from the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan
Chapter Seven -- A Witch's Den
The evening closes in, and we once more get ready for an excursion. It is only five miles to the cavern of the Pythia of Hindostan; the road runs through a jungle, but it is level and smooth. Besides, the jungle and its ferocious inhabitants have ceased to frighten us. The timid elephants we had in the "dead city" are sent home, and we are to mount new behemoths belonging to a neighboring Raja. The pair that stand before the verandah like two dark hillocks are steady and trust worthy. Many a time these two have hunted the royal tiger, and no wild shrieking or thunderous roaring can frighten them. And so, let us start!
The ruddy flames of the torches dazzle our eyes and increase the forest gloom. Our surroundings seem so dark, so mysterious. There is something indescribably fascinating, almost solemn, in these night-journeys in the out-of-the-way corners of India. Everything is silent and deserted around you, everything is dozing on the earth and overhead. Only the heavy, regular tread of the elephants breaks the stillness of the night, like the sound of falling hammers in the underground smithy of Vulcan. From time to time uncanny voices and murmurs are heard in the black forest. "The wind sings its strange song amongst the ruins," says one of us, "what a wonderful acoustic phenomenon!"
"Bhuta, bhuta!" whisper the awestruck torch-bearers. They brandish their torches and swiftly spin on one leg, and snap their fingers to chase away the aggressive spirits. The plaintive murmur is lost in the distance. The forest is once more filled with the cadences of its invisible nocturnal life -- the metallic whirr of the crickets, the feeble, monotonous croak of the tree-frog, the rustle of the leaves. From time to time all this suddenly stops short and then begins again, gradually increasing and increasing.
Heavens! What teeming life, what stores of vital energy are hidden under the smallest leaf, the most imperceptible blades of grass, in this tropical forest! Myriads of stars shine in the dark blue of the sky, and myriads of fireflies twinkle at us from every bush, moving sparks, like a pale reflection of the far-away stars.
= = = = = = = = = = =
We left the thick forest behind us and reached a deep glen, on three sides bordered with the thick forest where even by day the shadows are as dark as by night. We were about two thousand feet above the foot of the Vindhya ridge, judging by the ruined wall of Mandu straight above our heads. Suddenly a very chilly wind rose that nearly blew our torches out. Caught in the labyrinth of bushes and rocks, the wind angrily shook the branches of the blossoming syringas; then shaking itself free, it turned back along the glen and flew down the valley, howling, whistling, and shrieking as if all the fiends of the forest together were joining in a funeral song.
"Here we are," said Sham Rao, dismounting. Here is the village; the elephants cannot go any further."
"The village? Surely you are mistaken. I don't see anything but trees."
"It is too dark to see the village. Besides, the huts are so small, and so hidden by the bushes, that even by daytime you could hardly find them. And there is no light in the houses, for fear of the spirits."
"And where is your witch? Do you mean we are to watch her performance in complete darkness?"
Sham Rao cast a furtive, timid look round him; and his voice, when he answered our questions, was somewhat tremulous.
"I implore you not to call her a witch! She may hear you... It is not far off, it is not more than half a mile. Do not allow this short distance to shake your decision. No elephant, and even no horse, could make its way there. We must walk... But we shall find plenty of light there...."
This was unexpected, and far from agreeable. To walk in this gloomy Indian night; to scramble through thickets of cactuses; to venture in a dark forest, full of wild animals -- this was too much for Miss X---. She declared that she would go no further. She would wait for us in the howdah, on the elephant's back, and perhaps would go to sleep. Narayan was against this parti de plaisir from the very beginning; and now, without explaining his reasons, he said she was the only sensible one among us. "You won't lose anything," he remarked, "by staying where you are. And I only wish everyone would follow your example."
"What ground have you for saying so, I wonder?" remonstrated Sham Rao, and a slight note of disappointment rang in his voice, when he saw that the excursion, proposed and organized by himself, threatened to come to nothing. "What harm could be done by it? I won't insist any more that the 'incarnation of gods' is a rare sight, and that the Europeans hardly ever have an opportunity of witnessing it; but besides, the Kangalim in question is no ordinary woman. She leads a holy life; she is a prophetess, and her blessing could not prove harmful to any one. I insisted on this excursion out of pure patriotism."
"Sahib, if your patriotism consists in displaying before foreigners the worst of our plagues, then why did you not order all the lepers of your district to assemble and parade before the eyes of our guests? You are a Patel, you have the power to do it." How bitterly Narayan's voice sounded to our unaccustomed ears. Usually he was so even-tempered, so indifferent to everything belonging to the exterior world.
Fearing a quarrel between the Hindus, the Colonel remarked in a conciliatory tone that it was too late for us to reconsider our expedition. Besides, without being a believer in the "incarnation of gods," he was personally firmly convinced that demoniacs existed even in the West. He was eager to study every psychological phenomenon -- wherever he met with it, and whatever shape it might assume.
It would have been a striking sight for our European and American friends if they had beheld our procession on that dark night. Our way lay along a narrow winding path up the mountain. Not more than two people could walk together -- and we were thirty, including the torch-bearers. Surely some reminiscence of night sallies against the confederate Southerners had revived in the Colonel's breast, judging by the readiness with which he took upon himself the leadership of our small expedition. He ordered all the rifles and revolvers to be loaded, despatched three torch-bearers to march ahead of us, and arranged us in pairs. Under such a skilled chieftain we had nothing to fear from tigers; and so our procession started, and slowly crawled up the winding path.
It cannot be said that the inquisitive travelers who appeared later on in the den of the prophetess of Mandu, shone through the freshness and elegance of their costumes. My gown, as well as the traveling suits of the Colonel and of Mr. Y---, were nearly torn to pieces. The cactuses gathered from us whatever tribute they could, and the Babu's disheveled hair swarmed with a whole colony of grasshoppers and fireflies, which probably were attracted thither by the smell of cocoa-nut oil. The stout Sham Rao panted like a steam engine. Narayan alone was like his usual self; that is to say, like a bronze Hercules, armed with a club. At the last abrupt turn of the path, after having surmounted the difficulty of climbing over huge, scattered stones, we suddenly found ourselves on a perfectly smooth place; our eyes, in spite of our many torches, were dazzled with light; and our ears were struck by a medley of unusual sounds.
A new glen opened before us, the entrance of which, from the valley, was well masked by thick trees. We understood how easily we might have wandered round it without ever suspecting its existence. At the bottom of the glen we discovered the abode of the celebrated Kangalim.
The den, as it turned out, was situated in the ruin of an old Hindu temple in tolerably good preservation. In all probability it was built long before the "dead city," because during the epoch of the latter, the heathen were not allowed to have their own places of worship; and the temple stood quite close to the wall of the town, in fact right under it. The cupolas of the two smaller lateral pagodas had fallen long ago, and huge bushes grew out of their altars. This evening, their branches were hidden under a mass of bright colored rags, bits of ribbon, little pots, and various other talismans; because even in them, popular superstition sees something sacred.
"And are not these poor people right? Did not these bushes grow on sacred ground? Is not their sap impregnated with the incense of offerings, and the exhalations of holy anchorites who once lived and breathed here?" The learned but superstitious Sham Rao would only answer our questions by new questions.
But the central temple, built of red granite, stood unharmed by time; and as we learned afterwards, a deep tunnel opened just behind its closely-shut door. What was beyond it no one knew. Sham Rao assured us that no man of the last three generations had ever stepped over the threshold of this thick iron door; no one had seen the subterranean passage for many years. Kangalim lived there in perfect isolation; and according to the oldest people in the neighborhood, she had always lived there. Some people said she was three hundred years old; others alleged that a certain old man on his death-bed had revealed to his son that this old woman was no one else than his own uncle.
This fabulous uncle had settled in the cave in the times when the "dead city" still counted several hundreds of inhabitants. The hermit, busy paving his road to Moksha, had no intercourse with the rest of the world, and nobody knew how he lived and what he ate. But a good while ago, in the days when the Bellati (foreigners) had not yet taken possession of this mountain, the old hermit suddenly was transformed into a hermitess. She continues his pursuits and speaks with his voice, and often in his name; but she receives worshippers, which was not the practice of her predecessor.
We had come too early, and the Pythia did not at first appear. But the square before the temple was full of people, and a wild, though picturesque, scene it was. An enormous bonfire blazed in the centre, and round it crowded the naked savages like so many black gnomes, adding whole branches of trees sacred to the seven sister-goddesses. Slowly and evenly they all jumped from one leg to another to a tune of a single monotonous musical phrase, which they repeated in chorus, accompanied by several local drums and tambourines. The hushed trill of the latter mingled with the forest echoes and the hysterical moans of two little girls, who lay under a heap of leaves by the fire. The poor children were brought here by their mothers, in the hope that the goddesses would take pity upon them and banish the two evil spirits under whose obsession they were. Both mothers were quite young, and sat on their heels blankly and sadly staring at the flames.
No one paid us the slightest attention when we appeared, and afterwards during all our stay these people acted as if we were invisible. Had we worn a cap of darkness, they could not have behaved more strangely.
"They feel the approach of the gods! The atmosphere is full of their sacred emanations!" mysteriously explained Sham Rao, contemplating with reverence the natives, whom his beloved Haeckel might have easily mistaken for his "missing link," the brood of his "Bathybius Haeckelii."
"They are simply under the influence of toddy and opium!" retorted the irreverent Babu.
The lookers-on moved as in a dream, as if
they all were only half-awakened somnambulists; but the actors were simply
victims of St. Vitus's dance. One of them, a tall old man, a mere skeleton
with a long white beard, left the ring and began whirling vertiginously,
with his arms spread like wings, and loudly grinding his long, wolf- like
teeth. He was painful and disgusting to look at. He soon fell down, and
was carelessly, almost mechanically, pushed aside by the feet of the others
still engaged in their demoniac performance.
But an elephant has no horns, whereas this one had four of them! The front pair stuck from the flat forehead slightly bending forward and then spreading out; and the others had a wide base, like the root of a deer's horn, that gradually decreased almost up to the middle, and bore long branches enough to decorate a dozen ordinary elks. Pieces of the transparent amber-yellow rhinoceros skin were strained over the empty eye-holes of the skull, and small lamps burning behind them only added to the horror, the devilish appearance of this head.
"What can this be?" was our unanimous question. None of us had ever met anything like it, and even the Colonel looked aghast.
"It is a Sivatherium," said Narayan. "Is it possible you never came across these fossils in European museums? Their remains are common enough in the Himalayas, though, of course, in fragments. They were called after Shiva."
"If the collector of this district ever hears that this antediluvian relic adorns the den of your -- ahem! -- witch," remarked the Babu, "it won't adorn it many days longer."
All round the skull, and on the floor of the
portico, there were heaps of white flowers which, though not quite antediluvian,
were totally unknown to us. They were as large as a big rose; and their
white petals were covered with a red powder, the inevitable concomitant
of every Indian religious ceremony. Further on, there were groups of cocoa-nuts,
and large brass dishes filled with rice, and each adorned with a red or
green taper. In the centre of the portico there stood a queer-shaped censer,
surrounded with chandeliers. A little boy, dressed from head to foot in
white, threw into it handfuls of aromatic powders.
"Their chief worship is offered to the souls of the dead. These souls, however righteous and kind they may be in their lifetime, become after death as wicked as can be; they are happy only when they are torturing living men and cattle. As the opportunities of doing so are the only reward for the virtues they possessed when incarnated, a very wicked man is punished by becoming after his death a very soft-hearted ghost; he loathes his loss of daring, and is altogether miserable. The results of this strange logic are not bad, nevertheless. These savages and devil-worshippers are the kindest and the most truth-loving of all the hill-tribes. They do whatever they can to be worthy of their ultimate reward; because, don't you see, they all long to become the wickedest of devils!... "
And put in good humor by his own wittiness, Sham Rao laughed till his hilarity became offensive, considering the sacredness of the place.
"A year ago some business matters sent me to Tinevelli," continued he. "Staying with a friend of mine, who is a Shanar, I was allowed to be present at one of the ceremonies in the honor of devils. No European has as yet witnessed this worship -- whatever the missionaries may say; but there are many converts amongst the Shanars, who willingly describe them to the padres. My friend is a wealthy man, which is probably the reason why the devils are especially vicious to him. They poison his cattle, spoil his crops and his coffee plants, and persecute his numerous relations, sending them sunstrokes, madness, and epilepsy, over which illnesses they especially preside. These wicked demons have settled in every corner of his spacious landed property -- in the woods, the ruins, and even in his stables.
"To avert all this, my friend covered his land with stucco pyramids and prayed humbly, asking the demons to draw their portraits on each of them, so that he may recognize them and worship each of them separately, as the rightful owner of this or that particular pyramid. And what do you think?... Next morning all the pyramids were found covered with drawings. Each of them bore an incredibly good likeness of the dead of the neighborhood. My friend had known personally almost all of them. He found also a portrait of his own late father amongst the lot.... "
"Well? And was he satisfied?"
"Indeed? But do you mean to say that this strange people worshipped Captain Pole also?"
"Of course they did! Captain Pole was such a worthy man, such an honest officer, that after his death he could not help being promoted to the highest rank of Shanar devils. The Pe-Kovil, demon's house, sacred to his memory, stands side by side with the Pe-Kovil Bhadrakali, which was recently conferred on the wife of a certain German missionary, who also was a most charitable lady and so is very dangerous now."
"But what are their ceremonies? Tell us something about their rites."
"Their rites consist chiefly of dancing, singing, and killing sacrificial animals. The Shanars have no castes, and eat all kinds of meat. The crowd assembles about the Pe-Kovil previously designated by the priest; there is a general beating of drums, and slaughtering of fowls, sheep, and goats. When Captain Pole's turn came an ox was killed, as a thoughtful attention to the peculiar tastes of his nation. The priest appeared, covered with bangles, and holding a wand on which tinkled numberless little bells, and wearing garlands of red and white flowers round his neck, and a black mantle on which were embroidered the ugliest fiends you can imagine. Horns were blown and drums rolled incessantly. And oh, I forgot to tell you there was also a kind of fiddle, the secret of which is known only to the Shanar priesthood. Its bow is ordinary enough, made of bamboo; but it is whispered that the strings are human veins.... When Captain Pole took possession of the priest's body, the priest leapt high in the air, and then rushed on the ox and killed him. He drank off the hot blood, and then began his dance. But what a fright he was when dancing! You know, I am not superstitious.... Am I?..."
Sham Rao looked at us inquiringly, and I for one was glad at this moment that Miss X--- was half a mile off, asleep in the howdah.
"He turned,and turned, as if possessed by
all the demons of Naraka. The enraged crowd hooted and howled when the
priest begun to inflict deep wounds all over his body with the bloody sacrificial
knife. To see him, with his hair waving in the wind and his mouth covered
with foam; to see him bathing in the blood of the sacrificed animal, mixing
it with his own, was more than I could bear. I felt as if hallucinated,
I fancied I also was spinning round...."
Her appearance was so unexpected that we all felt embarrassed. Carried away by Sham Rao's description, we had noticed neither how nor whence she came. Had she appeared from beneath the earth we could not have been more astonished. Narayan stared at her, opening wide his big jet-black eyes; the Babu clicked his tongue in utter confusion. Imagine a skeleton seven feet high, covered with brown leather, with a dead child's tiny head stuck on its bony shoulders; the eyes set so deep and at the same time flashing such fiendish flames all through your body that you begin to feel your brain stop working, your thoughts become entangled, and your blood freeze in your veins.
I describe my personal impressions, and no words of mine can do them justice. My description is too weak. Mr. Y--- and the Colonel both grew pale under her stare, and Mr. Y--- made a movement as if about to rise.
Needless to say that such an impression could not last. As soon as the witch had turned her gleaming eyes to the kneeling crowd, it vanished as swiftly as it had come. But still all our attention was fixed on this remarkable creature.
Three hundred years old! Who can tell? Judging by her appearance, we might as well conjecture her to be a thousand. We beheld a genuine living mummy, or rather a mummy endowed with motion. She seemed to have been withering since the creation. Neither time, nor the ills of life, nor the elements, could ever affect this living statue of death. The all-destroying hand of time had touched her and stopped short. Time could do no more, and so had left her. And with all this, not a single grey hair. Her long black locks shone with a greenish sheen, and fell in heavy masses down to her knees.
To my great shame, I must confess that a disgusting reminiscence flashed into my memory. I thought about the hair and the nails of corpses growing in the graves, and tried to examine the nails of the old woman.
Meanwhile, she stood motionless as if suddenly transformed into an ugly idol. In one hand she held a dish with a piece of burning camphor, in the other a handful of rice, and she never removed her burning eyes from the crowd. The pale yellow flame of the camphor flickered in the wind, and lit up her deathlike head, almost touching her chin; but she paid no heed to it. Her neck, as wrinkled as a mushroom, as thin as a stick, was surrounded by three rows of golden medallions. Her head was adorned with a golden snake. Her grotesque, hardly human body was covered by a piece of saffron-yellow muslin.
The demoniac little girls raised their heads from beneath the leaves, and set up a prolonged animal-like howl. Their example was followed by the old man, who lay exhausted by his frantic dance. The witch tossed her head convulsively, and began her invocations, rising on tiptoe, as if moved by some external force.
"The goddess, one of the seven sisters, begins to take possession of her," whispered Sham Rao, not even thinking of wiping away the big drops of sweat that streamed from his brow. "Look, look at her!" This advice was quite superfluous. We were looking at her, and at nothing else.
At first, the movements of the witch were slow, unequal, somewhat convulsive; then gradually they became less angular; at last, as if catching the cadence of the drums, leaning all her long body forward and writhing like an eel, she rushed round and round the blazing bonfire. A dry leaf caught in a hurricane could not fly swifter. Her bare bony feet trod noiselessly on the rocky ground. The long locks of her hair flew round her like snakes, lashing the spectators (who knelt, stretching their trembling arms towards her) and writhing as if they were alive. Whoever was touched by one of this Fury's black curls fell down on the ground, overcome with happiness, shouting thanks to the goddess, and considering himself blessed for ever. It was not human hair that touched the happy elect, it was the goddess herself, one of the seven.
Swifter and swifter fly her decrepit legs; the young, vigorous hands of the drummer can hardly follow her. But she does not think of catching the measure of his music; she rushes, she flies forward. Staring with her expressionless, motionless orbs at something before her, at something that is not visible to our mortal eyes, she hardly glances at her worshippers; then her look becomes full of fire, and whoever she looks at feels burned through to the marrow of his bones. At every glance she throws a few grains of rice. The small handful seems inexhaustible, as if the wrinkled palm contained the bottomless bag of Prince Fortunatus.
Suddenly she stops as if thunderstruck. The mad race round the bonfire had lasted twelve minutes, but we looked in vain for a trace of fatigue on the deathlike face of the witch. She stopped only for a moment, just the necessary time for the goddess to release her. As soon as she felt free, by a single effort she jumped over the fire and plunged into the deep tank by the portico. This time, she plunged only once; and whilst she stayed under the water, the second sister-goddess entered her body.
The little boy in white produced another dish, with a new piece of burning camphor, just in time for the witch to take it up, and to rush again on her headlong way. The Colonel sat with his watch in his hand. During the second obsession the witch ran, leaped, and raced for exactly fourteen minutes. After this, she plunged twice in the tank, in honor of the second sister; and with every new obsession the number of her plunges increased, till it became six. It was already an hour and a half since the race began. All this time the witch never rested, stopping only for a few seconds to disappear under the water.
"She is a fiend, she cannot be a woman!" exclaimed the Colonel, seeing the head of the witch immersed for the sixth time in the water.
"Hang me if I know!" grumbled Mr. Y---, nervously pulling his beard. "The only thing I know is that a grain of her cursed rice entered my throat, and I can't get it out!"
"Hush, hush! Please, do be quiet!" implored Sham Rao. "By talking you will spoil the whole business!"
I glanced at Narayan and lost myself in conjectures. His features, which usually were so calm and serene, were quite altered at this moment by a deep shadow of suffering. His lips trembled, and the pupils of his eyes were dilated as if by a dose of belladonna. His eyes were lifted over the heads of the crowd, as if in his disgust he tried not to see what was before him; and at the same time could not see it, engaged in a deep reverie which carried him away from us and from the whole performance.
"What is the matter with him?" was my thought; but I had no time to ask him, because the witch was again in full swing, chasing her own shadow.
But with the seventh goddess the programme was slightly changed. The running of the old woman changed to leaping. Sometimes bending down to the ground, like a black panther, she leaped up to some worshipper, and halting before him touched his forehead with her finger, while her long, thin body shook with inaudible laughter. Then again, as if shrinking back playfully from her shadow, and chased by it in some uncanny game, the witch appeared to us like a horrid caricature of Dinorah, dancing her mad dance.
Suddenly she straightened herself to her full
height, darted to the portico, and crouched before the smoking censer,
beating her forehead against the granite steps. Another jump, and she was
quite close to us, before the head of the monstrous Sivatherium. She knelt
down again and bowed her head to the ground several times, with the sound
of an empty barrel knocked against something hard. We had hardly the time
to spring to our feet and shrink back when she appeared on the top of the
Sivatherium's head, standing there amongst the horns. Narayan alone did
not stir, and fearlessly looked straight in the eyes of the frightful sorceress.
"She?" incredulously inquired Mr. Y---. "This a woman's voice? I don't believe it for a moment. Someone's uncle must be stowed away somewhere about the place. Not the fabulous uncle she inherited from, but a real live one!... " Sham Rao winced under the irony of this supposition, and cast an imploring look at the speaker.
"Woe to you! woe to you!" echoed the voice. "Woe to you, children of the impure Jaya and Vijaya! of the mocking, unbelieving lingerers round great Shiva's door! Ye who are cursed by eighty thousand sages! Woe to you who believe not in the goddess Kali, and you who deny us, her Seven divine Sisters! Flesh-eating, yellow-legged vultures! friends of the oppressors of our land! dogs who are not ashamed to eat from the same trough with the Bellati (foreigners)!"
"It seems to me that your prophetess only foretells the past," said Mr. Y---, philosophically putting his hands in his pockets. "I should say that she is hinting at you, my dear Sham Rao."
"Yes! and at us also," murmured the Colonel, who was evidently beginning to feel uneasy. As to the unlucky Sham Rao, he broke out in a cold sweat, and tried to assure us that we were mistaken, that we did not fully understand her language. "It is not about you, it is not about you! It is of me she speaks, because I am in Government service. Oh, she is inexorable!"
"Rakshasas! Asuras!" thundered the voice. "How dare you appear before us? how dare you to stand on this holy ground in boots made of a cow's sacred skin? Be cursed for etern---"
But her curse was not destined to be finished. In an instant the Hercules-like Narayan had fallen on the Sivatherium, and upset the whole pile, the skull, the horns, and the demoniac Pythia included. A second more, and we thought we saw the witch flying in the air towards the portico. A confused vision of a stout, shaven Brahman, suddenly emerging from under the Sivatherium and instantly disappearing in the hollow beneath it, flashed before my dilated eyes.
But, alas! after the third second had passed, we all came to the embarrassing conclusion that, judging from the loud clang of the door of the cave, the representative of the Seven Sisters had ignominiously fled. The moment she had disappeared from our inquisitive eyes to her subterranean domain, we all realized that the unearthly hollow voice we had heard had nothing supernatural about it, and belonged to the Brahman hidden under the Sivatherium -- to someone's live uncle, as Mr. Y--- had rightly supposed.
= = = = = = = = = = =
Oh, Narayan! how carelessly... how disorderly the worlds rotate around us... I begin to seriously doubt their reality. From this moment I shall earnestly believe that all things in the universe are nothing but illusion, a mere Maya. I am becoming a Vedantin... I doubt that in the whole universe there may be found anything more objective than a Hindu witch flying up the spout.
= = = = = = = = = = =
Miss X--- woke up, and asked what was the meaning of all this noise. The noise of many voices and the sounds of the many retreating footsteps, the general rush of the crowd, had frightened her. She listened to us with a condescending smile, and a few yawns, and went to sleep again.
Next morning at daybreak we very reluctantly, it must be owned, bade good-bye to the kind-hearted, good-natured Sham Rao. The confoundingly easy victory of Narayan hung heavily on his mind. His faith in the holy hermitess and the seven goddesses was a good deal shaken by the shameful capitulation of the Sisters, who had surrendered at the first blow from a mere mortal. But during the dark hours of the night he had had time to think it over, and to shake off the uneasy feeling of having unwillingly misled and disappointed his European friends. Sham Rao still looked confused when he shook hands with us at parting, and expressed to us the best wishes of his family and himself.
As to the heroes of this truthful narrative, they mounted their elephants once more, and directed their heavy steps towards the high road and Jubbulpore.