Then the dancing began again, interrupted for a minute by the call of the night-watchman as he went past carrying a long bamboo. He paused for a moment to watch the performance, and then was lost in the darkness.
Out in the street a woman, bare-backed, was submitting to be brushed down the spine by a neighbour with a brush of cuscus; she scorned to answer me when I asked whether she felt better, but shutting her eyes desired the operator to go on more slowly.
When the dead are to be honoured in this land each true believer lays a pebble as homage on the tomb, and the dead man's repute is estimated by the size of the pile of stones that covers him.
In front of the palace, beds filled with common plants familiar in every European garden fill the place of honour; they are very rare, no doubt, in[Pg 54] these latitudes, and surprising amid the gorgeous hedges of wild bougainvillea that enclose the park.
Close to a village that has sprouted under the baobab-trees, in the midst of the plain that once was Khoutab, in the court of a mosque, is the marble sarcophagus of a princess. Grass is growing in the hollow of the stone that covers her, in fulfilment of the wishes of the maiden, who in her humility desired that when she was dead she should be laid to rest under the common earth whence the grass grows in the spring. And not far from the rajah's daughter, under a broad tamarind tree, in the blue shade, is the tomb of Kushru, the poet who immortalized Bagh-o-Bahar. On the sarcophagus, in the little kiosk, was a kerchief of silk and gold, with a wreath of fresh flowers renewed every day by the faithful.
High on a hill, one with the rock, are built the temples, up to which is a flight of steps hewn in the stone itself. At every stage, or nearly, are little shrines with images of Ganesa, the elephant-headed god, or of Ananta, the sacred serpent, decked with flowers, the mindi flower, which has[Pg 108] a strong scent of pepper. In some places the whole temple, as vast as a cathedral, is hewn out of the hillside; the columns in elaborate and intricate patterns, the niches and altars wrought with inconceivable toil and patience, not a scrap added or stuck on. In the dim distance is a huge red statue of Siva, wreathed with flowers.
Very late in the evening came the sound of darboukhas once more. A throng of people, lighted up by a red glow, came along, escorting a car drawn by oxen. At each of the four corners were children carrying torches, and in the middle of the car a tall pole was fixed. On this, little Hindoo boys were performing the most extraordinary acrobatic tricks, climbing it with the very tips of their toes and fingers, sliding down again head foremost, and stopping within an inch of the floor. Their bronze skins, in contrast to the white loin-cloth that cut them across the middle, and their fine muscular limbs, made them look like antique figures. The performance went on to the noise of drums and singing, and was in honour of the seventieth birthday of a Mohammedan witch who dwelt in the village. The car presently moved off, and, after two or three[Pg 49] stoppages, reached the old woman's door. The toothless hag, her face carved into black furrows, under a towzle of white hair emerging from a ragged kerchief, with a stupid stare lighted up by a gleam of wickedness when she fixed an eye, sat on the ground in her hovel surrounded by an unspeakable heap of rags and leavings. The crowd squeezed in and gathered round her; but she sat perfectly unmoved, and the little acrobats, performing in front of her door, did not win a glance from her. And then, the noise and glare annoying her probably, she turned with her face to the wall and remained so. She never quitted her lair; all she needed was brought to her by the villagers, who dreaded the spells she could cast. Her reputation for wisdom and magic had spread far and wide. The Nizam's cousin, and prime minister of the dominion, never fails to pay her a visit when passing through Nandgaun, and other even greater personages, spoken of only with bated breath, have been known to consult her.
Among the officers was a young lady on horseback, her black habit covered with dust. Instead of the pith helmet that the English ladies disfigure themselves by wearing, she had a straw hat with a long cambric scarf as a pugaree. She was pretty and sat well, and at the last turning she pulled up and watched the men, the ammunition and the baggage all march past, saluted them with her switch, and cantered off to the town of "cottages." I saw her again in the afternoon, taking tea in her garden as she sat on a packing-case among eviscerated bales, and giving orders to a mob of slow, clumsy coolies, who were arranging the house.
On entering this portal, lo, a miraculous vision! At the end of an avenue of dark cypress trees stands the tomb of Mumtaj-Mahal, a dream in marble, its whiteness, crowned by five cupolas that might be pearls, mirrored in a pool edged with pink stone and borders of flowers.
A road between ancient trees and green fields which are perpetually irrigated leads to Sicandra-Bagh. Here, at the end of a wretched village of huts and hovels, is the magnificence of a stately portal of red stone broadly decorated with white; and then, through a garden where trees and shrubs make one huge bouquet, behold the imposing mass of the tomb of Akbar the Great. The mausoleum is on the scale of a cathedral. There are two stories of galleries in pink sandstone crowned by a marble pavilion with lace-like walls; and there, high up, is the sarcophagus of white stone, covered with inscriptions setting forth the nineteen names of Allah.