Travel: India – Farther Inland

Returning to the main line of the East India railway at Cawnpore, another night’s ride brings us to Agra, over eight hundred miles up the Ganges Valley from Calcutta. The city of Agra is one of the strongest magnets in India. Its attractions are felt by tourists even before they leave home, and increase in power as they approach. ” Shall you see the Taj ? ” is the question asked on the way. “Have you seen the Taj ?” is frequently heard on the returning journey. The city itself is not very different from other notable ones in the level Gangetic Valley. The European and aristocratic native portions are spacious and beautiful, at least in December, but the bazaars and quarters of the poorer natives are crowded and squalid. The city stands on the west bank of the Jumna. The railways run just south of the city between it and the Fort. The main station is adjacent to the Fort entrance. Within the Fort enclosure are situated many of those magnificent buildings which furnish the tangible evidence of past greatness.

Before noticing these buildings, let us consider briefly their origin. Three hundred years ago, approximately speaking, India was overrun by the conquering Mohammedans, who descended upon the country from the passes in the northwest. In twenty-five years the effeminate Hindus, in spite of their best resistance, were sufficiently subdued to prepare the way for the establishment of the great Moghul Empire. Of this dynasty Akbar the Great is regarded as the real founder.

His successors were men of power and energy, especially so was his grandson, Shah Jahan (king of the world). To this man, more than to others, though not exclusively, belongs the credit of these remarkable structures which are India’s glory, a glory which but for these has now nearly departed. Shah Jahan thought to establish the seat of his government at Futtipore Sikri, twenty-three miles from Agra, where he erected some magnificent buildings, and caused a city to be established, but afterward, evidently changing his mind, he settled upon Agra. The former is now deserted and desolate, except for fakirs and guides, who dwell in the silent city.

The Fort at Agra presents from without a massive and grand appearance. The walls are one and a half miles in cir cumference, and said to be seventy feet high. They are surrounded by a capacious moat, lined with stone. The Fort, built of red sandstone, is apparently in perfect preservation, there being no signs of dissolution. The only entrance is the Delhi gate, an impressive structure approached over a drawbridge, and containing four massive portals leading through as many walls. The roadway leads to the high ground of the enclosure. The English soldiers are quartered here now, and their barracks and military stores mar the beauty of the place. The object of special interest is the emperor’s palace, overhanging the river that washes the base of the Fort walls. These buildings are of marble, richly inlaid with variously colored stones in beautiful flower patterns. There are the public and private audience halls, the baths, and the Jessamine Tower, each of them beautiful beyond the power of pen to describe. The latter was the private apartment of the favorite queen. Its name is derived from one of the patterns in which precious stones are inlaid in the pure marble. Rosewater fountains, mirrors, paintings, gilt, and fresco united to beautify this place.

From nearly every window and door of the palace one can look out upon the river, across a bend of which stands in lonely beauty, the pearl of India, the Taj Mahal. Shah Jahan built this place as a tomb for his favorite wife, so it is said, but it appears to a modern. observer that he was like most other men, for while he was doing a very nice thing for his wife, he made it large enough for himself also. At least their tombs are side by side, though the principal place is given to the beloved Begum. The building stands on the river bank in an enclosure of perhaps ten acres — a beautiful garden – which adds to the effect and loveliness of the buildings. The gateway is a massive and lofty structure, one hundred and fifty feet in height, notable in itself for architectural beauty. It is of red sandstone inlaid with white marble. On each side of the Taj are mosques of the same material, one for women, the other for men.

The mausoleum consists of a dais twenty feet high and over three hundred feet square, with a minaret one hundred and fifty feet high on each corner. In the center of this plat form is the tomb, a building nearly two hundred feet square, and rising one hundred and fifty feet high, crowned with a dome. All of this – platform, minarets, and tomb – is of pure white marble. The symmetry is perfect, the workmanship faultless. Within is a scene of indescribable beauty. The sarcophagi occupy the center, and are inwrought with precious stones, and surrounded by remarkable marble screens, which are also inlaid. I shall attempt no adjectives or exclamations, better pens than mine have failed to describe the place. The best of them convey but a poor idea of the strange beauty of the place, and entirely fail to describe the sensation of exquisite delight one feels as he beholds in wonder. The doorway bears this inscription in Arabic: ” Thus saith Jesus (on whom be peace), This world is a bridge, pass thou over it, but build no house thereon.” And upon the interior walls the entire Koran is inscribed in inlaid work.

The tomb of Akbar at Secundra near Agra, and that of Itmud-ed-Doula across the river, well repay the visits they receive. In the latter are marble screens nearly seven feet square, of one stone. These screens are wonderful works of skill and patience, consisting of slabs of marble two and a half or three inches thick, pierced in intricate patterns into fine net-work, and executed without a flaw. They are found in nearly all the palaces and great tombs of that period.

The most interesting feature of my visit to Agra was a conversation with Mrs. Clara Swain, M. D., who for more than six years has been attached to the family of a native king. They were staying temporarily in Agra, though their home is about seventy miles away from the railway in a more remote part of the country. Dr. Swain is a devoted and earnest Christian, who has discreetly represented the cause of the Master while doing the work of a physician. A wide-felt influence- has consequently gone out through the country, and especially in the palace. The rani and her young daughter love the Bible as well as the Saviour it presents. The rajah himself is outwardly attached to his heathenism still, but it is hoped that the grace of God is at work inwardly to illuminate the mind. At the time of my visit, the family had been passing through a severe trial, for the rajah had forbidden his daughter to read the Bible, but after pleading with tears upon her part, consent was given upon the condition that she should not “read about eating and killing cows.” No more grievous sin is known to the Hindu than this.

Dr. Swain is growing gray in the service. Once she thought to retire, and went home to America, but urgent letters soon followed her for her return. So taking up the burden once more, she has isolated herself from white people and from Christians for Christ’s sake, a work which some, if called upon to do, would reckon a sacrifice.

A short distance from Agra is the city of Muttra with a population of sixty thousand. This very noted and sacred city is the birthplace and principal scene of the life of Krishna, the ninth incarnation of Vishnu. Christianity has made but little inroad here, and it was a peculiar pleasure to accept a kind invitation from Dr. Martha Sheldon in charge of the Deaconess Home, to visit and view heathenism in its unadulterated form, if it be possible to adulterate that which is baseness itself. The Methodist mission has a good start here, and under the wise and active measures taken by Dr. J. E. Scott, land has been procured and a school building was in process of erection, directly in the midst of the city. The sacred Jumna flows past the city, upon the banks of which are many temples and sacred places. A lofty stone tower marks the place of the suttee sacrifices, now abolished by the law, but still cherished in the hearts of the Brahmans. Here a very sacred cow was to be seen. The peculiar sacredness evidently consists in the fact that the creature appears to have six legs, but it is easy to discern that the two little extra, appendages had been grafted upon the shoulders when the animal was a calf.

Bindraban is a neighboring city where the darkness of Hinduism is even more dense than at Muttra, for the missionaries in the latter city and the soldiers at the cantonment do give a little tint to the moral atmosphere, but in Bindraban there is not a white person to break the color, nor a Christian to relieve the darkness. The corruption of the priests, the superstition and blindness of the people, and the folly of the devotees are here very painfully manifest. At the time of my visit with Dr. Sheldon, we were the only white people in the city. Besides being objects of curiosity to many, our presence excited the cupidity of a crowd of beggars, but we suffered no indignity, though we visited several temples and the doctor talked with the people freely about Jesus. It was a sad sight to witness the people prostrating themselves before their idols and bestowing their scant offerings of rice, water, and marigolds. When the people became attentive to the word of truth, the priests would quickly appear and scatter them with a word.

At the entrance of a fine temple with a massive marble facade, we were restrained from going farther by the following quaint warning inscribed in the marble wall in far better lettering than grammar: ” Prevention by religion for Mohammedan and European gentlemen to go farther step.” In the great Red-sandstone Temple the principal idol sits gloomy in a dark recess attended by numerous priests who see to all his imaginary wants. The water in which he is bathed is carefully preserved and doled out to the Bengali widows who resort to this city in great numbers. The water is used for bathing the face, and a portion is drunk by these deluded creatures as a panacea for the many ills of this unfortunate class of beings.

A temple devoted to Krishna was in process of construction at the cost of twenty-five lakhs of rupees. (The lakh is one hundred thousand.) Marble inlaid with costly stone forms the principal part of the building. A visit to such a city reveals the fact that Hinduism is yet a green tree.

Delhi is in some respects the most interesting of India’s cities. Its history is thickly studded with dark and light spots, and the monuments of its past greatness and power are spread around over a radius of several miles. It is identified with the earliest history of the Orient, being contemporaneous with Nineveh and Babylon. Akbar, the great Moghul emperor, made it his capital, later Shah Jahan, after building Futtipore Sikri and Agra Fort, transferred once more the government to Delhi. Here, too, this remarkable man has left monuments of his indomitable energy. Not only of energy, however, but also of oppression, for even the lovely Taj cost the forced labor of twenty thousand men for twenty years. The men were given a bare subsistence, and in this way he built all his works.

The modern Delhi (pronounced Delly) is enclosed by a wall of red sandstone which I should think to be twenty-five feet high and ten feet thick. It has nearly two hundred thousand inhabitants, divided between Hindus and Mohammedans, the latter having a predominating influence. The Fort is within the city enclosure, and like that of Agra, stands on the banks of the Jumna. It contains the king’s palaces, which for beauty rival those of Agra. The queen’s bathrooms are inlaid with small, convex mirrors, the walls being covered with them. The effect, as may be imagined, is remarkable. Through the baths, and indeed through most of the palace, runs a marble water-way, four feet wide. In places, different colored marble is inlaid zig-zag, and the effect of water running over these places is said to produce the likeness of fishes.

In point of magnificence, the Diwan-i-khas, or Hall of Private Audience, is the most remarkable building in India. It is of marble, most richly inlaid, while the windows are marble screens of great beauty. The roof is supported by about thirty-six marble pillars, most of them three and one half feet square, inwrought with precious stones. The ceiling is a series of gothic arches of marble, frescoed in gold, silver, and scarlet. In the middle of this grand room stood a marble platform, now moved to one side, which supported the famous peacock throne. It was called thus because it represented the spread tail of that fowl. Its cost is said to have been nearly thirty million dollars. Of course it disappeared long ago, and the buildings themselves have been marred by robbing them of their most precious gems. The frieze of this room bears this inscription : ” If paradise be on earth, it is here, it is here.” That little “if” spoils all the dreams of human happiness and perfection, for through the wicked ambition of a son, Shah Jahan found in one of the splendid apartments at Agra a prison in which he ended his days in sorrow.

The Hall of Judgment, though of grander proportions and conception than any of the others, is of baser material, being made of brown stone inlaid with marble. But it contains the emperor’s seat of judgment, constructed of beautiful marble in the form of a pavilion, with the floor raised ten feet. Before his majesty sat the prime minister upon a marble seat, he received sentence from the emperor, and conveyed it to the accused. In those days it was regarded a slight thing to sacrifice life.

The Moti Musjid, or Pearl Mosque, built for the emperor’s own use, is a veritable pearl of pure marble. It received its name on account of its costly carpet inwrought with pearls.

For the use of the common people the emperor built outside the Fort the Jumna Musjid, or Great Mosque, which will accommodate many thousands of worshipers. Its floor is reached by forty steps from the street, the lower ones being one hundred and fifty feet long. This building is mostly of sandstone, but the floor of the court is composed of black and white marble.

In a cloister a priest keeps charge of some precious relics, which he shows for backsheesh. Among them are old writings by Mohammed’s son and grandson, over twelve hundred years old. He has an old shoe of the prophet, a footprint in stone, and a hair from his beard.

Time and space bid us hasten through India to other lands, but there is so much to relate in regard to this most interesting country and people, that it is extremely difficult to heed the admonitions to cut short our visit. Here in Delhi, in Lucknow, Benares, and indeed in every city, the visitor is impressed with the subtile ingenuity in handicraft displayed on every- side. Men living and working in squalor with only the rudest implements turn out products of skill which would baffle our most accomplished artisans with all that machinery and enlightenment can do for them. Sitting upon the ground, or upon a low stool, they work with fingers and toes at spinning, weaving, needlework, engraving, and gold and silver work, producing articles that sell for a few pennies, or that cost a fortune and require years of patient toil, on perhaps a few yards of cloth. It is said that when the Prince of Wales was in India, they presented to him three pieces of muslin each one yard wide and twenty yards long and weighing three and one half ounces. Every thread of this cloth was spun and woven by hand.

For generations father and children follow the same line of employment. The iron rule of caste holds them to it, and the result is a proficiency that is perhaps natural, but at the same time is to us nothing short of marvelous. The dyers of this country distinguish over two hundred colors that occidental eyes cannot discern. In carving or engraving they do not follow a pattern, but are guided by their unerring sight. Though caste may have its advantage in this direction, it is but a small offset to the great injuries that it inflicts upon the race. It is the barrier to progress and modern civilization.

The house of the European, in India, generally contains about a dozen servants, all men except the aiya, or nurse, who takes care of the children. The reason for employing so many is that the climate usually forbids the white woman doing much of her own work, while the laws of caste forbid the servant doing more than one kind of work. The man who drives the carriage will not open the gate, the cook will not wash the dishes, the one who waits on the table will not sweep, hence, a man must needs be kept for each branch of domestic work. But this burden is not so intolerable when we take into consideration that about six cents a day pays the wages of each man, out of which he boards himself and family.

Delhi was chosen as the scene of one of the greatest of modern pageants, the celebration of the coronation of Edward VII as Emperor of India, which took place at the beginning of 1903. The king was represented by the Prince of Wales, and Lord Curzon, viceroy, conducted the magnificent affair.