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Letter X[1]

Benares[2], Prayaga (now Allahabad[3]), Nashik, Haridwar, Badrinath[4], Matura[5] – these were the sacred places of prehistoric India which we were to visit one after the other; but to visit them, not after the usual manner of tourists, a vol d'oiseau[6], with a cheap guide-book in our hands and a cicerone[7] to weary our brains, and wear out our legs. We were well aware that all these ancient places are thronged with traditions and overgrown with the weeds of popular fancy, like ruins of ancient castles covered with ivy; that the original shape of the building is destroyed by the cold embrace of these parasitic plants, and that it is as difficult for the archaeologist to form an idea of the architecture of the once perfect edifice, judging only by the heaps of disfigured rubbish that cover the country, as for us to select from out the thick mass of legends good wheat from weeds. No guides and no cicerone could be of any use whatever to us. The only thing they could do would be to point out to us places where once there stood a fortress, a castle, a temple, a sacred grove, or a celebrated town, and then to repeat legends which came into existence only lately, under the Mussulman rule. As to the undisguised truth, the original history of every interesting spot, we should have had to search for these by ourselves, assisted only by our own conjectures.

Modern India does not present a pale shadow of what it was in the pre-Christian era, nor even of the Hindustan of the days of Akbar, Shah-Jehan and Aurangzeb. The neighborhood of every town that has been shattered by many a war, and of every ruined hamlet, is covered with round reddish pebbles, as if with so many petrified tears of blood. But, in order to approach the iron gate of some ancient fortress, it is not over natural pebbles that it is necessary to walk, but over the broken fragments of some older granite remains, under which, very often, rest the ruins of a third town, still more ancient than the last. Modern names have been given to them by Mussulmans, who generally built their towns upon the remains of those they had just taken by assault. The names of the latter are sometimes mentioned in the legends, but the names of their predecessors had completely disappeared from the popular memory even before the Mussulman invasion. Who and when will be able to penetrate into these secrets of the centuries ?!..

Knowing all this beforehand, we resolved not to lose patience, even though we had to devote whole years to explorations of the same places, in order to obtain better historical information, and facts less disfigured than those obtained by our predecessors, who had to be contented with a choice collection of naive lies, poured forth from the mouth of some frightened savage, or some Brahmin, unwilling to speak and desirous of disguising the truth. As for ourselves, we were differently situated. We were helped by a whole society of educated Hindus, who were as deeply interested in the same questions as ourselves. We already have a positive promise to be admitted to at least some secrets of their ancient keepers, the mahants[8], hear not a legend, but a faithful translation of ancient, miraculously surviving chronicles and charters of some cities.

The history of India has long since faded from the memories of her sons, and is an absolute mystery to her conquerors, but doubtless it still exists, though, perchance, only partly, in manuscripts that are jealously concealed from every European eye. This has been shown by some pregnant words, spoken by Brahmins on their rare occasions of friendly expansiveness. Thus, Colonel Tod, whom I have already quoted several times, is said to have been told by a mahant (abbot) of an ancient pagoda-monastery: “Sahib, you waste your time in vain researches. India of bellati (foreigners) is before you, but you will never see the gupta (i. e. secret) India (secret). We are the guardians of her mysteries, and would rather cut out each other's tongues than speak.”

Yet, nevertheless, Tod succeeded in learning a good deal. It must be borne in mind that no Englishman has ever been loved so well by the natives as this old and courageous friend of the Maharani of Udaipur, who [Tod], in his turn, was so friendly towards the natives that the humblest of them never saw a trace of contempt in his demeanour. He wrote before ethnology had reached its present stage of development, but his book is still an authority on everything concerning Rajasthan. Though the author's opinion of his work was not very high, though he stated that “it is nothing but a conscientious collection of materials for a future historian,” but in this book there is, in addition, a lot of things that no one of British officials could reach, and will ever reach.

Let our friends smile incredulously. Let our enemies laugh at our pretensions to “penetrate the world-mysteries of Aryavarta,” as a certain critic recently expressed himself. However pessimistic may be our critics' views, yet, even in the event of our conclusions not proving more trustworthy than those of Fergusson, Wilson, Wheeler, and the rest of the archeologists and Sanskritists who have written about India, still, I hope, they will not be less susceptible of proof. We are daily reminded that, like unreasonable children, we have undertaken a task before which archaeologists and historians, aided by all the influence and wealth of the Government, have shrunk dismayed; that we have taken upon ourselves a work which has proved to be beyond the capacities even of the Royal Asiatic Society...

Let it be so. But it is easy to remember, as we ourselves remember, that not very long ago a poor Hungarian, who not only had no means of any kind but was almost a beggar, traveled on foot to Tibet through unknown and dangerous countries, led only by the love of learning and the eager wish to pour light on the historical origin of his nation.[9] The result was that inexhaustible mines of literary treasures were discovered. Philology, which til then had wandered in the Egyptian darkness of etymological labyrinths, and was about to ask the sanction of the scientific world to one of the wildest of theories, suddenly stumbled on the thread of Ariadne. Philology discovered, at last, that the Sanskrit language is, if not the forefather, at least – to use the language of Max Müller – “the elder brother” of all ancient languages. Thanks to the extraordinary zeal of Alexander Csoma de Koros, Tibet yielded a language the literature of which was totally unknown. He partly translated it and partly analyzed and explained it. His translations have shown the scientific world that (1) the originals of the Zend-Avesta, the sacred scriptures of the sun-worshippers[10], of Tripitaka[11], that of the Buddhists, and of Aytareya-Brahmana[12], that of the Brahmins, were written in one and the same Sanskrit language; (2) that all these three languages – Zend, Nepalese, and the modern Brahmin Sanskrit – are more or less dialects of the first; (3) that old Sanskrit is the origin of all the less ancient Indo-European languages, as well as of the modern European tongues and dialects; (4) that the three chief religions of heathendom – Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Brahmanism – are mere heresies of the monotheistic teachings of the Vedas, which does not prevent them from being real ancient religions and not modern falsifications.

The moral of all this is evident. A poor traveler, without either money or protection, succeeded in gaining admittance to the Lamaseries of Tibet and to the sacred literature of the isolated tribe which inhabits it, probably because he treated the Mongolians and the Tibetans as his brothers and not as an inferior race – a feat which could never be accomplished by generations of scientists. One cannot help feeling ashamed of humanity and especially of science when one thinks that he whose labors first gave to science such precious results, he who was the first sower of such an abundant harvest, remained, almost until the day of his death, a poor and obscure worker. On his way from Tibet he walked to Calcutta without a penny in his pocket. At last Csoma de Koros became known, and his name began to be pronounced with honor and praise whilst he was dying in one of the poorest parts of Calcutta. Being already very ill, he wanted to get back to Tibet, and started on foot again through Sikhim, but died in Darjeeling[13], where he was buried.

It is needless to say we are fully aware that what we have undertaken is simply impossible within the limits of ordinary magazine articles. All we hope to accomplish is to lay the foundation stone of an edifice, whose further progress must be entrusted to future generations. In order to combat successfully the theories worked out by two generations of Orientalists, half a century of diligent labor would be required. And, in order to replace these theories with new ones, we must get new facts, facts founded not on the chronology and false evidence of scheming Brahmins, whose interest is to feed the ignorance of European Sanskritists (as, unfortunately, was the experience of Lieutenant Wilford[14] and Louis Jacolliot), but on indubitable proofs that are to be found in inscriptions as yet undeciphered. The clue to these inscriptions Europeans do not possess, because, as I have already stated, it is guarded in MSS. which are not less old as the inscriptions and which are almost out of reach. Even in case our hopes are realized and we obtain this clue, a new difficulty will arise before us: we shall have to begin a systematic refutation, page by page, of many a volume of hypotheses published by the Royal Asiatic Society. A work like this might be accomplished by dozens of tireless, never-resting Sanskritists – a class which, even in India, is almost as rare as white elephants.[15]

Therefore, when describing the caves and other monuments of the archaic era, I restrict myself to a simple indication of the most common ideas and generally accepted opinions with archaeologists regarding these places. In any case, I demand privileges to point out the discord between the venerable scholars, their contradictory testimonies and theories, proving certain as two and two make four how little rights they still have, in spite of all their authority, to demand some super attention to their above said theories. I hope to prove with incontrovertible facts how little “archaeologists” have come to any plausible conclusion regarding at least the cave temples of Nashik.

Having our heads filled with such thoughts, we, that is to say, one American, three Europeans, and three natives, occupied a whole carriage of the Great Indian Peninsular Railroad on our way to Nashik, one of the oldest towns in India, as I have already mentioned, and the most sacred of all in the eyes of the inhabitants of the Western Presidency. Nashik borrowed its name from the Sanskrit word nasika, which means nose. An epic legend assures us that on this very spot Lakshman, the eldest brother of the deified King Rama, cut off the nose of the giantess Sarpnaka, sister of King Ravana, who stole Sita (the “Helen of Troy” of the Hindus).

The railroad train stops six miles [9.66 km] from the town and we have arrived at night, so we had to finish our journey in six two-wheeled, gilded chariots, called ekka, and drawn by bullocks. It was one o'clock A.M., but, in spite of the darkness of the hour, the horns of the animals were gilded and adorned with flowers, and brass bangles tinkled on their legs. Our way lay through ravines overgrown with jungle, where, as our drivers hastened to please us, tigers and other four-footed misanthropes of the forest played hide-and-seek. However, we had no opportunity of making the acquaintance of the tigers, but enjoyed instead a concert of a whole community of jackals. They followed us step by step, piercing our ears with shrieks, wild laughter and barking. These animals are annoying, but so cowardly that, though numerous enough to devour, not only all of us, but our gold-horned bullocks too, none of them dared to come nearer than the distance of a few steps. Every time the long whip, our weapon against snakes, alighted on the back of one of them, the whole horde disappeared with unimaginable noise. Nevertheless, the drivers did not withhold with a single one of their superstitious precautions against tigers. They chanted incantation prayers – “mantrams” in unison, spread betel over the road as a token of their respect to the “Raja” of the forest, and, after every couplet, made the bullocks kneel and bow their heads in honor of the great gods. Needless to say, the ekka, as light as a nutshell, threatened each time to fall with its passenger over the horns of the bullocks. We had to endure this agreeable way of traveling for five hours under a very dark sky. We reached the “Inn of the Pilgrims” in the morning at six o'clock.

The real cause of Nashik's sacredness, as we have learnt, is not the mutilated trunk of the giantess, but the situation of the town on the banks of the Godavari, quite close to the sources of this river which, for some reason or other, are called by the natives Ganga (Ganges). It is to this magic name, probably, that the town owes its numerous magnificent temples, and the selectness of the Brahmins who inhabit the banks of the river. Twice a year pilgrims flock here to pray, and on these solemn occasions the number of the visitors exceeds that of the inhabitants of Nashik (35,000). Very picturesque, but equally dirty, are the houses of the rich Brahmins built from the center of the town to the Godavari banks. A whole forest of narrow pyramidal temples spreads on both sides of the river. All these new pagodas are built on the ruins of those destroyed by the fanaticism of the Mussulmans. A legend informs us that most of them rose from atoms of the ashes of the tail of the monkey god Hanuman. Retreating from Lanka, where the wicked Ravana, having anointed the brave hero's tail with some combustible stuff set it on fire, Hanuman, with a single leap through the air, reached Nashik, his motherland. And here the noble adornment of the monkey's back, burned almost entirely during the voyage, crumbled into ashes, and from every sacred atom of these ashes, fallen to the ground, there rose a temple... And, indeed, when seen from the mountain, these numberless pagodas, scattered in a most curious anti-architectural disorderly way, look as if they had really been thrown down by handfuls from the sky. Not only the river banks and the surrounding country, but every little island, every rock peeping from the water is covered with temples... And every temple has a legend that every Brahmin from the mass of these hereditary cheats tells in his own way, hoping, of course, for a proper reward.

Here, as everywhere else in India, Brahmins are divided into two sects – worshippers of Shiva and worshippers of Vishnu – and between the two there is rivalry and warfare centuries old. Though the neighborhood of the Godavari shines with a twofold fame derived from its being the birthplace of Hanuman and the theatre of the first great deeds of Rama,[16] the incarnation of Vishnu, it possesses as many temples dedicated to Shiva as to Vishnu. The material of which the pagodas consecrated to Shiva are constructed is black basalt. It is the colour like the one of the burnt tail of Rama's ally, which serves as an apple of discord. From the very first days of their rule the English inherited endless lawsuits between the fighting sectarians, cases decided in one law-court only to be transferred on appeal to another, and always having their origin in this ill-omened tail and its pretensions. This tail is a mysterious deus ex machina[17] that directs all the thoughts of the Nashik Brahmins pro and contra[18]. On the subject of this tail were written more reams of paper and petitions than in the quarrel about the goose between Ivan Ivanych and Ivan Nikiphorych;[19] and more ink and bile were spilt than there was mud in Mirgorod, since the creation of the universe. The pig that so happily decided the famous quarrel in Gogol would be a priceless blessing to Nashik, and the struggle for the tail. But unhappily even the “pig” if it hailed from “Russia” would be of no avail in India; for the English would suspect it at once, and arrest it as a Russian spy...

Rama's bathing place is shown in Nashik. The ashes of pious Hindus are brought hither from distant parts to be thrown into the sacred waters of Godavari, and so to mingle forever with Ganges. In an ancient MS. there is a statement of one of Rama's generals, who, somehow or other, is not mentioned in the Ramayana. This statement points to the river Godavari as the frontier between the kingdoms of Rama, King of Ayodya (Oudh)[20], and of Ravana, King of Lanka [Ceylon]. Legends and the poem of Ramayana state that this was the spot where Rama, while hunting, saw a beautiful antelope, and, intending to make a present to his beloved Sita of its skin, entered the regions of his unknown neighbor. No doubt Rama, Ravana, and even Hanuman, promoted, for some reason, to the rank of a monkey, are historical personages who once had a real existence.

About 50 years ago it was vaguely suspected that the Brahmins possessed many extremely valuable manuscripts. It was reported that one of them treats of the prehistoric epoch when the Aryans first invaded the country, and began an endless war with the dark aborigines of southern India. These rumours forced one of the "collectors", a sort of county chiefs (as far as I understand), to advise the government "to force Brahmins to issue all such manuscripts; search thoroughly every corner of the pagodas, break into their hiding places and, despite the protests of superstitious fanatics, to prove to them that the British are masters, and they are slaves. Fortunately to rulers and, perhaps, unfortunately, to slaves, they did not do such a folly. Fanaticism in the matter of religion is the only strong link connecting all these warring sects and castes. The British are well aware of this and therefore will never offend their slaves in matters purely religious. If not the Brahmins themselves, then their temples and altars are certainly inviolable.

Though the most interesting sights of Nashik are its cave-temples, about five miles [8.05 km] from the town. The day before we started thither, I certainly did not dream that a “tail” would have to play an important part in our visit to Nashik, that, in this case, it would save me, if not from death, at least from disagreeable and perhaps dangerous bruises. This is how it happened.

As the difficult task of ascending a steep mountain lay before us, we decided to hire elephants. The best couple in the town was brought before us. Their owner assured us “that the Prince of Wales had ridden upon them and was very contented.” For all the fun for the whole day of there and back journey, we bargained for two rupees per elephant, shook hands and began to get ready.

Our native friends, accustomed from infancy to this way of riding, were not long in getting on the back of their elephant. They covered him like flies, with no predilection for this or that spot of his vast back. They held on by all kinds of strings and ropes, more with their toes than their fingers, and, on the whole, presented a picture of contentment and comfort. We Europeans had to use the lady elephant, as being the tamer of the two. On her back there were two little benches with sloping seats on both sides, and not the slightest prop for our backs. We looked incredulously at this “improved” seat, but there was nothing to be done. Our driver (the mahut) sat between the ears of a huge animal (about the growth of which the unfortunate elephant-teenagers shown in the traveling circuses of Europe give a very weak idea), and we, with a shameful feeling giving us the creeps, somehow climbed the ladder onto the back of the she-elephant, who got on her knees by the mahut’s order. She had the poetical name of “Chanchuli Peri” (the “active peri” in translation) and really was the most obedient and the merriest of all the representatives of her tribe that I have ever seen. Clinging to each other we at last gave the signal for departure, and the mahout goaded the right ear of the animal with an iron rod. First the elephant raised herself on her fore-legs, which movement tilted us all back, then she heavily rose on her hind ones, too, and we rolled forwards, threatening to upset the mahout. But this was not the end of our trial. At the very first steps of Peri we slipped about in all directions, like quivering fragments of kissel[21]...

The journey came to a sudden pause. We were hastily picked up and replaced on our respective seats, during which proceeding Peri's trunk proved very active, and the journey continued. The very thought of the five miles before us filled us with horror, but we would not give up the excursion, and indignantly refused to be tied to our seats, as was suggested by our companions, who could not suppress their merry laughter... However, I bitterly repented almost this display of vanity. This unusual mode of locomotion was something incredibly fantastical, and, at the same time, ridiculous. A horse carrying our luggage trotted by Peri's side, and looked, from our vast elevation, no bigger than a donkey. Peri's every step made us acrobats, forcing us to do the most unexpected tricks. She steps with her right foot – and we lean forward; with the left – we fall back like a sheaf, and moreover all the time rolling from one side of her to the other. This experience, under the scorching sun, unavoidably induced a state of body and mind something between sea-sickness and a delirious nightmare. As a crown to our pleasures, when we began to ascend a tortuous little path over the stony slope of a deep ravine, our Peri heavily stumbled. This sudden shock caused me to lose my balance altogether. I sat on the hinder part of the elephant's back, in the place of honor, as it is esteemed, and, once thoroughly shaken, rolled down like a log. No doubt, next moment I should have found myself at the bottom of the ravine, with some more or less sad loss to my bodily constitution, if it had not been for the wonderful dexterity and instinct of the clever animal. Having felt that something was wrong she twisted her tail round me, stopped instantaneously and began to kneel down carefully. But my natural weight was too much for the thin tail of this kind animal. Peri did not lose hold of me, but, having at last knelt down, she moaned plaintively, though discreetly, thinking probably that she had nearly lost her tail through being so generous. So at least said the mahut that jumped off her head in an instant, rushed to help me and began to inspect the supposedly "damaged" elephant tail. We now witnessed a scene that clearly showed us the coarse cunning, greediness and cowardice of a low-class Hindu, of an outcast, as they are denominated here.

The mahout very indifferently and composedly examined Peri's tail, and even pulled it several times to make sure, and was already on the point of hoisting himself quietly into his usual place, when I had the unhappy thought of muttering something that expressed my regret and compassion. My words worked a miraculous transformation in the mahout's behavior. He threw himself on the ground, and rolled about like a demoniac, uttering horrible wild groans. Sobbing and crying he kept on repeating that the Mam-Sahib[22] had torn off his darling Peri's tail, that Peri was damaged for ever in everybody's estimation, that Peri's husband, the proud Airavati, lineal descendant of Indra's own favourite elephant, having witnessed her shame, would renounce his spouse, and that she had better die...

Yells and bitter tears were his only answer to all remonstrances of our companions. In vain we tried to persuade him that the “proud Airavati” did not show the slightest disposition to be so cruel, in vain we pointed out to him that all this time both elephants stood quietly together, Airavati even at this critical moment rubbing his trunk affectionately against Peri's side, and Peri’s tail was safe and at its place. All this was of no avail! Our friend Narayan lost his patience at last. He was a man of extraordinary muscular strength and took recourse to a last original means. With one hand he threw down a silver rupee, with the other he seized the mahout's dhoti[23] and hurled him after the coin. Without giving a thought to his bleeding nose, the mahout jumped at the rupee with the greediness of a wild beast springing upon its prey. He prostrated himself in the dust before us repeatedly, with endless “salaams,” instantly changing his deep sorrow into mad joy. He gave another pull at the unfortunate tail and gladly declared that, thanks to the “prayers of the sahib,” it really was safe; to demonstrate which he hung on to it, till he was torn away and put back on his seat.

“Is it possible that a single, miserable rupee can have been the cause of all this?” we asked each other in utter bewilderment.

“Your astonishment is natural enough,” answered the Hindus. “We need not express how ashamed and how disgusted we all feel at this voluntary display of humiliation and greed. But do not forget that this wretch, who certainly has a wife and probably has children, serves his employer for nominally twelve rupees a year, but actually employer often pays him with kicks, but not with money. Remember also the long centuries of tyrannical treatment from Brahmins, from fanatical Mussulmans, who regard a Hindu as nothing better than an unclean reptile, and, nowadays, from our highly educated and humane English lords, and maybe you will pity this wretched caricature of humanity.”

But the “caricature” in question evidently felt perfectly happy and not in the least conscious of a humiliation of any kind. Sitting on the roomy forehead of his Peri, he was telling her of his unexpected wealth, reminding her of her “divine” origin, and ordering her to salute the saabs with her trunk. Peri, whose spirits had been raised by the gift of a whole stick of sugar-cane from me, lifted her trunk backwards and playfully blew into our faces...



  1. Moscow News, № 28, 29.01.1880, pp. 4-5; Russian Herald, January 1883, Supplement, vol 163, pp. 96-108. In V. Johnston edition here starts the chapter “Vanished Glories”.
  2. Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh state) since 1947. It is a central place in pilgrimage, death, and mourning in the Hindu world – Ed.
  3. Prayagraj since October 2018. – Ed.
  4. Badrinath (Chamoli district, Uttarakhand state) is a Hindu holy town. It is one of the four sites in India's Char Dham pilgrimage, other three are: Dwarka, Rameswaram, and Puri. – Ed.
  5. Mathura (Mathura district, Uttar Pradesh state) is a birthplace of Krishna and is one of the Sapta Puri ("seven cities"), which are the seven holy pilgrimage centres in India, which bless the pilgrims with moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death). – Ed.
  6. Bird's eye view (Fr.). – Ed.
  7. Cicerone is a guide who conducts and informs sightseers. – Ed.
  8. Mahant is a head or chief of a monastery. – Ed.
  9. Sándor Csoma de Kőrös (1784-1842) was a Hungarian philologist and Orientalist, author of the first Tibetan–English dictionary and grammar book. He is considered as the founder of Tibetology. – Ed.
  10. Zoroastrians. Zend-Avesta now referred to as just Avesta, since zend means “to know”, “to understand” or “interpretation”. So, Zend-Avesta means commentaries and translations of the Avesta's texts. – Ed.
  11. Tripiṭaka (Sanskrit "Triple Basket") is the ancient collections of Buddhist sacred scriptures. – Ed.
  12. The Aitareya Brahmana is the Brahmana of the Shakala Shakha of the Rigveda, an ancient Indian collection of sacred hymns, which holds a detailed description of different rituals. – Ed.
  13. Darjeeling is a city in West Bengal, in the Lesser Himalayas. – Ed.
  14. Francis Wilford (1761-1822) was an Indologist, Orientalist, fellow member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, and constant collaborator of its journal – Asiatic Researches. – Ed.
  15. Thanks to private contributions and the zeal of some educated Hindu patriots, two free classes of Sanskrit and Pali had already been opened – one in Bombay by the Theosophical Society, the other in Benares under the presidency of the learned Rama Misra Shastri. In the year 1882, the Theosophical Society has, altogether, 14 schools in Ceylon and India.
  16. See. Asiatic Journal, 1872, vol. XXIII, p. 353.
  17. God from the machine (Lat.). – Ed.
  18. For and against (Lat.). – Ed.
  19. Reference to the work of N. V. Gogol “The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich. – Ed.
  20. Awadh, also known as Avadh or Oudh, is a region in north India in the modern state of Uttar Pradesh. – Ed.
  21. Kissel is a kind of starchy jelly.
  22. That is Madame Sahib. The word sahib pronounced “saab” is applied here to every title, rank, name. So, for example, they say Captain-Saab, Colonel-Saab, Maam-Saab, etc.
  23. Dhoti is a long piece of cloth that Hindus wrap around their upper part of the legs and lower back. For the common people, this is the only clothing, except for the same rag on one’s head.