Travel Letters: Bombay, India (1882)

DEAR WILLIAM, — In India at last ! And you do not know how queer and beautiful it is. I will tell you about it. On Friday night, at eleven o’clock, the slow old Poonah dropped her anchor in the harbor opposite the Apollo Bandar, which is the landing-place of Bombay. That night we slept on board, but by six the next morning we were in a boat and being rowed to shore, where we had a jolly good breakfast at Watson’s Hotel. While we were eating it, two gentlemen sent in their cards. One was Mr. George A. Kittredge, who is the head of the Tramway System here. The other gentleman was Mr. Charles Lowell, who is a son of the Rev. Dr. Lowell, who used to be at St. Mark’s School. These two gentlemen insisted on taking charge of us during our stay in Bombay. Lowell is in the banking business here. We were immediately carried to his bungalow, and here I write to you.

Fancy an enormous house, rambling into a series of immense rooms, all on one floor, piazzas twenty feet deep, immense chambers (in the middle of which stand the beds), doors and windows wide open, the grounds filled with palms, bananas, and all sorts of tropical trees, the song of birds, the chirp of insects everywhere, and a dazzling sun blazing down on the Indian Ocean in front. A dozen or more dusky Hindoo servants, barefooted, dressed in white, with bright sashes around their waists and bright turbans on their heads, are moving about everywhere, as still as cats, and with no end of devotion to their little duties. One of them seems to have nothing to do but to look after me ; he has worked over my limited wardrobe till he knows every shirt and collar better than I do myself. He is now brushing my hat for the twelfth time this morning. The life is luxurious. Quantities, of delightful fruit, cool lounging-places, luxurious chairs, a sumptuous breakfast (or ” tiffin,” as we call it here), and dinner table, and no end of kind attention. I am writing in my room on the day before Christmas as if it were a rather hot August morning at home.

Yesterday, we drove about the town and began our sight of Indian wonders : Hindoo temples, with their squatting ugly idols ; Mahommedan mosques ; bazaars thronged with every Eastern race ; splendid English buildings where the country is ruled ; a noble university ; Parsee merchants in their shops ; great tanks with the devotees bathing in them ; officers’ bungalows, with the handsome English fellows lounging about ; wedding processions, with the bride of six years old riding on the richly decorated horse behind the bride-groom of ten, surrounded by their friends, and with a tumult of horrible music ; markets overrunning with strange and delicious fruits ; wretched-looking saints chattering gibberish and begging alms, — there is no end to the interest and curiosity of it all ! And this is dead winter in the tropics. I have out all my thinnest clothes, and go about with an umbrella to keep off the sun. This morning, we started at half past six for a walk through the sacred part of the native town, and now at ten it is too hot to walk any more till sun-down. But there are carriages enough, and by and by we go to church. I was invited to preach at the cathedral, but declined.

We shall be in and about Bombay for about a week. You must not think that we shall suffer from the heat. This is the hottest place that we shall visit. As soon as we leave here we shall be in the hills, and by and by shall see the thermometer at zero. How I shall think of you to-morrow ! It is holidays here, and our friends have nothing to do but to look after us. Banks close for four days ! Good-by, my love to you all always.

BOMBAY, Tuesday, December 26.

Do you care to know how we spent Christmas ? I will tell you. We arose in the cool of the morning at six o’clock. After we had a cup of tea, some fruit and bread and butter, the open carriage was at the door, and we put on our pith helmets to keep off the sun, and drove away. First we went to the Jain hospital for animals. The Jains are a curious sect of Hindoos, and one of their ideas is the sacredness of animal life. So they have this great hospital, where they gather all the sick and wounded animals they can find, and cure them if they can, or keep them till they die. The broken-legged cows, sick pigeons, mangy dogs, and melancholy monkeys are very curious. We stayed there a while, and then drove to the Parsee burial-place. The Parsees are Persian sun-worshipers, who have been settled here for centuries, and are among the most intelligent and enterprising citizens. Their pleasant way of disposing of their dead is to leave a body on a high tower, where vultures devoted to that business come, and in about an hour consume all its flesh, leaving the bones, which, after four weeks of drying in the sun, are tumbled into a common pit, where they all crumble together into dust. You see the towers with the vultures waiting on top for the next arrival, but no one is allowed to enter.

Then we came home and had our breakfast, after which we drove into the town, whence I sent a telegram of ” Merry Christmas ” to you at eleven o’clock. We went to the service at the Cathedral, which was very good. Then I drove out to the Government House, where the Governor, Sir James Fergusson, had invited me to lunch. Very pleasant people were there, and the whole thing was interesting. The drive out and in, about four miles each way, was through the strangest population, and in the midst of the queerest sights. After my return (I went there alone) we wandered about the native bazaars and saw their curious trades. At eight o’clock, Mr. Kittredge gave us a sumptuous dinner at the Byeulla Club, where with turkey, plum pudding, and mince-pies, we made the best which we knew how of that end of Christmas Day. After that, about ten o’clock, we wandered out into a native fair, where we saw their odd performances until late into the night, when we drove home along the cool sea-shore, and went to bed tired but happy, after the funniest Christmas Day we ever passed.

We go off now for a short trip to Karli and Poonah to see some curious old Buddhist temples. When we get back from there, we start for a long journey to Ahmadabad, Jeypore, Delhi, Lahore, Agra, Lucknow, Cawnpore, Allahabad, Benares, and Calcutta. This will take three weeks or a month.

I hope you had a happy Christmas. And now a happy New Year to you ! Hurrah for 1883 ! I hope you will have a splendid watch-meeting and think of me.

BOMBAY, January 2, 1883. DEAR WILLIAM, — A happy New Year to you ! May 1883 be the happiest of any yet ! I see no reason why it should not be. We shall not frisk about quite as much as we did thirty years ago, when we were boys. For all that, there are soberer joys even for such old chaps as you and I, and if the birds fly somewhat more sluggishly than of old, why perhaps it will be all the easier to get the salt on their tails. So a happy New Year to you ! The new year broke on me as I was driving in a tonga from Deogaon to Nandgaon. A tonga is a queer sort of dogcart, drawn by two sharp little ponies with a yoke over their necks, as if they were oxen ; — you see we have been spending a good part of the last week in going up to the hills to see the wonderful Buddhist and Braminical caves and temples. Sunday we spent in a bungalow on the top of a hot hill, out of which two thousand yeas ago these wonderful people hewed these marvelous affairs.

Think of a structure bigger than Trinity Church, with spires, columns, and domes a hundred feet high, which is not a structure at all, but is carved out of solid rock and hewn into chambers, corridors, court-yards, and shrines ; covered, in almost every inch of its surface inside and out, with sculptures, some very big and stately, some as fine as jewels, and all full of the most interesting religious and historical meaning.

Think of that, old fellow ? That is the most splendid of the caves, but there are thirty-five of them, all more or less wonderful, and some almost as fine as this. We spent Sunday there, and Sunday night about ten o’clock (for you do everything you can by night to avoid the heat) we took our tongas and drove six hours down from Ellora, where the caves are, to the railway. On the way, just as we were stopping to change ponies, and some half-naked Hindoos were howling to each other over their arrangement, and the Southern Cross was blazing in the sky, and the moon struggling up, 1883 came tripping in. I thought of you at home, and wondered whether you were having a watch-meeting and what you thought of the New Year ; then I remembered it was only three o’clock in Boston, and that you were just going to afternoon church. So I tumbled back into the tonga again and we jolted on.

You see I am getting somewhat at the country. It is interesting far beyond anything I expected. Our friends, Kittredge and Lowell, have been more kind and devoted than you can imagine. No one in a week could have seen more, or seen it better, than we. This afternoon we leave Bombay and launch out for ourselves. We have a capital fellow for a traveling servant, a dusky gentleman with a turban and a petticoat, a low-caste Hindoo named Huri. When you get this, about the 1st of February, we shall have passed through northern India and shall be in Calcutta. In a day or two we shall get out of excessive heat, and not be troubled with it again until we leave Calcutta for southern India. I am splendidly well. My young traveling companion is very pleasant. I love you all very much, and hope you will remember