Letters

25 February 1903

From/To: Gertrude Bell to her stepmother, Dame Florence Bell

[25 February 1903] In the train. Wed. Feb 25th. Dearest Mother. We got our mail this morning with very interesting letters from you and Father and a long one of great merit from Moll. We love to hear the stories of the NER meetings and I now say with pride to all the railway people: "Ah yes! we can quite sympathise with your difficulties - our Father is the director of a railway." He had better institute immediately what we call in India Officers' Carriages (such as that in which we now are, thanks to Captain Kincaid, the head of these railways to whom Sir Cecil sent us.) It is the only carriage in which a lady and gentleman of our distinction should demean thmselves to take the road. It consists of a large room, with beds, armchairs and tables, a cupboard with shelves, a bathroom and a kitchen, and a room for our servant. (Our servant is called Ah Lee, but I Bellieve he's a Hindu; he's certainly not Chinese.) We also love the cutting about your good works and Madame Brunnar[?]. Do you think she sent it to the papers? Yes indeed I know the passage about Brunetto Latini - I quoted it in my able article about the Babis, you remember. (When is the dilatory Newbolt going to publish it?) I think, too, that there are few things in the Divine Comedy to touch it - except the passage in the Purgatorio when Stazio falls at the feet of the shade of Virgil and says that he does it out of love "Che tratte l'ombra come cosa sana." I hope you'll read the Purgatorio also - I'll get you to explain to me someday why the moon has spots - vide Canto 2 - and also how to reckon the time by the position of the sun at Jerusalem - passim. (We've just discovered that we have a hanging cupboard too!) Well, to return to the NER: Father's account of the working capacity of the Board is most interesting. He'll have to wake them all up, like Aunt Fanny when she came to London. (We are now brilliantly lighted by 6 electric lights - it's rather sad in this country how early and how quickly the night falls. And we have just discovered 9 more cupboards!) Well, now I'll go back to the beginning. We had a tedious day on Monday. We had all to be examined for plague before they would give us a clean bill of health and as we had 800 steerage passengers this was a long business. 375 of them were discovered to have fever of sorts - and were sent off to the quarantine station. Finally we got our passes, with the injunction that we were to report ourselves to the health officers every day for 10 days. We did so in Rangoon [Yangon], but as there are no health officers up country and you are specially told that these arrangements are in no way to prevent your moving about, we shall now have to discontinue reporter, so that it all seems a trifle futile. By the time these things were over, we had missed the tide and had to lie in the river outside Rangoon till 4 PM, very hot and tedious it was. So we sat and looked at the spire of the Shway Dagon, the Golden Pagoda, through the heat haze. In the end they behaved like gentlemen, for they landed us on a quay, 2 steps from our hotel and Cook's man took charge of our luggage. We stepped ashore, saw that our rooms were reserved for us, jumped into a garri and drove off to the Shway Dagon at the other side of Rangoon. Now Rangoon is not a Burmese town. It's inhabited mostly by Madrasis and Chinamen. The lazy, contented Burman has been pushed back and back into the suburbs, or away altogether. Nevertheless, it contains the most famous of all pagodas, and people come on pilgrimages from all parts of the Buddhist world to the Shway Dagon. I wish you would get from the Grosvenor, and read, one of the most enchanting of books - the Burman, his Life and Notions by Shway Yoe. He's an Englishman called Scott, a Commissioner in the Shan country and a very distinguished man, self made. Mrs Cotes told me of his book which I bought in Calcutta. It has proved a great delight. The reason why the Shway Dagon is so holy is because it is built over relics of the 3 Buddhas preceeding Sidhartha and over 3 hairs of Sidhartha himself. We have been blessed with 4 Buddhas and there is a 5th coming before the end of our era - you may say roughly within the next 50 billion million of years. No 'urry, no 'urry! I must tell you, the shape of a pagoda is that of a great inverted square, or octagonal, Bell with an immensely long handle sticking up as spire, on top of which is a highly decorated thing called a htee which represents the umbrella, the emblem of royalty. The Bell handle of the Shway Dagon reaches up higher than St Paul's, and the htee is of gold, thickly encrusted with jewels - which of course you can't see, but they are there all the same. The whole Pagoda is covered with gold leaf. It costs about ú5000 to regild it. They're doing it now, I'm sorry to say, and the top of the spire is encased in scaffolding which spoils its slender symmetry. As we drove through the town we saw the Burman, his wife and family taking their evening stroll. They were all, men and women, dressed in bright silk petticoats, drawn tight round them at the back and fastened with a clever overlapping hitch[?] in the front - mostly bright rose pink - and a white cotton jacket. The men had their heads tied up in a pink brocade scarf; the women twist up their black hair into a knot on the top of their heads, stick a flower in it and their little white ivory comb. Which is a most convenient plan, for if you want to recoiffer yourself, you just take out the comb, do your hair and put the comb back again. And one and all, they smoked cheroots, 11 inches long and about an inch in diametre [sic]. I've smoked one - they're mostly made of pith, they make you cough rather, but they're not at all bad! So, in the dusk we came to the Shway Dagon and stopped at the foot of a long flight of covered stairs with two enormous hobgoblin beasts of brick and plaster sitting up on their tails at either side of the entrance. They have their mouths wide open, these beasts, and their eyes starting out of their heads and you can see they're howling and gobbling all they know. But it's not the least use, for the moment you catch sight of their little curly tails you know that they couldn't possibly hurt a midge. And of course they couldn't because they're Buddhist beasts and mayn't take the smallest life. A small imp - we couldn't decide whether she was a girl or he was a boy so we called it it - skipped out with a lantern to light us up the dark stairs; a most necessary lantern, the stairs being of brick, uneven to begin with and worn by bare feet. The little shops on either side were mostly empty for the night; here and there a sleepy Burman touched one of the soft sweet gongs that were hanging up for sale and the mellow vibrations throbbed down to us climbing up the temple stairs. And near the top of the stairs the flower shops and the candle shops were still open for the worshippers who come late into the night and need offerings for the shrines. So we reached the big platform on which the Pagoda stands and we saw a carved wooden doorway and a fantastic carved wooden roof, and a blaze of light from the votive candles, and the calm faces of great gold Buddhas sitting round in companies, and bands of little people clad in rose pink kneeling before them with a bunch of roses between their folded, uplifted hands, saying an evening prayer. Priests with shaven heads and yellow robes were lighting more candles and yet more; from time to time one rose from his knees and came away with an air of gay content, touching, as he passed down, one of the triangular metal gongs that hung quivering on their threads. And I hope the sweet waves of its sound lapped on the coasts of Nothingness where Sakya Muni sits, for even if you have detached yourself from the Wheel of Change you must still listen for the echo of a Burmese gong. Next morning we came back very early and found all the shops open and made the Shopkeepers ring all the gongs - which is a great art - so that streams of delicious sound, from the highest most silvery note of the tiny bits of steel, down to the deep sweet pulsation of the big round disks, went up and down the stairs. The pagoda platform was full of charming people in pink and green bringing offerings and saying their prayers. We wandered round and looked at the innumerable little shrines and big image houses holding countless Buddhas, large and small, teaching, preaching, meditating, entering into Nirvana; the flower shops made of a big umbrella under which were heaped piles of white and pink roses; the wonderful, indescribable outline of gorgeous carved wooden roof - roof above roof - the eves narrowing as they rose and each one carved and finished with dragons and monsters flourishing their tails in the air; and in the midst of all the great gold spire soaring into the sky. All the people were smoking the early morning cheroot; I saw a little lady saying her prayers, and sometimes she interrupted her prayers to take a puff at her cheroot, and sometimes she interrupted her cheroot to intone another sentence or two of Pali texts. It was charmingly and deliciously secular as well as quite sufficiently devout. There was a blind beggar, for instance, with his wife, sitting at the foot of a Buddha in an image house, he playing and she singing and the people standing round, amused and listening, or sitting chattering at the Buddha's feet. There were also, I regret to say, some phonographs which attracted a great deal of attention, even from the monks; and little booths for food things between two shrines. You don't remain long unconscious of what they chiefly eat. It is called ngapee and it is fish in a very complicated stage of decomposition. Nothing can be eaten without ngapee in some form or other - you can tell that by your nose. We came back to our hotel to breakfast and spent the rest of the morning making various arrangements. It was very hot - incredible the snows of a week before. At lunch a charming person came in to see us, Mr Lowis, a thin, busy little lawyer. He came back at 4 to help us with our plans. We went to tea with the Kincaids, who were very kind. They drove us out afterwards into the enchanting park, round lakes and smooth lawns set with cannas in full flower, and we saw many roofed monasteries - the ordinary common man may only put one to his house, but the monasteries have 10 at least, one of top of the other - all carved - and the pagoda from across the lake with the sunset behind it. We were obliged to leave abruptly because we were joined by a swarm of white ants from which we had to drive away as fast as our nice little .... of ponies could take us. And that was very fast indeed. You like hearing about the animals, don't you! I had 2 gigantic cockroaches in my room, and a strange beast with very long legs which I tried to drown in my basin, not being a Buddhist; but with his long legs, he escaped. Also there's a little lizard about 2 inches long, that lives in the houses and says tlck tlck all night, like the very loudest hen in the world. He's rather an angel. Tuesday morning Mr Lowis sent his servant to fetch us at 7 and take us to the biggest timber warehouse to see the elephants piling teak logs and pushing them down into the river with their trunks to be ready for shipment. It was too nice. We met Lady White there, the wife of Sir H. Thirkell White, a judge, to whom Mr Ritchie had given us a letter (Mr Lowis was also one of his introductions) and she asked us to dine next week when we came back. After breakfast we drove out to see wood carvings and missions, and then we did no more till we caught our train at 6, except arrange our rooms, like Lord Kitchener - Captain Brooke says he works furiously for 2 days and then arranges his room for 2 days! We dined at a station where we had 2 servants waiting on us, 2 at the door to hand in the dishes and one to pull the punkah. You really must increase your staff before we return. We had a most excellent night and a long wait in the middle of the day at a place called Thazi, but, as our carriage was shipped off and put into a siding to wait with us, we had a very peaceful time. We walked into the village, but found it was only a railway village. At one of the little shops there was a basket of pineapples, of which we wished to buy one. The lady of the shop was having her midday sleep; her small and entirely naked son roused her when he saw us fingering the pineapples, she just woke up enough to say "Char anna" (which is 4d) and then went to sleep again. We paid the 4 annas to the small boy and walked off with the pineapple. It's an excellent pineapple. We think it's just on the cards that we may not catch the mail unless we post this letter at the place we sleep at tonight - Myingyan (prononcÇ Bertrand! the names of the places are most inscrutable; what can a gentleman make of Hngetthaik? and we know that Myitkyina is pronounced Mitchina to rhyme with Kitchener.) We are bound on a wild expedition to Paghan [Pagan], the ancient capital - ferry boats, row boats, Dak Bungalows all come into the scheme. The gods send we may prosper! Eventually we land up in Mandalay on Sunday evening or Monday morning. It's now Thursday evening and we have just had a dinner cooked in our kitchen. We sleep at Myingyan, in our carriage, which is to be put into a siding, as there is no possible place where even we could sleep. Our windows are all provided with netting shutters so that we can have all the air and no mosquitoes or flying animals of any sort. We lose a great opportunity in this country in not being entomologists!

I forgot to say - to Father this is - that we are keenly interested in the working of the Education Bill at M'bro [Middlesbrough]. We think he seems to have done wonders in pulling his team together. It might so well have been all at 6s and 7s. Poor Mr Churchill! I'm very sorry, but I can't help thinking the young woman is well out of it. Ever your affectionate daughter Gertrude

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