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Letter XVII[1]

In order to wipe away the traces of the morning's perplexities from our minds, Sham Rao invited us to sit on the verandah, by the wide entrance of his idol room, whilst the family prayers were going on. Nothing could suit us better...

It was nine o'clock, the usual time of the morning prayers of natives. Sham Rao went to the well to get ready, and “dress himself,” as he said, though the evil tongue would say “undress himself”. In a few moments he came back wearing only a dhuti, as during dinner time, and with his head uncovered. He went straight to his idol room. The moment he entered we heard the loud stroke of a bell that hung under the ceiling, and that continued tolling all the time the prayers lasted. Bell-ringer was invisible, but Babu explained to us that a little boy was pulling the bell rope from the roof...

Sham Rao stepped in with his right foot and very slowly. Then he approached the altar and sat on a little stool with his legs crossed. At the back of the room, on the red velvet, which covered rounded shelves of an altar that resembled an etagere in the drawing-room of some fashionable lady, stood many idols. They were made of gold, of silver, of brass and of marble, according to their importance and merits. Maha-Deva (or Shiva) was of gold. Ganapati or Ganesha (Shiva’s son with elephant head) was of silver. Vishnu in the form of Shaligran was of round black stone from the river Gandaki in Nepal (in this form Vishnu is called Lakshmi-Narayan). There were also many other gods unknown to us, who were worshipped in the shapes of big sea-shells, called chakra. Surya, the god of the sun, and other gods and goddesses (the kula-devas, the domestic gods) were placed in background. The altar was sheltered by a cupola of gorgeous carved sandal-wood. During the night the gods and the offerings were covered by a huge bell glass. On the walls there were many sacred images representing the chief episodes in the biographies of the higher gods.

Sham Rao filled his left hand with ashes, murmuring prayers all the while, covered it for a second with the right one, then put some water to the ashes, and mixing the two by rubbing his hands together, he traced a line on his face with this mixture by moving the thumb of his right hand from his nose upwards, then from the middle of the forehead to the right temple, then back again to the left temple. Having done with his face he proceeded to cover with wet ashes his throat, stomach, left arm, breast, right arm, shoulders, his back, ears, eyes and head. In one corner of the room stood a huge bronze font filled with water. Sham Rao made straight to it and plunged into it three times, dhuti, head, and all, after which he came out looking exactly like a well-favored dripping wet Triton. Shaking the loose strand, he folded it in the manner the Russian housemaids called a koudelka[2] in old times and taking water again into his right cupped hand he began to lead it around his head. This operation concluded the first act.

The second act began with prayer sandlya (religious meditation) and with mantrams, which, by really pious people, must be repeated three times a day – at sunrise, at noon and at sunset. Sham Rao loudly pronounced the names of 24 gods, and each name was accompanied by a stroke of the bell. Having finished he first shut his eyes and stuffed his ears with cotton, then pressed his left nostril with two fingers of his right hand, and having filled his lungs with air through the right nostril and with a thumb pressed the latter also. Then he tightly closed his lips, so that breathing became impossible. In this position every pious Hindu must mentally repeat a certain verse, in gayatri metre. These are sacred words which no Hindu will dare to pronounce aloud. Even in repeating them mentally he must take every precaution not to inhale anything impure.

I am bound by my word of honor never to repeat the whole of this prayer, but I may quote a few unconnected sentences:

“Om!.. Earth!.. Heaven!.. Let the adored light of... [here follows a name which must not be pronounced] shelter me. Let thy Sun, O thou Only One, shelter me, the unworthy... I shut my eyes, I shut my ears, I do not breathe... in order to see, hear and breathe thee alone. Throw light upon our thoughts [again the secret name]... “

It is curious to compare this Hindu prayer with the celebrated prayer of Descartes' “Meditation III” in his L'Existence de Dieu (1.641). If the readers remember, it runs as follows:

“Now I shut my eyes, cover my ears, and dismiss all my five senses... I will dwell on the thought of God alone, I will meditate on His quality and look on the beauty of this wondrous radiancy.”

After this prayer Sham Rao read many other prayers, holding with two fingers his sacred Brahminical thread. Then, after mixing some rice and sandalwood powder, he takes a pitcher of water standing on the altar and, having washed off it the old stains, sticks to it the fresh ones just made by him of the dough. After a while began the ceremony of “the washing of the gods.” Taking them down from the altar, one after the other, according to their rank, Sham Rao first plunged them in the big font, in which he had just bathed himself, and then bathed them in milk in a smaller bronze font by the altar. The milk was mixed up with curds, butter, honey, and sugar, and so bathing turns to pollution. But everything was washed away in third bathing in the first font and then were dried with a clean towel. When the gods were arranged in their respective places, the Hindu traced on them the sectarian signs with a ring from his left hand. He used white sandal paint for the Linga and red for Ganapati and Surya. Then he sprinkled them with aromatic oils and covered them with fresh flowers. The long ceremony was finished by “the awakening of the gods.” A small bell was repeatedly rung under the noses of the idols, who, as the Brahmin probably supposed, not without a reason, all went to sleep during this tedious ceremony. Having noticed, or fancied (which often amounts to the same thing) that they were wide awake, he began offering them his daily sacrifices: lighting the incense and the lamps, and snapping his fingers from time to time in front of their faces for them to “look out,” as one can guess. Having filled the room with clouds of incense and fumes of burning camphor, he scattered some more flowers[3] over the altar and sat on the small stool for a while, murmuring the last prayers. He repeatedly held the palms of his hands over the flame of the tapers and rubbed his face with them. Then he walked round the altar three times, and, having knelt three times, retreated backwards to the door.

A little while before our host had finished his morning prayers the ladies of the house came into the room. They brought each a small stool and sat in a row murmuring prayers and telling the beads of their rosaries.

Rosaries play a great part here, the same as with Buddhists. Every god has his special rosary and the fakirs are simply covered with them.[4]

We left the women to their prayers and followed our host to the cow stall. The cow symbolizes the “fostering earth,” or Nature, and is worshipped accordingly. Sham Rao sat down by the cow and washed her feet, first with her own milk, then with water. He gave her some sugar and rice, covered her forehead with powdered sandal, and adorned her horns and four legs with chains of flowers. He burned some incense under her nostrils and brandished a burning lamp over her head. Then he walked three times round her and sat down to rest. Some Hindus walk round the cow one hundred and eight times, rosary in hand. But our Sham Rao had a slight tendency to freethinking and read Haeckel a little bit too much. Having rested himself, he filled a cup with water, dipped the cow's tail in it, and... drank it!..

In the same manner he performed the rite of worshipping the sacred plant tulsi[5] (Krishna’s wife) and the sun with the only difference that since he was unable to perform the bathing rite upon this diety, so he stood on one leg against the luminary of a day, filled his mouth with water and spitted three time towards Surya, sprinkled all of us instead of the sun.

It is still a mystery to us why the plant tulsi is worshipped. I know only that at the end of September there is a ceremony of the wedding of this plant with the god Vishnu, notwithstanding that tulsi bears the title of Krishna's wife, probably because of the latter being an incarnation of Vishnu. On that day all Hindus (who have a pot with this plant in every house) paint and adorn pots of this plant with tinsel. A certain magical square is traced in the garden and the plant is put in the middle of it. A Brahmin takes an idol of Vishnu in both hands and begins the marriage ceremony, standing before the plant. A married couple hold a shawl between the plant and the god, as if screening them from each other, the Brahmin utters prayers, and young women, and especially unmarried girls (who are the most ardent worshippers of tulsi) throw rice and saffron over the idol and the plant. When the ceremony is concluded, the Brahmin is presented with the shawl, the idol is put in the shade of his wife, all Hindus clap their hands, rend everyone's ears with the noise of tam-tams[6], let off fireworks, offer each other pieces of sugar-cane, and rejoice in every conceivable way till the dawn of the next day...

Last September, we were accidentally eyewitnesses of this wedding ceremony in our own garden, where our mali (gardener, fanatical Hindu) would not agree to allow foreigners to desecrate the sacred tête-à-tête[7] with the gods with their presence.[8]

The evening closes in, and we once more get ready for a trip, but not for a long one. It is only five miles [8.05 km] to the cavern of the old sorceress (Pythia of Hindustan); the road runs through a jungle, but it is level and smooth. Besides, the jungle and its ferocious inhabitants have ceased to frighten us. The timid elephants we had are sent home, and we are to mount new ones belonging to a neighboring Raja. The pair, that stand before the verandah like two dark hillocks, are steady and trust worthy. Many a time these two have hunted the royal tiger, and no wild shrieking or thunderous roaring can frighten them... And so, let us start!..

The ruddy flames of the torches dazzle our eyes and increase the forest gloom. Because of this bright light our surroundings seem even more dark and more mysterious...

There is something indescribably fascinating, almost solemn, in these night-journeys in India. Everything is silent and deserted around you, everything is dozing on the earth and overhead. Only the heavy, regular tread of the elephants breaks the stillness of the night, like the sound of falling hammers in the underground smithy of Vulcan[9]. From time to time, strange voices and sounds resound through the forest, as if someone is quietly howling between the scattered rocks of the ruins. “That is the wind howling,” we say, “what a wonderful acoustic phenomenon!” “Bhuta, bhuta!” whisper the awestruck torch-bearers. They brandish their torches and swiftly spin on one leg, and snap their fingers to chase away the aggressive spirits.

The plaintive owl stopped and once more we are able to hear the metallic chirp of the crickets, the feeble, monotonous croak of the tree-frog and finely beaten grasshopper’s drum roll. From time to time all this suddenly stops short and then begins again to gradually fill the forest with the slender chorus… Heavens! What teeming life, what stores of vital energy are hidden under the smallest leaf, the most imperceptible blades of grass, in this tropical forest! Myriads of stars shine in the dark blue of the sky, and myriads of fireflies twinkle at us from every bush, moving sparks, like a pale reflection of the far-away stars, as to show us our path and illuminate it...



  1. Moscow News, № 76, 17.03.1880, p. 3; Russian Herald, January 1883, Supplement, vol 163, pp. 157-163.
  2. Koudelka (Rus. куделька) is a curl or ringlets of hair. – Ed.
  3. Every god and goddess has their own favorite flower.
  4. The rosary is called mala and consists of one hundred and eight beads; they are made either of black berries like dog-rose hips ones (rudraksha), or of the light tulsi tree. Very pious Hindus are not content to tell the beads when praying; they must hide their hands during this ceremony in a bag called the “cow's mouth” (gomukha).
  5. Royal Basilicum, or just basil.
  6. Tam-tam is a percussive musical instrument of Asian origin, which is a convex disk of considerable size, made of a metal alloy (close to bronze), a kind of gong. – Ed.
  7. [Communicating] face to face (Fr.). – Ed.
  8. The rest of this letter Vera Johnston included in the chapter “A Witch's Den” combined with letter 18. – Ed.
  9. Vulcan is a god of fire and patron of blacksmithing in ancient Roman mythology. – Ed.