Home Life Works Articles Contact

Anna Jane Vardill

Relics of Popular Superstitions

The Pariah of Bombay

Towards the brilliant hour of sunset, in a spring evening, one of the noblest Brahmins in this island appeared on a parapet of rocks, extending into the bay, and began the ceremonies of the coco-nut feast by throwing a gilded shell into the sea. In a few moments the waves swarmed with more than a thousand shells launched as tributes to the bountiful element, while the shore resounded with the joyous clamours of tom-toms, pipes, trumpets, and the double flutes played by rough boys, resembling the young satyrs in antique bas-reliefs. Booths, gaily festooned with dyed cotton or splendid chintzes, and heaped with toys and sweetmeats, gave amusement to groups composed of every nation, class, and cast, in their best attire. But even the Brahmin who presided at this harmless superstition was not more disposed to good humour than Ibrahim Ahmed, a Dustoor or high-priest of the sect called Guebres or Parsees,[1] in India. He was still in the prime of life; his eminently graceful figure derived every possible advantage from the folds of his long white muslin Jamma, and the gay colours of the shawl which twined round his cap of crimson velvet, suited the laughing character of his face, while they contrasted the clear olive of its complexion. Accustomed to the festivities of the best Europeans in Bombay, and to the frank amenity of their opinions, he looked with more curiosity than contempt on the pageant of Hindoo bigotry. While tame snakes, and jugglers from Madras, amused his companions, his eyes were attracted by a female Pariah, one of the most reprobated class of outcasts. She held in her hand a lamp of fireflies, and was wading into the tide in quest of the cocoa-shells that swam near the shore; hoping, perhaps, to collect a few whose fibres might be used for cordage. Though her person was bowed by the constant drudgery of her unhappy class, and defiled by squalid habits, there was something in the arrangement of the shalie[2] contrived to answer the purpose of a petticoat and mantle, which revealed modesty and natural grace. And when she threw back the corner of this shalie, whose ragged ends had been gathered over her head as a veil, the beautiful black eyes beneath it made the Dustoor Ibrahim half regret the dignity of his own station. He thought with more than usual bitterness of the superstition that consigns the Pariahs to utter ignominy, and perhaps these thoughts occupied him so long that he forgot the Atshbaharam, or holy fire, which he ought to have kept alive. Those who recollect the objects of a Guebre’s superstition, know that a fire-temple contains two fires, one of which the vulgar may behold, but the other is preserved in the most holy recess, unvisited by the light of the sun, and approached only by the chief Dustoor or high-priest. It was necessary to remedy its extinction by fire brought from a funeral pile, and at this period Ibrahim knew not where to seek one, as his sect no longer burned their dead, holding it more advisable to return the body to air, by exposing it, than to earth, water, or fire. But as the Hindoos of Bombay burned human relics on the shore at low water, he folded himself in his shawl, and went forth to seek the materials from whence he might lawfully rekindle the consecrated fire so precious to a Guebre.

It was midnight when Ibrahim began his walk towards a cemetry on the shore, seldom visited at this hour, except by wild dogs; but the superstition of his sect had made these animals holy in his imagination, and he saw them with the feelings of friendliness, excited by his belief, that a dog would preserve his soul from evil spirits if present when he closed his eyes for ever. Ibrahim never started till he saw a skeleton-hand stretched to snatch one of the baskets of provisions which had been scattered as usual, by his orders, for the wandering dogs.[3] Presently, from beneath the cocoa-nut tree which over-shadowed the entrance of the cemetry, he saw a meagre woman creep towards a little mound of leaves, on which a child was lying. She offered some of the boiled rice she had found in the baskets to its lips, but they could not open. The miserable mother held it to her breast an instant and dropped it on the earth again, as if then conscious of its death. She heard the howlings of the famished dogs, and throwing them the rest of the food, more anxious to preserve her infant’s remains than herself, the Pariah laid a few of the freshest leaves together, and seemed preparing a grave among the urns and obelisks that adorn the burying place, when she saw Ibrahim standing near her. Aware how horribly the profanation of such holy ground might be avenged on a wretched outcast, she fled with a dismal shriek among the entangled cocoa-trees, and the good Guebre took up the body, determining to give it the most sacred funeral rites in consecrated fire. Covered in his robe, he brought his prize to the chamber of his priestly office, and looking on it more stedfastly, perceived that it still lived. He had, according to the custom of his sect, only one wife, and she was childless. This inſant boy justified the eastern proverb, which compares what is most lovely, to the loveliness of a child. An eastern poet would have compared its beauty as it lay in seeming death, to the Indian Cupid slain by Seeva. Ibrahim was skilled in medicinal science, and the weakness caused by famine was soon remedied. His wife consented to adopt the foundling, whose shape and features gave no indication of that coarseness usually found in the offspring of Pariahs; and the foster-father was careful to conceal whatever might raise a suspicion of its abhorred origin. His mansion was one of the most splendid in Bombay, and its gardens were now made delightful to him by the gambols of his new favourite. These gardens were watered, as is customary in the East, by means of a cistern, whose wheel was kept in constant motion by a buffalo. Ibrahim walked one day under his canopy of plantain-trees, wreathed with yellow roses, and inhabited by crouds of singing-birds, and admired the freshness of his shrubs, till he perceived the cistern which supplied them was worked, not by a beast of burden, but by a female Pariah. The human particles, even in the Guebre’s heart, were touched by this cruel spectacle; but his disgust was changed to surprise, when he heard that she had solicited the employment. He directed his superior servants to remove her to a detached apartment of his mansion, where several of her cast were busied in grinding rice, and performing the lower culinary offices. Chandela, as she was called, distinguished herself by the neatness of her labours; and it was soon remarked, that the rice-cakes she prepared for Ibrahim’s adopted son, were her favorite tasks. The boy loved honey, and as no hives were near, his foster-father was surprised to see his breakfast-table regularly furnished with a small quantity. The poor outcast had traced a bee, and lodged its nest among the moonflowers in his delicious garden to supply an addition to his luxuries. She brought the delicate winged creature which most resembles the humming-bird, to build its house on the fan-leaf of the palmyra-tree for his adopted son’s amusement, and spent hours in chasing away the tree-snake and cobra-nanilla from among the jasmine and scarlet mulberries, where he loved to play. Ibrahim was a learned and sincere Guebre, but he knew very little of human nature. He believed the fixed and deep contempt which his religion taught him for an outcast, was too strong to need defence; and had never guessed that men always begin to love whatever beautifies and enriches their felicity. As a Parsee, he was priviliged to take another wife, having no hope of progeny by the first; but the infamy attached to a Pariah, the utter ruin of his adopted son if his origin should be discovered, and his own high station, determined him either to resist, or banish the tempter. He made a thousand wise resolutions, and kept them all till he heard Chandela’s voice again. Ibrahim’s wife, married in her seventh year, and deprived of any motive to improve, was as indolently insipid as the ladies of a Bombay harem are usually found. Plaiting coloured threads, embroidering, making pastry, and chewing betel, had composed the history of her whole life, except when she awakened herself sufficiently to paint her eyebrows, and load the hems of her ears with jewels. When the roots of her hair, the palms of her hands, the soles of her feet, and the tips of her nails, were tinged with red, and her nose had its appropriate jewel, she was considered a Parsee-beauty of the first class, and by none more undoubtingly than herself. Therefore she looked with very contemptuous eyes on Chandela; but in the dullness of a life, which like Mahomet’s angels was composed only of sweetmeats, it was really some amusement to be jealous. Little Ahmed, as the adopted boy was called, had so much love for the poor Pariah, that no rebuke could prevent him from stealing among the remote shrubberies, or into the hut where she ground rice, to teach her all he learnt from the handmaids of the harem. She was soon able to play on his guitar, to thread beads, and above all to read the beautiful maxims ascribed to Chee, the Confucius of the Parsees. Ibrahim’s wife saw her new talents with affected pleasure, and asked her to sing for her amusement. Chandela complied with a voice of such sweetness, that she might have been mistaken for one of the female deities of music worshipped in the East, and was recompensed by a present of flowers and paung. The latter, consisting of chunam and betel-nut, wrapped in the leaf of an aromatic plant, is a compliment implying distinguished kindness, and cannot be refused without the highest affront. Chandela placed it on her forehead, and had opened her lips to receive its contents, when the playful boy snatched and attempted to taste them. The outcast mother uttered a scream of terror, and seizing the poisoned gift from her son’s hand, swallowed the whole.

Ibrahim saw and understood this touching scene. He had read the purpose of his wife’s malignant jealousy in her large stag eyes; and well aware that the sweetmeat she had poisoned had been exchanged by his own hand for a harmless mixture of ghee, poppy seeds, and sugar, left his house immediately to execute his own project. In the nearest bazaar lived a barber, whose gup or news shop was famous for good story-tellers and audacious buffoons. At that hour of night which brings the greatest troop of listeners to such shops, a new assistant appeared in this noted barber’s, and the first customer who presented his head to be shaven was a plump merchant of great weight in the Panchaït or village council of the Parsees. The new operator bowed with profound reverence three times, and made a long pause before he began his functions with a gravity so strange as to provoke a question. “Sir,” said the buffoon-barber, “I was thinking of Chreeshna’s cream pot and butter-ball;[4] and also I am trying to recollect how many ton may pass through the cleft of the penitent’s rock.” “Thou art but a lean fellow,” returned the merchant rather angrily, “but if thou wert measured by the weight of thy sins, I reckon nothing less than Jagger-naut’s bridge would let thee pass.” “Truly,” said the Barber sighing, “my neighbour, the rich merchant Ibrahim, is no fatter than I, yet he has marvellous need of a wide hole to creep through, if his sins are to be counted by inches and packed round him.” The honest merchant opened his eyes and ears with the avarice of curiosity at this hint, and sat with his new-shaven head bare more than an hour, while the barber arrived, after a prodigious preamble, at the best part of his story. “If your worshipful excellence will promise not to call me as a witness before the Parsee council, you shall hear a most strange secret. Ibrahim has corrupted his conscience with running among the English rajahs, who wear scarlet bajees and black fans; and making mockery of our Brahmins, has taken a Pariah into his garden-house to be his second wife.” The president of the Parsee council uplifted his eyes, and a tailor dropped the scissors he was exercising with his toes, to attend more precisely. “Not content with this,” continued the barber, “which we Hindoos should think deserving a thousand bastinadoes, he has taken his first poor wife by force from her muslin chamber, and compelled her to wear the old garments of the Pariah, to draw water and carry pitchers, while the outcast wears pearls on her forehead, dips her hair in rose water, and calls herself Ibrahim’s first wife.”—“Friend,” said the merchant, “when your prophet Veeshnu churned the sea, he brought forth seven things; a sun, a moon, an elephant, a physician, a horse, a cup of good liquor, and a woman; and in my secret opinion, two of these seven might have been spared.”—“Not the elephant,” returned the barber with imposing gravity, “for he resembles a most honorable gentleman: but there is no need of a physician with a cup of good wine; and the woman and the moon together are enough to make any man mad.” The large counsellor smiled with exquisite complacency, and departed to tell all he had heard of his neighbour.

Before the next eve, as he expected, Ibrahim was summoned by the council of his sect to answer for his offences, and surprised them by making no defence. As chief Dustoor of the Parsees, no heavy penance was required of him, except a fine of six thousand rupees, especially as he consented to re-establish justice in his household. Proper messengers accompanied him home[5] to enforce it; and his wife, notwithstanding her shrieks and resistance, was compelled to assume the garments of a Pariah. It was in vain she reproached him with his infidelities and treasons; the good Parsees assured her the whole truth of her real station was now confessed by Ibrahim himself; and Chandela’s meek amazement when desired to put on her rival’s rich atire, was ascribed to the stupifying effects of some malignant drug. The poisoned betel nut which had been prepared for her, and which was found by Ibrahim’s contrivance in his jealous lady’s chamber, seemed to confirm this supposition; and the influence of magic is still so firmly believed by modern Parsees, that no one would have doubted even a transfer of shapes and features. At least, none presumed to contradict the High Dustoor; and he had the pleasure of elevating the Pariah to his side, while his angry and revengeful wife suffered due punishment in the drudgery and degradation of an outcast. But she suffered them only a few days: her kinsmen lived in the island of Ceylon, and she fled in the night, as it was supposed, to seek their protection.

This lady’s flight, as Ibrahim had sufficient sense to seek no second addition to his harem, placed him in perfect peace with his new wife. She was, indeed, one of those gentle creatures to whom the Hindoo scripture has assigned the first place in Heaven; and her husband’s affections remained constant to her without aid from the emerald, the ruby, or any of the amulets to which the poetic superstition of India has given power. Their adopted boy grew in loveliness; and at his eighth year was betrothed, according to the custom of the Parsees, to a little bride some months younger. This festival, always sumptuous in Bombay, was celebrated with the pomp proportioned to Ibrahim’s wealth and rank. The palanquin of these young sacrifices to the deity of marriage, shone with gold brocade and wreathes of jewels, as it passed through streets carpeted and canopied with embroidered cloth, towards gardens whose superb trees resembled pyramids of light. But though the sagest astrologers had been consulted, and the happiest aspect of the stars observed, a fatal interruption awaited them. At the entrance of a bazaar richly illuminated by Ibrahim’s order, where crouds of all ranks were feasted with sherbet and confectionary, among booths filled with musicians and tumblers, a squalid woman suddenly sprung into the street, exclaiming, “My son!—give me my son!”—The procession stopped in consternation, more caused by the pollution of an outcast’s touch, than by her incredible claim; and Ibrahim, startled by the shrill tones of a voice he remembered too well, perceived his discarded wife in the dress of a Pariah. He instantly conceived the extent of her revengeful purpose, but it was too late to defeat her. Availing herself of his own stratagem, Bomanjee uttered dismal lamentations, and tearing asunder the rich curtains behind which the boy sat loaded with chains of pearl, attempted to grasp him in her arms. The father of the infant bride, thunder-struck at this base blot on the bridegroom’s origin, demanded a pause in the nuptial rites, till the truth could be made manifest. Seeing Ibrahim pale, trembling, and unable to answer, he snatched his adopted son from the palanquin, and advanced to throw him into the embrace of his pretended mother, when Chandela, leaping from her husband’s, caught her son from his arms, repeating, “I am the outcast—he is mine.”

Notwithstanding the horror of Hindoos at that execrated name, the spectators were silenced by the sacred agony of a mother, and by their eager curiosity to see the rival claims decided. Ibrahim entangled in his own devices, could not recant what he had confessed before his brother counsellors: he could not deny that he had called Bomanjee an outcast, and that young Ahmed was a stranger’s son. All that seemed doubtful now was, to which of these unhappy women the disputed boy should be assigned; and the noblest Parsees agreed it should be left to his decision. Bomanjee’s eyes glared with malignant joy; for in the days of her splendor she had often loaded him with fruits and garlands of flowers; but he had not forgotten the patient cares, the secret caresses, and constant love of his true mother, as he sprang into her arms. She hid her face on his; and dropping the rich mantle she had worn as Ibrahim’s wife, stole one sorrowful glance at her husband, and departed among the darkest trees. No one presumed to arrest or follow her steps. A kind of surprise, such as results from some unnexpected gleam of brilliant light, had been excited even among the most vulgar, by the nobleness of this unhappy mother. Ibrahim, though he felt that she had willingly sacrificed splendor and honor to save her son, also felt that she had sacrified him; and had proved her affection as a wife, inferior to her fondness as a parent; and his consternation was not unmingled with resentment. But while he paused, the kindred of his revengeful Bomanjee completed the measures they had prepared for his misery. Instigated by their eloquence and their bribes, the most zealous Brahmins had placed themselves in readiness to seize their victim. Abandoned to their ferocious power by all the creeds and all the customs of the Hindoos, the miserable outcast was brought back to suffer the ordeal by which their superstition pretends to discover those who are really Pariahs, or outcasts from the gods. Conscious of his own indiscreet duplicity, fearful of the disgrace which vehement interference might draw on his own head, and unnerved by the habitual indolence of a selfish life, Ibrahim satisfied himself with silent regret while the Brahmins conveyed their victim to Carli, intending to exhibit her fate as a terrible evidence of their power, and an atoning sacrifice to their goddess Kali.[6] Ibrahim heard Kali named with a frightful and remorseful consciousness of the death designed for Chandela and her son. The languor of his temperaument, which, like his personal beauty, possessed more elasticity than strength, gave way to human passions; and he embarked secretly in his boat at mid-night to overtake the Brahmins in their journey to their temple. He reached it safely a few hours after their arrival, and pitched his tent at the foot of its tremendous seat. With no attendants he ascended the piles of rock sheltered by wild groves of mango trees on the road to Carli. All was dark when he reached the mouth of its giant cave, and hid himself among the arched niches which form its portico. The spectacle within would have awed a strouger spirit. Hewn in the solid rock, three aisles formed by twenty-one enormous pillars supported a coved roof resting on ribs of teak-wood undecayed by six hundred years. A few torches gleaming in the corridors, shewed him the gloomy extent of this mountain-temple, in which no image of any deity interrupted its magnificent simplicity. The shadow of a single priest emerging from his cell behind the pillars, seemed to represent the littleness of man in the chambers of his creator; but Ibrahim thought only of his purpose, and questioned the stranger in a faltering voice concerning Chandela and her son. The priest replied, “We are Jines, and this cavern is dedicated to a purer and more ancient religion than the Brahmins. We believe our God all-wise, all-seeing, all-productive, and all-happy—without name, without shape, without tribe, love, or weakness. The man who can attain these perfections will soon behold God, is already in his presence, and will be united to him. Thy Chandela would have nothing to fear from us. We believe the world eternal, therefore we hold it sinful to attempt destruction: we believe all things governed by necessity, therefore we blame nothing except adultery and theft, which never can be needful. Go in peace.” He offered Ibrahim food, but of a very simple kind, for their creed excludes animal-meats, milk, and honey: informing him that the Hindoo priests had probably named the cave of Carli to mislead his search, while they performed their melancholy rites on the shore. Dreading to find them completcd, Ibrahim descended into a deep and dismal valley, opening by a narrow pass into the sea, which encompassed a small island near its mouth, as low and dark as the abhorred isle of Sangor, famous for human sacrifices. Two Brahmins answered his enquiries by intelligence that they had already disposed of Chandela according to her doom; but the next hour would decide whether her son should belong to them, or to the miserable cast of his mother. Breathless and aghast with fear of this decision, Ibrahim stood among the crowd, while the votaries of Hindoo superstition approached in garlands of flowers and scarlet robes, bringing in a magnificent litter the unfortunate boy designed for an offering to Kali. Beautiful and rosy in the sleep procured by opium, they placed him in the centre of the road, strewing Cusa-grass, oil, and milk, upon his garments. Citarrs and trumpets mingled with the heavy sound of a triumphal car containing the idol Kali, represented by a gorgeous mass of ebony studded with rubies, drawn by an elephant of rare beauty. Certain that the infant’s death would be decided if the wheels of this vehicle pursued their way, Ibrahim saw only one desperate expedient in his power to save it. He had seen this elephant in Ceylon when driven by its hunters into the trap[7] prepared for it, and had given it liberty by drawing out the stakes which prevented its escape. Trusting to the grateful sagacity of this noble animal, he threw himself with his face upward before the sleeping boy in the road of the idol’s chariot, an action which the Brahmins saw without displeasure or surprise, as believers expect honour on earth and immortality in heaven from its touch. Not a breath was heard among the spectators, and the music sunk into the softest sound of the flutes used to charm the rock-serpent and cobra-capella, lest it should disturb the sleeper: but when the wheels had rolled within a foot-pace, the elephant suddenly paused, fixed his mild eyes on his former benefactor, and raising the nearest wheel with his trunk, passed him and his slumbering boy in safety. A long and deep cry escaped the crowd, the lamps were suddenly extinguished, and Ibrahim felt himself raised from the earth, muffled in his shawl, and conveyed away in a kind of litter. He began to fear that his rashness had only changed the child’s fate and his own into a more lingering misery, as the Brahmins profess to believe that those over whom their divinity passes without a touch, are reprobated for ever. Many hours and many changes in his conveyance passed before the veil was taken from his eyes. They beheld a stupendous chamber resting on columns of rock illuminated by a thousand lamps. The flat roof, the turbaned capitals of the pillars, and the threeformed god, whose face sparkled with jewels amongst a croud of inferior images, informed him that he stood in the cavern-temple of Elephanta: and the linen scarfs and zenaars[8] worn by those who surrounded him, announced the highest order of Brahma’s priests. One of superior stature and aspect held the hand of a woman covered with a silver veil, and addressed Ibrahim in these words:—

“No part of nature displays its creative power to every eye, nor do we expose the vital principle of our religion to the vulgar. We reserve it for those who merit our care, and are capable of receiving its fruits. Thyself and this woman Chandela are among the chosen number:—she was once a portion of the vilest class, but thy bounty has made her worthy to convert thee, as the clay that has become fragrant by dwelling near the rose, may form a vase to preserve it. Why should a being capable of such glorious self-sacrifice, bow to the deity of one element, when he might behold the author and governor of all?—He who is moisture in the water, light in the sun and moon, breath in the winds, and the invisible soul of all men!—Such is the divinity, we worship—such the principle of a religion which the perverse ignorance of the multitude compels us to dress in awful and fantastic mysteries,—Receive this woman as thy wife, and her son shall be as thine own. We devote them to our God in winning thee from thy darkness, and our offerings to his altar are generous and faithful hearts.”

* * * * *

The smile which our pastor’s romance might have excited, was suppressed by the benevolent enthusiasm of the narrator. After a complimentary debate between the professors of navigation and jurisprudence, precedence was awarded to the latter, and the young Clerk was our next historian.


(To be continued)

  1. Both the sun and the sea are worshipped by these idolaters. Their burial-place is a square open repository. 
  2. The Shalie, among the common class of native females, is a long piece of coloured silk or cotton wrapped round the waist, leaving half one leg bare. 
  3. Perhaps this veneration for dogs is peculiar to Indian Guebres, because they have a tradition of their escape from ship- wreck, caused by the barking of dogs, when they emigrated to India. 
  4. A large cistern and round fragment of rock are celebrated by these names at Mahaballipooram, near Arjoon. In Bombay there is a cloven rock through which penitents of all sizes endeavour to pass as a purgatory. 
  5. The Guebres make no scruple at admitting men into the apartments of their women, who enjoy more liberty than other sects, though very little more education. 
  6. This tremendous deity (the wife of Seeva) receives many victims still between the shores of Calcutta and the isle of Sangor, where her ruined temple stands. Her votaries are deemed happy if seized by the sharks which wait round it. 
  7. A modern traveller says, the elephant-craal, or trap, resembles a funnel, several hundred feet in length, and divided into three chambers, the last and smallest of which is guarded by strong posts or stakes driven into the ground, and men holding bundles of lighted straw. Two tame elephants are usually employed to lead the captive out, oppressing him with all their weight, and sometimes beating him with their trunks, while his groans and resistance express his indignation. 
  8. The zenaar, or Brahminical thread, is composed of three cotton threads, each 48 yards long, twisted together, folded, and thrown over the left shoulder. 

The European Magazine, Vol. 75, March 1819, pp. 204-210