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(48) Style of building among the natives, mode of thatching, domestic furniture, the beetle-leaf and plant [[219-230]]

[[219]] The style of building in use among the natives is very different from what we should expect in so hot a climate. Experience is, however, in its favour, and sanctions that which no doubt resulted from observation rather than experiment. The walls of edifices intended to be permanent are usually constructed of mud. This being laid in strata of perhaps eighteen or twenty inches deep, each being suffered to dry before another stratum is added, becomes extremely firm, and far more durable, though not so neat, as unburnt bricks laid in mud cement.

The thickness of the wall is proportioned to the intended height. About twenty-six to thirty inches at the base may be considered a fair average, tapering above to about three-fourths of the breadth below. Some bungalows are run up with mud walls which, after being chipped down to an uniform thickness, and properly plastered with fine sand mixed with chaff, are neat enough; but all mud walls invariably crack considerably while drying; consequently, they are apt to harbour within their fissures centipedes, scorpions, and even snakes. This is a most serious defect, fully counter-balancing any advantages obtained by that facility and cheapness with which the mud walls can be run up to a great height, provided due attention be paid to the perpendicular.

Few of the peasantry, even though possessing some property, carry their walls higher than eight or ten feet. The [[220]] generality of huts may be set down at seven feet at the exterior, though they will rise near a cubit more within, when filled up to the under part of the thatch. It is rare to see any window in the front; and in such as have inclosed areas (by us called compounds, but by the natives ungnahs), the cricky, or door, which is always very low, obliging even short persons to stoop considerably, is commonly in some part of the environing wall, and partly concealed by an angle, so as to preclude the possibility of seeing anything of the interior when the door is thrown open.

Every door has a frame composed of strong wood, of which the side pieces or uprights are tenoned into mortices made in the threshold and the upper limb. The superincumbent part of the edifice is supported by a strong plank, or by several pieces of timber laid parallel and secured by thorough-pins, for the whole breadth of the wall. No arch is turned to keep off the dead pressure of the enormous weight that, in many instances, is thus borne up entirely by the door-plate.

On the top of the wall, a stout piece of timber is laid, whenever the rafters are fastened, each by one or more nails, but projecting at least a foot beyond the exterior for the purpose of sustaining the thatch; which is made to hang over, with the intention to throw off the rain. Falling in torrents during many months, this would otherwise wash away the mud, and endanger the building.

The thatches are usually made of the kuss, or common wild grass, whose roots furnish that fibrous substance called kuss-kuss, already mentioned in the description of the tatties. Immense plains are covered with this kind of grass, commonly about two or three, and, in some places five, feet high; serving as an asylum for every species of game, and causing many gentlemen, on first entering the country, to admire what they at first take to be the prodigious [[221]] fine crops of hay. It is commonly burnt down every year during the hot season, when perfectly dry. The ashes thus left on the soil are washed in by the succeeding rains, and occasion the grass to shoot forth again with incredible freshness and vigour.

At such times, nothing can be more acceptable to the herds, which during the preceding months are sent to great distances where a little herbage may be found; or are, perhaps, subsisted [=fed] upon chaff made from straw, millet-stalks, and the refuse of the thrashing-floor. For several months this grass is relished by every description of cattle; but after the sun has crossed the Line, on his return to the opposite tropic, it becomes harsh and dry, and so injurious to their mouths that they reject it, unless severely oppressed by hunger.

From the end of February, probably to the setting in of the rains in June, great numbers are employed in cutting the kuss, or khur, as it is indiscriminately called, with a kind of sickle, and tying it up into haunties (or handfuls) usually about six inches thick. These, conveyed on hackeries to the several markets, and especially to the military cantonments, are sold at various prices, according to the distance, the scarcity or abundance of the article, the time of the year, and the demand. From 1000 to 1200 bundles for a rupee, may be taken as a fair medium; though during the rains, when thatches must often be made or replaced, cost what they may, they have been sold at a rupee for every hundred; at other times 3000, or even 4000, have been supplied for that sum.

The manner of constructing a thatch according to the best principle, both for neatness and durability, is as follows. The whole side of the building intended to be covered in is measured, and that measurement exactly set [[222]] out on some level spot, by means of four cords fastened to as many stakes; which thus exhibit the form and extent of the thatch to be constructed. Each side of a quadrangular or other building must be thus laid down. All hands are then set to work in placing either whole bamboos of the large kind, or bundles of three and four of the small kind, parallel, and about a foot asunder; all directed by the base line, towards which they stand at right angles; so that when ready, they would lie in the same line with the fall of the chopper (or thatch).

These, being duly prepared, are crossed at about five or six inches asunder by battens of split bamboo, fastened down at every intersection with strong twine made of a finer kind of grass called the moonje, which is very strong, especially when wetted. Each frame thus formed is raised into its place by the joint efforts of perhaps fifty or sixty men; some laying hold of the frame, others pushing upwards with forked poles of various lengths, thereby to facilitate the ascent, and prevent the friction from any continued contact between the frame, and the several ready-laid rafters on which it is to lie, and to which it must be firmly lashed.

The several frames, being duly fitted at the corners, are properly secured in their places, and to each other; after which a slender kind of scaffolding is made under the eaves of the respective frames, to enable the grammies, or thatchers, to lay on the coating of grass. The eaves are first brought to the thickness of at least a foot, by placing very large bundles, previously well compacted and squared at their ends, in a line between the frame, and a succession of very strong bamboo laths; each bundle is pressed as close as possible to its neighbour, and thus the whole of the lower tier is completed.

The rest of the thatch is laid on in small portions, the [[223]] several bundles being spread open, and having their butts or lower ends compressed between two bamboo laths, tied in several places so as to secure their contents perfectly. Each parcel is then handed up, and laid with the butt downwards, at about two or three inches above its lower neighbour, causing the whole thatch to appear in overlaps from bottom to top, like so many ridges, of about an inch high, and running parallel for the whole breadth of the work.

The several corners are now covered with immense trusses of refuse grass, bound very firmly together, reaching the whole extent of the angle, or gore, and full two feet in diameter. These trusses, being bound down very firmly to their adjacent sides, are ultimately covered with layers of seerky, placed so as to overlap about a foot above each other, and in their turn, duly tied to the trusses; a similar truss being laid along the ridge pole.

This seerky is composed of the stems of the surput, or tassel grass, which grows to the height of ten feet or more. It is found to be a larger species of the celebrated Guinea grass, formerly introduced as a supposed novelty into the East, but which proved to be nothing more than the common bainseah, or buffalo grass, growing wildly in the greatest luxuriance all over Bengal.

The stems of the surput, when arrived at their full size, are as thick as a swan's quill, and bear a remarkable gloss. In the dry season they are cut; and being stripped of the parched remains of their leaves, are laid parallel on a board, their ends being previously brought even to a line. A long wire needle is then passed through the several stems as they lie contiguous, drawing after it a piece of pack-thread, which is afterwards knotted at both ends, to prevent its withdrawing either way. Four or five of these stitches are made in the same parcel of seerky; after which it is rolled up breadth-wise [[224]] for sale. Each parcel may be from two feet to a yard in breadth, and the stems composing it may be about four feet in length; The ordinary mode of selling this commodity is by the hundred pieces, for which are given from three to ten rupees, according to circumstances.

It is remarkable that seerky has been seen in use among a group of gypsies in Essex, while in India those itinerants whose habits and characters most correspond with those of gypsies, invariably shelter themselves under it. Being remarkably light, and when doubled or trebled completely water-proof, they can thus construct a very comfortable cabin in a few minutes. It often happens during the rainy season that part of a thatch sinks or rots, and admits the passage of water to the interior. In such a case, a piece of seerky, properly placed, causes the water to flow over the defective part. When seerky cannot be procured, it is found expedient to throw a few pecks of chaff, or straw cut very small, upon the decayed thatch. The chaff is drawn in by the percolating fluid, but being obstructed in its passage, swells in consequence of the continued moisture; and thus in a short time usually stops the leaks.

The mode above described, of putting on a thatch, is confined to certain parts of the country. In other places they put on the grass in a reversed position, as wheat stubble thatches in England, the part which grew uppermost being placed lowest. But throughout India all thatching is done horizontally, and not vertically as in England. The Indian thatcher begins at the bottom, the English at the side, of a thatch, and using skewers and rods of hazel, &c; while the Indian uses bamboo laths and twine made of grass, the latter being passed to and fro by means of long needles made on the spot, of bamboo, &c.

The doors used by the natives are generally made of [[225]] such wood as the neighbouring country affords, and consist of a few vertical planks, kept together by two or more horizontal battens. The fastenings are, for the most part, made by staples and hooks, into which strong wooden bars slip and unslip with ease. The windows are always very small, perhaps not more than two feet square, and are closed by means of wooden shutters, having on the outside a jaump made of bamboo battens and mats. These being firmly put together, and suspended at their upper borders by hooks or rings fastened into the wall, or into the wooden plate covering the aperture, may be raised, as though on hinges, to any desired elevation, and preserved therein by bamboo stilts, made either with forked ends, or having small blocks of wood nailed to them, to prevent their points from passing through the mats.

The same kind of defence is used for doors in general, but of a much larger size than for windows. When raised, they certainly are extremely useful in keeping off the sun and rain; when lowered, so as to lie parallel with and close to the wall, they are an admirable defence against wind and dust; though both, at certain times, will find their way through the several small apertures in sufficient quantity to prove highly unpleasant. In houses constructed by the natives, the windows are placed very high, sometimes scarcely allowing a person to look out. This is done for the sake both of privacy and coolness, as the rarefied air escapes more readily than when the apertures are low.

Thus most of the houses built by the French at Chandernagore, &c., are far cooler than those formerly built in Calcutta, owing to their windows being carried nearly to the tops of the rooms, while those at Calcutta have often seven or eight feet of wall above them. It has often happened that persons sent up to work on the timbers supporting the flat roof above, [[226]] have fallen from their ladders or scaffolds, from the air in the upper part of the room being unfit for respiration. As to chimneys, they are utterly unknown among the natives, though in some cottages an aperture is left for the escape of smoke, but rather by neglect than by design.

The smoke must escape when and how it can; but it does by no means incommode a native as it does an European, who must always suffer some inconvenience when a fire is lighted within the sitting-room; but when green wood is laid on, the latter cannot bear it. The former will, even at such times, he often seen smoking his goorgoory, as though the atmosphere were not sufficiently burdened with fuliginous particles to amuse his lungs. Victuals are rarely cooked within the house, when the weather is suitable for cooking in the open air. Indeed, few persons who are not extremely poor, are without some little shed under which they may cook at all times.

The exterior surface of the wall is rarely plastered, even with mud, it being an object to preserve it rough, in order that the large cakes of cow-dung, intended for fuel, may be stuck up against it, and there be thoroughly dried by the sun. This is generally effected, in exposed situations, and in fair weather, in one or two days at the utmost. These cakes, called gutties, burn well, making a fire not unlike that from the use of peat. The interior of the wall is usually smoothed all the way up, or at least for about three feet from the floor, and smeared with a solution of cow-dung, as is the floor itself, which is rarely made of anything but clay, well rammed down, or perhaps of tarras; but the latter is too costly for most individuals and, though indicating riches, is not so useful.

In some houses a few joists of rough wood are thrown across from the top of one to that of the other wall, perhaps at the distance of a yard or more. A few instances [[227]] may be adduced, in each village of note, of a slight kind of flooring, either of rough planks not fitted together, or of bamboo laths, made above the joists, for the accommodation of luggage, or for the dormitory of some of the family. With such exceptions, the only use made of the upper part is for the lodgement of brushwood, bamboo poles, ladders, farming utensils, mats, nets, &c. &c., according to the occupant's profession.

The private apartments are commonly separate from what we should call the keeping-room, and have a separate entrance, if under the same roof; it is, however, very common to set apart for the zenanah, or female part of the family, some detached building, having a compound divided off, and perfectly sequestered from the other accommodations. The horses, oxen, cows, &c. are commonly, when the weather permits, picketed out in the open air, with a large trough of mud to receive their chaff. During great heats or heavy rains, they are sheltered under sheds made for that purpose, and for the preservation of the palanquin, dooly, r'hut, or other vehicle the occupant may possess. Sometimes the kine are kept under the same roof with the major-domo, and all his family.

Candles are not used in the houses of the natives, especially of the Hindoos, who would consider a lump of tallow within their areas as sufficient to pollute whatever they might contain. All use oil, poured into a small earthen vessel nearly in the shape of a heart, or of a peepul leaf, called a churraug, and placed in one of the numerous niches in every wall, about four feet above the floor. The wicks are chiefly made of slips of rag, about a foot long, rolled up to the thickness of a goose-quill. For more immediate use, the churraug is often placed on a stem of wood, supported by a broad base, or a cross, with a small block at its summit hollowed out to receive [[228]] the bottom of the lamp.

Some use brass apparatus, and in a very few instances, the stems or pillars are made with a slide, so as to vary the height of the churraug; which, in such case, assumes the more dignified appellation of pilsoze. The ordinary height of the lamp from the floor, including the plinth, pillar, and capital, is from twenty to twenty-six inches. Snuffers are unknown; their place is sometimes supplied by the fingers, but more generally by a pair of scissors, or a pair of duspannahs (tongs) such as are used by hookah-burdars. The oil in use for lamps is that already mentioned as extracted from the sesamum, of which the refuse cake is given to favourite oxen, &c.

Although charpoys, or small beds, are in use among all classes, the generality prefer sleeping on mats, which are much cooler than any bedding. The whole of the apparatus for a dormitory consists of a durmah-mat, made from coarse reeds split open and laid flat, with the glossy surface uppermost; perhaps a satrinje, or small cotton carpet; a chudder, or sheet, to wrap round the body; and a tuckeah, or pillow, stuffed very hard. In cold weather, a goodry, or quilt, perhaps indeed two, may be added. Curtains are out of the question, as are all those paraphernalia which luxury has introduced in England.

A peek-daun, or spitting pot, made generally of phool, which is a very tolerable kind of tutenage, is always placed at the bed-side, and is ever resorted to when chewing the pawn, or beetle. The vine bearing the aromatic leaf so called, is most carefully cultivated in many parts of the country; the whole being supported on trellises made of reeds and small bamboos, to the height of about five feet. The situation must be very dry: the banks of old tanks, and other elevated sites, [[229]] are chosen for cultivating the pawn, of which it is said that, in the vicinity of any populous city, a bigah will produce full two hundred rupees yearly; provided the vines be of the sunchah, or true sort: which is easily known by the yellow borders, and the ramifications of the leaf. This species is far more pleasant to the palate than the common green kind; which is, besides, tough, and possesses a certain acrid quality.

Beetle, or pawn, is prepared by carefully picking out any defective leaves, and removing the stalks up to their very centres. Four or five leaves are then laid one above the other, when the upper one is smeared with shell-lime, a little moistened with water. The seeds of the elatchee, or cardamom, are added, together with about the fourth part of a beetle-nut (that is, of the areca); and, the whole being lapped up by folding the leaves over their contents, the little packet is kept together in its due form, which is usually triangular, by means of a slice of beetle-nut, cut into a thin wedge, so as to transfix it completely. It is common to see a whole family partaking of pawns, the chewing of which occasions the saliva to be tinctured as red as blood. They certainly are fragrant, and excellent stomachics; but their too frequent use produces costiveness, which, in that climate, ever induces serious illness.

The saliva will not be tinctured, if the chunam (lime) be omitted. Hence, it is evident that the alkali produces the colour from the juices contained in the pawn. The colour thus obtained does not stain linen. Some use the k'hut, which is the same as our Terra Japonica, and is procured by bleeding various kinds of trees, principally the mimosa, abounding in most of the jungles (or wildernesses). A small: quantity about the size of a pea, broken into several pieces, is mixed with the other [[230]] ingredients, before the leaves are lapped over, and transfixed with the spike of beetle, or perhaps with a clove. The k'hut does not appear to improve the pawn, and certainly adds to its noxious quality.

Some attribute the blackness of the teeth, in both males and females, throughout India, to the use of pawn, supposing that they are discoloured by the lime blended with which it is prepared. Such is, however, not the fact. Pawn is found to be highly favourable to the gums, yet so sensible are those who chew it of the bad effects produced by the alkali upon the enamel of the teeth, that in order to preserve them from corrosion, they rub them frequently with the preparation called missy; thereby coating them with that black substance, which does not readily give way even to the most powerful dentifrice. It may, however, be suspected that in thus shielding the teeth from the alkali, some injury is done to the enamel by the supposed preservative; though by no means to that extent which the former would speedily effect, but for the use of missy.

The natives only chew the pawn, rejecting the masticated ingredients when their flavour has been extracted. Some reject even the saliva tinctured by the pawn, spitting it out into the peek-daun. A few, not content with the compound already described, mix tobacco, previously reduced to a coarse powder by rubbing the dried leaves with the thumb in the hollow of the other hand. One would think that potent weed must supersede all its companions, and cause them to be as little tasted, as though they had not been crowded into the jumble of flavours.


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