The history of famines in Kashmir is a long one. They didn’t usually occur due to the scarcity of water but as a result of floods, excessive rains and heavy snowfall. Fires and earthquake also worsened the situation. These famines paralyzed common life and led the migration of the peasantry. Kingdoms (except a few), throughout history, failed to contain them as no technical measures were taken. Most of the kings didn’t build any bunds, neither dredged the rivers. Building canals and diverting water of Jhelum during the floods rarely took place. These rulers rarely opened up their grain stocks to the common masses which added to innumerable deaths. Even if they did, most of the grains never reached the needy and poor.
Kashmir was for long vulnerable to floods owing to which it yielded little produce. Lalitaditya had with great exertions, drained out some water from the Valley after which it produced to some extent, better crops. After him, however, the drainage operations were neglected and floods were devastating the country as frequently as ever. The price of grain had consequently gone up in famine-stricken areas. Avantivarman and people were in veritable despair. The king was very much grieved and thought of several plans for the relief of the people but kept failing. At that time appeared an engineer, named Suyya, who claimed in the circles of scholars to know the remedy, though he could not do anything without money. Avantivarman heard of this and became interested. Suyya was provided with cash. He used this to get the desperate local people to drag rocks brought down by avalanches out of the Vitasta in its gorge, so that the river flowed more rapidly and the flood-waters drained off. After two or three days he had the river dammed for a week with causeway of stones so that the bed could be completely cleared, whilst walks were built to prevent further falls of rocks from rolling into it.
When the rocks were removed, the drainage was completed and much additional land reclaimed. Elaborate works were then carried out to secure a regular flow in all the rivers and proper irrigation of the land, including changing the courses of some rivers, making embankments and canals and establishing new villages.
During the reign of Partha, in 917-18 AD a famine occurred owing to the autumn rice crop having been destroyed by floods and the wrath of nature was added. People perished of starvation in thousands. The greedy ministers took advantage of this catastrophe also; they made fortunes by selling stores of grain at exorbitant prices.
During the reign of Harsha, in 1099 AD fresh calamities befell the people of Kashmir. While plague was raging and robbers everywhere infesting the country, there occurred a disastrous flood which carried off the ripened crops. A severe famine followed adding to the universal distress. The fiscal exactions of the king continued.
People were also responsible for a severe famine in the Valley during the reign of Sussalaz (1112-1127 ), when the forces of the Damaras besieged the city of Srinagar and set fire to its food stores which had been brought into the city in lieu of land revenue. Even the nobles perished quickly in this famine.
Sultan Ala’ud-Din (1345) brought back the peasants to the lands, from which they had fled during Zulju’s invasion, and also repopulated the towns. The same year that he became the Sultan, the Valley, owing to the untimely rains which destroyed the crops, suffered from a severe famine. But he did all he could to alleviate the sufferings of his subjects.
Towards the end of Qutb’ud-din’s reign (1373–1389), a severe famine took place, but the Sultan did his best to relieve the sufferings of the people by distributing among them food, grain and money. He also performed a yagna, distributed large amounts of gifts to the Brahmans and gave out cooked food to the starving population.
During the reign of Zain-ul-Abadin, in 1460, Kashmir was subjected to a severe famine caused by a heavy fall of snow which destroyed the rice crop. This brought great misery to the people who were compelled to subsist on roots and leaves; and as a result, large numbers died of starvation. The price of rice rose five times its original; and even at that price, it wasn’t easily available. Taking advantage of the scarcity, grain merchants made huge profits. The Sultan was greatly distressed and did his best to alleviate the sufferings of his subjects. He distributed rice from his own stores and after the famine was over, he canceled the debts which the people had incurred in order to buy rice. Merchants who had taken valuables from the people in exchange for grain were ordered to return the articles to their owners and receive money for the grains from the Sultan. Hardly had the inhabitants of the Valley recovered from the effects of the famine when, two years later, they fell victim to another calamity. This was the flood caused by a severe rainfall. Men and beasts alike perished and thousands of houses were destroyed.
Around May 1533, Kashmiris who were resisting against the Mughal invasion gained a signal victory against an unscrupulous foe, the country had suffered such enormous loss in the process, as if this was not enough nature sent them a greater calamity in the shape of a severe famine. Thousands perished of hunger.
During the reign of Sultan Ali Shah Chak, in 1576, a severe famine occurred in Kashmir which lasted for three years. The severity of the famine was so terrible that as per PNK Bamzai more than half the population of Kashmir was wiped off and even many cases of cannibalism were reported. Ali Shah was an able and just ruler, and looked after the welfare of the peasants. When the rabi crops failed owing to the heavy snowfall and caused famine in the country, he brought out his treasures and distributed them freely among the poor and needy.
The earliest reference to famines under Mughals is found in the year 1597 AD, the year Akbar visited Kashmir for the third time. The war between Chaks and Mughals had already claimed around 25,000 Kashmiri lives, peasants had abandoned their land and migrated which had lead to scarcity of food. As per Abul Fazl, the scarcity was further worsened by the famine of 1597 which destroyed almost all of the standing crops in Kashmir.
The first Europeans to visit Kashmir were Father Gerome Xavier and Benoist de Gois who had accompanied Akbar to Kashmir. Short sketches of Kashmir and its people have been recorded by Father Xavier, which were later published in Antwerp in 1605. As the valley was going through a Harsh famine, the harrowing plight of the victims as witnessed by Father Xavier were recorded by the Potuguese priest Pierre du Jarric in his interesting account of Akbar and his court:
“Many mothers were rendered destitute, and having no means of nourishing their children, exposed them for sale in the public place of the city. Moved to compassion by their pitiable sight, the Father brought many of these little one’s , who soon receiving baptism, yielded up their spirits to their Creator, A certain saracen seeing the charity of the Father towards these children brought him one of his own, but the Father gave it back to the mother, together with certain sum of money for it’s support, for he was not prepared to baptise it, seeing that, if it survived, there was little prospect of its being able to live a Christian life in this country.”
Akbar opened free kitchens near Idgah where thousands of Kashmiris were provided free meals two times a day. He also distributed gifts and temporarily removed harsh taxes. Huge amounts of grain were imported from Lahore and Sialkot during another famine of 1603 which lasted for two years.
During the reign of Jahangir, there was no famine or flood, but plague and fire took place in quick succession, devastating a considerable amount of population during 1622-24. Thousands of Kashmiris were affected, Jahangir in his memoir, Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, wrote:
“On Wednesday, the 17th, I marched 6 km and halted at the village of Barasinor (Balasinor). It has already been mentioned that the plague had appeared in Kashmir. On this day a report of the chronicler of events arrived, stating that the plague had taken firm hold of the country and that many had died. The symptoms were that the first day there was a headache and fever and much bleeding at the nose. On the second day the patient died. In the house where one person died all the inmates were carried off. Whoever went near the sick person or a dead body was affected in the same way. In one instance the dead body was thrown on the grass, and it chanced that a cow came and ate some of the grass. It died, and some dogs that had eaten its flesh also all died. Things had come to such a pass that from fear of death fathers would not approach their children, and children would not go near their fathers. A strange thing was that in the ward in which the disease began, a fire broke out and nearly 3,000 houses were burnt. During the height of the plague, one morning when the people of the city and environs got up, they saw circles on their doors. There were three large circles, and on the face of these (i.e. inside them) there were two circles of middle size and one small one. There were also other circles which did not contain any whiteness l (i.e. there were no inner circles). These figures were found on all the houses and even on the mosques. From the day when the fire took place and these circles appeared, they say there was a diminution of the plague. This has been recorded as it seems a strange affair. It certainly does not agree with the canons of reason, and my intellect cannot accept it. Wisdom is with God! I trust that the Almighty will have mercy on his sinful slaves, and that they will be altogether freed from such calamity.”
During Shah Jahan’s reign (1640), excessive rains destroyed Kharif crops, two years later a flood destroyed all the crops and created a famine-like situation in Kashmir. Around 4,000 houses were destroyed around Dal Lake. 1643 again saw a failure of crops and around 30,000 Kashmiri migrated to Lahore and requested help from Shah Jahan to rehabilitate them. Cultivators who stayed back had no seeds or cattle left. Another severe famine took a heavy toll of life in 1646 when Tarbiat Khan was the governor. Thousands of people perished and thousands migrated to the Punjab. Shah Jehan again despatched huge quantities of grain from Sialkot, Lahore and Gujarat.
In 1651 another flood led to a harsh famine but Shah Jahan was prepared this time, he imported grains from Lahore, Sialkot, and Kalanoor and distributed them among the cultivators. He also set up free-kitchens.
During the reign of Aurangzeb, there was heavy and untimely snowfall in 1664-65 which destroyed crops and led to a famine. In 1667-68 Kashmir was again hit by a famine caused by a flood and an earthquake respectively. Another famine took place in 1706 due to heavy rains and flood. Aurangzeb used to send huge amounts of money to his governors to deal with the famines which may or may not have reached the people.
During the governorship of Azam Khan (1723-24) famine raised the price of rice as high as gold. The reign of Abu Barkat Khan was even worse, two monstrous famines caused by the floods devastated the valley, black-marketers made huge profits. During the deputy governorship of Afrasiyab Khan in 1746, there were untimely rains which again destroyed the crops. 50% of the urban Kashmiri population died, 25% migrated and the remaining 25% stayed. The situation was further worsened by the exploitation at the hands of grain dealers. As per Hasan Shah, children were exchanged for food by their fathers. Dead bodies lay strewn on the ground, unburied and uncremated, to be eaten by vultures. It was a common sight to find the famished survivors crawling their way to India and dying like flies due to exhaustion and hunger. Most of the Kashmiris who were fortunate to reach the plains settled permanently there. Some of them went to Delhi and later made a mark both at the Imperial court and with its successors, the British.
Two years later another famine hit the valley, the governors, as always, couldn’t do much.
Kashmir witnessed their first famine under the Afghan rule in 1755, it was due to untimely rains, whatever crop had survived was destroyed by a huge swarm of locusts who attacked most parts of Kashmir, with no food these locusts were later boiled and eaten. The cultivators were left with no seeds or grains. Abdul Hassan Banday, the Minister of the Governor (Sukhjiwan Mal) released 100,000 Kharvar of grains for the people and 100,000 Kharvar for cultivators (including seeds).
Again in 1771-72, a famine of great intensity created by heavy rains and floods saw its effects felt in the valley of Kashmir. The standing crops along with the houses were destroyed from Maraj to Kamraj, cultivation came to a standstill. More famines occurred during the reign of Amir Khan Jawanshe, Juma Khan Azal, Atta Mohammad Khan and Mohammad Azim Khan. People continued to die of starvation.
The famine of 1831 occurred under Sher Singh (Sikh Rule), it reduced the population of Kashmir from 8,00,000 to 2,00,000. Sher Singh was later transferred and replaced by Colonel Mian Singh who brought grains and eggs from Punjab and restored normalcy.
Another famine occurred in 1864 under Gulab Singh, the probable cause of this calamity was the failure of crops and the inefficiency of Wazir Pannu, the then Governor of Kashmir. The officials were so corrupt that barely anything reached the masses. Through plenty of corn was available, the poor didn’t get enough to live. According to a report by Lawrence, not even a single Pandit died of starvation. Wazir Punnu had declared that there was no real distress and he wished no Muslin might be left alive from Srinagar to Ramban. Deaths amongst the pandits were almost nil as they were the privileged class whose official power enabled them to acquire the available grain. Wazir Pannu was later replaced by Diwan Kripa Ram who did physical checkups of godowns and found 60,000 Kharwars of rice available which was distributed freely. The Government also ordered more rice from Panjab and sold it at cheap prices temporarily. It is believed that the famine of 1864 was man-made.
The famine of 1877 lasted for two years, no part of the valley remained unaffected. Most of India was also going through the same phase. In India, it was due to the scarcity of rain but in Kashmir, it was due to heavy and untimely raining. The famine had started in August and it continued to rain for five months, there were also minor earthquakes. The crops could have been saved if cut timely but as per rules, it wasn’t allowed until the revenue assessment had been made by the government officials who were always late. The officers in charge of sale of grains also didn’t sell it to the people who needed it the most, nor in the quantity they required.
“The Kashmiri Pandits are bent on turning this situation to their advantage to the utter exclusion of their fellow needy brethren, the Kashmiri Muslims. The new scheme for shall distribution can only work if the workers are free of sectarian prejudice. Pandit enumerators exclude the names of Musalmans who deserve rations, enumerating only their fellow Pandit chakdars, moneylenders and high state officials who don’t need it.”
-POLITICAL DEPARTMENT 123/1921, JAMMU STATE ARCHIVES.
As per some reports, when the Maharaja sent turnip seeds to famine-hit-Kashmir as charity, these officials replaced them with rapeseed and started selling them to villagers. Rough terrain for transport also played its part and led to delayed imports. With nothing to eat, people started eating oil cakes, rice chaff, barks of elm, yew and even grass and roots. Everyone struggled for survival.
“But what is this oppression that I have spoken of? It is this — that at one swoop half of every man’s produce goes into the Government treasury. Half of everything, not merely of his grain, but even of the produce of his cattle, or whatever he has ; so that from each cow he must give every second year a calf to Government, and from every half-dozen of his chickens three go to the all-devouring sirkar. More than this even, his very fruit trees are watched by Government and half took for the Maharajah. A poor Kashmiri can call nothing his own. But, in reality, it is not only half a man loses, for at least another quarter is taken by the rapacious government officials who have to collect the nominal half. Shakdars, Kardars, Ziladars, soldiers, and others, all come in for their share. The wonder is, how the people exist at all.” – Dr Elmslie
Seeing no room for survival, hundreds started migrating, which was prohibited without the permission of the Maharaja, and perished on the way. The population of Srinagar war reduced from 1,27,400 to 60,000. As per G.L. Kaul only one-fifth of the population of Kashmir survived this famine. Shawl weavers who were already taxed at huge rates died in large numbers, as per Mr. Long, out of 40,000 only 4000 shawl weavers had survived. Corpses were dragged into the nearest well or hole until it was choked with dead bodies. Dogs wandered in groups to prey on human bodies. Dr. Wade and Dr. Downes of CMS rendered great service to the people of Kashmir in these times and saved thousands of lives. An eyewitness account of 1878, as left by Mr. Wade, makes an interesting reading. Among other things, it states:
“Today I have ridden through a great part of the city and saw a large number of persons especially children and women whom death has certainly marked for his own very shortly. Half a dozen times I tried to buy and distribute some kulchas—small cakes made of flour of Indian corn, rice, wheat and was often mobbed. Poor children crept from underneath the boards of the closed shops, and others from holm and corners that pariah dogs generally occupy and surrounded my pony. Pardah women and apparently most respectable men, stopped and begged and struggled for a piece of bread. I found it impossible to keep the people from thronging me or to maintain anything like order. Directly I obtained any kulcha, the hungry pressed upon me, the stronger pushing aside the weaker and all reaching forth their hands, and begging or screaming they laid hold of my coat, they took bread out of my pocket.”
Kashmir again saw the scarcity of food in 1892 due to a huge fire and outbreak of cholera. The fire had destroyed many private stores of Shali which contained a considerable amount of Grains while the outbreak of cholera caused a huge number of deaths.
In 1901, a disease took over cattle, 12,944 died of Rinderpest only. Crops also suffered due to low rain and snowfall. Two years later on 23-july-1903 a huge flood converted all of Kashmir into a huge Lake. P.N.K. Bamzai described it as:
“Measurement showed that the water level was higher by 3 feet than the flood of 1893. The Bund protecting the Dal Lake was also breached near the flood gates, the water rising to 10 feet above the high level, and inflicting immensed injury to floating gardens, houses, etc. Seven thousand dwellings went down in the neighborhood of the city, including 773 on the Dal Lake, compared with 1893, the damage to bridges was small. Only those at Khanabal and Baramulla (which later had weathered the flood of 1893) were swept away. In the Munshi Bagh, the old library, the barracks, two of the older houses and two in the Hari Singh Bagh were destroyed. The Residency, Nedous’ Hotel, all houses and offices had upwards of five feet of water in their ground-floors and people stepped out of the hotel verandah into boats. The church, with a very low plinth, suffered much the water covering the lamps chandeliers, and the only the roof being visible from the outside.”
There was again scarcity of grains in 1915 but no deaths occured and everything was brought under control.