Thursday, April 25, 2013

Letters from India: "We horrid English"

As a birthday present last year I received Marian Fowler's Below the Peacock Fan: First Ladies of the Raj through which I was then introduced to an Englishwoman named Emily Eden (3 March 1797 – 5 August 1869) who gave the following account of her visit to Delhi. The perfect 10 minute procrastination for anyone still writing term papers.

Emily Eden by Simon Jacques Rochard, 1835
 Camp, Delhi, Feb. 20.

This identical Delhi is one of the few sights, indeed the only one except Lucknow, that has quite equalled my expectations. Four miles round it there is nothing to be seen but gigantic ruins of mosques and palaces, and the actual living city has the finest mosque we have seen yet. It is in such perfect preservation, built entirely of red stone and white marble, with immense flights of marble steps leading up to three sides of it; these, the day we went to it, were entirely covered with people dressed in very bright colours—Sikhs, and Mahrattas, and some of the fair Mogul race, all assembled to see the Governor-General's suwarree, and I do not think I ever saw so striking a scene. They followed us into the court of the temple, which is surmounted by an open arched gallery, and through every arch there was a view of some fine ruins, or of some part of the King of Delhi's palace, which is an immense structure two miles round, all built of deep red stone, with buttresses and battlements, and looks like an exaggerated scene of Timour the Tartar, and as if little Agib was to be thrown instantly from the highest tower, and Fatima to be constantly wringing her hands from the top of the battlements. There are hundreds of the Royal family of Delhi who have never been allowed to pass these walls, and never will be. Such a melancholy red stone notion of life as they must have! G. went up to the top of one of the largest minarets of the mosque and has been stiff ever since. From there we went to the black mosque, one of the oldest buildings in India, and came home under the walls of the palace. We passed the building in which Nadir Shah sat for a whole day looking on while he allowed his troops to massacre and plunder the city. These eastern cities are so much more thickly inhabited than ours, and the people look so defenceless, that a massacre of that sort must be a horrible slaughter; but I own I think a little simple plunder would be pleasant. You never saw such an army of jewellers as we have constantly in our tents. On Saturday morning I got up early and went with Major J. to make a sketch of part of the palace, and the rest of the day was cut up by jewellers, shawl merchants, dealers in curiosities, &c. &c., and they begin by asking us such immense prices, which they mean to lower eventually, that we have all the trouble of seeing the things twice.

Yesterday we went to the church built by Colonel Skinner. He is a native of this country, a half-caste, but very black, and talks broken English. He has had a regiment of irregular horse for the last forty years, and has done all sorts of gallant things, had seven horses killed under him, and been wounded in proportion; has made several fortunes and lost them; has built himself several fine houses, and has his zenana and heaps of black sons like any other native. He built this church, which is a very curious building, and very magnificent—in some respects; and within sight of it there is a mosque which he has also built, because he said that one way or the other he should be sure to go to heaven. In short, he is one of the people whose lives ought to be written for the particular amusement of succeeding generations. His Protestant church has a dome in the mosque fashion, and I was quite afraid that with the best dispositions to attend to Mr. Y., little visions of Mahomet would be creeping in. Skinner's brother, Major Robert Skinner, was the same sort of melodramatic character, and made a tragic end. He suspected one of his wives of a slight ecart from the path of propriety—very unjustly, it is said—but he called her and all his servants together, cut off the heads of every individual in his household, and then shot himself. His soldiers bought every article of his property at ten times its value, that they might possess relics of a man who had shown, they said, such a quick sense of honour.

G. and I took a drive in the evening all round the cantonments, and there is really some pretty scenery about Delhi, and great masses of stone lying about, which looks well after those eternal sands.

In the afternoon we all (except G., who could not go, from some point of etiquette) went to see the palace. It is a melancholy sight — so magnificent originally, and so poverty-stricken now. The marble hall where the king sits is still very beautiful, all inlaid with garlands and birds of precious stones, and the inscription on the cornice is what Moore would like to see in the original: 'If there be an Elysium on earth, it is this, it is this!' The lattices look out on a garden which leads down to the Jumna, and the old king was sitting in the garden with a chowrybadar waving the flies from him; but the garden is all gone to decay too, and ' the Light of the World' had a forlorn and darkened look. All our servants were in a state of profound veneration; the natives all look upon the King of Delhi as their rightful lord, and so he is, I suppose. In some of the pavilions belonging to the princes there were such beautiful inlaid floors, any square of which would have made an enviable table for a palace in London, but the stones are constantly stolen; and in some of the finest baths there were dirty charpoys spread, with dirtier guards sleeping on them. In short, Delhi is a very suggestive and moralising place—such stupendous remains of power and wealth passed and passing away— and somehow I feel that we horrid English have just 'gone and done it,' merchandised it, revenued it, and spoiled it all. I am not very fond of Englishmen out of their own country. And Englishwomen did not look pretty at the ball in the evening, and it did not tell well for the beauty of Delhi that the painted ladies of one regiment, who are generally called 'the little corpses' (and very hard it is too upon most corpses) were much the prettiest people there, and were besieged with partners.

Source: Emily Eden, Up The Country: Letters Written to Her Sister from the Upper Provinces of India (1867), 94-98. Available here.

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