At Sea to Singapore, 30 March 1893

During the night, the cabins were filled with hot air. The sun had been shining hotly on the day before and a muggy air lay over the Hugli and the swamps. Despite many improvements that had been made in my cabin, the temperature in it never fell below 30° Celsius in the night and sleep when it finally overcame by closing the tired eyes was not refreshing.

Early in the morning the anchor was raised and guided by an old English pilot, whose face reminded us of Falstaff’s common physiognomy, drove down the Hugli. The shore had the completely dismal character typical of the lower part of the delta, no green, only colorless swinging reeds of the type Typha elephantina, which are called „Hugli“ in Bengal and also have given their name to the river.

The Hugli river is the most important branch of the Ganges delta and has already at Diamond Harbour a width of 3889 m; at the mouth it is 22.224 m wide. Nevertheless this branch of the river causes important difficulties to shipping due to the continuous shifting of the breaking sea and sand banks, so that ships often required multiple days to reach the open sea. Even the beaching of ships during the trip down the river is not uncommon. Even though the course the ships were taking was marked by guard ships, skillful pilots are necessary to guide the ships safely though the labyrinth of obstacles.

At 3 o’clock in the afternoon the pilot transfers to a small sailing brig. The shore is now visible only in a distant, nebulous schemes. A last glance is given towards the Indian landmass — and we are swimming in the open sea to new distant voyage destinations.

India has sunken into the ocean — India of whom myths and fairy tale news had arrived in the distant west since crusted times  and is emerging out of the darkness of the mythical period into the historical present, to form the foundation of England’s power and thus seems to play an important factor in Europe’s fate — which attracts conqueror and explorers, scientists, merchants and tourists — that has inspired poets, artists and writers. As the source of a autochthonous culture many thousands of years old which has created delightful bedazzling masterworks of art, as well as somber hideous customs from the dark side of humankind — as the great location of an agitated and all too often cruel history in which millions of lives were lost on the battlefield and streams of blood spilled, great empires rose and flourished only to perish — a territory of almost inexhaustible wealth in goods of all kinds, India has a profound influence on our thoughts and dreams.

It is a magic influence out of the distance which the country emanates and to which I have succumbed when I decided to travel towards India. One and a half month I have traveled across India — a short time and still I managed to gather a plethora of impressions of the most varied kind, which I consider an enduring gain, a permanent enrichment. The full care which the government of Her Majesty the Empress of India has given to my voyage, the splendid hospitality which I enjoyed on Indian soil have ensured the full success of the voyage despite the shortness of the stay. I have seen a large part of this jewel of the British crown, gained insights into the character, life and activities of the people and had many opportunities to form an opinion about the cultural relations and conditions of the country as well as appreciate its political situation and the deeply branched out administration.

As image by image passes in front of the spectator in a changing diorama, so I revisited all impressions I received, all ideas triggered. Driven by the locomotive which engorges all distances, I rush across the Indian plain, climb steep inclines where earlier only sumpters and carriers marched under heavy burdens. I walk around in the shining chaotic streets of Bombay and Calcutta’s huge merchant shops which in their modern structure resemble an old trunk grafted with cuttings bearing luxurious fruits. All the other cities that I saw, the martial and artistic structures I wandered around in, the evidence, partially already in ruins, of a glorious past. Sparkling with precious jewels, the maharajas and rajas appear, led by the Nizam of Hydarabad, on the courts and whose palaces I paid a visit: in the distance the great historic figures of the Mughal empire appear who had shaped India’s history with astonishing and intimidating signs, bequeathed posterity artistic treasures in marvellous buildings; these potentates are followed by their armies in colorful splendid dress and armed with fantastic weapons, ready for a bloody struggle; to the sound of music English and native troops march past in a parade, uniformed in modern sobriety and armed with breech-loading rifles; festive receptions and processions in which the preference of the orient for color and splendid presentation is pulsating with unbroken force and a strange scene develops around me in a picturesque surrounding: in the circle of cherished companions I go to Nepal, distant from all civilization, to hunt. Marriage and burial processions pass me by; the smoke of burned Hindus rises into the sky, while the waters of the holy Ganges hissing a ceremonial grievance about the human madness that has endured over thousands of years; in dark temples I see humans fall as sacrifices and I think I heard a last terrifying cry of a poor women condemned to death on the pyre …

Thus the present and the past, truth and invention, flow together almost indistinguishably while thinking about the time spent in India.

India is often called a land of wonders. I prefer to call it a land of riddles and see the proof in its contrasts that are often in close interaction without moderation and, when they are not beyond a satisfyingly rational explanation, still create difficulties and often cause strange and surprising effects. A newly arrived visitor is bombarded with so many impressions at the beginning that it bewilders the senses so that he tries to resist until he learns to control it and judge it correctly. The superficial observer is in danger to be tricked by a certain uniformity of the appearances in the most varied fields — and still what inexhaustible wealth of variety is encountered once one understands how to look out for it!

The land itself is marked on the one hand by a monotonous and on the other hand by a contrasting landscape. Large almost limitless plains extend themselves to the discover their limits at the foot of the mightiest mountain giant of this earth. Where hills break the plains, barren stony inclines covered in small thorny bushes rise but one may find in this hilly terrain some views which are really beautiful. Hot, dry, arid, bearing the character of a desert, the landscape lies in front of us. There it is criss-crossed by countless streams, small and mighty rivers in whose areas a rich green vegetations blossoms and agricultural products of all kind are growing. Areas whose character of it s flora does not forebode the force of a tropical climate are neighbours to areas with the richest tropical trappings. Whole areas bereft of any agricultural attraction are followed by those that would cause even the most spoiled friend of nature to break out in admiration and delight. In a final insight, I declare the Himalaya as the pearl of India, in so far as I am able to judge. Someone who wants to enjoy nature should go there as the other parts of India I have travelled through will provide little satisfaction.

Large parts of the country seemed to be barren and deserted, without any human settlement, then there are villages and cities packed closely together in the most confined spaces. Among the multitude of cities which were spread out on the land alongside our travel route — we have seen a  good number of them and may speculate from that about the others —  is perhaps not a single one that does not resemble another but also differ sharply from all the others in a very strange  aspect.

In so many parts of India one believes one could wander for days without meeting a human while in other places the density of the population has reached an almost unbelievable level. Not less difficult to comprehend is the countless masses of population groups which are in the most imaginable intertwined colorful mixture in India and which is in so many relations balanced and equalized but in other views in sharp contrast from one to another. The most conspicuous contrast to me was between the seemingly somewhat weak, faint and indecisive Hindus and the Rajputs as well as the Ghurkas who — large, strong and beautifully built — in all their character show their martial past and soldierly bearing and energy.

In a surprising intermingling are numerous religions and sect-like branches of them, so Christendom with its different creeds, Brahmanism, Buddhism Islam and many other doctrines. Close to the delicate flowers of the religious life are raw fetishism, grow real aberrations of religious madness such as the fakirs creating trouble in the open streets , the disgusting obscene rites and customs which we have seen in temples, true madness that we witnessed in Benares. Great works and enterprises undertaken in a religious fervor as a tribute to human love pull our noble strings, while a brutal disregard of any kind of piety lets us tremble and aversion grows in places where the dead are burned and thrown half-charred into the water, when we enter a room to see sick and ailing animals await their end.  The sublime and the common, the beautiful and the ugly, the earnest and the ridiculous are encountering one another harshly in India’s large areas.

Millions of Indians live at a level of poverty and  penury that makes a mockery out of all human dignity and surpasses everything by far that we believe to be possible. In miserable leafy huts live, vegetate and perish generations of humans whose misery appears even more extreme as it contrasts with the remains of the former splendor and  grandeur, of a shining, luxurious wealth that reigns at the courts and palaces of the maharajas and rajas.

Great Britain has constructed in steady work the canals and locks out of which Western civilization flows into India. But it is like oil that floats above the water and does not penetrate into the depth and does not mix itself. The great mass of the people in India is still living at a level of civilization which it had reached centuries before and had held on to with perseverance. Even today the manufacturing of artistic products that are well known in Europe’s markets and admired by the experts  is produced in the most primitive manner known to the ancients and performed with a simple forked wooden point as the plow had been used since ancient times is still in use today to plow the fields, so that Indian wheat enters into competition on the world market with the European product made with a steam plow.

Among all the puzzling impressions in India there is hardly a larger one that England manages to control a population of nearly 300 millions — and a subservience in all of India towards England even if some parts of India enjoy a larger or smaller relative grade of self-determination or are only included in the British sphere of interest. This impression is all the more striking as England’s power in India is expressed only in a small number of her sons, in a tiny army. Whatever fate today’s British India will have, it is not only a tribute to England’s and its national character’s glory that it managed to constitute, to maintain and enlarge its dominion, but it also is a sign of the superiority of Western civilization.

When I was given an interesting insight into the relations and administration of India and the confusing intertwined threads which are reunited in Old England’s organizing and distributing hand, I have to thank in particular for the openness with which the English spoke about the Indian institutions and relations in front of strangers and the way they disclose even weaknesses without reserve. In spite of such weaknesses, the English can present truly great successes in India – the art of government and colonial policy have been triumphant. Weapons, money and diplomatic arts, which found in the jealousy and discord of the local princes suitable objects,  had to be combined. And when now and then, in the mostly peaceful struggle of England with opposing forces of all kinds, the nicety of emotions is sometimes missing which alone allows to be very severe in the selection of means, who is to blame them?

India is indisputably a jewel in the British crown and therefore England has to care for its possession like for a treasure. While it enjoys the possession of India, England has to fear and plan in advance. It may be that experienced continental and colonial politicians regard the idea of an Imperial Confederation, a closer union of the British colonies among themselves and with the mother country as a chimera – I dare say that this would organize the parts spread out across the globe into a common organism which would allow England to preserve its powerful position more emphatically than in its current state of only a loose aggregation of the parts.

Links

  • Location: At Sea to Singapore
  • ANNO – on 30.03.1893 in Austria’s newspapers.
  • The k.u.k. Hof-Burgtheater is closed until 2nd April, the k.u.k. Hof-Operntheater until 1st April.

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