THE FAR HORIZONS
CHAPTER 6: TAJ MAHAL AND CREMATION FIRES
We spent a week in Delhi, but all through that period I was sick with a fever and I only remember it as the blackest part of the whole trip. We arrived after another all-night train journey from Pathankot, and spent all of the first day in searching vainly for a cheap hotel. We finally found a youth hostel camping ground on the edge of the city, but by then it was night again. Margaret was exhausted, and after helping to carry her case all around Delhi, as well as my own rucksack, I was nearer dead. My head had been swimming in dizzy circles for the past six hours and I collapsed into the first bed that was offered.
The bed was just a rickety bed frame on which I spread my air-bed and sleeping bag, and was housed inside a large, untidy tent that looked about as steady as I felt. In the days that followed I spent nine-tenths of my time there, sweating profusely and swallowing endless aspirins and vitamin pills, which was all I had. Once a day I made the effort to get up and go into Wenger’s restaurant in Conaught Square for a decent meal, although I had about as much strength as a deflated daffodil. Mercifully the meals at Wenger’s were excellent, for I could never have faced our normal diet of omelets or vegetable curry, and the food usually gave me just enough stamina to make it back to the tent and collapse again. My sleeping bag was always saturated with sweat and my head had developed an endless slow spinning motion. George had left us at the beginning of the week to rejoin Doug, Dick and Dilys, and I saw very little of Margaret. She had revived and found a succession of Indian friends to entertain her, and only appeared for a few brief hours late at night in order to sleep.
Finally I sweated the fever out of my system, Margaret rejoined me, and we went on to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. We were fortunate for we arrived on the night of the full moon and although Shah Jahan’s mausoleum to his favorite wife is a beautiful work of art even by daylight, by moonlight it was incomparable.
The visitor first passes through a massive, three-story stone and marble gateway, carved with flowing texts of Arabic script from the Koran. The gateway opened immediately on to the spacious lawns and gardens that surround the Taj Mahal, and long pools, silvered by moonlight, led up to and reflected the serene white dome of this masterpiece in marble. As it first appears the mausoleum is perfect in every proportion, compelling in its white simplicity, and in the pale light of a clear, golden moon it was almost unreal. Still and silent the elegant domes and towers were like a radiant ivory painting from a master's brush, stroked against the faintly star-pricked background of a calm night sky. The effect was strangely one- dimensional, and wholly superb.
We walked behind the tomb to look down over the broad, sandy bed of the Yamuna River, which curved away on either side, another panorama in the moonlight. Here, close beside the Taj Mahal, was an atmosphere of peace and reverence that would have befitted a cathedral. The night was pleasantly warm, and despite there being a great number of people about all was hushed and subdued. It was almost a spiritual experience to view the Taj Mahal in this setting, with God's soft moonlight bestowing the final, gentle seal of approval on man's most splendid monument to love.
We returned again in daylight and the white marble gleamed creamily in the hot sunshine. The lush surrounding gardens and lawns were then a green velvet setting for a flawless ivory jewel.
This time we were able to examine more fully the floral pattern of simple but exquisite mosaic, set with semi-precious stones with which the marble panels and screens were decorated. Inside the mausoleum are two tombs where the great Mogul Emperor and his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, are buried. The tomb of Mumtaz Mahal is directly central beneath the great dome, and the tomb of Shah Jahan close beside her, unintended by the architect, is the only imperfection in the whole symmetry of design. The Shah had originally intended to build an identical mausoleum in black marble for himself, on the opposite bank of the Yamuna River, the two to be linked with a black and white marble bridge. However, before he could start its construction he was toppled from power by his son, and when he eventually died he was placed here in the Taj Mahal.
While in Agra we also visited the Red Fort. The massive sandstone walls tower a hundred feet high and are a mile and half long in the form of a triangle. We strolled through the enclosed maze of courtyards, gardens and palaces, and paused for a while in the grim room overlooking the Yamuna where Shah Jahan spent the last years of his life as a prisoner. From here the Taj Mahal was clearly visible, gently elaborate and soothingly simple to the eye, and is said that the old Shah did nothing but gaze sadly down-river at his own creation.
We took a bicycle rickshaw back into town. There were markets and bazaars and the streets were narrow, filled with jostling crowds and lined with tiny shops. Bullock carts trundled slowly past and here and there the sacred cows stood unhindered and blocking the traffic. Rickshaws and horse-drawn tongas clattered to and fro, and there was the endless smells and babble and frustration of India. We found a restaurant and had an Indian meal, which turned out to be potatoes in grease and cold chapattis. I added a couple of vitamin pills and found it easy to understand why half the population suffer from malnutrition.
The Yamuna River was very low and during the afternoon we wandered down to the wide, sandy river bed, where a colorful crowd of people had attracted our attention. We found a small but bustling fair in full swing and everyone seemed to be making a noise and enjoying themselves. There were dozens of little open-air food kitchens and sweet- meat barrows, and vendors with huge clusters of bright balloons, paper streamers and windmills on sticks. There was even a rickety wooden Ferris wheel with just four bucket seats, all full of giggling little Indian girls. There was no mechanical propulsion but just two brawny men on each side, catching each bucket as it came down and hurling it up into the air again. They worked it up to quite a dizzy speed and the whole thing creaked and screamed with the strain.
The other main source of attraction was a large, open tent where a big crowd had gathered. Inside sat two bizarre figures in red ceremonial robes, with high tinsel headdresses and solemnly painted faces. We understood that one represented Love and the other Anguish, but despite the gaudy robes they sat dead-pan and motionless, and looked almost miserable. Another Indian was chanting some kind of story from a small band-stand beside them. Nobody could fully explain the ceremony to us, but it was interesting to watch. Outside we had also noticed one or two small Hindu shrines, just simple frameworks that were roofed with red silk and garlanded with yellow and orange flower blossoms. They were portable, home-made affairs, and the air around them was sweet with burning incense.
We finally moved on to cross the long, ugly road bridge over the Yamuna and visit the mausoleum of Itmad-ud-Daulah. This was a fore-runner of the Taj Mahal, and Itmad-ud-Daulah was in fact the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal. Again set in a background of elaborate gardens the mausoleum is square with stumpy white towers. It was palely beautiful in ghostly white marble, but it was wasted here in Agra where it would be forever eclipsed by Shah Jahan's gleaming symbol of his life’s love on the far bank of the sweeping river.
It was dusk again and we were favored with a splendid sunset across the Yamuna. The sky burned dark crimson below bars of blue and green and grey, and the surface of the river was dazzled with a red-gold sheen, like slowly meandering channels of burnished bronze rippling through the dark banks of sand. We sat and watched as the skyline darkened to a smoky, sultry red, showing up trees and palm fronds, and the domes and minarets of a small pavilion in black silhouette.
Then at last the sun was gone and a full yellow moon floated up above the dark trees. It was time to return and take one last, lingering look at the Taj.
We braved the Indian railways again to reach Benares, travelling third class because despite the discomfort the fare was cheap and we were on a very limited budget. The first train we boarded left Agra at nine-thirty in the morning and took an hour to get out of the city, making lengthy stops at three stations in town. After an age we reached a place called Tundla Junction where we had to change trains, and naturally the in- coming train was late. We had to make another change at a minute dot on the map called Mogul Sarai, immediately below Benares, but we didn't get there until late at night.
At Tundla Junction there was a small bit of excitement to liven up the long wait. There were half a dozen grey monkeys with rude red bottoms lurking around the station, and one big old male bit a small boy on the arm as he came down the bridge steps, and then scampered off with a small parcel that the youngster had dropped in fright. The small boy shrieked and howled and the cheeky rush-and-grab raider promptly vanished on to the station roof. A crowd of men quickly gathered on the bridge steps, jabbering noisily and brandishing sticks. However, the villain of the piece was never brought to justice and displaying far more dignity and intelligence than his threatening enemies he sat high out of reach and calmly dined on bananas from the stolen parcel.
The train journey, like all train journeys through India, was dusty, dirty, cramped and wearying: the scene in the carriage was a sardine-packed jumble of turbaned, blanket- wrapped bodies, and great bundles of bedding rolls and baggage. Every available inch of floor space was occupied by squatting forms and it was practically impossible to even see the seats. It was like the black hole of Calcutta on the move, but at least it wasn't quite as bad as the trains of Egypt. Bodies and baggage did tend to come flowing through the windows, but at the same time it was possible to use the doors.
At every stop the cacophony of human sound was almost deafening, with people struggling to get on and off and hawkers shouting hoarsely along the platform as they sold tea and peculiar oddments of greasy food. The tea was poured into little clay cups, like miniature red flower pots, and the food was served on large leaves, both of which were disposable afterwards. Beggars also moved with sadly hopeful eyes along the outside of the train, and tapped mangled hands upon the windows. I suspect that many of them must have been deliberately maimed to enable them to beg, for the hand that was outstretched invariably had no fingers.
The countryside through which we passed was very flat, but also very fertile with fields of sugar cane and corn, and smaller plots of yellow mustard. There were plenty of large green trees and a few feathered palms, and the few small villages we passed were of low mud walls with straw-thatched roofs. There was plenty of water by the wayside, lying in large pools and lakes among hard mud flats. In places the surface was obscured by fine red algae, and always there were plenty of birds; small white herons stepping daintily, and larger, grey herons with mauve-red tails. Large grey cattle were a familiar sight, with big horns and high arched spines. Near the villages bullocks turned wheels to raise water at the wells, or turn millstones to crush cane or corn. Another common sight was the long queues of waiting bullock carts filled with patient peasants that waited at every crossing. The queue was always a long one and it seemed that the gates must have been closed long before the approach of the train, just like dear old England.
The train made long stops in the big cities of Kanpur and Allahabad, and there was nothing to do except observe the massed swarms of people. The Indians are as diverse as their country, but apart from the Sikhs, they are mostly a poor physical race. They are all small of stature with often a bony, undernourished appearance, brown moon faces and untidy dress. Grubby turbans or a Nehru cap crowned outfits of long-tailed shirts over baggy trousers, or else a sari-cum-skirt strip of cloth wound around their legs. Most of them had bad teeth, stained red with betel nut juice, although a few of the younger men had very fine white teeth and usually favored a small, pencil dark moustache. Generally they seemed to be a noisy and childish race who were very proud of any scraps of English they had learned but had to fill in vast gaps with apologetic lapses into Hindu.
The Sikhs were the only noteworthy exception. Apart from their turbans and their beards, often contained in a little chin-strap hairnet, they were the most westernized and seemed the best educated. In fact, on one of our all night train journeys a conversational Sikh startled me at four in the morning by asking quite seriously for my opinion upon what he termed the present psychological trend in the modern British novels. At four o'clock in the afternoon I would have been stuck for an impressive answer, but at a bleary-eyed and fatigued four in the morning I couldn't even grasp the question.
Taken as a whole the women also looked drab and plain, despite the many-hued colors of their clothes. Many of their fine saris, often with a bare midriff, would really enhance a beautiful woman, but all the women we saw seemed to have dull, cow-brown eyes, and their hair drawn tightly back across the skull and into a bun; a style which gave them silly, round-button faces. Usually they wore a bright spot of red or yellow paint dabbed in the center of the forehead, in common with many of the men, and they also daub paint or powder along the top of the head to color the parting in their hair. The younger girls had long black plaits and looked attractive, they were a minority.
We slept that night in the first class waiting room at Mogul Sarai, for the one redeeming feature of Indian waiting rooms is that they offered cold showers as well as toilet facilities, and so we used them wherever possible to save money on hotels. In the kind of hotels that we could afford we usually preferred to use our own sheet and sleeping bags anyway. The next morning we caught a third train for the last thirty minute stretch of the journey into Benares, and there we stayed at an official, and surprisingly cheap, tourist bungalow close to the station.
Our first glimpse of the holy city, the Mecca of all Hindu pilgrims, was from the train as it rattled across the long steel bridge over the broad green bosom of the Ganges. Here in the murky waters the pilgrims come to bathe in endless streams, and to scatter the white ashes of their dead upon the sacred river. The city of Benares with its scores of waterfront shrines and temples is built entirely upon the west bank, so that those who come to bathe and pray at dawn can do so facing an uninterrupted view of the rising sun across the river.
Once we had settled in we walked down to the waterfront. The sky was overcast and the air was wet and drizzly, the first rain we had seen in India. It was very muddy underfoot, and we had further occasion to curse the sacred cows that roam so freely and leave their droppings everywhere. Al1 around us was the constant jingling of bicycle bells, for the streets were full of flying rickshaws, and here all the rickshaw drivers had their bells fixed so that they operated automatically whenever they had to apply the brakes.
All the stepped approaches to the river are called ghats and we walked down the broad Dasashwamedh Ghat to the water’s edge. Here there were rows of large, palm-thatched umbrellas to shade the holy men who dispensed religious instruction and advice, together with colored powders for the pilgrims to daub on their faces. At the foot of the steps an assortment of wooden boats were drawn up, and we were quickly accosted by hopeful boatmen who wanted to take us to see the burning ghats. For the moment we declined, for our golden rule was never to accept anything until we had time to compare prices. Then we usually found that the first price was outrageously high.
We re-traced our steps and attempted to find the Vishwanath Temple, the largest and most important of the many temple spires that pierce the skyline along the riverfront. Instead we succeeded only in getting ourselves lost in a maze of tiny muddy lanes where it was necessary to press back close against the wall to let the wandering cows get by. The lanes had a fascination of their own, full of tiny shops selling more colored powders, flower garlands and incense sticks, but at last we found a guide to lead us to the temple. He owned a nearby shop which was obviously going to be part of the itinerary on the way back, but we warned him in advance that we had no intention of buying up a stock of souvenirs.
When we saw it the temple proved to be an anti-climax. It was shoddy and so closely hemmed in by other buildings that it was impossible to view it overall, and even the golden roof, which we saw from an adjoining house, was somewhat tarnished.
As if to atone our guide then led us to a Nepalese temple established in honor of the King of Nepal. It was rather like a small Chinese pavilion with overhanging eaves, and its only real source of interest was a series of erotic carvings. The temple guardian pointed them out with a long stick, explained the obvious in great detail, and finished with the flat statement that there were twenty-four holy men in a nearby house who existed solely on the charity of temple visitors.
To complete the short tour our shopkeeper-guide led us to one of the burning ghats where the bodies of the dead were cremated. The smoky-sweet smell of burning flesh had reached us long before we saw the fires, but strangely once we were beside them the smell was gone. A fresh breeze along the river swept it clear, but when the smell reached the enclosed alleys it lingered and was trapped. We were told that the Hindus believe that God takes away the smell in order to cause no excess pain to the relatives of the dead.
The body is burned because the Hindus believe in reincarnation. They maintain that the human body is composed of the four basic elements, earth, air, fire and water, and the burning ceremony returns each of those elements to its natural source. The burning always takes place upon the river bank so that earth can seep back into earth, air returns to air: fire returns to fare, and the ashes that remain are scattered over the Ganges so that water returns to water. The soul can then be reborn again into its next cycle on earth.
We came back to this same ghat at night, shortly after dusk, approaching along the bank of the river. The fires made an easy guide, flinging sparks to the dark sky, and behind them a blurred line of five ascending temple spires made an impressive silhouette. This time we were without our guide and were able to linger.
There were four bodies in the latter stages of being burnt, their funeral pyres already crumbling to white ash, but as we watched another body was brought forward from the ghat steps where it had received its last, solemn immersion in the holy waters of the Ganges. A flat altar of short, heavy logs was built and then the body was lifted into position and more logs placed on top. There was some wailing from somewhere down the river, but only men were allowed to attend the actual burning and the party of mourners here now seemed to accept events very quietly and calmly.
When all was ready an old man, the head of the bereaved family, was brought to the fore and given a long bunch of dry straw. It was lit for him by one of the attendants, but at first the straw would only smoke and smolder. The attendant took the old man's shoulders, for he seemed very helpless and feeble, and slowly guided him in an endless circle round and round the funeral pyre. The old man had shaved his head which was completely bald, and I felt compassion for him as he stumbled unsteadily over his own tracks. Then at last the torch burst abruptly into sparks and flame, and the old man touched it to the piled straw that had been pushed beneath the altar of logs.
When it was done the attendant took the torch from him and darted quickly around the pyre to start fresh blaze on every side. The old man looked lost and sad, for the corpse was wrapped in a red shroud to denote woman, either a wife or a daughter; and a friend had to help him tie his old grey turban back about his bald head.
The scene was now pitch dark and unreal beyond the lighted circles of the flames. Silent boats slid across the still, black river, like vague ghosts in the night. One boat was pulling away from the steps of the ghat with a group of huddled, white-robed passengers, and they were so hushed and motionless that I was sure they must be going to scatter the ashes of some just- burned relative over the sacred waters. It was all so eerie that I found myself thinking of the legendary river Styx of Greek mythology, where the grim boatman Charon reputedly ferried the souls of the dead across the black surface to the gates of Hades. It could not have been so very much different from this. The boat of mourners seemed to be absorbed gradually into the night, with no real sense of increasing distance or movement. It simply grew smaller and smaller, shrinking until it vanished into darkness.
After that it was reassuring to bring my gaze back to the blazing fires which solemn attendants now stoked with long bamboo poles. They at least were real. For a long while we stayed unobtrusively and watched, but then we had to grope our way back along the darkened river bank. The scent of burning flesh lingered in our nostrils all the way back to our room.
The next morning we were up at half-past five to join a guided tour making a dawn trip along the river. Margaret and I were the only two on the bus when it lurched away from the tourist bungalow, but it did pick up another woman at the Grand Hotel to bring the full party to three, plus our guide, a polite westernized Indian who carried an umbrella. The sky was a cold, cheerless grey just emerging from darkness as we arrived back at the Dasashwamedh Ghat, and we descended the long flight of steps to board our boat. There were many groups of Indians of both sexes bathing fully clothed and ducking their heads beneath the murky waters, but it was not exactly the seething mass of humanity that I had been led to expect. Every Hindu attempts to make the pilgrimage to bathe in the Ganges and visit the Vishwanath temple at least once in their lifetime, but if possible they time their arrival for the recognized festivals.
The boat pulled out on to the dreamily calm surface of the river, and we watched the sunrise give the water a pink-gold sheen so that the sampan boats drifting silently against the banks looked like scenes from old Chinese prints. We passed a long line of laundrymen, brown bodies in wet loincloths, who were standing up to their knees in the river and dashing sodden clothes vigorously on to the rocks and flat stones on the bank. The templed skyline of the city was impressive and unique, the shrines and spires interspaced with the elaborate palaces of long-dead Maharajahs, now empty or given over to free lodging for devout pilgrims.
After a while the boat turned upstream and eventually took us past the burning ghats once more, and although there was nothing left of last night's fires except dead ash and glowing embers there were more bodies awaiting their turn. In Benares the fires burn continuously day and night and perhaps the most bizarre sights in the city are the red or white shrouded corpses, jogging along in a lolling upright position in the back of bicycle rickshaws on their way to the ghats for cremation.
We were told by our guide that Benares is mostly devoted to Shiva, the Destroyer of Evil, and that the horizontal paint marks that many Indians wear across their foreheads indicate that that person is a follower of Shiva. A vertical paint stroke denotes a follower of Vishnu, the Preserver of Good. These two main deities of the Hindu faith are but the two faces of Brahman, the Supreme Creator. All of the vast range of lesser deities in the Hindu pantheon are also manifestations of Brahman. The many faces of God are simple mind pictures for those who could not grasp the dimly known.
I reflected that God is God, and that Hinduism, like all religions has the basic grains of Truth at its core. Strip away the trappings of ceremony, the priest-made taboos and laws, and all religions stand upon the one belief of an all-pervading Creator God.
We left Benares to undertake another long, frustratingly slow and weary train journey north to Raxaul on the Nepalese frontier, and on the way I tried to sum up my impressions of India as a whole.
India was magnificent, squalid, fascinating, dirty, gay, drab, colorful and smothered with dust and flies; it was wise and ignorant, noisy and sad; glorified by the temples of the past, and hopeless in the muddled confusion and poverty of its present. India stank of its sacred cows and the sores and swollen, crippled limbs of its beggars, and yet it contained an incomparable throb of life and the loveliness of the Taj Mahal. All and any of these descriptions could be fitted into the vast diversity of land and people that was India. The vast problems it presents are unsolvable, because the average Hindu is a fatalist, and if life has made him poor and hungry during this cycle then he is at least earning for himself a better position on the next spin or the eternal wheel. There is no need to change anything.
India lacks the spirit and the desire to change and there is a cheerful absence of initiative. India is everything, and will remain everything, from the filth and refuse in her gutters to the soaring heights of her loftiest temple spires.