Studies from an eastern home
An Indian amulet
IT lies beside me as I write, a heavy heart-shaped ornament, in pale old bronze. On it, in low relief, is a quaint design of peacocks, pecking their mutual beaks into a conventional-looking pot of basil that stands between them. Its worth, in money, is some few farthings. For little more it was bought; sold, doubtless, for something less; and it is worn only by such as can at no time in their frugal lives afford the few shillings necessary to buy its like in silver.
And yet, poor as it is, this Indian amulet may have been an heirloom in its time. Generation after generation of mothers may have worn it daily, as they went forth at dawn, and came back at sunset; worn it alike at toil and at rest. Time after time may it have been handed on to the little daughter on her marriage, or to the daughter-in-law when welcomed for the first time to the peasant-home. Or the chain, or string of coins, on which it hung, has been unclasped for ever maybe by the wearer in the bitter hours of widowhood, or reverently lifted by a sorrowful son or daughter
ere the dead form of the mother was borne forth to the village burning-ghât. For it belongs, this simple rustic ornament, to another order than the present. It comes of the time when no hard-and-fast line divided art from industry; when, every need being met by manual toil, the enthusiasm of the creator limited his work, and possessions could not be quickly changed but must be made strong to accumulate from age to age. The farmhouse kitchen of a century ago in Europe, shining with oak and brass; the border of the Kashmir shawl in India, transferred by skilful fingers from one web to another; and this amulet of mine, are not modern in kind and origin, but mediæval.
If only it could utter all the secrets it may remember, what might we not hope to hear! For according to the customs of Silâo, whence it came, the place of this amulet is over the heart of the village maid. Thus it has lain year in year out; and of the things that tell themselves in silence, by the catching of a breath or the quickening of a pulse; of the long sweet tale of wifely happiness and motherly cares; of the struggle with poverty and the achievement of prosperity; of moments of rapture and insight, kneeling before some image in a temple, or watching the cows wend home at time of cowdust--of all these things how much it has heard! How much, could it but speak, it might reveal!
And yet the story, told in such fashion and from such a viewpoint, might after all seem strangely familiar. For it is open to question whether there be much distance between the humanity of any two villages, though one be Indian and the other English or Italian. In externals, of course, their characteristics are strongly marked--there is no mistaking one for another. I cannot forget the first time I saw that ancient market-town in Behar, which is known as Silâo. How interesting a province is Behar itself! The traveller in Brittany has heard the peasants talk of "going into France," and similarly in Behar, though it is an integral part of Bengal, one drops instinctively into the Breton attitude, and thinks of the Gangetic Plain as of a foreign country. And Silâo is really ancient, in the Eastern sense. It is only a tiny township, built of mud, yet it is quite possible that its popped rice was as famous in the countryside thirty-five centuries ago as it is to-day. So long since, at least, was probably the first appearance of the neighbourhood on the stage of history. The very dust is fraught with memories. On the time-worn highroad, between Baragaon, the old university of Nalanda, and Rajgir, the pre-Asokan capital of the kings of Bengal, stands the village, in the midst of the far-stretching green of its fields of rice. And through it Buddha must have passed, ere he overtook
the great multitude of goats going up to the sacrifice, and, according to the legend, lifted the lame kid and carried it on his neck, that it might keep pace with the herds. Often and often, even now, one may meet with such good shepherds on the roads about Silâo, and still better, a few miles farther on, outside the modern village of Rajgir. Daily there, from dawn almost till noon, the constant patter of hoofs large and small betokens the passing of hundreds of cows, buffaloes, sheep, and goats out of the village, through the mountain-defile, with its hot springs, into the pastures that cover to-day the hillsides and the ruins of Old Rajgir. And here again, as afternoon draws on to dusk, one may witness the return homeward of the flocks, or, later, watch while a missing cow or two comes crashing through the brushwood, in answer to the call of the herdsman from the outstanding rocks by the stream-side. It is then that one may be happy enough to meet a belated goat-herd, his form looming larger than common through the quickly-passing twilight, who could not but have lingered, because, while he bears some footsore little one, he also leads perhaps a weary mother, tenderly, along the darkening road.
There are women-tenders of the herds, as well as men. Tall they are, and free of gait, very gentle, and very very proud, these Hindu women of the old rustic world. Their costumes alone
would be sufficient to mark them out as beautiful and distinguished, though they are mere peasant folk; for it is rarely that one meets here even a widow wearing the stainless white of the higher classes of Bengal. Crimson and green and scarlet are, in Behar, the favourite colours for the sari--that long broad scarf, which forms the main garment as well as the veil of the Indian woman. The coarse clinging cotton, covering the head and falling thence to the waist to form the skirt, is embroidered all over, in a bold effective stitch, with the little curling pine-cone, or palmetto, that is so characteristic an element in Indian decoration. Long long ago these women have forgotten its why and wherefore. They would not dream of connecting their adoption of the admired design with the emblematic jewel on a royal turban; and yet it is not unlikely that their constant use of the pattern perpetuates the fact that six hundred years, or perhaps a thousand, before Christ, Rajgir was a King's burgh.
Quite as beautiful as the sari, in its own way, is the little bodice--oftenest of dark blue, outlined with scarlet--that covers the bust and falls severely from the throat to conceal the head of the skirt. It is cut back at the neck leaving the head free, and the tight sleeves go only half-way to the elbow. Its greatest beauty, however, lies in its straightness; there is very little cutting-out in
ancient costume. In the Greek chiton, the Japanese kimono, the Himalayan choga, and in this jama and sari of Northern India there is too much respect for the lines of material to suffer the figure-modelling that we call dress-making. So this Behari blouse or jama is made only of four pieces--two breadths back and front and a half-breadth added under each arm, as modistes might say--and they are all straight. But oh, how lissom and willowy is the figure within! And how commandingly beautiful is often the dark face, with its large brown eyes shadowed by the rich colours of the veil!
It was our first visit to Silâo, and we were in the very middle of the bazaar, where three roads meet. We had clattered in our noisy vehicles up the village street; past the old brass-shop, where an Indian girl-friend, who had come like myself from the city, would one day find and bring to me my amulet; past the village school, where twelve or fifteen tousle-headed urchins were learning the three R's with the mud floor for writing-surf ace; past the confectioners' shops, with the fishes and peacocks cut in brass swinging in a row along the front for sign-boards. We had reached the very thickest part of the modest traffic, and had swung recklessly round the corner to the right, when, a few paces down the street we were leaving on one side, we caught sight of a girl
standing--tall, starry-eyed, and queenly. Her age may have been eighteen or twenty. She was dressed in green, and stood there--sky and temple in the background--with the frank look of a child, entirely unconscious of observation. But her arms held the long stems, while the white buds slept against each shoulder, of two great sheaves of water-lilies.
So buying and selling and eating and clothing are not the whole life of Silâo. It was another proof, could one have been so foolish as to need more, that no poet from the city can ever gaze so deep as the farm and forest folk themselves into the beauty of Nature. For these blossoms had been gathered but an hour before, from the ponds among the rice-fields. They are the commonest wild things of that peasant world, where they are known as "the lovers of the moon," because they open at nightfall--unlike the lordly lotus, who watches open-eyed the footsteps of the sun. And here they were offered for sale by one who had looked into their golden hearts and known their loveliness, to any who might be fain to lay flowers and prayers at the feet of God in the temple beyond. The green-clad woman with her lilies stood in the busy market-place, as the silent incarnation of the call to morning worship.
O sane and simple life of the Indian villages, firm-poised betwixt the Unseen and the Seen! is
it of this my amulet would speak to me? Coming from some other peasant woman, in all likelihood dead and gone, is the message that her lips too would utter through it if they could, this same, of priest and chant and worshipper, and of some tiny tabernacle, shadowed and lily-strewn and cool, that stands in an Indian village as the place of morning-prayer?
- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.