from the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan
Chapter Nine -- The Banns Of Marriage
Next day, early in the morning the local shikaris went, under the leadership of the warlike Akali, to hunt glamoured [=magical, illusory] and real tigers in the caves. It took them longer than we expected. The old Bhil, who represented to us the absent Dhani, proposed that in the meanwhile we should witness a Brahmanical wedding ceremony. Needless to say, we jumped at this. The ceremonies of betrothal and marriage have not changed in India during the last two millenniums at least. They are performed according to the directions of Manu, and the old theme has no new variations. India's religious rites have crystallized long ago. Whoever has seen a Hindu wedding in 1879, saw it as it was celebrated in ancient Aryavarta many centuries ago.
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The second announcement referred to an accomplished fact. It appeared in a Parsi paper, which strongly insists on the necessity of giving up "disgusting superannuated customs," and especially the early marriage. It justly ridiculed a certain Gujerati newspaper, which had just described in very pompous expressions a recent wedding ceremony in Poona. The bridegroom, who had just entered his sixth year, "pressed to his heart a blushing bride of two and a half!" The usual answers of this couple entering into matrimony proved so indistinct that the Mobed had to address the questions to their parents: "Are you willing to have him for your lawful husband, O daughter of Zaratushta?" and "Are you willing to be her husband, O son of Zoroaster?"
"Everything went as well as it could be expected," continued the newspaper; "the bridegroom was led out of the room by the hand, and the bride, who was carried away in arms, greeted the guests not with smiles but with a tremendous howl, which made her forget the existence of such a thing as a pocket-handkerchief, and remember only her feeding-bottle; for the latter article she asked repeatedly, half choked with sobs, and throttled with the weight of the family diamonds. Taking it all in all, it was a Parsi marriage, which shows the progress of our speedily developing nation with the exactitude of a weather glass," added the satirical newspaper.
Having read this we laughed heartily -- though we did not give full credit to this description, and thought it a good deal exaggerated. We knew Parsi and Brahman families in which were husbands of ten years of age; but had never heard as yet of a bride who was a baby in arms.
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It is not without reason that the Brahmans
are fervent upholders of the ancient law which prohibits to everyone, except
the officiating Brahmans, the study of Sanskrit and the reading of the
Vedas. The Shudras and even the high-born Vaishyas were in olden times
to be executed for such an offence. The secret of this rigour lies in the
fact that the Vedas do not permit matrimony for women under fifteen to
twenty years of age, and for men under twenty-five, or even thirty. Eager
above all that every religious ceremony should fill their pockets, the
Brahmans never stopped at disfiguring their ancient sacred literature;
and not to be caught, they pronounced its study accursed.
The latter is the queerest of all, because the feelings it excites are so very like gambling. In this case, the marriage ceremony is celebrated between the mothers of the future children. Many a curious incident is the result of these matrimonial parodies. But a true Brahman will never allow the derision of fate to shake his dignity, and the docile population never will doubt the infallibility of these "elect of the gods." An open antagonism to the Brahmanical institutions is more than rare; the feelings of reverence and dread the masses show to the Brahmans are so blind and so sincere, that an outsider cannot help smiling at them and respecting them at the same time.
If both the mothers have children of the same sex, it will not upset the Brahman in the least; he will say this was the will of the goddess Mata, it shows that she desires the new-born babies to be two loving brothers, or two loving sisters, as the case may be, in future. And if the children grow up, they will be acknowledged heirs to the properties of both mothers. In this case, the Brahman breaks the bonds of the marriage by the order of the goddess, is paid for doing so, and the whole affair is dropped altogether. But if the children are of different sexes these bonds cannot be broken, even if they are born cripples or idiots.
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While I am dealing with the family life of India, I had better mention some other features, not to return to them any more. No Hindu has the right to remain single. The only exceptions are, in case the child is destined to monastic life from the first days of his existence, and in case the child is consecrated to the service of one of the gods of the Trimurti even before he is born. Religion insists on matrimony for the sake of having a son, whose duty it will be to perform every prescribed rite, in order that his departed father may enter Swarga, or paradise. Even the caste of Brahmacharyas, who take vows of chastity, but take a part and interest in worldly life -- and so are the unique lay-celibates of India -- are bound to adopt sons.
The rest of the Hindus must remain in matrimony till the age of forty; after which they earn the right to leave the world and to seek salvation, leading an ascetic life in some jungle. If a member of some Hindu family happens to be afflicted from birth with some organic defect, this will not be an impediment to his marrying, on the condition that his wife should be also a cripple, if she belongs to the same caste. The defects of husband and wife must be different: if he is blind, she must be hump-backed or lame, and vice versa. But if the young man in question is prejudiced, and wants a healthy wife, he must condescend to make a mesalliance; he must stoop to choose a wife in a caste that is exactly one degree lower than his own. But in this case his kinsmen and associates will not acknowledge her; the parvenue will not be received on any conditions whatever. Besides, all these exceptional instances depend entirely on the family Guru -- on the priest who is inspired by the gods.
All the above holds good as far as the men
are concerned; but with the women it is quite different.
Rhea Sylvia, for instance, the mother of Romulus and Remus, was buried alive by the ancient Romans, in spite of the god Mars taking an active part in her faux pas. Numa and Tiberius took exceedingly good care that the good morals of their priestesses should not become merely nominal. But the vestals on the banks of the Ganges and the Indus understand the question differently from those on the banks of the Tiber.
The intimacy of the nautch-girls with the gods, which is generally accepted, cleanses them from every sin and makes them in everyone's eyes irreproachable and infallible. A nautcha cannot sin, in spite of the crowd of the "celestial musicians" who swarm in every pagoda, in the form of baby-vestals and their little brothers. No virtuous Roman matron was ever so respected as the pretty little nautcha. This great reverence for the happy "brides of the gods" is especially striking in the purely native towns of Central India, where the population has preserved intact their blind faith in the Brahmans.
Every nautcha can read, and receives the highest Hindu education. They all read and write in Sanskrit, and study the best literature of ancient India, and her six chief philosophies, but especially music, singing and dancing. Besides these "godborn" priestesses of the pagodas, there are also public nautches, who, like the Egyptian almeas, are within the reach of ordinary mortals, not only of gods; they also are in most cases women of a certain culture.
But the fate of an honest woman of Hindostan is quite different; and a bitter and incredibly unjust fate it is. The life of a thoroughly good woman, especially if she happens to possess warm faith and unshaken piety, is simply a long chain of fatal misfortunes. And the higher her family and social position, the more wretched is her life. Married women are so afraid of resembling the professional dancing girls, that they cannot be persuaded to learn anything the latter are taught. If a Brahman woman is rich her life is spent in demoralizing idleness; if she is poor, so much the worse, her earthly existence is concentrated in monotonous performances of mechanical rites. There is no past and no future for her; only a tedious present from which there is no possible escape.
And this only if everything be well, if her family be not visited by sad losses. Needless to say that, amongst Brahman women, marriage is not a question of free choice, and still less of affection. Her choice of a husband is restricted by the caste to which her father and mother happen to belong; and so to find a suitable match for a girl is a matter of great difficulty, as well as of great expense. In India, the high-caste woman is not bought, but she has to buy the right to get married. Accordingly, the birth of a girl is not a joy but a sorrow, especially if her parents are not rich. She must be married not later than when she is seven or eight; a little girl of ten is an old maid in India, she is a discredit to her parents and is the miserable butt of all her more fortunate contemporaries.
One of the few noble achievements of Englishmen in India which have succeeded is the decrease of infanticide, which some time ago was a daily practice, and still is not quite got rid of. Little girls were killed by their parents everywhere in India; but this dreadful custom was especially common amongst the tribes of Jadej, once so powerful in Sindh, and now reduced to petty brigandage. Probably these tribes were the first to spread this heartless practice. Obligatory marriage for little girls is a comparatively recent invention, and it alone is responsible for the parents' decision rather to see them dead than unmarried. The ancient Aryans knew nothing of it.
Even the ancient Brahmanical literature shows that amongst the pure Aryans, woman enjoyed the same privileges as man. Her voice was listened to by the statesmen; she was free either to choose a husband, or to remain single. Many a woman's name plays an important part in the chronicles of the ancient Aryan land; many women have come down to posterity as eminent poets, astronomers, philosophers, and even sages and lawyers.
But with the invasion of the Persians in the seventh century, and later on of the fanatical, all-destroying Mussulmans, all this changed. Woman became enslaved, and the Brahmans did everything to humiliate her. In towns, the position of the Hindu woman is still worse than amongst agricultural classes.
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The father of the little boy has to put the
horoscope on the altar before the family gods and to answer: "I am well
disposed towards the Panigrhana; let Rudra help us." The Guru must ask
when the union is to take place, after which he is bowed out. A few days
later the father of the little boy takes the horoscope of his son as well
as of the little girl to the chief astrologer. If the latter finds them
propitious to the intended marriage, it will take place; if not, his decision
is immediately sent to the father of the little girl, and the whole affair
is dropped. If the astrologer's opinion is favorable, however, the bargain
is concluded on the spot. The astrologer offers a cocoa-nut and a handful
of sugar to the father, after which nothing can be altered; otherwise a
Hindu vendetta will be handed down from generation to generation. After
the obligatory goat-sacrifice, the couple are irrevocably betrothed, and
the astrologer fixes the day of the wedding.
After this, the "old" and young women sing marriage hymns, tie the legs of the goat, cover his head with red powder, and make a lamp smoke under his nose, to banish the evil spirits from round him. When all this is done, the female element puts itself out of the way, and the patriarch comes again upon the stage. He treacherously puts a ration of rice before the goat, and as soon as the victim becomes innocently absorbed in gratifying his appetite, the old man chops his head off with a single stroke of his sword, and bathes the goddess in the smoking blood coming from the head of the animal, which he holds in his right arm, over the idol. The women sing in chorus, and the ceremony of betrothal is over.
The ceremonies with the astrologers, and the exchange of presents, are too long to be described. I shall mention only that in all these ceremonies the astrologer plays the double part of an augur and a family lawyer. After a general invocation to the elephant-headed god Ganesha, the marriage contract is written on the reverse of the horoscopes and sealed, and a general blessing is pronounced over the assembly.
Needless to say that all these ceremonies had been accomplished long ago in the family to whose marriage party we were invited in Bagh. All these rites are sacred, and most probably we, being mere strangers, would not have been allowed to witness them. We saw them all later on in Benares -- thanks to the intercession of our Babu.
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The altar, especially erected for this occasion, presented a queer sight. Its regulation height is three times the length of the bride's arm from the shoulder down to the middle finger. Its materials are bricks and white-washed clay. Forty-six earthen pots painted with red, yellow, and green stripes -- the colors of the Trimurti -- rose in two pyramids on both sides of the "god of marriages" on the altar, and all round it a crowd of little married girls were busy grinding ginger. When it was reduced to powder, the whole crowd rushed on the bridegroom, dragged him from his horse, and, having undressed him, began rubbing him with wet ginger. As soon as the sun dried him he was dressed again by some of the little ladies, whilst one part of them sang and the other sprinkled his head with water from lotus leaves twisted into tubes. We understood that this was a delicate attention to the water gods.
We were also told that the whole of the previous night had been given up to the worship of various spirits. The last rites, begun weeks ago, were hurriedly brought to an end during this last night. Invocations to Ganesha; to the god of marriages; to the gods of the elements water, fire, air and earth; to the goddess of the smallpox and other illnesses; to the spirits of ancestors and planetary spirits; to the evil spirits, good spirits, family spirits, and so on, and so on. Suddenly our ears were struck by strains of music... Good heavens! what a dreadful symphony it was! The ear-splitting sounds of Indian tom-toms, Tibetan drunis, Singalese pipes, Chinese trumpets, and Burmese gongs deafened us on all sides, awakening in our souls hatred for humanity and humanity's inventions.
"De tous les bruîts du monde çelui de la musique est le plus désagreable!" [Of all the noises of the world, that of music is the most disagreeable] was my ever-recurring thought. Happily, this agony did not last long, and was replaced by the choral singing of Brahmans and nautches, which was very original, but perfectly bearable. The wedding was a rich one, and so the "vestals" appeared in state. A moment of silence, of restrained whispering, and one of them, a tall, handsome girl with eyes literally filling half her forehead, began approaching one guest after the other in perfect silence, and rubbing their faces with her hand, leaving traces of sandal and saffron powders. She glided towards us also, noiselessly moving over the dusty road with her bare feet; and before we realized what she was doing she had daubed me as well as the Colonel and Miss X---, which made the latter sneeze and wipe her face for at least ten minutes, with loud but vain utterances of indignation.
The Babu and Mulji offered their faces to the little hand full of saffron, with smiles of condescending generosity. But the indomitable Narayan shrank from the vestal so unexpectedly at the precise moment when, with fiery glances at him, she stood on tiptoe to reach his face, that she quite lost countenance and sent a full dose of powder over his shoulder, whilst he turned away from her with knitted brow. Her forehead also showed several threatening lines, but in a moment she overcame her anger and glided towards Ram-Runjit-Das, sparkling with engaging smiles. But here she met with still less luck; offended at once in his monotheism and his chastity, the "God's warrior" pushed the vestal so unceremoniously that she nearly upset the elaborate pot-decoration of the altar.A dissatisfied murmur ran through the crowd, and we were preparing to be condemned to shameful banishment for the sins of the warlike Sikh, when the drums sounded again and the procession moved on.
In front of everyone drove the trumpeters and the drummers in a car gilded from top to bottom, and dragged by bullocks loaded with garlands of flowers; next after them walked a whole detachment of pipers, and then a third body of musicians on horseback, who frantically hammered huge gongs. After them proceeded the cortege of the bridegroom's and the bride's relations on horses adorned with rich harness, feathers, and flowers; they went in pairs. They were followed by a regiment of Bhils in full disarmour -- because no weapons but bows and arrows had been left to them by the English Government. All these Bhils looked as if they had tooth-ache, because of the odd way they have of arranging the ends of their white pagris. After them walked clerical Brahmans, with aromatic tapers in their hands and surrounded by the flitting battalion of nautches, who amused themselves all the way by graceful glissades and pas. They were followed by the lay Brahmans -- the "twice born."
The bridegroom rode on a handsome horse; on both sides walked two couples of warriors, armed with yaks' tails to wave the flies away. They were accompanied by two more men on each side with silver fans. The bridegroom's group was wound up by a naked Brahman, perched on a donkey and holding over the head of the boy a huge red silk umbrella. After him, a car loaded with a thousand cocoa-nuts and a hundred bamboo baskets tied together by a red rope. The god who looks after marriages drove in melancholy isolation on the vast back of an elephant, whose mahout led him by a chain of flowers. Our humble party modestly advanced just behind the elephant's tail. The performance of rites on the way seemed endless. We had to stop before every tree, every pagoda, every sacred tank and bush, and at last before a sacred cow.
When we came back to the house of the bride it was four in the afternoon, and we had started a little after six in the morning. We all were utterly exhausted, and Miss X--- literally threatened to fall asleep on her feet. The indignant Sikh had left us long ago, and had persuaded Mr. Y--- and Mulji -- whom the Colonel had nicknamed the "mute general" -- to keep him company. Our respected President was bathed in his own perspiration, and even Narayan the unchangeable yawned and sought consolation in a fan. But the Babu was simply astonishing. After a nine hours' walk under the sun, with his head unprotected, he looked fresher than ever, without a drop of sweat on his dark satin-like forehead. He showed his white teeth in an eternal smile, and chaffed us all, reciting the "Diamond Wedding" of Steadman.
We struggled against our fatigue in our desire to witness the last ceremony, after which the woman is forever cut off from the external world. It was just going to begin; and we kept our eyes and ears wide open. The bridegroom and the bride were placed before the altar. The officiating Brahman tied their hands with some kus-kus grass, and led them three times round the altar. Then their hands were untied, and the Brahman mumbled a mantram. When he had finished, the boy husband lifted his diminutive bride and carried her three times round the altar in his arms; then again three turns round the altar, but the boy preceding the girl, and she following him like an obedient slave.
When this was over, the bridegroom was placed on a high chair by the entrance door, and the bride brought a basin of water, took off his shoes, and having washed his feet, wiped them with her long hair. We learned that this was a very ancient custom. On the right side of the bridegroom sat his mother. The bride knelt before her also, and having performed the same operation over her feet, she retired to the house. Then her mother came out of the crowd and repeated the same ceremony, but without using her hair as a towel. The young couple were married. The drums and the tom-toms rolled once more; and half-deaf we started for home.
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In the tent we found the Akali in the middle
of a sermon, delivered for the edification of the "mute general" and Mr.
Y---. He was explaining to them the advantages of the Sikh religion, and
comparing it with the faith of the "devil-worshipers," as he called the
At the present time, the whole of orthodox India is shaken by the struggle in favor of the remarriage of widows. This agitation was begun in Bombay, by a few reformers and opponents of Brahmans. It is already ten years since Mulji-Taker-Sing and others raised this question; but we know only of three or four men who have dared as yet to marry widows. This struggle is carried on in silence and secrecy, but nevertheless it is fierce and obstinate.
In the meanwhile, the fate of the widow is
what the Brahmans wish it to be. As soon as the corpse of her husband is
burned the widow must shave her head, and never let it grow again as long
as she lives. Her bangles, necklaces, and rings are broken to pieces and
burned, together with her hair and her husband's remains. During the rest
of her life she must wear nothing but white if she was less than twenty-five
at her husband's death, and red if she was older. Temples, religious ceremonies,
society, are closed to her for ever. She has no right to speak to any of
her relations, and no right to eat with them. She sleeps, eats, and works
separately; her touch is considered impure for seven years. If a man going
out on business meets a widow, he goes home again, abandoning every pursuit,
because to see a widow is accounted an evil omen.
When the East India Company's Government first turned its attention to the suppression of suttee, the whole country, from Cape Comorin to the Himalayas, rose in protest, under the influence of the Brahmans. "The English promised not to interfere in our religious affairs, and they must keep their word!" was the general outcry. Never was India so near revolution as in those days. The English saw the danger and gave up the task. But Professor Wilson, the best Sanskritist of the time, did not consider the battle lost. He applied himself to the study of the most ancient MSS., and gradually became convinced that the alleged precept did not exist in the Vedas; though in the Laws of Manu it was quite distinct, and had been translated accordingly by T. Colebrooke and other Orientalists. An attempt to prove to the fanatic population that Manu's interpretation was wrong would have been equivalent to an attempt to reduce water to powder. So Wilson set himself to study Manu, and to compare the text of the Vedas with the text of this law-giver. This was the result of his labors: the Rig Veda orders the Brahman to place the widow side by side with the corpse, and then, after the performance of certain rites, to lead her down from the funeral pyre and to sing the following verse from Grhya Sutra:
Arise, O woman! return to the world of the living!Then those present at the burning were to rub their eyes with collyrium, and the Brahman to address to them the following verse:
Approach, you married women, not widows,The line before the last was misinterpreted by the Brahmans in the most skillful way. In Sanskrit it reads as follows: "Arohantu janayo yonim agre...." Yonina agre literally means to the womb first. Having changed only one letter of the last word agre, "first," in Sanskrit [script], the Brahmans wrote instead agneh, "fire's," in Sanskrit [script], and so acquired the right to send the wretched widows yonina agneh -- to the womb of fire. It is difficult to find on the face of the world another such fiendish deception.
The Vedas never permitted the burning of the widows, and there is a place in Taittiriya-Aranyaka, of the Yajur Veda, where the brother of the deceased, or his disciple, or even a trusted friend, is recommended to say to the widow, whilst the pyre is set on fire: "Arise, O woman! do not lie down any more beside the lifeless corpse; return to the world of the living, and become the wife of the one who holds you by the hand, and is willing to be your husband." This verse shows that during the Vedic period the remarriage of widows was allowed. Besides, in several places in the ancient books, pointed out to us by Swami Dayanand, we found orders to the widows "to keep the ashes of the husband for several months after his death and to perform over them certain final rituals."
However, in spite of the scandal created by Professor Wilson's discovery, and of the fact that the Brahmans were put to shame before the double authority of the Vedas and of Manu, the custom of centuries proved so strong that some pious Hindu women still burn themselves whenever they can. Not more than two years ago the four widows of Yung-Bahadur, the chief minister of Nepal, insisted upon being burned. Nepal is not under the British rule, and so the Anglo-Indian [=English colonial] Government had no right to interfere.