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


Marriages of Trees—The Tank and the Plantain—Meteors—Rainbows.

Before quitting Jubbulpore, to which place I thought it very unlikely that I should ever return, I went to visit the groves in the vicinity, which, at the time I held the civil charge of the district in 1828, had been planted by different native gentlemen upon lands assigned to them rent-free for the purpose, on condition that the holder should bind himself to plant trees at the rate of twenty-five to the acre, and keep them up at that rate; and that for each grove, however small, he should build and keep in repair a well, lined with masonry, for watering the trees, and for the benefit of travellers.[1]


Some of these groves had already begun to yield fruit, and all had been married. Among the Hindoos, neither the man who plants a grove, nor his wife, can taste of the fruit till he has married one of the mango-trees to some other tree (commonly the tamarind-tree) that grows near it in the same grove.


The proprietor of one of these groves that stands between the cantonment and the town, old Barjōr Singh, had spent so much in planting and watering the grove, and building walls and wells of pucka[2] masonry, that he could not afford to defray the expense of the marriage ceremonies till one of the trees, which was older than the rest when planted, began to bear fruit in 1833, and poor old Barjōr Singh and his wife were in great distress that they dared not taste of the fruit whose flavour was so much prized by their children.


They began to think that they had neglected a serious duty, and might, in consequence, be taken off before another season could come round. They therefore sold all their silver and gold ornaments, and borrowed all they could; and before the next season the grove was married with all due pomp and ceremony, to the great delight of the old pair, who tasted of the fruit in June 1834.


The larger the number of the Brahmans that are fed on the occasion of the marriage, the greater the glory of the proprietor of the grove; and when I asked old Barjōr Singh, during my visit to his grove, how many he had feasted, he said, with a heavy sigh, that he had been able to feast only one hundred and fifty. He showed me the mango-tree which had acted the part of the bridegroom on the occasion, but the bride had disappeared from his side.


'And where is the bride, the tamarind?' 'The only tamarind I had in the grove died', said the old man, 'before we could bring about the wedding; and I was obliged to get a jasmine for a wife for my mango. I planted it here, so that we might, as required, cover both bride and bridegroom under one canopy during the ceremonies; but, after the marriage was over, the gardener neglected her, and she pined away and died.'


'And what made you prefer the jasmine to all other trees after the tamarind?'


'Because it is the most celebrated of all trees, save the rose.'


'And why not have chosen the rose for a wife?'


'Because no one ever heard of marriage between the rose and the mango; while they [sic] take place every day between the mango and the chambēlī (jasmine).'[3]


After returning from the groves, I had a visit after breakfast from a learned Muhammadan, now guardian to the young Rājā of Uchahara,[4] who resides part of his time at Jubbulpore. I mentioned my visit to the groves and the curious notion of the Hindoos regarding the necessity of marrying them; and he told me that, among Hindoos, the man who went to the expense of making a tank dared not drink of its waters till he had married his tank to some banana-tree, planted on the bank for the purpose.[5]


'But what', said he with a smile, 'could you expect from men who believe that Indra is the god who rules the heavens immediately over the earth, that he sleeps during eight months in the year, and during the other four his time is divided between his duties of sending down rain upon the earth, and repelling with his arrows Rājā Bali, who by his austere devotions (tapasya) has received from the higher gods a promise of the reversion of his dominions? The lightning which we see', said the learned Maulavī, 'they believe to be nothing more than the glittering of these arrows, as they are shot from the bow of Indra upon his foe Rājā Bali '.[6]


'But, my good friend Maulavī Sāhib, there are many good Muhammadans who believe that the meteors, which we call shooting stars, are in reality stars which the guardian angels of men snatch from the spheres, and throw at the devil as they see him passing through the air, or hiding himself under one or other of the constellations. Is it not so?'


'Yes, it is; but we have the authority of the holy prophet for this, as delivered down to us by his companions in the sacred traditions, and we are bound to believe it. When our holy prophet came upon the earth, he found it to be infested with a host of magicians, who, by their abominable rites and incantations, get into their interest certain devils, or demons, whom they used to send up to heaven to listen to the orders which the angels received from God regarding men and the world below. On hearing these orders, they came off and reported them to the magicians, who were thereby enabled to foretell the events which the angels were ordered to bring about.


'In this manner they often overheard the orders which the angel Gabriel received from God, and communicated them to the magicians as soon as he could deliver them to our holy prophet. Exulting in the knowledge obtained in this diabolical manner, these wretches tried to turn his prophecies into ridicule; and, seeing the evil effects of such practices among men, he prayed God to put a stop to them. From that time guardian angels have been stationed in different parts of the heavens, to keep off the devils; and as soon as one of them sees a devil sneaking too near the heaven of heavens, he snatches the nearest star, and flings it at him.'[7]


This, he added, was what all true Muhammadans believed regarding the shooting of stars. He had read nothing about them in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, or Galen, all of which he had carefully studied, and should be glad to learn from me what modern philosophers in Europe thought about them.


I explained to him the supposed distance and bulk of the fixed stars visible to the naked eye; their being radiant with unborrowed light, and probably every one of them, like our own sun, the great centre of a solar system of its own; embracing the vast orbits of numerous planets, revolving around it with their attendant satellites; the stars visible to the naked eye being but a very small portion of the whole which the telescope had now made distinctly visible to us; and those distinctly visible being one cluster among many thousand with which the genius of Galileo, Newton, the Herschells, and many other modern philosophers had discovered the heavens to be studded.


I remarked that the notion that these mighty suns, the centres of planetary systems, should be made merely to be thrown at devils and demons, appeared to us just as unaccountable as those of the Hindoos regarding Indra's arrows.


'But', said he, 'these foolish Hindoos believe still greater absurdities. They believe that the rainbow is nothing but the fume of a large snake, concealed under the ground; that he vomits forth this fume from a hole in the surface of the earth, without being himself seen; and, when you ask them why, in that case, the rainbow should be in the west while the sun is in the east, and in the east while the sun is in the west, they know not what to say.'[8]


'The truth is, my friend Maulavī Sahib, the Hindoos, like a very great part of every other nation, are very much disposed to attribute to supernatural influences effects that the wiser portion of our species know to rise from natural causes.'


The Maulavī was right. In the Mishkāt-ul- Masābih,[9] the authentic traditions of their prophet,[10] it is stated that Ayesha, the widow of Muhammad, said, 'I heard His Majesty say, "The angels come down to the region next the world, and mention the works that have been pre-ordained in heaven; and the devils, who descend to the lowest region, listen to what the angels say, and hear the orders predestined in heaven, and carry them to fortune-tellers; therefore, they tell a hundred lies with it from themselves "'[11]


'Ibn Abbās said, "A man of His Majesty's friends informed me, that whilst His Majesty's friends were sitting with him one night, a very bright star shot; and His Highness said, "What did you say in the days of ignorance when a star shot like this?"


'They said, "God and His messenger know best; we used to say, a great man was born to-night, and a great man died."[12] Then His Majesty said, "You mistook, because the shootings of these stars are neither for the life nor death of any person; but when our cherisher orders a work, the bearers of the imperial throne sing hallelujahs; and the inhabitants of the regions who are near the bearers repeat it, till it reaches the lowest regions. After the angels which are near the bearers of the imperial throne say, "What did your cherisher order?"


'Then they are informed; and so it is handed from one region to another, till the information reaches the people of the lowest region. Then the devils steal it, and carry it to their friends, (that is) magicians; and these stars are thrown at these devils; not for the birth or death of any person. Then the things which the magicians tell, having heard from the devils, are true, but these magicians tell lies, and exaggerate in what they hear".'


Kutādah said, 'God has created stars for three uses; one of them, as a cause of ornament of the regions; the second, to stone the devil with; the third, to direct people going through forests and on the sea. Therefore, whoever shall explain them otherwise, does wrong, and loses his time, and speaks from his own invention and embellishes'.[13]


Ibn Abbās. ['The prophet said,] "Whoever attains to the knowledge of astrology for any other explanation than the three aforementioned, then verily he has attained to a branch of magic. An astrologer is a magician, and a magician is a necromancer, and a necromancer is an infidel."'[14]


This work contains the precepts and sayings of Muhammad, as declared by his companions, who themselves heard them, or by those who heard them immediately from those companions; and they are considered to be binding upon the faith and conduct of Musalmans, though not all delivered from inspiration.


Everything that is written in the Korān itself is supposed to have been brought direct from God by the angel Gabriel.[15]


Notes:


1. In planting mango groves, it is a rule that they shall be as far from each other as not to admit of their branches ever meeting. 'Plant trees, but let them not touch' ('Ām lagao, nis lageñ nahīñ') is the maxim. [W. H. S.]


2. Pakkā; the word here means 'cemented with lime mortar', and not only with mud (kachchā).


3. The chambēlī is known in science as the Jasminum grandiflorum, and the mango-tree as Mangifera Indica.


4. A small principality west of Rīwā, and 110 miles north-west of Jubbulpore. It is also known as Nāgaudh, or Nāgod.


5. Compare the account of the marriage of the tulasī shrub (Ocymum sanctum) with the sālagrām stone, or fossil ammonite, in Chapter 19, post.


6. There is a sublime passage in the Psalms of David, where the lightning is said to be the arrows of God. Psalm lxxvii:

17, 'The clouds poured out water: the skies sent out a sound: thine arrows also went abroad.

18. The voice of thy thunder was in the heaven; the lightnings lightened the world: the earth trembled and shook.' [W. H. S.]

The passage is quoted from the Authorized Bible version; the Prayer Book version is finer.


7. 'We guard them from every devil driven away with stones; except him who listeneth by stealth, at whom a visible flame is darted.' Korān, chapter 15, Sale's translation. See post, end of this chapter.


8. Nine Hindoos out of ten, or perhaps ninety-nine in a hundred, throughout India, believe the rainbow to arise from the breath of the snake, thrown up from the surface of the earth, as water is thrown up by whales from the surface of the ocean. [W. H. S,]


9. 'Mishkāt is a hole in a wall in which a lamp is placed, and Masābih the plural of "a lamp", because traditions are compared to lamps, and this book is like that which containeth a lamp. Another reason is, that Masābih is the name of a book, and this book comprehends its contents' (Matthews's translation, vol. i, p. v, note).


10. The full title is Mishkāt-ul-Masābih, or a Collection of the most Authentic Traditions regarding the Actions and Sayings of Muhammed; exhibiting the Origin of the Manners and Customs; the Civil, Religious, and Military Policy of the Muslemāns. Translated from the original Arabic by Captain A. N. Matthews, Bengal Artillery. Two vols. 4to; Calcutta, 1809-10, This valuable work, published by subscription, is now very scarce. A fine copy is in the India Office Library.


11. Book xxi, chapter 3, part i; vol. ii, p. 384. The quotations as given by the author are inexact. The editor has substituted correct extracts from Matthews's text. Matthews spells the name of the prophet's widow as Aáyeshah.


12. In Sparta, the Ephoroi, once every nine years, watched the sky during a whole cloudless, moonless night, in profound silence; and, if they saw a shooting star, it was understood to indicate that the kings of Sparta had disobeyed the gods, and their authority was, in consequence, suspended till they had been purified by an oracle from Delphi or Olympia. [W. H. S.] This statement rests on the authority of Plutarch, Agis, 11.


13. Mishkāt. Part iii of same chapter; vol. ii, p. 386.


14. Ibid. p. 386.


15. But the prying character of these devils is described in the Korān itself. According to Muhammadans, they had access to all the seven heavens till the time of Moses, who got them excluded from three. Christ got them excluded from three more; and Muhammad managed to get them excluded from the seventh and last. 'We have placed the twelve signs in the heavens, and have set them out in various figures for the observation of spectators, and we guard them from every devil driven away with stones; except him who listeneth by stealth, at whom a visible flame is darted' (Chapter 15).


'We have adorned the lower heaven with the ornament of stars, and we have placed therein a guard against every rebellious devil, that they may not listen to the discourse of exalted princes, for they are darted at from every side, to repel them, and a lasting torment is prepared for them; except him who catcheth a word by stealth, and is pursued by a shining flame' (Chapter 37). [W. H. 8.] Passages of this kind should he remembered by persons who expect orthodox Muhammadans to accept the results of modern science.