Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Artificial Lakes in Bundēlkhand—Hindoo, Greek, and Roman Faith
On the 11th we came on twelve miles to the town of Bamhaurī, whence extends to the south-west a ridge of high and bare quartz hills, towering above all others, curling and foaming at the top, like a wave ready to burst, when suddenly arrested by the hand of Omnipotence, and turned into white stone.
The soil all the way is wretchedly poor in quality, being formed of the detritus of syenitic and quartz rocks, and very thin. Bamhaurī is a nice little town, beautifully situated on the bank of a fine lake, the waters of which preserved during the late famine the population of this and six other small towns, which are situated near its borders, and have their lands irrigated from it.
Besides water for their fields, this lake yielded the people abundance of water-chestnuts and fish. In the driest season the water has been found sufficient to supply the wants of all the people of those towns and villages, and those of all the country around, as far as the people can avail themselves of it.
This large lake is formed by an artificial bank or wall at the south-east end, which rests one arm upon the high range of quartz rocks, which run along its south-west side for several miles, looking down into the clear deep water, and forming a beautiful landscape.
From this pretty town, Ludhaura, where the great marriage had lately taken place, was in sight, and only four miles distant. It was, I learnt, the residence of the present Rājā of Orchhā, before the death of his brother called him to the throne. Many people were returning from the ceremonies of the marriage of 'sālagrām' with 'Tulasī'; who told me that the concourse had been immense—at least one hundred and fifty thousand; and that the Rājā had feasted them all for four days during the progress of the ceremonies, but that they were obliged to defray their expenses going and coming, except when they came by special invitation to do honour to the occasion, as in the case of my little friend the Sāgar high priest, Jānkī Sewak.
They told me that they called this festival the 'Dhanuk jag'; and that Janakrāj, the father of Sītā, had in his possession the 'dhanuk', or immortal bow of Parasrām, the sixth incarnation of Vishnu, with which he exterminated all the Kshatriyas, or original military class of India, and which required no less than four thousand men to raise it on one end. The prince offered his daughter in marriage to any man who should bend this bow. Hundreds of heroes and demigods aspired to the hand of the fair Sītā, and essayed to bend the bow; but all in vain, till young Rām, the seventh incarnation of Vishnu, then a lad of only ten years of age, came; and at the touch of his great toe the bow flew into a thousand pieces, which are supposed to have been all taken up into heaven.
Sītā became the wife of Rām; and the popular poem of the Rāmāyana describes the abduction of the heroine by the monster king of Ceylon, Rāvana, and her recovery by means of the monkey general Hanumān. Every word of this poem, the people assured me, was written, if not by the hand of the Deity himself, at least by his inspiration, which was the same thing, and it must, consequently, be true. Ninety-nine out of a hundred among the Hindoos implicitly believe, not only every word of this poem, but every word of every poem that has ever been written in Sanskrit.
If you ask a man whether he really believes any very egregious absurdity quoted from these books, he replies with the greatest naïveté in the world, 'Is it not written in the book; and how should it be there written if not true?' The Hindoo religion reposes upon an entire prostration of mind, that continual and habitual surrender of the reasoning faculties, which we are accustomed to make occasionally. While engaged at the theatre, or in the perusal of works of fiction, we allow the scenes, characters, and incidents to pass before 'our mind's eye', and move our feelings, without asking, or stopping a moment to ask, whether they are real or true.
There is only this difference that, with people of education among us, even in such short intervals of illusion or abandon, any extravagance in acting, or flagrant improbability in the fiction, destroys the charm, breaks the spell by which we have been so mysteriously bound, stops the smooth current of sympathetic emotion, and restores us to reason and to the realities of ordinary life. With the Hindoos, on the contrary, the greater the improbability, the more monstrous and preposterous the fiction, the greater is the charm it has over their minds; and the greater their learning in the Sanskrit the more are they under the influence of this charm.
Believing all to be written by the Deity, or by his inspiration, and the men and things of former days to have been very different from the men and things of the present day, and the heroes of these fables to have been demigods, or people endowed with powers far superior to those of the ordinary men of their own day, the analogies of nature are never for a moment considered; nor do questions of probability, or possibility, according to those analogies, ever obtrude to dispel the charm with which they are so pleasingly bound.
They go on through life reading and talking of these monstrous fictions, which shock the taste and understanding of other nations, without once questioning the truth of one single incident, or hearing it questioned. There was a time, and that not very distant, when it was the same in England, and in every other European nation; and there are, I am afraid, some parts of Europe where it is so still.
But the Hindoo faith, so far as religious questions are concerned, is not more capacious or absurd than that of the Greeks and Romans in the days of Socrates and Cicero—the only difference is, that among the Hindoos a greater number of the questions which interest mankind are brought under the head of religion.
There is nothing in the Hindoos more absurd than the piety of Tiberius in offering up sacrifices in the temple, and before the image of Augustus; while he was solicited by all the great cities of the empire to suffer temples to be built and sacrifices to be made to himself while still living; or than Alexander's attempt to make a goddess of his mother while yet alive, that he might feel the more secure of being made a god himself after his death.
In all religions there are points at which the professors declare that reason must stop, and cease to be a guide to faith. The pious man thinks that all which he cannot comprehend or reconcile to reason in his own religion must be above it. The superstitions of the people of India will diminish before the spread of science, art, and literature; and good works of history and fiction would, I think, make far greater havoc among these superstitions even than good works in any of the sciences, save the physical, such as astronomy, chemistry, &c.
In the evening we went out with the intention of making an excursion of the lake, in boats that had been prepared for our reception by tying three or four fishing canoes together; but, on reaching the ridge of quartz hills which runs along the south-east side, we preferred moving along its summit to entering the boats. The prospect on either side of this ridge was truly beautiful.
A noble sheet of clear water, about four miles long by two broad, on our right; and on our left a no less noble sheet of rich wheat cultivation, irrigated from the lake by drains passing between small breaks in the ridges of the hills. The Persian wheel is used to raise the water. This sheet of rich cultivation is beautifully studded with mango groves and fields of sugar-cane.
The lake is almost double the size of that of Sāgar, and the idea of its great utility for purposes of irrigation made it appear to me far more beautiful; but my little friend the Sarīmant, who accompanied us in our walk, said that 'it could not be so handsome, since it had not a fine city and castle on two sides, and a fine Government house on the third'.
'But', said I, 'no man's field is watered from that lake.'
'No', replied he, 'but for every man that drinks of the waters of this, fifty drink of the waters of that; from that lake thirty thousand people get ārām (comfort) every day.'
This lake is called Kēwlas after Kēwal Varmma, the Chandēl prince by whom it was formed. His palace, now in ruins, stood on the top of the ridge of rocks in a very beautiful situation. From the summit, about eight miles to the west, we could see a still larger lake, called the Nandanvārā Lake, extending under a similar range of quartz hills running parallel with that on which we stood.
That lake, we were told, answered upon a much larger scale the same admirable purpose of supplying water for the fields, and securing the people from the dreadful effects of droughts. The extensive level plains through which the rivers of Central India generally cut their way have, for the most part, been the beds of immense natural lakes; and there rivers sink so deep into their beds, and leave such ghastly chasms and ravines on either side, that their waters are hardly ever available in due season for irrigation.
It is this characteristic of the rivers of Central India that makes such lakes so valuable to the people, particularly in seasons of drought.[l8] The river Nerbudda has been known to rise seventy feet in the course of a couple of days in the rains; and, during the season when its waters are wanted for irrigation, they can nowhere be found within that [distance] of the surface; while a level piece of ground fit for irrigation is rarely to be met with within a mile of the stream.
The people appeared to improve as we advanced farther into Bundēlkhand in appearance, manners, and intelligence. There is a bold bearing about the Bundēlas, which at first one is apt to take for rudeness or impudence, but which in time he finds not to be so.
The employés of the Rājā were everywhere attentive, frank, and polite; and the peasantry seemed no longer inferior to those of our Sāgar and Nerbudda territories. The females of almost all the villages through which we passed came out with their Kalas in procession to meet us—one of the most affecting marks of respect from the peasantry for their superiors that I know.
One woman carries on her head a brass jug, brightly polished, full of water; while all the other families of the village crowd around her, and sing in chorus some rural song, that lasts from the time the respected visitor comes in sight till he disappears. He usually puts into the Kalas a rupee to purchase 'gur' (coarse sugar), of which all the females partake, as a sacred offering to the sex.
No member of the other sex presumes to partake of it, and during the chorus all the men stand aloof in respectful silence. This custom prevails all over India, or over all parts of it that I have seen; and yet I have witnessed a Governor-General of India, with all his suite, passing by this interesting group, without knowing or asking what it was. I lingered behind, and quietly put my silver into the jug, as if from the Governor-General.
The man who administers the government over these seven villages in all its branches, civil, criminal, and fiscal, receives a salary of only two hundred rupees a year. He collects the revenues on the part of Government; and, with the assistance of the heads and the elders of the villages, adjusts all petty matters of dispute among the people, both civil and criminal.
Disputes of a more serious character are sent to be adjusted at the capital by the Rājā and his ministers. The person who reigns over the seven villages of the lake is about thirty years of age, of the Rājpūt caste, and, I think, one of the finest young men I have ever seen. His ancestors have served the Orchhā State in the same station for seven generations; and he tells me that he hopes his posterity will serve them [sic] for as many more, provided they do not forfeit their claims to do so by their infidelity or incapacity.
This young man seemed to have the respect and affection of every member of the little communities of the villages through which we passed, and it was evident that he deserved their attachment. I have rarely seen any similar signs of attachment to one of our own native officers. This arises chiefly from the circumstance of their being less frequently placed in authority among those upon whose good feelings and opinions their welfare and comfort, as those of their children, are likely permanently to depend.
In India, under native rule, office became hereditary, because officers expended the whole of their incomes in religious ceremonies, or works of ornament and utility, and left their families in hopeless dependence upon the chief in whose service they had laboured all their lives, while they had been educating their sons exclusively with the view of serving that chief in the same capacity that their fathers had served him before them. It is in this case, and this alone, that the law of primogeniture is in force in India.
Among Muhammadans, as well as Hindoos, all property, real and personal, is divided equally among the children; but the duties of an office will not admit of the same subdivision; and this, therefore, when hereditary, as it often is, descends to the eldest son with the obligation of providing for the rest of the family. The family consists of all the members who remain united to the parent stock, including the widows and orphans of the sons or brothers who were so up to the time of their death.
The old 'chobdār', or silver-stick bearer, who came with us from the Rājā, gets fifteen rupees a month, and his ancestors have served the Rājā for several generations. The Dīwān, who has charge of the treasury, receives only one thousand rupees a year, and the Bakshī, or paymaster of the army, who seems at present to rule the state as the prime favourite, the same.
These latter are at present the only two great officers of state; and, though they are, no doubt, realizing handsome incomes by indirect means, they dare not make any display, lest signs of wealth might induce the Rājā or his successors to treat them as their predecessors in office were treated for some time past. The Jāgīrdārs, or feudal chiefs, as I have before stated, are almost all of the same family or class as the Rājā, and they spend all the revenues of their estates in the maintenance of military retainers, upon whose courage and fidelity they can generally rely.
These Jāgīrdārs are bound to attend the prince on all great occasions, and at certain intervals; and are made to contribute something to his exchequer in tribute. Almost all live beyond their legitimate means, and make up the deficiency by maintaining upon their estates gangs of thieves, robbers, and murderers, who extend their depredations into the country around, and share the prey with these chiefs, and their officers and under-tenants. They keep them as poachers keep their dogs; and the paramount power, whose subjects they plunder, might as well ask them for the best horse in the stable as for the best thief that lives under their protection.
I should mention an incident that occurred during the Rājā's visit to me at Tehrī. Lieutenant Thomas was sitting next to the little Sarīmant, and during the interview he asked him to allow him to look at his beautiful little gold-hilted sword. The Sarīmant held it fast, and told him that he should do himself the honour of waiting upon him in his tent in the course of the day, when he would show him the sword and tell him its history.
After the Rājā, left me, Thomas mentioned this, and said he felt very much hurt at the incivility of my little friend; but I told him that he was in everything he did and said so perfectly the gentleman, that I felt quite sure he would explain all to his satisfaction when he called upon him. During his visit to Thomas he apologized for not having given over his sword to him, and said, 'You European gentlemen have such perfect confidence in each other, that you can, at all times, and in all situations, venture to gratify your curiosity in these matters, and draw your swords in a crowd just as well as when alone; but, had you drawn mine from the scabbard in such a situation, with the tent full of the Rājā's personal attendants, and surrounded by a devoted and not very orderly soldiery, it might have been attended by very serious consequences.