A Travel Diary
By Nicholas Roerich
[ Published by Claude Bragdon ]
Part I : INDIA (1924)
Siani glides by. Here are the Wells of Abraham. Here are the “Twelve Apostles”—fantastic little islands. Here is Jeddah, the gateway to Mecca. The Moslems on the steamer are praying toward the East, where, behind the pink sands, is hidden their center. To the right the boundaries of Nubia are lying like an ancient cornice. The hulks of wrecked vessels cleave to the reefs. The Red Sea can be merciless as can the Arabian sandstorms. Not in vain does the fiery finger of the Stromboli Volcano threaten and warn by night. But now in the winter the Red Sea is blue, not hot, and the dolphins leap in mad merriment. In a fairylike design lie the Arabian Bays—Korya Morya.
The Japanese do not lose an opportunity to visit the Pyramids. This nation does not waste time. One should see how quickly and sharply their field-glasses move about. And how persistently practical are their questions : Nothing superfluous. This is not the vacant touring of tired Europe. “Well, now finally we will come to an understanding,” says the Japanese in a businesslike way without any sentimentality. And may this businesslike attitude be the guarantee of cooperation !
In Cairo, in the mosque, sat a boy of seven or eight and chantingly read the lines of the Koran. One could not pass by without noticing his penetrating striving. And in the walls of that same mosque was boldly imbedded the cannon-ball of Napoleon. And that same conqueror of empires broke the image of the Great Sphinx. But if the sphinx of Egypt is mutilated, the sphinx of Asia remains safeguarded by the great deserts. The treasures of the heart of Asia are preserved and its hour has come.
Ancient Ceylon—the Lanka of the Rāmāyana. But where are the palaces and pagodas ? It is strange. In Colombo we are met by the Swiss Consul. The policeman is Irish. A French peddler. A Greek with post-cards. Dutch tea-peddlers. An Italian chauffeur. But where are the Singhalese ? Have they all emigrated to Europe ?
The first aspects of Buddha and Maitreya reveal themselves in the Kelaniya Temple near Colombo. The powerful images are guarded in the dusk of the temple. Hinayāna prides itself before many-varied Mahayana on the refinement and purity of its philosophy. The great restored stupa near the temple reminds one of the ancient foundation of this place. But, after all, only in fragments do Colombo and Ceylon recall the ancient Lanka of Hanuman, Rama, Ravana and other giants. And for Buddhism, Ceylon is an important site. Many temples and palaces guard the fragments of one of the best periods of the Teaching. Outside of the ruins that are known, numerous unsuspected treasures are buried under the roots of powerful jungles. That which has above the soil gives an idea of the past splendor of the former mighty city. You do not need to search for the places. They proclaim themselves. But exploration can only give results if it is carried on in a broad measure. One must approach such ruins fully fortified, as one palace alone has 900 chambers. Ceylon is an important site.
The public baths near the bitter-sweet mountain, Lavinia, do not suggest the domain of ancient giants. Slender palms shame-facedly bend down to the spray of the tide. Like skeletons stand the fragments of Anuradhapura; consider that Anuradhapura is not entirely explored. And Adam’s Peak is not enticing. By the remains of Anuradhapura one may judge how powerful was Borobodur in Java.
And again, ceaselessly, are gliding by the faces of our fellow travelers : the Japanese, with whom we wept over the remains of the Cairo Pyramids that have passed from a valiant history to become the curio-museum of a greedy guide.
Is it really India ? A thin shore line. Meager little trees. Crevices of dessicated soil. So does India hide its face from the south. And the black Dravidians as yet do not remind us of the Vedas and Mahabharata.
Multi-colored is Madura with the remains of Dravidian strata. All the life, all the nerve of the exchange, was near the temple. In the passages of the temple are the bazaar, the court, the sermon, the reciter of the Ramayana, the gossip, and the sacred elephant who wanders in freedom; and the camels of the religious processions. The ingenious stone carving of the temple is colored with the present-day crude colors. Sarma, the artist, sorrows over it. But the city council did not listen to him and colored the temple according to their own plan. Sarma is saddened that so much of fine understanding is gone and has as yet been replaced only by indifference.
He warns us not to go far in our European attire because some elements of the population may be hostile. And yet Madura is a city of 1,000,000. Sarma inquires about the condition of artists in Europe and America. He is genuinely surprised that the artists of Europe and America can live by the labor of their hands. It is incomprehensible to him that art can provide a means of livelihood. With them, the occupation of artist is the most profitless one. There are almost no collectors. Sarma himself, tall, in white garments, with sad, calm speech, awaits something better, and knows all the burden of the present.
There was no possibility of a meeting with Tagore. Strangely such things happen in life. In London, the poet found us. Then in America we succeeded in meeting him in New York; and he also met George in Boston. But in India itself we did not meet ! We could not go to Bolpur and Tagore could not be in Calcutta. He already was preparing for his tour in China.
There were many curious occurrences. In Calcutta we tried to find Tagore. We thought that in his native city his name would be known on every corner. We took a motor and requested to be taken straight to the poet Tagore, and in vain we rode for three hours through the city. First we were taken to the Maharajah Tagore. Then a hundred policemen and peddlers and passing Babus sent us into the most varied alleys. Finally six volunteer guides were hanging on our motor. And so we ourselves, in this bushy manner, finally remembered the name of Dwarka Nath Tagore Street, where the house of Tagore was situated.
It is said that when Tagore received the Nobel prize, a deputation from Calcutta came to him, but the poet severely asked them : “Where were you before ? I remain the same person, and the prize has not added anything to me.” Greetings to Tagore !
We met the relations of our friend Tagore—Abanindranath Tagore, brother of Rabindranath, artist head of the Bengal School. Gogonendranath Tagore, nephew of the poet, also an artist, secretary of the Bengal Society of Artists. Now he imitates the modernists. A splendid artist is Kumar Haldar, present Director of the School in Lucknow. Hard is the life of the Hindu artist. Much resolution is needed in order not to abandon this thorny path. Greetings to the artists of India ! Why is it that in all countries of the world the condition of scientists and artists is so precarious ?
Thorny also is the way of the Hindu scientists. Here, before us is an example, in a struggling young scientist, a biologist and pupil of Sir Jagdish Bose. He began his laboratory in the name of Vivekananda. In his peaceful little house above the laboratory is a room dedicated to the relics of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda and other teachers of this group. This young man, pupil of the closest pupil of Vivekananda, carries into life the principles of this master, who fearlessly proclaimed his evocation to action and knowledge. In this little top chamber he formulates his thoughts, surrounded by the things which belonged to his beloved leaders. One remembers vividly the portraits of Ramakrishna and his wife. Both faces impress one with their purity and striving. We sat in complete silence near this memorial hearth. Greetings !
Who can explain why the path of knowledge and beauty is the most difficult ? Why does humanity accept with such hesitation all that is predestined ? It is therefore the greater joy, to see in India, the signs of an ascent of knowledge and art. It is joyful to see that in India the number of schools is increasing and that legions of new enlightened workers for science and beauty are ready to serve in the victory of evolution.
In Calcutta, not far behind the city, are two monuments to Ramakrishna. On one shore, Dakshineswar, the Temple where long lived Ramakrishna. Almost opposite, across the river, is the Mission of Ramakrishna, the mausoleum of the teacher himself, of his wife, of Vivekananda, and a collection of many memorable objects. Vivekananda dreamt that here should be a real Hindu University. Vivekananda took care of this place. There is a great peace here and it is with difficulty that one realizes oneself so near to Calcutta with all the terror of its bazaars and confusion.
We met Sister Christine, almost the only living pupil of Vivekananda. Her useful work was broken up by the war. And now, after the lapse of many years, Sister Christine has returned again to the old site. The people are changed. The consciousness is consumed with local problems. And it is not easy for Sister Christine to find contact with the new waves of Hindu life.
On the memorable day of Ramakrishna, as many as half a million of his admirers gather.
From the purest to the most hideous : In special streets of Bombay, behind bars, sit the women prostitutes. In this living merchandise which clings close to the bars, in these outstretched hands, in their calls, is contained the whole terror of bodily desecration. And a Hindu Sadhu passes through with his burning incense in order to purify the spot !
When we entered the Chartered Bank of India—out of the door there came to meet us the sacred cow; and how strikingly amusing was this correlation of bank and sacred cow !
The tigers roar in Jaipur. The Maharajah has forbidden any one to shoot them. In Golta Pass two tribes of monkeys are at war. The guide arranges a battle for a most reasonable fee. Nowadays all battles may be arranged thus easily !
The Fakirs are seated, “charming” the old, half-living toothless cobras. The pitiful Hatha-yogi is whirling in the bazaar, making the most gymnastic contortions for the purification of his spirit. “The spiritualist” offers to make the carriage move without horses, but to do this it is necessary “that there should not be one cloud in the sky.”
And along with this is a fantastic and romantic fragment of old Rajputana—Amber where the princesses looked down from their balconies upon the tournaments of their suitors; where every gate, every little door, astonishes one by the correlations of its beauty. Near here is the penetrating and fantastic Golta Pass which could not be imagined in any fantasy—only the “play” of life can accumulate such unexpected creations. And here also is Jaipur with its fairylike astrological observatory and with the charm of an unspoiled Hindu Moslem city. Fatehpur-Sikri, Agra—rare chips of a departed culture. And the frescoes of Ajanta are already unsafe.
All the remains of the constructions of Akbar have a veil of seeming sadness. Here the great Unifier of his country buried his best visions so misunderstood by his contemporaries. In Fatehpur-Sikri, he conversed with his wise Birbal, and with the few who had attained his level. Here he built the temple of universal knowledge. Here he lost his few friends and foresaw that the welfare of the State created by him, would not be preserved. And Agra and Fatehpur-Sikri are full of a kind of limitless sorrow. Akbar knew how the well-being which he bestowed on his people would be pillaged. Perhaps he already knew how the last emperor of India would live to the middle of the nineteenth century, peddling the furniture of his palace and chipping from the walls of his palace in Delhi the fragments of mosaics.
With all the dustiness gathered by time, the architecture of Benares still retains its charm. All the mixture of form of the old Hindu, Dravidian and Moslem, can give new solutions to the unprejudiced architect. One can easily imagine a combination of the many-storied Tibetan structure, with the comforts of an American sky-scraper. One can draw a parallel from the palaces of Benares to the palaces of Venice and to a livable private dwelling. One can develop the style of American pueblos, with the newest understanding, as is being done in Santa Fé.
A Hindu complained to me of the lack of Hindu architects. I said to him, “If there are no architects, let an artist develop an idea, but let him proceed from out of the harmony of the folk consciousness combined with the character of its nature.” One cannot defile the whole world with a uniform building. One cannot make out of Java a Swedish Stockzund. And one cannot visualize Comanches and Apaches in the houses of Boston. Appropriateness must be maintained.
On the shores of the Ganges, a gray-bearded man, cupping his palms like a chalice, offers his entire possessions to the rising sun. A woman quickly telling her rhythms performs her morning Pranayama on the shore. In the evening she may again be there, sending upon the stream of the sacred river a garland of lights as prayers for the welfare of her children. And these fireflies of the woman’s soul, prayer-inspired, travel long upon the dark watery surface. Beholding these offerings of the spirit one can even forget the stout priests of the golden temples. We are minded of other things. We recall those Yogis who send into space their thoughts, thus constructing the coming evolution. Not the usual priests these, but active hermits; they are bringing our thought near to the energy which will be revealed by scientists in the very near future.
Gigantic stupas of Buddhism—burial mounds surrounded by a fence. The same Kurgans of all centuries and nations. The Kurgans of Upsala in Sweden; Russian Kurgans of Volhov on the way to Novgorod; the Steppe Kurgans of Scythians, surrounded by stones; all tell the legends of the same solemn cremations which have been described by the skillful Arabian traveler, Ibn Fadlan. Everywhere, the same purifying conflagrations.
Everywhere, much incense, rose water and fragrant sandal-wood. Hence the smoke from the bodies in the Burning Ghats of Benares is not turbid. And in Tibet, also, cremation is used.
Regard the gentle child games of the Orient—and listen to the complicated rhythms of the chants and soft music. There are not evident the profanities of the West.
The Maharajah of Mysore is awakened with special songs— songs of beginning and of end.
In Madura in a crowded alley, an old man models the forms of the “sacred images.” He is the last old man—with him dies this knowledge. Thus is dying the past. So is approaching the future.
On the fields are standing, in circles, the figures of white ceramic horses. Whence are these resplendent mounts ? Upon them, the subtle bodies of women are said to go galloping through the nights. Backs, which are doubled during the day in household tasks, at night are made erect in flight. Shall one say it is a goat’s leap to the gathering of witches ? No, rather is it the flight of the Valkyries—the virgins of the air—the leap toward a wondrous future.
Each day a woman’s hand molds the sand at the entrance of the house into a special design. This is the symbol that within the house all is well, and there is neither sickness, death nor discord. If there be no happiness in the house then the hand of the woman becomes stilled. A seeming shield of beauty is placed before the house by the hand of the woman at the benevolent hour. And little girls in schools early are being taught a variety of designs for the signs of happiness. An inexplicable beauty lives in this custom of India.
Vivekananda called the women of India to work and to freedom. He also asked the so-called Christians, “If you so love the teaching of Jesus why do you not follow it ?” So spoke the pupil of Ramakrishna who passed through the substance of all teachings and learned through life “not to deny.” Vivekananda was not merely an industrious “Swami”—something lion-like rings in his letters. How he is needed now !
“Buddhism is the most scientific and most coöperative teaching,” says the Hindu biologist, Bose. It is a joy to hear how this truly great savant who found his way to the mysteries of plant life speaks about the Vedanta, Mahabharata, and about the poetry of the legends of the Himalaya. Only true knowledge can find the merited place for all existing things.
And accompanying the voice of the savant, simple and comprehensive, the silvery tones of an electric apparatus tinkle out the pulse of the life of the plants, reopening pages of the world’s knowledge, long since sealed.
Bose’s mother in her day sold all her jewels in order to give her son an education. The scientist, in demonstrating “His kingdom,” says : “Here are the children of the rich in luxurious conditions. See how they become puffed and baggy. They need a good storm to bring them back to healthy normalcy.” Knowing the pulse of the plant world, the scientist approaches wholesomely all the manifestations of life. He values highly Timiryaseff’s review of his works. One of Bose’s best books was written on the heights of the Punjab in Mayavati—in the shrine of Vivekananda. Vivekananda departed too soon. Bose and Tagore—noble images of India !
The frescoes of Ajanta, the powerful Trimurti of Elephanta, and the gigantic stupa in Sarnath, all speak of other ancient times. And this former beauty also glimmers in the fine and slender silhouette of a woman who carries her eternal water—water which feeds the hearth.
And the well, as in biblical times, remains the central spot of the whole population.