Old Deccan Days/Introduction
With the exception of two or three, which will be recognised as substantially identical with stories of Pilpai or other well-known Hindoo fabulists, I never before heard any of these tales among the Mahrattas, in that part of the Deccan where the Narrator and her family have lived for the last two generations; and it is probable that most of the stories were brought from among the Lingaets of Southern India, the tribe, or rather sect, to which Anna de Souza tells us her family belonged before their conversion to Christianity.
The Lingaets form one of the most strongly marked divisions of the Hindoo races south of the river Kistna. They are generally a well-favoured, well-to-do people, noticeable for their superior frugality, intelligence, and industry, and for the way in which they combine and act together as a separate body apart from other Hindoos. They have many peculiarities of costume, of social ceremony, and of religion, which strike even a casual observer; and though clearly not aboriginal, they seem to have much ground for their claim to belong to a more ancient race, and an earlier wave of immigration, than most of the Hindoo nations with which they are now intermingled.
The country they inhabit is tolerably familiar to most English readers on Indian subjects, for it is the theatre of many of the events described in the great Duke's earlier despatches, and in the writings of Munro, of Wilkes, and Buchanan. The extraordinary beauty of some of the natural features of the coast scenery, and the abundance of the architectural and other remains of powerful and highly civilised Hindoo dynasties, have attracted the attention of tourists and antiquaries, though not to the extent their intrinsic merit deserves. Some knowledge of the land tenures and agriculture of the country is accessible to readers of Indian Blue-books.
But of all that relates to the ancient history and politics of the former Hindoo sovereigns of these regions very little is known to the general reader, though from their power, and riches, and longsustained civilisation, as proved by the monuments these rulers have left behind them, there are few parts of India better worth the attention of the historian and antiquary.
Of the inner life of the people, past or present, of their social peculiarities and popular beliefs, even less is known or procurable in any published form. With the exception of a few graphic and characteristic notices of shrewd observers like Munro, little regarding them is to be found in the writings of any author likely to come in the way of ordinary readers.
But this is not from want of materials; a good deal has been published in India, though with the common fate of Indian publications,--the books containing the information are often rare in English collections, and difficult to meet with in England, except in a few public libraries. Of unpublished material there must be a vast amount, collected not only by our Government servants, but by missionaries, and others residing in the country, who have peculiar opportunities for observation, and for collecting information not readily to be obtained by a stranger or an official. Collections of this kind are specially desirable as regards the popular non-Brahminical superstitions of the lower orders.
Few, even of those who have lived many years in India and made some inquiry regarding the external religion of its inhabitants, are aware how little the popular belief of the lower classes has in common with the Hindooism of the Brahmins, and how much it differs in different provinces, and in different races and classes in the same province.
In the immediate vicinity of Poona, where Brahminism seems so orthodox and powerful, a very little observation will satisfy the inquirer that the favourite objects of popular worship do not always belong to the regular Hindoo Pantheon. No orthodox Hindoo deity is so popular in the Poona Deccan as the deified sage Vithoba and his earlier expounders, both sage and followers being purely local divinities. Wherever a few of the pastoral tribes are settled, there Byroba, the god of the herdsmen, or Kundoba, the deified hero of the shepherds, supersedes all other popular idols. Byroba the Terrible, and other remnants of Fetish or of Snake-worship, everywhere divide the homage of the lower castes with the recognised Hindoo divinities, while outside almost every village the circle of large stones sacred to Vetal, the demon-god of the outcast helot races, which reminds the traveller of the Druid circles of the northern nations, has for ages held, and still holds, its ground against all Brahminical innovations.
Some of these local or tribal divinities, when their worshippers are very numerous or powerful, have been adopted into the Hindoo Olympus as incarnations or manifestations of this or that orthodox divinity, and one or two have been provided with elaborate written legends connecting them with known Puranic characters or events; but, in general, the true history of the local deity, if it survives at all, is to be found only in popular tradition; and it thus becomes a matter of ethnological and historical importance to secure all such fleeting remnants of ancient superstition before they are forgotten as civilisation advances.
Some information of this kind is to be gleaned from the present series of legends, though, the object of the collector being rather amusement than antiquarian research, any light which is thrown on the popular superstitions of the country is only incidental.
Of the superhuman personages who appear in them the 'Rakshas' is the most prominent. This being has many features in common with the Demoniacal Ogre of other lands. The giant bulk and terrible teeth of his usual form are the universal attributes of his congener. His habit of feasting on dead bodies will remind the reader of the Arabian Ghoul, while the simplicity and stupidity which qualify the supernatural powers of the Rakshas, and usually enable the quick-witted mortal to gain the victory over him, will recall many humorous passages in which giants figure in our own Norse and Teutonic legends.
The English reader must bear in mind that in India beings of this or of a very similar nature are not mere traditions of the past, but that they form an important part of the existing practical belief of the lower orders. Grown men will sometimes refuse every inducement to pass at night near the supposed haunt of a Rakshas, and I have heard the cries of a belated traveller calling for help attributed to a Rakshas luring his prey. Nor is darkness always an element in this superstition: I have known a bold and experienced tracker of game solemnly assert that figures which he had been for some time keenly scanning on the bare summit of a distant hill were beings of this order, and he was very indignant at the laugh which his observation provoked from his less experienced European disciple. 'If your telescope could see as far as my old eyes,' the veteran said, 'or if you knew the movements of all the animals of this hunting-ground as well as I do, you would see that those must be demons and nothing else. No men nor animals at this time of day would collect on an open space and move about in that way. Besides, the large rock close by them is a noted place for demons; every child in the village knows that.'
I have heard another man of the same class, when asked why he looked so intently at a human footstep in the forest pathway, gravely observe that the footmark looked as if the foot which made it had been walking heel foremost, and must therefore have been made by a Rakshas, 'for they always walked so, when in human form.'
Another expressed particular dread of a human face the eyes of which were placed at an exaggerated angle to each other, like those of a Chinese or Malay, 'because that position of the eyes was the only way in which you could recognise a Rakshas in human shape.'
In the more advanced and populous parts of the country the Rakshas seem giving way to the 'Bhoot,' which nearly resembles the mere ghost of modern European superstition; but even in this diluted form such beings have an influence over Indian imaginations to which it is difficult in these days to find any parallel in Europe.
I found, quite lately, a traditionary order in existence at Government House, Dapoorie, near Poona, which directed the native sentry on guard 'to present arms if a cat or dog, jackal or goat, entered or left the house or crossed near his beat' during certain hours of the night, 'because it was the ghost' of a former Governor, who was still remembered as one of the best and kindest of men.
How or when the custom originated I could not learn, but the order had been verbally handed on from one native sergeant of the guard to another for many years, without any doubts as to its propriety or authority, till it was accidentally overheard by an English officer of the Governor's staff.
In the hills and deserts of Sind the belief in beings of this order, as might be expected in a wild and desolate country, is found strong and universal; there, however, the Rakshas has changed its name to that of our old friend the 'Gin' of the Arabian Nights, and he has somewhat approximated in character to the Pwcca or Puck of our own country. The Gin of the Beelooch hills is wayward and often morose, but not necessarily malignant. His usual form is that of a dwarfish human being with large eyes, and covered with long hair, and apt to breathe with a heavy snoring kind of noise. From the circumstantial accounts I have heard of such 'Gins' being seen seated on rocks at the side of lonely passes, I suspect that the great horned eagle owl, which is not uncommon in the hill-country of Sind, has to answer for many well-vouched cases of Gin apparition.
The Gin does not, however, always retain his own shape; he frequently changes to the form of a camel, goat, or other animal. If a Gin be accidentally met, it is recommended that the traveller should show no sign of fear, and above all should keep a civil tongue in his head, for the demon has a special aversion to bad language. Every Beelooch has heard of instances in which such chance acquaintanceships with Gins have not only led to no mischief, but been the source of much benefit to the fortunate mortal who had the courage and prudence to turn them to account, for a Gin once attached to a man will work hard and faithfully for him, and sometimes show him the entrance to those great subterranean caverns under the hills, where there is perpetual spring and trees laden with fruits of gold and precious stones; but the mortal once admitted to this Paradise is never allowed to leave it. There are few neighbourhoods in the Beelooch hills which cannot show huge stones, apparently intended for building, which have been, 'as all the country-side knows,' moved by such agency, and the entrance to the magic cavern is never very far off, though the boldest Beelooch is seldom very willing to show or to seek for the exact spot.
Superstitions nearly identical were still current within the last forty years, when I was a boy, on the borders of Wales. In Cwm Pwcca (the Fairies' Glen), in the valley of the Clydach, between Abergavenny and Merthyr, the cave used to be shown into which a belated miner was decoyed by the Pwccas, and kept dancing for ten years; and a farm-house on the banks of the Usk, not far off, was, in the last generation, the abode of a farmer who had a friendly Pwcca in his service. The goblin was called Pwcca Trwyn, as I was assured from his occasionally being visible as a huge human nose. He would help the mortal by carrying loads and mending hedges, but usually worked only while the farmer slept at noon, and always expected as his guerdon a portion of the toast and ale which his friend had for dinner in the field. If none was left for him he would cease to work, and he once roused the farmer from his noontide slumbers by thrashing him soundly with his own hedging-stake, as a punishment for such neglect.
The Peris or Fairies of these stories have nothing distinctive about them. Like the fairies of other lands they often fall in love with mortal men, and are visible to the pure eyes of childhood when hidden from the grosser vision of maturer years.
Next to the Rakshas, the Cobra, or deadly hooded snake, plays the most important part in these legends as a supernatural personage. This is one only of the many traces still extant of that serpent-worship formerly so general in Western India. As Mr. Fergusson, in his work on Buddist antiquities, has thrown much light on this curious subject, I will only now observe that the serpent-worship as it still exists is something more active than a mere popular superstition. The Cobra, unless disturbed, rarely goes far from home, and is supposed to watch jealously over a hidden treasure. He is in the estimation of the lower classes invested with supernatural powers, and according to the treatment he receives he builds up or destroys the fortunes of the house to which he belongs. No native will willingly kill him if he can get rid of him in any other way; and the poorer classes always, after he is killed, give him all the honours of a regular cremation, assuring him, with many protestations, as the pile burns, 'that they are guiltless of his blood; that they slew him by order of their master,' or 'that they had no other way to prevent his biting the children or the chickens.'
A very interesting discussion on the subject of the Snake Race of Ancient India between Mr. Bayley and Baboo Rajendralal Mitr, will be found in the Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal for February 1867.
- Fergusson's Tree and Serpent Worship: Mythology and Art in India.