MY TRAVELS IN INDIA
—By Grace Thompson Seton
The Mysterious Backwater
In little Muttancheri, of British Cochin, there is a sample of everything—a palace, a residency, a small English club, the oldest European church in India and branches of Big Business, but most of all it is the place from which I stepped into a commodious launch, fitted with servants and food, for a trip South through the Backwaters to Quilon in Travancore.
Oh, that mysterious Backwater! To describe it one must have the tongue of poetry, the voice of music. The long hours of gliding through placid waters, with distant shore ....a rim of feathery green. More intimate hours of narrow channels whose banks present a slow-moving reel of coconut palms, sandy soil, and native life. The half-naked children playing happily, the wife cooking an evening meal, the husband perchance down by the water's edge with a flambeau, fishing. As night advances, these darting flames from many torches are reflected in the water mirror, as myriad flecks of light.
The tropical sun has cast its slanting beams upon the distant ocean, here and there visible through the trees. A wave of molten gold sweeps toward one and is gone, in a burst of crimson, purple, and turquoise.
The moon climbs over a group of feather-duster palms, making the water ways in shadows even more mysterious. An alligator goes "plop" into deep water, a gull circles beyond. Out again in wider waters, all the earth is stilled in the twilight hush and the glow of Nature's harmony.
It was the time of the New Year Feast. I knew that the Great Temple at Ernakhum at the other end of the Backwater was ablaze with a thousand candles and crowds were moving about in it, for it was the night that the God Siva sleeps and everyone must stay awake to watch the world.
Outside my veranda a casuarina tree rustled strange music and the sacred pipal leaves were whispering "good messages" in the grove beyond. Somewhere near, a drum was going vigorously. Tum! Tum! tumpetty tum! Sleep was impossible, so perforce I joined the worshippers of Siva and kept vigil on that mysterious Backwater. Pearl of great price, translucent, exquisite, this picture shines in my heart as the last jewel placed in this antique Indian setting of the strange West Coast.
A Hindu Widow
The wealthy lady Vithaldas Thackersey came to me in her beautiful drawing-room wearing (as becomes a widow), a white cotton sari, no jewels, no stockings, no sindoor (the caste-mark of red powder on the forehead), no alta (henna) on her feet, only leather sandals. These, later, she left outside the door, when she showed me the marble shrine-room sacred to her husband's memory. Here a low prayer table, six inches from the ground and about three feet square, made of woven cord and covered with white cloth, was placed before a painting of her beloved husband. Her sleeping-room, also floored and walled with marble, held only a cane lounging-chair, a small stand holding six books, and a bed that stood in the middle of the room. Beside it was a small table and electric light and over both was suspended a mosquito-net. An inlaid recess in the wall provided a puja place for her husband's miniature—nothing else, no easy-chairs, no toilet accessories, no rugs. A beautiful marble balcony opened from it, where a peacock was perched, and from another side she led the way onto a series of roof terraces where she spends much of her time contemplating the wide country which lies spread out before her. The fringe of Western Ghats rose bare and brown, deep shadows marked their sharply sloping sides. The plains between were dotted with mango trees and acacia. On a green island in the river some water buffalo grazed, and crimson saris were drying upon the river stones.
The gardens and grass plots, arcades, and Greek peristyles of the palace stretched below in shimmering moonlight. The afterglow of an Indian sun caught the river in flashes of rose. It was a scene of marvelous beauty, of palatial Oriental splendor, with its one little woman in bare feet, white cotton, denuded of ornament, destined to a life of solitary sacrifice amid the beauties that her husband's wealth had created!
This is the woman whose husband gave fifteen lakhs of rupees to build an Indian Woman's University, dedicating it to his mother, Shrimati Nathibai Damodhar Thackersey. The white marble columns and broad portico of its main building are even now giving forth a substantial welcome to the new generation.
The Famous Woman Ruler of India
In the moonlight chill of a cold weather morning, before the dawn, the Punjab mail cast me forth a visitor to a woman ruler of an Indian State. Leaving Bombay at noon, the train went through a rolling country with the Western Ghats outlining the horizon. Slowly we rose among them and, after several hours, slipped down to a broad plain beyond which the red ball of an Indian sunset sank quickly out of sight. Now, Hakim, shivering and hollow-eyed from a sleepless night, busied himself with the luggage coolies while I offered apologies and thanks to no less a person than the Political Secretary who had sacrificed his personal comfort to meet the guest of H. H. the Begum of Bhopal. I was escorted to a smart touring car which quickly brought us to the Guest-House.
Nawab Sultan Jahan Begum, Ruler of the Rajputana State of Bhopal, twenty years ago, at the age of forty-three, succeeded to the government of a Mohammedan State which has the unique distinction of having been ruled by a woman for several generations.
The present Begum has established State schools for girls, a Women's Hospital, and an industrial school where exquisite work, embroideries with gold and silver, fine needlework, and basket-weaving are taught. Only such work as may be carried on within the home is developed, and, of course, all is purdah and all subsidized by Her Highness, who is doing what she can to improve the condition of her female subjects within the laws set down by the Prophet.
It was the hour for the noon meal when I was escorted through the Sarder Girls' School by the English Instructor while the Political Secretary waited discreetly in the outer court. In this old palace now dedicated to learning, the daughters of Bhopal's nobles are being taught the "three R's" carried higher along the lines of literature, especially religious and poetical, and of languages. Not only the local tongue, Urdu, is taught, but Sanskrit and English, also French and such vernaculars as are desired.
The malvi (priest) comes daily to instruct in the Koran. Sometimes he sits in a curtained niche, and sometimes this formality is dispensed with, for his glance is holy. Cooking is raised to an art and included in the curriculum.
It was a pretty sight in the refectory when the girls were served their meal. Along the sides of a long gallery partly open to the weather, each assumed a conventional attitude upon a rush mat on the floor. Partly kneeling they received the large brass trays of food brought by the attendants and placed before them. They ate therefrom the various dainties served on plantain leaves, a dal or vegetable curry, chutney, chupatty (large, thin, cornflour wafers), preserves and fresh fruits, sweetmeats of fig, honey, dates, and the like. The girls wore tight, long bodices of bright-colored cottons, very full skirts of contrasting colors, and the Muslim trousers under these.
Nawab Sultan Jahan Begum is a talented author of a half-dozen books. She has knowledge of engineering, music, cooking, and needlework, and is chancellor of that centre of learning, the Muslim University at Aligarh. In spite of her progressive ideas and accomplishments, the Begun of Bhopal believes firmly in the purdah. From no one more qualified to speak could I hear the arguments for it, and it was with great interest that, two days after my arrival, I was driven several miles to her palace outside the city. Her Highness was sad, enduring the pangs of a Mater Dolorosa while watching the hopeless struggles against a dread disease of her second son, the "General," and, it was said, her favorite.
Only out of the kindness of her heart did she receive me in private audience at such a time, and as I was ushered into her personal apartment in the centre of her palace, was seated comfortably and informally in a room of Mogul architecture furnished in European style, I realized that her face, though ravaged by grief, showed the strength, intelligence, and goodness which has characterized her reign. Her snow-white hair was simply dressed, her costume was a tight, buttoned tunic and narrow trousers of thin material. Over it, as the air had a slight tang of freshness, was a brown Kashmir mantle of fine camel's hair, draped over the head like a sari. No crown that morning, nor gleaming jewels and embroidered robes, but the dignity of an aspiring soul shone out of those understanding, sympathetic eyes, and the strength of one who has suffered and conquered .....had squared the jaw under its softer lines of flesh, had compressed the corners of those full, curving lips.
Her Highness speaks English, though preferring her native tongue of Urdu, in which her books have been written. These consist of biographies of her mother and great-grandmother, and two-volume autobiography, A Defense of Purdah and A Muslim Home. She instructed her private secretary to present me with these books, and while that was being done, three charming little girls appeared at the open archway which served as a door. They had just come through the garden beyond, where flowers rioted in ordered masses and a fountain murmured gently. Racing on to the marble terrace, they were now seeking permission to pay their morning respect to "Grandmamma." The Begum kissed each one most affectionately, introduced them, and inquired after their mother, who is the wife of her youngest son. An example of how well Her Highness looks after the household as well as her State is shown in this young princess, who also now appeared moving like a swaying lotus bud along the marble terrace.
Before Maimoona Shah Bano was six years old she was selected by the ruler as a suitable wife for her youngest son, and thereupon betrothed to him and brought from her home in the North to be educated, and very well educated too, including foreign languages and music, under the fostering care of the ruler. When she matured, the marriage was celebrated. She looks very young, slim, and beautiful, has gentle manners, and seems happy. She is now twenty-two or three, has always lived with her mother-in-law in adjacent apartments of the palace, and always in strict purdah.
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