Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Burning of Deorī by a Freebooter—A Suttee

Sarīmant had been one of the few who escaped from the flames which consumed his capital of Deorī in the month of April 1813, and were supposed to have destroyed thirty thousand souls. I asked him to tell me how this happened, and he referred me to his attendant, a learned old pundit, Rām Chand, who stood by his side, as he was himself, he said, then only five years of age, and could recollect nothing of it.


'Mardān Singh,' said the pundit, 'the father of Rājā Arpan Singh, whom you saw at Seorī, was then our neighbour, reigning over Garhā Kotā;[1] and he had a worthless nephew, Zālim Singh, who had collected together an army of five thousand men, in the hope of getting a little principality for himself in the general scramble for dominion incident on the rise of the Pindhārīs and Amīr Khan,[2] and the destruction of all balance of power among the great sovereigns of Central India. He came to attack our capital, which was an emporium of considerable trade and the seat of many useful manufactures, in the expectation of being able to squeeze out of us a good sum to aid him in his enterprise.


'While his troops blocked up every gate, fire was, by accident, set to the fence of some man's garden within. There had been no rain for six months; and everything was so much dried up that the flames spread rapidly; and, though there was no wind when they began, it soon blew a gale. The Sarīmant was then a little boy with his mother in the fortress, where she lived with his father[3] and nine other relations. The flames soon extended to the fortress, and the powder- magazine blew up.


'The house in which they lived was burned down, and every soul, except the lieutenant [sic] himself, perished in it. His mother tried to bear him off in her arms, but fell down in her struggle to get out with him and died. His nurse, Tulsī Kurmin,[4] snatched him up, and ran with him outside of the fortress to the bank of the river, where she made him over unhurt to Harirām, the Mārwārī merchant.[5] He was mounted on a good horse, and, making off across the river, he carried him safely to his friends at Gaurjhāmar; but poor Tulsī the Kurmin fell down exhausted when she saw her charge safe, and died.


'The wind appeared to blow in upon the poor devoted city from every side; and the troops of Zālim Singh, who at first prevented the people from rushing out at the gates, made off in a panic at the horrors before them. All our establishments had been driven into the city at the approach of Zālim Singh's troops; and scores of elephants, hundreds of camels, and thousands of horses and ponies perished in the flames, besides twenty-five thousand souls.


'Only about five thousand persons escaped out of thirty thousand, and these were reduced to beggary and wretchedness by the loss of their dearest relations and their property. At the time the flames first began to spread, an immense crowd of people had assembled under the fortress on the bank of the Sonār river to see the widow of a soldier burn herself. Her husband had been shot by one of Zālim Singh's soldiers in the morning; and before midday she was by the side of his body on the funeral pile. People, as usual, begged her to tell them what would happen, and she replied, "The city will know in less than four hours"; in less than four hours the whole city had been reduced to ashes; and we all concluded that, since the event was so clearly foretold, it must have been decreed by God.'[6]


'No doubt it was,' said Sarīmant; 'how could it otherwise happen? Do not all events depend upon His will? Had it not been His will to save me, how could poor Tulsī the Kurmin have carried me upon her shoulders through such a scene as this, when every other member of our family perished?'


'No doubt', said Rām Chand, 'all these things are brought about by the will of God, and it is not for us to ask why.'[7]


I have heard this event described by many other people, and I believe the account of the old pundit to be a very fair one.


One day, in October 1833, the horse of the district surgeon, Doctor Spry, as he was mounting him, reared, fell back with his head upon a stone, and died upon the spot. The doctor was not much hurt, and the little Sarīmant called a few days after, and offered his congratulations upon his narrow escape. The cause of so quiet a horse rearing at this time, when he had never been known to do so before, was discussed; and he said that there could be no doubt that the horse, or the doctor himself, must have seen some unlucky face before he mounted that morning—that he had been in many places in his life, but in none where a man was liable to see so many ugly or unfortunate faces; and, for his part, he never left his house till an hour after sunrise, lest he should encounter them.[8]


Many natives were present, and every one seemed to consider the Sarīmant's explanation of the cause quite satisfactory and philosophical. Some days after, Spry was going down to sleep in the bungalow where the accident happened. His native assistant and all his servants came and prayed that he would not attempt to sleep in the bungalow, as they were sure the horse must have been frightened by a ghost, and quoted several instances of ghosts appearing to people there. He, however, slept in the bungalow, and, to their great astonishment, saw no ghost and suffered no evil.[9]


Notes:


1. A fortress, twenty-five miles cast of Sāgar, captured by a British force under General Watson in October 1818, For Seorī and Rājā Arjun Singh see ante, Chapter 17, text by notes 1 and 4.


2. Amīr Khān, a leader of predatory horse, has been justly described as 'one of the most atrocious villains that India ever produced'. He first came into notice in 1804, as an officer in Holkar's service, and in the following year opposed Lord Lake at Bharatpur.


A treaty made with him in 1817 put an end to his activity. The Pindhārīs were organized bands of mounted robbers, who desolated Northern and Central India during the period of anarchy which followed the dissolution of the Moghal empire. They were associated with the Marāthās in the war which terminated with the capture of Asīrgarh in April 1819. In the same year the Pindhārī forces ceased to exist as a distinct and recognized, body.


My father was an Afghān, and came from Kandahar:

He rode with Nawāb Amir Khan in the old Marāthā war:

From the Dekhan to the Himalay, five hundred of one clan,

They asked no leave of prince or chief as they swept thro' Hindusthan.


(Sir A. Lyall, 'The Old Pindaree'; in Verses written in India, London, 1889).


3. Named Govind Rāo. The proper name of the Sarīmant was Rāmchand Rāo (C.P. Gazetteer, 1870).


4. Kurmin is the feminine of Kurmī, the name of a widely spread and most industrious agricultural caste, closely connected, at least in Bundēlkhand, with the similar Lodhī caste.


5. Mārwār, or Jodhpur, is one of the leading states in Rājputāna. It supplies the rest of India with many of the keenest merchants and bankers.