Travels in the Far East

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BY ELLEN M. H. PECK (Mrs. James Sidney Peck)

BENARES, December 26th: Benares is the sacred city of India, and the river Ganges with the ghats is the point where thousands upon thousands of worshippers congregate, coming 83from every point where Hinduism prevails. We had anticipated revolting scenes, and were not disappointed, as the superstition of the devotees, the grasping conduct of the priests, and the disgusting practices in the name of so-termed religion all contributed to that end. We arrived during the afternoon of December 26th, going to the Hôtel de Paris. A drive was instantly proposed, and we were taken to the Maharaja's palace, with grounds laid out conventionally, the trees and shrubs representing peacocks and animals of different kinds. The palace was spacious but tawdrily furnished; it is noteworthy as being the home to which the Maharaja and his family repair whenever they feel the approach of death; there is a superstition among the Hindus that death must occur on the north bank of the sacred river Ganges, in order to become a monkey after death (monkeys are considered sacred); for if the demise occurs on the opposite side of the Ganges, one would surely become a donkey. We next turned toward the celebrated Monkey Temple, a pretentious but inartistic structure of red sandstone, presided over by the monster wife of Siva, the Goddess Kali, who is seated on an interior shrine and almost terrifies the beholder by her demoniacal smile, her neck being wreathed with skulls. The Goddess of Blood demands a daily sacrifice, usually a84 goat and sometimes even a buffalo. At least twenty terrible-looking priests were in attendance upon her when we arrived and were ready to slay the inoffensive goat if money was forthcoming. We, however, declined to witness such a spectacle. Monkeys, disgustingly old and fat, were everywhere, and filled large trees surrounding the temple, two hundred at least being visible. Beggars, mendicants, and priests were abundantly in evidence. In an attempt to throw some small coins to some children, I was nearly crushed, the crowd closing around me and separating me from my party, until a tall Brahman priest with a huge stick checked the mob and I escaped, to be admonished by the Director of the party, who declared that I must never repeat the experiment, however much my sympathies might be drawn upon by the scenes that impressed me.

The following morning we proceeded at 7 A.M. to the scene of all others in Benares, the bathing ghats. These are steps leading down from the plateau to the river on the banks of the Ganges and extending a distance of nearly three miles. Seated in a native small boat, we sailed leisurely up and down for hours, watching the unusual spectacle. The Brahman priests were everywhere (there being thirty thousand in Benares who live on the offerings of the pilgrims), some seated under umbrella-like canopies, 85some under tents, others bathing, and others performing certain sacred offices for the devotees who had come hither in state, on elephants or camels, by train or on foot, all intent on securing an increase of religious zeal. The crowds bathing in the sacred river are a continuous spectacle. There are piers built out into the stream for convenience, filled with pilgrims of every hue and variety of dress and undress, some simply wearing the loin cloth, which startled us at first, but now seemed the legitimate outcome of a lean purse and a hot climate. In addition, there is a continuous refrain of voices in solemn supplication to one or more of the many thousands of Hindu gods, for it has been stated that there are two hundred thousand divinities in India. At one point there is a burning ghat, and one morning we witnessed the preparation for two cremations, one of a poor man and the other of the wife of a Maharaja. The two ceremonies differed little, except that the wood for the funeral pile of one cost a mere pittance, while the sandalwood for the latter cost six hundred rupees. The corpse is carried on a small litter, or bier, made of bamboo sticks (a man is robed in white and a woman in red), and deposited in the Ganges, feet foremost; care is taken that the whole body be immersed in order that purification may be complete. The relatives arrange the pile of wood, about86 eight logs being required. Then the body is transferred to the pyre, and the torch is applied by one of the family, the others sitting solemnly around in a circle. When consumed, the ashes are scattered in the river Ganges. It is a gruesome spectacle, however much it may be in the interest of sanitary science; but less so to me, who had witnessed the distribution of the bodies at the Towers of Silence in Bombay. It will be seen that the principal commodity in Benares is holiness; but there is one creditable industry, namely, the manufacture of brass. Several shops were visited, but we liked the modern styles less than the old Benares brass with which we were familiar. One thought was uppermost while in Benares; I had pondered over it before in our visit to India. It was that with the masses Hinduism to-day means superstition and idolatry, in spite of the fact that the earlier teaching was of a pure character. That the cultivated Hindus accept the practices and the priesthood is a mystery as subtle as the law of caste or the iron law of custom. It is a depressing thought, and causes a profound feeling of thankfulness that Providence placed us in a fairer land.

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