« PreviousContinue »
THE HOLY CITY.
The railway journey from Bombay to Benares is accomplished in two nights and the greater parts of two days. The line passes through a level country, which at this season of the year is piteously parched. There are many signs that in the rainy season the supply of water is even embarrassingly rich. But the river beds which drain the plain at brief intervals are now dry lands, and the sign of former water makes the country look more desolate. Only the trees bear up against the prevailing drought. These, deep rooted in the soil, and profiting by the plentiful summer rains, have begun to take on a weary look ; but on the whole they are wonderfully green, and relieve the landscape from absolute barrenness. For the rest, there is no sign of life save the thin cattle forlornly nosing the burnt stubble that here and there fringes the dusty soil. What a scene for dimmed eyes gazing through gaunt cheeks, body and soul steeped in the sickness of hopeless hunger! With the memory of famine in the past and dull apprehensions in the future, it is no wonder that the people one sees in the villages through which the trains pass should have a look of settled melancholy, and eyes and mouths that never laugh.
It was foretold when railways were projected in India that they would prove a failure because the Hindoos of caste would never suffer the contamination risked in herding in a third-class carriage. This foreboding has been entirely falsified. It is the third-class traffic that is not only the backbone, but the flesh and blood of Indian railways. All the trains on the trunk lines are much longer than on English railways, and the ordinary allowance of first-class accommodation is two carriages, of second-class one. The rest are third-class carriages, and during a railway journey of three thousand miles I never saw them otherwise than overcrowded.
In India, partly owing to the climate, and chiefly to the long distances travelled, the night trains are more populated than those which run through the day. This becomes a serious matter to the traveller who has lain down to take his only chance of a night's rest. At every station on all the lines we found a crowd of from twenty to fifty natives waiting for the train. If they could have taken their places quietly this would not have been a matter of general interest; but the shouting and shrieking, the running to and fro, is at first alarming, suggesting that their object is not to take their seats, but to storm the train. The difficulty of the situation and its ludicrousness, if one were inclined to take a humorous view having been suddenly wakened up for the fifth time in a run of fifty miles, are added to by the appearance of the new-comers. In India every one travels with bed and baggage, and to see half a hundred Hindoos wildly racing up and down a platform with their bedclothes in their arms or wrapped around their body is exciting, till constant repetition wears off the edge of novelty.
In other ways than that of commerce railways are doing a great work in India. They are breaking down the barriers of caste. If a Brahmin or a Jain wants to go from Bombay to Jubbulpore, Delhi, Calcutta, or Madras, he must make his account with the certainty of finding himself at some point of his journey jammed between an outcast and a Mahommedan. He must even, unless he is content to starve, eat before them; and having done this in special circumstances without finding the heavens fall, worse things from the Brahminical point of view may follow. .
Benares is not only the holiest but the oldest city in India. Before Christ was born Benares was great. " When Babylon was struggling with Nineveh for supremacy,” says Mr. Sherring, “when Tyre was planting her colonies, when Athens was growing in strength, before Rome had become known, or Greece had contended with Persia, or Nebuchadnezzar had captured Jerusalem, and the inhabitants of Judæa had been carried into captivity,–Benares had risen to greatness, if not to glory. Nay, she may have heard of the fame of Solomon, and have sent her ivory, her apes, and her peacocks to adorn his palaces, while partly with her gold he may have overlaid the temple of the Lord.”
In spite of British domination, steam launches on the river, and railway trains crossing the Ganges by iron bridges, Benares preserves its old-time aspect, and is, with the exception of an English church, a missionhouse, a college, a police station, and the cantonments of British soldiery, much as it was when Akbar reigned. One railway does not presume to enter the town, but has its terminus on the further side of the Ganges. The other, the Oude and Rohilcund, enters from the town side, but stops on the outskirts, and the bazaars and temples have it all their own way in the town. The river is crossed by a wretched bridge of boats, whose poverty of accommodation is made up for by excessive toll. The upper portion of the town, near the English settlement, is liberally laid out in squares, green lawns after the rain, but just now so bare and brown that it is difficult to believe blades of grass could ever burst through its barrenness. Still, the trees are green, and are peopled with a lively race of squirrels, who dodge the passer-by, peeping round the trunk to see if he is really coming, and disappearing amid the boughs with a nimbleness that makes nothing of their bushy tails.
There is a great deal of animal and bird life about the streets, safe in the freedom from harm secured by the gentle creed of the Hindoo. The sparrows chirp about the roadways and almost stand to be passed over on the footpaths. Two grey kites benignantly eye them from a ruined wall as if they would not touch them, even if some one else would kill them. On the trees in the temples and promenading the roofs of the bazaars, occa