Ghat of Haridwar year 1836, from Views in India, chiefly among the Himalaya Mountains

From Views in India, chiefly among the Himalaya Mountains by George Francis White

A fair takes place annually at Hurdwar in the month of April, lasting nearly a fortnight, that being the period chosen by the pilgrims, who flock from all parts of India, to perform their ablutions in the Ganges. The auspicious moment is calculated by the brahmins, who aver that a great increase in the efficacy of the rite is derivable from its performance when Jupiter is in Aquarius or the sun enters Aries, which happens every twelfth year.

  

The immense concourse of persons drawn to Hurdwar by religious motives, has attracted others, who take advantage of this promiscuous meeting, to dispose of merchandise brought from the uttermost parts of the world, and which thus finds its way to every accessible place throughout India. There are, of course, purchasers as well as sellers, who resort to the fair for the purpose of buying cattle, shawls, and jewels, either for their own use, or to dispose of again. Many, also, visit the fair purely from motives of curiosity, this portion of the spectators being chiefly composed of Europeans and rich Mohammedans, who travel, particularly the latter, in great splendour. The peace in this promiscuous multitude is kept by a large detachment from the Sirmoon battalion of the Hill-rangers, who come down from their quarters at Deyrah Dhoon, and garrison an island in the centre of the river, where they are out of the way, and yet at hand to prevent disturbance; while there are magistrates present, with a very considerable body of police, to enforce the rules and regulations necessary for the preservation of order in an assembly composed of such heterogeneous materials.

The climate of Hurdwar during the early part of April is exceedingly variable: from four in the afternoon, until nine or ten o'clock on the following day, the wind generally blows from the north or east over the snowy mountains, rendering the air delightfully cool; during the intermediate hours, however, the thermometer frequently rises to 94°; and the clouds of dust arising from the concourse of people, together with their beasts of burden, collected at this place, add considerably to the annoyance sustained from the heat.

The principal road to Hurdwar lies through the town of Khunkul, which is also a Teerut, or place of Hindoo pilgrimage, overlooking the Ganges: it is very well built, and adorned with several commodious ghauts, constructed of cut freestone, landing-places descending by long flights of steps into the river. This town chiefly consists of one principal street, running north and south parallel with the course of the water, and composed of handsome houses belonging to rich merchants and brahmins from every part of India. In fact, the ownership of a house at Khunkul, shews the proprietor to be a man of great wealth, and considerable importance in society. It is like possessing a place at Melton Mowbray. The greater number of these mansions are unhappily disfigured by paintings, executed in a very barbarous manner in the most glaring colours, without, of course, the slightest attention either to shadow, proportion, or perspective. The house-tops are covered with troops of monkeys, animals sufficiently sagacious to discover those places in which their species is held in reverence. These creatures are sacred in every stronghold of Hindoo superstition, and from their multitudes become perfect nuisances, it being difficult to prevent their invasion into every apartment of a private residence. There are at Khunkul numerous serais for the accommodation of the people who resort to it at the time of the fair; and when full, these long quadrangular buildings, furnished all round with suites of small apartments, present a very singular appearance—men, women, and children, in large families, being thrust into an exceedingly circumscribed space, with cattle of every kind, bullocks, horses, camels, donkeys, and mules, together with other live-stock, biped and quadruped.

 

The new road, which runs direct to Hurdwar, and for which the old one on the back of the river is entirely deserted, forms a very amusing drive. On either side, for the distance of two miles, are to be seen the large and handsome tents belonging to the civil and military officers of the Company, who visit the fair upon duty, either to assist in keeping the peace, or for the purchase of horses for the cavalry regiments; while others, who have nothing save pleasure in view, establish themselves in the same encampment. These canvass dwellings are diversified by the more substantial country abodes of rich natives, occurring amid large mango groves, and having showy gardens pranked with flowers. So great is the necessity for temporary habitations during the fair, that artificers resort to the neighbourhood of Hurdwar from a considerable distance, in order to construct them of thatch and grass-mats upon a bamboo frame. These houses, or huts, are rendered both sun and water proof, and add considerably to the picturesque effect of the scene. The town of Hurdwar bears a striking resemblance to that of its neighbour Khunkul, but is apparently of more ancient date; it completely skirts the Ganges, many of the best houses having their foundations in the bed of the sacred river. These are generally constructed of brick, the lower stories of a great number being of very fine white free-stone, a material which is found in the neighbourhood, while lime-stone of good quality is met with close at hand, in the bed of the stream. The Ganges, during the rainy season, is a mile in width at Hurdwar, pursuing its course between low woody islands, some of which afford very commodious encamping ground. On the west bank the eye rests upon a ridge of hills rising to the height of six hundred feet, covered with thick brushwood, mingled with trees. These hills are cleft in many places into rugged ravines, which afford ample cover to numerous wild beasts. The back-ground of the landscape is formed of part of the range of blue mountains, from six to eight thousand feet in height, which conceal the base of the Himalaya, or snowy region, and fill up the distance in the most magnificent manner possible.

It is difficult to afford any idea of the grandeur and beauty of the inanimate objects which render Hurdwar one of the places best worthy of a traveller's attention in India, but still more so to convey even a faint notion of the swarms of living creatures, men and beasts of every description, which occupy every foot of ground during the time of the fair, multitudes of cows, horses, bullocks, camels, elephants, ponies, and mules from Osbeck Tartary to Benares, are crowded together, rendering the scene in the highest degree animated and interesting: every thing is to be found at the fair, though horses form its principal attraction. The horse merchants from Bokhara and Cabool occupy the stony central parts of the river, while those from Torkistan take up their quarters in small enclosures behind the houses of the town. These men are famed for their ponies and galloways, animals of great power, called Toorkies, some of which bear very high prices. The elephant dealers incline to Khunkul, for the sake of fodder, but traverse the roads of the fair with their studs during the mornings and evenings, each elephant having a large bell attached to the neck, for the purpose of giving warning to passengers of their approach. The buneeas, or grain-sellers, hulwaees, or confectioners, cloth, shawl, and toy merchants, occupy the road-side close to the town, their dwelling-places being interspersed with small enclosures containing piles of barley and straw, heaped up, and ready for sale.

On the sides of the hill to the west, thousands of Seik families are to be seen, with their huts, tents, camels, bullocks, mules, and horses, thrown together, as it were, without order or method. Then come the tents of the better order of visitors, formed into groups of two or three, and constructed of white or striped canvass, gaily fringed, and ornamented with scalloped borderings of scarlet cloth. Then, again, are the tents of the superior horse-dealers, Arab or Persian merchants, who have brought splendid animals of the purest breed, for which they demand enormous prices; men, also, with bears, leopards, tigers, deer of all kinds, monkeys, Persian greyhounds, beautiful cats, and rare birds, for sale. Then there are heaps of assafoetida in bags from the mountains beyond Cabool, sacks of raisins of various kinds, pistachio nuts, almonds, and boxes of preserved apricots, and stalls filled with merchandise of every description, brazen vessels of all kinds, bead necklaces of many colours, rosaries, mouth pieces for pipes, of agate, cornelian, lapis-lazuli, and different kinds of marble, pearls, black and white chowries, or implements for keeping off flies, formed of the long bushy tail of the yak, the cow of Thibet; stones for seals of all descriptions; bangles, bracelets, armlets, and ornaments for the ankles, of silver or pewter; sable, tiger, leopard, ounce, and other skins; stuffed birds, the argus-eyed, golden, and other varieties of pheasant; idols of all kinds, together with their brazen stands, real and mock coral, garlands and necklaces of tinsel, looking-glasses framed in ivory, with mosaic work in imitation of fruits and flowers from Delhi; richly embroidered scarves, scull-caps, and slippers, toys executed in mother-of-pearl, bales of shawls, and jewels of high prices; broad-cloth, stationery, and cutlery, from England; perfumes from Paris, eau de Cologne, and many other articles too tedious to mention.

The crowd and confusion of buyers and sellers, the native groups in every imaginable costume, some shining in cloth of gold, and surrounded by followers splendidly arrayed, others less expensively but picturesquely dressed, and many half naked, or wildly clad, all mixed up with priests, soldiers, and religious mendicants, half beggar, half bandit, with here and there a cluster of Europeans mounted upon elephants, exhibit all together a concourse which no other place in the word can shew.

The noise baffles all description; the shouts and cries of men come mingled with the neighing of horses, the trumpeting of elephants, the grunts of camels, the lowing of cattle, the bellowing of bulls the screams of birds, and the loud sharp roars of the wild beasts; and, as if these were not enough, there are gongs and drums beating, trumpets blaring, conch-shells blowing, and bells ringing, which never cease for a single instant. In the midst of all this discord, regular musicians perform to groups assembled in different parts of the city or fair, the whole population coming out in the evening to enjoy themselves, and, amid the more melodious snatches which are caught here and there, the bugles of the British battalion may be heard, playing some well-remembered air, recalling, perhaps in "Ye banks and braes of bonny Doune," in the neighbourhood of the valley of that name, recollections of that northern land, which is the regretted birth-place of so many of the civil and military servants of the Company.

 

Frequently a large congregation of the magnates of the land are assembled at Hurdwar; the Begum Sumroo, during her lifetime, would make her appearance with a thousand horse, and fifteen hundred infantry; here also might be seen the Nuwab of Nujibabad, the Rajas of Ghuosgarh, Uchet, and Sadwa, the Putteeala Rajah and his Vakeel, whose attendants might be distinguished by their light yellow turbans and kumurbunds, or sashes, and another distinguished Hindoo, the Rajah of Balespore in the mountains; all of whom, the latter especially, making it a point to traverse the fair mornings and evenings. The Balespore Rajah made his appearance seated on a remarkably tall elephant, in a large howdah, overlaid with plates of solid silver, glistening in the sun, and covered with a pointed dome-like canopy of scarlet, supported on four silver pillars richly embossed. He wore a large white conical turban, and amid the jewels which adorned his person were two enormous pearls, set as ear-rings, the hoops being of gold three inches in diameter. A servant sate behind him, waving slowly backwards and forwards, over his head, one of the splendid chowries before mentioned, as an emblem of rank. Many of his relatives followed upon elephants, caparisoned in various degrees of splendour, surrounded by horsemen, not particularly well mounted, but showily dressed, capering and curvetting about, and decorated with gaudy housings. Besides these, were the usual rabble-rout on foot, the constant attendants upon Eastern sovereignty, crowding in the rear, heedless of the vicious animals rearing and leaping on all sides, as their riders fired off muskets, matchlocks, and pistols, making the adjacent hills reverberate with the sound. These wild pageants, with their mixture of pomp and meanness, are truly Oriental in their character, and in strict keeping with the barbaresque style of the buildings, and the untamed nature of the surrounding scenery.

Rhuts, four-wheeled carriages, abounded at the fair, the roofs covered with white linen, or scarlet cloth, and either terminating in a point with a gilt ornament, or perfectly flat: they were chiefly filled with women, of whom six or eight were crowded into one conveyance, small openings in the sides enabling them to reconnoitre the multitude, without becoming themselves visible. There were other vehicles also, two-wheeled cars, with sometimes as many as three roofs, united, of conical shape, and hung with tassels and costly fringe; these carriages were open, and drawn by bullocks, which had their horns painted of gaudy colours, the harness and housings studded with bells, and the small cowrie shell, and otherwise richly embroidered.

Troops of dancing girls had established themselves at Hurdwar during the fair, and were to be seen performing, either in front of the houses of rich persons, or in the interiors, all thrown open, and lighted up every evening. The whole of the river, town, and inhabited parts of the forest, presented a series of illuminations as soon as darkness commenced; this brilliant display being enlivened by occasional bursts of fireworks. Nothing could be more pleasing than the effect of the lamps sparkling and gleaming between the trees, while the islands and woody shores of the river were distinctly seen by the light of innumerable small vessels of oil, kindled and sent floating down the stream. Such are a few of the features of this extraordinary place; a few it may well be said, since it would be utterly impossible to note down a tenth part of the strange sights and scenes which greet the eye of the European traveller at this Oriental congress.

 

The whole of the battlements, terraces, and platforms, erected in the water, lining the side of the river, are covered with dense throngs of pilgrims, spectators, and priests, the European portion of the audience pushing their elephants into the water, in order to view, without inconvenience from the crowd, the bathing of the numerous devotees. The ceremony is simple enough, consisting merely of an offering of money, according to the abilities of the bather, to the officiating priest. Every separate ablution, and several are deemed essential, must be separately paid for, and when the pious worshipper of Gunga-jee has left the river, he is obliged to run the gauntlet through the priests of the temples on the banks, who assail every passer-by, whether Christian or pagan, with equal importunity. All the brahmins say, whether truly or not, that Lord William Bentinck, the late governor-general, honoured the holy land of Hurdwar by making a present of a thousand rupees to its priests,—a very injudicious method of attempting to obtain popularity, since it is construed into a secret recognition of the superiority of the Hindoo gods, and cannot fail to exalt the brahminical faith in the eyes of its professors, while at the same time it brings that of the rulers of the land into contempt. The Hindoos are excessively anxious to exact this mark of homage to their favourite deity, and endeavour to persuade the Christian visitors to deposit an offering, assuring them that Hurdwar is a holy place, and that they will not fail to procure some advantage in return.

 

 


Posted: 12 Sep 2018