Saturday, April 19, 2014

A not-so-great hedge

Many would have heard about the "Great Hedge of India" or the book on it by Roy Moxham. This was supposedly a British innovation started in 1803, meant primarily to block the free movement (a.k.a. "smuggling") of salt so as to be able to impose a salt tax or customs duty. It was also referred to as the  "Customs Hedge" (e.g. in Hume's Nests and Eggs ... ). The idea of live hedges appears however to be much older in India and is probably lifted from the Mysore and Madras regions.

Bound-Hedge, s. A corruption of boundary-hedge, and applied in old military writers to the thick plantation of bamboo or prickly-pear which used to surround native forts.
 1792-"A Bound Hedge, formed of a wide belt of thorny plants (at Seringapatam)."- Wilks, Historical Sketches, iii. 217. [Hobson-Jobson]

Dr. M.B. Krishna recently forwarded an old map of Bangalore (from the British Library collection)  made in 1800 by a certain James Ross (more on this man in the footnote) under the command of Colin Mackenzie (who pops up yet again!) and it shows a nearly circular hedge marked as the "Bound Hedge of the Cusba of Bangalore". A little research showed that this defence was a widespread practice in the Mysore and Coromandel regions. Large cacti and some Euphorbia patches are found around the Nandi Hills and Savandurga and it is possible that some of them are really old remnants worthy of special protection. The hedge around Bangalore is perhaps less known.

Here is the relevant part of this very interesting map. The lake at the top with the bund along the road is presumably Hebbal lake. "Yesmunjepoor" is probably Yeshwanthpur.

The Bound Hedge of the Cusba of Bangalore (1800)

It seems like Bangalore just grew over this leaving no remnants of this hedge. It would seem like the hedge either passed through or went very close to the campus of the Indian Institute of Science. There were some patches of Acacia and bad land that may have been part of this but it is also likely that some of these were cleared up to become parts of roads that we have today. 

Looking up more on this "bound hedge" led to several bits and it seems to be very specific to India. Most deal with the "bound hedge" around Tipu's fort at Srirangapatnam or the one around Pondicherry. Sidney (1868) writes about the "bound hedge" around Madras, which apparently was being extended around 1758 according to Barlow (1921) but may have been even older as it finds mention in 1748 in the diary of Ananda Ranga Pillai.

It is said that the town of Conjevaram was surrounded by a bound hedge "chiefly of agave americana" (Hamilton, 1820) but that sounds like an unlikely jump for a New World plant for that point of time. For a more detailed botanical description of the bound hedge at Srirangapatnam, see Pennant:

"The Bound hedge, the frequent concomitant of the fortresses of Hindoostan, appears here in great strength. It is the practice in the Polygar system of defence, and copied by the civilized natives from the wild warriors of the forests. Of the latter, the fort of Calicoil and that of Palam Courchy are strong examples.... These local defences are formed of every thorny tree or caustic plant of the climate. Palmira trees, or the Borassus flabelliformis, are the primary. These are planted to the depth of from thirty to fifty feet. In the interstices of the trees, which are very closely placed, are confusedly sown or set, the following plants. Pandanus odoratissimus, or wild pine; see my preceding volume, p.241; Cactus tuna, Euphorbia Tiraculla, or milky hedge. The juice of this is so caustic as to scald not only the human skin, but the hide of a horse, on whom it may fall in forcing through this infernal hedge. Several other sorts of Euphorbia; The Aloe littoralis of Koenig, Convolvulus muricatus, and other Convolvuli. The Mimosa cinerea, horrida, instia, and another, as yet undescribed, armed with most dreadful thorns. The Guiliadina unite their powers; intermixed is the Guiliadina Bonducella, G. bonduc, and another not laid before the public, to which Koenig gives the epithet lacinians, which it fully merits. The Calamus rotang, or rattan, and the Arundo bambo, often assist in the impenetrability. The last is remarked to be admirable for the purpose, since nothing equals it in resisting the edge of the ax, or the subtile fury of fire. ..."
Note: I have unfortunately not yet actually read Moxham's book and would like to know if he mentions bound hedges. There is also apparently an MS by William Sargeant on the topic.

25 May 2014: James Ross (aged 23) was apparently someone who ran afoul of his superiors. He was one among several "Native boys" (India born Europeans) who had been trained at the surveying school in Madras. He was accused of several misdeeds during his service. Hunting instead of doing his work, mistreating servants and others and last but not least of seducing a dancing girl at Nanjangud. His superior John Mather ordered him to release the girl from the home the pair had been found in and Ross threatened violence. Ross was finally sent back to Madras with an armed escort! (Robb, 1998)

October 2014: I met Roy Moxham in London on 11 August 2014 and he was aware of bound-hedges.

Further reading


  1. Kudos for this wonderful blog. Seeing the quality of this blog I am happy I abandoned writing mine last year.

    1. You should write, regardless of what the writings of others looks like. Pick the language you prefer, even better if you choose one that is not a dominant one...