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    Chapter 40

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    Chapter 41
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    Few of us can stand prosperity. Another man's, I mean.
    --Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar.

    The next picture in my mind is Government House, on Malabar Point, with
    the wide sea-view from the windows and broad balconies; abode of His
    Excellency the Governor of the Bombay Presidency--a residence which is
    European in everything but the native guards and servants, and is a home
    and a palace of state harmoniously combined.

    That was England, the English power, the English civilization, the modern
    civilization--with the quiet elegancies and quiet colors and quiet tastes
    and quiet dignity that are the outcome of the modern cultivation. And
    following it came a picture of the ancient civilization of India--an hour
    in the mansion of a native prince: Kumar Schri Samatsinhji Bahadur of the
    Palitana State.

    The young lad, his heir, was with the prince; also, the lad's sister, a
    wee brown sprite, very pretty, very serious, very winning, delicately
    moulded, costumed like the daintiest butterfly, a dear little fairyland
    princess, gravely willing to be friendly with the strangers, but in the
    beginning preferring to hold her father's hand until she could take stock
    of them and determine how far they were to be trusted. She must have
    been eight years old; so in the natural (Indian) order of things she
    would be a bride in three or four years from now, and then this free
    contact with the sun and the air and the other belongings of out-door
    nature and comradeship with visiting male folk would end, and she would
    shut herself up in the zenana for life, like her mother, and by inherited
    habit of mind would be happy in that seclusion and not look upon it as an
    irksome restraint and a weary captivity.

    The game which the prince amuses his leisure with--however, never mind
    it, I should never be able to describe it intelligibly. I tried to get
    an idea of it while my wife and daughter visited the princess in the
    zenana, a lady of charming graces and a fluent speaker of English, but I
    did not make it out. It is a complicated game, and I believe it is said
    that nobody can learn to play it well--but an Indian. And I was not able
    to learn how to wind a turban. It seemed a simple art and easy; but that
    was a deception. It is a piece of thin, delicate stuff a foot wide or
    more, and forty or fifty feet long; and the exhibitor of the art takes
    one end of it in his hands, and winds it in and out intricately about his
    head, twisting it as he goes, and in a minute or two the thing is
    finished, and is neat and symmetrical and fits as snugly as a mould.

    We were interested in the wardrobe and the jewels, and in the silverware,
    and its grace of shape and beauty and delicacy of ornamentation. The
    silverware is kept locked up, except at meal-times, and none but the
    chief butler and the prince have keys to the safe. I did not clearly
    understand why, but it was not for the protection of the silver. It was
    either to protect the prince from the contamination which his caste would
    suffer if the vessels were touched by low-caste hands, or it was to
    protect his highness from poison. Possibly it was both. I believe a
    salaried taster has to taste everything before the prince ventures it--an
    ancient and judicious custom in the East, and has thinned out the tasters
    a good deal, for of course it is the cook that puts the poison in. If I
    were an Indian prince I would not go to the expense of a taster, I would
    eat with the cook.

    Ceremonials are always interesting; and I noted that the Indian
    good-morning is a ceremonial, whereas ours doesn't amount to that. In
    salutation the son reverently touches the father's forehead with a small
    silver implement tipped with vermillion paste which leaves a red spot
    there, and in return the son receives the father's blessing. Our good
    morning is well enough for the rowdy West, perhaps, but would be too
    brusque for the soft and ceremonious East.

    After being properly necklaced, according to custom, with great garlands
    made of yellow flowers, and provided with betel-nut to chew, this
    pleasant visit closed, and we passed thence to a scene of a different
    sort: from this glow of color and this sunny life to those grim
    receptacles of the Parsee dead, the Towers of Silence. There is
    something stately about that name, and an impressiveness which sinks
    deep; the hush of death is in it. We have the Grave, the Tomb, the
    Mausoleum, God's Acre, the Cemetery; and association has made them
    eloquent with solemn meaning; but we have no name that is so majestic as
    that one, or lingers upon the ear with such deep and haunting pathos.

    On lofty ground, in the midst of a paradise of tropical foliage and
    flowers, remote from the world and its turmoil and noise, they stood--the
    Towers of Silence; and away below was spread the wide groves of cocoa
    palms, then the city, mile on mile, then the ocean with its fleets of
    creeping ships all steeped in a stillness as deep as the hush that
    hallowed this high place of the dead. The vultures were there. They
    stood close together in a great circle all around the rim of a massive
    low tower--waiting; stood as motionless as sculptured ornaments, and
    indeed almost deceived one into the belief that that was what they were.
    Presently there was a slight stir among the score of persons present, and
    all moved reverently out of the path and ceased from talking. A funeral
    procession entered the great gate, marching two and two, and moved
    silently by, toward the Tower. The corpse lay in a shallow shell, and
    was under cover of a white cloth, but was otherwise naked. The bearers
    of the body were separated by an interval of thirty feet from the
    mourners. They, and also the mourners, were draped all in pure white,
    and each couple of mourners was figuratively bound together by a piece of
    white rope or a handkerchief--though they merely held the ends of it in
    their hands. Behind the procession followed a dog, which was led in a
    leash. When the mourners had reached the neighborhood of the Tower
    --neither they nor any other human being but the bearers of the dead must
    approach within thirty feet of it--they turned and went back to one of
    the prayer-houses within the gates, to pray for the spirit of their dead.
    The bearers unlocked the Tower's sole door and disappeared from view
    within. In a little while they came out bringing the bier and the white
    covering-cloth, and locked the door again. Then the ring of vultures
    rose, flapping their wings, and swooped down into the Tower to devour the
    body. Nothing was left of it but a clean-picked skeleton when they
    flocked-out again a few minutes afterward.

    The principle which underlies and orders everything connected with a
    Parsee funeral is Purity. By the tenets of the Zoroastrian religion, the
    elements, Earth, Fire, and Water, are sacred, and must not be
    contaminated by contact with a dead body. Hence corpses must not be
    burned, neither must they be buried. None may touch the dead or enter
    the Towers where they repose except certain men who are officially
    appointed for that purpose. They receive high pay, but theirs is a
    dismal life, for they must live apart from their species, because their
    commerce with the dead defiles them, and any who should associate with
    them would share their defilement. When they come out of the Tower the
    clothes they are wearing are exchanged for others, in a building within
    the grounds, and the ones which they have taken off are left behind, for
    they are contaminated, and must never be used again or suffered to go
    outside the grounds. These bearers come to every funeral in new
    garments. So far as is known, no human being, other than an official
    corpse-bearer--save one--has ever entered a Tower of Silence after its
    consecration. Just a hundred years ago a European rushed in behind the
    bearers and fed his brutal curiosity with a glimpse of the forbidden
    mysteries of the place. This shabby savage's name is not given; his
    quality is also concealed. These two details, taken in connection with
    the fact that for his extraordinary offense the only punishment he got
    from the East India Company's Government was a solemn official
    "reprimand"--suggest the suspicion that he was a European of consequence.
    The same public document which contained the reprimand gave warning that
    future offenders of his sort, if in the Company's service, would be
    dismissed; and if merchants, suffer revocation of license and exile to

    The Towers are not tall, but are low in proportion to their
    circumference, like a gasometer. If you should fill a gasometer half way
    up with solid granite masonry, then drive a wide and deep well down
    through the center of this mass of masonry, you would have the idea of a
    Tower of Silence. On the masonry surrounding the well the bodies lie, in
    shallow trenches which radiate like wheel-spokes from the well. The
    trenches slant toward the well and carry into it the rainfall.
    Underground drains, with charcoal filters in them, carry off this water
    from the bottom of the well.

    When a skeleton has lain in the Tower exposed to the rain and the flaming
    sun a month it is perfectly dry and clean. Then the same bearers that
    brought it there come gloved and take it up with tongs and throw it into
    the well. There it turns to dust. It is never seen again, never touched
    again, in the world. Other peoples separate their dead, and preserve and
    continue social distinctions in the grave--the skeletons of kings and
    statesmen and generals in temples and pantheons proper to skeletons of
    their degree, and the skeletons of the commonplace and the poor in places
    suited to their meaner estate; but the Parsees hold that all men rank
    alike in death--all are humble, all poor, all destitute. In sign of
    their poverty they are sent to their grave naked, in sign of their
    equality the bones of the rich, the poor, the illustrious and the obscure
    are flung into the common well together. At a Parsee funeral there are
    no vehicles; all concerned must walk, both rich and poor, howsoever great
    the distance to be traversed may be. In the wells of the Five Towers of
    Silence is mingled the dust of all the Parsee men and women and children
    who have died in Bombay and its vicinity during the two centuries which
    have elapsed since the Mohammedan conquerors drove the Parsees out of
    Persia, and into that region of India. The earliest of the five towers
    was built by the Modi family something more than 200 years ago, and it is
    now reserved to the heirs of that house; none but the dead of that blood
    are carried thither.

    The origin of at least one of the details of a Parsee funeral is not now
    known--the presence of the dog. Before a corpse is borne from the house
    of mourning it must be uncovered and exposed to the gaze of a dog; a dog
    must also be led in the rear of the funeral. Mr. Nusserwanjee Byranijee,
    Secretary to the Parsee Punchayet, said that these formalities had once
    had a meaning and a reason for their institution, but that they were
    survivals whose origin none could now account for. Custom and tradition
    continue them in force, antiquity hallows them. It is thought that in
    ancient times in Persia the dog was a sacred animal and could guide souls
    to heaven; also that his eye had the power of purifying objects which had
    been contaminated by the touch of the dead; and that hence his presence
    with the funeral cortege provides an ever-applicable remedy in case of

    The Parsees claim that their method of disposing of the dead is an
    effective protection of the living; that it disseminates no corruption,
    no impurities of any sort, no disease-germs; that no wrap, no garment
    which has touched the dead is allowed to touch the living afterward; that
    from the Towers of Silence nothing proceeds which can carry harm to the
    outside world. These are just claims, I think. As a sanitary measure,
    their system seems to be about the equivalent of cremation, and as sure.
    We are drifting slowly--but hopefully--toward cremation in these days.
    It could not be expected that this progress should be swift, but if it be
    steady and continuous, even if slow, that will suffice. When cremation
    becomes the rule we shall cease to shudder at it; we should shudder at
    burial if we allowed ourselves to think what goes on in the grave.

    The dog was an impressive figure to me, representing as he did a mystery
    whose key is lost. He was humble, and apparently depressed; and he let
    his head droop pensively, and looked as if he might be trying to call
    back to his mind what it was that he had used to symbolize ages ago when
    he began his function. There was another impressive thing close at hand,
    but I was not privileged to see it. That was the sacred fire--a fire
    which is supposed to have been burning without interruption for more than
    two centuries; and so, living by the same heat that was imparted to it so
    long ago.

    The Parsees are a remarkable community. There are only about 60,000 in
    Bombay, and only about half as many as that in the rest of India; but
    they make up in importance what they lack in numbers. They are highly
    educated, energetic, enterprising, progressive, rich, and the Jew himself
    is not more lavish or catholic in his charities and benevolences. The
    Parsees build and endow hospitals, for both men and animals; and they and
    their womenkind keep an open purse for all great and good objects. They
    are a political force, and a valued support to the government. They have
    a pure and lofty religion, and they preserve it in its integrity and
    order their lives by it.

    We took a final sweep of the wonderful view of plain and city and ocean,
    and so ended our visit to the garden and the Towers of Silence; and the
    last thing I noticed was another symbol--a voluntary symbol this one; it
    was a vulture standing on the sawed-off top of a tall and slender and
    branchless palm in an open space in the ground; he was perfectly
    motionless, and looked like a piece of sculpture on a pillar. And he had
    a mortuary look, too, which was in keeping with the place.
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    Chapter 41
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