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Monday, April 21, 2014

Eleanor Reid and the shocking side of Calcutta

Mary Roxburgh, daughter of Dr William Roxburgh, superintendent of the Calcutta Botanical Garden, must indeed have been beautiful: she was the great-great-great grandmother of the actress Helena Bonham Carter.

As Eleanor continues:

Early in October, we accompanied Capt. B— B—, by invitation to the botanic garden where we dined with a very agreeable party, and spent a pleasant day. The doctor’s daughter, Miss [Mary Roxburgh], was an accomplished beautiful girl, lately arrived from England, who afterwards married Mr. [Henry Stone], a civilian. We also met Dr. G—, who proposed sending some children home with us.

In our walks through the gardens, the wonderful banyan-tree most attracted my notice, whose pendent branches had taken root in several places, and supported the immense weight of the spreading canopy above. If I were botanist enough, I should attempt to describe many other plants, but my treacherous memory could not retain one-hundredth part of those the doctor was so kind as to point out. In the evening we crossed over from the gardens and came up by land. The ride through Fort William is beautiful; had it not been for the number of cannon and troops I should have thought it was some gentleman’s enclosure; every thing appeared in excellent order, and deer and sheep were grazing on the banks and trenches.

We were told that Lord Mornington intended to have a superb palace built to the south of the city, facing the fort, which no doubt, when finished, will be a great ornament to Calcutta. St. John’s church is an elegant light building, and well adapted to the climate.

We had often been invited to visit the school at Kidderpore. It is an institution for the natural daughters of officers of the army, who are unable to maintain them. By allowing a small sum from their monthly pay, they may have them placed in the school, where they are clothed and well educated; they are allowed to remain there as long as their friends think proper. We were much gratified with the regularity and order observed. Mr. [Richard Thomas Burney], the head-master, is a most worthy man, and, as well as the mistress, is much respected. It happened to be the dancing evening, when the children are allowed to stand up with gentlemen invited by the school-mistress. During this time tea was served to the visitors, who generally retired at an early hour in the evening. The scholars are young ladies of colour, but many of them form very good connexions, in spike of the endeavours of the present governor-general to prevent marriage between them and young men in the service.

Although it is said that this city contains upwards of half a million of inhabitants, I question if one twentieth part of that number occupy brick dwellings. So little serves the natives for shelter, that a few rupees are sufficient to purchase materials to erect a house for a large family; these huts, however, composed of mats and grass sticks, occasion much misery in the fires, which are but too frequent here. During our stay a fire happened, which in a few hours deprived upwards of ten thousand poor creatures of shelter, and several of life. It is said that this suffering if often purposely inflicted by wretches who deal in the materials. About a week after the fire, we drove past the place, and were surprised to find the ground nearly covered with new huts. The wants of these people, particularly the Hindoos, are few. A piece of cloth loosely thrown over the body, and another rolled round the head as a turban, constitutes their wardrobe. Their food consists of rice and vegetables, which they make into curries: this simple fare, with water, is all the luxury they require.

I had an opportunity of witnessing that deplorable fanaticism for which they are so celebrated. This was the time of their grand festival, for regaining their castes, and other ceremonies. I was surprised by the Sircar one day asking me to allow the Materanny (the woman who swept the house) to regain her caste. I told him I had no objection, and that she might perform any ceremonies she pleased, provided her place was supplied. Three days after this, the woman presented herself, having cords passed through the flesh covering the ribs. There were a number of frantic looking men before and behind, some of whom held the cords while she danced backwards and forwards, drawing them through the wounded part at every movement, at the same time laughing and singing to the noise of their uncouth music. I was so much disgusted by the exhibition that I dismissed her. 

This however was nothing compared to the ceremony of swinging, which I afterwards saw at a place called the “Bita Connah.” This is a wide road, in which three posts were placed at angles across the top, where they met a long beam, which rested upon a pivot; this could be swung round at pleasure, by means of ropes managed by those below. To the extreme ends of the pole, or beam, were affixed by ropes several iron hooks, which were thrust into the naked back under the shoulders of the devotee, who is then raised into the air and swung round many times; in the meanwhile he throws down flowers, and other things to the gazing and admiring multitude, with the greatest apparent indifference. This was performed by many men and women while we remained. We returned home, disgusted and distressed at the superstition and ignorance of these poor people; the streets were crowded with them, and wherever we turned our eyes, some spectacle of fanaticism presented itself. Some having cords passed in through their sides, in the way I have described, others had a long iron spit through the tongue, left to remain there for a certain time by way of expiation; but I shall not attempt a description of all the acts prompted by this atrocious enthusiasm. The horrid noise of their tom-toms, and other barbarous instruments playing before the different processions and idols in the streets, made it a great relief to our party to get out of the crowd and retire home.

We had invitations to several “nautches,” or grand entertainments given by Rajahs and rich natives, in honor of their idols. We attended one of these, which fully satisfied our curiosity. I think the name of the chief who entertained his friends at this nautch was Rajah Nup Kessein. When we entered his house, we were struck by the blaze of light and the number of guards, &c. in attendance. In the principal hall the first objects that attracted our notice were their three deities, Bramah, Vishnu, and Sheevah; they were large gilded wooden figures, most frightfully formed. We were told these these people admit no converts to their idolatrous worship, for none but those born Hindoos, and strictly adhering to their laws and ceremonies, will be retained amongst them; the slightest deviation is sufficient to render them outcasts.

We were received with politeness by the Rajah and sprinkled with rose water. After we were seated sweetmeats were handed round, and the dancing and singing girls began their performance; but the whole exhibition appeared to us most stupid and inanimate. The tricks of jugglers, sword eaters, &c. formed part of the evening’s entertainment. We left this scene at 10 o’clock, and were all very glad to return home.

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