AMONG THE HILLS OF ORISSA

Bangkok is full of people. Every day crowds of men and boys are pouring
into the great metropolis from all parts of the country to have their
names enrolled on the books of the lords and dukes to whom they belong.

There are no railroads, no steamboats, so the vast companies of serfs
travel together,–the rich by means of their boats and gondolas, and
the poor on foot, following the course of the great river Mèinam.

Sometimes caravans of whole tribes may be seen encamped during the
intense noonday heat by the banks of the stream, under the shade of
some neighboring trees. These weary marches are always commenced at
sunset, and continued till noon of the next day, when the overpowering
heat forces man and beast under shelter.

There existed in Siam under the late king a mixed system of slavery, in
part resembling the old system of English feudal service, in part the
former serfdom of Russia, and again in part the peonage of Mexico.

In the enrolment, called Sâk, an institution peculiar to the country,
every man is obliged to receive an indelible mark on his arm or side,
denoting the chief to whom he belongs.

The process is exactly like tattooing. The name of the chief is pricked
into the skin with a long slender steel having a lancet-shaped point,
just deep enough to draw a little blood; after which the bile of
peacock mixed with Chinese ink is rubbed over the scarification.

This leaves an indelible mark.

All the male children of those so marked are obliged at the age of
fourteen to appear in person to have their names enrolled on their
master’s books, and themselves branded on their arms.

The king’s men, that is, those who have to attend on royalty as
soldiers, guards, or in any other capacity, are marked on the side, a
little below the armpit, to distinguish them from the other serfs of
the princes, dukes, or lords of the realm.

Among the vast crowds who were pouring through the many gates and
avenues into the city in July, 1862, was seen a stately old Rajpoot,
weary and travel-stained, leading a low-sized, shaggy pony on which was
seated a closely veiled figure of a young woman. A stranger could not
but observe the proud, forbidding look of the old man as he urged and
stimulated his weary beast through the crowd.

Behind the veiled figure were two leathern bags which contained some
wearing apparel and a supply of provisions to serve them during their
stay in the capital.

There are no such places as inns or caravansaries to lodge the
multitude who are thus forced into Bangkok every year. Those who have
boats live in them on the river and its numerous canals, others take
refuge in the Buddhist monasteries, while the poorer classes have the
bare earth, dry or wet as the weather may be, for their couch.

It was not until they were quite exhausted, and could no longer
maintain the pace at which they had been making their way through
the crowded city, that the old man began to look around him for
some spot where they could encamp. The place at which they had
arrived was the southern gate of the citadel, called Patoo Song Khai
(Gate of Commerce). Here they came upon the haunts of commerce and
traffic,–market and tradeswomen were hurrying to and from the inner
city. All around was noise and confusion, and here, beneath the
shadow of a projecting porch and wall, the old man suddenly halted,
and, lifting the girl lightly to the ground, said in a low, deep, and
not unmusical voice, “Let us abide here, my child; and though we can
call nothing our own, we shall live like the bright gods, feeding on
happiness.”

There was something tender in the way he said this, but the girl
did not appear to heed him. Looking about her with a startled and
bewildered gaze, she seemed to be haunted by apprehensions of being led
captive to some gloomy place, where she would be chained and scourged,
and, worse than all, where she would never see her father but through
iron gratings and bars. Her terrors at length became so real that she
wrapped her faded “saree” more closely around her, and burst into tears.

“Art thou afraid?” inquired the old man. “Why, thou hast less to fear
here by my side than if I had left thee behind in the mountains of
Prabat.”

He then proceeded to unpack his beast, while the girl timidly made
ready to cook their evening meal of boiled rice and fish.

There was a certain sense of safety in the shadow of the grand
royal palace that seemed to restore the girl to a state of moderate
tranquillity, and the Amazons who loitered round the gate watched
the travellers with some degree of interest, which arose partly from
curiosity and partly from want of something better to do. The old man
seemed a sombre sort of being to them; but the girl was an object of
wonder and delight, as, though she replied to her father in a language
foreign to the listeners, she frequently intermingled her remarks
with the Siamese word “cha” (dear), which pleased the stout-hearted
guardians of the gate so much that they made no objections to the
travellers’ resting there.

In such a spot as this there was, indeed, more of danger than of
safety both for father and child, if they could but have known it;
but the poorer class of strangers clung to the name of the great king
Maha Mongkut as a babe clings to its mother’s arms, and the old man
felt as safe as if lodged in an impregnable castle, surrounded by a
million of guardian angels; while the girl, gathering courage from the
satisfaction that settled on her father’s face, began to take note of
what was passing around her, and her fears soon gave place to a variety
of happy thoughts.

The freshness of the evening air, the song of the merry birds, the
beauty of the wild flowers that grew among the tangled bushes on the
banks of the river, and, above all, the constant stream of richly
gilded boats and gondolas that glided past on the limpid waters,
now glittering in the roseate hues of the setting sun, soothed and
gladdened, as with tender, loving words, the heart of the lonely
mountain girl.

At sunset the Amazons shut the gates and disappeared. The old man
unrolled a small carpet, covered himself with a worn-out old cloth,
and, taking his daughter under his stalwart arm, he laid himself down
to rest beneath the canopy of the wide sky. The girl, from her place
near the corner made by the gate and the wall, could only see one star
overhead, and the shadow in which she slept seemed so dark that her
heart sunk within her, as she silently prayed to the angel of the sky
not to desert them. But, tired and weary, she soon slept as soundly as
her father.

Meanwhile the city of the “Invincible and Beautiful Archangel”
slumbered, and “the great stars globed themselves in heaven,” and
seemed to bridge the gulf that separates the infinite from the finite
with their tender, loving light. Who can say but that the fond spirit
of a dead wife and mother beamed in love and pity over the father and
child sleeping thus alone in the heart of a great city? for the girl
dreamed a dream which seemed a warning to her. Suddenly she started in
her sleep, and saw in the distance a company of men armed with swords
and spears, carrying lanterns in their hands, marching slowly towards
the spot where they lay.

These were the night-guards patrolling outside the walls of the inner
city.

While she looked they seemed to expand. They were now
colossal,–monsters that filled the earth, air, and sky. Full of
dismay, she clung closer to the side of her father. Their heavy tramp
came nearer, and she could hear them stop. How desperately her heart
beat under the covering! What if they should find her out! The captain
of the guards approached, passed his lantern slowly over the face of
the old man, and perceiving that he was one of the many strangers
called into the city at this time of the year, he and his company went
on their rounds.

No sooner had the glimmer of their lanterns vanished in the distance,
than the girl sprang up, and, casting a cautious glance all round, drew
out in the darkness a small brass image of Indra, which she wore within
her vest, and placed it at her father’s head; then, loosening a silk
cord from her neck, to which was attached a silver ring inscribed with
the mystic triform used by the Hindoo women, she proceeded to implore
the protection of the gods, and to describe several weird circles and
waves over herself and her father.

This done she slept sweetly, feeling in the presence of that brass
image a sense of security that many a Christian might have envied.

Just at this moment, one of the guards in passing on the other side
of the city remarked that they ought to have aroused the old khaik
(foreigner) and exacted a toll from him for taking up his quarters so
near the walls of the royal palace.

“That very thought has just crossed my mind,” said the captain, “and
mine, and mine,” echoed a number of voices. “It is hardly midnight yet;
let us turn back and see what we can squeeze out of the old fellow.”

No sooner said than done. The chief led the way, and the whole company
rapidly retraced their steps to where the travellers slept.



It would be difficult to reproduce the picture that must have presented
itself to the captain of the night-guards, who, after having stationed
his men at a little distance, advanced noiselessly, approached the old
man, and drew off lightly the covering that wrapped the sleeper, in
order to make some guess from his dress and appearance as to the amount
of money they might demand from him.

The eye turns instinctively to the faintest glimmer of light. So the
light reflected from the calm face of the mysteriously beautiful
dreamer as she lay beside her father, her head resting on his arm,
and her face turned mutely up to the dark sky, staggered the captain,
who started back as if he had received a sudden blow, or as if some
unexpected event had forced him into the presence of a supernatural
being, while the brazen image of Indra gleamed with a lurid brightness
that reddened the pale atmosphere around, as if in the vicinity of some
conflagration.

Buddhist as he was, he had a sort of ancestral reverence for the gods
of the Hindoos. He also believed in the ancient tradition that no one
could injure the innocent. The shadow of the shade grew darker, and
he thought the eyes of the god were fixed intently upon him. All his
unrighteous desires quelled, he stood transfixed reverently to the
spot. A serious smile, almost stern in its expression, passed over the
girl’s face, as he stood contemplating her. That seemingly slumbering
statue was conscious of an intruder, and she quietly opened her eyes on
him.

The captain’s lantern lighted up his face, and, stout-hearted, fearless
man that he was, he trembled as he met that calm, inquiring look. But
before he could retire or bring himself to speak, the girl uttered a
sudden cry of terror, so pathetic and terrible that the old man sprang
to his feet, and the guards, who heard it in the distance, felt their
blood run cold with horror and dismay.

There was a moment of hesitation as the old Rajpoot confronted the
guardsman face to face. The next instant the lantern was dashed from
his trembling hand, and he lay prostrate on the ground, while his enemy
grappled at his throat with the fury of a wild beast. The remainder
of the guards rushed to the scene of conflict, but even they stood
confounded for a second or two at the sight of the strange, terrified
girl. They soon recovered from their astonishment, however, and
proceeded to capture the old man, when Smâyâtee sprang to her feet at
once, like some spectre rising from the ground, and, pushing back the
soldiers with all her might, clasped her father round the neck. Thus
clinging to him, she turned a face of defiance on the guardsmen of the
king. The aspect of the girl, who thought to restrain by an electric
glance an armed force, excited such derision in the breasts of the
soldiers, that they rudely tore her from her father, bound her with the
silken bridle-reins that had served for her pony, and carried them both
off to separate cells, while a party of them remained behind to restore
their fallen chief.

Before proceeding further, it will not be amiss to give the reader
some account of this Rajpoot and his daughter. And that he may
better understand the personal anecdotes of bravery, honest zeal,
and devotedness that distinguished him in life, I must turn to the
still broader and deeper historical incidents which are the marked
characteristics of the race to which he belonged. I do not undertake to
treat of this portion of India at large, but only to look at the small
corner of it in which Rama the Rajpoot was born.

In the district of Orissa stands on a cluster of hills, in the midst of
an arid and undulating plateau, the city of Megara, composed for the
most part of houses of mean aspect, with only a few handsome mansions
and stately edifices to relieve their monotonous insignificance,
possessing few fine trees large enough to afford shade, with the
exception of the sacred groves dedicated to the earth-goddess Dâvee
and the sun-god Dhupyâ; and with water barely sufficient to quench
the excessive thirst of its parched inhabitants, alternately swept by
piercing blasts and scorched by intense heats, Megara would certainly
present but few attractions to the traveller but for the mysterious
reverence which has rested ever since the time of Alexander over the
illimitable plains of Hindostan. Tragic and terrible are the memories
that poetry has woven about this land of undefined distances and
nearly fabulous magnificence, where men adopt, from father to son, the
professions of murderers, highwaymen, robbers, soldiers, warriors, and
priests, where each man lives as if surrounded by internal and external
enemies, and expects from every circling point of the horizon a foeman
instead of a friend.

From the remotest times there has been a ceaseless march of tribes into
this vast peninsula, from which there is no outlet. Pouring across
the Indus or straggling down through the passes of the Himalaya, each
wave of immigration pushed its predecessors farther into the country.
Thus the Aryan nations followed in their turn, at the same time
reacting powerfully on the creeds and usages of the primitive people.
But various remains of the earlier and rude aboriginal tribes are
still found here among the hilly regions and woody fastnesses of the
peninsula. Many of them are quite distinct from one another, evidently
belonging to different eras of an indefinitely remote and abysmal past.

The Rajpoots are the most remarkable of these aboriginal tribes, and
they are described as a noble race, tall and athletic, with symmetric
features, half-way between the Roman and Jewish types, large eyed, and
with fine long hair falling in natural locks upon their shoulders;
high-bred, though with the decline of their country under British rule
the decline of their character has kept pace. Revolutions have done
their work upon them, if, indeed, the word “revolution” may be applied
to the insurrections and mutinies that have kept this portion of India
in a state of petty warfare for the last three hundred years.

The comparatively treeless character of the hills where they dwell
appears to indicate that, in former times, large spaces had been laid
under cultivation, whereas at present they lead a savage life as
freebooters and robbers.

Around these desolate hills and valleys cluster a variety of
tribes and races, of diverse tongues and customs, creeds and
religions,–worshippers of Mohammed and of the Buddha, followers of
Brahma and of Indra, of Vishnu and Siva, of the many-breasted and
teeming Dâvee, and the triple-headed and triple-bodied Dhupyâ. Over
all these different peoples the Rajpoot, or warrior caste, has held
for centuries an undisputed sway. Among all these tribes the “Meriâh”
sacrifice prevails, as the only means of propitiating the earth-goddess.

The victims for these yearly sacrifices are furnished by a regular
class of procurers, who either supply them to order or raise them on
speculation. They are bought from their parents in hard famine times,
or they are kidnapped on the plains. Devoted often in their childhood
to the earth-goddess Dâvee, they are suffered to grow up as consecrated
privileged beings, to marry, to hold lands and flocks and herds and
other worldly goods, and are cherished and beloved by the community for
whom they are willing to be offered up to serve as mediator and friend
in the shadowy world beyond the grave for the short space of one year,
when the insatiable earth-goddess is said to demand a fresh victim.

I ought not to omit to say here, as a faithful recorder of the
facts that have reached me, that in spite of the tremendous doom
that overshadows the victims consecrated to Dâvee’s altar, they
lead resigned and even joyous lives up to the last moment of their
existence; and the saying is, that the soul of a god enters the martyr,
and transfigures him into a divine, ineffable being, incapable of
feeling any pain or regret at the moment of death.

For unnumbered centuries the vast hilly province of Orissa verging on
Gondwana, and comprising all the eastern portion of the Vindhya chain,
has been the scene of this revolting and inhuman custom; and from time
immemorial thousands of men whom we in our enlightenment call “savage
hordes” have offered themselves up for the good of their fellow-men.
Surely an effluence from the Divine Soul must have passed over these
strange mystic mediators, as they stood trembling upon Dâvee’s altar,
clutching the sharp knife in their uplifted hand, their faces turned
towards the darkening earth, singing the supreme song, and uttering the
supreme cry, “O Dâvee! do all thy acts to me. Spend all thy fury upon
me. Spare my race from the hungry grave (earth). Drink of my blood, and
be appeased.” And as the echoes of this cry of triumph and of despair
die away in the distance, the self-sacrificing victim plunges the
bright steel into his own warm heart, bends forward to sprinkle with
his life’s blood the insatiable earth, repeating his song in whispers
that grow fainter and fainter as he slowly draws out the fatal steel
and falls dead upon her bare bosom.

The Rajpoots are still the chiefs. They levy a tax on the various
tribes who inhabit these hilly regions, and who are, in great measure,
dependent upon them, trained warriors from their childhood, for their
protection. They are not distinct from their neighbors, so far as the
ceremonials of religion are concerned. The number of marriages among
them is, however, contracted by the exclusion of all but their own
peculiar clan or caste. Marriage itself is an expensive thing, from
the costly usages with which it is attended among them, while at the
same time celibacy is disgraceful. An unmarried daughter is a reproach
to her parents and to herself; therefore it has been an established
custom with the Rajpoot to preserve the chastity of his daughter and
the honor of his house by doing away with his female children a few
hours after their birth. When a messenger from the Zennânâ announces to
him the birth of a daughter, the Rajpoot will coolly roll up between
his fingers a tiny ball of opium, to be conveyed to the mother, who
thereupon, with many a bitter tear, rubs on her nipple the sleep-giving
poison, and the babe drinks in death with its mother’s milk.

Here again we find a striking anomaly in the Hindoo character. The
parental instinct is as strong in the people of India as in any people
of the world; and even where no parental tie exists, the tenderness
with which strong, bearded men devote themselves to the care of young
children is as touching as it is remarkable. A childless woman, too,
is a miserable creature, a hissing and a reproach among men, and
barrenness is only accounted for as a punishment for some grievous
sin committed against the gods in a pre-existent state. Nevertheless,
among the high-caste Rajpoot tribes female infanticide is universally
practised; so that, in the district in which Rama was born, owing to
its decline from the prosperity of former years, a high-born girl was
rarely if ever heard of.

On a high and projecting rock, whose scarped and rugged outlines bid
defiance to the pedestrian, stood the stately mansion of Dhotee Bhad,
the chieftain of Megara, and the father of Rama, recognizable by its
grand appearance, its balconies of fretted stone, and its long windows,
which commanded for miles the surrounding country. It is a wild and
solitary spot, and out of the direct road to any place; but it had two
advantages,–it was almost inaccessible, and it overlooked valleys
which were as luxuriant with verdure as the hills around were sterile
and barren. Two miles from this spot rises the Ghât Meriâh, crowned
with a grove of stately trees, whose profound brown shadows and lurid
gloom is said to be caused by the spirits of the victims offered up
yearly there, and whose grand proportions are dimly visible at points
here and there as you approach the grove. At the foot of this Ghât, in
a thick and all but impenetrable forest, are several magnificent ponds
from which the inhabitants draw their water.

Such was the home and the birthplace of our hero Rama.