Travel: India – From Madras To The Himalayas

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India – From Madras To The Himalayas

( Originally Published Late 1904 )

We left Madras at noon on Monday, and as the pilot who took us out of the harbor was leaving the bridge, he was overheard to remark that there was a heavy cyclone on the other side of the bay, next to Burmah, and as it was making its way northwest, we would probably meet it. These words quickly going around among the passengers caused some uneasiness, for a cyclone in these waters often means destruction to the vessels that happen to be in its path. But the outcome proved the wisdom of that old proverb which tells us not to trouble trouble till trouble troubles us.

The quantity of silt that is brought down by the Ganges and Brahmapootra rivers and discharged into the bay, forms extensive bars which render navigation difficult for more than fifty miles below where the mouths of the rivers are reached. At this distance from the mainland the pilot-station is located on a ship at anchor. We picked up our pilot still farther out at sea, on the afternoon of Wednesday, and slowly made our way toward the entrance of the shifting channel. During that night we had an experience which called to mind the prediction of the Madras pilot. As usual, nearly all the passengers were sleeping on the open decks. The heat below was too oppressive for sleeping, and so the obliging stewards spread our mattresses and coverings in any eligible spot which we might choose. My location was the cover of the main hatch forward. At midnight we were suddenly aroused from our peaceful slumbers by a dashing rain, accompanied by blinding sheets of lightning and almost deafening peals of thunder. To us there seemed to be no preliminaries to this storm. If there were, we were not made aware of them, and before we could scramble out of bed and under shelter, what little clothing we had on, together with bed and bedding, was thoroughly drenched.

But that was not all there was to it, for to be so rudely awakened from peaceful sleep into the wildest commotion of a tropical storm, was rather too much for some weak nerves, so while some were laughing and wringing their clothing, others were screaming and wringing their hands, thinking that we were at the mercy of the dreaded cyclone. And, as if to add to the confusion, the ship’s engines were stopped, and the great whistle shrieked out its warning to other vessels to keep clear of us. There was hardly any wind, so that the sea was reasonably calm, but such torrents of rain, such crashing and flashing of aerial artillery, I never had heard or seen equaled. It was my privilege to comfort a poor Eurasian, a government telegraph officer, who was so frightened that he rushed about moaning in terror. Not feeling any fear on this occasion, I enjoyed the demonstration, though impressed with a sense of human helplessness in the presence of such forces. In a short time, the storm having passed over, we were on our way again. But before morning the vessel anchored, as it became dangerous to proceed without daylight.

That branch of the delta which we were seeking, and upon which Calcutta stands, is called the Hoogly River. It is formed by the junction of the first two off-shoots from the Ganges, and in this united form it is one hundred and twentyfive miles long. Being a branch of the sacred river, the same character is attributed to it. Indeed, it is regarded as the most sacred portion of the delta. The first land we reached was the island which bears the name of Saugur. It is quite a body of land, and is regarded as an especially sacred spot, since it is the place where ” Mother Ganges ” loses herself in the sea. At this point some of the most celebrated of Hindu feasts and ceremonies are carried on, and at certain seasons the devotees flock here by thousands. It is here perhaps that we have more authentic evidence of the practice of Hindu women casting their babies to crocodiles than anywhere else in India. It is strenuously denied by many that such things ever took place.

Many, also, who are well-versed in the customs and history of the people, reject the much-talked-of story of self-destruction under the car of Juggernaut, as something altogether im probable. Sir Wm. Hunter, for instance, speaks of the report in this manner: “Nothing can be more unjust than the vulgar story which associates his car-festival with the wholesale selfmurder of his worshipers. Vishnu is always a bright and friendly god, who asks no offerings but flowers, and to whom the shedding of blood is an offense. The official records and an accurate examination on the spot disprove the calumnies of some English writers on this subject.”

As regards the Juggernaut story, it is probable that in the crush and excitement, when many thousands were struggling to obtain places at the ropes, some would stumble and fall un der the massive wheels. Still further, it might be that some forlorn or aged persons to whom life seemed a burden would commit suicide in this way. But it is not probable that the custom was either sanctioned or practiced to any extent as a voluntary sacrifice of human life. In regard to casting babies to alligators, it is not unlikely that in a time when the murder of female infants was practiced to a horrible extent, and sanctioned by common consent, this way of disposing of unwelcome children was resorted to. But it would be difficult, at the present time, to discover any trace of such a revolting custom, especially since infanticide is made a crime by law. No sooner had we approached near enough the mainland to obtain a view, than the idea of ” India’s coral strands ” quickly vanished. The shores are muddy here, and the whole region is but the alluvial wash of the river deposited in the ages past. Signs of life soon appeared on either bank, and it was more than one pair of eyes could do to take in all the sights that were presented to the right and to the left, together with the medley of strange craft that were continually sweeping by. It is eighty miles up the river to Calcutta. On our ship all is bustle and expectancy. Among all our passengers there seemed to be but one who was not anticipating a reception by friends. Those who were coming home kindly pointed out to strangers and named the various points of interest. As we drew near the city, jute-mills, cotton-factories, and other manufacturing establishments appeared. We sailed past the Botanical Gardens, and entered the narrow channel between two solid rows of vessels which lined either shore. They were anchored to buoys, and ranged five or six abreast for a distance of over one mile. I have never seen so large an assemblage of sailing craft in any port as were gathered there. Here were ships of all nations, some of which had evidently been waiting long for a cargo.

At about two o’clock on the afternoon of November 3, we drew up to the wharf. The gang-plank was soon thrown up to our deck, and we entered heathendom in earnest -but not such a heathendom as our childhood fancies had painted. Calcutta is called the ” city of palaces ” in irony by the visitor, but in reality by its denizens, but whatever we call it, it is a mighty metropolis, full of the hum and hubbub of business. It being the capital of the country, quite a number of Europeans are naturally and necessarily drawn hither. In the outlying portions of the city, and along the magnificent boulevard which faces the river, are residences of the wealthy classes, both native and European.

After three weeks of living on shipboard, and then landing in this strange, confusing place, nothing seemed so desirable as a quiet spot in which to get square with the world once more. Learning that the train for Darjeeling left at about four o’clock, I made haste to transact a little necessary business, and was driven to the railway station in a close-covered, square-topped carriage called a “gharry,” which in India takes the place of a cab. Within two hours from the time of disembarking, I was leaving the opposite side of the city, drawn by the iron horse at a flying rate of speed. The train glided along with a smoothness that was very pleasant. The carriages of the first and second classes are generally twenty feet in length, and divided into two compartments which are entered through doors from a platform, or at the side. Along each side is a seat of good width, and a third one with a reversible back runs through the middle. Above the side seats are two folding shelves which may be let down at night to serve as berths. Nearly everyone traveling in India carries his bed with him. It need not consist of more than a blanket and a pillow, or it may be a more elaborate outfit. The railways supply sufficient carriages so that not more than five passengers need ride in a compartment, and generally not more than three, and a rupee judiciously bestowed upon the guard, or conductor, will generally give a European passenger sole occupancy. When night comes on, he spreads his bed on the long seat, and quietly rests till morning.

On this occasion our journey was rudely broken at about. nine o’clock in the evening by arriving at the banks of the Ganges River, where it was necessary to transfer. On the deck of a comfortable ferry-steamer I thoroughly enjoyed the moonlight ride of four or five miles on the majestic stream. I must confess to some strange impressions that evening,- so far away from friends, and floating calmly down that river whose name was associated with the weird and mystical realms of childhood’s fancy. At this point the river has its greatest volume. It has received its last tributary, and has not yet divided its waters. Reaching the other bank, we were soon ensconced once more in a comfortable temporary bed, and there permitted to sleep till the sun was ready for another day’s business.

We reached Siliguri in time for breakfast. All night we had been riding across the level Gangetic plain toward the Himalayas to the north. Thus far, we had gained practically nothing in altitude. But for some time the snow-topped mountains had been looming up before us, and now we were at their base. We must now exchange the ponderous train of the valley for the light mountain climber, which runs on a two-foot gauge. There stood a vigorous looking little ten-ton engine, having its entire weight upon its driving wheels. The carriages, accommodating about sixteen passengers each, are not much larger than an ordinary omnibus, on account of the sharp curves in the line. The sides are open all around, though they may be closed with curtains. We are soon ready for a start upon the most intensly interesting ride that it has ever been my fortune to take. There now remained a little over fifty miles of distance to Darjeeling. One fourth of this is through jungle and forest before the ascent really begins, then in the next thirty miles we must rise seven thousand four hundred feet and then descend four hundred in the latter part of our journey. As we begin to rise, we are impressed with the grandeur of the heights that tower overhead. But we soon find that these were all low foot-hills, and having mounted them, there are others like them still before us, and these being at last beneath us, we are almost awestricken to see yet grander heights, and to be told that we must gain not only those but others beyond.

The government road from Sikkim to Thibet is followed very closely, though when the grade becomes too steep for the engine, detours are made for loops, switchbacks, tunnels, and every other device by which altitude may be gained by steampower. There are double loops, figure 8’s, and zigzags along the mountain-sides. A double loop is shown in the engraving. Small sections of track may be seen on each side of the picture, and the rails emerge from the ground near the center of the picture. As we gain in height, the landscape below us expands to our view. The plucky engine puffs away at its load, and succeeds in whirling us around sharp curves and over frightful bridges, as rapidly as one cares to ride in such places. A yawning precipice is now directly in front, to the very edge of which the engine rushes, then suddenly turns, and in an instant the passenger is startled to find himself clutching the arms of his seat, while he is hanging over an embankment down which he can look many hundred feet perpendicularly. Glancing over the plain below, to the farthest range of vision, he sees the land bathed in golden sunshine, through which the rivers run like silver threads. Above and beyond him he sees the towering heights of the everlasting mountains, never has he been so perfectly impressed with the greatness of the works of his Creator.

As we ascended, the precipices increased in dizzy height, till at last it became necessary for me to turn my face to the wall of rock that rose above us on the opposite side, for my head was whirling and my heart became faint with an overpowering sense of grandeur which cannot be expressed. The wagon road is in an excellent state, and crowded with people and vehicles passing up and down. Those we met were carrying tea and produce to Siliguri, the ones returning were laden with such supplies as the people in the hill country and Thibet beyond required. Not more strange were the rude outfits than were the people themselves.

At the altitude of five thousand feet, we passed into the clouds, which for a time allowed us but occasional glimpses of the scenery. Although this was a relief, yet there was such a fascination in the scenery that we could hardly endure to have it shut off. By and by, we emerged above the clouds, and then, although we could not look into the depths below, we could look in wonder upon the upper side of clouds, be neath which we had lived so many years. From time to time, we became conscious of a change in the temperature, and gradually drew from the stock of clothing we had with us vest, coat, overcoat, then mittens and muffler, and finally a fur robe. At last we began to wish for a stove.

I traveled many weary miles to see that place, but I have since felt that if it had been just to enjoy that mountain ride, and then go back again, it would have repaid the trouble.