Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.

The Silver Tree, or 'Kalpa Briksha'—The Singhāra or Trapa bispinosa, and the Guinea-Worm

Poor old Salāmat Alī wept bitterly at the last meeting in my tent, and his two nice boys, without exactly knowing why, began to do the same; and my little son Henry[1] caught the infection, and wept louder than any of them. I was obliged to hurry over the interview lest I should feel disposed to do the same.


The poor old Rānī,[2] too, suffered a good deal in parting from my wife, whom, she says, she can never hope to see again. Her fine large eyes shed many a tear as she was getting into her palankeen to return.


Between Jaberā and Harduā, the next stage, we find a great many of those large forest trees called 'kalap', or 'Kalpa Briksha' (the same which in the paradise of Indra grants what is desired), with a soft, silvery bark, and scarcely any leaves. We are told that the name of the god Rām (Rāma) and his consort Sītā will be found written by the hand of God upon all.[3]


I had the curiosity to examine a good many in the forest on both sides of the road, and found the name of this incarnation of Vishnu written on everyone in Sanskrit characters, apparently by some supernatural hand; that is, there was a softness in the impression, as if the finger of some supernatural being had traced the characters. Nathū, one of our belted attendants[4] told me that we might search as deeply as we would in the forest, but we should certainly find the name of God upon every one; 'for', said he, 'it is God himself who writes it'.


I tried to argue him out of this notion; but, unfortunately, could find no tree without these characters—some high up, and some lower down in the trunk—some large and others small—but still to be found on every tree. I was almost in despair when we came to a part of the wood where we found one of these trees down in a hollow, under the road, and another upon the precipice above.


I was ready to stake my credit upon the probability that no traveller would take the trouble to go up to the tree above, or down to the tree below, merely to write the name of the god upon them; and at once pledged myself to Nathū that he should find neither the god's name nor that of his wife. I sent one man up, and another man down, and they found no letters on the trees; but this did not alter their opinion on the point.


'God', said one, 'had no doubt put his name on these trees, but they had somehow or other got rubbed off. He would in good time renew them, that men's eyes might be blessed with the sight of His holy name, even in the deepest forest, and on the most leafless tree.'[5]


'But', said Nathū, 'he might not have thought it worth while to write his name upon those trees which no travellers go to see.' 'Cannot you see', said I, 'that these letters have been engraved by man? Are they not all to be found on the trunk within reach of a man's hand?' 'Of course they are', replied he, 'because people would not be able conveniently to distinguish them if God were to write them higher up.'


Shaikh Sādī has a very pretty couplet, 'Every leaf of the foliage of a green tree is, in the eye of a wise man, a library to teach him the wisdom of his Creator.'[6]


I may remark that, where an Englishman would write his own name, a Hindoo would write that of his god, his parent, or his benefactor. This difference is traceable, of course, to the difference in their governments and institutions. If a Hindoo built a town, he called it after his local governor; if a local governor built it, he called it after the favourite son of the Emperor.


In well regulated Hindoo families, one cannot ask a younger brother after his children in presence of the elder brother who happens to be the head of the family; it would be disrespectful for him even to speak of his children as his own in such presence—the elder brother relieves his embarrassment by answering for him.


On the 27th[7] we reached Damoh,[8] where our friends, the Browns, were to leave us on their return to Jubbulpore. Damoh is a pretty place. The town contains some five or six thousand people, and has some very handsome Hindoo temples. On a hill immediately above it is the shrine of a Muhammadan saint, which has a very picturesque appearance.


There are no manufactures at Damoh, except such as supply the wants of the immediate neighbourhood; and the town is supported by the residence of a few merchants, a few landholders, and agricultural capitalists, and the establishment of a native collector. The people here suffer much from the guinea-worm, and consider it to arise from drinking the water of the old tank, which is now very dirty and full of weeds.


I have no doubt that it is occasioned either by drinking the water of this tank, or by wading in it: for I have known European gentlemen get the worm in their legs from wading in similar lakes or swamps after snipes, and the servants who followed them with their ammunition experience the same effect.[9]


Here, as in most other parts of India, the tanks get spoiled by the water-chestnut, 'singhāra' (Trapa bispinosa), which is everywhere as regularly planted and cultivated in fields under a large surface of water, as wheat or barley is on the dry plains. It is cultivated by a class of men called Dhīmars, who are everywhere fishermen and palankeen bearers; and they keep boats for the planting, weeding, and gathering the 'singhāra'.[10]


The holdings or tenements of each cultivator are marked out carefully on the surface of the water by long bamboos stuck up in it; and they pay so much the acre for the portion they till. The long straws of the plants reach up to the surface of the waters, upon which float their green leaves; and their pure white flowers expand beautifully among them in the latter part of the afternoon.


The nut grows under the water after the flowers decay, and is of a triangular shape, and covered with a tough brown integument adhering strongly to the kernel, which is white, esculent, and of a fine cartilaginous texture. The people are very fond of these nuts, and they are carried often upon bullocks' backs two or three hundred miles to market. They ripen in the latter end of the rains, or in September, and are eatable till the end of November. The rent paid for an ordinary tank by the cultivator is about one hundred rupees a year.


I have known two hundred rupees to be paid for a very large one, and even three hundred, or thirty pounds a year.[11] But the mud increases so rapidly from this cultivation that it soon destroys all reservoirs in which it is permitted; and, where it is thought desirable to keep up the tank for the sake of the water, it should be carefully prohibited.


This is done by stipulating with the renter of the village, at the renewal of the lease, that no 'singhāra' shall be planted in the tank; otherwise, he will never forgo the advantage to himself of the rent for the sake of the convenience, and that only prospective, of the village community in general.


Notes:


1. Afterwards Captain H. A. Sleeman, He died in 1905.


2. Of Garhā, see ante, Chapter 9, prior to note 10.


3. The real 'kalpa', which now stands in the garden of the god Indra in the first heaven, was one of the fourteen varieties found at the churning of the ocean by the gods and demons. It fell to the share of Indra. [W. H. S.] The tree referred to in the text perhaps may be the Erythrina arborescens, or coral-tree, which sheds its leaves after the hot weather.


4. That is to say, orderlies, or 'chaprāsīs'.


5. Every Hindoo is thoroughly convinced that the names of Rām and his consort Sītā are written on this tree by the hand of God, and nine-tenths of the Musalmāns believe the same.


Happy the man who sees a God employed

In all the good and ill that chequer life,

Resolving all events, with their effects

And manifold results, into the will

And arbitration wise of the Supreme.


COWPER. [W. H. S.]


The quotation is from The Task, Book II, line 161.


6. Sādī (Sa'dī) is the poetic name, or nom de plume, of the celebrated Persian poet, whose proper name is said to have been Shaikh Maslah-ud-dīn, or, according to other authorities, Sharf-ud-dīn Mislah. He was born about A.D. 1194, and is supposed to have lived for more than a hundred years. Some writers say that he died in A.D. 1292. His best known works are the Gulistān and Būstān.


The editor has failed to trace in either of these works the couplet quoted. Sādī says in the Gulistān, ii. 26, 'That heart which has an ear is full of the divine mystery. It is not the nightingale that alone serenades his rose; for every thorn on the rose-bush is a tongue in his or God's praise' (Ross's translation).


7. November, 1835.


8. Spelled Dhamow in the author's text. The town, the head- quarters of the district of the same name, is forty-five miles east of Sāgar, and fifty-five miles north-west of Jabalpur. The C. P. Gazetteer (1870) states the population to be 8,563. In 1901 it had grown to 13,335; and the town is still increasing in importance (I. G., 1908). Inscriptions of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries at Damoh are noticed in A. S. R., vol. xxi, p. 168.


9. The guinea-worm (Filaria medinensis) is a very troublesome parasite, which sometimes grows to a length of three feet. It occurs in Africa, Arabia, Persia, and Turkistan, as well as in India.


10. The Dhīmars (Sanskrit dhīvara, 'fisherman') are the same caste as the Kahārs, or 'bearers'. The boats used by them are commonly 'dugout' canoes, exactly like those used in prehistoric Europe, and now treasured in museums.


11. In the author's time the rupee was worth two shillings, or more, that is to say, the ninth or tenth part of a sovereign. After 1873 the gold value of the rupee fell, so that at times it was worth little more than a shilling. Since 1899 special legislation has succeeded in keeping the rupee practically steady at 1s. 4d. In other words, fifteen rupees are the legal equivalent of a sovereign, and a hundred rupees are worth £6 13s. 4d.