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Diary entry by Gertrude Bell

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Gertrude Bell
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1 entry, paper

Thurs 5. [5 February 1903] Off at 7 and drove down to the
Dasaswamedha Ghat where we took a boat and went first up the river
a little way and then all down to Aurangzeb's mosque. Every ghat
was crowded with bathers. There are wooden bathing planks each
belonging to a separate person and they send up touts to the station
to meet and catch the pilgrims. All about there are enormous grass
plaited umbrellas, some set up and some lying on the steps and hung
against the walls like immense shields. Men and women bathe
together - all is conducted most decently. Lots of Nepalese - we saw
2 going down to bathe in the sacred pool near Vishnu's footprints. A
lovely part of the prayer is when the brown[?] figure stands upright and
pours from a copper lotu held above his head, the water back into the
sacred stream. They also use fish shaped vessels of pure copper
called argha with which they pour out libations to dead ancestors. We
saw many holy men of all sorts - one in the flesh coloured robe of
pilgrims toiling up a steep ghat and holding his staff in the air so that it
might not touch the ground. It had just been bathed in Gemgaji[?] -
these staffs never touch the ground. One sadhu, almost naked,
smeared with ashes and mud, was sitting on an old barge with his
chela at his feet and his conch shell by him, which he blew on for a
consideration. We saw lepers, white as snow, or rather pinkish,
bathing with all the others. The architecture of the great houses is
most excellent - great bastions supporting the river front of them. The
foundations have to be very firm as the ground is apt to slip. In 2
places all the buildings had fallen. The Man Mandir Observatory is
particularly good, with a beautiful columned oriel window on brackets.
Near it is the Nepalese temple, a pagoda, set in trees with lovely
black, carved, wooden eves [sic]. Then comes the Burning Ghat.
We saw the corpses in their white and pink cotton winding sheets
floating in the holy water while the men built the funeral piles. They
were laid on and covered with wood all but the feet and top of the
head - as we came back the piles were burning. The mourners sat on
a platform above. Aurungzeb's mosque is wonderfully soaring. The
tall slender minarets dominate the whole river - there is no God but
God, though all Benares [Varanasi] worship sticks and stones. We
climbed up to it by the steepest stairs ever known - only beaten by
those leading up into the minarets. Very fine view of the whole rabbit
warren city, but misty. The Ganges [Ganga] is low now, in the rainy
season it comes half way up the ghats and covers the sandy bed on
the other side. The court in front of the Mosque belongs to the Hindus
and Muhammadans may only enter by a side door. I went behind to
see if there were any traces of earlier buildings but could find nothing.
When we came down we found that Mrs S. had got breakfast ready -
most welcome. Saw the Russells with a Mr Knox Johnson and talked
to them. Saw the immense recumbent figure which the Ganges takes
away and brings back every year. Also wrestlers exercising their
muscles in the Wrestler's College. A snake charmer ran along the
bank after us and I photographed him when we landed. We also saw
a most remarkable athlete who lifted up a big bronze water jar with his
teeth and a mound[?] weight by his top knot. He also turned
completely round his own arm and shook his shoulders in and out of
joint. He was an ex soldier. Some of the prayers had straws in their
hands, others twisted round. We then went to the Golden Temple
walking through a network of little streets full of shrines and temples.
The colour lovely beyond words - a mass of yellows and ..... and
browns yellow and orange heaps of marigolds and white jesmine.
Saw a bridal party with drums and conches coming out of the temple.
Lots of image sellers and food sellers. Shopped and met Mr Watt
and his fiancÈe, Miss Whiteway in the bronze shop. So back to lunch
at 12.30. At 3 I drove out in a Rajah's carriage and went to the Kali
temple where I fed the monkeys, then to the Arhai [space left blank]
Musjed which is built out of a Hindu temple - I think this must be the
place which was Buddhist. Walked through the Chauk to the Nepal
temple - the streets too wonderful, deep and narrow wells full of
shrines and extraordinary people. The Ghats quite deserted - walked
along to the Burning Ghat and so back, shopping a lota and an argha
on my way. Tea with Mr Sanders. The usual music after dinner. Our
mails told of Father's being made made [sic] a director of the NER.
Mrs S. says its unlucky to finish a building here. One man made
himself a big house and had to go on building acres of wall because
he was told he wd die when he stopped. Fortunately he did die
before covering all Benares with his wall. [Written at top of third page
of entry:] The bathers completed their toilette when they were holy
men by ......... arms and forehead with finger marks of Ganges mud,
which dried white.

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