OLD DIARY LEAVES, Second Series (1878-83)
by Henry Steel Olcott
SOUTH INDIAN WONDERS
POPULARITY, beyond a certain point, is very burdensome—as I found throughout the South Indian Tour of 1883. When, on the 7th of August, I got to the Trichinopoly town hall, where I was to speak, it was practically impossible for me to reach the door; a vast surging crowd occupied every foot of the approaches, and, instead of making room for me, hustled each other into a compact mass of perspiring flesh to get a look at the object of momentary curiosity. In vain my Committee pleaded, scolded, shouted, and pushed; I was brought to a standstill. So, then, I did the most natural thing, by climbing to the solid roof of a palanquin carriage where all could see me. If one wants to manage a crowd, one must never get excited nor precipitate; give the right initial impulse and let it gradually increase of itself. I knew perfectly well that not one man in perhaps a dozen there could understand English or really knew anything more about me than the fact that I was the friend and defender of their religion, and had a way of curing the sick that people called miraculous. So in standing quite still up there until they had had their fill of gazing, I was really preparing the close-wedged throng to segregate
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into units. At first they shouted to each other and countercried to make order, to a degree that no voice could have made itself heard, so I kept silence. At last, however, as there came a partial lull, and as the sun beat upon me so as to make me want to get indoors, I raised my arms above my head and in silence held them there. Now a crowd is often like a crying baby whose attention can be caught by showing it some bright or strange object that excites its curiosity. I knew that and so kept silent. If I had begun speaking fifty people would have instantly shouted to another hundred to keep quiet, and there would have been a sibilation of "hists" and "pstts" on every side; but seeing me stopping in the same attitude, and wondering what I was going to say, the result was that I soon was able to have my intended word or two through my interpreter, who had climbed up after me. This reminds me of a trick that was played by the late Prof. James J. Mapes on a sleepy audience at one of his public lectures. I studied Scientific Agriculture under him forty-three years ago, and he told me the story himself in his inimitably comic way. Finding that his audience of tired farmers were dropping asleep in the middle of his learned discourse he silently turned to the black-board behind him, wiped it with the cloth, stood looking at it as if meditating some problem, drew one thick vertical line through the middle, laid down the chalk, dusted his fingers, thought a minute, then turned back towards the audience—now thoroughly aroused and wondering what it was all about—and proceeded with his lecture to the end. He never
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made the slightest reference to that perpendicular chalk line on the board. The farmers kept awake in the belief that he would!
When I had pacified the outside crowd at Trichinopoly, I slipped through the other sweltering crowd inside the building into a large back enclosure where, my audience following me, I gave my lecture without interruption; I standing with my back to the house wall so as to make it a sounding-board. Many a fiasco has befallen a speaker from neglect of this precaution: his voice being lost in the crowd. .
The healings of the sick went on here daily, as at every other station, and on the 8th (August), it appears from the record, I treated seventy cases with more or less success. Of course, no. one can foretell whether either of these healings, however effectual it may seem at the moment when the patient leaves the healer's hands, will prove radical cures or not: all depends upon the present state of his constitution. However, there were various cases of apparently perfect cure of the disease.
On the same evening I figured in a scene hard to surpass for picturesqueness and impressiveness. A lecture was to be given in one of the large squares of the venerable Vaishnava Srirangam Temple, known to all travellers as the largest religious structure in India. It comprises a central shrine surrounded by five enclosurers, each including the next smaller, until the wall of the outer one is nearly a. half mile long on each side. This is the place where Râmânujâ, the founder of the Visishtâdvaita school of Brahmanic
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Philosophy, thought out his system in the eleventh century and began his preaching mission throughout Southern India. The lecturing place assigned me was in the inner square in front of the Hall of the Thousand Columns, a structure of 450 feet by 130 feet in size, and of one storey. Fancy the scene which opened out before me as I turned the angle of the enclosure and came in sight of the giant hall and the open square. Under the canopy of the starlit sky there was a multitude of dark-faced, white-turbaned and white-robed Hindus, numbering perhaps 5,000, standing and squatting on the ground and covering the front portion of the roof-terrace of the thousand-columned structure. Many young fellows had climbed up by the carvings on the pyramidal gopuram, or gateway on the right, and sat on the pedestal-cornice. A small platform of planks, bedecked with flowers and greenery, had been constructed for me over the porch at the foot of the staircase leading to the roof-terrace in question, and I had to use some agility to get up to it. When I did, however, the whole picture burst into view, and by its weirdness deeply impressed my imagination. The only light, save that of the twinkling stars, came from flickering torches held by many peons stationed against the walls, and from a half-dozen on my platform which were so disposed as to bring my figure out into high light against the sombre background of the pyramid beside me. The silent crowd, half hidden in shadow, was diversified here and there by some standing figure of a Brahmin, naked to the waist, whose sacred thread showed against his bronze skin like a trickle of milk;
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and there on the platform, ten feet above their heads, the speaker, also clad in white, standing with his interpreter and one or two of the committee-men, the centre of observation, while the air of night refreshed us and the throng listened in complete silence to the elaboration of the discourse upon Hinduism and the necessity for the religious education of the young. The cheers, long restrained, broke out at the close, the torch-bearers waved their flambeaux, the sitters sprang to their feet, the boys dropped down from their perches on the gopuram, and, laden with garlands and hemmed in by surging thousands, I slowly worked my way to the outer enclosure where the carriage waited for me. As elsewhere, a local Branch of the T.S. was formed, and the next day I passed on to Tanjore, the capital of one of the greatest of the ancient Hindu dynasties of Southern India, and in all ages one of the chief political, literary, and religious centres of the South (Hunter's Gaz. Ind., xiii, 195). What a pity it is that the stream of visitors to India hardly flows at all through the South, but all start at Bombay, and, after loafing through the towns of the North, where the seal of Muslim conquest is set on everything, empties out at Calcutta or turns back on itself to Bombay. The traveller managed by Messrs. Cook sees hardly anything at all of the India of the most ancient Indian dynasties, nor gets sight of the incomparable Hindu temples that embellish Southern India; it is like visiting Scotland and Ireland to see Great. Britain, and omitting to visit London and other centres of English national development!
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On arrival at the Tanjore railway station at 5 a.m., I found a crowd awaiting me, and the train steamed up to the accompaniment of a band of musicians. The notables of the place welcomed me with floral wreaths, and at a table placed on the platform. I was served with coffee, and received and replied to the usual complimentary address. They put me up at the travellers' bungalow, and kindly let me enjoy my privacy until evening, when I was driven about the town and taken to the magnificent temple which, as Fergusson says, is known throughout the world. It consists of two courts and the great courtyard in which stands the shrine, a structure having a base of two storeys in height, surmounted by a pyramid rising in thirteen storeys, to the summit which is 190 feet above the ground-level, and said to be composed of a single huge stone. Between it and the gateway lies, on a stone pedestal, the bull-colossus of Nandi, the Vâhan of Siva. The huge animal is carved, if I remember aright, out of one block of granite, and measures, though in the recumbent posture, some ten or twelve feet in height at the shoulder. The pedestal is covered by a stone canopy supported on carved square columns. My lecture was given from that pedestal, the multitude sitting on the flagged pavement of the courtyard. Directly in front of me was a huge stone lingam, the distinctive Sivaite emblem of the generative force in nature, and beyond that towered the grand pyramid, each of whose storeys is enriched with huge carved figures in high relief. I spoke through an interpreter, and in the pauses while he was speaking, as I looked about me, I was
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struck with the romantic experience that I, an American, representative of the youngest and most feverish civilization of the world, should be standing there, beside the huge bull, surrounded by the chiselled emblems of the oldest of the world faiths, and talking to its living votaries about the truths embodied in the hoary teachings of their half-forgotten sages and rishis.
I was able to personally declare the falsity of a current superstitious story that the great pyramid casts no shadow. At 5 p.m., when I first saw it, there was a great black shadow stretching half across the courtyard. The Brahmin to whom I mentioned it said that the popular rumor is based upon the fact that it casts no shadow at noon! There was another lecture at the Reading Room in the town, and I greatly enjoyed a visit to the world-renowned Sanskrit Library in the Royal Palace, which was catalogued by Dr. Burnell, and found to contain some 35,000 palm-leaf and other MSS., and 7,000 bound volumes, among the former many very rare and valuable ones. Before leaving the town I treated many patients and made some interesting cures.
Kumbakonam, my next station—the "Oxford of Southern India"—is a famous educational centre, and the Indian professors at the College will compare favorably for learning and intellectual gifts with any in this country. At the same time their mental bias is towards Materialism, and at the time of my first visit they exercised a strong anti-religious influence upon the undergraduates, and, indirectly, on the boys in all the schools. I was warned of this in advance,
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so when I lectured in the Sarangapani (Vaishnava) Temple, to an audience of 2,000 to 3,000, which filled the Eastern Prakara (side), and which—says the contemporary newspaper report—embraced "Vakils, professors, schoolmasters, mirassidars, ryots, merchants, and schoolboys," I discussed religion from the view-point of Science. The next day's lecture, at the same place, was of a more popular character, and treated largely of the duty of Hindu parents to their children. The practical results of the visit and discourses were—despite the sceptical professors and teachers—the formation of the now well-known local Branch, the turning of public interest into Hindu religious channels, and the collection of a handsome fund for a local general library. This, let it be remembered, was the year when what is now called the Hindu Revival began to spread all over India, when forty-three new Branches of the Society sprang into Being, and when the backbone of the Indian movement towards Materialism was broken. And that was ten years before the Chicago Parliament of Religions assembled.
I see recorded among the psychopathic cures wrought by me at Kumbakonam, another of those marvellous cases of deafness. The patient was a pleader of Negapatam, I think, who had come over on the chance of getting me to treat him. He could hear sounds with difficulty from a distance of a yard, but after a half-hour's treatment—on the verandah of the traveller's bungalow—I made him walk slowly away from me, listening to my voice, raised only to the ordinary pitch of conversation, and with orders to
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stop the moment he lost it. I made my servant walk beside him, holding one end of a tape-measure of which I held the other extremity. When the lawyer stopped, the tape showed that he could hear me to the distance of 70 feet 6 inches, and I tested him by carrying on some conversation with him at that distance, his back turned towards me so that he might not deceive himself and me by reading my lips. I do not know what was the sequel of the case.
The reception given me at Mayavaram, my next station, was enthusiastic to a degree that could not be excelled, matching those of Tinnevelly, Trichy, and Guntur. I reached there at 7.30 a.m., was honorably received at the station, put up in the decorated rest-house, received visitors all day, and in the evening, after dark, was taken, in an open palanquin, in torchlight procession to the Mayuranathasami Temple to lecture. The newspaper report says that the procession was led by the temple elephant, bell-bearing camels, and a band of musicians. Seven thousand people were crowded into the building, and—as I was told—every man and woman in the town, not confined to bed, took part in the pageant. From a technical report of the cures, published by Mr. D. S. Amirthasamy Pillay, Civil Apothecary (a Government medical officer), it appears that some good ones were made. They included cases of paraplegia, deafness, neuralgia, and epilepsy. At this station Damodar arrived from Madras on Society's business, and brought me a new volunteer to act as my Private Secretary, viz., Mr. T. Vijiaraghava Charlu, now for many years known as Manager of the Theosophist. He had resigned his
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appointment under the Post Office Department, to work with us, and most faithfully has he done it ever since. Lacking the suave manner by which more than one worthless fellow among our associates has won wide temporary popularity, he has stuck to his work with the stern perseverance of an old Covenanter, and is best appreciated by those who know him most intimately.
A Branch being formed, I moved on to Cuddalore, where the same thing was repeated. My first lecture was in English, my second in the Pataleswaraswami Temple, to clustering thousands, when the services of an interpreter were availed of. Here an unusual compliment was paid me, as appeared from the published report of Mr. A. Rama Row. He says:
“As soon as he arrived there, he was carried in procession, followed by a large crowd, with Hindu music playing and flags flying. He was taken round the temple, inside the enclosure, which act, according to Hindu religious belief, forms the sacred pradakshana—a ceremony which hitherto only a Hindu has been allowed to perform. He was then taken to the gate of the temple, near the image of Nandi (the sacred bull of Siva). The Ârati ceremony was then performed by the High Priest and the blazing camphor offered to the Colonel, and a flower garland placed about his neck. Then he went on the platform. The whole temple was crowded to suffocation.”
What makes this act of respect and love the more significant is that I was not only a white mail but
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also a declared Buddhist, which impediments, however, did not prevent my being accepted as the chief officer of a Society which is committed to no particular religion but befriends all alike, and which was as loyally working with Indians to promote Hinduism as it had been with the Sinhalese Buddhist to revive Buddhism. They took me as the friend of their Mother India, hence as their soul-brother. As such I accepted it..
A visit to Chingelput finished up this part of the year's tour, and I went thence to Ootacamund to rejoin my dear colleague H. P. B., at the hospitable home of Major-General and Mrs. Morgan. The railway ends at Mettupalayam, at the foot of the Nilgiri Hills, and the traveller proceeds up the well-metalled mountain road in a horse tonga, or two-wheeled mail cart drawn by a pair of galloping ponies. The ride up is simply charming, and passing through forests, by banks of flowers, and past swarms of lovely painted butterflies, the air grows cooler and cooler, until midway one is obliged to stop at the rest-house and change one's light tropical costume for heavy woollens and even put on a topcoat. At almost every turn in the winding road splendid panoramas of scenery present themselves to view, while one finds Ootacamund a lovely village of picturesque houses, spreading over the foot-slopes of the grassy and forest-covered adjacent hills, the roads lined with roses, the enclosures joyous with lilies, verbenas, heliotropes, and other "floral smiles of God". At the toll-gate on the Coonoor Road, H. P. B. met me in company with our dear Mrs. Morgan, Mrs. Batchelor and
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others of the family, the General being absent from home temporarily. My old "chum" seemed really overjoyed to see me and rattled on in her affectionate way like one who greets a long-absent relative. She was looking well; the champagne-like mountain air set her blood to leaping through her body, and she was in the highest spirits about the civilities that were being shown her by some of the high officials and their families. She worked off some of her excitement that same night by keeping me up until 2 a.m. to read proofs and correct her MS.! What an amusing creature she was when in the mood; how she would make a roomful of people hang on her lips as she would tell stories of her travels and adventures in search of the wonder-workers in Magic and Sorcery; and their eyes open in amazement when she would, now and again, ring some astral bell, or make some raps, or do some other minor phenomenon! And then, when they were gone and we two were at our desks working, how she used to laugh at their surprise and at their often stupid attempts to account for the remarkable facts which, up to that moment, had had no parallel in their experience! A self-satisfied ignoramus in society, giving out infantile explanations of psychical phenomena, and trying to show off his cleverness, at her expense, was her detestation, and she used to collar and crush him, metaphorically speaking, with fierce wrath. And how she hated the smug matron who, while absolutely unqualified to pronounce an opinion on these high subjects, and unblessed with Christian charitableness (!), would regard her as a horror not
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to be mentioned in respectable circles! It was better than a play to hear her go on about them. She used to say that the Russian, Austrian, and French women might be very bad in their conduct, but were far more honest than the British and American women of like social standing, since they did their wicked things in the eyes of the whole world, while the others did their equally bad things behind doors and in hiding-places of all sorts. Undoubtedly, her rough ways, her daring eccentricities, her profanity, and other peculiarities, were simply her passionate protest against the shams and hypocrisy of society, A pretty woman, with her brains, would never have dreamt of making herself so talked about; being the reverse of pretty, both in face and form, she instinctively let herself make a splash all around her, as one having no admirers to lose, hence no reason to put her feelings under restraint. I am now talking, of course, about the woman, not about the sage.
To introduce our ideas to the notice of the European community of our Presidency of Madras, she and our friends were arranging for me to give two public lectures, and some of the chief officials were kindly interesting themselves in the affair. As a necessary preliminary I had to call upon them and their families, and the next two or three days were devoted to this. Out of hours our joint desk work went on and the hard labor was diversified with her bright talk and frequent grumblings at the cold. Certainly with cause, for the mercury marked forty degrees more of cold than we feel on the plains, the houses are heated with wood fires in open fire-places, the
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winds blow in gusts down the open throated chimneys, filling the rooms with smoke and dusting one's paper and books with fine ashes. H. P. B. wrote in a fur coat, with a woollen shawl on her head and her feet wrapped in a travelling rug—a funny sight. Part of her work was the taking from dictation, from her invisible teacher, of the "Replies to an English F. T. S." which contained among other things the now oft-quoted prophecy of the direful things and many cataclysms that would happen in the near future, when the cycle should close. That she was taking down from dictation was fully apparent to one who was familiar with her ways. My first lecture was given at the Breeks Memorial School, to a full audience, despite a pouring rain. The plan was tried which had been adopted at Bombay by the Rev. Joseph Cook, that of having at the door a basket, with slips of paper and a pencil for the audience, as they passed in, to write the subjects on which the lecture was to be given. The slips were subsequently read out by the Chairman, Major-General Morgan, and the subject of "Occult Science" being voted for almost unanimously, I proceeded to enlarge upon it. At the end of an hour I wanted to stop, but the demand being made for me to continue, I did so for another half-hour. The second lecture was equally a success. To "keep out the rabble," as it was said, a charge had been made for admission, and on the proceeds being handed me, I sent them with a kind letter to he Treasurer on the local Hospital. He was a petty-minded, rejudiced military officer who actually refused at first to accept the gift on the score
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of its being "devil money"—H. P. B. and I being regarded by him as emissaries of the King of Hell! Of course, he made himself the laughing-stock of the sensible portion of the community, and his colleagues on the Hospital Board forced him to reconsider his stupid decision. The Hon. Mr. Carmichael, a Secretary to Government, did a plucky thing in having us to dinner to meet his chief colleagues, on top of a wicked paragraph in the leading Madras paper which insinuated that we were secret political agents: this was intended and declared as his personal protest against the injustice. We were very thankful to him, it may be believed, and this repetition of the stale and baseless calumny caused me to address an official protest to the Government of Madras, upon certain petty tyrannies that had been exercised upon some of our Hindu associates in the Districts by their official superiors, because of their being members of the Society. I sent in copies of the correspondence between myself and the Government of India and its ruling in our favor, and asked the Government of Madras for protection. The question was circulated to the Governor and Members of Council, and, at the Council meeting of 12th September, full protection was officially guaranteed us so long as we infringed no law and abstained from meddling with things outside our declared field of activity. This was all that was needed to relieve us from annoyance, and since that time we have not been molested in any way.