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Letter XII[1]

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 the latter. And who happened to look at one of the magical corners of India at least once, often reminding you of the most fantastic and seemingly impossible in nature scenery of the Grand Paris Opera, – 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[2], 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[3] lasted. We spent these days far from railways, this flash of civilization, which 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[4].

All the day long we wandered across rivers and jungles, passing villages and ruins of ancient fortresses along country roads between Nashik and Jabalpur, traveling with the aid of bullock cars, elephants, horses, and very often being carried in palks (palanquin). 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. This people never cover their heads, except on solemn occasions, when a turban is worn only as an accepted ornament, like flowers at a ball, during a durbar[5], a wedding or a feast.

The Bengali babu, holding almost all lower civil and especially clerical posts, fill all railway and telegraph stations, offices, post offices and government offices. Wrapped in their white muslin Rome togas, 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 feminine adornments of Marathis with their numerous rings on fingers and toes and huge earrings in the upper part of their right ears. Bengalis, unlike the rest of the Hindus, do not paint sectarian signs on their foreheads and allow themselves just an expensive necklace; but even this is not common. Contrary to all expectations, the Marathis, 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 we 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 (landowners) 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 rifle and yataghan[6].

Many out-of-the-way paths and even more groves which most probably had never before been trodden by a foot of white man, 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. Though the wretched, naked peasants shrank from us and shut their doors at our approach, the Brahmins 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 the character of these sons of Prophet. 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 jasmine 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[7], who was hanged on the city tower by the order of General Hislop in 1818. He, by the way, on the same day shot all the soldiers of the surrendered garrison, under the pretext that they were conspiring against him. Besides the monument to that unfortunate hanged kiladar there are four other mausoleums, one of which is famous 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[8]. A Persian inscription on its base records that it cost 100,000 rupees. By day, bathed in the hot rays of the sun, its tall minaret-like outline looks like a pyramid-shaped block of ice against the blue sky. By night, with the aid of the intense, phosphorescent moonlight proper to India – which puts into raptures all travellers and artists – 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-green 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, – and in the very recent past, the burning of the living also – but only in theory, and not in practice. 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 Brahmin, 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 he inhaled and through which he lived, and to Water, which purified him physically and spiritually, and is now to receive his ashes into “her pure bosom…” (Mantra XII.)

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 cities and villages. In these rivers about two hundred millions of people daily cleanse themselves from the tropical perspiration and dirt; and castes unworthy of burning, like shudras, pariahs, mangy, etc., are thrown into them, in addition to all their dead. Besides all castes, up to the Brahmins inclusive, throw their babies there who died before the age of three.

Let's walk along the banks of any river, but only late at night, so as to spend the night there and wait for the dawn. In the evening, only the rich or those belonging to the higher castes are burned. It is for them that the sandal-wood fires are lit after sunset, that mantras are chanted, and that the gods are invoked. But for mere mortals, for poor casteless people, there are no fires nor even simple prayers. Even after death shudras are felt to be unworthy of listening to chants of divine words uttered at the beginning of the world by four Rishis to Veda Vyasa, the great theologian of Aryavarta. 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 thick clouds of black smoke. This on the right side of the river; let us now see what occurs 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-servants 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 ghats plunges into stillness and silence, to be reawakened when the evening comes, processions of a different kind appear on the left bank...

Indians of both sexes are going in a sad, silent single file, now short, now long, depending on mortality in the town and its environs. 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. During the fall 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, then takes the body in his own hands, enters the water and throws it right in the middle. He is followed by both women dressed or rather semi-naked, as usual, 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. Sometimes such a gnawed body, clinging to a coastal reed or getting between two stones, helplessly sticks out from under the shallow water, until finally one from the coastal mangy, an unfortunate casteless creature, 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. Let us stand up and move on... 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, sheltered by old birches. How peacefully our dead repose under the tall rich grass! None of them, sweet hearts, floating down the river, 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 now sing for us, either in the neighboring groves, or in our souls. Such event is least of all. But 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 others. 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. We are in a territory, which 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 several dozens of throats of their lords, and with the others, Captain Genre. That happened near Shinar, twenty miles [32.19 km] away from Nasik.

Tatva, an ancient Hindu book, treating of the geography of the times of King Ashoka (250-300 B.C.), teaches us that the Marathi territory spreads up to the wall of Chandvad city or Chandor, and that the Kandesh country begins on the other side of the river. But English people do not trust Tatva or any other authority and want us to learn that Kandesh begins right at the foot of Chandor hillocks. Therefore, the above “fortress,” one of the most inaccessible, according to Colonel Wallace, “because of its natural fortifications from the three sides,” the English had to take it in 1804 from the “rebels,” the Marathas, who did not give it up to them, with great difficulty and the same losses. And they would have never taken it, if not for the Muslims, sworn enemies of the Marathas, who used to beat them. They revealed finally the secret of a passage under the gates of the fortress to Colonel Wallace. Then, bursting through the passage at night, the English defeated soundly sleeping Marathas, of which they then boasted a lot. After a while, in a careless moment of generosity, they returned the fortress to Holkar so as to maintain English soldiers in it, but the soldiers however were not considered at his service. Then they repented even in this grace, and in 1818, seeing that Holkar would not give up the fortress without a fight, sent almost the whole army under the command of sir Thomas Hislop, and thus took back the fortress.



  1. Moscow News, № 41, 11.02.1880, p. 3; Russian Herald, January 1883, Supplement, vol 163, pp. 112-120. In V. Johnston edition here starts the chapter “A City Of The Dead”.
  2. Saadi (1210-1291) was a major Persian Sufi philosopher and poet. – Ed.
  3. Des écoles secrètes (Fr.) kept by heretics in the forests, remote from villages; schools that teachers kept secretly in the villages to evade paying tax in favour of the church. – Ed.
  4. Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) was a Spanish conquistador who led an expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec Empire and brought large portions of what is now mainland Mexico under the rule of Castile (area of modern Spain). – Ed.
  5. Durbar (Persian: audience, hall, royal court) is a solemn reception. – Ed.
  6. A type of Turkish sword. – Ed.
  7. Kiladar is town governor. – Ed.
  8. Pere La Chaise is a cemetery in Paris. – Ed.