Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Feeding Pilgrims—Marriage of a Stone with a Shrub

At Sayyidpur[1] we encamped in a pretty little mango grove, and here I had a visit from my old friend Jānkī Sewak, the high priest of the great temple that projects into the Sāgar lake, and is called Bindrāban.[2] He has two villages rent free, worth a thousand rupees a year; collects something more through his numerous disciples, who wander over the country; and spends the whole in feeding all the members of his fraternity (Bairāgīs), devotees of Vishnu, as they pass his temple in their pilgrimages.


Every one who comes is considered entitled to a good meal and a night's lodging; and he has to feed and lodge about a hundred a day. He is a man of very pleasing manners and gentle disposition, and everybody likes him. He was on his return from the town of Ludhaura,[3] where he had been, at the invitation of the Rājā of Orchhā, to assist at the celebration of the marriage of Sālagrām with the Tulasī,[4] which there takes place every year under the auspices and at the expense of the Rājā, who must be present.


'Sālagrāms'[5] are rounded pebbles which contain the impressions of ammonites, and are washed down into the plains of India by the rivers from the limestone rocks in which these shells are imbedded in the mountains of the Himalaya.[6] The Spiti valley[7] contains an immense deposit of fossil ammonites and belemnites[8] in limestone rocks, now elevated above sixteen thousand feet above the level of the sea; and from such beds as these are brought down the fragments, which, when rounded in their course, the poor Hindoo takes for representatives of Vishnu, the preserving god of the Hindoo triad.


The Sālagrām is the only stone idol among the Hindoos that is essentially sacred, and entitled to divine honours without the ceremonies of consecration.[9] It is everywhere held most sacred. During the war against Nepāl,[10] Captain B———, who commanded a reconnoitring party from the division in which I served, one day brought back to camp some four or five Sālagrāms, which he had found at the hut of some priest within the enemy's frontier.


He called for a large stone and hammer, and proceeded to examine them. The Hindoos were all in a dreadful state of consternation, and expected to see the earth open and swallow up the whole camp, while he sat calmly cracking their gods with his hammer, as he would have cracked so many walnuts. The Tulasī is a small sacred shrub (Ocymum sanctum), which is a metamorphosis of Sītā, the wife of Rāma, the seventh incarnation of Vishnu.


This little pebble is every year married to this little shrub; and the high priest told me that on the present occasion the procession consisted of eight elephants, twelve hundred camels, four thousand horses, all mounted and elegantly caparisoned.


On the leading elephant of this cortège, and the most sumptuously decorated, was carried the pebble god, who was taken to pay his bridal visit (barāt) to the little shrub goddess. All the ceremonies of a regular marriage are gone through; and, when completed, the bride and bridegroom are left to repose together in the temple of Ludhaura[11] till the next season. 'Above a hundred thousand people', the priest said, 'were present at the ceremony this year at the Rājā's invitation, and feasted upon his bounty.'[12]


The old man and I got into a conversation upon the characters of different governments, and their effects upon the people; and he said that bad governments would sooner or later be always put down by the deity; and quoted this verse, which I took down with my pencil:


Tulasī, gharīb na sātāe,

Burī gharīb kī hai;

Marī khāl ke phūnk se

Lohā bhasm ho jāe.


'Oh, Rājā Tulasī! oppress not the poor; for the groans of the wretched bring retribution from heaven. The contemptible skin (in the smith's bellows) in time melts away the hardest iron.'[13]


On leaving our tents in the morning, we found the ground all round white with hoar frost, as we had found it for several mornings before;[14] and a little canary bird, one of the two which travelled in my wife's palankeen, having, by the carelessness of the servants been put upon the top without any covering to the cage, was killed by the cold, to her great affliction. All attempts to restore it to life by the warmth of her bosom were fruitless.


On the 7th[15] we came nine miles to Bamhaurī over a soil still basaltic, though less rich, reposing upon syenite, which frequently rises and protrudes its head above the surface, which is partially and badly cultivated, and scantily peopled. The silent signs of bad government could not be more manifest. All the extensive plains, covered with fine long grass, which is rotting in the ground from want of domestic cattle or distant markets.


Here, as in every other part of Central India, the people have a great variety of good spontaneous, but few cultivated, grasses. They understand the character and qualities of these grasses extremely well. They find some thrive best in dry, and some in wet seasons; and that of inferior quality is often prized most because it thrives best when other kinds cannot thrive at all, from an excess or a deficiency of rain. When cut green they all make good hay, and have the common denomination of 'sahīa'. The finest of these grasses are two which are generally found growing spontaneously together, and are often cultivated together-'kēl' and 'musēl'; the third 'parwana'; fourth 'bhawār', or 'gūniār'; fifth 'sainā'.[16]


Notes:


1. Spelled Siedpore in the author's text.


2. More correctly Brindāban (Vrindāvana). The name originally belongs to one of the most sacred spots in India, situated near Mathurā (Muttra) on the Jumna, and the reputed scene of the dalliance between Krishna and the milkmaids (Gopīs); also associated with the legend Rāma.


3. Twenty-seven miles north-west of Tehrī in the Orchhā State.


4. The Tulasī plant, or basil, Ocymum sanctum, is 'not merely sacred to Vishnu or to his wife Lakshmī; it is pervaded by the essence of these deities, and itself worshipped as a deity and prayed to accordingly. . . . The Tulasī is the object of more adoration than any other plant at present worshipped in India. . . .It is to be found in almost every respectable household throughout India.


It is a small shrub, not too big to be cultivated in a good-sized flower-pot, and often placed in rooms. Generally, however, it is planted in the courtyard of a well-to-do man's house, with a space round it for reverential circumambulation. In real fact the Tulasī is par excellence a domestic divinity, or rather, perhaps, a woman's divinity' (M. Williams, Religious Thought and Life in India, p. 333).


5. The fossil ammonites found in India include at least fifteen species. They occur between Trichinopoly and Pondicherry as well as in the Himalayan rocks. They are particularly abundant in the river Gandak, which rises near Dhaulagiri in Nepāl, and falls into the Ganges near Patna. The upper course of this river is consequently called Sālagrāmī.