How East India Company Divided North & South India With 4000 Kms Living Wall Of Trees

Called the Inland Customs Line, the East India Company divided North and South India with a 4000 kms long living wall of trees to maintain its Salt Monopoly. This wall of trees was 8 to 12 feet in height and 4 to 14 feet thick. After the Great Wall of China this was the longest structure made from vegetation. The hedge was routinely set on fire by revolting Indian sepoys to fund the War of Independence.

How East India Company Divided North & South India With 4000 Kms Living Wall Of Tress
How East India Company Divided North & South India With 4000 Kms Living Wall Of Tress. ILLUSTRATION: NIGEL SUSSMAN

Great Hedge of India

Dividing the plains of the north from the peninsular south, the Great Hedge of India or the Indian Salt Hedge was a ‘living wall’ running from Layyah on River Indus to Multan, Jalalpur, Pirwala, Fazilka, Hissar, Delhi, Agra, Etawah, Jhansi, Sagar, Khandwa till Burhanpur on the River Tapti.

The route of the 1870s Inland Customs Line (red) and Great Hedge (green)
The route of the 1870s Inland Customs Line (red) and Great Hedge (green)

In 1878, it was reported as “410 miles of the green hedge, 371 miles of the dry hedge, 298 miles of a combined green and dry hedge, six and one-third miles of a stone wall, a few ditches and some segment as ‘insufficiently covered’”. This wall of trees was 8 to 12 feet in height and 4 to 14 feet thick. After the Great Wall of China this was the longest structure made from vegetation.

The Salt Monopoly

The British East India Company employed various taxes to satisfy its greed during the stay in India. One of these was the Salt Tax; which was taken on the manufacture, transit, trade and sale of salt. Because sea salt constituted nearly 80% of the full commodity consumed. But, it wasn’t easy to transport this salt; usually bullock carts or draft animals were used. The salt had to be transported to the interior of the country from the coastal regions.

Salt has always been taxed lightly, even during the Mughal times it was taxed at Rs 0.3 per maund. By the end of 18th century this was raised to Rs 3.25 per maund.

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Salt revenue 1840–77
British India Salt Revenue 1840–77

The average intake of salt is 3 grams per day, with a population of 200 million in 1750, Indians bought five million maunds of salt every year. Taking the other purposes into account, this salt usage is about 3kg per person per year. This amounts to a total of 15 million maunds. This interested the East India Company to enforce regulations like the Transport of Salt Act (1879), Indian Salt Act (1882), Madras Salt Act (1884), Bombay Salt Act (1890), Indian Salt Duties Act (1908), Salt Act (1944) and so on.

With all of these Acts the company made massive profits, this making a ‘Salt monopoly’. The first year of taxation (1781-82) amassed an amount equivalent to Rs 2.96 million.

Why the Living Wall

With its increasing retail price, salt became an attractive item for smuggling. To this, Governor General Viscount Wellesley responded by erecting a series of custom houses, this was done from the year 1803. These custom houses were also further extended, but they failed to curb smuggling. This was the time when the company’s officials chose to build a physical wall.

As the construction material was not enough the company came up with the ingenious idea of building a ‘living wall’ made of vegetation. This was a continuous line of thorny trees, almost impossible to pass with pack animals or animal carts.

A large manpower was required to patrol the entire length of this ‘living wall’. Once it is claimed to have employed 14,188 men inclusive of officials, petty officers and workers.

Division of North and South India

This wall created a north-south divide. It was to the South of this line that the salt producing areas of Orissa on the Bay of Bengal in the east and Gujarat on the Arabian Sea lay. The major population centres of north and central India lay to its north.

By the end of the 18th century, the wall was along the River Indus from Attock Bridge to Layyah, then the live hedge as depicted till Burhanpur, and thereafter, following natural barriers to the east through Raipur terminated at Sambalpur on the River Mahanadi, at the border with princely states of Orissa. This was 4000 km long.

Set on fire by the Revolutionaries

Initially, thorny bushes and tree branches were placed as dead wood along the line. To prevent them from being blown away by strong winds, they were fixed with stakes. In 1868, this dead-wood hedge became a 300 km long impenetrable wall.

But this wood was exposed to insects, decay, fire and wind that required expensive constant repair. Mark Thornhill, a magistrate at Muttra during the War of Independence reported, in his book titled Indian Mutiny, that he saw a part of the Custom Hedge between Muttra and Agra being set to fire by the revolting sepoys to enable their movement.

Allan Hume the Mastermind

In 1868, Allan Hume, was the commissioner of Inland Customs. It was he who proposed the idea of a living wall. He began trials of desirable trees and selected Indian Plum, Karonda, Babol, Lal Patti and Thor. There were also wells dug and rain ponds made along the hedge to water the plants. A good road was constructed along the hedge for patrolling.

Hume transformed an irregular and patchy wood line into a formidable living wall. He remarked that his barrier was “in its most perfect form […] utterly impassable to man or beast.”

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