Travel Letters: Benares, India (1883)

MY DEAR MARY, — This is the sacredest place in India. There are five thousand Hindoo temples in Benares. . . . You stumble at every step on a temple with its hideous idol, and if you hear a gentleman muttering behind you in the street, he is not abusing you, but only saying prayers to Vishnu or Siva, who has a little shrine somewhere in the back yard of the next house. There is one sweet temple to their Monkey God, where they keep five hundred monkeys. I went to this temple yesterday morning, and the little wretches were running over everything, and would hardly let you go, wanting you to feed them. They are so sacred that if you hurt one of them, you would have an awful time. It reminded me of nothing so much as your drawing-room after dinner.

Then I went down to the Ganges, where hundreds and hundreds of people were bathing in the sacred river. Pilgrims from all over India had come to wash their sins away, and were scrubbing themselves, as thick as they could stand, for two miles along the bank of the stream. It is a beautiful religion, at least in this, that it keeps its disciples always washing themselves.

By and by, we came to a place where, in a little hollow by the river’s side, a pile of wood was burning ; two men were waving a big piece of cloth to fan the flame, and gradually as it burned, you caught sight through it of a strange bundle lying in the midst of the wood and slowly catching fire. Then you knew that it was the funeral pile of some dead Hindoo, who had died happy in knowing that he would be burned beside the sacred river and that his ashes would be mingled with its waters.

Then came another curious and pathetic sight. Close by the side of this burning pile was another all prepared, but not yet lighted. Soon I saw a man leading a little naked boy some four years old into the water. He washed the little chap all over, then stood him up beside the pile of wood ; a priest up above on a high altar said some prayers over him, and the man give the little boy a blazing bunch of straw and showed him how to stick it into the midst of the wood until the whole caught fire. It was a widower showing his small son how to set his mother on fire. The little fellow seemed scared and cried, and when they let him go ran up to some other children, — probably cousins, — who put his clothes on for him, and then he squatted on his heels and quietly watched the flames.

While this was going on they had brought down the body of a child, perhaps seven or eight years old, and for it they built another pile of wood close to the water. Then they took the body into the stream and bathed it for a moment, then brought it out and laid it on the wood. The father of the child went into the water, and washed himself all over. After he came out the priest at the altar chanted a prayer for him. Then he went up to an old woman who sold straw, and bought a bundle, haggling some time over the price. This he lighted at the burning pile of the little boy’s mother, and with it set his own child’s pile in flames. They had covered the little body with a bright red cloth, and it was the prettiest funeral pile of all. By this time another body, a wasted and worn old man, had come, and they were already bathing him in the Ganges, while some men were gathering up the ashes of somebody who was burned earlier in the day and throwing them into the river, where they float to certain bliss. So it goes all the time, while a great crowd is gathered around, some laughing, some praying, some trafficking, some begging. While we looked on, an interesting-looking fakir came up with a live snake pleasantly curled around his neck, and begged an alms, while the boys behind kept pulling the tail of his hideous necklace to make him mad. Just down the slope beside the water, the mother was being burned by the little boy, and the child by her father.

This is not a cheerful letter, but on less serious occasions the Hindoos are a most amusing people. They never sit, but squat all over the place. When you meet them they make believe take up some dust from the ground and put it on their heads. I wish you could see my servant Huri. He looks like a most sober, pious female of about forty-five. He wears petticoats and bloomers. Where he sleeps and what he eats, I have not the least idea. He gets $8 a month and finds himself, and is the most devoted and useful creature you ever saw, but as queer an old woman as ever lived. But good-by. I shall be glad enough to see you all again.

The Hindoos are the most pathetic and amusing people. This morning, after I had written this long letter, we went down again to the Ganges and watched the bathers and the burners for a long time. On the way we almost destroyed large numbers of the infant population, who crawl about the streets and run under the horses’ feet and are just the color of the earth of which they are made, so that it is very hard to tell them from the inanimate clay. Almost none of them wear any clothes until they are six or seven years old ; then their clothes soon get to be the same color as their skins and it does not help you much.

We passed a pleasant temple of the Goddess of Small-Pox, and looked in a moment just out of association. Her name is Sitla, and her temple is a horrid-looking place. On the way through the city there are all sorts of amusing sights. Here is a fellow squatted down in the dirt, blowing away on a squeaking flute, and as he blows there are a lot of snakes, cobras, and all sorts of dreadful-looking things swinging back and forth around him, and sticking their heads out of his baskets. Suddenly the musician starts up and begins a fantastic dance, and in a few minutes makes a dive at a chap in the crowd, and by sleight of hand seems to take a long snake (which he has concealed some-where about him) out of the other fellow’s turban. Then the crowd howl awl jeer, and we throw the dirty musician a quarter of a cent.

All this it is pleasantest to see from the carriage ; just as we are turning away, there is a cheerful noise of a band coming down the narrow street, and there appear a dozen men and boys playing on queer drums, cymbals, and trumpets. After them a crowd of women singing a wild and rather jolly air, then on horse-back a small boy of twelve all dressed up in gilt paper and white cloth, and on another horse a little girl about the size of Tood, who is his bride. She is dressed like a most gorgeous doll, and has to be held on the horse by a man who walks behind. They have all been down to the Ganges to worship, and now are going home to the wedding feast, after which the bride will be taken to the boy’s mother’s house to be kept for him, and a hard time the little wretch will have. The wedding procession comes to grief every few minutes in the crowded street ; sometimes a big swell on an elephant walks into the midst of the band, and for a few minutes you lose sight of the minstrels altogether, and only hear fragments of the music coming out of the neighboring houses, where they have taken refuge. Sometimes there come a group of people, wailing, crying, and singing a doleful hymn, as they carry a dead body to the Ganges, and for a while the funeral and marriage music get mixed ; but they always come unsnarled, and the wedding picks itself up and goes its way. Then you stop a moment to see a juggler make a mango-tree grow in three minutes from a seed to a tall bush. Then you drop into the bazaars and see their pretty silks ; then you stop and listen to a Gooroo preaching in a little nook between two houses ; and so you wander on, until you see the Ganges flashing in the sun and thousands of black and brown backs popping in and out, as the men and women take their baths.

When they come out, they sit with their legs folded under them for a long time, look at nothing, and meditate ; then they go to a gentleman who sits under a big umbrella with a lot of paint-boxes about him, and he puts a daub on their foreheads, whose color and pattern tell how long they have bathed and prayed, and how holy they are after it all.

I have been looking at Huri, who is squatted on the ground in the sun, just outside my door, as I am writing. He wears a gold and purple turban. The poor fellow was upset in a rickety cab last week, after he had left me at the station, and says his bones are bent, but he has been carefully examined, and we can find no harm. He always sleeps just outside my door at night. Last night I heard the jackals when I went to bed, and was quite surprised to find the whole of Huri in my room when I woke up this morning. I wish I could bring him home.