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Internet Indian History Sourcebook

Mountstuart Elphinstone

Indian Customs and Manners, 1840

THE food of the common people, both in the country and in towns, is unleavened bread with boiled vegetables, clarified butter or oil, and spices. Smoking tobacco is almost the only luxury. Some few smoke intoxicating drugs; and the lowest castes only, and even they rarely, get drunk with spirits. Drunkenness is confined to damp countries, such as Bengal, the Concans, and some parts of the south of India. It increases in our territories where spirits are taxed; but is so little of a natural propensity that the absolute prohibition of spirits, which exists in most native states, is sufficient to keep it down. Opium, which is used to great excess in the west of Hindostan, is peculiar to the Rajputs and does not affect the lower classes. All but the poorest people chew betel (a pungent aromatic leaf), with the hard nut of the areca, mixed with a sort of lime made from shells, and with various spices, according to the person's means. Some kinds of fruit are cheap and common.

The upper classes, at least the Bramin part of them, have very little more variety; it consists in the greater number of kinds of vegetables and spices, and in the cookery. Assafoetida is a favorite ingredient, as giving to some of their richer dishes something of the flavor of flesh. The caution used against eating out of dishes or on carpets defiled by other castes gives rise to some curious customs. At a great Bramin dinner, where twenty or thirty different dishes and condiments are placed before each individual, all are served in vessels made of leaves sewed together. These are placed on the bare floor, which, as a substitute for a tablecloth, is decorated for a certain distance in front of the guests with patterns of flowers, etc., very prettily laid out in lively-colored sorts of sand, spread through frames in which the patterns are cut, and swept away after dinner. The inferior castes of Hindus eat meat, and care less for their vessels; metal, especially, can always be purified by scouring. In all classes, however, the difference of caste leads to a want of sociability. A soldier, or any one away from his family, cooks his solitary meal for himself, and finishes it without a companion, or any of the pleasures of the table, but those derived from taking the necessary supply of food. All eat with their fingers, and scrupulously wash before and after meals.

Though they have chess, a game played with tables and dice as backgammon is, and cards (which are circular, in many suits, and painted with Hindu gods, etc., instead of kings, queens, and knaves), yet the great indoor amusement is to listen to singing interspersed with slow movements which can scarcely be called dancing. The attitudes are not ungraceful, and the songs are pleasing; but it is, after all, a languid and monotonous entertainment; and it is astonishing to see the delight that all ranks take in it; the lower orders, in particular, often standing for whole nights to enjoy this unvaried amusement. These exhibitions are now often illuminated, when in rooms, by English chandeliers; but the true Hindu way of lighting them up is by torches held by men, who feed the flame with oil from a sort of bottle constructed for the purpose. For ordinary household purposes they use lamps of earthenware or metal.

In the houses of the rich, the doorways are hung with quilted silk curtains; and the doors, the arches, and other woodwork in the rooms are highly carved. The floor is entirely covered with a thin mattress of cotton over which is spread a clean white cloth to sit on; but there is no other furniture of any description. Equals sit in opposite rows down the room. A prince or great chief has a seat at the head of the room between the rows very slightly raised by an additional mattress, and covered with a small carpet of embroidered silk. This, with a high round embroidered bolster behind, forms what is called a masnad or gadi, and serves as a throne for sovereigns under the rank of king.

Great attention is paid to ceremony. A person of distinction is met a mile or two before he enters the city; and a visitor is received (according to his rank) at the outer gate of the house, at the door of the room, or by merely rising from the seat. Friends embrace if they have not met for some time. Bramins are saluted by joining the palms, and raising them twice or thrice to the forehead: with others, the salute with one hand is used, so well known by the Mahometan name of salaam. Bramins have a peculiar phrase of salutation for each other. Other Hindus on meeting repeat twice the name of the god Rama. Visitors are seated with strict attention to their rank, which on public occasions it often takes much previous negotiation to settle. Hindus of rank are remarkable for their politeness to inferiors, generally addressing them by some civil or familiar term, and scarcely ever being provoked to abusive or harsh language. The lower classes are courteous in their general manners among themselves, but by no means so scrupulous in their language when irritated. All visits end by the master of the house presenting betel leaf with areca nut, etc., to the guest: it is accompanied by attar of roses or some other perfume put on the handkerchief, and rosewater sprinkled over the person; and this is the signal for taking leave. At first meetings and at entertainments, trays of shawls and other materials for dresses are presented to the guests, together with pearl necklaces, bracelets, and ornaments for the turban of jewels: a sword, a horse, and an elephant are added when both parties are men of high rank. Such presents are also given to meritorious servants, to soldiers who have distinguished themselves, and to poets or learned men: they are showered on favorite singers and dancers.

At formal meetings nobody speaks but the principal persons, but in other companies there is a great deal of unrestrained conversation. The manner of the Hindus is polite, and their language obsequious. They abound in compliments and expressions of humility, even to their equals, and when they have no object to gain. They seldom show much desire of knowledge or disposition to extend their thoughts beyond their ordinary habits. Within that sphere, however, their conversation is shrewd and intelligent, often mixed with lively and satirical observations.

The rich rise at the same hour as the common people or perhaps not quite so early; perform their devotions in their own chapels; dispatch private and other business with their immediate officers and dependents; bathe, dine and sleep. At two or three they dress, and appear in their public apartments, where they receive visits and transact business till very late at night. Some also listen to music till late: but these occupations are confined to the rich and in general a Hindu town is quiet soon after dark.

Entertainments, besides occasions of rare occurrence, as marriages, etc., are given on particular festivals, and sometimes to show attention to particular friends. Among themselves they commence with a dinner; but the essential part of the entertainment is dancing and singing, sometimes diversified with jugglers and buffoons; during which time perfumes are burned, and the guests are dressed with garlands of sweet-smelling flowers; presents, as above described, are no less essential.

Among the most striking of the religious exhibitions is that of the capture of Lanka, in honor of Rama, which is necessarily performed out of doors. Lanka is represented by a spacious castle with towers and battlements, which are assailed by an army dressed like Rama and his followers, with Hanuman and his monkey allies. The combat ends in the destruction of Lanka, amidst a blaze of fireworks which would excite admiration in any part of the world, and in a triumphal procession sometimes conducted in a style of grandeur which might become a more important occasion.

This festival is celebrated in another manner, and with still greater splendor, among the Mahrattas. It is the day on which they always commence their military operations; and the particular event which they commemorate is Rama's devotions and his plucking a branch from a certain tree before he set out on his expedition. A tree of this sort is planted in an open plain near the camp or city; and all the infantry and guns, and as many of the cavalry as do not accompany the prince, are drawn up on each side of the spot, or form a wide street leading up to it. The rest of the plain is filled with innumerable spectators. The procession, though less regular than those of Mahometan princes, is one of the finest displays of the sort in India. The chief advances on his elephant, preceded by flags and gold and silver sticks or maces, and by a phalanx of men on foot bearing pikes of fifteen or sixteen feet long.

On each side are his nobles and military leaders on horseback, with sumptuous dresses and caparisons, and each with some attendants selected for their martial appearance; behind are long trains of elephants with their sweeping housings, some with flags of immense size, and glittering with gold and embroidery; some bearing howdahs, open or roofed, often of silver, plain or gilt, and of forms peculiarly Oriental: around and behind is a cloud of horsemen, their trappings glancing in the sun, and their scarfs of cloth of gold fluttering in the wind, all overtopped by sloping spears and waving banners; those on the flanks dashing out, and returning after displaying some evolutions of horsemanship: the whole moving, mixing, and continually shifting its form as it advances, and presenting one of the most animated and gorgeous spectacles that is ever seen, even in that land of barbarous magnificence. As the chief approaches, the guns are fired, the infantry discharge their pieces, and the procession moves on with accelerated speed, exhibiting a lively picture of an attack by a great body of cavalry on an army drawn up to receive them.

When the prince has performed his devotions and plucked his bough, his example is followed by those around him: a fresh salvo of all the guns is fired, and at the signal, the other troops break off, and each man snatches some leaves from one of the fields of tall grain which is grown for the purpose near the spot: each sticks his prize in his turban, and all exchange compliments and congratulations. A grand durbar, at which all the court and military officers attend, closes the day.

There is less grandeur, but scarcely less interest, in the fairs and festivals of the common people. These have a strong resemblance to fairs in England, and exhibit the same whirling machines and the same amusements and occupations. But no assemblage in England can give a notion of the lively effect produced by the prodigious concourse of people in white dresses and bright colored scarfs and turbans, so unlike the black headdresses and dusky habits of the North. Their taste for gaudy shows and processions and the mixture of arms and flags give also a different character to the Indian fairs. The Hindus enter into the amusements of these meetings with the utmost relish, and show every sign of peaceful festivity and enjoyment. They may, on all these occasions, have some religious ceremony to go through, but it does not take up a moment, and seldom occupies a thought. At the pilgrimages, indeed, the long anticipation of the worship to be performed, the example of other pilgrims invoking the god aloud, and the sanctity of the place, concur to produce stronger feelings of devotion. There are also more ceremonies to be gone through, and sometimes these are joined in by the whole assembly; when the thousands of eyes directed to one point, and of voices shouting one name, is often impressive even to the least interested spectator. But even at pilgrimages, the feeling of amusement is much stronger than that of religious zeal; and many such places are also among the most celebrated marts for the transfer of merchandise and for all the purposes of a fair.

The regular dress of all Hindus is probably that which has been mentioned as used in Bengal, and which is worn by all strict Bramins. It consists of two long pieces of white cotton cloth, one of which is wrapped round the middle and tucked up between the legs, while part hangs down a good deal below the knees; the other is worn over the shoulders, and occasionally stretched over the head, which has no other covering. The head and beard are shaved, but a long tuft of hair is left on the crown. Mustachios are also worn, except perhaps by strict Bramins. Except in Bengal, all Hindus who do not affect strictness now wear the lower piece of cloth smaller and tighter, and over it a white cotton or chintz or silk tunic, a colored muslin sash round the middle, and a scarf of the same material over the shoulders, with a turban; some wear loose drawers like the Mahometans.

The full dress is a long white gown of almost transparent muslin, close over the body, but in innumerable loose folds below the waist. This, with the sash and turban, bracelets, necklaces, and other jewels and ornaments, make the dress complete. As this dress is partly borrowed from the Mahometans, and cannot be very ancient, it is singular that it should be accurately represented in some of the figures of kings on the tombs at Thebes in Egypt, where the features, attitudes, and everything else are, by a remarkable coincidence (for it can be nothing more) exactly what is seen in a Hindu rajah of the present day.

The dress of the women is nearly the same as that first described for the men; but both the pieces of cloth are much larger and longer, and they are of various bright colors as well as white. Both sexes wear many ornaments. Men even of the lower orders wear earrings bracelets, and necklaces. They are sometimes worn as a convenient way of keeping all the money the owner has; but the necklaces are sometimes made of a particular berry that hardens into a rough but handsome dark brown bead, and sometimes of particular kinds of wood turned; and these are mixed alternately with beads of gold or coral. The neck and legs are bare; but on going out, embroidered slippers with a long point curling up are put on, and are laid aside again on entering a room or a palanquin. Children are loaded with gold ornaments, which gives frequent temptation to child-murder.

It is well known that Indian widows sometimes sacrifice themselves on the funeral pile of their husbands, and that such victims are called suttees. The practice is ascribed by our missionaries to the degraded condition to which a woman who outlives her husband is condemned. If the motive were one of so general an influence, the practice would scarcely be so rare. It is more probable that the hopes of immediately entering on the enjoyment of heaven and of entitling the husband to the same felicity, as well as the glory attending such a voluntary sacrifice, are sufficient to excite the few enthusiastic spirits who go through this awful trial.

The mode of cremation is various: in Bengal, the living and dead bodies are stretched on a pile where strong ropes and bamboos are thrown across them so as to prevent any attempt to rise. In Orissa, the woman throws herself into the pyre, which is below the level of the ground. In the Deccan, the woman sits down on the pyre, with her husband's head in her lap, and remains there till suffocated, or crushed by the fall of a heavy roof of logs of wood, which is fixed by cords to posts at the corners of the pile.

The sight of a widow burning is a most painful one; but it is hard to say whether the spectator is most affected by pity or admiration. The more than human serenity of the victim, and the respect which she receives from those around her, are heightened by her gentle demeanor and her care to omit nothing in distributing her last presents, and paying the usual marks; of courtesy to the bystanders; while the cruel death that awaits her is doubly felt from her own apparent insensibility to its terrors. The reflections which succeed are of a different character, and one is humiliated to think that so feeble a being can be elevated by superstition to a self-devotion not surpassed by the noblest examples of patriots or martyrs.

I have heard that in Gujarat women about to burn are often stupefied with opium. In most other parts this is certainly not the case. Women go through all the ceremonies with astonishing composure and presence of mind, and have been seen seated, unconfined, among the flames, apparently praying, and raising their joined hands to their heads with as little agitation as at their ordinary devotions.

On the other hand, frightful instances have occurred of women bursting from amidst the flames, and being thrust back by the assistants. One of these diabolical attempts was made in Bengal when an English gentleman happened to be among the spectators, and succeeded in preventing the accomplishment of the tragedy; but next day he was surprised to encounter the bitterest reproaches from the woman for having been the occasion of her disgrace and the obstacle to her being then in heaven enjoying the company of her husband and the blessings of those she had left behind.

The practice is by no means universal in India. It never occurs to the south of the river Kishna; and under the Bombay presidency, including the former sovereignty of the Bramin Peshwas, it amounts to thirty-two in a year. In the rest of the Deccan it is probably more rare. In Hindostan and Bengal it is so common that some hundreds are officially reported as burned annually within the British dominions alone.

The Emperor Akbar tried to put an end to the burning of widows, but did not succeed. As the Hindus insisted that the rite was a part of their religion, the English did not for many years venture to oppose it by the making of any law. At length, Lord William Bentinck, Governor-General, proposed in 1829 a regulation in Council declaring all who abetted the suttee to be guilty of "culpable homicide." There was opposition on the part of Europeans as well as natives, but the regulation was carried.


From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. II: India, Persia, Mesopotamia, and Palestine, pp. 169-179.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton.

This text is part of the Internet Indian History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall November1998

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