Nandi in Pound
THREE of us were sitting in the twilight beside the tennis courts of the Tanjore Club and talking of the rope-trick and of Indian conjuring generally. Thence we proceeded — as conversation tends to be more sustained and intimate when a club is nearly empty — to discuss yet more generally magic, mystery, and miracle; and Ellis, the D. S. P., complained that he had been fifteen years in India, the reputed home of mysteries, and had yet never seen or heard at first hand anything which would have puzzled the veriest rationalist. He probably said this with the object of drawing Harrington out.
Harrington was himself something of a mystery, as well as a dabbler in mysteries. He affected theosophy, and was popularly supposed to be a Hindu in religion. He seldom came to the club, and it was notoriously hard to make him talk, and I think we others were delighted and rather awed — I certainly was — when he responded with the curious piece of latter-day mythology which follows here. I was particularly interested at once because I was myself expecting to be transferred to the part of the country of which he spoke; and the details of his story have remained fixed in my memory because I afterward came to know the part in question at first hand.
I have set down the story in the first person and more or less in Harrington’s manner, which was a little pontifical when the preliminaries had been disposed of. These preliminaries elicited the fact that his heroine, a German missionary’s wife, had been slightly known to Ellis, who was Harrington’s contemporary; but I need not trouble the reader with them further, nor with certain other exchanges, natural as among ‘men on the spot,’ which occurred in the course of the narrative.
It would better suit the poetic justice of my story if I could represent Mrs. Amelung as a notable persecutor of the ancient faith, which her husband was engaged to assail. As a matter of fact, she did not take her husband’s apostolic vocation very seriously. She cared, in fact, ‘for none of these things.’ Perhaps the gods, like earthly kings, find it easier to forgive their personal opponents than those who flout the pretensions of their kind in general. Mrs. Amelung was a delightfully natural woman. Gods and men who served her purposes — and she was full of curious purposes — found her charming; but gods and men who stood in her way were liable to be roughly handled.
The Amelungs lived in a pleasant house on the far slope of the Vemoru hill, at S—— in the Andhra country. Missionaries often have highly ‘desirable’ bungalows, don’t they? The Amelungs’ house was one of the bestbuilt and most healthily situated in the neighborhood. In my eyes its very loneliness, which Mrs. Amelung constantly bewailed, added to its charm. One should not indeed covet one’s neighbor’s house, and I ought to have been the last to covet Amelung’s, for I was his nearest neighbor; but I was often disposed to offend the very letter of the first count — no more! — of this very exacting law.
But it was the Vemoru hill itself, rather than the house thereon, that caught my youthful fancy. In the appointments of the house there was something ultra-Victorian, something Albertian, perhaps, which would have suffocated after a time, fascinating as it was in that outlandish solitude. But the hill was altogether divine. I could see the hill, though not the house, from my garden-end. It rose impressively from the maize fields into the southern sky, a long rampart of red sandstone brushed with a yellow light, of silken grass. The whole upland was uncultivated, and a number of banyan groves gave its broad rolling farther slope a parklike and half-English air which I found very grateful, for I was new to exile, and liked sometimes to escape from the insistent palms and prosperous monotony of the plain. I used to wander among the brakes and groves with a gun, ostensibly in search of hare and partridge, but intent rather upon the bloodless visual spoil of the hill itself and the broad views which its knolls afforded in all directions of tilth and marshland, jungle and hill. Oftenest of all I would gaze where the great vision of the river seemed, like Homer’s Ocean, to bound the level world on the west with its long bands of sea-blue stream and golden sand, themselves later to become the gray-and-silver threshold, and as it were an earthly reflex, of the golden-banded sunset. Like a visible goddess of the wild, the fascination of that marvelous riverprospect saved the life of many an innocent hare.
These transcendental rambles of mine often came to an end in the twilight at the Amelungs’ comfortable bungalow. Mrs. Amelung always seemed glad to see me, for she was a woman of parts and spirit, and lonely in the wilderness. She had not always been lonely on the hill. The house, it seems, had once been a favorite place of resort with the younger officials of the neighborhood who, in the first years of exile and loneliness, found themselves drawn — as I was later drawn by the homely comfort of her house and by her half-motherly, half-Bohemian temper and ripe experience of the country. With the little colony of engineers, who watched our benign but wayward river at the headworks of the great dam a few miles away, her word had once been law. In the end, they say, she stretched her authority too far. Many of her former courtiers in time became heads of departments, and she is said to have once used the influence thus acquired to call down fire from heaven upon a young man who had offended her. Like the wicked wasp in the adage, she had her revenge but lost her sting, for the rest grew shy of her from that day forward, and her court melted away. Once when she and I had quarreled, being herself entirely in the wrong, — she had wantonly insulted a young Indian friend of mine, after repeatedly asking me to bring him to see her, — she threatened, I remember, to ‘break’ me, as she called it; as if history should pathetically threaten to repeat herself!
Such displays of frightfulness, however, were happily rare. For the most part she was an entertaining woman in every sense of the word. She knew her Anglo-India better than Kipling — of the real India she knew, if possible, even less than he — and abounded in outof-the-way gossip and obsolete scandal. Her cooking, her curries, her preserves of tropic fruit, were as inimitable and piquant as her conversation. She had all a German woman’s pride of housewifery. She ruled her household with a rod of iron, and joined to the hospitable mood a curious mania for thrift. As a young bachelor, I was often oppressed in those days with the cares of housekeeping and the knaveries of servants, and I often sought her counsel. We turned over many account books together, and I had to admit that her establishment was run at a marvelously low figure. I am afraid my education hardly went beyond the stage of stupid wonder. Possibly my preceptress never intended that it should. Indeed, many of the refinements of her mystery were probably incommunicable — as my story will suggest.
Very characteristic of her arbitrary temper and eccentric thrift was her treatment of the villagers’ cattle that strayed into her paddock. Her husband — or the Mission — had claimed and enclosed a certain area around the house, thus forming a number of paddocks where the grass grew very thick, though of course it was green for only four months of the year. The paddocks were divided from the bosky wilds beyond by a low ditch, but not otherwise enclosed. Vemoru hill was the common grazing-ground of the surrounding villages, some of them several miles away; and the innocent kine often trespassed across the Amelungs’ ditch and proceeded to graze, untroubled by thorny bushes, on the level sward. Now there stood in the Amelungs’ paddock a dilapidated cattle-pound, a relic of a former occupation of the site by military engineers, perhaps those who built the dam in the sixties, on the ruins of whose lonely mess-house the Amelungs’ bungalow was built. Into this pound Mrs. Amelung regularly conducted the erring cattle in question, and refused to let them go without payment of a fixed ransom, which was somewhat less than that prescribed at the Government pound in the nearest village.
Whether she derived any considerable revenue from this curious procedure I do not know. The villagers naturally resented it, and there were times when feeling ran very high on the subject. My own sympathies were with the villagers, chiefly, I believe, because I myself was a sufferer from a somewhat similar instance of Mrs. Amelung’s methods. When her gateless drive was damp and soft in the rainy season she would sometimes place a palmyra-stem across it on trestles, to prevent carts and carriages from entering. It never occurred to her to hang a light on the barrier, and a pony of mine went within a yard of falling over it in the dark. This practice, in spite of protests, remained in favor with Mrs. Amelung as long as our acquaintance lasted, but her system of impoundment was abandoned under very curious circumstances.
One evening I found the servants in a state of much perturbation. ‘Misses making plenty trouble,’said the butler, Pentayya, who was adjusting a lamp on the verandah. ‘Misses putting Nandi in the pound.’
‘Putting who?' said I, laughing.
‘Nandi. Hindu people’s god. Big bull-god. Shiva’s riding-bull. Eating Misses’ “morning-glory.”’ (This was Mrs. Amelung’s favorite creeper.) ‘Misses putting in pound. Servants plenty fearing!'
I remembered that Mrs. Amelung had lately been engaged in a quarrel with the priests of a neighboring Shaiva temple, whose cattle she had impounded in the usual manner. Yes, Nandi is the name of the Vāhanam or ‘vehicle’ of Shiva, the bull upon which he is represented as riding. His sculptured image reposes before every shrine of the Great Ascetic. I half suspected some conspiracy on the part of the priests.
‘Nonsense, Pentayya,’ I said. ‘Are you not a Christian? You don’t believe that rubbish?’
‘I very good Christian, Master. Nandi plenty big devil,’ said he, and continued staring at me until the arrival of his mistress from upstairs put him to precipitate flight.
Mrs. Amelung was in high spirits. She was a stoutish woman with flaxen hair and a red face that reminded me of a Roman centurion, though it had evidently been once very handsome. She promptly guessed what Pentayya had been speaking of, and broached the subject forthwith.
’But you ought to see him,’she said. ‘He is a splendid animal. You admire fine cattle, do you not? He is larger than the bull that walks in the town bazaar, and mighty prettily dressed. Some rich vagabond’s Gangireddu, I suppose. Here, Abraham, bring a light, and show Master the Nandi.’
After more summoning, Abraham, a brown slip of a lad who looked as if he would not carry his name well for many years to come, — all the Hebrew patriarchs and many of the prophets were represented in Mrs. Amelung’s household, — appeared with a hurricane lantern. He was obviously frightened, and seemed ready to vanish again upon the least occasion. Roundly adjured by his mistress, he led the way to the paddock, but refused to go near the pound, and Mrs. Amelung was obliged to take the lantern from him and hold it over the enclosure.
‘Is he not a beauty?’ she asked proudly, as if showing off one of her own possessions. ‘I had to put him into the pound myself; the servants were afraid to face him. But he is perfectly gentle. Look at the size of his limbs.’
The cattle of those parts are grand creatures, but I have never seen such a bull as that which now lay before us in the dark, fantastically streaked by the light of Mrs. Amelung’s lantern. His bulk, as he lay, and the scale of his majestic head were colossal, and I could well understand the terror of poor little Abraham; but there was a magnificent grace also in the sweep of the vast shoulder-line, the droop and overfold of the ponderous dewlap, the shapely mass of the many-wrinkled neck and the broad hummock into which it rose, like the scroll of a marble throne or a shoreward-gathering wave in that Ocean of Milk which Indian poets feign, and from which, they say, the gods were born. The animal wore a bridle, collar, and other trappings of unfamiliar design, the precise character of which I vainly tried to make out in the uncertain glimmer of the lantern. It seemed mainly to consist of a rich filigree of some strange dark metal, which reminded me somehow of the fabulous work of dwarfs; and there were details of what looked like silver and gold, and sometimes the colored sparkle as of a gem.
It is the custom in the Telugu county for a certain kind of semireligious mendicant to lead about the villages bulls garishly dressed with patchwork stuffs, scarfs, fringes, and little bells. These animals perform simple tricks, and are known as Gangireddu; they probably represent a survival among the common folk of some barbarous cult, now somehow incorporated with the worship of Vishnu. But the finery of the beast before us seemed to be of a more distinguished order altogether.
The creature was couched sideways with one foreleg lifted, in the identical posture prescribed of old for the bullgod Nandi in the Silpa-shastra, or Canons of Statuary, as illustrated in the forecourt of every Shaiva temple — a circumstance which I should have considered more remarkable if this had not been the favorite position of ease among our mundane cattle also.
I naturally knew little in those days about a system of thought and faith which I have since come to regard, in its purer manifestations, as perhaps the noblest of all religions for a thinking man; but I was already attracted by the picturesque detail of its popular forms, and even posed among my own countrymen as something of an authority on Hindu ritual — a pretension which I fortunately found it fairly easy to maintain upon a very moderate equipment.
' This is no Gangireddu that you have caught, Mrs. Amelung,’ I said sententiously. ‘See, it is Shiva’s emblem, not Vishnu’s, that he carries on his forehead. I wonder if I could buy that collar of his. It seems to be of most remarkable workmanship.’
While I yet spoke a light seemed to grow in the eye of the statuesque monster in the pound, and with a terrific trumpeting snort, which the great sounding-board of his body changed into a roar like that of a tiger, he swung and lifted first his huge hind-quarters and then his whole stature into the air, and stood gazing before him with pleasure and expectation alive in every line. Poor little Abraham collapsed with a sob and a shiver upon the grass as I turned to seek the cause of the beast’s excitement.
‘Now’s your chance, if you want to bargain,’said Mrs. Amelung. ‘Here is the Zangam — a kind of hedge priest — ‘come to claim him.’
A tall man stood upon the grass in the dusk about a dozen yards away. He was apparently a yogi or ascetic, but not, I could see at once, of the vulgar sort suggested by Mrs. Amelung. He wore a piece of tiger-skin about his loins, and a string of large beads about his neck, and his hair was piled and coiled in a great mass upon his head. His skin shone through the gloom with a low lustre, which I took to be the effect of the ash with which such anchorites commonly smear themselves; though the appearance was rather as if the whole body was chiseled in some fine marble. His face showed the light beard of early manhood, but was itself neither young nor old; spare and severe, but ineffably tranquil and beautiful. Upon his brow there glimmered what looked like a caste mark of a peculiar shape, somewhat resembling a closed eye set on end. As he stood there with his back to the failing afterglow, rolling in his fingers what I guessed to be a little ball of the symbolic ash, the long horizontal bars of the sacred river of the Andhras appeared to spring like the streamers of an aura from his head, and the young moon rested, like a brooch, upon his hair. At the same time I became conscious, in the vague way that is not unusual, yet now in a sense unusually solemn, of the presence of an idea, an image, a moment, that I had somewhere known before.
‘Who are you, pray,’ I heard Mrs. Amelung say in Telugu, ‘and what do you want?’
‘My name,’ said the votarist in a still, clear voice, ‘is Chandra-sekhara, and I am come to fetch my bull.’
The words themselves meant no more to me in my ignorance than they would have meant to any other Englishman; yet they went through me with a strange thrill, in which sweetness was somehow mixed with dread.
But Mrs. Amelung burst forth at once in a characteristic tone between scolding and banter.
‘Why don’t you take proper care of your bull, Mr. Chandra-sekhara? He has been trampling around my compound all the afternoon, eating up my best creepers, and frightening the servants out of their wits. He is in pound now, and you can’t have him out unless you pay me two annas.’
The newcomer seemed to be taken aback.
‘I have no money, lady,’ he replied at last. ‘I am only a poor ascetic; but I will give you this,’ and he held out the ash which he was rolling in his fingers. This ash is treated by the elect as a sort of sacrament.
Before the lady could reply — rather luckily, as I thought — the note of a bell, singularly sweet in tone, rang out behind us, followed by the clatter of bamboos falling. The great bull stumbled out of the enclosure, kicking down the barrier like the merest reeds, and began placidly to walk toward his master.
But Mrs. Amelung promptly laid her hand upon the great neck as the animal reached her. The bull at once came to a stand, huge and patient as an Assyrian sculpture.
‘Not so fast,’ cried the imperious dame. ‘ I must have my proper fee, or I shall send your bull to the Government pound in the village, and you will have to pay four annas instead of two.'
There was another long pause, as if the ascetic were faced with a situation quite new to him. Then he spoke again.
‘Lady, I have told you that I am an ascetic. Ashes are my only wealth. How shall I pay you money?’
‘You can beg it quickly enough,’ cried Mrs. Amelung, who appeared to be irritated by the quiet manner of the anchorite. ‘I know you holy beggars. You are rich enough on the sly. Look at the trappings of this performing animal of yours! What is the use of your sacred ash to me?’ she continued, her tirade gathering momentum as it ran. ‘Do you think I am going to smear it across my forehead, or all over my chest and shoulders, like the foolish pilgrims in the temple yonder?’
An elvish smile crossed the tranquil face of the ascetic.
‘You can wear it,’ he said, ‘in your hair,’ and he deftly tossed the little ball of ash into the air, where it broke into a faint cloud that fell slowly around Mrs. Amelung’s head.
All the conventions should have moved me to interfere at this, but the action was so sudden that for the moment I remained rooted to the ground as if bewitched. Mrs. Amelung recoiled a little, and lifted her hand from the neck of the bull to brush aside the silver shower.
At once the bull stepped forward and strode with a soft music of bells to his master; and the naked anchorite, placing his hand behind the creature’s hump, leaped lightly on his back and rode away. He sat sideways carelessly, as I have seen many a naked cowherdboy ride on a buffalo; but as he rode into the ebbing sunset I thought again that the young moon rested in his hair. At the same moment a wide but gentle wind, rustling all the foliage of the hill, arose behind us like the sigh that follows ineffable beatitude, and the whole atmosphere seemed to move into the west, as if some vast presence were quietly withdrawn.
But Mrs. Amelung, with whom in the meanwhile bewilderment was clearing into wrath, noticed nothing of all this.
’What insolence!’ she cried at last, turning to me furiously. ‘Why don’t you go after him and stop him?’
’Better let him go,’ I said, pacifying her, for in simple truth I was afraid. ‘He won’t bother you again. Let us go on to the verandah.’
At that moment her husband, who all this while had apparently been writing in his room, came out, attracted by the altercation. He asked what the trouble was about.
’Your wife has been quarreling with the temple people again,’I managed to say with a proper show of levity.
’A Sadhu, a most impertinent fellow,’ said Mrs. Amelung. ‘He threw some ash at me. Go and stop him, Oscar.’
Amelung, who had heard more than he pretended, looked at me privily over his spectacles, and I shook my head.
‘Better leave him alone,’ Amelung said. ‘You will get into trouble, Frida.
I am always telling you that you have no right to impound their cattle as you do. Come into the house and sit down.’
We quieted her anger after a while, and she was calmer as we began to walk toward the house.
‘What did the fellow say his name was?’ she asked, turning to me.
' Chandra-sekhara,’ I replied. It is, as you know, a common Brahmin name, and I had remembered it because it happened to be borne by one of my clerks.
Unlike most missionaries, Amelung, in his lifeless German way, knew all about the religion he proposed to abolish.
’Chandra-sekhara is a name of Shiva,’ he said. ‘It means Mooncrested. They have been playing you a trick with this Nandi business. That yogi was masquerading as the god himself.’
Mrs. Amelung stopped short.
’Help us!' she cried. ‘Masquerading as the Mooncrested God? Was the man mesmerizing me? All the time I was talking to him I kept thinking the moon was lying on his hair.’
She looked at me. I said nothing, though her words, even more than those of her husband, startled and perplexed me beyond my former fancies. She and I had been standing several paces apart. By what miracle of perspective could we both at once have seen the moon upon the votarist’s hair?
’The least unreasonable explanation,’ said Mrs. Amelung judicially, ‘seems to be that I have been quarreling with Shiva himself.’ Her words sounded like an answer to my thought, but a part of her intention, I believe, was to tease her husband.
‘Nonsense, Frida,’ answered the missionary. ‘How can you say such a thing? Not long ago I heard you most indiscreetly making fun of these people’s religious practices. Now you go to the other extreme and want to persuade yourself, out of pure love of sensation, into a belief in this man’s mummery. Come, compose yourself.’ He thought a little, and then quoted the Psalmist rather solemnly, as if he were pronouncing an exorcism. ‘“The idols of the heathen are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands."'
Mrs. Amelung remarked with a laugh that he had put the text at the wrong end of the sermon. She was still oddly excited. I took my leave soon after, for I was not in a mood for company.
Outside the moon was gone, and the last steel-blue light had faded from the distant river, but the stars were strangely bright, and there was an almost preternatural purity and exhilaration in the air. My way lay for a time in the direction taken by that mysterious rider, and I thought from time to time that I heard the sound of his bell among the banyan groves. The words quoted by the missionary, with their haunting rhythm, rang in my head perpetually, but rather in the sense of a question.
The work of men’s hands? The work of men’s minds, even? Was it hypnotism? I tried to frame a reasonable theory, marshaling the simple facts, like an expert in psychical research, but I was not in a mood to reason clearly. Moreover I was not yet in possession of all the facts.
The next day, when I called on Mrs. Amelung, she was suffering from high fever. I was not allowed to see her till nearly three weeks later. When she appeared I was aghast. Her yellow hair had gone quite gray.
She said nothing of our adventure, nor ever referred to it afterward but once. It was in some quite other connection, which I have now forgotten. ‘Do I not,’ she said rather wistfully, but not without an undertone of characteristic mockery, ‘do I not wear the ash of the Destroyer in my hair?’
A marked change in the personal appearance of a friend may easily and perhaps quite wrongly suggest a corresponding change in personality. I always felt that Mrs. Amelung was in some ways a different woman after that experience, a gentler, more considerate, and humbler woman; and that the ash of the Great Ascetic, who boasts himself to be the poorest of the poor, was not the least precious form of wealth in which she might have received payment.
I may be mistaken, of course. All I can say for certain is that she enclosed her paddock, and ceased to impound the villagers’ cattle.