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Letter from Gertrude Bell to her stepmother, Dame Florence Bell

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Reference code
Bell, Dame Florence Eveleen Eleanore
Bell, Gertrude Margaret Lowthian
Person(s) mentioned
Chirol, Valentine
Creation Date
Extent and medium
1 letter plus envelope, paper
India ยป Kolkata

22.572646, 88.363895

Calcutta. Feb 11. Dearest Mother. I left you at Benares [Varanasi] last Thursday; we concluded a very successful visit on Friday morning and departed in the odour of hospitality, Mrs Sanders seeing us off and embracing me when we went. Moreover she sent my stylographic pen after me, which I had left behind. We went straight to Gaya, which we reached in the afternoon, and put up at the D.B., which was inhabited by strange persons. One was completely clad in tartan plaid and played the bagpipes to himself in his leisure {moments} hours of which, like Heine's prince, he appeared to have 24 a day. He remains a mystery. Gaya is a very sacred place. 8 miles out, at Buddh Gaya [Bodh Gaya], Sakya Muni found enlightenment, on one of the little hills near the town he preached his Sermon on the Mount and most of his teaching was done in a radius of a few miles of Gaya. The wily Brahman, who has turned the Buddha into the last incarnation of Vishnu, has siezed and holds all his shrines and Gaya itself contains besides a fame most holy to Hindus, enclosing no less than the marks of Vishnu's feet, where he stepped on and killed the good giant Gaya, who died for humanity and whose body remains visible in the little hills round about. It is a charming place, town and country belong to a totally different kingdom from any we have seen. The country is densely populated and elaborately cultivated, green with corn in the ear and white with the opium poppy which was in full flower under the date palms. The only bare places were the terraced rice fields which are not sown till near the rains. It had been a cloudy day, clearing towards the evening to a gorgeous sunset behind the palms. We walked out after we had had tea, through the town to the Vishnu Pad temple. The suburbs of the town are all of one storied houses, roofed with tiles and standing round big pools of water with palms growing by the edge. Further in, we got to narrow dark streets, the houses with columned fronts of black wood patterned in gold paint, balconies almost meeting overhead and under the columns tiny shops full of sacred images in bronze and stone; we stopped and bought cows and gods and elephants impartially. One appointed himself as our guide and led us through the narrow streets to the temple, which was almost deserted at that time of the evening, except by the usual sellers of marigold wreaths in the courts and a few dust and ashy divines saying a last prayer or two before returning. It was extraordinarily mysterious and picturesque in the dim light, courts and colonnades and temple spires and the Sanctuary itself just light enough to allow us to see a few dim figures in white garments crouched over the stone marked by the divine feet. We made our way back in the dusk, all the little shops had lighted their flaring oil torches, but the shopless streets were black dark and inhabited by indignant dogs. The bagpipe player was fortunately dining when we returned. Next morning we set off full early - we have come back to places where you avoid sun if possible - and drove off to Buddh Gaya, a delicious expedition, the road running between the little hills and the poppy fields. The temple there is very old, early in our era, an enormously tall slender pyramid covered with carved patterns. A rail of carved stone, half destroyed, runs round it, built in 200 BC by Asoka, who was the St Paul of Buddhism and proclaimed the Law and the Order throughout India. The carvings are those strange pictures which make people wonder what early Buddhism can have been like - nymphs and satyrs and mermaids and people worshipping trees. Behind the temple is the famous Bo tree, or at least its enormously great grandchild, and under it we found a Japanese pilgrim, sitting with his feet crossed in the correct Buddha attitude, soles of the feet upwards, and doing a long penance for the sins of a former life. I hope he will succeed in freeing himself from the Wheel of the Law. In a shed behind the temple, there is a most beautiful Japanese carved and gilded Buddha, of the best time and the best school of Japanese art, which the pious sent here for the temple - it has a long history and they thought it would be a fitting image of the Master even for Buddh Gaya. But the Brahmins would have nothing of it and declared that it would find no place in a Vishnu Temple. We drove back and lunched and started off to Calcutta. A young man got into our carriage, who Hugo greeted joyfully. He was called Tyndall and he had a learned Oriental with him, with whom he was going to shoot a panther in a neighbouring village, very nice they both were. Hugo's attitude to his friends is too comic. He heard that one Fletcher was at Hong Kong. "Good old Fletcher!" said Hugo "I must look him up." I asked who he was. "Oh, he was at Oxford with me." "Did you know him well." "No, no, he lived on my staircase" said Hugo as if all were explained. I asked whether he liked him. "No - no, I didn't like him. He's not at all an attractive person. Good old Fletcher! I'll tell you what - I'll write and let him know we're coming." And by force I prevented him from beginning the letter "Dear Clearers" which was his nickname because of a trick he had of clearing his throat! Hugo admitted that the name used to annoy him. So after many chops and changes and waits, we reached Calcutta at 8 on Sunday morning. We washed and dressed and breakfasted and Hugo went to church. After which we went to see the Russells - 12 to 2 is the calling hour in India! - and then the Lawrences, all of whom we found. After lunch Hugo went to see good old Billy Hornell and at 4 I drove to the Zoological Gardens, an enchanging place, and there H. and Mr Hornell met me and we drove back together along the Strand. Now the Strand is a wonderful place between a great park and the Hoogli [Hugli], and the river is full of shipping, beautiful great 3 masted ships. Mr Hornell took us to the Boating Club where we sat on a balcony and watched a flaming sunset, while Mr H. told us of his work. He appears to be engaged in teaching Babus things they can't understand in a language they don't know - an unsatisfactory occupation it sounds. He's short and squat and ugly and intelligent, and very talkative and I like him. Hugo dined out and I dined with the Russells at their hotel and had a very pleasant evening. On Monday morning I had visitors - a Mr Hensman, an editor of the Pioneer, which is one of the best of papers. Mr Chirol told him to look after us and he is most agreeable. And then Mrs Everard Cotes whom Mrs Morison sent me to. She's a delightful clever woman. She has written several books - I know the names of them though I haven't read them, have you? Those Delightful Americans and His {Excellency} Honour and a Lady. Oh! and a Social Departure. But I rather gather she is much more interesting than her books. I certainly like her particularly. After lunch I drove out to the lovely suburbs of Calcutta, lovely because of their gardens and water, and went to see Mrs Moncrieffe and Edyth Muir, whom I found staying with two old bachelors in a big house with a most exquisite garden - I feel quite certain it's the house Jos Sedley lived in, it looks like it. They were playing croquet with a young man and they said "Oh, you're just in time! We're going on the Bodyguard's Drag to see the Polo and we'll take you." So off I went and was much amused and saw life from the top of a drag and all the gay world of Calcutta, every one of whom seems to me to be paying court to one of my two charming ladies. H. was as usual dining at a mission of sorts, so I went off and dined with the Muirs and their two old hosts and was vastly entertained. We played Carolina after dinner, a ridiculous sort of billiards and the little black boys stood at one's elbow and chalked one's cue between every stroke. Besides scoring the game aloud. One of the old Scotchmen, Mr Anderson, is a very intelligent old party, well read and a great collector of books. On Tuesday we turned our attention to our wardrobes, you see we are going to have 6 weeks of tropics when we leave Calcutta. I drove off into the China bazaar to buy muslin, having stoutly refused the bad printed muslins they offered me in the English shops at 2/ a yard. The native town is horrible - much worse than real native native towns, because it's built of half European houses, indescribably ramshackle and the streets are dirty beyond imagination. However, I got two lovely gowns of Madras muslin, embroidered from the foot to the knee, for 23 rupees, and an old man with a white beard is making them up for me at 4 rupees a piece. I think I shall go to him in future, he is so much cheaper than Denise. Hugo meantime bought stacks of white ducks[?] and a silk coat of which is very proud. Mr Hensman came to see me in the morning to arrange an expedition to Kalighat and we both lunched with Mrs Cotes where we met Mrs Fleming, whom I dislike less than I do in London. It was very amusing. Mrs Cotes says clever funny things as when she described Mr Landon's writing as "smelling so much of the cigarette." We went on to the Muirs whom we found with the usual young man - a different one this time - and had tea with them under their big trees. The garden is too lovely, a mass of flowering creepers and big pools and smooth grass. Then we drove back, picked up Billy Hornell and went with him to a Bengali tea party. The name of our hosts was Roy and they are leading members of the Brahmo Somaj. I had a long talk with Mr Roy about it which interested me very much. There was also a distinguished Mahratta called Gokuli, a member of the Council, and an ardent politician, and he talked about English and Indians. Mind, he's not an effete Bengali but an educated member of one of the fighting races, and his views are worth hearing. He is, I should say, a dangerous man. He told us a tale of how he was travelling and an English officer, the only occupant of the only 1st class carriage, refused to allow him to get in because he was a black man. He insisted, and the English man ended by apologizing. It's an awful problem, the relations with natives who are receiving, through our good offices, an education which makes them feel that they are in every respect the equal of the best of us, let alone the ordinary English officer. Gokuli looks upon Lord Ripon as the best of Viceroys and laments the swing back - anti native - which has taken place since his day, and which (I imagine) was a result of the mistaken exaggeration of Lord R.'s policy. It was a most interesting talk. He says that Lord Curzon is very popular with Indians, because of the line he has taken on the native question - that line which has made him so much hated by the army people. H. flew off to dine at a mission. I dined at home very contentedly and wrote letters, after, to all the people in the Straits Settlements, to tell them we are coming - lucky dogs! At the same time, you know, intermarriage is absolutely hopeless (I've gone back to Gokuli - not that he would advocate it.) The children are terrible, impossible, no good for anything in this world. The problem of the poor Eurasians is the worst in Calcutta, though indeed, they are not much worse than the children of the English parents who have been born and bred out here. I suppose it's climate. But if you can't possibly admit intermarriage, it's very difficult to have perfect freedom and equality of intercourse, it seems to me. I'm glad I haven't to settle it!
Later. I was just about to mention that Calcutta, with its big houses, big gardens, enormous parks, is the first real town we have seen - Bombay looks like something built with a box of bricks - but perhaps the next incident in our travels is not a good illustration of that remark. We went this morning to Kalighat which is the great shrine of the terrible goddess Kali, Shiwa's wife, the goddess of destruction, the sender of smallpox and all other evils. Pilgrims come to it from all India. Mr Hensman took us, as was fit, for he was once marked down as a victim to Kali. It was this way: he was special correspondent in the Manipur business and by his letters and telegram he was largely instrumental in getting the murderer of Mr Quintin hanged. Now they say the whole thing was hatched at the Kalighat and from there the signal was given by a telegram to Burma [(Myanmar)] in these terms: The tiger is loose. (The tiger is Kali's saddle horse) Anyhway, the Brahmins were furious and said he ought to be offered as a sacrifice to the goddess. We picked up Edyth Muir on the way and in a quarter of an hour got into a horrible, sickening native town, crowded with pilgrims who wore marigold wreaths and little else. The temple is modern, though the site is very old - Calcutta is a corruption of Kalighat. We found an inspector of police waiting for us who forced a passage through the narrow street full of idol, flower and food shops. It was all crowded, crowded. He took us to a side door and they pushed the people back, with much shouting and fighting so that we could see the idol, a black horrible idol with a halo of scarlet rays. The women behind were all standing with folded hands gazing down the lane made for us. The temple court was swimming with the blood of goats, which are sacrificed to Kali all day long. We went down to the river and saw the people washing at the ghat in the filthy water of a tidal creek. The temple is endowed with fabulous weath. So we drove back and in a few minutes we were again in Anglo India, luxurious and prosperous. We lunched with Mrs Fleming - Major Fleming is not very nice. We didn't stay long. Then I went into Mrs Cotes and spent the rest of the afternoon with her. She had a very clever interesting man to meet me at tea time, Mr Risley, the Foreign Secretary. I do like that woman! She is longing to meet you, saying (very justly) that she conceives you to be the most interesting woman in London. She is just going home and I told her to go and see you at which she is delighted. So don't be surprised when she turns up. She's not the ordinary person at all, as you'll soon find out. The husband seems nice too - I met him today. He's a newspaper man of sorts. She knows H. James and is a Canadian. We're off tomorrow afternoon to Darjeeling [Darjiling] so I shall write no more this mail.

Your club does sound a success! Ever your affectionate daughter Gertrude

IIIF Manifest