Travel Letters: Tanjore, India (1883)

DEAR AUNT SUSAN, -I hope you are all well, and I wish that I could drive up the side yard, this morning, and find you all there, going on in the good old-fashioned way. Instead of that I am sitting here in the midst of heathenism, in the big room of an Indian bungalow, with a punkah swinging overhead to keep me cool, propelled by a rope which a naked heathen boy is pulling on the veranda outside, and with the sun blazing down on the palm-trees and bamboos as it never blazes, even in August, in the back garden. This morning, while it was still cool, I went to the great temple, and saw the worship of the great god Siva. The worshipers were a strange-looking set, some of them very gentle and handsome, others wild and fierce ; but all groveling before the most hideous idol, and hiding their faces in the dust, while the big priest clothed the image with flowers, washed him, set his food and drink before him, and anointed him with dreadful-smelling oil.

It is strange to be right in the midst of pure, blank heathenism, after one has been hearing and talking about it all his life. And it is certainly as bad as it has been painted. I have seen a good deal of the missionaries here, and a good many of them are doing very noble work, but the hosts on hosts of heathen must be a pretty discouraging sight to them some-times. However, I saw a dozen or more funeral piles burning the other day at Benares, and so there are that number less of unconverted heathen in the land.

We have had a splendid two months here, and now only two weeks remain before we shall sail from ” Ceylon’s Isle ” for Europe, where it will seem as if I were almost in the midst of you again. But all the rest of my life I shall have pictures before my mind of these queer people riding on elephants (that they prod with a sharp iron stick behind the ear to make them go), squatting on their heels in the sunniest sunshine they can find, and religiously bathing in big tanks and tugging at the heavy cars on which they love to drag their horrible gods about the country ; smiling, cheating, lying dreadfully, and making their country as picturesque as anything can be in all the world. It will be good to get back again, for after all one wants to be at work. William, Arthur, and John have writ-ten me from time to time, — William constantly, — and from them I have heard all the news. The best is that everything is going on without change, and that I shall find you all next September just as I left you last June. You will not doubt that I think of you a great deal. Give my best love to aunt S. and aunt C., and write to me when you can.

Ever most affectionately,