent on rains and deft management of water resources. This inculcated a certain sense of preparedness and acceptance of the fact that scarcities, droughts and famines were just around the corner and could afflict any time. The popular culture of the region is abundant in sayings, which show how peasants kept a watch for signs of impending droughts. Apart from institutional mechanisms like tax reliefs and loans, endowment of large scale construction works as famine relief measures, two rather important practices existed in the region, that were embedded in the economic and socio-cultural structures of the region. The first was migration to distant regions. Marwar being an agro-pastoral region, cultivators in times of scarcity could turn to nomadic pastoralism, returning when circumstances improved to claim their right to cultivate. The second were the philanthropic measures undertaken by mercantile groups, which appear to endow practices like food kitchens in times of scarcity, indicative perhaps of certain sense of moral responsibility towards society.