Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Annual Fairs held upon the Banks of Sacred Streams in India.

Before setting out on our journey towards the Himālaya we formed once more an agreeable party to visit the Marble Rocks of the Nerbudda at Bherāghāt.[1] It was the end of Kārtik,[2] when the Hindoos hold fairs on all their sacred streams at places consecrated by poetry or tradition as the scene of some divine work or manifestation.


These fairs are at once festive and holy; every person who comes enjoying himself as much as he can, and at the same time seeking purification from all past transgressions by bathing and praying in the holy stream, and making laudable resolutions to be better for the future. The ceremonies last five days, and take place at the same time upon all the sacred rivers throughout India; and the greater part of the whole Hindoo population, from the summits of the Himālaya mountains to Cape Comōrin, will, I believe, during these five days, be found congregated at these fairs.


In sailing down the Ganges one may pass in the course of a day half a dozen such fairs, each with a multitude equal to the population of a large city, and rendered beautifully picturesque by the magnificence and variety of the tent equipages of the great and wealthy. The preserver of the universe (Bhagvān) Vishnu is supposed, on the 26th of Asārh, to descend to the world below (Pātāl) to defend Rājā Bali from the attacks of Indra, to stay with him four months, and to come up again on the 26th Kārtik.[3] During his absence almost all kinds of worship and festivities are suspended; and they recommence at these fairs, where people assemble to hail his resurrection.


Our tents were pitched upon a green sward on one bank of a small stream running into the Nerbudda close by, while the multitude occupied the other bank. At night all the tents and booths are illuminated, and the scene is hardly less animated by night than by day; but what strikes a European most is the entire absence of all tumult and disorder at such places.


He not only sees no disturbance, but feels assured that there will be none; and leaves his wife and children in the midst of a crowd of a hundred thousand persons all strangers to them, and all speaking a language and following a religion different from theirs, while he goes off the whole day, hunting and shooting in the distant jungles, without the slightest feeling of apprehension for their safety or comfort.


It is a singular fact, which I know to be true, that during the great mutiny of our native troops at Barrackpore in 1824, the chief leaders bound themselves by a solemn oath not to suffer any European lady or child to be injured or molested, happen what might to them in the collision with their officers and the Government. My friend Captain Reid, one of the general staff, used to allow his children, five in number, to go into the lines and play with the soldiers of the mutinous regiments up to the very day when the artillery opened upon them; and, of above thirty European ladies then at the station, not one thought of leaving the place till they heard the guns.[4]


Mrs. Colonel Faithful, with her daughter and another young lady, who had both just arrived from England, went lately all the way from Calcutta to Lūdiāna on the banks of the Hyphasis, a distance of more than twelve hundred miles, in their palankeens with relays of bearers, and without even a servant to attend them.[5] They were travelling night and day for fourteen days without the slightest apprehension of injury or of insult. Cases of ladies travelling in the same manner by dāk (stages) immediately after their arrival from England to all parts of the country occur every day, and I know of no instance of injury or insult sustained by them.[6] Does not this speak volumes for the character of our rule in India?


Would men trust their wives and daughters in this manner unprotected among a people that disliked them and their rule? We have not a garrison, or walled cantonments, or fortified position of any kind for our residence from one end of our Eastern empire to the other, save at the three capitals of Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay.[7] We know and feel that the people everywhere look up to and respect us, in spite of all our faults, and we like to let them know and feel that we have confidence in them.


Sir Thomas Munro has justly observed, 'I do not exactly know what is meant by civilizing the people of India. In the theory and practice of good government they may be deficient; but, if a good system of agriculture, if unrivalled manufactures, if the establishment of schools for reading and writing, if the general practice of kindness and hospitality, and, above all, if a scrupulous respect and delicacy towards the female sex are amongst the points that denote a civilized people; then the Hindoos are not inferior in civilization to the people of Europe'.[8]


Bishop Heber writes in the same favourable terms of the Hindoos in the narrative of his journey through India; and where shall we find a mind more capable of judging of the merits and demerits of a people than his?[9]


The concourse of people at this fair was, as usual, immense; but a great many who could not afford to provide tents for the accommodation of their families were driven away before their time by some heavy showers of, to them, unseasonable rains. On this and similar occasions the people bathe in the Nerbudda without the aid of priests, but a number of poor Brahmans attend at these festivals to receive charity, though not to assist at the ceremonies.


Those who could afford it gave a trifle to these men as they came out of the sacred stream, but in no case was it demanded, or even solicited with any appearance of importunity, as it commonly is at fairs and holy places on the Ganges. The first day, the people bathe below the rapid over which the river falls after it emerges from its peaceful abode among the marble rocks; on the second day, just above this rapid; and on the third day, two miles further up at the cascade, when the whole body of the limpid stream of the Nerbudda, confined to a narrow channel of only a few yards wide, falls tumultuously down in a beautiful cascade into a deep chasm of marble rocks.


This fall of their sacred stream the people call the 'Dhuāndhār', or 'the smoky fall', from the thick vapour which is always seen rising from it in the morning. From below, the river glides quietly and imperceptibly for a mile and a half along a deep, and, according to popular belief, a fathomless channel of from ten to fifty yards wide, with snow-white marble rocks rising perpendicularly on either side from a hundred to a hundred and fifty feet high, and in some parts fearfully overhanging.


Suspended in recesses of these white rocks are numerous large black nests of hornets ready to descend upon any unlucky wight who may venture to disturb their repose;[10] and, as the boats of the curious European visitors pass up and down to the sound of music, clouds of wild pigeons rise from each side, and seem sometimes to fill the air above them. Here, according to native legends, repose the Pāndavas, the heroes of their great Homeric poem, the Mahābhārata, whose names they have transferred to the valley of the Nerbudda.


Every fantastic appearance of the rocks, caused by those great convulsions of nature which have so much disturbed the crust of the globe, or by the slow and silent working of the, waters, is attributed to the god-like power of those great heroes of Indian romance, and is associated with the recollection of scenes in which they are supposed to have figured.[11]


The strata of the Kaimūr range of sandstone hills, which runs diagonally across the valley of the Nerbudda, are thrown up almost perpendicularly, in some places many hundred feet above the level of the plain, while in others for many miles together their tops are only visible above the surface. These are so many strings of the oxen which the arrows of Arjun, one of the five brothers, converted into stone; and many a stream which now waters the valley first sprang from the surface of the earth at the touch of his lance, as his troops wanted water.


The image of the gods of a former day, which now lie scattered among the ruins of old cities, buried in the depth of the forest, are nothing less than the bodies of the kings of the earth turned into stone for their temerity in contending with these demigods in battle. Ponds among the rocks of the Nerbudda, where all the great fairs are held, still bear the names of the five brothers, who are the heroes of this great poem;[12] and they are every year visited by hundreds of thousands who implicitly believe that their waters once received upon their bosoms the wearied limbs of those whose names they bear.


What is life without the charms of fiction, and without the leisure and recreations which these sacred imaginings tend to give to the great mass of those who have nothing but the labour of their hands to depend upon for their subsistence! Let no such fictions be believed, and the holidays and pastimes of the lower orders in every country would soon cease, for they have almost everywhere owed their origin and support to some religious dream which has commanded the faith and influenced the conduct of great masses of mankind, and prevented one man from presuming to work on the day that another wished to rest from his labours.


The people were of opinion, they told me, that the Ganges, as a sacred stream, could last only sixty years more, when the Nerbudda would take its place. The waters of the Nerbudda are, they say already so much more sacred than those of the Ganges that to see them is sufficient to cleanse men from their sins, whereas the Ganges must be touched before it can have that effect.[13]


At the temple built on the top of a conical hill at Bherāghāt, overlooking the river, is a statue of a bull carrying Siva, the god of destruction, and his wife Pārvatī seated behind him; they have both snakes in their hands, and Siva has a large one round his loins as a waistband. There are several demons in human shape lying prostrate under the belly of the bull, and the whole are well cut out of one large slab of hard basalt from a dyke in the marble rock beneath.


They call the whole group 'Gaurī Sankar', and I found in the fair, exposed for sale, a brass model of a similar one from Jeypore (Jaipur), but not so well shaped and proportioned. On noticing this we were told that 'such difference was to be expected, since the brass must have been made by man, whereas the "Gaurī Sankar" of the temple above was a real Pākhān, or a conversion of living beings into stone by the gods;[14] they were therefore the exact resemblance of living beings, while the others could only be rude imitations'. 'Gaurī', or the Fair, is the name of Pārvatī, or Dēvī, when she appears with her husband Siva.


On such occasions she is always fair and beautiful. Sankar is another name of Siva, or Mahādēo, or Rudra. On looking into the temple at the statue, a lady expressed her surprise at the entireness as well as the excellence of the figures, while all round had been so much mutilated by the Muhammadans. 'They are quite a different thing from the others', said a respectable old landholder; 'they are a conversion of real flesh and blood into stone, and no human hands can either imitate or hurt them.'


She smiled incredulously, while he looked very grave, and appealed to the whole crowd of spectators assembled, who all testified to the truth of what he had said; and added that 'at no distant day the figures would be all restored to life again, the deities would all come back without doubt and reanimate their old bodies again'.


All the people who come to bathe at the fair bring chaplets of yellow jasmine, and hang them as offerings round the necks of the god and his consort; and at the same time they make some small offerings of rice to each of the many images that stand within the same apartment, and also to those which, under a stone roof supported upon stone pillars, line the inside of the wall that surrounds the circular area, in the centre of which the temple stands.


The images inside the temple are those of the three great gods, Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva, with their primaeval consorts;[15] but those that occupy the piazza outside are the representations of the consorts of the different incarnations of these three gods, and these consorts are themselves the incarnations of the primaeval wives, who followed their husbands in all their earthly ramblings.


They have all the female form, and are about the size of ordinary women, and extremely well cut out of fine white and green sandstone; but their heads are those of the animals in which their respective husbands became incarnate, such as the lion, the elephant, &c., or those of the 'vāhans', or animals on which they rode, such as the bull, the swan, the eagle, &c. But these, I presume, are mere capricios of the founder of the temple. The figures are sixty- four in number, all mounted upon their respective 'vāhans', but have been sadly mutilated by the pious Muhammadans.[16]


The old 'Mahant', or high priest, told us that Mahādēo and his wife were in reality our Adam and Eve; 'they came here together', said he, 'on a visit to the mountain Kailās,[17] and being earnestly solicited to leave some memorial of their visit, got themselves turned into stone'.


The popular belief is that some very holy man, who had been occupied on the top of this little conical hill, where the temple now stands, in austere devotions for some few thousand years, was at last honoured with a visit from Siva and his consort, who asked him what they could do for him.


He begged them to wait till he should bring some flowers from the woods to make them a suitable offering. They promised to do so, and he ran down, plunged into the Nerbudda and drowned himself, in order that these august persons might for ever remain and do honour to his residence and his name. They, however, left only their 'mortal coil', but will one day return and resume it.


I know not whether I am singular in the notion or not, but I think Mahādēo and his consort are really our Adam and Eve, and that the people have converted them into the god and goddess of destruction, from some vague idea of their original sin, which involved all their race in destruction. The snakes, which form the only dress of Mahādēo, would seem to confirm this notion.[18]


Notes:


1. The Nerbudda (Narbadā, or Narmadā) river is the boundary between Hindustan, or Northern India, and the Deccan (Dakhin), or Southern India. The beautiful gorge of the Marble Rocks, near Jubbulpore (Jabalpur), is familiar to modern tourists (see I.G., 1908, s.v. 'Marble Rocks'). The remarkable antiquities at Bherāghāt are described and illustrated in A.S.R., vol. ix, pp. 60-76, pl. xii-xvi. Additions and corrections to Cunningham's account will be found in A.S.W.I Progr. Rep., 1893-4, p. 5; and A.S. Ann. Rep., E. Circle, 1907-8, pp. 14-18.


2. The eighth month of the Hindoo luni-solar year, corresponding to part of October and part of November. In Northern India the year begins with the month Chait, in March. The most commonly used names of the months are: (1) Chait; (2) Baisākh; (3) Jēth; (4) Asārh; (5) Sāwan; (6) Bhādon; (7) Kuār; (8) Kārtik; (9) Aghan; (10) Pūs; (II) Māgh; and (12) Phālgun.


3. Bhagvān is often used as equivalent for the word God in its most general sense, but is specially applicable to the Deity as manifested in Vishnu the Preserver. Asārh corresponds to June-July, Pātāl is the Hindoo Hades. Rājā Bali is a demon, and Indra is the lord of the heavens. The fairs take place at the time of full moon.


4. Barrackpore, fifteen miles north of Calcutta, is still a cantonment. The Governor General has a country house there. The mutiny of the native troops stationed there occurred on Nov. 1, 1824, and was due to the discontent caused by orders moving the 47th Native Infantry to Rangoon to take part in the Burmese War. The outbreak was promptly suppressed. Captain Pogson published a Memoir of the Mutiny at Barrackpore (8vo, Serampore, 1833).


5. Lūdiāna, the capital of the district of the same name, now under the Punjab Government. Hyphasis is the Greek name of the Biās river, one of the five rivers of the Punjāb.


6. Railways have rendered almost obsolete the mode of travelling described in the text. In Northern India palankeens (pālkīs) are now seldom used, even by Indians, except for purposes of ceremony.


7. This statement is no longer quite accurate, though fortified positions are still very few.


8. The editor cannot find the exact passage quoted, but remarks to the same effect will be found in The Life of Sir Thomas Munro, by the Rev. G. R. Gleig, in two volumes, a new edition (London, 1831), vol. ii, p. 175.


9. Narrative of a Journey through the Upper Provinces of India, from Calcutta to Bombay, 1834-5, and a Journey to the Southern Provinces in 1826 (2nd edition, 3 vols. 8vo, London, 1828.)


10. The bees at the Marble Rocks are the Apis dorsata. An Englishman named Biddington, when trying to escape from them, was drowned, and they stung to death one of Captain Forsyth's baggage ponies (Balfour, Cyclopaedia of India, 3rd ed., 1885, s.v. Bee').


11. The vast epic poem, or collection of poems known as the Mahābhārata, consists of over 100,000 Sanskrit verses. The main subject is the war between the five Pāndavas, or sons of Pāndū, and their cousins the Kauravas, sons of Dhritarāshtra. Many poems of various origins and dates are interwoven with the main work. The best known of the episodes is that of Nala and Damayantī, which was well translated by Dean Milman, See Macdonell, A History of Sanskrit Literature (Heinemann, 1900).


12. The five Pāndava brothers were Yudhishthira, Bhīmia, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadeva, the children of Pāndū, by his wives Kuntī, or Prithā, and Madrī.