A little way off, in the burning sandy plain, is a pagoda sacred to the pigeons. Lying as close as tiles, in the sun, they hide the roof under their snowy plumage. Round pots are hung all about the building, swaying in the wind, for the birds to nest in, a red decoration against the russet stone; each one contains an amorous and cooing pair.At a stopping-place a flock of sheep huddled together in terror, hens scuttered about clucking anxiously, the stable dogs crouched and slunk; high overhead a large eagle was slowly wheeling in the air.
At the bottom of the steps, almost in the street, was another school at the entrance to a temple. The children, in piercing tones, were all spelling together under the echoing vault, a terrible noise which seemed to trouble nobody.At the station pilgrims again, bewildered, shouting, rushing about in search of their lost luggage. One group presently emerged from the crowd, led by a man bareheaded, who rang a big bell with great gesticulations, his arms in the air, and the whole party marched off towards the temples in silent and orderly procession.
The same ubiquitous terminus on a sandy plain, remote from everything; then a drive jolting through bogs, and we reached the dirty, scattered town crowded with people who had collected round a sort of fair with booths for mountebanks, and roundabouts of wooden horses.
In an alley of the bazaar girls were lounging in hammocks hung to nails outside the windows, smoking and spitting down on the world below.We drove across a succession of parks to visit[Pg 175] Sumer Mundir, a too elaborately carved temple, the panels representing scenes from the Ramayana set in ornamental borders. On the roof, which bristled with sculptured stone, thousands of blue pigeons were perched asleep, their iridescent plumage scarcely stirring in the sunshine. Beyond a tank at the end of the park was a palace in the Arab style with incredibly delicate ornaments of wrought marble, open halls painted in subdued colouring, and lighted by the golden reflections from the water. The pool had steps all round it, in which crowds seat themselves on the occasions of pilgrimage, and far away the enchanting vision of Benares, the holy city, in every shade of amber and honey.
A smart affair altogether is this carriage! two very high wheels, no springs, a tiny cotton awning[Pg 269] supported on four sticks lacquered red, and sheltering the seat which has three ropes by way of a back to it. Portmanteaus and nosebags are hung all round, and even a kettle swings from the near shaft, adding the clatter of its cymbal to the Indian symphony of creaking wheels, the cracking whips, the driver's cries of "Cello, cello," and Abibulla's repeated "Djaldi," all intended to hurry the horse's pace.A kind of lemon plant, with picotee-like flowers of a texture like crystalline pearl, its petals delicately fringed, exhales a fresh scent like verbena. Then, on an ebony-tree, overgrown with succulent leaves forming an edging to every bough, is a bird—as it would seem—a lilac bird, with open wings, which, as we approach, turns into an orchid.At one corner of a bastion of the rampart rises the Jasmine tower, the empress's pavilion, built of amber-toned marble inlaid with gold and mother-of-pearl. A double wall of pierced lattice, as fine as a hand-screen, enclosed the octagon chamber; the doors, which were of massive silver jewelled with rubies, have been removed. The golden lilies inlaid in the panels have also disappeared, roughly torn out and leaving the glint of their presence in a warmer hue, still faintly metallic. Recesses in the wall, like porticoes, served for hanging dresses in, and low down, holes large enough to admit the hand, were hiding-places for jewels, between two slabs of marble. In front of the sultana's kiosk, basins in the form of shells, from which rose-water poured forth, go down like steps to a tank below.
Between the large parasols are thousands of little pagodas, formed of four columns and a roof, and sheltering idols wreathed with flowers, to whom the faithful pray and bring offerings. Garlands are for ever floating down-stream, jasmine and Indian pinks, and patches of scattered rose petals; and on the banks of the river, where the sand forms little bays, flowers lie in a hem of delicate colours.
A man in the fort always struck out the hours on a gong, very slowly, in the heat of the day. Twelve at noon was interminable—one, two, three were so feeble as to be scarcely audible. And then when it was cooler and the tom-toms could be heard in the distance, the strokes had a queer dislocated rhythm, and sometimes even a stroke too many, smothered in a hurried roll.[Pg 110]Among the officers was a young lady on horseback, her black habit covered with dust. Instead of the pith helmet that the English ladies disfigure themselves by wearing, she had a straw hat with a long cambric scarf as a pugaree. She was pretty and sat well, and at the last turning she pulled up and watched the men, the ammunition and the baggage all march past, saluted them with her switch, and cantered off to the town of "cottages." I saw her again in the afternoon, taking tea in her garden as she sat on a packing-case among eviscerated bales, and giving orders to a mob of slow, clumsy coolies, who were arranging the house.
From the top of the observatory, where instruments, all out of order, are to be seen on the deserted terraces, a staircase in a half-circle of stonework leads straight up to the open sky, and there the eye is dazzled by the view of Benares, all spread out below: the vast city of yellow stone, the cupolas of its temples, and its palaces stretching far along the Ganges, which slowly rolls its milky green waters under a sky of almost pearly whiteness; and in the distance the grassy plain of bright emerald green, lost on the horizon that throbs with the heat. Everything was wrapped in a halo rather than a haze, faintly blue with the smoke that went up from the funeral piles of the Hindoo dead.
Beyond a wide valley that lay far beneath us a mountain-range gleamed softly in the blue distance, starry and sapphire-hued above rising levels of delicate green. Here, in the fresher air, floated the fragrance of mosses and alpine flowers, and above the[Pg 127] cascades falling in showers we could see the tangle of climbing plants, ferns, orchids, and hibiscus, a swaying curtain all woven of leaves and blossoms.详情
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