OLD DIARY LEAVES, Sixth Series (1896-98)
by Henry Steel Olcott
THE HERALDIC COCKS
AS explained before, Kumbakonam has always been a centre of learning in Southern India; in ancient times the influence of its great scholars and teachers was widely spread and the descendants of the men who then gave it renown are now pushing their way to the front as students at the government colleges and universities. Their acquired familiarity with the English language has opened out to them the whole field of contemporaneous philosophical speculation and as, by heredity, these Brahmin lads are natural metaphysicians, it is not at all surprising that this renowned city, this ancient fortress of Eastern knowledge, should now be filled with a generation of college-educated young men of strong materialistic proclivities. Realizing this fact, when I first confronted a monster audience in the town,
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years before, I carefully shaped my arguments so as to avoid giving any shock to their susceptibility as students of science. Miss Edger followed the same policy in her discourse on the day of our arrival (16th of August) during the tour under review, and the packed and sweltering crowd of her audience appreciated her and applauded her to the echo. Many friends had met us at the station at our arrival, the venerable and always respected Dewan Bahadur R. Raghoonath Row among them, and we were favored with the usual garlands and addresses. The committee put us up at the Rest House where in 1883—15 years previously—I had treated the sick psychopathically and had made some rather sensational cures.
On the next morning we received visitors at the Society’s Hall and Miss Edger received again, from 4 to 6 in the afternoon. At 6-30 she gave her second lecture outdoors, to avoid the discomforts of the previous evening. There was a very large audience and her subject was “Religion and Science”, for the treating of which her brilliant university career and her study of Theosophy had fully prepared her. On the next day she held a levee for visitors, both in the morning and afternoon; in the evening both of us lectured to boys, in the presence of a large crowd of adults, and at 9-30 that night left for Chingleput, another famous South
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Indian intellectual centre. Addresses, flowers, refreshments, were offered us at the station on arrival; we were then driven to a large empty house hastily fitted up for us, where we found ourselves comfortable. When I say that, of course the word “relatively” is implied, for a Westerner unaccustomed to the hard realities of Indian travel would hardly find himself what he would call comfortable in one-fourth of the places stopped at on tour. We had to take with us a servant to act as courier, cook, valet, and cashier, who had to take charge of the bedding, cooking pot and table service, to look after our luggage, to prepare our sleeping apartments, cook our meals, and wait on us at table; with the help of a cooly locally engaged he had to wash our dishes, get things from the bazaar, keep an account of his cash expenses and, one hour before our departure, take our things to the railway station, buy our tickets, and be ready to accompany us to the next stopping place. If the servant finds the beds infested beyond his capacity to overcome the difficulty, he must then make beds on the floor if nothing better can be done; and if no fireplace is available he must then improvise one with the first two or three stones that he may pick up, and turn out a satisfactory meal as though he had to exercise no ingenuity in the matter. Sometimes for lack of stones he
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will dig a hole in the ground for each pot and with surprising knack give one a meal that would not discredit a cook working in his kitchen. Thirty years of experience of this sort of thing in India have not lessened my capacity for being surprised at what a faithful servant is capable of doing to carry his master comfortably on a journey.
On the evening of our arrival Miss Edger lectured at the Native High School, on “Theosophy”. At 7 the next morning she again lectured; in the afternoon she held a conversation meeting, and in the evening presided at an anniversary of the Native High School, when Shakespeare was more or less honored by the presentation of A Winter’s Tale, by some of the schoolboys, who did as well as might be expected under the circumstances. The evening’s performance was brought to a close by an admirable speech from Miss Edger, on “Education”, for the benefit of both parents and children.
On the next morning (Sunday the 21st of August) we received a telegram asking us not to visit Bangalore and Mysore on account of the prevalence of plague. A new programme had therefore to be made. In the morning we lectured to boys and formed the usual Boys’ Society; in the afternoon there was a conversation meeting and in the evening my companion discoursed on “God and Man in Nature”. At 6 the next morning I left for Madras
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and Miss Edger and Mr. Narayanaswami1 for Conjeeveram.
I reached home at 10 o’clock, found all right at the Headquarters and set myself to work to clear off arrears of correspondence. The next two days were crowded with business and on the evening of the 24th Miss Edger and Mr. Narayanaswami arrived from Conjeeveram at 11 p.m., the programme for the tour being again interrupted. On the 25th Miss Edger felt much debilitated and on the 26th had an attack of fever as the result of overwork and the hardships of travel, and was not able to resume her tour till after 10 days. Meanwhile there was a pressure of work of different sorts, literary and architectural (for the repair and enlargement of buildings) going on.
To protect the lower floor of the Convention Hall and the adjacent rooms from rain during the progress of repairs, we built a great pandal or shelter of 1,200 square feet in area. With the outgoing September number of The Theosophist, went to subscribers, voting papers, so that they might notify me of their choice of the writers of the year who were best entitled to receive respectively the medals of gold and silver offered for the best and next best literary contributions
1Late K. Narayanaswami Aiyar, Joint-General Secretary for India (1907-1908), translator of Thirty Minor Upanishads, etc.—Ed.
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in the volume for 1897-8. The second of September we received the rolls of embossed paper (Lincrusta Walton), which were a present, for covering the ceiling in the Library, the cost of which had been collected by my old friend Miss Edith Ward, among our English members. In the afternoon of that day I presided at a meeting in town, where the “Life and Teachings of Buddha” were discoursed upon by a Mr. Ethiraja Naicker.
The 5th of September is memorable in the history of our Pariah Education Movement by the receipt on that day of a letter from Miss Sarah E. Palmer, B.Sc., of Minnesota, offering her services without any payment, as a teacher of Pariah children. I gratefully accepted the offer.
Miss Edger being convalescent and a new programme arranged, we two, in company with Mr. Narayanaswami, started for Tirupatûr, but as the man who was transporting the luggage dallied on the way, it did not reach the station in time, so I sent the other two ahead and myself waited until the cart arrived, sleeping at the station and then starting on the next morning early. But our troubles were not ended, for some stupid clerk at Jalarpet Junction did not tranship the luggage; it remained there while I went to Tirupatûr, ignorant of the loss. The result was that we got nothing to eat until 8 p.m. and only then because
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Mr. Narayanaswami drove back to the Junction in a jutka (a small two-wheeled cart) and brought our tiffin basket. Despite these petty troublesMiss Edger gave a magnificent lecture on “Theosophy”, seemingly having quite recovered from her indisposition.
On the 8th our baggage arrived and we were again furnished with food and clothes. At 7 a.m. Miss Edger lectured and in the evening presided at the anniversary of the Young Men’s Literary Society, at which there was a dramatic performance. On the 9th I lectured in the early morning to boys, after which Miss Edger held a conversation meeting at the rooms of our local Branch; at 1 p.m. she gave a lecture and at 4 p.m. we left for our next station, Vaniyambadi. There was no sleep for us in the train, for we reached our destination at 1-12 a.m., rested at the station, and at 7 a.m. were taken to the local Reading Rooms where an address and a handsome silver cup were presented to Miss Edger as tokens of respect. At first we were both accommodated with tents but later Miss Edger was shifted to a room in the Court House.
The following morning we began work, with a lecture to the boys; in the afternoon there was the usual conversation meeting. We visited the local Branch and inspected the grounds selected for the
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local Society. In the evening Miss Edger lectured very acceptably. On the morning of the 12th a group photograph was taken and there were conversation meetings both in the morning and evening; after the second one Miss Edger gave her farewell lecture, “From Death to Life”: then came the good-bye speech and we left at midnight for Chittoor, but there was a night of broken rest on account of the changing of trains. We reached Chittoor at 5-30 the next morning and had a nice reception. We were put up at the Chittoor Association premises, which the members, with impressive kindness, vacated for us, shifting themselves into tents temporarily—a nice example of altruistic hospitality. In the evening both of us lectured to boys. There was a conversation meeting the next morning and another in the afternoon. Among the questioners was a blatant, coarse-voiced infidel1 who roared at my companion, until he had driven her into a state of nervous agitation, whereupon I took a hand in, and shut him up summarily. “Another enemy for me”, is the entry in my diary, the judiciousness of which my readers will scarcely deny. In the evening Miss Edger lectured on “The Secret of Death”. From a memorandum made at the time I find that Miss Edger had given
1The late Mr. N. K. Ramasami Aiya, B.A., B.L., who later on joined our Society and did good work. Ed.
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during her tour and up to that time, 45 lectures. On the morning of the 15th she held a conversation meeting; at 1 p.m. a private one with Hindu ladies; from 2 to 4 there was another conversation meeting and at 5 she gave her last lecture in the place. We left in the evening for Tiruvallûr, but were detained five wearisome hours at Kâtpâdi and left there only at 3-12 on the morning of the 18th.
Reaching Tiruvallûr at 5-30 a.m. we were affectionately received at the station and taken to a small bungalow in the town, close to the big tank, which is a famous place of pilgrimage. A conversation meeting was held and in the evening Miss Edger lectured, or tried to lecture, in an upstairs room in a long Chattram, or lodging place for pilgrims. The management was bad, there were continual interruptions by talking, at the other end of the room, between people who could not understand English and apparently did not care to know anything about the subject of the lecture. Then there was a downpour of rain which clattered on the iron roof so that it was impossible to hear the lecturer. Perforce she stopped speaking until the worst of the noise was over and then resumed. Two conversation meetings, a lecture to boys by myself at noon and one to adults by Miss Edger in the evening, filled up the day. At 10 p.m. we left for Madras and reached home early the next morning.
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It goes without saying that plenty of work awaited me and that I had no leisure to devote to lounging or the invention of metaphysical conundrums. I have often wished that a good many of my colleagues in different countries could find in Theosophical work a similar corrective to their profitless word-spinning.
Visitors to Adyar within the past eight years1 have admired the bas-reliefs in terra-cotta that crown the door of what was then the room of the Western Section of our Library and flank it at the two sides. The one over the door represents Pallas Athene, our classical goddess Minerva, the patroness of learning; the full-length, life-size figures to the right and left of the door are of a symbolical character, and all three are copied from ancient statuaries the engravings of which are at the Madras School of Arts: all were executed in terra-cotta at that School. A few days later I left an order with the Director to repair another bas-relief inserted in the wall above the Minerva plaque, the object of which will, I presume, interest the reader. By a strange coincidence the heraldic crests of the family of H.P.B. and of my own are identical, viz., a cock. Her family name is Hahn (cock) and mine is not at all what it is as now written, but Alcocke, and dates from very ancient Saxon days of England.
1This chapter originally appeared in December, 1906. Ed.
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One of my ancestors, Bishop Alcocke, who was a great favorite with King Henry VII, and governor of his troublesome and luxurious son, Henry VIII, founded Jesus College, Cambridge, and his Coat of Arms, to be seen over the entrance gate of Jesus College, has three cock’s heads, combined with other symbols. So I conceived the idea of putting up this humble memorial of the two families, placing the standing bird of the Hahns in the centre and the three cock’s heads of my family around it in the form of the mystical triangle. It is an interesting coincidence, when one thinks of it, that we two predestined joint workers in Theosophy should be thus heraldically related.
Mrs. Besant having called Miss Edger to Benares to assist in her work, she left us for that place by the mail train on the 30th of September, taking with her our best wishes for her health and happiness. The narrative of our Southern tour, now brought to a close, shows how indefatigably she had lectured, despite her frail body and the unaccustomed impediments of Indian travel, to do her duty by the Society to whose destiny she had linked her own. It is but justice to say that she had won the respect of her South Indian colleagues and the great audiences before which she had propounded her views. We people at Adyar had enjoyed her company and parted from her with regret.