DELHI AND AGRA.
From the police-thana of Rai, where the night is spent, to Delhi, the character of the road changes to a mixture of clay and rock, altogether inferior to kunkah. The twenty-one miles are covered, however, by 8.30 a.m., that hour finding me wheeling down the broad suburban road to the Lahore Gate amid throngs of country people carrying baskets of mangoes, plantains, pomegranates, and other indigenous products into the markets of the old Mogul capital. Massive archways, ruined forts and serais, placid water-tanks, lovely gardens, feathery toddy-palms, plantain-hedges, and throngs of picturesque people make the approach to historic Delhi a scene long to be remembered.
Entering the Lahore Gate, suitable accommodation is found at Northbrook Hotel, a comfortable hostelry under native management near the Moree Gate, and overlooking from its roof the scenes of the most memorable events connected with the siege of Delhi in 1857. Letters are found at the post-office apprising me of a bicycle-camera and paper negatives awaiting my orders at the American Consulate at Calcutta, and it behooves me to linger here for a few days until its arrival in reply to a telegram. No more charming spot could possibly be found to linger in than the old Mogul capital, with its wondrous wealth of historical associations, both remotely antique and comparatively modern, its glorious monuments of imperial Oriental splendor and its reminiscences of heroic deeds in battle.
A letter of introduction to an English gentleman, brought from Kurnaul, secures me friends and attention at once; in the cool of the evening we drive out together in his pony-phaeton along the historic granite ridge that formed the site of the British camp during the siege. The operations against the city were conducted mostly from this ridge and the intervening ground; on the ridge itself is erected a beautiful red granite monument memorial, bearing the names of prominent officers and the numbers of men killed, the names of the regiments, etc., engaged in the siege and assault. Here, also, is Hindoo Rao's house, and ancient obelisks.
East of the Moree Gate is the world-famed Cashmere Gate--world-famed in connection with the brilliant exploit of the little forlorn hope that, on the morning of September 14, 1857, succeeded, in the face of a deadly fusillade from the, walls and the wicket gates, in carrying bags of gunpowder and blowing it up. Through the opening thus effected poured the eager troops that rescued the city from ten times their own number of mutineers and turned the beams of the scale in which the fate of the whole British Indian Empire was at the moment balanced. Perhaps in all the world's battles no more heroic achievement was ever attempted or carried out than the blowing up of the Cashmere Gate. "Salkeld laid his bags of powder, in the face of a deadly fire from the open wicket not ten feet distant; he was instantly shot through the arm and leg, and fell back on the bridge, handing the port-fire to Sergeant Burgess, bidding him light the fuse. Burgess was instantly shot dead in the attempt. Sergeant Carmichael then advanced, took up the port-fire, and succeeded in firing the fuse, but immediately fell, mortally wounded. Sergeant Smith, seeing him fall, advanced at a run, but finding that the fuse was already burning, flung himself into the ditch."
Difficult, indeed, would it be to crowd more heroism into the same number of words that I have here quoted from Colonel Medley, an eye-witness of the affair. Between the double archways of the gate is a red-sandstone memorial tablet, placed there by Lord Napier of Magdala, upon which is inscribed the names, rank, and regiment of those who took part in the forlorn hope. All is now peaceful and lovely enough, but the stone bastions and parapets still remain pretty much as when the British batteries ceased their plunging rain of shot and shell thirty years ago.
Not far from the Moree Gate is the tomb of General Nicholson, one of the most conspicuous and heroic characters of that trying period, and generally regarded as the saviour of Delhi. Enshrined in the hearts of the brave Sikhs no less than in the hearts of his own countrymen, his tomb has become a regular place of pilgrimage for the old Sikh warriors who fought side by side with the English against the mutineers.
It has been my good fortune, I find, to arrive at the old Mogul capital the day before the commencement of an annual merrymaking, picnicking, and general holiday at the celebrated Kootub Minar. The Kootub Minar is about eleven miles out of Delhi, situated amid the ruins of ancient Dilli (Delhi), the old Hindoo city from which the more modern city takes its name. It is conceded to be the most beautiful minar-monument in the world, and ranks with the Taj Mahal at Agra as one of the beautiful architectural triumphs peculiar to the splendid era of Mohammedan rule in India, and which are not to be matched elsewhere. The day following my arrival I conclude to take a spin out on my bicycle as far as the Kootub, and see something of it, the ruins amid which it stands, and the Hindoos in holiday attire. I choose the comparative coolness of early morning for the ride out; but early though it be, the road thither is already swarming with gayly dressed people bent on holiday-making. The road is a worthy offshoot of the Grand Trunk, not a whit less smooth of surface, nor less lovely in its wealth of sacred shade-trees. Moreover, it passes through a veritable wilderness of ruined cities, mosques, tombs, and forts the whole distance, and leads right through the magnificent remains of the ancient Hindoo city itself.
The Kootub Minar is found to be a beautifully fluted column, two hundred and forty feet high, and it soars grandly above the mournful ruins of old Dilli, its hoary wealth of crumbled idol temples, tombs, and forts. The minar is supposed to have been erected in the latter part of the twelfth century to celebrate the victory of the Mohammedans over the Hindoos of Dilli. The general effect of the tall, stately Mohammedan monument among the Hindoo ruins is that of a proud gladiator standing erect and triumphant amid fallen foes. At least, that is how it looks to me, as I view it in connection with the ruins at its base and ponder upon its history. A spiral stairway of three hundred and seventy-five steps leads to the summit. A group of natives are already up there, enjoying the cool breezes and the prospect below. In the comprehensive view from the summit one can read an instructive sermon of centuries of stirring Indian history in the gray stone-work of ruined mosques and tombs and fortresses and pagan temples that dot the valley of the Jumna hereabout almost as thickly as the trees.
Strange crowds have congregated on this rare old historic camping-ground in ages past. It was a strange crowd, gathered here for a strange purpose, on that traditional occasion, when Rajah Pithora, in the fourth century of the Christian era, had the celebrated iron shaft dug up to satisfy his curiosity as to whether it had transfixed the subterranean snake-god Vishay. There is a strange crowd gathered here to-day, too; I can hear their shouting and their tom-toming come floating up from among the ruins and the dark-green foliage as I look down from my beautiful eyrie on top of the Kootub upon their pygmy forms, thronging the walks and roads, brown and busy as swarms of ants.
It is a vast concourse of people, characteristic of teeming India; but they are not, on this occasion, congregated to witness pagan rites and ceremonies, nor to encourage iconoclastic Moolahs in smashing Hindoo gods and chipping offensive Hindoo carvings off their temples; they are a mixed crowd of Hindoos, Sikhs, and Mohammedans, who, having to some extent buried the hatchet of race and religious animosities under the just and tolerant rule of a Christian government, have gathered here amid the ruins and relics of their respective past histories to enjoy themselves in innocent recreation.
Descending from the Kootub Minar, I am resting beneath the shade of the dak bungalow hard by, when a gray-bearded Hindoo approaches, salaams, and hands me a paper. The paper is a certificate, certifying that the bearer, Chunee Lai, had performed before Captain Somebody of the Fusileers, and had afforded that officer excellent amusement. Before I have quite grasped the situation, or comprehended the purport of the tendered missive, several men and boys deposit a miscellaneous assortment of boxes and baskets before me and range themselves in a semicircle behind them. The old fellow with the certificate picks out a small box and raises the lid; a huge cobra thrusts out its hideous head and puffs its hooded neck to the size of a man's hand. It then dawns upon me that the gray-bearded Hindoo is a conjurer; and being curious to see something of Indian prestidigitation, I allow him to proceed.
Many of the tricks are quite commonplace and transparent even to a novice. For example, he mixes red, yellow, and white powders together in a tumbler of water and swallows the mixture, making, of course, a wry face, as though taking a dose of bitter medicine. He then calls a boy from among the by-standers and blows first red powder, then yellow, then white into the youngster's face. I judge he had small bags of dry powder stowed away in his cheek. He performs his tricks on the bare ground, without any such invaluable adjunct as the table of his European rival, and some of them, viewed in the light of this disadvantage, are indeed puzzling. For instance, he fills an ordinary tin pot nearly full of water, puts in a handful of yellow sand and a handful of red powder, and thoroughly stirs them up; he then thrusts his naked hand into the water and brings forth a handful of each kind, dry as when he put them in. A simple enough trick, no doubt, to the initiated; but the old conjurer's arm is bared, and the tin is, as far as I can discover, but an ordinary vessel, and the trick is performed without any cover, table, or cloth. After this he expectorates a number of glass marbles, and ends with a couple of solid iron jingal balls that he can scarce get out of his mouth. There is no mistake about their being of solid iron, and the old conjurer opens his mouth and lets me see them emerging from his throat. From what I see him do as the final act, and which there is no deception about, I am inclined to think the old fellow has actually acquired the power of swallowing these jingal balls and reproducing them at pleasure.
After a number of tricks too familiar to justify mentioning here he covers his head with a cloth for a minute, and then reappears with brass eyeballs, with a small hole bored in the centre of each to represent the pupils; and his mouth is rendered hideous with a set of teeth belonging to some animal. In this horrible make-up the old Hindoo tom-toms on a small oblong drum, while one of his assistants sings in broken English "Buffalo Gals." He then openly removes the false teeth, and taking out the brass eyeballs, he casts them jingling on the gravel at my feet. They are simply hemispheres of sheet-brass, and fitted closely over the eyeballs, beneath the lids. The conjurer's eyes water visibly after the brass covers are removed; and well enough they might; there is no sleight-of-hand about this--it is purely an act of self-torture.
In most of the conjuring tricks the conjurer would purposely make a partial failure in the first attempt; an assistant would then impart the necessary power by muttering cabalistic words over a monkey's skull.
A mongoose had been tethered to a stake at the beginning of the performance, and the little ferret-like enemy of the snake family kept tugging at his tether and sniffing suspiciously about whenever snakes appeared in the conjurer's manipulations. He bad promised me a fight between the mongoose and a snake, and before presenting his little brass bowl for backsheesh he holds out a four-foot snake toward the eager little animal at the stake. The snake writhes and struggles to get away, evidently badly scared at the prospect of an encounter with the mongoose; but the man succeeds in depositing him within his adversary's reach. The mongoose nabs him by the neck in an instant, and would no doubt soon have finished him; but the assistants part them with wire crooks, putting the snake in a basket with several others and the mongoose in another.
While watching the interesting performances of the Hindoo, conjurers I have left the bicycle at a little dak bungalow near the old entrance-gate. From the commanding height of the Kootub-one could see that the Delhi road is a solid mass of vehicles and pedestrians (how the people in teeming India do swarm on these festive occasions!). It looks impossible to make one's way with a bicycle against that winding stream of human beings, and so, after wandering about a while among the striking and peculiar colonnades of the ancient pagan temples, paying the regulation tribute of curiosity to the enigmatic iron column, and doing the place in general, I return to the bungalow, thinking of starting back to Delhi, when I find that my "cycle of strange experiences" has attracted to itself a no less interesting gathering than a troupe of Nautch girls and their chaperone. The troupe numbers about a dozen girls, and they have come to the merry-making at the Kootub to gather honest shekels by giving exhibitions of their terpsichorean talents in the Nautch dance.
I had been wondering whether an opportunity to see this famous dance would occur during my trip through India; and so when four or five of the prettiest of these dusky damsels gather about me, smile at me winsomely ogle me with their big black eyes, smile again, smile separately, smile unanimously, smile all over their semi-mahogany but nevertheless not unhandsome faces, and every time displaying sets of pearly teeth, what could I do, what could anyone have done, but smile in return?
There is no language more eloquent or more easily understood than the language of facial expression. No verbal question or answer is necessary. I interpret the winsome smiles of the Nautchnees aright, and they interpret very quickly the permission to go ahead that reveals itself in the smile they force from me. Eight of the twelve are commonplace girls of from fourteen to eighteen, and the other four are "dark but comely"--quite handsome, as handsomeness goes among the Hindoos. Their arms are bare of everything save an abundance of bracelets, and the upper portion of the body is rather scantily draped, after the manner and custom of all Hindoo females; but an ample skirt of red calico reaches to the ankle. Rings are worn on every toe, and massive silver anklets with tiny bells attached make music when they walk of dance. They wear a profusion of bracelets, necklaces of rupees, head-ornaments, ear-rings, and pendent charms, and a massive gold or brass ring in the left nostril. The nostril is relieved of its burden by a string that descends from a head-ornament and takes up the weight.
The Nautch girls arrange themselves into a half-circle, their scarlet costumes forming a bright crescent, terminating in a mass of spectators, whose half-naked bodies, varying in color from pale olive to mahogany, are arrayed in costumes scarcely less showy than the dancers. The chaperone and eight outside girls tom-tom an appropriate Nautch accompaniment on drums with their fingers, the four prettiest girls advance, and favoring me with sundry smiles, and coquettish glances from their bright black eyes, they commence to dance.
An idea seems to prevail in many Occidental minds that the Nautch dance is a very naughty thing; but nothing is further from the truth. Of course it can be made naughty, and no doubt often is; but then so can many another form of innocent amusement. The Nautch dance is a decorous and artistic performance when properly danced; the graceful motions and elegant proportions of the human form, as revealed by lithe and graceful dancers, are to be viewed with an eye as purely artistic and critical as that with which one regards a Venus or other production of the sculptor's studio.
The four dancers take the lower hem of their red garment daintily between the thumb and finger of the right hand, spreading its ample folds into the figure of an opened fan, by bringing the outstretched arm almost on a level with the shoulder. A mantle of transparent muslin, fringed with silver spangles, is worn about the head and shoulders in the same indescribably graceful manner as the mantilla of the Spanish senorita. Raising a portion of this aloft in the left hand, and keeping the "fan" intact with the right, the dancers twirl around and change positions with one another, their supple figures meanwhile assuming a variety of graceful motions and postures from time to time. Now they imitate the spiral movement of a serpent climbing around and upward on an imaginary pole; again they assume an attitude of gracefulness, their dusky countenances half hidden in seeming coquetry behind the muslin mantle, the large red fan waving gently to and fro, the feet unmoving, but the undulating motions of the body and the tremor of the limbs sufficing to jingle the tiny ankle-bells. On the whole, the Nautch dance would be disappointing to most people witnessing it; its fame leads one to expect more than it really amounts to.
Before starting back to Delhi, I take a stroll through the adjacent village of Kootub, a place named after the minar, I suppose. The crooked main street of the village of Kootub itself presents to-day a scene of gayety and confusion that beggars description. Bunting floats gayly from every window and balcony, in honor of the festival, and is strung across the street from house to house. Thousands of globular colored lanterns are hanging about, ready to be lighted up at night. The streets are thronged with people in the gayest of costumes, and with vehicles the gilt and paint and glitter of which equal the glittering wagons and chariots of a circus parade at home.
The balconies above the shops are curtained with blue gauze, behind which are seen numbers of ladies, chatting, eating fruits and sweetmeats, and peeping down through the semi-transparent screens upon the animated scene in the streets. On the stalls, choice edibles are piled up by the bushel, and busy venders are hawking fruits, sweets, toddy, and all imaginable refreshments about among the crowds. Vacant lots are occupied by the tents of visiting peasants, and in out-of-the-way corners acrobatics, jugglery, and Nautch-dancing attract curious crowds.
The incoming tide of human life is at its flood as I start back to Delhi by the same road I came. Here one gets a glimpse of the real gorgeousness of India without seeking for it at the pageants of princes and rajahs. Small zemindars from outlying villages are bringing their wives and daughters to the festivities at the Kootub in circusy-looking bullock-chariots covered with gilt and carvings, and draped and twined with parti-colored ribbons. Some of these gaudy turn-outs are drawn by richly caparisoned, milk-white oxen, with gilded horns. Cymbals and sleigh-bells galore keep up a merry jingle, and tom-toming parties make their noisy presence known all along the line.
Still more gorgeous and interesting than the gilded ox-gharries of the ordinary zemindars are miniature chariots drawn by pairs of well-matched, undersized oxen covered with richly spangled trappings, and with horns curiously gilded and tipped with tiny bells. These are the vehicles of petted young nabobs in charge of attendants: tiny oxen with gorgeous trappings, tiny chariots richly gilded and carved and painted, tiny occupants richly dressed and jewelled. Troupes of Nautchnees add their picturesque appearance to the brilliant throngs, and here and there is encountered a holy fakir, unkempt and unwashed, having, perchance, registered a vow years ago never more to apply water to his skin, his only clothing a dirty waist-cloth and the yellow clay plastered on his body. Long strings of less pretentious bullock-gharries almost block the roadway, and people constantly dodging out from behind them in front of my wheel make it extremely difficult to ride.
Several days are passed at Delhi, waiting the arrival of a small bicycle-camera from Calcutta, which has been forwarded from America. Most of this time is spent in the pleasant occupation of reclining in an arm-chair beneath the punkah, the only comfortable situation in Delhi at this season of the year. Nevertheless, I manage to spin around the city mornings and evenings, and visit the famous fort and palace of Shah Jehan.
In the magnificent--magnificent even in the decline of its grandeur --fort-palace of the Mogul Emperor named, British soldiers now find comfortable quarters. This fort, together with modern Delhi (the real Indian name of Delhi is Shahjehanabad, after the emperor Shah Jehan, who had it built), is but about two hundred and fifty years old, the entire affair having been built to gratify the Mogul ambition for founding new capitals.
Although so modern compared with other cities near by, both city and palace have gone through strangely stirring and tragic experiences, and events have happened in the latter that, although sometimes trivial in themselves, have led to momentous results.
In this palace, in 1716, was given permission, by the Emperor Furrokh Seeur, to the Scotch physician, Gabriel Hamilton, the privileges that have gradually led up to the British conquest of the whole peninsula. As a reward for professional services rendered, permission to establish factories on the Hooghly was given; the Presidency of Fort William sprung therefrom, and at length the British Indian Empire. Twenty years after this, the terrible Nadir Shah, from Persia, occupied the palace, and held high jinks within while his army slaughtered over a hundred thousand of the inhabitants in the streets. When this red-handed marauder took his departure he carried away with him booty to the value of eighty millions sterling in the value of that time. Among the plunder was the famous Peacock Throne, alone reputed to be worth six million pounds. This remarkable piece of kingly furniture is said to be in the possession of the Shah of Persia at the present time. It is very probable, however, that only some unique portion of the throne is preserved, as it could hardly have been carried back to Persia by Nadir intact. This throne is thus described by a writer: "The throne was six feet long and four broad, composed of solid gold inlaid with precious stones. It was surmounted by a canopy of gold, supported on twelve pillars of the same material. Around the canopy hung a fringe of pearls; on each side of the throne stood two chattahs, or umbrellas, symbols of royalty, formed of crimson velvet richly embroidered with gold thread and pearls, and with handles of solid gold, eight feet long, studded with diamonds. The back of the throne was a representation of the expanded tail of a peacock, the natural colors of which were imitated by sapphires, rubies, emeralds, and other gems." This Peacock Throne was the envy and admiration of every contemporary monarch who heard of it, and was undoubtedly one of the chief elements in exciting the cupidity of the outer world that finally ended in the dissolution of the Mogul Empire.
Less than ten years after the departure of Nadir Shah, Ahmud Khan advanced with an army from Cabool, and took pretty much everything of value that the Khorassani freebooter had overlooked, besides committing more atrocities upon the population. At the end of another decade an army of Mahrattas took possession, and completed the spoilation by ripping the silver filigree-work off the ceiling of the Throne-room. Not long after this, yet another adventurer took a hand in the work of destruction, tortured the members of the imperial family, and put out the eyes of the helpless old emperor, Shah Alum. Here Lord Lake's cavalcade arrived, too, in 1803, and found the blinded chief of the royal house of Timour and his magnificent successors, who built Delhi and Agra, seated beneath the tattered remnants of a little canopy, a mockery of royalty, with every external appearance of misery and helplessness And lastly, here, in May, 1857, the last representative of the great Moguls, a not unwilling tool in the hands of the East India Company's mutinous soldiery, presided over the butchery of helpless English women and children.
It is difficult to realize that Delhi has been the theatre of such a stirring and eventful history, as nowadays one strolls down the Chandni Chouk and notes the air of peace and contentment that pervades the whole city. It seems quite true, as Edwin Arnold says in his "India Revisited," that Derby is now not more contentedly British than is Delhi. Whatever may be the faults of British rule in India, no impartial critic can say that the people are not in better hands than they have ever been before. One of the most interesting objects in the city is the Jama Mesjid, the largest mosque in India, and the second-largest in all Islam, ranking next to St. Sophia at Constantinople. Broad flights of red sandstone steps lead up to handsome gateways surmounted by rows of small milk-white marble domes or cupolas. Inside is a large quadrangular court, paved with broad slabs of sandstone; occupying the centre of this is a white marble reservoir of water. The mosque proper is situated on the west side of the quadrangle, an oblong structure two hundred feet long by half that many in width, ornamented and embellished by Arabic inscriptions and three shapely white marble domes. Very elegant indeed is the pattern and composition of the floor, each square slab of white marble having a narrow black border running round it, like the border of a mourning envelope. Very charming, also, are the two graceful minarets at either end, one hundred and thirty feet high, alternate strips of white marble and red sandstone producing a very pretty and striking effect.
In the northeastern corner of the quadrangle is a small cabinet containing the inevitable relics of the Prophet. Three separate guides have accumulated at my heels since entering the gate, and now a fourth, ancient and hopeful, appears to unravel, for the Sahib's benefit, the mysteries of the little cabinet. Unlocking the door, he steps out of his slippers into the entrance, stooping beneath an iron rail that further bars the entrance.
From an inner receptacle he first produces some ancient manuscript, which he explains was written by the same scribes who copied the Koran for Mohammed's grandson. Putting these carefully away, the Ancient and Hopeful then unwraps, very mysteriously, a handkerchief, and reveals a small oblong tin box with a glass face. The casket contains what upon casual observation appears to be a piece of bark curling up at the edges; this, I am informed, however, is nothing less than the sole of one of Mohammed's sandals. Putting away this venerable relic of the great founder of Islam, the old Mussulman assumes a look of profound importance and mystery. One would think, from his expression and manners, that he was about to reveal to the sacrilegious gaze of an infidel nothing less than the Prophet's fifth rib or the parings from his pet corn. Instead of these he exhibits a flat piece of rock bearing marks resembling the shape of a man's foot--the imprint of Mohammed's foot, miraculously made. To one whose soulful gaze has been enraptured with an imprint of the first Sultan's hand on the wall of St. Sophia, and the mosaic figure of the Virgin Mary persistently refusing to be painted out of sight on the dome of the same mosque, this piece of rock would scarcely seem to justify the vast display of reverence that is evidently expected of all visitors by the Ancient and Hopeful.
But perhaps it is on account of the place of honor it occupies immediately preceding what is undoubtedly a very precious relic indeed, a relic that fills the worthy custodian with mystery and importance. Or, perchance, mystery and importance have been found, during his long and varied experience with the unsophisticated tourist, excellent things to increase the volume of importance attached to the exhibited articles, and the volume of "pice" in his exchequer. At any rate, the Ancient and Hopeful assumes more mystery and importance than ever as he uncovers a second tin casket with a glass front. Glued to the glass, inside, is a single coarse yellow hair about two inches long; the precious relic, which has a suspicious resemblance to a bristle, is considered the gem of the collection, being nothing less than a hair from the Prophet's venerable mustache. Mohammedans swear by the beard of the Prophet, just as good Christians swear by "the great horned spoon," or by "great Caesar's ghost," so that the possession of even this one poor little hair, surrounded as it is by a blue halo of suspicion as to its authenticity, sheds a ray of glory upon the great Jama Mesjid scarcely surpassed by its importance as the second-largest mosque in the world. The two-inch yellow hair is considered the piece de resistance of the collection, and the Ancient and Hopeful stows it away with all due reverence, strokes his henna-stained beard with the air of a man who has got successfully through a very important task, steps into his slippers, and presents himself for "pice."
Pice is duly administered to him and his three salaaming associates, when, lo! a fifth candidate mysteriously appears, also smiling and salaaming expectantly. Although I haven't had the pleasure of a previous acquaintance with this gentleman, the easiest way to escape gracefully from the sacred edifice is to backsheesh him along with the others. These backsheesh considerations are, of course, small and immaterial matters, and one ought to feel extremely grateful to all concerned for the happy privilege of feasting one's soul with ever so brief a contemplation of the things in the cabinet, and more especially on the bristle-like yellow hair. These joy-inspiring objects, ramshackled from the storehouse of the musty past, fulfil the double mission of keeping alive the reverence of devout Mussulmans who visit the mosque, and keeping the Ancient and Hopeful well supplied with goodakoo.
My camera having duly arrived, together with a package of letters, which are always doubly welcome to a wanderer in distant lands, I prepare to resume my southward journey. The few days' rest has enabled me to recover from the wilting effects of riding in the terrific heat, and I have seen something of one of the most interesting points in all Asia. Delhi is sometimes called the "Home of Asia," which, it seems to me, is a very appropriate name to give it.
Neatly clad and modest-looking females, native converts to Christianity, are walking in orderly procession to church, testaments in hand, as I wheel through the streets of Delhi on Sunday morning toward the Agra road. Very interesting is it to see these dusky daughters of heathendom arrayed in modest white muslin gowns, their lithe and graceful forms freed from the barbarous jewellery that distinguishes the persons of their unconverted sisters. Very charming do they look in their Christianized simplicity and self-contained demeanor as they walk quietly, and at a becoming Sabbath-day pace, two by two, down the Chandni Chouk. They present an instructive comparison to the straggling groups of heathen damsels who watch them curiously as they walk past and then proceed to chant idolatrous songs, apparently in a spirit of wanton raillery at the Christian maidens and their simple, un-ornamented attire. The fair heathens of Delhi have a sort of naughty, Parisian reputation throughout the surrounding country, and so there is nothing surprising in this exhibition of wanton hilarity directed at these more strait-laced converts to the religion of the Ferenghis. The heathen damsels, arrayed in very worldly costumes, consisting of flaring red, yellow, and blue garments, the whole barbaric and ostentatious array of nose-rings, ear-rings, armlets, anklets, rupee necklaces, and pendents, and the multifarious gewgaws of Hindoo womankind, look surpassingly wicked and saucy in comparison with their converted sisters. The gentle converts try hard to regard their heathen songs with indifference, and to show by their very correct deportment the superiority of meekness, virtue, and Christianity over gaudy clothes, vulgar silver jewellery, and heathenism. The whole scene reminds one very forcibly of a gang of wicked street-boys at home, poking fun at a Sunday-school procession or a platoon of Salvation Army soldiers parading the streets.
Past the Queen's Gardens and the fort, down a long street of native shops, and out of the Delhi gate I wheel, past the grim battlements of Firozabad, along a rather flinty road that extends for ten miles, after which commences again the splendid kunkah. Villages are numerous, and the country populous; tombs and the ruins of cities dot the landscape, pahnee-chowkees, where yellow Brahmans dispense water to thirsty wayfarers, line the road, and at one point three splendid, massive archways, marking some place that has lost its former importance, span my road.
Hindoos are now the prevailing race, and their religion finds frequent expression in idol temples and shrines beneath little roadside groves. The night is spent on the porch of a dak bungalow just outside the walls of Pullwal, a typical Hindoo city, with all its curious display of hideous idols, idolatrous paintings, and beautiful carved temples with gilded spires. The groves about the bungalow are literally swarming with green parrots; in big flocks they sweep past near my charpoy, producing a great wh-r-r-r-ring commotion with their wings. A flock of parrots may be so far aloft as to be well-nigh beyond the range of human vision in the ethery depths, but the noise of their wings will be plainly audible.
A two hours' terrific downpour delays me at the village of Hodell next day, and affords an opportunity to inspect an ordinary little Hindoo village temple. The captain of the police-thana sends a tall Sikh policeman to show me in. The temple is only a small tapering marble edifice about thirty feet high, surmounted by a gilded crescent, and resting on a hollow plinth, the hollow of which provides quarters for the priest. One is expected to remove his foot-gear before going inside, the same as in a Mohammedan mosque. A taper is burning in a niche of the wall; mural paintings of snakes, many-handed gods, bulls, monsters, and mythical deities create a cheap and garish impression. In the centre of the floor is a marble linga, and grouped around it a miniature man, woman, and elephant; before these are laid offerings of flowers. The interior of the temple is not more than eight feet square, a mere cell in which the deities are housed; the worshippers mostly perform their prostrations on the plinth outside. The villagers gather in a crowd about the temple and watch every movement of my brief inspection; they seem pleased at the sight of a Sahib honoring their religion by removing his shoes and carefully respecting their feelings. When I descend from the plinth they fall back and greet me with smiles and salaams.
The rain clears up and I forge ahead, finding the kunkah road-bed none the worse for the drenching it has just received. Hour by hour one gets more surprised at the multitudes of pedestrians on the road; neither rain nor sun seems to affect their number. Some of the costumes observed are quite startling in their ingenuity and effect. One garment much affected by the Rajput women are yellowish shawls or mantles, phool-karis, in which, are set numerous small circular mirrors about the circumference of a silver half-dollar; the effect of these in the bright Indian sun, as the wearer trudges along in the distance, is as though she were all ablaze with gems. Whenever I wheel past a group of Rajput females, they either stand with averted faces or cover up their heads with their shawls.
The road-inspector's bungalow at Chattee affords me shelter, and an intelligent native gentleman, who speaks a misleading quality of English, supplies me with a supper of curried rice and fowl. Hard by is a Hindoo temple, whence at sunset issue the sweetest chimes imaginable from a peal of silver-toned bells. My charpoy is placed on the porch facing the east, and soon the rotund face of the rising moon floats above the trees, and the silvery tinkle of the bells is followed by a chorus of jackals paying their noisy compliments to its loveliness. My slumbers can hardly be said to be unbroken to-night, three pariah dogs have taken a fancy to my quarters; two of them sit on their haunches and howl dismally in response to the jackals, while number three reclines sociably beneath my charpoy and growls at the others as though constituting himself my protector. Some Indian Romeo is serenading his dusky Juliet in the neighboring town; flocks of roysteriug parrots go whirring past at all hours of the night, and a too liberal indulgence in red-hot curry keeps me on the verge of a nightmare almost till the silvery tinkle-tinkle of the Brahman bells announces the break of day.
Cynics have sometimes denounced Christians as worse than the heathens, in requiring loud church-bells to summon them to worship. Such, it appears, are putting the case rather thoughtlessly. Mohammedans have their muezzins, while both Christians and idolaters have their chiming bells. Neither Christians, nor Mohammedans, nor heathens need these agencies to summon them to their respective worldly enjoyments, so that, taken all in all, we are pretty much alike--cynics, notwithstanding, to the contrary, we are little or no worse than the heathens.
A loudly wailing woman with her head covered up, and supported between two companions who are vainly trying to console her, and a party conveying two cassowaries, a pair of white peacocks, and a kangaroo from Calcutta to some rajah's menagerie up country, are among the curiosities encountered on the road the following day. Spending the afternoon and night in the quarters of the Third Dragoon Guards at Muttra Cantonment, I resume my journey early in the morning, dodging from shelter to shelter to avoid frequent heavy showers.
It is but thirty-five miles from Muttra to Agra, and notwithstanding showers and heat, the distance is covered by half-past ten. Wheeling at this pace, however, is an indiscretion, and the completion of the stretch is signalized by a determination to seek shade and quiet for the remainder of the day. Once again the sociable officers of the garrison tender me the hospitality of their quarters, and the ensuing day is spent in visiting that wonder of the world, the Taj Mahal, Akbar's fort, and other wonderful monuments of the palmy days of the Mogul Empire.
Finer and more imposing in appearance even than the fort at Delhi, is that at Agra. Walls of red sandstone, seventy feet high, and a mile and a half in circuit, picturesquely crenellated, and with imposing gateways and a deep, broad moat, Complete a work of stupendous dimensions. One is overcome with a sense of grandeur upon first beholding these Indian palace-forts, after seeing nothing more imposing than mud walls in Persia and Afghanistan; they are magnificent looking structures. The contrast, too, of the red sandstone walls and gates and ramparts, with the white marble buildings of the royal quarters, is very striking. The domes of the latter, seen at a distance, seem like snow-white bubbles resting ever so lightly and airily upon the darker mass; one almost expects to see them rise up and float away on the passing zephyrs like balloons.
Passing inside over a drawbridge and through the massive Delhi Gate, we proceed into the interior of the fort, traversing a broad ascent of sandstone pavement. Everything around us shows evidence of unstinted outlay in design, execution, and completion of detail in the carrying out of a stupendous undertaking. Everywhere the spirit of Akbar the Magnificent seems to hover amid his creations. One emerges from the covered gateway and the walled corrugated causeway, upon the parade ground. Crenellated walls, a park of artillery, and roomy English barracks greet the vision. Sentinels--Sepoy sentinels in huge turbans, and English sentinels in white sun-helmets--are pacing their beats. But not on these does the gaze of the visitor rest. Straight ahead of him there rises, above the red sandstone walls and the bare parade ground, three marble domes, white as newly-fallen snow, and just beyond are seen the gilt pinnacles of Akbar's palace.
We wander among the beautiful marble creations, gaze in wonder at the snowy domes supported on marble pillars, mosaiced with jasper, agate, blood-stone, lapis-lazuli, and other rare stones. We stand on the white marble balustrades, carved so exquisitely as to resemble lace-work, and we look out upon the yellow waters of the Jumna, flowing sluggishly along seventy feet below. Here is where the Grand Mogul, Akbar, used to sit and watch elephant fights and boat races. There are none of these to be seen now; but that does not mean that the prospect is either tame or uninteresting. The banks of the Jumna are alive with hundreds of dusky natives engaged in washing clothes and spreading linen out in the sun to bleach. The prospect beyond is a revelation of vegetable luxuriance and wealth, and of historical reminiscence in the shape of ruins and tombs.
One's eyes, however, are drawn away from the contemplation of the picturesque life below, and from the prospect of grove and garden and crumbling tombs, by the mesmerism, of the crowning glory of all Indian architectural triumphs, the famous Taj. This matchless mausoleum rests on the right-hand bank of the Jumna, about a mile down stream. The Taj, with its marvellous beauty and snowy whiteness, seems to cast a spell over the beholder, from the first; one can no more keep his eyes off it, when it is within one's range of vision, than he can keep from breathing. It draws one's attention to itself as irresistibly as though its magnetism were a living and breathing force exerted directly to that end. It is the subtlety of its unapproachable loveliness, commanding homage from all beholders, whether they will or no.
We turn away from it awhile, however, and find ample scope for admiration close at hand. We tread the marble aisles of the Pearl Mosque, considered the most perfect gem of its kind in existence. One stands in its court-yard and finds himself in the chaste and exclusive companionship of snowy marble and blue sky. One feels almost ill at ease, as though conscious of being an imperfect thing, marring perfection by his presence. "Quiet as a nun, breathless with adoration," one enthusiastic visitor exclaims, in an effort to put his sentiments and impressions of the Moti Mesjid into words. Like this adoring traveller, the average visitor will rest content to be carried away by the contemplation of its chaste beauty, without prying around for possible defects in the details of the particular school of architecture it graces. He will have little patience with carping critics who point to the beautiful screens, of floriated marble tracery, and say: "Nuns should not wear collars of point lace."
From the Moti Mesjid, we visit the Shish Mahal, or mirrored bath-rooms. The chambers and passages here remind me of the mirrored rooms of Persia; here, as there, thousands of tiny mirrors are used in working out various intricate designs. My three uniformed companions at once reflect not less than half a regiment of British soldiers therein.
From the fort we drive in a native gharri to the Taj, a mile-drive through suburban scenery, plantain-gardens, groves, and ruins. In approaching the garden of the Taj, one passes through a bazaar, where the skilful Hindoo artisans are busy making beautiful inlaid tables, inkstands, plates, and similar fancies, as well as models of the Taj, out of white Jeypore marble. These are the hereditary descendants and successors of the men who in the palmy days of the Mogul power spent their lives in decorating the royal palaces and tombs with mosaics and tracery. Nowadays their skill is expended on mere articles of virtue, to be sold to European tourists and English officers. Some of them are occasionally employed by the Indian Government to repair the work desecrated by vandals during the mutiny, and under the purely commercial government of the East India Company. One curious phase of this work is, that the men employed to replace with imitations the original stones that have been stolen receive several times higher pay than the men in Akbar's time, who did such splendid work that it is not to be approached, these days. Several months' imprisonment is now the penalty of prying out stones from the mosaic-work of the Taj.
This lovely structure has been described so often by travellers that one can scarce venture upon a description without seeming to repeat what has already been said by others. One of the best descriptions of its situation and surroundings is given by Bayard Taylor. He says: "The Taj stands on the bank of the Jumna, rather more than a mile to the eastward of the Fort of Agra. It is approached by a handsome road cut through the mounds left by the ruins of ancient palaces. It stands in a large garden, inclosed by a lofty wall of red sandstone, with arched galleries around the interior, and entered by a superb gateway of sandstone, inlaid with ornaments and inscriptions from the Koran in white marble. Outside this grand portal, however, is a spacious quadrangle of solid masonry, with an elegant structure, intended as a caravanserai, on the opposite side. Whatever may be the visitor's impatience, he cannot help pausing to notice the fine proportions of these structures, and the massive style of their construction. Passing under the open demi-vault, whose arch hangs high above you, an avenue of dark Italian cypress appears before you. Down its centre sparkles a long row of fountains, each casting up a single slender jet. On both sides, the palm, the banyan, and feathery bamboo mingle their foliage; the song of birds meets your ears, and the odor of roses and lemon-flowers sweetens the air. Down such a vista, and over such a foreground, rises the Taj."
Of the Taj itself, fault has been found with its proportions by severe critics, like the party who regards the Moti Mesjid "nun" as faulty because she wears a point-lace collar; but the ordinary visitor will find room for nothing but admiration and wonder. It is hard to believe that there is any defect, even in its proportions, for so perfect do these latter appear, that one is astonished to learn that it is a taller building than the Kootub Minar. One would never guess it to be anywhere near so tall as 243 feet. The building rests on a plinth of white marble, eighteen feet high and a hundred yards square. At each corner of the plinth stands a minaret, also of white marble, and 137 feet high. The mausoleum itself occupies the central space, measuring in depth and width 186 feet. The entire affair is of white Jeypore marble, resting upon a lower platform of sandstone: "A thing of perfect beauty and of absolute finish in every detail, it might pass for the work of a genii, who knew naught of the weaknesses and ills with which mankind are beset. It is not a great national temple erected by a free and united people, it owes its creation to the whim of an absolute ruler who was free to squander the resources of the State in commemorating his personal sorrows or his vanity."
Another distinguished visitor, commenting on the criticisms of those who profess to have discovered defects, says: "The Taj is like a lovely woman; abuse her as you please, but the moment you come into her presence, you submit to its fascination."
"If to her share some female errors fall, Look in her face, and you'll forget them all."
Passing beneath the vaulted gateway, we find a sign-board, telling that the best place from which to view the Taj is from the roof of the gateway. A flight of steps leads us to the designated vantage-point, when the tropic garden, the fountains, the twin mosques in the far corners, the river, the minarets, and, above all, the Taj itself lay spread out before us for our inspection. The scene might well conjure up a vision of Paradise itself. The glorious Taj: "So light it seems, so airy, and so like a fabric of mist and moonbeams, with its great dome soaring up, a silvery bubble," that it is difficult, even at a few hundred yards' distance, to believe it a creation of human hands. While gazing on the Taj, men let their cigars go out, and ladies drop their fans without noticing it.
Descending the steps again, we pass inside, and again pause to survey it from the end of the avenue. An element of the ridiculous here appears in the person and the appeals of an old Hindoo fruit-vender. This hopeful agent of Pomona squats beside a little tray, and, as we stand and feast our eyes on the sublimest object in the world of architecture, he persistently calls our attention to a dozen or two half-decayed mangoes and custard-apples that comprise his stock in trade.
We pass down the cypress aisle, and invade the plinth. Hundreds of natives, both male and female, are wandering about it. The dazzling whiteness of the promenade is in striking contrast to the color of their own bodies. As the groups of women walk about, their toe-rings and ankle-ornaments jingle against the marble, and their particolored raiment and barbarous gewgaws look curiously out of place here. The place seems more appropriate to vestal virgins, robed in white, than to dusky Hindoo females, arrayed in all the colors of the rainbow. Many of these people are pilgrims who have come hundreds of miles to see the Taj, and to pay tribute to the memory of Shah Jehan, and his faithful wife the Princess Arjumund, whose mausoleum is the Taj. Two young men we see, leading an aged female, probably their mother, down the steps to the vault, where, side by side, the remains of this royal pair repose. The old lady is going down there to deposit a rose or two upon Arjumund's tomb, a tender tribute paid to-day, by thousands, to her memory.
We climb the spiral stairs of one of the miuars, and sit out on the little pavilion at the top, watching the big ugly crocodiles float lazily on the surface of the Jumna at our feet. Before departing, we enter the Taj and examine the wonderful mosaics on the cenotaphs and the encircling screen-work. This inlaid flower-work is quite in keeping with the general magnificence of the mausoleum, many of the flowers containing not less than twenty-five different stones, assorted shades of agate, carnelian, jasper, blood-stone, lapis lazuli, and turquoise. Ere leaving we put to test the celebrated echo; that beautiful echoing, that--"floats and soars overhead in a long, delicious undulation, fading away so slowly that you hear it after it is silent, as you see, or seem to see, a lark you have been watching, after it is swallowed up in the blue vault of heaven."
We leave this garden of enchantment by way of one of the mosques. An Indian boy is licking up honey from the floor of the holy edifice with his tongue. We look up and perceive that enough rich honey-comb to fill a bushel measure is suspended on one of the beams, and so richly laden is it that the honey steadily drips down. The sanctity of the place, I suppose, prevents the people molesting the swarm of wild bees that have selected it for their storehouse, or from relieving them of their honey.
The Taj is said to have cost about two million pounds, even though most of the labor was performed without pay, other than rations of grain to keep the workmen from starving. Twenty thousand men were employed upon it for twenty-two years, and for its inlaid work "gems and precious stones came in camel-loads from various countries."
The next morning I bid farewell to Agra, more than satisfied with my visit to the Taj. It stands unique and distinct from anything else one sees the whole world round. Nothing one could say about it can give the satisfaction derived from a visit, and no word-painting can do it justice.
Text, code and images © Ray Schumacher 2005