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Letter XXIV[1]

Near such monuments as the pillar of Ashoka, old pipalas (Ficus religiosa), the direct descendants of bodhidruma (“the tree of knowledge”), a favourite tree of the founder of Buddhism, according to legends, can usually be found. There was once such a tree near the pillar, but it is no longer there: it was cut off by the English, without any strong reason, as usual. But in the cave they show Akshaya Baht (“undying bunyan”). Xuanzang saw it in the early seventh century; but in those days the tree was already taken from the Buddhists, and the catacombs, after a century of silence, again resounded with the cries of the Shaivites and again became the scene of bloody rites of the Destroyer God. In the days of the Buddhist pilgrim the bunyan was a huge tree with far-flung green branches and stood at the entrance to the main cave of the underground temple. And now only an old blackened stump with a few dry branches survive, it stands in the fourth underground chamber. The Brahmins assured us that the tree was transplanted here by Lord Shiva himself: breaking off the top half of the trunk, he divided it into two parts – one was allegedly planted in Gaya and the other in Juggernaut.

We went along the slippery, moss-covered stone stairs down to the underground caves. Gravely shaking his shaven head, a naked Brahmin was going before us, lighting the way with a smelly torch, and on both sides of the stairs, dirty and disgusting fakirs were sitting and standing in different postures, with long hair, unkempt for years and twisted into a chignon. True ascetics never sit in public places, but live in the solitude of forests, or temple courtyards such as in Jabbalpore, far hidden from indifferent eyes. In the middle of the first chamber, low and with pillars, there was an enormous lingam, decorated with wreaths of magnificent roses; on both sides there were niches with idols and their vivid images. Stone idols covered with moisture and big drops of leaking water, traces of the underground river Saraswati, watered the blackened walls. In faintly flickering torch light, it was impossible to distinguish any inscriptions. Since all the surviving fragments have been translated, we were not particularly interested in them. There are strong suspicions that these underground chambers were still on the same level with the ground in the VII century; but partly as a result of dampness, partly for the reason for age-old accumulated layers of debris, they settled and now are underground. “The immortal tree” Akshaya Baht is mentioned by Xuanzang as well as by historians Rashid-al-Din and Abu Rayhan, who point to it as the oldest tree in India.

We passed through twenty chambers, but did not see anything interesting, except the “tree.” Behind it a large opening to a tunnel that leads to Benares, according to the Brahmin. All the saints, he said, went through this passage to pray in the holy city. On their way, they were “talking to Saraswati...”

We preferred the bridge over the Yamuna to the secret passage and went across it to the other side of the river. This bridge is one of the great triumphs of Anglo-Indian engineering. The two-tier bridge, spanning over the widest stretch, above the very confluence of the two rivers, is 3,331 feet [1015.29 m] in length in a straight line. Carriages and pedestrians cross along the lower tier, and the railway train crosses along the upper one. We were crossing the bridge just when a train was crossing above and were nearly deafened by the noise.

Not far from the railway station, there is an ancient gate with a high arch, leading to a lovely, well-kept garden. The outer walls are densely covered with creeping plants and magnificent roses. In Khusro-Bagh (Khusro Garden) there is a grave and a monument to the prince of the same name, graves of his mother Shah-Begum[2] and many other historical personages. Khushrau was the grandson of the great king Akbar and the son of the Rajputi, the daughter of the Maharaja of Amber, who was famous throughout India for her beauty and witchcraft – the latter, perhaps because she fascinated Akbar's son, Salim, a Muslim, and, having sent away his other wives, was for the rest of his life his only wife. Anyhow, after sunset, neither a Muslim nor a Hindu will approach Khusro-Bagh closer than half a mile, for they say that all the descendants of Akbar with the king himself (although he is buried in Agra) meet at night to hold their post-mortem durbar...

The history of that royal family, starting with the Emperor Akbar, is wonderfully strange. A descendant of the Parsis, which Islam conquerors could never fully convert to their religion, Akbar was less than nominally Mahometan. According to his personal history, he even hated the religion of the Prophet; having become Emperor of India, he constantly tried to weaken the influence of Islam and to even introduce some of the main elements of fire-worship. The names chosen for his grandchildren prove it. Khusrou or “Khosrow” (“Beautiful face”) is an ancient name of the Achaemenid kings of Persia, the same as “Cyaxares” of the classical Greeks and “Assuerus” of the Bible. The name so loved by the followers of Zoroaster became a hereditary one with the descendants of Akbar. Salim, afterwards the Emperor with the title of Jahangir, was the chief of the Allahabad Fort in the last years of the life of Akbar. Passionately attached to his wife, Princess of Amber and his son from her, Khusrau, he was under the influence of her brother (by adoption), famous in the history of the Rajput as Raja Man Singh. The latter wanted to raise his nephew Khusrau to the throne instead of Salim. There followed an awful scene of bloodshed, during which Salim with the help of another son (from a concubine), Khurram, took possession of the throne. Then Shah-Begum, his wife and mother of Khusrau, after putting a terrible curse on her husband and all his descendants, poisoned herself. Khurram, who reigned in Dekkan, afterwards stabbed his brother Khusrau to death in 1616. A curse made by breaking a string of pearls over the head of the Emperor, after which Shah-Begum said: “Well, let each of its grains turn a year of suffering, tears and death!.. Let the last of your descendants perish in as many years as many grains that are falling at this moment on your damned head!..” There were 252 grains. It was in 1605, and exactly 252 years later, in 1857, the last two princes of this family were shot dead in Delhi by the English and, they say, were smeared with lard before the execution. And the last Emperor of Delhi, Abu Zafar, a poet, whose songs are famous throughout India, called the Indian Hafiz, was sent in the same year into exile and servitude at the Cape of Good Hope, where he died, of course, not due to some natural cause. No wonder that popular superstition populated the tomb of the Shah-Begum and her son's with terrible ghosts.

Khusrau’s grave, – whose father and brother, getting rid of him, made him a martyr – is a magnificent marble building with a dome like the Taj Mahal in Agra. The grave itself is underground, and the cenotaph[3], a tall and graceful monument, is covered with poems. A little bit further there is a rectangular two tier construction of strange architecture – the mausoleum of Shah-Begum, a witch. Opposite it there is a building and a monument of “Tamboli-Begum” that is Istanbul Begum, a Christian Princess, brought from Constantinople, and strangled by her opponent. All of them are densely covered with roses and cypresses, and the shady paths of the garden are said to be the coolest place in Allahabad.

The next morning we went to explore the “bed of Hanuman” on the banks of the Ganges, and other curiosities of Allahabad. The “bed” turned out to be an open, rectangular room paved with granite and dug about twenty feet [6.1 m] deep under the ground. Above it there is a cupola on four granite pillars, 10 feet [3.05 m] above the ground, without walls, so that it was easier for the crowd to look down from all four sides, admiring the sleeping god-monkey. Several broad, dark stairs lead downward, but only Brahmins who guard the peace of the idol descend them. A long loquacious inscription from the municipality in three languages: English, Hindi and Urdu (the language of the Mohammedans) is more curious, even than the idol. This sign strictly prohibits Christians, and especially Muslims “to commit in this Shrine of Hindus any blasphemy, as to throw stones in the sanctuary, approach it in boots, laugh out loud, and say any obscene comments, that could hurt the feelings of the god devotees, or express squeamishness.” (I translate this inscription word for word.) Despite the prohibition, threats of fines and even prison, we gave a rupee to the Brahmin on duty, imperturbably walked up to the pillars without even taking off our shoes. We looked down: the idol of enormous dimensions, 20 feet [6.1 m] in size, bright red and with a crown on monkey's head was resting on the back, with his raised knees wide apart, his tail turned up and his cheek on the palm of his left hand, while the other was holding the scepter. A lamp was hanging over his face, and he was all covered with flowers. Trying to know what material the idol was made of, and receiving a response from the Brahmin that he was “made of nothing” and was besides “the living body of god,” we were not satisfied with such a mysterious answer. What shall we do? From the first day when Hanuman fell asleep in his hole, no one except the dedicated Brahmins went down. Throwing a stone at the sleeping deity and judging by the sound of the material he is made of is a crime provided by the municipality that can end with a fine of 100 rupees. Here our president, as a true inventive Yankee, solved the dilemma; taking a handful of copper and small silver coins and lowering his hand behind the railing, he, in the form of an experiment, but as if accidentally dropped one anna (3 kopecks) on the god’s stomach, all the while keeping his eyes on the Brahmin vigilantly watching him, who immediately inquired cunningly, if he would bring it back to the Sahib? “No,” the president replied, “all that falls down should remain as an offering to Hanuman.” Encouraged by this, the colonel threw another coin, already aiming. Hitting right in the nose of the deity, but without the expected sound, he then began to throw more and more coins, until finally after throwing a dozen coins, one clinked as if hitting something metallic. When he stopped, pleased with this discovery, the Brahmin suggested that he should throw a few more coins into the snout of Hanuman, repeating with touching face that such a game is very pleasant for the deva...

From Hanuman we went to show our respect to “the Baba Sandasi.” In order to avoid any misunderstanding, I hasten to note that the Baba Sandasi is not a Russian “baba”[4] but a Hindu “grandfather,” and even, judging by his age, very venerable. He is said to be 250 years old, and he himself says that he was born so long ago that he forgot exactly when. Whenever it was, “the Baba” is a historical personage highly respected even by the English, who, to the surprise of the natives of India, were for once grateful for the services provided. Their appreciation, however, is limited to the fact that they have not fired the “Baba” from a cannon, never hung him, nor even put him in prison; but it is certainly worth something in India. They even gave him a square stone half a yard [1.37 m] in length and width, on which he has been sitting without getting up for exactly 53 years; and the same municipality generously provided him with a plaque. The fact is that the memory of the “grandmother-grandfather” is closely linked with that of the rebellion for the English. In those hard days he saved many Europeans by hiding them in the empty hole under the stone which he doesn’t leave and in which he hides his charms and remedies. Twice he was almost killed, but he did not betray those he was hiding…

Baba is a Punjabi and Sikh, a follower of Guru Nanak. Near the walls of the Fort, on the scorching banks of the Ganges sits this elder now totally blind and white as snow. Proudly draping a naked body in a piece of white muslin, he with his silvery-white long hair looks, in quiet, windless days, rather like a marble statue than a living creature. Here's what word for word is written on the plaque generously presented by the city authorities to the elder and placed in six steps from him:

“Baba Sandasi, a native of Punjab. A person of tested and strict integrity, incapable of deception. Provided many services to the Government. Sitting on this stone since July 5, 1827. Became blind in 1839, having lost his sight due to constant sitting in the sun and sunlight reflection in the water. Passersby are forbidden to disturb him. Those who wish to talk to him are required to take their shoes and boots off. By order of the Allahabad Municipality, October, 1858.”

Taking off our shoes, we came up to the old man and greeted him with the words: “May the Raja Nanak be with God's blessing in swarga! (paradise).” The Thakur, whom the blind, to our surprise, recognized at a distance of ten steps and loudly greeted with blessing, immediately started to talk to him. We learned that the blind Sikh always eats and leaves the place only once a day at midnight: with the help of his disciples, he first bathes in the holy water of the Ganges, and then, after bathing, eats a handful of rice with milk and putting a new piece of muslin on his shoulders, sits down again on his stone until the next midnight. Under the scorching sun, under storm and monsoon rains a naked old man sits day and night, with uncovered head, not having even a piece of muslin between the crown and the sky. According to his disciples he never sleeps; at least none of them saw him lying; but if he sleeps (which his disciples, however, did not allow), then he sleeps with his eyes open and sitting up, not having near him a pole on which he could lean. Pieces of muslin, which he never wears on his shoulders for more than one day, are sometimes sold for big money to people, who firmly believed in their healing power after they were worn for the whole day by the Sikh. The received money is given to an orphanage, supported by the Sikh alone; children of different faiths live there; there are sometimes up to 300 children. All the other offerings of money and things, generously presented to the ascetic, whose needs consist of daily rice with milk and five arshins [3.56 m, 3.89 yards] of white muslin, also are given there. Often, after long contemplation, he turns to one or another of his disciples and sends him sometimes for a few miles away into the woods for some objects, such as for a root of some plant, a flower or stone, providing the disciple with detailed instructions. So once, when a collector’s wife, having a bad furuncle on her leg, was on the verge of dying, and the English doctors were going to cut her leg off, threatening otherwise with a gangrene and death, the patient in desperation, sent her husband to consult with the “elder.” Her husband was an atheist and a skeptic, and believed in the Sikh no more than in his pastor. Yet he went to him as a new Nicodemus at night. Before he could even start explaining what the matter was, the “elder” interrupted him, sending back home: “Your “ma’am-sahib” is getting worse, you should immediately hurry to her (said the blind man) and give her this grass to sniff all night until the morning; and tomorrow early in the morning you will receive from me (the Sikh) some ointment, which will cure your wife’s leg.”

Puzzled, the collector took the grass, a dried bunch that had been dipped in the water of the Ganges right at the place, and, returning, found the whole house in turmoil: his wife was dying, if not already dead. Forgetting all skepticism, the collector held the grass under her nose, and his wife came to herself, and by the morning fell peacefully asleep. Meanwhile, the “elder” called the senior disciple (who told us about this incident), ordered him to wade across the Yamuna tributary, enter the forest, turn right, and going along the third path, count twenty-three of the mango trees and under the twenty-fourth one search at the very root of it to the south. There, two vershoks [8.89 cm, 8,75 in] underground, in an abandoned anthill, he should find a tiger claw, which he is supposed to bring. The disciple went and, having done everything as ordered, brought the claw to the master. The Sikh ordered first to carbonize the claw in fire then crush it into fine powder and, adding various herbs, make an ointment of it, this was sent to the collector with instructions. A week later, “ma'am-sahib” came herself to thank the blind elder...[5]

Everyone we spoke to about the Sikh spoke with great respect about him, but Hindus and even Muslims spoke with awe.



  1. Moscow News, No. 165, 16.06.1880, p. 3; Russian Herald, January 1883, Supplement, vol 165, pp. 298-305.
  2. Shah is a royal title that was historically used by the leading figures of Persian (Iranian) monarchies; begum is a title of a noble woman and the address to her in Muslim countries and regions of South Asia. – Ed.
  3. Cenotaph is a monument built to honor people whose remains are interred elsewhere or whose remains cannot be recovered. – Ed.
  4. Woman or grandmother (Rus. Баба). – Tr.
  5. This incident was certified to us by the collector's sister. Three days later, the wound, which could not be cured by any medicine known to science, completely healed.