FROM AGRA TO SINGAPORE.
A couple of miles from the cantonment, and the broad Jumna is crossed on a pontoon bridge, the buoys of which are tubular iron floats instead of boats. Crocodiles are observed floating, motionless as logs, their heads turned up-stream and their snouts protruding from the water. The road is undulating for a few miles and then perfectly level, as, indeed, it has been most of the way from Lahore.
Pilgrims carrying little red flags, and sometimes bits of red paper tied to sticks, are encountered by the hundred; mayhap they have come from distant points to gaze upon the beauties of the Taj Mahal, the fame of which resounds to the farthermost corners of India. They can now see it across the Jumna, resting on the opposite bank, looking more like a specimen of the architecture of the skies than anything produced by mere earthly agency.
A partly dilapidated Mohammedan mosque in the middle of a forty-acre walled reservoir, overgrown with water-lilies, forms a charming subject for the attention of my camera. The mosque is approached from an adjacent village by a viaduct of twenty arches; a propos of its peculiar surroundings, one might easily fancy the muezzin's call to prayer taking the appropriate form of, "Come where the water-lilies bloom," instead of the orthodox, "Allah-il-allah."
Villages are now rows of shops lining the road on either side, sometimes as much as half a mile in length. The entrance is usually marked by a shrine containing a hideous idol, painted red and finished off with cheap-looking patches of gold or silver tinsel. In the larger towns, evidences of English philanthropy loom conspicuously above the hut-like shops and inferior houses of the natives in the form of large and substantial brick buildings, prominently labelled "Ferozabad Hospital" or "Government Free Dispensary." A discouraging head-wind blows steadily all day, and it is near sunset when the thirty-seven miles to Sbikarabad is covered. A mile west of the town, I am told, is the Rohilcund Railway, the dak bungalow, and the bungalow of an English Sahib. Quite suitable for a one-mile race-track as regards surface is this little side-stretch, and a spin along its smooth length is rewarded by a most comfortable night at the bungalow of Mr. S, an engineer of the Ganges Canal, a magnificent irrigating enterprise, on the banks of which his bungalow stands. Several school-boys from Allahabad are here spending their vacation, shooting peafowls and fishing. Wild boars abound in the tall tiger-grass of the Shikobabad district and the silence of the gloaming is broken by the shouting of natives driving them out of their cane-patches, where, if not looked after pretty sharply, they do considerable damage in the night.
A curious illustration of native vanity and love of fame is pointed out here in the case of a wealthy gentleman who has spent some thousands of rupees in making and maintaining a beautiful flower-garden in the midst of a worthless piece of sandy land, close by the railway station. Close by is an abundance of excellent ground, where his garden might have been easily and inexpensively maintained. Asked the reason for this strange preference and seemingly foolish choice, he replied: "When people see this beautiful garden in the midst of the barren sand, they will ask, 'Whose garden is this?' and thus will my name become known among men. If, on the other hand, it were planted on good soil, nobody would see anything extraordinary in it, and nobody would trouble themselves to ask to whom it belongs."
Youthful Davids, perched on frail platforms that rise above the sugar-cane, indigo, or cotton crops, shout and wield slings with dexterous aim and vigor, to keep away vagrant crows, parrots, and wild pigs, all along the line of my next day's ride to Mainpuri. In many fields these young slingers and their platforms are but a couple of hundred yards apart, the range of their weapons covering the entire crop-area around. Sometimes I endeavor to secure one of these excellent subjects for my camera, but the youngsters invariably clamber down from their perch at seeing me dismount, and become invisible among the thick cane.
To the music of loud, rolling thunder, I speed swiftly over the last few miles, and dash beneath the porch of the post-office just in the nick of time to escape a tremendous downpour of rain. How it pours, sometimes, in India, converting the roads into streams and the surrounding country into a shallow lake in the space of a few minutes. Hundreds of youths, naked save for the redeeming breech-cloth, disport themselves in the great warm shower-bath, chasing one another sportively about and enjoying the downpour immensely.
The rain ceases, and, with water flinging from my wheel, I seek the civil lines and the dak bungalow three miles farther down the road. Very good meals are dished up by the chowkee-dar at this bungalow, who seems an intelligent and enterprising fellow; but the lean and slippered punkah-wallah is a far less satisfactory part of the accommodation. Twice during the night the punkah ceases to wave and the demon of prickly heat instantly wakes me up; and both times do I have to turn out and arouse him from the infolding arms of Morpheus. On the second occasion the old fellow actually growls at being disturbed. He is wide-awake and obsequious enough, however, at backsheesh-time in the morning.
The clock at the little English station-church chimes the hour of six as I resume my journey next morning along a glorious avenue of overarching shade-trees to Bhogan, where my road, which from Delhi has been a branch road, again merges into the Grand Trunk. Groves of tall toddy-palms are a distinguishing feature of Bhogan, and a very pretty little Hindoo temple marks the southern extremity of the town. A striking red and gilt shrine in a secluded grove of peepuls arrests my attention a few miles out of town, and, repairing thither, my rude intrusion fills with silent surprise a company of gentle Brahman youths and maidens paying their matutinal respects to the representation of Kamadeva, the Hindoo cupid and god of love. They seem overwhelmed with embarrassment at the appearance of a Sahib, but they say nothing. I explain that my object is merely a "tomasha" of the exquisitely carved shrine, and a young Brahman, with his smooth, handsome face fantastically streaked with yellow, follows silently behind as I walk around the building. His object is evidently to satisfy himself that nothing is touched by my unhallowed Christian hands.
Seven miles from Bhogan is the camping ground of Bheyo, where in December, 1869, an English soldier was assassinated in the night while standing sentry beneath a tree. His grave, beneath the gnarled mango where he fell, is marked by two wooden crosses, and the tree-trunk is all covered with memorial plates nailed there, from time to time, by the various troops who have camped here on their winter marches.
Twenty-eight miles are duly reeled off when, just outside a village, I seek the shade of a magnificent banyan. The kindly villagers, unaccustomed to seeing a Sahib without someone attending to his comfort, bring me a charpoy to recline on, and they inquire anxiously, "roti? pahni? doctor." (am I hungry, thirsty, or ill?). Nor are these people actuated by mercenary thoughts, for not a pice will they accept on my departure. "Nay, Sahib, nay," they reply, eagerly, smiling and shaking their heads, "pice, nay." The narrow-gauge Rohilcuud Railway now follows along the Grand Trunk road, being built on one edge of the broad road-bed. Miran Serai, a station on this road, is my destination for the day; there, however, no friendly dak bungalow awaits my coming and no hostelry of any kind is to be found.
The native station-master advises me to go to the superintendent of police across the way; the police-officer, in turn, suggests applying to the station-master. The police-thana here is a large establishment, and a number of petty prisoners are occupying railed-off enclosures beneath the arched entrance. They accost me through the bars of their temporary, cage-like prison with smiles, and "Sahib" spoken in coaxing tones, as though moved by the childish hope that I might perchance take pity on them and order the police to set them at liberty.
A small and pardonable display of "bounce" at the railway station finally secures me the quarters reserved for the accommodation of English officers of the road, and a Mohammedan employe about the station procures me a supply of curried rice and meat. The station-master himself is a high-caste Hindoo and can speak English; he politely explains the difficulty of his position, as an extra-holy person, in being unable to personally attend to the wants of a Sahib. Upon discovering that I have taken up my quarters in the station, the police-superintendent comes over and begs permission to send over my supper, as he is evidently anxious to cultivate my good opinion, or, at all events, to make sure of giving no offence in failing to accommodate me with sleeping quarters at the thana. He supplements the efforts of the Mohammedan employe, by sending over a dish of sweetened chuppaties.
On the street leading out of Miran Serai is a very handsome and elaborately ornamented temple. Passing by early in the morning, I pay it a brief, unceremonious visit of inspection, kneeling on the steps and thrusting my helmeted head in to look about, not caring to go to the trouble of removing my shoes. Inside is an ancient Brahman, engaged in sweeping out the floral offerings of the previous day; he favors me with the first indignant glance I have yet received in India. When I have satisfied my curiosity and withdrawn from the door-way, he comes out himself and shuts the beautifully chased brazen door with quite an angry slam. The day previous was the anniversary of Krishna's birth, and the blood of sacrificial goats and bullocks is smeared profusely about the altar. It is, probably, the enormity of an unhallowed unbeliever in one god, thrusting his infidel head inside the temple at this unseemly hour of the morning, while the blood of the mighty Krishna's sacrificial victims is scarcely dry on the walls, that arouses the righteous wrath of the old heathen priest--as well, indeed, it might.
Passing through a village abounding in toddy-palms, I avail myself of an opportunity to investigate the merits of a beverage that I have been somewhat curious about since reaching India, having heard it spoken of so often. The famous "palm-wine" is merely the sap of the toddy-palm, collected much as is the sap from the maple-sugar groves of America, although the palm-juice is generally, if not always, obtained from the upper part of the trunk. When fresh, its taste resembles sweetened water; in a day or two fermentation sets in, and it changes to a beverage that, except for slightly alcoholic properties, might readily be mistaken for vinegar and water.
Every little village or hamlet one passes through, south of Agra, seems laudably determined to own a god of some sort; those whose finances fail to justify them in sporting a nice, red-painted god with gilt trimmings, sometimes console themselves with a humble little two-dollar soapstone deity that looks as if he has been rudely chipped into shape by some unskilful prentice hand. God-making is a highly respectable and lucrative profession in India, but only those able to afford it can expect the luxury of a nice painted and varnished deity right to their hand every day. People cannot expect a first-class deity for a couple of rupees; although the best of everything is generally understood to be the cheapest in the end, it takes money to buy marble, red paint, and gold-leaf. A bowl of pulse porridge, sweet and gluey, is prepared and served up in a big banyan-leaf at noon by a villager. In the same village is one of those very old and shrivelled men peculiar to India. From appearances, he must be nearly a hundred years old; his skin resembles the epidermis of a mummy, and hangs in wrinkles about his attenuated frame. He spends most of his time smoking goodakoo from a neat little cocoa-nut hookah.
The evening hour brings me into Cawnpore, down a fine broad street divided in the centre by a canal, with flights of stone steps for banks and a double row of trees--a street far broader and finer than the Chandni Chouk--and into an hotel kept by a Parsee gentleman named Byramjee. Life at this hostelry is made of more than passing interest by the familiar manner in which frogs, lizards, and birds invade the privacy of one's apartments. Not one of these is harmful, but one naturally grows curious about whether a cobra or some other less desirable member of the reptile world is not likely at any time to join their interesting company. The lizards scale the walls and ceiling in search of flies, frogs hop sociably about the floor, and a sparrow now and then twitters in and out.
A two weeks' drought has filled the farmers of the Cawnpore district with grave apprehensions concerning their crops; but enough rain falls to-night to gladden all their hearts, and also to leak badly through the roof of my bedroom.
My punkah-wallah here is a regular automaton--he has acquired the valuable accomplishment of pulling the punkah-string back and forth in his sleep; he keeps it up some time after I have quitted the room in the morning, until a comrade comes round and wakes him up.
For three days the rains continue almost without interruption, raining as much as seven inches in one night. Slight breaks occur in the downpour, during which it is possible to get about and take a look at the Memorial Gardens and the native town. The Memorial Gardens and the well enclosed therein commemorate one of the most pathetic incidents of the mutiny--the brutal massacre by Nana Sahib of about two hundred English women and children. This arch-fiend held supreme sway over Cawnpore from June 6, 1857, till July 15th, and in that brief period committed some of the most atrocious deeds of treachery and deviltry that have ever been, recorded. Backed by a horde of blood-thirsty mutineers, he committed deeds the memory of which causes tears of pity for his victims to come unbidden into the eyes of the English tourist thirty years after. Delicate ladies, who from infancy had been the recipients of tender care and consideration, were herded together in stifling rooms with the thermometer at 120 deg. in the shade, marched through the broiling sun for miles, subjected to heart-rending privations, and at length finally butchered, together with their helpless children. After the treacherous massacre of the few surviving Englishmen at the Suttee Chowra Ghaut, the remaining women and children were reserved for further cruelties, and the final act of Nana's fiendish vengeance. From the graphic account of this murderous period of Cawnpore's history contained in the "Tourists' Guide to Cawnpore" is quoted the following brief account of Nana's consummate deed of devilment.
But the Nana's reign of terror was now drawing to a close, though not to terminate without a stroke destined to make the civilized world shudder from end to end. He was now to put the finishing touch to his work of mischief. The councils of the wicked were being troubled. Danger was on its way. Stories were brought in by scouting Sepoys of terrible bronzed men coming up the Grand Trunk Road, before whose advance the rebel hosts were fleeing like chaff and dust before the fan of the threshing-floor, Futtehpore had fallen, and disaster had overtaken the rebel forces at Aoung. Reinforcements were despatched by Nana in rapid succession, but all was of no avail--on came Havelock and his handful of heroes, carrying everything before them in their determination to rescue the hapless women and children imprisoned at Cawnpore. About noon on July 15th a few troopers came in from the south and informed Nana that his last reinforcement had met the same fate as the others, and reported that the English were coming up the road like mad horses, caring for neither cannon nor musketry; nor did these appear to have any effect on them. The guilty Nana, with the blood of the recent treacherous massacre on his hands, grew desperate at the hopelessness of the situation, and called a council of war. What plans could they devise to keep out the English? what steps could they adopt to stay their advance. The conclusion arrived at in that council of human tigers could have found expression nowhere save in the brains of Asiatics, illogical, and diabolically cruel. "We will destroy the maims and baba logues," they said, "and inform the English force of it; they will then be disheartened, and go back, for they are only a handful in number!"
How the unfortunate innocents were butchered in cold blood in the beebeegurch where they were confined, by Sepoys who gloried in trying their skill at severing the ladies' heads from their bodies at one cut, in splitting little children in twain, and in smearing themselves with the blood of their helpless victims, is too harrowing a tale to dwell upon here. On the following morning "the mangled bodies of both dead and dying" were cast into the well over which now hovers the marble representation of the Pitying Angel. When the victorious relieving force scattered Nana's remaining forces and entered the city, two days later, instead of the living forms of those they had made such heroic efforts to save, they looked down the well and saw their ghastly remains.
In this lovely garden, where all is now so calm and peaceful, scarcely does it seem possible that beneath the marble figure of this Pitying Angel repose the dust of two hundred of England's gentle martyrs, whose murdered and mutilated forms, but thirty years ago, choked up the well into which they were tossed. While I stand and read the sorrowful inscription it rains a gentle, soft, unpattering shower. Are these gentle droppings the tender tribute of angels' tears. I wonder, and does it always rain so soft and noiselessly here as it does to-day?
No natives are permitted in this garden without special permission; and an English soldier keeps sentinel at the entrance-gate instead of the Sepoy usually found on such duty. The memory of this tragedy seems to hang over Cawnpore like a cloud even to this day, and to cause a feeling of bitterness in the minds of Englishmen, who everywhere else regard the natives about them with no other feelings than of the kindliest possible nature. Other monuments of the mutiny exist, notably the Memorial Church, a splendid Lombard-Gothic structure erected in memoriam of those who fell in the mutiny here. The church is full of tablets commemorating the death of distinguished people, and the stained-glass windows are covered with the names of the victims of Nana Sahib's treachery, and of those who fell in action.
Cawnpore is celebrated for the number and extensiveness of its manufactures, and might almost be called the Manchester of India; woollen, cotton, and jute mills abound, leather factories, and various kindred industries, giving employment to millions of capital and thousands of hands.
A stroll through the native quarter of any Indian city is interesting, and Cawnpore is no exception. One sees buildings and courts the decorations and general appearance of which leave the beholder in doubt as to whether they are theatre or temple. Music and tom-toming would seem rather to suggest the former, but upon entering one sees fakirs and Hindoo devotees, streaked with clay, fanciful paintings and hideous idols, and all the cheap pomp and pageantry of idolatrous worship. Strolling into one of these places, an attendant, noting my curious gazing, presents himself and points to a sign-board containing characters as meaningless to me as Aztec hieroglyphics.
In one narrow street a crowd of young men are struggling violently for position about a door, where an old man is flinging handfuls of yellow powder among the crowd. The struggling men are aspirants for the honor of having a portion of the powder alight on their persons. I inquire of a native by-stander what it all means; the explanation is politely given, but being in the vernacular of the country, it is wasted on the unprofitable soil of my own lingual ignorance.
Impatient to be getting along, I misinterpret a gleam of illusory sunshine at noon on the third day of the rain-storm and pull out, taking a cursory glance at the Memorial Church as I go. A drenching shower overtakes me in the native military lines, compelling me to seek shelter for an hour beneath the portico of their barracks. The road is perfectly level and smooth, and well rounded, so that the water drains off and leaves it better wheeling than ever; and with alternate showers and sunshine I have no difficulty in covering thirty-four miles before sunset. This brings me to a caravanserai, consisting of a quadrangular enclosure with long rows of cell-like rooms. The whole structure is much inferior to a Persian caravanserai, but there is probably no need of the big brick structures of Shah Abbas in a winterless country like India.
Interesting subjects are not wanting for my camera through the day; but the greatest difficulty is experienced about changing the negatives at night. A small lantern with a very feeble light, made still more feeble by interposing red paper, suffices for my own purpose; but the too attentive chowkee-dar, observing that my room is in darkness, and fancying that my light has gone out accidentally, comes flaring in with a torch, threatening the sensitive negatives with destruction.
The morning opens with a fine drizzle or extra-heavy mist that is penetrating and miserable, soaking freely into one's clothes, and threatening every minute to change into a regular rain. It is fourteen miles to Futtehpore, and thence two miles off the straight road to the railway-station, where I understand refreshments are to be obtained. The reward of my four-mile detour is a cup of sloppy tea and a few weevil-burrowed biscuits, as the best the refreshment-room can produce on short notice. The dense mist moves across the country in big banks, between which are patches of comparatively decent atmosphere. The country is perfectly flat, devoted chiefly to the cultivation of rice, and the depressions alongside the road are, of course, filled with water.
Timid youngsters, fleeing from the road at my approach, in their scrambling haste sometimes tumble "head-over-heels" in the water; but, beyond a little extra terror lest the dreadful object they see coming bowling along should overtake them, it doesn't matter--they haven't any clothes to spoil or soil. Neither rain nor heat nor dense, reeking, foggy atmosphere seems to diminish the swarms of people on the road, nor the groups bathing or washing clothes beneath the trees. Some of these latter make a very interesting picture. The reader has doubtless visited the Zoo and observed one monkey gravely absorbed in a "phrenological examination" of another's head. With equal gravity and indifference to the world at large, dusky humans are performing a similar office for one another beneath the roadside shade-trees.
Roasted ears of maize and a small muskmelon form my noontide repast, and during its consumption quite a comedy is enacted down the street between a fat, paunchy vender of goodakoo and the shiny-skinned proprietor of a dhal-shop. The scene opens with a wordy controversy about something; scene two shows the fat goodakoo merchant advanced midway between his own and his adversary's premises, capering about, gesticulating, and uttering dire threats; scene three finds him retreating and the valorous man of dhal held in check by his wife to prevent him following after with hostile intent. The men seem boiling over with rage and ready to chew each other up; but, judging from the supreme indifference of everybody else about, nobody expects anything serious, to happen. This is mentionable as being the first quarrel I have seen in India; as a general thing the people are gentleness personified.
Several tattooed Hindoo devotees are observed this afternoon paying solemn devotions to bel-trees streaked with red paint, near the road. Many of the trees also shelter rude earthenware animals, and hemispherical vessels, which are also objects of worship, as representing the linga. The bel-tree is sacred to Siva the Destroyer, and the third person in the Hindoo Triad, whom Brahma himself is said to have worshipped, although he is regarded as the Creator. In the absence of Siva himself, the worship of the bel-tree is supposed to be as efficacious as worshipping the idol direct.
Soon I overtake an individual doing penance for his sins by crawling on his stomach all the way to Benares, the Mecca of the Hindoo religion. In addition to crawling, he is dragging a truck containing his personal effects by a rope tied about his waist. Every fifty yards or so he stands up and stretches himself; then he lies prostrate again and worms his wearisome way along the road like a snake. Benares is still about a hundred miles distant, and not unlikely this determined devotee has already been crawling in this manner for weeks. This painful sort of penance was formerly indulged in by Hindoo fanatics very largely; but the English Government has now all but abolished the practice by mild methods of discouragement. The priests of the different idols in Benares annually send out thousands of missionaries to travel throughout the length and breadth of India to persuade people to make pilgrimages to that city. Each missionary proclaims the great benefits to be derived by going to worship the particular idol he represents; in this manner are the priests enriched by the offerings presented. Not long since one of these zealous pilgrim-hunters persuaded a wealthy rajah into journeying five hundred miles in the same manner as the poor wretch passed on the road to-day. The infatuated rajah completed the task, after months of torture, on all-fours, accompanied the whole distance by a crowd of servants and priests, all living on his bounty.
Many people now wear wooden sandals held on the feet by a spool-like attachment, gripped between the big and second toes. Having no straps, the solid sole of the sandal flaps up and mildly bastinadoes the wearer every step that is taken.
Another night in a caravanserai, where rival proprietors of rows of little chowkees contend for the privilege of supplying me char-poy, dood, and chowel, and where thousands of cawing rooks blacken the trees and alight in the quadrangular serai in noisy crowds, and I enter upon the home-stretch to Allahabad.
In proof that the cycle is making its way in India it may be mentioned that at both Cawnpore and Allahabad the native postmen are mounted on strong, heavy bicycles, made and supplied from the post-office workshops at Allighur. They are rude machines, only a slight improvement upon the honored boneshaker; but their introduction is suggestive of what may be looked for in the future. As evidence, also, of the oft-repeated saying that "the world is small," I here have the good fortune to meet Mr. Wingrave, a wheelman whom I met at the Barnes Common tricycle parade when passing through London.
There is even a small cycle club in quasi existence at Allahabad; but it is afflicted with chronic lassitude, as a result of the enervating climate of the Indian plains. Young men who bring with them from England all the Englishman's love of athletics soon become averse to exercise, and prefer a quiet "peg" beneath the punkah to wheeling or cricket. During the brief respite from the hades-like temperature afforded by December and January, they sometimes take club runs down the Ganges and indulge in the pastime of shooting at alligators with small-bore rifles.
The walks in the beautiful public gardens and every other place about Allahabad are free to wheelmen, and afford most excellent riding.
Messrs. Wingrave and Gawke, the two most enterprising wheelmen, turn out at 6 a.m. to escort me four miles to the Ganges ferry. Some idea of the trying nature of the climate in August may be gathered from the fact that one of my companions arrives at the river fairly exhausted, and is compelled to seek the assistance of a native gharri to get back home. The exposure and exercise I am taking daily is positively dangerous, I am everywhere told, but thus far I have managed to keep free from actual sickness.
The sacred river is at its highest flood, and hereabout not less than a mile and half wide. The ferry service is rude and inefficient, being under the management of natives, who reck little of the flight of time or modern improvements. The superintendent will bestir himself, however, in behalf of the Sahib who is riding the Ferenghi gharri around the world: instead of putting me aboard the big slow ferry, he will man a smaller and swifter boat to ferry me over. The "small boat" is accordingly produced, and turns out to be a rude flat-boat sort of craft, capable of carrying fully twenty tons, and it is manned by eight oarsmen. Their oars are stout bamboo poles with bits of broad board nailed or tied on the end.
Much of the Ganges' present width is mere overflow, shallow enough for the men to wade and tow the boat. It is tugged a considerable distance up-stream, to take advantage of the swift current in crossing the main channel. The oars are plied vigorously to a weird refrain of "deelah, sahlah-deelah, sahlah!" the stroke oarsman shouting "deelah" and the others replying "sahlah" in chorus. Two hours are consumed in crossing the river, but once across the road is perfection itself, right from the river's brink.
Through the valley of the sacred river, the splendid kunkah road leads onward to Benares, the great centre of Hindoo idolatry, a city that is more to the Hindoo than is Mecca to the Mohammedans or Jerusalem to the early Christians. Shrines and idols multiply by the roadside, and tanks innumerable afford bathing and purifying facilities for the far-travelled pilgrims who swarm the road in thousands. As the heathen devotee approaches nearer and nearer to Benares he feels more and more devotionally inclined, and these tanks of the semi-sacred water of the Ganges Valley happily afford him opportunity to soften up the crust of his accumulated transgressions, preparatory to washing them away entirely by a plunge off the Kamnagar ghaut at Benares. Many of the people are trudging their way homeward again, happy in the possession of bottles of sacred water obtained from the river at the holy city. Precious liquid this, that they are carrying in earthenware bottles hundreds of weary miles to gladden the hearts of stay-at-home friends and relations.
At every tank scores of people are bathing, washing their clothes, or scouring out the brass drinking vessel almost everyone carries for pulling water up from the roadside wells. They are far less particular about the quality of the water itself than about the cleanliness of the vessel. Many wells for purely drinking purposes abound, and Brahmans serve out cool water from little pahnee-chowkees through window-like openings. Wealthy Hindoos, desirous of performing some meritorious act to perpetuate their memory when dead, frequently build a pahnee-chowkee by the roadside and endow it with sufficient land or money to employ a Brahman to serve out drinking-water to travellers.
Thirty miles from Allahabad, I pause at a wayside well to obtain a drink. It is high noon, and the well is on unshaded ground. For a brief moment my broad-brimmed helmet is removed so that a native can pour water into my hands while I hold them to my mouth. Momentary as is the experience, it is followed by an ominous throbbing and ringing in the ears--the voice of the sun's insinuating power. But a very short distance is covered when I am compelled to seek the shelter of a little road-overseer's chowkee, the symptoms of fever making their appearance with alarming severity.
The quinine that I provided myself with at Constantinople is brought into requisition for the first time; it is found to be ruined from not being kept in an air-tight vessel. A burning fever keeps me wide awake till 2 a.m., and in the absence of a punkah, prickly heat prevents my slumbering afterward. This wakeful night by the roadside enlightens me to the interesting fact that the road is teeming with people all night as well as all day, many preferring to sleep in the shade during the day and travel at night.
It is fifty miles from my chowkee to Benares, and the dread of being overtaken with serious illness away from medical assistance urges upon me the advisability of reaching there to-day, if possible. The morning is ushered in with a stiff head-wind, and the fever leaves me feeling anything but equal to pedalling against it when I mount my wheel at early daybreak. By sheer strength of will I reel off mile after mile, stopping to rest frequently at villages and under the trees.
A troop of big government elephants are having their hoofs trimmed at a village where a halt is made to obtain a bite of bread and milk. The elephants enter unmistakable objections to the process in the way of trumpeting, and act pretty much like youngsters objecting to soap and water. But a word and a gentle tap from the mahout's stick and the monster brutes roll over on their sides and submit to the inevitable with a shrill protesting trumpet.
Another diversion not less interesting than the elephants is a wrestling tournament at the police-thana, where twenty stalwart policemen, stripped as naked as the proprieties of a country where little clothing is worn anyhow will permit, are struggling for honor in the arena. Vigorous tom-toming encourages the combatants to do their best, and they flop one another over merrily, in the dampened clay, to the applause of a delighted crowd of lookers-on. The fifty miles are happily overcome by four o'clock, and with the fever heaping additional fuel on the already well-nigh unbearable heat, I arrive pretty thoroughly exhausted at Clarke's Hotel, in the European quarter of Benares.
Of all the cities of the East, Benares is perhaps the most interesting at the present day to the European tourist. Its fourteen hundred shivalas or idol temples, and two hundred and eighty mosques, its wonderful bathing ghauts swarming with pilgrims washing away their sins, the burning bodies, the sacred Ganges, the hideous idols at every corner of the streets, and its strange idolatrous population, make up a scene that awakens one to a keen appreciation of its novelty. One realizes fully that here the idolatry, the "bowing down before images" that in our Sunday-school days used to seem so unutterably wicked and perverse, so monstrous, and so far, far away, is a tangible fact. To keep up their outward appearance on a par with the holiness of their city, men streak their faces and women mark the parting in their hair with red. Sacred bulls are allowed to roam the streets at will, and the chief business of a large proportion of the population seems to be the keeping of religious observances and paying devotion to the multitudinous idols scattered about the city.
The presiding deity of Benares is the great Siva--"The Great God," "The Glorious," "The Three-Eyed," and lord of over one thousand similarly grandiloquent titles, and he is represented by the Bishesharnath ka shivala, a temple whose dome shines resplendent with gold-leaf, and which is known to Europeans as the Golden Temple. Siva is considered the king of all the Hindoo deities in the Benares Pauch-kos, and is consequently honored above all other idols in the number of devotees that pay homage to him daily. His income from offerings amounts to many thousands of rupees annually: there is a reservoir for the reception of offerings about three feet square by half that in depth. The Maharajah Ranjit Singh, Rajah of the Punjab, once filled this place with gold mohurs; many wealthy Hindoos have from time to time filled it with rupees.
The old guide whom I have employed to show me about then conducts me into the "Cow Temple," a filthy court containing a number of pampered-looking Brahman bulls, and several youthful bovines whose great privilege it is to roam about the court-yard and accept tid-bits from the hands of devotees. In the same court-yard-like shivala are several red idols, and the numerous comers and goers make the place as animated as a vegetable market at early morning. Priests, too, are here in numbers; seated on a central elevation they make red marks on the faces of the devotees, dipping in the mixture with their finger; in return they receive a small coin, or a pinch of rice or grain is thrown into a vessel placed there for the purpose.
In many stalls are big piles of flower-petals which devotees purchase to present as offerings. Men and women by the hundred are encountered in the narrow streets, passing briskly along with baskets containing a supply of these petals, a dish of rice, and a bowl of water; one would think, from their business-like manner, that they were going, or had been, marketing. They are going the morning round of their favorite gods, or the gods whose particular services they happen to stand in need of at the time; before these idols they pause for a moment, mutter their supplications, and sprinkle them with water and flower-petals, passing from one deity to another in a most business-like, matter-of-fact manner. Women unblessed with children throng to the idols of Sidheswari and Sankatadevi, bestowing offerings and making supplication for sons and daughters; pilgrims from afar are flocking to Sakhi-Banaik, whose office it is to testify in the next world of their pilgrimage in this. No matter how far a pilgrim has come, and how many offerings he has bestowed since his arrival, unless he repair to the shivala of Sakhi Banaik and duly report his appearance, his pilgrimage will have been performed in vain.
Everywhere, in niches of the walls, under trees, on pedestals at frequent corners, are idols, hideously ugly; red idols, idols with silver faces and stone bodies, some with mouths from ear to ear, big idols, little idols, the worst omnium gatherum imaginable. Sati, nothing visible but her curious silver face, beams over a black mother-hubbard sort of gown that conceals whatever she may possess in the way of a body; Jagaddatri, the Mother of the World, with four arms, seated on a lion; Brahma, with five eyes and four mouths, curiously made to supply quadruple faces. Karn-adeva, the handsome little God of Love (the Hindoo Cupid), whom the cruel Siva once slew with a beam from his third eye--all these and multitudinous others greet the curious sight-seer whichever way he turns. Hanuman, too, is not forgotten, the great Monkey King who aided Kama in his expedition to Ceylon; outside the city proper is the monkey temple, where thousands of the sacred anthropoids do congregate and consider themselves at home. Then there is the fakirs' temple, the most beautifully carved shivala in Benares; here priests distribute handfuls of soaked grain to all mendicants who present themselves. The grain is supplied by wealthy Hindoos, and both priests and patrons consider it a great sin to allow a religious mendicant to go away from the temple empty-handed.
Conspicuous above all other buildings in the city is the mosque of Aurungzebe, with its two shapely minarets towering high above everything else. The view from the summit of the minarets is comprehensive and magnificently lovely; the wonderful beauty of the trees and shivalas, the green foliage, and the gilt and red temples, so beautifully carved and gracefully tapering; the broad, flowing Ganges, the busy people, the moving boats, the rajahs' palaces along the water-front, make up a truly beautiful panorama of the Sacred City of the Hindoos. From here we take a native boat and traverse the water-front to see the celebrated bathing ghauts and the strange, animated scene of pilgrims bathing, bodies burning, and swarms of people ascending and descending the broad flights of steps. How intensely eager do these dusky believers in the efficacy of "Mother Ganga" as a purifier of sin dip themselves beneath the yellow water, rinse out their mouths, scrape their tongues, nib, duck, splash, and disport; they fairly revel in the sacred water; happy, thrice happy they look, as well indeed they might, for now are they certain of future happiness. What the "fountain filled with blood" is to the Christian, so is the precious water of dear Ganga to the sinful Hindoo: all sins, past, present, and future, are washed away.
Next to washing in the sacred stream during life, the Hindoo's ambition is to yield up the ghost on its bank, and then to be burned on the Burning Ghaut and have his ashes cast adrift on the waters. On the Manikarnika ghaut the Hindoos burn their dead. To the unbelieving Ferenghi tourist there seems to be a "nigger in the fence" about all these heathen ceremonies, and in the burning of the dead the wily priesthood has managed to obtain a valuable monopoly on firewood, by which they have accumulated immense wealth. No Hindoo, no matter how pious he has been through life, how many offerings he has made to the gods, or how thoroughly he has scoured his yellow hide in the Ganges, can ever hope to reach Baikunt (heaven) unless the wood employed at his funeral pyre come from a domra. Domras are the lowest and most despised caste in India, a caste which no Hindoo would, under any consideration, allow himself to touch during life, or administer food to him even if starving to death; but after his holier brethren have yielded up the ghost, then the despised domra has his innings. Then it is that the relatives of the deceased have to humble themselves before the domra to obtain firing to burn the body. Realizing that they now have the pull, the wily domras sometimes bleed their mournful patrons unmercifully. As many as a thousand rupees have been paid for a fire by wealthy rajahs. The domra who holds the monopoly at the Manikarnika ghaut is one of the richest men in Benares.
Two or three bodies swathed in white are observed waiting their turn to be burned, others are already burning, and in another spot is the corpse of some wealthier person wrapped in silver tinsel. Not the least interesting of the sights is that of men and boys here and there engaged in dipping up mud from the bottom and washing it in pans similar to the gold-pans of placer-miners; they make their livelihood by finding occasional coins and ornaments, accidentally lost by bathers. A very unique and beautifully carved edifice is the Nepaulese temple; but the carvings are unfit for popular inspection.
The whole river-front above the ghauts is occupied by temples and the palaces of rajahs, who spend a portion of their time here preparing themselves for happiness hereafter, by drinking Ganges water and propitiating the gods. On festival occasions, and particularly during an eclipse, as many as one hundred thousand people bathe in the Ganges at once; formerly many were drowned in the great crush to obtain the peculiar blessings of bathing during an eclipse, but now a large force of police is employed to regulate the movements of the people on such occasions. Formerly, also, fights were very frequent between the Mohammedans and Hindoos, owing to the clashing of their religious beliefs, but under the tolerant and conciliatory system of the British Government they now get along very well together.
A rest of two days and a few doses of quinine subdue the fever and put me in condition to resume my journey. Twelve miles from Benares, on the East Indian Kail way, is Mogul Serai, to which I deem it advisable to wheel in the evening, by way of getting started without over-exertion at first. Two English railroad engineers are stationed at Mogul Serai, and each of them is a wheelman. They, of course, are delighted to offer me the hospitality of their quarters for the night, and, moreover, put forth various inducements for a longer stay; but being anxious to reach Calcutta, I decide to pull out again next morning.
My entertainers accompany me for a few miles out. Mogul Serai is four hundred and twelve miles from Calcutta, and at the four hundred and fourth milestone my companions bid me hearty bon voyage and return. Splendid as are the roads round about Mogul Serai, this eight-mile stone is farther down the road than they have ever ridden before.
Twenty-five miles farther, and a sub-inspector of police begs my acceptance of curried chicken and rice. He is a five-named Mohammedan, and tells me a long story about his grandfather having been a reminder of a hundred and fifty villages, and an officer in the East India Company's army. On the pinions of his grandparents' virtues, his Oriental soul soars ambitiously after present promotion; on the strength of sundry eulogistic remarks contained in certificates already in his possession, he wants one from myself recommending him to the powers that be for their favorable consideration. He is the worst "certificate fiend" that I have met.
Near Sassaram I meet a most picturesque subject for my camera, a Kajput hill-man in all the glory of shield, spear, and gayly feathered helmet. He is leading a pack-pony laden with his travelling kit, and mechanically obeys when I motion for him to halt. He remains stationary, and regards my movements with much curiosity while I arrange the camera. When the tube is drawn out, however, and pointed at him, and I commence peeping through to arrange the focus, he gets uneasy, and when I am about ready to perpetuate the memory of his fantastic figure forever, he moves away. Nor will any amount of beckoning obtain for me another "sitting," nor the production and holding aloft of a rupee. Whether he fancied the camera in danger of going off, or dreaded the "evil eye," can only be surmised.
The famous fleet-footed mail-carriers of Bengal are now frequently encountered on the road; they are invariably going at a bounding trot of eight or ten miles an hour. The letter-bag is attached to the end of a stick carried over the shoulder, which is also provided with rings that jingle merrily in response to the motions of the runner. The day is not far distant when all these men will be mounted on bicycles, judging from the beginning already made at Allahabad and Cawnpore. The village women hereabouts wear massive brass ankle-ornaments, six inches broad, and which are apparently pounds in weight.
A deluge of rain during the night at Dilli converts the road into streams, and covers the low, flat land with a sheet of water. The ground is soaked full, like a wet sponge, and can absorb no more; rivers are overflowing, every weed, every blade of grass, and every tree-leaf is jewelled with glistening drops. The splendid kunkah is now gradually giving place to ordinary macadam, which is far less desirable, the heavy, pelting rain washing away the clay and leaving the surface rough.
Not less than four hours are consumed in crossing the River Sone at Dilli in a native punt, so swiftly runs the current and so broad is the overflow. The frequent drenching rains, the lowering clouds, and the persistent southern wind betoken the full vigor of the monsoons. One can only dodge from shelter to shelter between violent showers, and pedal vigorously against the stiff breeze. The prevailing weather is stormy, and inky clouds gather in massy banks at all points of the compass, culminating in violent outbursts of thunder and lightning, wind and rain. Occasionally, by some unaccountable freak of the elements, the monsoon veers completely around, and blowing a gale from the north, hustles me along over the cobbly surface at great speed.
Just before reaching Shergotti, on the evening of the third day from Benares, a glimpse is obtained of hills on the right. They are the first relief from the dead level of the landscape all the way from Lahore; their appearance signifies that I am approaching the Bengal Hills. From Mogul Serai my road has been through territory not yet invaded by the revolutionizing influence of the railway, and consequently the dak bungalows are still kept up in form to provide travellers with accommodation. Chowkeedar, punkah-wallah, and sweeper are in regular attendance, and one can usually obtain curried rice, chicken, dhal, and chuppatties. An official regulation of prices is posted conspicuously in the bungalow: For room and charpoy, Rs 1; dinner, Rs 1-8; chota-hazari, Rs 1, and so on through the scale. The prices are moderate enough, even when it is considered that a dinner consists of a crow-like chicken, curried rice, and unleavened chuppatties. The chowkeedar is usually an old Sepoy pensioner, who obtains, in addition to his pension, a percentage on the money charged for the rooms--a book is kept in which travellers are required to enter their names and the amount paid. The sweepers and punkah-wallahs are rewarded separately by the recipient of their attentions. Sometimes, if a Mohammedan, and not prohibited by caste obligations from performing these menial services, the old pensioner brings water for bathing and sweeps out one's own room himself, in which case he of course pockets the backsheesh appertaining to these duties also.
A few miles south of Shergotti the bridge spanning a tributary of the Sone is broken down, and no ferry is in operation. The stream, however, is fordable, and four stalwart Bengalis carry me across on a charpoy, hoisted on their shoulders; they stem the torrent bravely, and keep up their strength and courage by singing a refrain. From this point the road becomes undulating, and of indifferent surface; the macadam is badly washed by the soaking monsoon rains, and the low, level country is gradually merging into the jungle-covered hills of Bengal.
The character of the people has undergone a decided change since leaving Delhi and Agra, and the Bengalis impress one decidedly unfavorably in comparison with the more manly and warlike races of the Punjab. Abject servility marks the demeanor of many, and utter uselessness for any purpose whatsoever, characterizes one's intuitive opinion of a large percentage of the population of the villages. Except for the pressing nature of one's needs, the look of unutterable perplexity that comes over the face of a Bengali villager, to-day, when I ask him to obtain me something to eat, would be laughable in the extreme. "N-a-y, Sahib, n-a-y." he replies, with a show of mental distraction as great as though ordered to fetch me the moon. An appeal for rice, milk, dhal, chuppatties, at several stalls results in the same failure; everybody seems utterly bewildered at the appearance of a Sahib among them searching for something to eat. The village policeman is on duty in the land of dreams, a not unusual circumstance, by the way; but a youth scuttles off and wakes him up, and notifies him of my arrival. Anxious to atone for his shortcomings in slumbering at his post, he bestirs himself to obtain the wherewithal to satisfy my hunger, his authoritative efforts culminating in the appearance of a big dish of dhal.
The country becomes hillier, and the wild, jungle-covered hills and dark ravines alongside the road are highly suggestive of royal Bengal tigers. The striped monsters infest these jungles in plenty; during the afternoon I pass through a village where a depredatory man-eater has been carrying off women and children within the last few days.
The chowkeedar at Burhee, my stopping-place for the night in the hill country, is a helpless old duffer, who replies "nay-hee, Sahib, nay-hee," with a decidedly woe-begone utterance in response to all queries about refreshments. A youth capable of understanding a little English turns up shortly, and improves the situation by agreeing to undertake the preparation of supper. Still more hopeful is the outlook when a Eurasian and a native school-master appear upon the scene, the former acting as interpreter to the genial pedagogue, who is desirous of contributing to my comfort by impressing upon my impromptu cook the importance of his duties. They become deeply interested in my tour of the world, which the scholarly pedagogue has learned of through the medium of the vernacular press. The Eurasian, not being a newspaper-reader, has not heard anything of the journey. But he has casually heard of the River Thames, and his first wondering question is as to "how I managed to cross the Thames!"
My saturated karki clothing has been duly wrung out and hung up inside the dak bungalow, the only place where it will not get wetter instead of dryer, and my cook is searching the town in quest of meat, when an English lady and gentleman drive up in a dog-cart and halt before the bungalow. Unaware of the presence of English people in the place, I am taken completely by surprise.
They are Mr. and Mrs. B, an internal revenue officer and his wife, who, having heard of my arrival, have come to invite me to dinner. Of course I am delighted, and they are equally pleased to entertain one about whose adventures they have recently been reading. Their ayah saw me ride in, and went and told her mistress of seeing a "wonderful Sahib on wheels," and already the report has spread that I have come down from Lahore in four days!
A very agreeable evening is spent at Mr. E 's house, talking about the incidents of my journey, Mr. E 's tiger-hunting exploits in the neighborhood, and kindred topics. Mr. R devotes a good deal of time in the winter season to hunting tigers in the jungle round about his station, and numerous fine trophies of his prowess adorn the rooms of his house. He knows of the man-eater's depredations in the village I passed to-day, and also of another one ahead which I shall go through to-morrow; he declares his intention of bagging them both next season.
Mrs. R arrived from Merrie England but eighteen months ago, a romantic girl whose knowledge of royal Bengal tigers was confined to the subdued habitues of sundry iron-barred cages in the Zoo. She is one of those dear confiding souls that we sometimes find out whose confidence in the omnipotent character of their husbands' ability is nothing if not charming and sublime. Upon her arrival in the wilds of Bengal she was fascinated with the loveliness of the country, and wanted her liege lord to take her into the depths of the jungle and show her a "real wild tiger." She had seen tigers in cages, but wanted to see how a real wild one looked in his native lair. One day they were out taking horseback exercise together, when, a short distance from the road, the horrible roar of a tiger awoke the echoes of the jungle and reverberated through the hills like rolling thunder. Now was the long-looked-for opportunity, and her husband playfully invited her to ride with him toward the spot whence came the roars. Mrs. R, however, had suddenly changed her mind.
Mrs. R was the first white lady the people of many of the outlying villages had ever seen on horseback, or perhaps had ever seen at all, and the timidest of them would invariably bolt into the jungle at her appearance. When her husband or any other Englishman went among them alone, the native women would only turn away their faces, but from the lady herself they would hastily run and hide. Here, also, I learn that the natives in this district are dying by the hundred with a malignant type of fever; that the present season is an exceptionally sickly one, all of which gives reason for congratulation at my own health being so good.
It is all but a sub-aqueous performance pedalling along the road next morning; the air is laden with a penetrating drizzle, the watery clouds fairly hover on the tree-tops and roll in dark masses among the hills, while the soaked and saturated earth reeks with steam. The road is macadamized with white granite, and after one of those tremendous downpourings that occur every hour or so the wheel-worn depressions on either side become narrow streams, divided by the white central ridge. Down the long, straight slopes these twin rivulets course right merrily, the whirling wheels of the bicycle flinging the water up higher than my head. The ravines are roaring, muddy torrents, but they are all well bridged, and although the road is lumpy, an unridable spot is very rarely encountered. For days I have not had a really dry thread of clothing, from the impossibility of drying anything by hanging it out. Under these trying conditions, a relapse of the fever is matter for daily and hourly apprehension.
The driving drizzle to-day is very uncomfortable, but less warm than usual; it is anything but acceptable to the natives; thousands are seen along the road, shivering behind their sheltering sun-shields, from which they dismally essay to extract a ray of comfort. These sun-shields are umbrella-like affairs made of thin strips of bamboo and broad leaves; they are without handles, and for protection against the sun or rain are balanced on the head like an inverted sieve. When carried in the hand they may readily be mistaken for shields. In addition to this, the men carry bamboo spears with iron points as a slipshod measure of defence against possible attacks from wild animals. When viewed from a respectable distance these articles invest the ultra-gentle Bengali with a suggestion of being on the war-path, a delusion that is really absurd in connection with the meek Bengali ryot.
The houses of the villages are now heavily thatched, and mostly enclosed with high bamboo fencing, prettily trailed with creepers; the bazaars are merely two rows of shed-like stalls between which runs the road. In lieu of the frequent painted idol, these jungle villagers bestow their devotional exercises upon rude and primitive representations of impossible men and animals made of twisted straw. These are sometimes set up in the open air on big horseshoe-shaped frames, and sometimes they are beneath a shed. In the privacy of their own dwellings the Bengali ryot bows the knee and solemnly worships a bowl of rice or a cup of arrack. The bland and childlike native of Hindostan falls down and worships almost everything that he recognizes as being essential to his happiness and welfare, embracing a wide range of subjects, from Brahma, who created all things, to the denkhi with which their women hull the rice. This denkhi is merely a log of wood fixed on a pivot and with a hammer-like head-piece. The women manipulate it by standing on the lever end and then stepping off, letting it fall of its own weight, the hammer striking into a stone bowl of rice. The denkhi is said to have been blessed by Brahma's son Narada, the god who is distinguished as having cursed his venerable and all-creating sire and changed him from an object of worship and adoration to a luster after forbidden things.
The country continues hilly, with the dense jungle fringing the road; all along the way are little covered platforms erected on easily climbed poles from twelve to twenty feet high. These are apparently places of refuge where benighted wayfarers can seek protection from wild animals. Occasionally are met the fleet-footed postmen, their rings jangling merrily as they bound briskly along; perhaps the little platforms are built expressly for their benefit, as they are not infrequently the victims of stealthy attack, the jingle of their rings attracting Mr. Tiger instead of repelling him.
Mount Parisnath, four thousand five hundred and thirty feet high, the highest peak of the Bengal hills, overlooks my dak bungalow at Doomree, and also a region of splendid tropical scenery, dark wooded ridges, deep ravines, and rolling masses of dark-green vegetation.
During the night the weather actually grows chilly, a raw wind laden with moisture driving me off the porch into the shelter of the bungalow. No portion of Parisnath is visible in the morning but the base, nine-tenths of its proportions being above the line of the cloud-masses that roll along just above the trees. Another day through the hilly country and, a hundred and fifty miles from Calcutta, the flourishing coal-mining district of Asansol brings me again to the East India Railway and semi-European society and accommodation. Instead of doughy chuppatties, throat-blistering curry, and octogenarian chicken, I this morning breakfast off a welcome bottle of Bass's ale, baker's bread, and American cheese.
My experience of hotels and hotel proprietors has certainly been somewhat wide and varied within the last two years; but it remains for Rannegunj to produce something entirely novel in the matter of tariff even to one of my experience. The cuisine and service of the hotel is excellent, and well worth the charges; but the tariff is arranged so that it costs more to stay part of a day than a whole one, and more to take two meals than to take three. If a person remains a whole day, including room and three meals, it is Rs 4, and he can, of course, suit himself about staying or going if he engages or pays in advance; but should he only take dinner, room, and chota-hazari, his bill reads: Dinner, Rs 2; room, Rs 1, 8 annas; chota-hazari, rupees 1; total, Rs 4, 8 annas, or 8 annas more than if he had remained and taken another square meal. The subtle-minded proprietor of this establishment should undoubtedly take out a patent on this very unique arrangement and issue licences throughout all Bonifacedom; there would be more "millions in it" than in anything Colonel Sellers ever dreamed of.
And now, beyond Rannegunj, comes again the glorious kunkah road, after nearly three hundred miles of variable surface. Level, smooth, and broad it continues the whole sixty-five miles to Burd-wan. Notwithstanding an adverse wind, this is covered by three o'clock. The road leads through the marvellously fertile valley of the Dammoodah, an interesting region where groves of cocoa-nut palms, bamboo thickets, and thatched villages give the scenery a more decidedly tropical character than that north of the Bengal hills. Rice is still the prevailing crop, and the overflow of the Dammoodah is everywhere. Men and women are busily engaged among the pools, fishing for land-crabs, mussels, and other freshwater shell-fish, with triangular nets.
As my southward course brings me next day into the valley of the Hooghli River, the road partakes almost of the character of a tunnel burrowing through a mass of dense tropical vegetation. Cocoa-nut and toddy-palms mingle their feathery foliage with the dark-green of the mango, the wild pomolo, giant bamboo, and other vegetable exuberances characteristic of a hot and humid climate, and giant creepers swing from tree to tree and wind among the mass in inextricable confusion.
In this magnificent conservatory of nature big, black-faced monkeys, with tails four feet long, romp and revel through the trees, nimbly climb the creepers, and thoroughly enjoy the life amid the sylvan scenes about them. It is a curious sight to see these big anthropoids, almost as large as human beings, swing themselves deftly up among the festooned creepers at my approach--to see their queer, impish black faces peering cautiously out of their hiding-place, and to hear their peculiar squeak of surprise and apprehension as they note the strange character of my conveyance. Sometimes a gang of them will lope awkwardly along ahead of the bicycle, looking every inch like veritable imps of darkness pursuing their silent course through the chastened twilight of green-grown, subterranean passageways, their ridiculously long tails raised aloft, and their faces most of the time looking over their shoulders.
Youthful lotus-eaters, sauntering lazily about in the vicinity of some toddy-gatherer's hamlet, hidden behind the road's impenetrable environment of green, regard with supreme indifference the evil-looking apes, bigger far than themselves, romping past; but at seeing me they scurry off the road and disappear as suddenly as the burrow-like openings in the green banks will admit.
Women are sometimes met carrying baskets of plantains or mangoes to the village bazaars; sometimes I endeavor to purchase fruit of them, but they shake their heads in silence, and seem anxious to hurry away. These women are fruit-gatherers and not fruit-sellers, consequently they cannot sell a retail quantity to me without violating their caste.
My experiences in India have been singularly free from snakes; nothing have I seen of the dreaded cobra, and about the only reminder of Eve's guileful tempter I encounter is on the road this morning. He is only a two-foot specimen of his species, and is basking in a streak of sunshine that penetrates the green arcade above. Remembering the judgment pronounced upon him in the Garden of Eden, I attempt to acquit myself of the duty of bruising his head, by riding over him. To avoid this indignity his snakeship performs the astonishing feat of leaping entirely clear of the ground, something quite extraordinary, I believe, for a snake. The popular belief is that a snake never lifts more than two-thirds of his length from the ground.
From the city of Hooghli southward, the road might with equal propriety be termed a street; it follows down the west side of the Hooghli River and links together a chain of populous towns and villages, the straggling streets of which sometimes fairly come together. Fruit-gardens, crowded with big golden pomolos, delicious custard, apples, and bananas abound; in the Hooghli villages the latter can be bought for two pice a dozen. Depots for the accumulation and shipment of cocoa-nuts, where tons and tons of freshly gathered nuts are stacked up like measured mounds of earth, are frequent along the river. Jute factories with thousands of whirring spindles and the clackety-clack of bobbins fill the morning air with the buzz and clatter of vigorous industrial life. Juggernaut cars, huge and gorgeous, occupy central places in many of the towns passed through. The stalls and bazaars display a variety of European beverages very gratifying from the stand-point of a hot and thirsty wayfarer, ranging from Dublin ginger ale to Pommery Sec. California Bartlett pears, with seductive and appetizing labels on their tin coverings, are seen in plenty, and shiny wrappers envelop oblong cakes of Limburger cheese.
For a few minutes my wheel turns through a district where the names of the streets are French, and where an atmosphere of sleepy Catholic respectability pervades the streets. This is Chandernagor, a wee bit of territory that the French have been permitted to retain here, a rosebud in the button-hole of la belle France's national vanity. Chanderuagor is a bite of two thousand acres out of the rich cake of the lower Hooghli Valley; but it is invested with all the dignity of a governor-general's court, and is gallantly defended by a standing army of ten men. The Governor-General of Chandernagor fully makes up in dignity what the place lacks in size and importance; when the East India Railway was being built he refused permission for it to pass through his territory. There is no doubt but that the land forces of Chandernagor would resist like bantams any wanton or arbitrary violation of its territorial prerogatives by any mercenary railroad company, or even by perfide Albion herself, if need be. The standing army of Chandernagor hovers over peaceful India, a perpetual menace to the free and liberal government established by England. Some day the military spirit of Chandernagor will break loose, and those ten soldiers will spread death and devastation in some peaceful neighboring meadow, or ruthlessly loot some happy, pastoral melon-garden. Let the Indian Government be warned in time and increase its army.
By nine o'clock the bicycle is threading its way among the moving throngs on the pontoon bridge that spans the Hooghli between Howrah and Calcutta, and half an hour later I am enjoying a refreshing bath in Cook's Adelphi Hotel.
I have no hesitation in saying that, except for the heat, my tour down the Grand Trunk Road of India has been the most enjoyable part of the whole journey, thus far. What a delightful trip a-wheel it would be, to be sure, were the temperature only milder!
My reception in Calcutta is very gratifying. A banquet by the Dalhousie Athletic Club is set on foot the moment my arrival is announced. With such enthusiasm do the members respond that the banquet takes place the very next day, and over forty applicants for cards have to be refused for want of room. For genuine, hearty hospitality, and thoroughness in carrying out the interpretation of the term as understood in its real home, the East, I unhesitatingly yield the palm to Anglo-Indians. Time and again, on my ride through India, have I experienced Anglo-Indian hospitality broad and generous as that of an Arab chief, enriched and rendered more acceptable by a feast of good-fellowship as well as creature considerations.
The City of Palaces is hardly to be seen at its best in September, for the Viceregal Court is now at Simla, and with it all the government officials and high life. Two months later and Calcutta is more brilliant, in at least one particular, than any city in the world. Every evening in "the season" there is a turn-out of splendid equipages on the bund road known as the Strand, the like of which is not to be seen elsewhere, East or West. It is the Rotten Row of Calcutta embellished with the gorgeousness of India. Wealthy natives display their luxuriousness in vying with one another and with the government officials in the splendor of their carriages, horses, and liveries.
Mr. P, a gentleman long resident in Calcutta, and a prominent member of the Dalhousie Club, drives me in his dog-cart to the famous Botanical Gardens, whose wealth of unique vegetation, gathered from all quarters of the world, would take volumes to do it justice should one attempt a description. Its magnificent banyan is justly entitled to be called one of the wonders of the world. Not less striking, however, in their way, are the avenues of palms; so straight, so symmetrical are these that they look like rows of matched columns rather than works of nature. Fort William, the original name of the city, and the foundation-stone of the British Indian Empire, is visited with Mr. B, the American Consul, a gentleman from Oregon. The glory of Calcutta, its magnificent Maidan, is overlooked by the American Consulate, and one of the most conspicuous objects in the daytime is the stars and stripes floating from the consulate flag-staff.
On the 18th sails the opium steamer Wing-sang to Hong-Kong, aboard which I have been intending to take passage, and whose date of departure has somewhat influenced my speed in coming toward Calcutta. To cross overland from India to China with a bicycle is not to be thought of. This I was not long in finding out after reaching India. Fearful as the task would be to reach the Chinese frontier, with at least nine chances out of ten against being able to reach it, the difficulties would then have only commenced.
The day before sailing, the bicycle branch of the Dalhousie Athletic Club turns out for a club run around the Maidan, to the number of seventeen. It is in the evening; the long rows of electric lamps stretching across the immense square shed a moon-like light over our ride, and the smooth, broad roads are well worthy the metropolitan terminus of the Grand Trunk.
My stay of five days in the City of Palaces has been very enjoyable, and it is with real regret that I bid farewell to those who come down to the shipping ghaut to see me off.
The voyage to the Andamans is characterized by fine weather enough; but from that onward we steam through a succession of heavy rain-storms; and down in the Strait of Malacca it can pour quite as heavily as on the Gangetic plains. At Penang it keeps up such an incessant downpour that the beauties of that lovely port are viewed only from beneath the ship's awning. But it is lovely enough even as seen through the drenching rain. Dense groves of cocoa-nut palms line the shores, seemingly hugging the very sands of the beach. Solid cliffs of vegetation they look, almost, so tall, dark, and straight, and withal so lovely, are these forests of palms. Cocoa-nut palms flourish best, I am told, close to the sea, a certain amount of salt being necessary for their healthful growth.
The weather is more propitious as we steam into Singapore, at which point we remain for half a day, on the tenth day out from Calcutta. Singapore is indeed a lovely port. Within a stone's-throw of where the Wing-sang ties up to discharge freight the dark-green mangrove bushes are bathing in the salt waves. Very seldom does one see green vegetation mingling familiarly with the blue water of the sea--there is usually a strip of sand or other verdureless shore--but one sees it at lovely Singapore.
A fellow-passenger and I spend an hour or two ashore, riding in the first jiniriksha that has come under my notice, from the wharf into town, about half a mile. We are impressed by the commercial activity of the city; as well as by the cosmopolitan character of its population. Chinese predominate, and thrifty, well-conditioned citizens these Celestials look, too, here in Singapore. "Wherever John Chinaman gets half a show, as under the liberal and honest government of the Straits Settlements or Hong-Kong, there you may be sure of finding him prosperous and happy."
Hindoos, Parsees, Armenians, Jews, Siamese, Klings, and all the various Eurasian types, with Europeans of all nationalities, make up the conglomerate population of Singapore. Here, on the streets, too, one sees the strange cosmopolitan police force of the English Eastern ports, made up of Chinese, Sikhs, and Englishmen.
Text, code and images © Ray Schumacher 2005