Sunday, 3 February 2008

Roy Moxham “The Great Hedge of India” (2001)

The Great Hedge referred to in the title was constructed by the Victorians and was 2,300 miles long, the width of a motorway and either dry or living - the living part consisting of thorny trees and shrubs. It was manned by 12,000 men and was impenetrable to any prospective smugglers. In terms of length it was the distance from London to Constantinople and compared well with the Great Wall of China (which is 4,000 miles long). Roy Moxham came across a reference to the hedge in a second-hand book and was immediately curious about why he's never heard about the hedge before. After months of fruitless research in which he studied maps and countless books he started to wonder why no one had heard of the hedge. How can a 2,300 mile hedge just disappear into the mists of time! The book chronicles his research as well as his trips to India to track down the remains of the hedge. I shall not tell you if he was successful in case you want to read the book. What I will mention is that despite its enormous size the hedge was largely constructed of thorny shrubs and trees that lived no more than 60 years so once it was abandoned in the 1870s it had the potential to disappear quite quickly. The base, often an embankment, also provided a useful base for new roads between villages.

The Great Hedge was constructed as a customs barrier to allow the British to collect a tax on salt. The story of how the Victorians built the hedge (with difficulty) and the effect it had on the Indian population is fascinating. Salt was an essential ingredient of the Indian diet and the salt tax led to parts of rural India being deprived of salt. This led to widespread illness and death. Roy Moxham even had problems researching salt deprivation (doctors in the West are obviously more concerned with getting people to eat less salt!). I found the chapter on salt deprivation as interesting as the rest of the book as I didn't know such an illness existed. What I loved about this book is that there is so many different aspects to this story. On the one hand it is an entertaining travelogue, but it is also a fascinating account of the British in India.

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