An Indian Study
It is empty now, the place on my desk where the little ship" of flowers has stood all day. But out on the chill edge of the Ganges, as darkness comes on, the tiny bark lies drifting hither and thither, scarcely determined yet betwixt ebb and flow, as we, with a few of the children, launched it an hour ago. It was early still, when we went down to the riverside, and as we turned away, but one worshipper had arrived besides ourselves—a solitary girl of eleven or twelve—to send her offering out to the Great Unknown. We stayed a while then and watched her as she carefully removed the sacramental food from her birch-bark vessel, and set in the stern the little light, and then floated it boldly on the waters. But after that, what could we do but stay and watch and watch with breathless interest, as long as ever the star shone clear in the fragile craft, that we know, with the turn of the tide, would reach the main current and be carried far out to sea ?
Ah, innumerable fleet of little nameless boats, floating on tanks and rivers in all the villages of Bengal to-night, bearing each your twinkling lamp into the all-enshrouding dark, how like ye are to life, how like to death !
For this is the last day of the Bengalee month of Pous. It is the day for pilgrimage to Gangasakar—the island where the river meets the sea. And more than this, it is the day of prayer for all travellers, all wanderers from their homes, and for all whose footsteps at nightfall shall not lead to their own door. It was in a crowded street this morning, as I passed the end of a small bazaar, that I noticed the eager faces and hurrying feet of men and women, hastening to carry to those at home their ships of flowers. They were rude enough, these little ships, that I too bought forthwith, to load with spoil of prayer and loving thought., Roughly pinned together, they were of the shining white core of the plantain-stem and masted and arched from stem to stem with splinters of bamboo run through the hearts of yellow marigolds. Here and there the dealers had made attempts to imitate more closely with coloured paper, flags and string, the sails and cordage of the old country-boats. But for the most part they were mere suggestions, glistering vessels and burning-hearted flowers.
Mere suggestions truly, but of what? Can we not see the quiet women, sitting absorbed before the symbol at their feet, loading it with offerings, bel leaves, flowers, consecrated fruits and grain; and praying, with each fresh gift, for some beloved life, that through the coming year it may go safe amidst whatever tide, that even now, if peril somewhere threatens it, it may be brought safe back ? Have we not here today the perfect picture of humanity, man battling on the distant frontier-line of toilsome life, and women for love's sake, not for God's, holding fast to prayer? One thinks of the cry of the Jew, sonorous through the ages, the Jew, who loved not the sea, but lifted his eyes to the hills to find his help, and lost himself between "I" and "thee" in an inflood of blessedness.
"The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in, from this time forth, and even for evermore." One thinks of the churches of Brittany and of the small model of a ship, barque de ma vie, that hangs before every altar and in every private oratory. And there comes back the echo of the sailor's cry, amidst surf and storm, Sainte Anne! Sainte Anne!!
Here too, in Bengal, we have a maritime people, once great amongst the world's seafarers, and here on the last day of Pous we celebrate the old-time going forth of merchant enterprise and exploration. It was a traffic cut off from that of Phoenicia, and the well-omened people of the middle sea, but unmistakably great in the East. China and Japan, Cambodia and Burma have welcomed the coming of these mariners of Bengal to their ports, being glad thereby for gain of wealth and honour. Fa-Hian, Hiouen-Tsang and I-ching are but three names out of the countless host of pilgrims to whom they belonged, who sought the shores of India and left them in the name of the knowledge and impulse that she had power to send to other and less-favoured peoples. But why cast our memory so far back? It is little more than a hundred years ago that Indian shipbuilding was famous through the world. And how should the seacraft of India win renown, if her merchants and sailors had not the courage to dare and die!
All day long from the altar-shelf above my desk, the flaming marigolds, like a curved line of sanctuary-lamps have shone down upon me and stirred a maze, a multitude of dreams and memories in heart and brain. "The Lord bless—the Lord bless—going out, coming in—and ever more, * * * " Hold we a moment! Let others pray for the well-being of their beloved! But as for me and mine, we pray for nations. And to-night we load our ship with the name and vision of a future glory, greater than that of the marigolds, greater than that of the past, the glory of Bengal that it is to be.—Indian World.