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Home -> Mark Twain -> Following the Equator -> Chapter 50

Following the Equator - Chapter 50

1. Contents

2. Chapter 1

3. Chapter 2

4. Chapter 3

5. Chapter 4

6. Chapter 5

7. Chapter 6

8. Chapter 7

9. Chapter 8

10. Chapter 9

11. Chapter 10

12. Chapter 11

13. Chapter 12

14. Chapter 13

15. Chapter 14

16. Chapter 15

17. Chapter 16

18. Chapter 17

19. Chapter 18

20. Chapter 19

21. Chapter 20

22. Chapter 21

23. Chapter 22

24. Chapter 23

25. Chapter 24

26. Chapter 25

27. Chapter 26

28. Chapter 27

29. Chapter 28

30. Chapter 29

31. Chapter 30

32. Chapter 31

33. Chapter 32

34. Chapter 33

35. Chapter 34

36. Chapter 35

37. Chapter 36

38. Chapter 37

39. Chapter 38

40. Chapter 39

41. Chapter 40

42. Chapter 41

43. Chapter 42

44. Chapter 43

45. Chapter 44

46. Chapter 45

47. Chapter 46

48. Chapter 47

49. Chapter 48

50. Chapter 49

51. Chapter 50

52. Chapter 51

53. Chapter 52

54. Chapter 53

55. Chapter 54

56. Chapter 55

57. Chapter 56

58. Chapter 57

59. Chapter 58

60. Chapter 59

61. Chapter 60

62. Chapter 61

63. Chapter 62

64. Chapter 63

65. Chapter 64

66. Chapter 65

67. Chapter 66

68. Chapter 67

69. Chapter 68

70. Chapter 69

71. Conclusion


The man who is ostentatious of his modesty is twin to the statue that
wears a fig-leaf.
--Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar.

The journey to Benares was all in daylight, and occupied but a few hours.
It was admirably dusty. The dust settled upon you in a thick ashy layer
and turned you into a fakeer, with nothing lacking to the role but the
cow manure and the sense of holiness. There was a change of cars about
mid-afternoon at Moghul-serai--if that was the name--and a wait of two
hours there for the Benares train. We could have found a carriage and
driven to the sacred city, but we should have lost the wait. In other
countries a long wait at a station is a dull thing and tedious, but one
has no right to have that feeling in India. You have the monster crowd
of bejeweled natives, the stir, the bustle, the confusion, the shifting
splendors of the costumes--dear me, the delight of it, the charm of it
are beyond speech. The two-hour wait was over too soon. Among other
satisfying things to look at was a minor native prince from the backwoods
somewhere, with his guard of honor, a ragged but wonderfully gaudy gang
of fifty dark barbarians armed with rusty flint-lock muskets. The
general show came so near to exhausting variety that one would have said
that no addition to it could be conspicuous, but when this Falstaff and
his motleys marched through it one saw that that seeming impossibility
had happened.

We got away by and by, and soon reached the outer edge of Benares; then
there was another wait; but, as usual, with something to look at. This
was a cluster of little canvas-boxes--palanquins. A canvas-box is not much
of a sight--when empty; but when there is a lady in it, it is an object
of interest. These boxes were grouped apart, in the full blaze of the
terrible sun during the three-quarters of an hour that we tarried there.
They contained zenana ladies. They had to sit up; there was not room
enough to stretch out. They probably did not mind it. They are used to
the close captivity of the dwellings all their lives; when they go a
journey they are carried to the train in these boxes; in the train they
have to be secluded from inspection. Many people pity them, and I always
did it myself and never charged anything; but it is doubtful if this
compassion is valued. While we were in India some good-hearted Europeans
in one of the cities proposed to restrict a large park to the use of
zenana ladies, so that they could go there and in assured privacy go
about unveiled and enjoy the sunshine and air as they had never enjoyed
them before. The good intentions back of the proposition were
recognized, and sincere thanks returned for it, but the proposition
itself met with a prompt declination at the hands of those who were
authorized to speak for the zenana ladies. Apparently, the idea was
shocking to the ladies--indeed, it was quite manifestly shocking. Was
that proposition the equivalent of inviting European ladies to assemble
scantily and scandalously clothed in the seclusion of a private park? It
seemed to be about that.

Without doubt modesty is nothing less than a holy feeling; and without
doubt the person whose rule of modesty has been transgressed feels the
same sort of wound that he would feel if something made holy to him by
his religion had suffered a desecration. I say "rule of modesty" because
there are about a million rules in the world, and this makes a million
standards to be looked out for. Major Sleeman mentions the case of some
high-caste veiled ladies who were profoundly scandalized when some
English young ladies passed by with faces bare to the world; so
scandalized that they spoke out with strong indignation and wondered that
people could be so shameless as to expose their persons like that. And
yet "the legs of the objectors were naked to mid-thigh." Both parties
were clean-minded and irreproachably modest, while abiding by their
separate rules, but they couldn't have traded rules for a change without
suffering considerable discomfort. All human rules are more or less
idiotic, I suppose. It is best so, no doubt. The way it is now, the
asylums can hold the sane people, but if we tried to shut up the insane
we should run out of building materials.

You have a long drive through the outskirts of Benares before you get to
the hotel. And all the aspects are melancholy. It is a vision of dusty
sterility, decaying temples, crumbling tombs, broken mud walls, shabby
huts. The whole region seems to ache with age and penury. It must take
ten thousand years of want to produce such an aspect. We were still
outside of the great native city when we reached the hotel. It was a
quiet and homelike house, inviting, and manifestly comfortable. But we
liked its annex better, and went thither. It was a mile away, perhaps,
and stood in the midst of a large compound, and was built bungalow
fashion, everything on the ground floor, and a veranda all around. They
have doors in India, but I don't know why. They don't fasten, and they
stand open, as a rule, with a curtain hanging in the doorspace to keep
out the glare of the sun. Still, there is plenty of privacy, for no
white person will come in without notice, of course. The native men
servants will, but they don't seem to count. They glide in, barefoot and
noiseless, and are in the midst before one knows it. At first this is a
shock, and sometimes it is an embarrassment; but one has to get used to
it, and does.

There was one tree in the compound, and a monkey lived in it. At first I
was strongly interested in the tree, for I was told that it was the
renowned peepul--the tree in whose shadow you cannot tell a lie. This
one failed to stand the test, and I went away from it disappointed.
There was a softly creaking well close by, and a couple of oxen drew
water from it by the hour, superintended by two natives dressed in the
usual "turban and pocket-handkerchief." The tree and the well were the
only scenery, and so the compound was a soothing and lonesome and
satisfying place; and very restful after so many activities. There was
nobody in our bungalow but ourselves; the other guests were in the next
one, where the table d'hote was furnished. A body could not be more
pleasantly situated. Each room had the customary bath attached--a room
ten or twelve feet square, with a roomy stone-paved pit in it and
abundance of water. One could not easily improve upon this arrangement,
except by furnishing it with cold water and excluding the hot, in
deference to the fervency of the climate; but that is forbidden. It
would damage the bather's health. The stranger is warned against taking
cold baths in India, but even the most intelligent strangers are fools,
and they do not obey, and so they presently get laid up. I was the most
intelligent fool that passed through, that year. But I am still more
intelligent now. Now that it is too late.

I wonder if the 'dorian', if that is the name of it, is another
superstition, like the peepul tree. There was a great abundance and
variety of tropical fruits, but the dorian was never in evidence. It was
never the season for the dorian. It was always going to arrive from
Burma sometime or other, but it never did. By all accounts it was a most
strange fruit, and incomparably delicious to the taste, but not to the
smell. Its rind was said to exude a stench of so atrocious a nature that
when a dorian was in the room even the presence of a polecat was a
refreshment. We found many who had eaten the dorian, and they all spoke
of it with a sort of rapture. They said that if you could hold your nose
until the fruit was in your mouth a sacred joy would suffuse you from
head to foot that would make you oblivious to the smell of the rind, but
that if your grip slipped and you caught the smell of the rind before the
fruit was in your mouth, you would faint. There is a fortune in that
rind. Some day somebody will import it into Europe and sell it for

Benares was not a disappointment. It justified its reputation as a
curiosity. It is on high ground, and overhangs a grand curve of the
Ganges. It is a vast mass of building, compactly crusting a hill, and is
cloven in all directions by an intricate confusion of cracks which stand
for streets. Tall, slim minarets and beflagged temple-spires rise out of
it and give it picturesqueness, viewed from the river. The city is as
busy as an ant-hill, and the hurly-burly of human life swarming along the
web of narrow streets reminds one of the ants. The sacred cow swarms
along, too, and goes whither she pleases, and takes toll of the
grain-shops, and is very much in the way, and is a good deal of a
nuisance, since she must not be molested.

Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than
legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together. From a
Hindoo statement quoted in Rev. Mr. Parker's compact and lucid Guide to
Benares, I find that the site of the town was the beginning-place of the
Creation. It was merely an upright "lingam," at first, no larger than a
stove-pipe, and stood in the midst of a shoreless ocean. This was the
work of the God Vishnu. Later he spread the lingam out till its surface
was ten miles across. Still it was not large enough for the business;
therefore he presently built the globe around it. Benares is thus the
center of the earth. This is considered an advantage.

It has had a tumultuous history, both materially and spiritually. It
started Brahminically, many ages ago; then by and by Buddha came in
recent times 2,500 years ago, and after that it was Buddhist during many
centuries--twelve, perhaps--but the Brahmins got the upper hand again,
then, and have held it ever since. It is unspeakably sacred in Hindoo
eyes, and is as unsanitary as it is sacred, and smells like the rind of
the dorian. It is the headquarters of the Brahmin faith, and one-eighth
of the population are priests of that church. But it is not an
overstock, for they have all India as a prey. All India flocks thither
on pilgrimage, and pours its savings into the pockets of the priests in a
generous stream, which never fails. A priest with a good stand on the
shore of the Ganges is much better off than the sweeper of the best
crossing in London. A good stand is worth a world of money. The holy
proprietor of it sits under his grand spectacular umbrella and blesses
people all his life, and collects his commission, and grows fat and rich;
and the stand passes from father to son, down and down and down through
the ages, and remains a permanent and lucrative estate in the family. As
Mr. Parker suggests, it can become a subject of dispute, at one time or
another, and then the matter will be settled, not by prayer and fasting
and consultations with Vishnu, but by the intervention of a much more
puissant power--an English court. In Bombay I was told by an American
missionary that in India there are 640 Protestant missionaries at work.
At first it seemed an immense force, but of course that was a thoughtless
idea. One missionary to 500,000 natives--no, that is not a force; it is
the reverse of it; 640 marching against an intrenched camp of
300,000,000--the odds are too great. A force of 640 in Benares alone
would have its hands over-full with 8,000 Brahmin priests for adversary.
Missionaries need to be well equipped with hope and confidence, and this
equipment they seem to have always had in all parts of the world. Mr.
Parker has it. It enables him to get a favorable outlook out of
statistics which might add up differently with other mathematicians. For

"During the past few years competent observers declare that the number of
pilgrims to Benares has increased."

And then he adds up this fact and gets this conclusion:

"But the revival, if so it may be called, has in it the marks of death.
It is a spasmodic struggle before dissolution."

In this world we have seen the Roman Catholic power dying, upon these
same terms, for many centuries. Many a time we have gotten all ready for
the funeral and found it postponed again, on account of the weather or
something. Taught by experience, we ought not to put on our things for
this Brahminical one till we see the procession move. Apparently one of
the most uncertain things in the world is the funeral of a religion.

I should have been glad to acquire some sort of idea of Hindoo theology,
but the difficulties were too great, the matter was too intricate. Even
the mere A, B, C of it is baffling.

There is a trinity--Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu--independent powers,
apparently, though one cannot feel quite sure of that, because in one of
the temples there is an image where an attempt has been made to
concentrate the three in one person. The three have other names and
plenty of them, and this makes confusion in one's mind. The three have
wives and the wives have several names, and this increases the confusion.
There are children, the children have many names, and thus the confusion
goes on and on. It is not worth while to try to get any grip upon the
cloud of minor gods, there are too many of them.

It is even a justifiable economy to leave Brahma, the chiefest god of
all, out of your studies, for he seems to cut no great figure in India.
The vast bulk of the national worship is lavished upon Shiva and Vishnu
and their families. Shiva's symbol--the "lingam" with which Vishnu began
the Creation--is worshiped by everybody, apparently. It is the commonest
object in Benares. It is on view everywhere, it is garlanded with
flowers, offerings are made to it, it suffers no neglect. Commonly it is
an upright stone, shaped like a thimble-sometimes like an elongated
thimble. This priapus-worship, then, is older than history. Mr. Parker
says that the lingams in Benares "outnumber the inhabitants."

In Benares there are many Mohammedan mosques. There are Hindoo temples
without number--these quaintly shaped and elaborately sculptured little
stone jugs crowd all the lanes. The Ganges itself and every individual
drop of water in it are temples. Religion, then, is the business of
Benares, just as gold-production is the business of Johannesburg. Other
industries count for nothing as compared with the vast and all-absorbing
rush and drive and boom of the town's specialty. Benares is the
sacredest of sacred cities. The moment you step across the
sharply-defined line which separates it from the rest of the globe, you
stand upon ineffably and unspeakably holy ground. Mr. Parker says: "It
is impossible to convey any adequate idea of the intense feelings of
veneration and affection with which the pious Hindoo regards 'Holy Kashi'
(Benares)." And then he gives you this vivid and moving picture:

"Let a Hindoo regiment be marched through the district, and as soon
as they cross the line and enter the limits of the holy place they
rend the air with cries of 'Kashi ji ki jai--jai--jai! (Holy
Kashi! Hail to thee! Hail! Hail! Hail)'. The weary pilgrim
scarcely able to stand, with age and weakness, blinded by the dust
and heat, and almost dead with fatigue, crawls out of the oven-like
railway carriage and as soon as his feet touch the ground he lifts
up his withered hands and utters the same pious exclamation. Let a
European in some distant city in casual talk in the bazar mention
the fact that he has lived at Benares, and at once voices will be
raised to call down blessings on his head, for a dweller in Benares
is of all men most blessed."

It makes our own religious enthusiasm seem pale and cold. Inasmuch as
the life of religion is in the heart, not the head, Mr. Parker's touching
picture seems to promise a sort of indefinite postponement of that

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