What would be your choice if you had to choose between being blind and being deaf? Nine people out of ten answer this question by positively preferring deafness to blindness. And one whose good fortune it has been to contemplate, even for a moment, some fantastic fairy-like corner of India, this country of lace-like marble palaces and enchanting gardens, would willingly add to deafness, lameness of both legs, rather than lose such sights.
We are told that Saadi, the great poet, bitterly complained of his friends looking tired and indifferent while he praised the beauty and charm of his lady-love. «If the happiness of contemplating her wonderful beauty,» remonstrated he, «was yours, as it is mine, you could not fail to understand my verses, which, alas, describe in such meagre and inadequate terms the rapturous feelings experienced by every one who sees her even from a distance!»
I fully sympathize with the enamoured poet, but cannot condemn his friends who never saw his lady-love, and that is why I tremble lest my constant rhapsodies on India should bore my readers as much as Saadi bored his friends. But what, I pray you, is the poor narrator to do, when new, undreamed-of charms are daily discovered in the lady-love in question? Her darkest aspects, abject and immoral as they are, and sometimes of such a nature as to excite your horror—even these aspects are full of some wild poetry, of originality, which cannot be met with in any other country. It is not unusual for a European novice to shudder with disgust at some features of local everyday life; but at the same time these very sights attract and fascinate the attention like a horrible nightmare. We had plenty of these experiences whilst our ecole buissoniere lasted. We spent these days far from railways and from any other vestige of civilization. Happily so, because European civilization does not suit India any better than a fashionable bonnet would suit a half naked Peruvian maiden, a true «daughter of Sun,» of Cortes’ time.
All the day long we wandered across rivers and jungles, passing villages and ruins of ancient fortresses, over local-board roads between Nassik and Jubblepore, traveling with the aid of bullock cars, elephants, horses, and very often being carried in palks. At nightfall we put up our tents and slept anywhere. These days offered us an opportunity of seeing that man decidedly can surmount trying and even dangerous conditions of climate, though, perhaps, in a passive way, by mere force of habit. In the afternoons, when we, white people, were very nearly fainting with the roasting heat, in spite of thick cork topis and such shelter as we could procure, and even our native companions had to use more than the usual supplies of muslin round their heads—the Bengali Babu traveled on horseback endless miles, under the vertical rays of the hot sun, bareheaded, protected only by his thick crop of hair. The sun has no influence whatever on Bengali skulls. They are covered only on solemn occasions, in cases of weddings and great festivities. Their turbans are useless adornments, like flowers in a European lady’s hair.
Bengali Babus are born clerks; they invade all railroad stations, post and telegraph offices and Government law courts. Wrapped in their white muslin toga virilis, their legs bare up to the knees, their heads unprotected, they proudly loaf on the platforms of railway stations, or at the entrances of their offices, casting contemptuous glances on the Mahrattis, who dearly love their numerous rings and lovely earrings in the upper part of their right ears. Bengalis, unlike the rest of the Hindus, do not paint sectarian signs on their foreheads. The only trinket they do not completely despise is an expensive necklace; but even this is not common. Contrary to all expectations, the Mahrattis, with all their little effeminate ways, are the bravest tribe of India, gallant and experienced soldiers, a fact which has been demonstrated by centuries of fighting; but Bengal has never as yet produced a single soldier out of its sixty-five million inhabitants. Not a single Bengali is to be found in the native regiments of the British army. This is a strange fact, which I refused to believe at first, but which has been confirmed by many English officers and by Bengalis themselves. But with all this, they are far from being cowardly. Their wealthy classes do lead a somewhat effeminate life, but their zemindars and peasantry are undoubtedly brave. Disarmed by their present Government, the Bengali peasants go out to meet the tiger, which in their country is more ferocious than elsewhere, armed only with a club, as composedly as they used to go with rifles and swords.
Many out-of-the-way paths and groves which most probably had never before been trodden by a European foot, were visited by us during these short days. Gulab-Lal-Sing was absent, but we were accompanied by a trusted servant of his, and the welcome we met with almost everywhere was certainly the result of the magic influence of his name. If the wretched, naked peasants shrank from us and shut their doors at our approach, the Brahmans were as obliging as could be desired.
The sights around Kandesh, on the way to Thalner and Mhau, are very picturesque. But the effect is not entirely due to Nature’s beauty. Art has a good deal to do with it, especially in Mussulman cemeteries. Now they are all more or less destroyed and deserted, owing to the increase of the Hindu inhabitants around them, and to the Mussulman princes, once the rightful lords of India, being expelled. Mussulmans of the present day are badly off and have to put up with more humiliations than even the Hindus. But still they have left many memorials behind them, and, amongst others, their cemeteries. The Mussulman fidelity to the dead is a very touching feature of their character. Their devotion to those that are gone is always more demonstrative than their affection for the living members of their families, and almost entirely concentrates itself on their last abodes. In proportion as their notions of paradise are coarse and material, the appearance of their cemeteries is poetical, especially in India. One may pleasantly spend whole hours in these shady, delightful gardens, amongst their white monuments crowned with turbans, covered with roses and jessamine and sheltered with rows of cypresses. We often stopped in such places to sleep and dine. A cemetery near Thalner is especially attractive. Out of several mausoleums in a good state of preservation the most magnificent is the monument of the family of Kiladar, who was hanged on the city tower by the order of General Hislop in 1818. Four other mausoleums attracted our attention and we learned that one of them is celebrated throughout India. It is a white marble octagon, covered from top to bottom with carving, the like of which could not be found even in Pere La Chaise. A Persian inscription on its base records that it cost one hundred thousand rupees.
By day, bathed in the hot rays of the sun, its tall minaret-like outline looks like a block of ice against the blue sky. By night, with the aid of the intense, phosphorescent moonlight proper to India, it is still more dazzling and poetical. The summit looks as if it were covered with freshly fallen snow-crystals. Raising its slender profile above the dark background of bushes, it suggests some pure midnight apparition, soaring over this silent abode of destruction and lamenting what will never return. Side by side with these cemeteries rise the Hindu ghats, generally by the river bank. There really is something grand in the ritual of burning the dead. Witnessing this ceremony the spectator is struck with the deep philosophy underlying the fundamental idea of this custom. In the course of an hour nothing remains of the body but a few handfuls of ashes. A professional Brahman, like a priest of death, scatters these ashes to the winds over a river. The ashes of what once lived and felt, loved and hated, rejoiced and wept, are thus given back again to the four elements: to Earth, which fed it during such a long time and out of which it grew and developed; to Fire, emblem of purity, that has just devoured the body in order that the spirit may be rid of everything impure, and may freely gravitate to the new sphere of posthumous existence, where every sin is a stumbling block on the way to «Moksha,» or infinite bliss; to Air, which it inhaled and through which it lived, and to Water, which purified it physically and spiritually, and is now to receive its ashes into her pure bosom.
The adjective «pure» must be understood in the figurative sense of the mantram. Generally speaking, the rivers of India, beginning with the thrice sacred Ganges, are dreadfully dirty, especially near villages and towns.
In these rivers about two hundred millions of people daily cleanse themselves from the tropical perspiration and dirt. The corpses of those who are not worth burning are thrown in the same rivers, and their number is great, because it includes all Shudras, pariahs, and various other outcasts, as well as Brahman children under three years of age.
Only rich and high-born people are buried pompously. It is for them that the sandal-wood fires are lit after sunset; it is for them that mantrams are chanted, and for them that the gods are invoked. But Shudras must not listen on any account to the divine words dictated at the beginning of the world by the four Rishis to Veda Vyasa, the great theologian of Aryavarta. No fires for them, no prayers. As during his life a Shudra never approaches a temple nearer than seven steps, so even after death he cannot be put on the same level with the «twice-born.»
Brightly burn the fires, extending like a fiery serpent along the river. The dark outlines of strange, wildly-fantastical figures silently move amongst the flames. Sometimes they raise their arms towards the sky, as if in a prayer, sometimes they add fuel to the fires and poke them with long iron pitchforks. The dying flames rise high, creeping and dancing, sputtering with melted human fat and shooting towards the sky whole showers of golden sparks, which are instantly lost in the clouds of black smoke.
This on the right side of the river. Let us now see what is going on on the left. In the early hours of the morning, when the red fires, the black clouds of miasmas, and the thin figures of the fakirs grow dim and vanish little by little, when the smell of burned flesh is blown away by the fresh wind which rises at the approach of the dawn, when, in a word, the right side of the river with its ghotas plunges into stillness and silence, to be reawakened when the evening comes, processions of a different kind appear on the left bank. We see groups of Hindu men and women in sad, silent trains. They approach the river quietly. They do not cry, and have no rituals to perform. We see two men carrying something long and thin, wrapped in an old red rug. Holding it by the head and feet they swing it into the dirty, yellowish waves of the river. The shock is so violent that the red rug flies open and we behold the face of a young woman tinged with dark green, who quickly disappears in the river. Further on another group; an old man and two young women. One of them, a little girl of ten, small, thin, hardly fully developed, sobs bitterly. She is the mother of a stillborn child, whose body is to be thrown in the river. Her weak voice monotonously resounds over the shore, and her trembling hands are not strong enough to lift the poor little corpse that is more like a tiny brown kitten than a human being. The old man tries to console her, and, taking the body in his own hands, enters the water and throws it right in the middle. After him both the women get into the river, and, having plunged seven times to purify themselves from the touch of a dead body, they return home, their clothes dripping with wet. In the meanwhile vultures, crows and other birds of prey gather in thick clouds and considerably retard the progress of the bodies down the river. Occasionally some half-stripped skeleton is caught by the reeds, and stranded there helplessly for weeks, until an outcast, whose sad duty it is to busy himself all his life long with such unclean work, takes notice of it, and catching it by the ribs with his long hook, restores it to its highway towards the ocean.
But let us leave the river bank, which is unbearably hot in spite of the early hour. Let us bid good-bye to the watery cemetery of the poor. Disgusting and heart-rending are such sights in the eyes of a European! And unconsciously we allow the light wings of reverie to transport us to the far North, to the peaceful village cemeteries where there are no marble monuments crowned with turbans, no sandal-wood fires, no dirty rivers to serve the purpose of a last resting place, but where humble wooden crosses stand in rows, sheltered by old birches. How peacefully our dead repose under the rich green grass! None of them ever saw these gigantic palms, sumptuous palaces and pagodas covered with gold. But on their poor graves grow violets and lilies of the valley, and in the spring evenings nightingales sing to them in the old birch-trees.
No nightingales ever sing for me, either in the neighboring groves, or in my own heart. The latter least of all.——
Let us stroll along this wall of reddish stone. It will lead us to a fortress once celebrated and drenched with blood, now harmless and half ruined, like many another Indian fortress. Flocks of green parrots, startled by our approach, fly from under every cavity of the old wall, their wings shining in the sun like so many flying emeralds. This territory is accursed by Englishmen. This is Chandvad, where, during the Sepoy mutiny, the Bhils streamed from their ambuscades like a mighty mountain torrent, and cut many an English throat.
Tatva, an ancient Hindu book, treating of the geography of the times of King Asoka (250-300 B.C.), teaches us that the Mahratti territory spreads up to the wall of Chandvad or Chandor, and that the Kandesh country begins on the other side of the river. But English people do not believe in Tatva or in any other authority and want us to learn that Kandesh begins right at the foot of Chandor hillocks.——