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

Religious Sects—Self-government of the Castes—Chimney- sweepers—Washerwomen[1]—Elephant Drivers.

Mīr Salāmat Alī, the head native collector of the district, a venerable old Musalmān and most valuable public servant, who has been labouring in the same vineyard with me for the last fifteen years with great zeal, ability, and integrity, came to visit me after breakfast with two very pretty and interesting young sons.

While we were sitting together my wife's under-woman[2] said to some one who was talking with her outside the tent-door, 'If that were really the case, should I not be degraded?' 'You see, Mīr Sāhib',[3] said I, 'that the very lowest members of society among these Hindoos still feel the pride of caste, and dread exclusion from their own, however low.'[4]

'Yes', said the Mīr, 'they are a very strange kind of people, and I question whether they ever had a real prophet among them.'

'I question, Mīr Sahib, whether they really ever had such a person. They of course think the incarnations of their three great divinities were beings infinitely superior to prophets, being in all their attributes and prerogatives equal to the divinities themselves.[5] But we are disposed to think that these incarnations were nothing more than great men whom their flatterers and poets have exalted into gods—this was the way in which men made their gods in ancient Greece and Egypt.

'These great men were generally conquerors whose glory consisted in the destruction of their fellow creatures; and this is the glory which their flatterers are most prone to extol. All that the poets have sung of the actions of men is now received as revelation from heaven; though nothing can be more monstrous than the actions attributed to the best incarnation, Krishna, of the best of their gods, Vishnu.[6]

'No doubt', said Salāmat Ali; 'and had they ever had a real prophet among them he would have revealed better things to them. Strange people! when their women go on pilgrimages to Gayā, they have their heads shaved before the image of their god; and the offering of the hair is equivalent to the offer of their heads;[7] for heads, thank God, they dare no longer offer within the Company's territories.'

'Do you. Mīr Sahib, think that they continue to offer up human sacrifices anywhere?'

'Certainly I do. There is a Rājā at Ratanpur, or somewhere between Mandlā and Sambalpur, who has a man offered up to Dēvī every year, and that man must be a Brahman. If he can get a Brahman traveller, well and good; if not, he and his priests offer one of his own subjects. Every Brahman that has to pass through this territory goes in disguise.[8] With what energy did our emperor Aurangzēb apply himself to put down iniquities like this in the Rājputāna states, but all in vain.

'If a Rājā died, all his numerous wives burnt themselves with his body—even their servants, male and female, were obliged to do the same; for, said his friends, what is he to do in the next world without attendants? The pile was enormous. On the top sat the queen with the body of the prince; the servants, male and female, according to their degree, below; and a large army stood all round to drive into the fire again or kill all who should attempt to escape.'[9]

'This is all very true, Mīr Sāhib, but you must admit that, though there is a great deal of absurdity in their customs and opinions, there is, on the other hand, much that we might all take an example from. The Hindoo believes that Christians and Musalmāns may be as good men in all relations of life as himself, and in as fair a way to heaven as he is; for he believes that my Bible and your Korān are as much revelations framed by the Deity for our guidance, as the Shāstras are for his.

'He doubts not that our Christ was the Son of God, nor that Muhammad was the prophet of God; and all that he asks from us is to allow him freely to believe in his own gods, and to worship in his own way. Nor does one caste or sect of Hindoos ever believe itself to be alone in the right way, or detest any other for not following in the same path, as they have as much of toleration for each other as they have for us.[10]

'True,' exclaimed Salāmat Alī, 'too true! we have ruined each other; we have cut each other's throats; we have lost the empire, and we deserve to lose it. You won it, and you preserved it by your union—ten men with one heart are equal to a hundred men with different hearts.

'A Hindoo may feel himself authorized to take in a Musalmān, and might even think it meritorious to do so; but he would never think it meritorious to take in one of his own religion. There are no less than seventy- two sects of Muhammadans; and every one of these sects would not only take in the followers of every other religion on earth, but every member of every one of the other seventy-one sects; and the nearer that sect is to its own, the greater the merit in taking in its members.'[11]

'Something has happened of late to annoy you, I fear, Mīr Sāhib?'

'Something happens to annoy us every day, sir, where we are more than one sect of us together; and wherever you find Musalmāns you will find them divided into sects.'

It is not, perhaps, known to many of my countrymen in India that in every city and town in the country the right of sweeping the houses and streets is one of the most intolerable of monopolies, supported entirely by the pride of caste among the scavengers, who are all of the lowest class.

The right of sweeping within a certain range is recognized by the caste to belong to a certain member; and, if any other member presumes to sweep within that range, he is excommunicated—no other member will smoke out of his pipe, or drink out of his jug; and he can get restored to caste only by a feast to the whole body of sweepers. If any housekeeper within a particular circle happens to offend the sweeper of that range, none of his filth will be removed till he pacifies him, because no other sweeper will dare to touch it; and the people of a town are often more tyrannized over by these people than by any other.[12]

It is worthy of remark that in India the spirit of combination is always in the inverse ratio to the rank of the class; weakest in the highest, and strongest in the lowest class. All infringements upon the rules of the class are punished by fines. Every fine furnishes a feast at which every member sits and enjoys himself. Payment is enforced by excommunication—no one of the caste will eat, drink, or smoke with the convicted till the fine is paid; and, as every one shares in the fine, every one does his best to enforce payment.

The fines are imposed by the elders, who know the circumstances of the culprit, and fix the amount accordingly. Washermen will often at a large station combine to prevent the washermen of one gentleman from washing the clothes of the servants of any other gentleman, or the servants of one gentleman from getting their clothes washed by any other person than their own master's washerman. This enables them sometimes to raise the rate of washing to double the fair or ordinary rate; and at such places the washermen are always drunk with one continued routine of feasts from the fines levied.[13]

The cost of these fees falls ultimately upon the poor servants or their masters. This combination, however, is not always for bad or selfish purposes. I was once on the staff of an officer commanding a brigade on service, whose elephant driver exercised an influence over him that was often mischievous and sometimes dangerous;[14] for in marching and choosing his ground, this man was more often consulted than the quarter-master-general.

His bearing was most insolent, and became intolerable, as well to the European gentlemen as to the people of his caste.[15] He at last committed himself by saying that he would spit in the face of another gentleman's elephant driver with whom he was disputing. All the elephant drivers in our large camp were immediately assembled, and it was determined in council to refer the matter to the decision of the Rājā of Darbhanga's driver, who was acknowledged the head of the class.

We were all breakfasting with the brigadier after muster when the reply came-the distance to Darbhanga from Nāthpur on the Kūsī river, where we then were, must have been a hundred and fifty miles.[16] We saw men running in all directions through the camp, without knowing why, till at last one came and summoned the brigadier's driver. With a face of terror he came and implored the protection of the brigadier; who got angry, and fumed a good deal, but seeing no expression of sympathy on the faces of his officers, he told the man to go and hear his sentence. He was escorted to a circle formed by all the drivers in camp, who were seated on the grass.

The offender was taken into the middle of the circle and commanded to stand on one leg[17] while the Raja's driver's letter was read. He did so, and the letter directed him to apologize to the offended party, pay a heavy fine for a feast, and pledge himself to the offended drivers never to offend again.

All the officers in camp were delighted, and some, who went to hear the sentence explained, declared that in no court in the world could the thing have been done with more solemnity and effect. The man's character was quite altered by it, and he became the most docile of drivers.

On the same principle here stated of enlisting the community in the punishment of offenders, the New Zealanders, and other savage tribes who have been fond of human flesh, have generally been found to confine the feast to the body of those who were put to death for offences against the state or the individual.

I and all the officers of my regiment were at one time in the habit of making every servant who required punishment or admonition to bring immediately, and give to the first religious mendicant we could pick up, the fine we thought just. All the religionists in the neighbourhood declared that justice had never been so well administered in any other regiment; no servant got any sympathy from them—they were all told that their masters were far too lenient.

We crossed the Hiran river[18] about ten miles from our last ground on the 22nd,[19] and came on two miles to our tents in a mango grove close to the town of Katangī,[20] and under the Vindhya range of sandstone hills, which rise almost perpendicular to the height of some eight hundred feet over the town.

This range from Katangī skirts the Nerbudda valley to the north, as the Sātpura range skirts it to the south; and both are of the same sandstone formation capped with basalt upon which here and there are found masses of laterite, or iron clay. Nothing has ever yet been found reposing upon this iron clay.[21]

The strata of this range have a gentle and almost imperceptible dip to the north, at right angles to its face which overlooks the valley, and this face has everywhere the appearance of a range of gigantic round bastions projecting into what was perhaps a lake, and is now a well-peopled, well-cultivated, and very happy valley, about twenty miles wide. The river crosses and recrosses it diagonally.

Near Jubbulpore it flows along for some distance close under the Sātpura range to the south; and crossing over the valley from Bheraghāt, it reaches the Vindhya range to the north, at the point where it reaches the Hiran river, forty miles below.


1. This is a slip, probably due to the printer's reader. There are no chimney-sweepers in India. The word should be 'sweepers'. The members of this caste and a few other degraded communities, such as the Doms, do all the sweeping, scavenging, and conservancy work in India. 'Washerwomen' is another slip: read 'Washermen'.

2. The 'under-woman', or 'second ayah', was a member of the sweeper caste.

3. The title Mīr Sāhib implies that Salāmat Alī was a Sayyid, claiming descent from Alī, the cousin, son-in-law, and pupil of Muhammad, who became Khalīf in A.D. 656.

4. The sweeper castes stand outside the Hindoo pale, and often incline to Muhammadan practices. They worship a special form of the Deity, under the names of Lāl Beg, Lāl Guru, &c.

5. No avatār or incarnation of Brahma is known to most Hindoos, and incarnations of Siva are rarely mentioned. The only avatārs ordinarily recognized are those of Vishnu, as enumerated ante. Chapter 2, note 4.

6. This theory is a very inadequate explanation of the doctrine of avatārs.