Babá and Bibí: Maiden, Wife, and Mother, in Hindostan

IN France, according to Michelet the sentimental, they have abolished old women ; in India, according to Menu the sage, old maids are prohibited. But it’s an ill wind that blows nobody good ; and the same law that ordained the triple state of the Hindoo woman has imparted symmetry to the title of this paper. What would have become of my lucky euphony, if there had chanced to be a Sanskrit or Bengâli word for “ old maid ” ?

Babá Hinda, “ the little brown fool ” (as some tremendous young puppy will presently style her, in the playfulness of his uxorial fondness), has been betrothed these seven years, being now in her fourteenth season, and ripe for the maw of that Coming Man. She is of honorable caste, and a beauty too, by the Hindoo standard : face a fine oval ; profile elegant and rhythmical ; brow low and essentially feminine ; chin dainty and almost infantile ; hair straight and of raven darkness ; great black languid eyes, to which the remarkably long lashes impart a quality of tender pensiveness ; lips red and pouting, and at once sensuous and weak ; complexion safe in the superior fairness of high caste, of rank, wealth, seclusion, and ease, — the complexion of the Brahmins and Rajpoots, of Rama and Siva, “ fair as the moon, as the jasmine, as the fibres of the lotos ” ; form plump, but lithe ; outlines plastic and rippling, like fine soft drapery ; carriage erect, but undulatory, as of one trained to the balancing of tall water-jars on her head, yet happily falling short of that standard of perfection which the Poorans set, and which calls for “a feminine gait like that of a drunken elephant or a goose.” Tried by the negative requirements of the Poorans, the Babá is all their fancy painted her ; for she has no beard, nor are her hands hairy, or her ankles thick, nor do her eyebrows meet, or her teeth straggle, or her voice croak. If it had fallen to the luck and honor of a Hindoo artist to perpetuate on wood or ivory the charms of Babá Hinda, he would have made her pale, to signify that she was noble, and fat, to signify that she was beautiful and rich. True, there was once a Hindoo damsel who beguiled the fierce fancy of Surajah Dowlah, and she weighed only sixty-four pounds; but then Surajah Dowlah was eccentric.

The attire of our pretty Babá is simple enough ; chapeau and jupon, panier and train and flounce and chignon. Pompadour “bodies” (and souls), Grecian bends and Gerolstein inclinations, are not set down in the Shasters. She drapes herself in one simple piece of tissue, for the fashion of which she is indebted to Rebecca and Rachel and Leah. This is about nine yards long and forty inches wide, and as various in quality and cost as in color ; while at either extremity there is a border in some bright dye, strongly contrasting with the otherwise uniform hue of the robe. When Babá or Bibí makes her toilet, no husband swears, nor baby cries, nor visitor groans. But, handily folding the ends of her simple and single garment twice or thrice round her supple body, in a moment she stands in a sort of tight petticoat, falling in front as low as the feet, but not so low behind ; for she has naïvely drawn backward the end of the web, with an artless movement, and tucked it up at the waist ; and now, from that point of view, she is proper to be contemplated through an opera-glass. In this unconscious costume she is “at home.” But a Babá of another caste — and even our own little Hinda when she gads abroad — will contrive, in the arrangement of her drapery, a more decorous departure from the summer styles in Eden, by reserving one end of the web to be drawn over the shoulders and bosom. Here and there one meets a damsel in a sort of half-jacket which does not cover the arms ; but this is a foreign vanity, adopted from the Mohammedans. There are Brahmin women on the coast of Malabar who always appear uncovered to the girdle ; and, in the opinion of that curious observer and accurate describer of Hindoo customs, the Abbé Dubois, such was anciently the costume of the women throughout the peninsula; it is still retained among the Rajpoots, who jealously preserve many decaying customs in their pristine purity. In the Tamul country the women of the caste of Malamai throw back the scarf from the head and shoulders, and draw it demurely around the waist, as often as they address a priest or a husband, or any other person to whom peculiar respect is due.

The dress of the women, like that of the men, being of but one entire piece, is most convenient for frequent and modest bathing, — a consideration of no small importance to a people upon whom religion and manners, not less than climate, enjoin the continual practice of ablution.

On the plump brown arms of the Babá Hinda pretty flowers are traced in indelible outlines. That is the artistic exploit of her doting mother, done on the blessed baby, while she squirmed and squealed ; the material a dark pigment prepared from the juices of certain plants, the instrument a needle. Many of the darker Brahmin girls — in fact, all coquettish Babás whose complexion is unfashionably swarthy — study to procure an artificial fairness by staining their faces, necks, arms, and ankles with a yellow infusion of bruised saffron ; and it is sad to imagine our guileless Hinda illustrating the doctrine of Original Sin by making her finger-tips rosy with henna, and pencilling the edge of her eyelids with black, meretriciously to augment the lustre of those dazzling orbs ; and that is indeed an ungraceful superstition which disturbs the sweet serenity of her brow by stamping it with that ugly, stupid juggle, by the priests called Pottu, a ring of odoriferous sandal paste mixed with vermilion.

The Babá’s hair is soft and fine, and she has enhanced its natural glossiness by unctions of palm-oil. Parted in the middle, disposed in smooth braids above the temples, tucked with a silver buckle behind, and finally gathered in a pert, lop-sided chignon over the left ear, where it is adorned with shells, coins, sweet-scented flowers, and trinkets of gold, it has a captivating jauntiness all its own. But its arrangement is the quick trick of her own nimble fingers ; she does not give all her mind to the “doing” of her waterfall; and if her back hair should be down, her spirit is not disquieted within her.

For the additional adornment of her pretty person, Hinda has armlets and bracelets of gold and silver in pleasing variety, some globular and hollow, others flat and broad ; some for the wrist, others worn above the elbow. Her tender little “ props ” are proud of their silver fetters, and her dainty toes are ringed in gold, “ to each several toe his ring,” narrow beneath, but wide above. For her neck she has chains of gold and silver and strings of pearl and coral. If her father were richer, she would rejoice in a collar of gold an inch broad, studded with rubies, topazes, and emeralds ; if he were poorer, she would repine and pout in rings of shellac, and brass and beads of glass. She is at least content.

But ah, that preposterous and abominable nose-ring ! How shall I dodge it ? What shall I do with it ? I have kept it to the last, I have hidden it behind me, I would joyfully drop it through any convenient crack or knothole of my reader’s ignorance or forgetfulness. But then some critical detective, who has “ worked up” this India case, will be sure to ask for it; and what could I say? So there ! I punch it through the sensitive, outraged nostril of my poor little Babá. It hangs in all its pagan deformity across her budding lips, and the nicest mouth in the family is spoiled forever !

Beside the half-jacket I have described, a different style of the same garment is worn by many of the women. This, moulded closely to the form, and short as the vest of the Persian almé, affords a sort of discreet revelation. Around all the edges runs a narrow border, braided or embroidered in bright colors ; and the sleeves, which are very tight, descend but halfway to the elbow.

Mr. Kerr (late Principal of the Native College at Calcutta) has remarked, that the orthodox Hindoo dress when Alexander crossed the Indus is the orthodox Hindoo dress of to - day. Nevertheless, notable innovations have been accepted, even by persons of high caste, in communities where Mohammedan influence is paramount. For example, at Delhi and Agra it is not unusual for Hindoo ladies of rank to display the Mohammedan petticoat and bodice ; and Buchanan, in his notes on the province of Goruckpore, says that almost all the young women who could afford it wore the petticoat, though they scrupulously dropped it when going to pray or cook. The Shanars of Travancore have, in comparatively large numbers, been converted to Christianity. Now the women of this tribe have always been prohibited, by the superior castes, from wearing any garment above the waist ; and, as Kerr expresses it, “ this prohibition seems to have crystallized into a caste custom ” ; so that the efforts of the Shanar converts to emancipate themselves from an oppression so insulting were resented by the other tribes as an infringement of sacred rules. When the story came to the ears of English ladies, it first shocked their sensibilities, and then elicited a forcible and convincing expression of their sympathy and indignation.

One day’s shopping through the bazaars of Benares, among the stalls devoted to women’s haberdashery and gewgaws, is enough to unsettle the strongest mind in Sorosis, and drive it, “all of a quiver,” back to its sex. Cashmere shawls, of an amplitude to swaddle the form of a bayadére, and so fine that they may be drawn through her thumb - ring ; those unique and precious tissues of gold and silver brocade known as the famous Kincob, the almost supernatural fabric of native looms ; Benares sashes and scarfs, of gold and silver stuff, with borders and deep fringes imparting the effect of a network of gems ; native puggrees, or turbans, of silk inwrought upon velvet to resemble tufts and clusters of precious stones ; silver and gold lace, of every quality and pattern ; fringes, scalloped trimmings, edgings, and borders ; and embroideries that rival, in device and color, the arabesques and mosaics of the Alhambra; chains, charms, necklaces, ear-rings, bangles, the elaborate and bizarre workmanship of native goldsmiths ; double joomka bracelets and rings; necklaces all of gold, but twined in fringes of diminutive drops, suspended from carved chains of exquisite delicacy, and sparkling like dew upon gossamer ; pearls as large as pigeon’s eggs, and diamonds strung like beads !

Mrs. Colin Mackenzie (in that delightfully fresh, shrewd, and clever book, “ Life in the Mission, the Camp, and the Zenana) takes inventory of the ornaments of two young Christian converts at the Ahmednagar mission. Sahguná, a “ sweet child ” about eight years old, daughter of a Brahmin, had gold coins round her neck, gold rings in the top of the ear, and colored bracelets. The other, Changuná, “ a great girl ” of the low, Mahar caste, wore a nose-ring, a silver ring on her wedding-finger with a broad shield of silver, which she used as a mirror, and a conical one on the corresponding toe.

The Parsee women, at Bombay, in their purple or canary satin saris, and with their hair jealously hidden under a white skull-cap, are very interesting. So, too, are the Jewesses, in their tight-fitting, but gayly colored skirts, open on either side to the knee ; their stomachers of muslin, embroidered in silk and gold ; their silk or satin trousers ; their short-sleeved jackets of scarlet merino or green velvet, seamed with gold - lace; their false hair, in front, of bright auburn, cut straight on the forehead and looped up in plaits at the side, while their own dark tresses, also plaited, hang down the back, with silver tassels and coins at the end; their red Turkish caps, with blue tassels, their small muslin turbans embroidered in colors on a white ground, and their kerchiefs, to match the turban, folded over the head and crossed under the chin ; and, over all, bands of gold and pearls and jewels, crossing the head in every direction, with strings of pearls passing under the chin from one ear to the other; and, lastly, their rows of anklets, jingling and tinkling with silver tassels.

But what do the tender hands of our Hinda find to do at home ?

Praise the Purohita ! she does not practise on the piano ; and glory be to the Gooroo ! she does not write for the magazines.1 Nor does she sew ; for the wardrobe of the family being composed strictly of the uncut products of the loom, they enjoy a blessed dispensation from the fret of stitching, and the “ Song of the Shirt ” is not their song of home. Nor does she knit or darn, for they wear no stockings ; nor cry because her brother swears, for she never saw a button off; nor net, nor crochet, nor “ tat ” ; nor make baby-caps and bibs, for every Hindoo infant is born in its own clothes ; nor wash, nor iron, nor clearstarch, for in all the tongues of Hindostan, “washerwoman” is masculine. And heavens ! to think of at least one hundred millions of women to whom no revelation has been granted of pins or hair-pins, or hooks and eyes ! No wonder they are hard to convert : their minds are too easy, their temper too unruffled, their Jordan too smooth. Let the missionaries consider this, and wrap every tract round a paper of pins, and much tribulation.

But the Babá minds the baby, bouncing it on the flat roof in the evening, and crooning to it rhymes of much virtue to avert the Evil Eye, as it claps its fat little hands, and crows to the fire - flies flitting by. Likewise, she pounds the rice, and takes kitchen instruction from her mother ; and every morning, before the sun is fairly up, she brings water from the tank, balancing the tall jar on her head, — a labor in which she delights, because it improves one’s figure and style, you know, and gives one a chance to see the world. And the Babá spins much cotton-thread, her wheel being a bit of wire with a ball of clay at the end of it. Even before she has made her early trip to the tank, you may see the grimmer of her taper and hear her spinningsong. But the sweeping and the scrubbing she leaves to her Pariah “ help ” ; for she is to be brought up a lady.

As for the education of this passive damsel, she has no mind of her own ; and so, like a house that one rents from another man, it is neither her interest nor her obligation to improve it. She has no use for the Globes, for her circumnavigation of the planet has begun and ended when she has got round one man ; and she has completed the circle of the Mathematics when she has demonstrated to the census that one and one make two, or three. She would scorn to vote, run a paper, preach the gospel, or dance the cancan. Do you take her for a nautch-girl, ■—that trained and trick-taught Lola Montez of the pagodas, whose “ mission ” is perdition, and whose “ rights ” take hold on hell ? No ; rather will she seek wool and flax, and work willingly with her hands. She will lay her hands to the spindle, and her hands shall hold the distaff. She will rise while it is yet night, and give meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens ; her candle shall not go out. So shall her children rise up and call her blessed ; and the heart of her husband shall safely trust in her, for she shall have no need of — a vote. Her idea of a “ sphere ” is that it is round and smooth, as the mystic circle on her brow ; not angular and aggressive like Dr. Mary Walker’s elbow. So Babá leaves reading and writing, singing and dancing, where she leaves perfumes and spells, to those shameless things, neither Babá nor Bibí, who make a trade of them ; and stays at home, and pounds the rice, and bounces the baby, and twirls her simple spindle, content to dwell in vacant decencies forever. As for her religion she has none, that is all there is to say about it.

There was a time when pretty Babás were put to more intellectual and picturesque uses. In the imperial palace of one of Akbar’s queens, at Agra, is a court where the khan and his vizier used to play at pachisi, on a board in the shape of a cross, with twenty-four squares in each limb. The counters were sixteen girls of the harem, dressed in four different colors. The squares still remain in the pavement.

The amusements of the Babá are neither many nor various ; but they present the advantage of contrast, — they are either very tame or very intoxicating. She has the native partiality for pets, and her avadavat is the prettiest, her hill-minah the most accomplished and loquacious, and her mongooz the spriest, pluckiest, and most entertaining, in all her circle of acquaintance. The cage of the avadavat, or lall, as she calls it, was made at Patua, and is unique ; the frame being inlaid with ivory, and the wires strung with colored beads. For gossip, she has the scandalous babble of certain abominable old women, who shuffle from house to house, peddling tales neither fragrant nor wholesome, for perquisites of betel-nut and rose-water. But this species of depravity has but feeble charms for our Hinda ; for “ what is the news of the day to a frog in a well ? ”

But, once a year, as often as the poetic fâte of the Bhearer comes round, she goes forth by night, all swaddled and veiled, in a rumbling rhut, with great, creaking, wooden wheels, more or less round as luck may turn them, to be jolted and jammed toward the river-bank or the ghauts, where she plays her pretty part in the embalming of a graceful and sentimental tradition. Among the lanterns and the lamps, the torches and the rockets, where even the sky lends its shooting stars, and the clouds their summer lightning, and the groves their fire - flies, she thrills and trembles with wonder and delight. She sees the floating palace of the story, with all its miniature towers, arches, and pagodas traced by the luminous enchantment of a miracle of colored lamps, sweep slowly by on its raft of boughs and garlands ; and as she launches her tiny cocoa-nut craft, laden with flowers, and lighted with a taper, to join the innumerable flotilla, that ten thousand merry maidens like herself have in a moment committed to the stream, her heart leaps up in its freedom and its gladness, and flutters her low laugh and the clapping of her hands.

Then, too, the illumination of the Duwallee is a prospect full of charm for her, when every ledge of every house and hut is defined by the sharp white light of chiraugs;2 -and palace, temple, tower, and ghaut are as the instantaneous work of the Genii of Fire, when the long black stretches of bazaar blaze up in vistas and arcades of flame, and the groves burst at a touch into fiery flower.

But in the screaming carnival of the Hoolee she is as a bird let loose, in her revel of wild fooling. With indiscriminate giddiness and glee she pelts to right and left the awful turban of the Brahmin and the polluting breech-cloth of the Pariah, with the crimson powder of the mhindee, and laughs delightfully at her own streaked and spotted plight. For one day in the year, her eye sparkles, and her cheek is flushed, and her bosom pants, with the free tipsiness of fun.

And yet, on each of these holiday occasions, through all the promiscuous and boisterous license of the crowd, our little Babá carries her modesty unguarded and unalarmed. She knows there will be no coxcomb’s dodging compliment to snub, no roué’s ruffian insult to resent. The invisible veil of custom hangs between her blush and the leer of the libertine; and just as the nautch-girls, the licensed courtezans of the country, are irreproachable observers of decorum in their public deportment and attire, so the Hindoo who should stop to stare at any woman on the street, or madly venture to accost her, would be branded as a constitutional Pariah, whom every citizen of the high caste of decency must thenceforth walk round.

And so, considering her lights and influences, our Babá is a good little girl. She loves and imitates her mother, solemnly venerates her father, and waits for the Coming Man with superstitious awe. But the answer to the mystic enigma of her life is known only to the baby, and the baby never tells.

As I have said, at the beginning of this screed, the Babá Hinda is a childbride. She was betrothed early. The native almanacs prescribe the eighth, ninth, or at latest the tenth year, as proper in good husbandry for the grafting of the young slips of caste. If our Hinda had been left ungrafted till her eleventh year, her parents would have been reproached as careless of her thriving, and unconcerned for the vigor and productiveness of the family tree. Even in the provinces north of Bengal, where betrothal is later, Buchanan found that “ all persons, male or female, were wedded before the age of fifteen ; and, so far as he could discover, an unmarried person of the age of twenty was a phenomenon of which no one had ever heard.”

The sealing of the Babá to the apathetic Brigham Young of her destiny was a “ square ” business transaction, competent, by the simplicity of its regulations, to reflect credit upon the hymeneal altar at Salt Lake, or a divorce court in Indiana; an affair of convenance, pedigree, horoscopes, match - makers, hocus-pocus, and rupees ; by no means a romance of palpitations, pickles, cruel parients, or “ cold pizen.” While the old folks wrestled with the preliminaries, splitting hairs of etiquette, divination, doctrine, dowry, and decoration, their serene victim pursued the even tenor of her rice-pounding, and her spindle - twirling, and her baby-jumping, and wondered what all the fuss was about; and when at last she woke up one morning and found herself Engaged, she merely turned over in sleepyheaded apathy, and yawned, “ Well, what of that?”

Nevertheless, there is rousing exhilaration in the extravagant and fantastic hubbub of the inevitable ceremonies of espousal; and howsoever listless until then, our Hinda had been the very corpse of a Babá if she had not responded with vivacity to their galvanic inspiration ; for in the blank desert of every Hindoo woman’s life there are two enchanting though illusory oases, all her own, of “ perfectly splendid fun,” her betrothal and her wedding. True, it may be financial death to that infatuated frog, her father ; but what is a lac of rupees, more or less, compared with the triumphant ostentation and the “ real nice time ” ? Do we not know what is due to our family ? And would we not rather hear that “ they say ” of us, “ They have seen better times,” than that we were “too mean to have a frolic when the little brown fool was married ” ? Remember, Mrs. Grundy was first a Brahmin, then a Pharisee, and then a Snob, and now all three at once ; but first, a Brahmin !

Why, once there was a Rajah (and he must have been enormously fat and a perfect gentleman !) who spent a lac and a half on the marriage of a pair of monkeys ; and a Soodra of my acquaintance (the Soodras are the arch pagans of appearances), who is only a sircar in the Salt Office, with twenty rupees a month, borrowed two thousand to buy peacock fans, veils, and attar, and hire nautch-girls and other puppets, and yellow banners and palanquins, when his unlucky daughter was married to a Kooleen. True, he mortgaged his very soul to a black Shitan in the bazaar, who foreclosed on him within the year ; but everybody said the wedding was perfectly splendid.

To glorify Hinda’s betrothal there were seven nights of promiscuous and satiating profusion, seven revels of luxurious disorder, without graceful significance or artistic suggestiveness, seven indiscriminate sprees, of brocades and velvet, satin robes and scarfs of Kincob, cashmere shawls and Greek embroidered caps, veils of gold and turbans of silver tissue, unique feathers and miracles of flowers, blazing aigrettes, and brooches, and ropes of linked and plaited gold, knots and tufts of jewels, and unimaginable devices in rings and bracelets and anklets and bangles, peacock fans and humming-bird breast-knots, vials of attar and vases of rose-water, and gold and silver staves and maces and pillars; the whole culminating in a grand spectacular procession, and tableau of transformation and transport, regardless of expense,— of palanquins and tonjons, and bullock-carts with orange hangings ; and white horses with their legs and tails and shoulders streaked and splashed with the blood-like dye of the henna, led by party-colored grooms armed with chowries 3 made of the tail of the Thibet ox ; and elephants, with their broad, benign faces absurdly painted, bearing gilded and curtained howdahs, and caparisoned in scarlet, yellow, and green ; and camels mounted with swivel-cannon, which imparted to the “ ospidgis okashn ” the sublimity of their small roar ; and an insane banging and jangling and tooting and squeaking and blare of drums and gongs and cymbals and pipes and fiddles and horns ; and moving pavilions, and jostling banners, and great stages with dancing girls, and smaller stages with puppets, and huge trays of dolls and toys ; and in the midst of all, that crowned and spangled Doll and Toy whom presently we must cease to style Babá ; and after her the Coming Man ; and after him the Deluge, — submission, passiveness, and nonentity, to which there is no Ararat but the grave.

The Babá is gone, and the Bibí is here. The imposing procession that put the crowning glory to her betrothal conducted her back to the baby and her dream, and, departing, left her there to serve her mother seven years ; or until, having ripened to the physical possibilities of womanhood, she should be found qualified to serve her husband. It is usual, in Bengal, for the maiden to be taken from the bewildering revelations of her espousal directly to the abode of her bridegroom, there to dwell with his family until her wedding-day. But the rule is not absolute, and our Hinda and all her house follow the more honored custom of the northern provinces. Nevertheless, whether she wait under the dominion of her tender mother or her terrible motherin-law, the Man of her destiny has Come. They have marked her with his cross, and made her his chattel ; and, soft little sister though she be, should he die in that probationary interval, she must succeed to all the disgraces and disabilities of widowhood. Immemorial custom is inexorable, and even the gluttony of Brahmins may not be euchred out of a special dispensation by any lavishment of funeral baked meats.

But he is the son of a Brahmin, and has inherited the orthodox constitution. So he has not died, and in due time the Babá is Bibí-ed. All the omens have been happy from the first. She was betrothed on the 1st of April, a lucky day of a lucky month, when the signs of the zodiac, the cow-dung, and the moonshine combined to furnish the favorable circumstances. No cat nor fox nor serpent crossed the path of the Coming Man that day ; no dog howled, nor hen crowed, nor crow sat on the ridge-pole ; a white cow lowed on the right as her mother came from the tank, and her father sneezed three times in the direction of the baby ; the soothsayers found seven male barley-seeds in the craw of the old red rooster, and Bunsby, the Wise Lizard, thrice delivered cheerfully “ an opinion as is an opinion” from the wall behind the Babá’s cot; last, and luckiest of all, when the Happy Man’s messenger came to the door with his gift of salaam, Vighneswara, the hideous god of Obstacles, grinned like a boozy ghoul under the pandal,4 and everything was lovely.

At last came the thrilling consummation. The wedding was a five days’ agony. Bride and bridegroom sat together on a low mound of earth under the gayly decorated pandal, and turned their faces toward the east. First came the married women (but no widows, for their presence is unlucky) to inaugurate the ceremony with the familiar rites of Arati. On a plate of copper they set a lamp made of a paste of riceflour, and they fed it with oil, and lighted it. Then lifting these with both hands, very solemnly, they described certain mystic circles — the charm of the lamp — around the heads of the nuptial pair. This is a common conjuration in the household, to avert the drishti-dosham, — the evil eye and the jealous thought: —

“Nescio quis teneros oculus mihi fascinat agnos.”

Next, all the gods and their ancestors were cordially invited to the feast, to ‘‘bring their knitting and stay a week ” ; and all the dead grandfathers of the company were entreated to introduce those more remote progenitors, “ whom your respectful offspring were not in time to see.” Especially was the god of Obstacles pressed with peculiar compliments and attentions, although by reason of his ugliness and crossness he could never get a wife ; but, jealous and spiteful as he is, to have slighted him would have spoiled all.

It is essential to the thriving of the alliance that the bridegroom should be pure from sin and exempt from punishment; to which end the happy man offered, on the second day, to the most supercilious of the officiating Brahmins, a free gift of fourteen flags, in expiation of any possible peccadillo he may have inadvertently committed since his investiture with the Triple Cord, nine years before.

Then came an interlude of solemn nonsense, the puerility of its plot only surpassed by the gravity of the performance. The adolescent Blue-beard conceives a sudden longing — which, of course, is all a playful sham — to bathe in the Ganges at Benares. So he equips himself as a pilgrim, with staff and scrip and wallet, and departs, horns and flutes and drums preceding him, and friends attending him ; and as far as corporation bounds he trudges, the horns tooting, and the flutes squeaking, and the drums thumping, and the Gooroo canting, and the friends amening, and everybody taking up a collection, But just as he reaches the last row of huts that fringe the ragged skirts of the municipality, behold his impending father-in-law ! — so unexpected and so embarrassing ! — who, learning the object of the eccentric excursion, induces him to forego his devout purpose by an unconditional offer of the pretty Babá in marriage. Astonished and enraptured, the youth has on the instant a convenient new vision of duty. The accommodating Gooroo absolves him from his vow ; a wink from a Brahmin explains the situation satisfactorily to the gods, and the amens swear to everything; the impulsive pilgrim retraces his steps in gladness to pandal, and all is gay again ; but the money is not returned.

This fanciful digression concluded, the order of ceremonies was resumed by the Purohita, who attached to the left wrist of the Babá and the right wrist of her betrothed the kankanam, or charm of saffron ; after which, the bridegroom being seated with his face to the east, his father-in-law gazed with a long and searching look into his eyes, until he beheld there the double eidolon of Vishnu, the Preserver and Lord of the Beautiful Then immediately he offered a sacrifice before the comely lad, and, placing both his feet in a new dish filled with cow-dung, washed them thrice, first with water, next with milk, and lastly with water again, reciting the while appropriate mantras, or charms, and invoking, by name, the gods of all degrees, the seven beatified penitents, the five immaculate virgins, and the ancestor gods ; also the seven mountains, the eight cardinal points, the fourteen worlds, the woods and the seas, the year, the season, the month, the day, the hour, and the minute. This done, he took the hand of his darling Babá, and, laying it in the hand of the lad, poured water over the clasped palms in the name of Vishnu, so giving her away ; and with her three other gifts, — a cow, a piece of land, and a salagrama of amulet stones for a talisman. And he tied together their hands and the skirts of their robes with blades of the sweet-scented cusa grass, in remembrance of “ duty, fortune, and love ” ; while the bridegroom, turning to our trembling Hinda, said, " May that heart which is thine become my heart, and this heart which is mine become thy heart! ” Then slowly, solemnly, hand in hand, they step successively into seven fatal circles drawn on the floor, " the seven steps to which there is no backward,”— One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven ! — and the Babá is a Bibí, doomed. In the “ Mahabharat ” there is a young Sochinvar who thus intrenches himself in the law of the circle : " The marriage is not complete until the seventh step is taken, and this step had not been taken when I seized the damsel.”

Nothing now remains but to deck the neck of the passive chattel with the owner’s badge of the Tahli, — light, as a token of compliment, and heavy, as the yoke of oppression. This is a small, unique ornament of gold, engraved with a figure of Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu, or Saraswati, the spouse of Brahma, and suspended by a short string, dyed in saffron, and composed of one hundred and eight threads of exceeding fineness. On the throat of the Hindoo woman it is the everpresent symbol of a living husband ; and when she becomes a widow it is cut and removed, with forms of peculiar solemnity and sorrow, by her less unhappy sisters. The investiture of the Bibí Hinda with the tahli was in some respects the most impressive of her nuptial rites. She was led to a seat beside her husband, and ten Brahmins, having spread a screen of silk between themselves and the bridal pair, recited mantras, and invoked “ the three divine couples,” Brahma with Saraswati, Vishnu with Lakshmi, Siva with Paravati. Then married women brought the tahli on a salver, prettily garnished with sweet-smelling flowers. Incense was offered to it, and one by one the ten Brahmins, touching it reverently, in low tones invoked a blessing upon it. At last the Bibí turned her toward the east, and the young Brahmacari, by this marriage become a fullblown Brahmin, took the tahli, and, reciting a mantra aloud, tied it fast about her neck. Thenceforth that and the nose-ring have had a superstitious value for the Bibí. Should either escape from its place, unimaginable calamities will befall her ; widowhood, at least, and loss of caste.

Immediately fire was brought, into which the bridegroom cast incense as for the sacrifice of the homam ; and taking his Bibí by the hand, he led her thrice round the flame while the incense was blazing. After this, two bamboo baskets were placed close together in the centre of the pandal, and the couple, stepping each into a basket, stood erect, and, receiving from the attendants smaller baskets filled with ground rice, they poured the grain with both hands over each other’s head, until the Brahmins cried Enough. This act has a significance at once religious and poetical, denoting the abundance of temporal blessings which each implores for the other. It is still practised, or rather suggested, at the weddings of Oriental Jews ; and the Abbé Dubois relates that for the marriage of princely personages pearls were sometimes used, instead of rice or corn.

On the fourth day, the assembled guests being at dinner, Bibí and her Brahmin lord ate together from the same leaf. “ Well,” says the veracious and sentimental missionary, “ may the woman henceforth continue to eat what her husband leaves, and that only after he has done ; for they will never again sit down to a meal together.” That is never permitted but at the weddingfeast. So also, on the last day of the ceremonies, when the bridegroom, in the sacrifice of the homam, cast into the flame the boiled rice sprinkled with liquid butter, and the Bibí, at his side, cast in the rice that was parched, she took part for the only time in her life in a rite hardly less solemn than the Yajna.

To end all, another fantastic nocturnal procession, with torches and fireworks, and miniature illuminations of trinkets and jewels,—and sic transit Babá ! But mark what the kindly and upright Abbé says: “ Among the almost infinite variety of ceremonies on the occasion of marriage, there is not one that borders on indecency, or conveys the slightest allusion to an immodest thought.”

We owe it to the Bibí to deal honestly with the question of polygamy, and the little there is to say about it may as well be said now as later. The facts are few and plain. The custom is not common. It is always lawful, but seldom agreeable, to a Hindoo to have more wives than one. He is prudent, and the custom is perilous ; he is calculating, and the custom is costly ; he is studious of repose, and the custom is distracting; in the multitude of mothers-in-law there is not safety. It is the ostentation of the opulent and sensual few, not the ambition of the thrifty and moderate multitude. Besides, the census imposes a practical restriction, in the interest of fair play and a just distribution of blessings ; it is not true that in tropical climes the annual supply of female babies is largely in excess of the demands of a monogamic system. Nor does the code of Menu countenance a capricious or licentious polygamy. Even a barren wife may not, by a strict construction, be “ superseded ” sooner than the eighth year; though it is noticeable that a railing one may be superseded at any time. To be sure, the privileged order of Kooleen Brahmins enjoys a special dispensation to indulge in an indefinite plurality of wives ; but this is clearly a wise device to provide for the absorption of imminent or possible old maids. One ragged Kooleen may inoculate fifty rich Soodra babás against the social leprosy of spinsterhood. He receives fifty dowries from fifty fathers-in-law, who proudly continue to “feed” his fifty bibís. Can too much be done for the man who has saved a pre-Babelic vocabulary from a term of reproach ? But the Brahminical stripling who has just deprived us of our Babá is not a Kooleen ; so the Bibí Hinda will exercise in exclusive Caudle-ries her inalienable right to that last word.

As to the diversified and difficult arts of pleasing her husband, the Hindoo helpmeet enjoys an enviable advantage over the Yankee Bibí. She does it by rule, from the Padma Purana (a sort of “ How to Tickle the Bear”), a work of high authority, commended by the Abbé Dubois as an authentic model of Hindoo diction. This is Hinda’s vade mecum, and she turns to it for fresh devices of cajolement as practically as Huldy consults her cook-book for new receipts for doughnuts. Here are the directions ; but, O American wife of the period ! when will the doughnuts be ready ?

“ A woman has no other god on earth than her husband. The most excellent of all the good works she can perform is to gratify him with the strictest obedience and devotion.

“ She has no true enjoyment but through her husband. From him she has children ; and he provides her with fine apparel, decorates her with jewels, with sandal and saffron, and all her heart’s desire.

“ Her husband may be crooked, old, infirm, offensive in his manners, choleric, dissipated, a sot, a gambler, and a debauchee, reckless of his domestic affairs and restless as a demon, destitute of honor, deaf and blind ; his crimes and his infirmities may crush him ; yet shall his wife regard him as her god, serve him in all things, detect no defect in him, nor cause him disquiet.

“ Should a stranger break in and woo her with impetuous passion, should he offer her costly raiment and jewels above price, by the gods ! she shall spurn him from the soles of her feet.

“ Should a passer-by direct a glance toward her, she shall shun him with downcast and averted looks, and retire, meditating only on her husband.

“She shall never observe if another man be young or old, comely or deformed.

“ Diligent shall she be in her domestic avocations, wary of her temper, avoiding dispute, her mind and her deportment serene.

“ Let her not yield to envy, nor bear malice, nor meddle, nor listen to gossips’ tales ; but with prudent speech converse with gurus, saniyasis, strangers, friends, and servants in a manner becoming and agreeable.

“ The money she receives from her husband she shall expend with thrift, reserving no portion for herself or her friends, nor even for alms, without his permission.

“ Though she behold beautiful things she would be charmed to possess, she shall not seek to acquire them but by his gift.

“ She shall remind him of whatsoever may be lacking at home, and the supplies she shall dispense with economy and good judgment.

“ What prudent woman will eat before her husband has had his fill, or not fast if he abstain? If he be sad, shall she not weep ; and if he be gay, shall she not leap for joy ? When he sings, shall she not fall into ecstasy ; if he dance, shall she not clap her hands ? And when he discourses of science, shall she not be filled with wonder ?

“ She shall scrupulously perform her daily ablutions, and elegantly color her skin with saffron. She shall likewise array herself in choice attire, and tinge her eyelids with black, and her brows with henna. Her hair, too, shall be dressed, and beauteously braided.

“ But when he is gone from home, there shall be no bathing nor anointing with oil; she shall recline on no couch, nor wear her new attire, nor deck her head ; but her raiment shall be mean. And so long as he is absent she shall sleep never alone, but with one of her relations. She shall often inquire after his health, and long for his speedy return, and continually invoke for him the protection of the gods.

“ Should her kinsfolk invite her to any festival, such as a wedding, or the ceremony of the Cord, she shall not go without his leave, nor unaccompanied by some elderly woman. She shall not be long away, and on her return she shall faithfully recount to her husband all she has seen and heard, — the costumes and the scandal ; and then cheerfully apply herself again to her housekeeping.

“ Though at any time her husband rage against her, assail her with bitter language, threaten her with blows, nay, beat her outright, still, patiently shall she confront him with meek and soothing words, and, laying hold of his hands, shall entreat his forgiveness ; but no exclamations of resentment, no thought of abandonment. What ! to retort upon her husband ! to say, ‘You have insulted me, you have beaten me ; I shall speak to you no more ; I will meddle no more with your affairs, and do you let mine alone ! ’ Such taunting tirades shall never fall from her lips.”

So much for the receipt, which is supposed to have been invented by the Five Immaculate Virgins,—a reasonable hypothesis.

The same puran a ordains that if a man keep two wives, the one shall in no wise meddle with the other, or speak of her, either good or bad, or of the graces or deformities of her children ; nor shall either wake a tempest about any other woman the husband may harbor. “ To leave his house for reasons such as these would render them all ridiculous.”

But the skeleton in the Bibí’s closet is her mother-in-law. If she were of the caste of Vaishnava Brahmins she would be prohibited from addressing that conventional bugbear, and required to express her acquiescence and obedience only by signs. But the glorious privilege of gesture and grimace would still remain to her, and with these she might hope in time to drive the “ horrid old thing” mad,— a contrivance but imperfectly adapted to secure domestic tranquillity. Though a score of concubines fail to demoralize the Bibí, one mother-in-law may dislodge her, singlehanded, and drive her in disorder back to her own mother. And such flights for such cause are shamefully common.

When the question, “ Is it lawful for a man to marry his wife’s sister ? ” came up in the ecclesiastical courts of England, a profane, but shrewd bachelor argued in favor of the dispensation, on the ground that it would tend to lighten the mother-in-law encumbrance; and in Hindostan a form of imprecation very popular among scolds is expressed in these words, “ May you live with three mothers-in-law, and die without a son ! ”

The Bibí is flattered by the austere patronage of her lord, and mortified by the slightest manifestation of uxorious weakness. “ I have seen a wife,” says Dubois, “ in a rage with her husband for talking with her in an easy strain. ‘ His behavior covers me with shame,’ quoth she, ‘ and I dare no longer show my face. Such conduct, among us, was never seen till now. Is he become a Paranquay (European), and does he take me for a woman of that caste ? ’ ”

The Bibí’s housewifery is a routine of small observances, whereby she finds expression, more or less clear, for her crude and shapeless notions of religion. An element of superstition is ever present in it; and, after her poor pagan fashion, her chamber and kitchen ways are so many motions of worship. At the festival of Gauri, when the mason offers to his rule and trowel, the carpenter to his adze and plane, the tiller to his plough and hoe, the barber to his razor and tweezers, the weaver to his loom, the butcher to his cleaver, the tailor to his needle, and the moonshee to his style, prostration and adoration, with incense and sacrifice of fruit and grain, and the Bibí heaping together on her kitchen floor the basket and the rice-mill, the water-jar and the spindle, falls down before them, with closed eyes, and waits, trembling, in her soul’s deep darkness, what spiritual analogies and symbols might not the metaphysical eye of old George Herbert, seeking downward as well as upward for God, have discovered in the make-believe deity of her broom ? Laborare est orare.

“ A pagan with this clause
Makes drudgery divine :
Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.”

Our Bibí’s culinary functions constitute a priestly office, in the mysteries of which she has been initiated betimes by her mother. “ Who cooks for a Brahmin entertains a god ; let her look to the purity of her thoughts and her utensils.” Flesh of kids and mutton, with curried fish and rice and liquid butter, and sweetmeats of cocoa-nut and curds, form a sufficiently plain repast; but being for a Brahmin, one must give all her mind to it. Absolute cleanliness is the condition from which there is no exemption. The Bibí’s garments must be fresh and fragrant, and her vessels newly scoured. The kitchen must be free from dust, and guarded from the polluting glance of the stranger. The vicegerent of Brahma orders dinner about midday, and while it is preparing, he first bathes, and afterward salaams the household gods with an oblation of fruit and flowers, and some morsels from the dishes of which he is about to partake. Then he seats himself on the ground, and his wife serves him, presenting the viands on a plantainleaf sprinkled with water. He touches the various articles, one by one ; he sprinkles some drops of water round the leaf for a libation ; he separates a portion of the flesh or fish and rice, and lays it on the ground, as an offering to his ancestors ; and then he feeds, while the Bibí, crouching mutely, with folded hands, watches, that she may learn to prefer what he has purified by his approval, and to abhor what he has poisoned by his disdain.

The Bibís privileges are few and humble. She may chew the pungent, stimulating pawn, of betel leaf and nut, mixed with powdered lime made from burnt shells, — “a curious knot,” as an old author describes it, “ made up of delicate leaves and some other things, with a little chalk of sea-cockles, which maketh the mouth and lips of a vermilion color, and the breath sweet and pleasing.” This is one of the Bibí’s small vices.

Another is the hubble-bubble, by which she inhales the fragrant fumes of the world’s own weed, cooled and perfumed by being drawn through rosewater contained in a cocoa-shell; sitting alone and silent on the flat roof by night, she puffs and puffs in pensive resignation. If some bibís I wot of had the hubble-bubble, they would not fret for the ballot-box.

Occasionally she has a truly feminine treat in the critical, not to say captious, inspection of the wardrobes and ornaments of her intimate enemies, —that sort of affectionate spite, which is of all races but only one sex, and which, as it turns over the perfectly lovely “things ” of its sweetest friend, makes notes of admiration upon them with one hand, while it “picks them to pieces ” with the other. Behold two Mohammedan bibís and a British bibí in harem together. “We looked at each other’s dress ; and they examined my rings, and my fingers, seeming surprised that they were not stained. At last, each gently took hold of the skirt of my gown, pulled it up a little way, and seemed to marvel at the corded petticoat. That they then raised a very little, and seeing my under-garments, cried approvingly, ‘ Ah ! ’ ” There was the touch of nature which is the masonic grip of babá and bibí from Chicago to Chandernagore.

To die — simply to finish, to get done, to leave off, to make an end — is a privilege unqualified unto all womankind, save the Hindoo Bibí. For her it is a question fraught with hazards of glory or disgrace, and all turning upon the “ die ” of her husband, — for she has set her life upon his caste. Departing a Brahmin’s wife, her consummation is renown ; a Brahmin’s childless widow, her report is failure and scorn.

The event of the Bibí’s life transcending in importance even her birth or her death — the event upon which hang the issues of her happiness in the body and in the spirit — is impending. Not in vain has she worn upon her arm that indescribable image in gold, — the strange symbol of a bold but solemn idea of instinct and absolute nature, emancipated from the checks of conventional decorum, and free to imagine and to long. It is time that her mother should come for her, and take her away to the dear old home, that the eyes of the child may open first on the scenes of its mother’s innocence and its grandmother’s anxious love. “ Henceforth,” says the pooran, “she shall shun the company of impure women, and of those whose children have all died. She shall not ruminate on dismal thoughts, nor gaze on frightful objects. She shall turn away from tales of distress and food not easy to digest. So shall she bring forth a child of beauty.”

The midwife is coming with her mouth full of gossip, and her head full of mantras against the evil eye, the malign conjunction of planets, and the calamity of an unlucky day. Already has the careful pooran provided for the health and happiness of both mother and child, by an institution which might be wisely incorporated in our common law. “ She, and not another, shall give suck to the child of her love ; nor shall aught less than illness or death exempt her from a duty so sacred and so dear.”

And now her agony of fear is past, and her time of triumph is come, — love and service be to Lakshmi, not a girl! With tossing head and sparkling eyes, she runs from one friend to another, in the restless exultation of the true Hindoo mother, a noble boy-baby astride upon her hip.

And the boy will love the Bibí; for with all its defects of arrogance and selfishness, the native character displays in an exemplary degree the atoning virtue of filial love ; and the mother holds the highest place in the affections of her son. “ I have often,” says Kerr, “ heard the missionaries say (of some young Hindoo who was about to embrace Christianity) that when the entreaties and 'remonstrances of all other friends had failed to shake his resolution, his mother appeared, bathed in tears, or even threatening to put an end to her life. Then the son, dismayed and overpowered, could hold out no longer.”

J. W. Palmer.

  1. A Purohita is a master of ceremonies, and a Gooroo a spiritual teacher.
  2. Earthen lamps.
  3. Fly-flappers
  4. An alcove of twelve pillars, erected in front of the main entrance, and covered with green boughs.