BILASPUR, a town and district of British India in the Chhattisgarh division of the Central Provinces. The town is situated on the right bank of the river Arpa. It is said to have been founded by a fisherwoman named Bilasa in the 17th century, and it still retains her name. The place, however, came into note only after 1741, the year of the Mahratta invasion (see below), when a Mahratta official took up his abode there and began to build a fort which was never completed. In 1862 it was made the headquarters of the district. The population in 1901 was 18,937. It is an important junction on the Bengal-Nagpur railway, where the two lines from the west meet on their way to Calcutta, 255 m. from Nagpur.
The District Of Bilaspur has an area of 7602 sq. M. It forms the upper half of the basin of the river Mahanadi. It is almost enclosed on the north, west and east by ranges of hills, while its southern boundary is generally open and accessible, well cultivated, and closely dotted with villages embedded in groups of fruit trees. The principal hills are - (1) the Maikal range, situated in the north-western extremity of the district; (2) a chain of hills forming part of the Vindhyan range, on the north; (3) the Korba hills, an off-shoot of the Vindhyas, on the eastern boundary; and (4) the Sonakhan block of hills, in the vicinity of the Mahanadi river. The Mahanadi is the principal river of the district, and governs the whole drainage and river system of the surrounding country. It takes its rise in a mountainous region which is described as the wildest of all wild parts of the Central Provinces, crosses the Bilaspur boundary near Seorinarain, and after a course of 25 m. in the south-eastern extremity of the district enters Sambalpur district. Within Bilaspur the river is everywhere navigable for six months in the year. Minor rivers are the Sakri, Hamp, Tesua, Agar, Maniari, Arpa, Kharod, Lilagar, Jonk and Bareri. The most important affluents of the Mahanadi are the Seonath and Hasdu. Besides the natural water supply afforded by the rivers, Bilaspur abounds in tanks. There are large forest areas, those belonging to the government covering over 600 sq. m. Sal (Shorea robusta) is the chief timber tree.
Bilaspur, which was formerly a very isolated tract, is now traversed in three directions by lines of the Bengal-Nagpur railway. It suffered severely from the famine of 1896-1897. In 1897 the general death-rate was as high as 90 per thousand, rising to 297 in Bilaspur town. It suffered no less severely in 1900, when in May the number of persons relieved rose to onefourth of the total population.
In 1901 the population was 1,012,972, showing a decrease of 13%, compared with an increase of 14% in the preceding decade. In 1906, however, the new district of Drug was formed, which took away 739 sq. m. from Bilaspur; the population on this reduced area of Bilaspur in 1901 was 917,240.
Among the Hindu inhabitants of the district, the Chamars and Pankas deserve particular notice. The former, who form the shoemaker and leather-dealing caste of the Hindu community, had always been held in utter contempt by the other Hindu castes. But between 1820 and 1830 a religious movement, having for its object their freedom from the trammels of caste, was inaugurated by a member of the caste, named Ghasi Das, who preached the unity of God and the equality of men. Ghasi Das gave himself out as a messenger of God; he prohibited the adoration of idols, and enjoined the worship of the Supreme Being without any visible sign or representation. The followers of the new faith call themselves Satnamis, or the worshippers of Satnam or God. They do not keep the Hindu festivals and they defy the contempt of the Brahmans. Ghasi Das, the founder of the faith, was their first high priest. He died in 1850; his son succeeded him, but was assassinated (it was said by the Hindus), and the grandson succeeded him. The Pankas, who form about a sixth of the population, are all Kabirpanthis, or followers of Kabir, a religious reformer of the 15th century. There is no great difference between the Kabir Pankas and the Satnamis. They both abstain from meat and liquor, marry at the age of puberty, ordinarily celebrate their ceremonies through the agency of the elders of their own caste and bury their dead. The Pankas worship the Supreme Being under the name of Kabir, and the Chamars under the name of Satnam; while each community has a high priest to whom reverence is paid. At present the majority of the Pankas are cultivators, though formerly all were weavers. The Gonds are the most numerous among the aboriginal tribes, but so great an intermixture has taken place between them and the Hindu races that they have lost their language and most of their ethnical characteristics, such as the flat forehead, squat nose, prominent nostril, dark skin, &c., and are scarcely distinguishable from the other classes of the Hindu labouring population. In addition to some of the Hindu deities which they worship, the Gonds have their own gods - Bara Deva and Dula Deva. The Kanwars are the next largest section of the aboriginal population. The upper class among them claim to be Rajputs, and are divided into numerous septs. Although an aboriginal tribe, the census returns them as a Hindu caste. All the northern landholders of Bilaspur belong to this tribe, which consequently occupies an influential position.
The chief wealth of the district consists in its agricultural produce. Rice, wheat, pulses, millet, mustard, oil-seeds and cotton are the chief crops. Rice, the chief export, is sent to Bombay, Berar and northern India. The tussur silk industry is of considerable importance, and the silk is reputed the best in the Central Provinces. Sal and other timber is exported. Lac is sent in large quantities to Calcutta and Mirzapur. Coal and iron are the chief minerals; sandstone for building purposes is quarried near Bilaspur and Seorinarain. Among local industries the most important is the weaving trade.
The early history of the district is very obscure. From remote ages it was governed by kings of the Haihai dynasty of Ratanpur and Raipur, known as the Chhattisgarh rajas, on account of thirty-six forts (garbs), of which they were the lords. A genealogical list of kings of this dynasty was carefully kept up to the fifty-fifth representative in the year 1741, when the country was seized without a struggle by the Mahrattas of Nagpur. From 1818 to 1830 Bilaspur came under the management of the British government, the Mahratta chief of Nagpur being then a minor. In 1854 the country finally lapsed to the British government, the chief having died without issue. During the Sepoy mutiny a hill chief of the district gave some trouble, but he was speedily captured and executed.
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