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Tag Archives | British India

Secret Chambers etc.

From the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators dept comes this news. A secret chamber, without an entrance, has been found in National Library, Calcutta. Now, you may ask, how do  you find a chamber which has no opening? Will I hear the sound of one hand clapping if I enter this chamber? We may find answers as soon as ASI gets a response from the Drilling Permission section of the Ministry of Culture.

Was it used as a punishment room by Hastings or one of the Lt Governors who succeeded him? It was common practice among the British to “wall up” offenders in “death chambers”. Some sources say this enclosure has exactly the same look and feel. The British were also known to hide riches in blind chambers as this.

“It could be just about anything. Skeletons and treasure chests are the two things that top our speculations because it is not natural for a building to have such a huge enclosure that has no opening. We cannot break down a wall, considering the importance of the building. So we have decided to bore a hole through the wall to peer inside with a searchlight,” said D V Sharma, regional director, ASI.[Secret chamber in National Library via IndiaArchaeology]

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Converting Tiger Woods

When it was discovered that Tiger Woods had a distributed harem, one of the issues that came up was his faith: Woods is Buddhist. Fox News anchor Brit Hume suggested that Tiger convert to Christianity and obtain “forgiveness and redemption.” The reason this conversion was needed is because Christianity offers a way for redemption from sin while Buddhism does not.

This can be quickly dismissed by blaming Hume’s ignorance of Buddhist philosophy, but that suppresses a larger issue hidden in that statement. To the question on if  Buddhism offers a way of forgiveness and redemption, the answer will always be no. According to Buddhist philosophy, there is no one to forgive you; you attain nirvana through spiritual practice without belief in constructs like Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.

The issue here is not of theological difference, but of theological superiority and this argument has been made before regarding another Indic religion; it was a common theme among missionaries operating in India in the 18th and 19th centuries.

To see an example we need to go to go to Serampore (in Bengal) of 1799 where the Baptist missionary William Ward preached. He was an evangelical who believed that even unbelievers had to hear the Gospel to be saved from damnation. According to his colleague and mentor William Carey, Hindus definitely had knowledge of God, but it was not the same as attaining salvation by accepting Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

Ward, who had gone beyond the rituals of Hinduism, agreed with this. He was not one of those missionaries, who during Alexander Duff’s time, preached in street corners. He had learned Sanskrit from the Head Pundit at Fort William –  one Mrityunjay Vidyalankar. He had read Vedanta and even translated Vedanta Sara.

According to him Non-Christians — Africans, Indians, Greeks, Romans — all knew about God. That was not sufficient; only through divine revelation, you would know how to worship God. Hence the idolaters would never reach the Kingdom of Heaven and any religion which did not have this concept was irrational and absurd.

Three decades after Ward, Peter Percival who spent fifteen years in Tamil Nadu, did a similar comparison. He found that the goal of a Hindu was to merge with the sole, self-existing essential spirit. He then held this concept of an impersonal Brahman against Hinduism; the God mentioned in the Bible had personality, free will, and absolute power and hence that theism was more attractive.

You just can’t win.

In his staged apology for the media, Tiger Woods talked about his religion

Part of following this path for me is Buddhism, which my mother taught me at a young age. People probably don’t realize it, but I was raised a Buddhist, and I actively practiced my faith from childhood until I drifted away from it in recent years. Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security. It teaches me to stop following every impulse and to learn restraint. Obviously, I lost track of what I was taught.[Tiger Woods’ apology: Full transcript]

Tiger Woods also ignored the televangelist’s suggestion.

References:

  1. Dr G A Oddie, Imagined Hinduism: British Protestant Missionary Constructions of Hinduism, 1793-1900 (Sage Publications, 2006). 
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The man who coined 'Hindooism'

In 1767, a 21 year old Charles Grant, like many other twenty year olds traveled to India to join the East India Company’s military service. Arriving in Bengal, he was offended by the corrupt activities of the company and the officers. Soon a personal incident changed him forever and his life went in a new direction. He became an evangelical and argued vehemently for the introduction of Christianity — which was against company policy — to enhance the morality of Indians. In the process he coined the word “Hinduism” and redefined the way how the world viewed the traditions of India.

When Grant arrived in Calcutta, a decade after the Battle of Plassey,  the company was in charge of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Robert Clive had left and the company officers we indulging as best as they could. Corruption was rampant and the famine had reduced the Bengal population by a third. Though he argued that the company had done quite a lot, he was troubled by the suffering. But interestingly, in his letters written during this period, there is no mention of religion or God.

After the famine he got a severe fever and had to return to England to recover.  He returned in 1773 with his new bride – the 18 year old Jane Fraser. The young Mrs. Grant did not take to Indian climate very well and this worried Charles, but those worries went away with the birth of his daughter Elizabeth. He got promoted as the Secretary of the Board of Trade, but that did not prevent him from criticizing the Warren Hastings’ administration.

By then he had a secure life: good friends, great family, terrific salary. If you have watched any non-Adoor Gopalakrishnan Indian movie, you will know that usually there is a song here and then it all goes downhill. What is true now, was true in the year of American Independence too; Elizabeth and her younger sister Margaret died of small pox, just nine days apart.

A devastated Grant took refuge in Christ and became a sincere believer; he became an evangelical and few missionaries in the area helped him overcome his pain. He became a new man, renounced vices like gambling, and letters written during this period contain references to God and salvation.

After taking a position as the Commercial Resident of Malda, Grant took an interest in the moral nature of Indians. He rejected the argument that Hindus were people in whom mild and gentle qualities dominated; he thought that they were morally depraved. He wanted to bring in social and economic reform and the way for that, not surprisingly, was to make people acquainted with the truth of Revelation and free them from the ‘false religion’.

In his words

With the argument for the introduction of Christianity and Western education in India, Grant was years ahead of Thomas Macaulay and Alexander Duff. The charter of the East India Company did not officially permit missionary activity, but Grant was convinced that it had to change. This social revolution, Grant argued, would promote the well being of the population and in turn protect the company’s interests.

In 1787 Grant wrote a letter to one Mr. Wilberforce which contained the following paragraph.

This is important for one reason: it is the first time the word Hindooism is ever used; it replaced descriptions like  “Hindoo religion” and “Hindoo creed”. By coining this new term and advocating it, Grant’s label made it convenient to refer to the various religious traditions of India.

This was a time when there were apparently four religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Paganism. Now the Paganism of India had a name and a comparison to Christianity could be done. For example what was the religious structure and accepted scriptures of Hinduism? How similar or how different was it from the Protestant religion?

He had answers for this: Hinduism was Brahmanism and Brahminism was Hinduism. These crafty priests had enslaved the population — people who did not have a mind of their own — through rituals and the caste system. These slaves, enslaved through fear and ignorance practiced barbaric rituals like sati, hook swinging and the devadasi system. Also unlike in his religion, only those crafty priests could read the sacred texts.

Though he despised the Brahmins, he thought they were the descendants of Noah and  were blessed in the Garden of Eden. These Brahmins who once held belief in a rational Supreme Being, had now fallen from grace into the ignorant ways of polytheism and idolatry.This belief, that Brahmins were descendants of Noah,was nothing new and was prevalent in India at that time. While Grant was in Bengal, the French-Catholic missionary Jean-Antoine Dubois who was working in South India, too connected Brahmins to Noah

After the flood, the whole world was repopulated again. For this, Noah and his  sons dispersed around the world. One group went West, while the others under the guidance of Magog, Noah’s grandson, went to the Caucasian range. From there they came via the North into India and populated it. He even has a date  for this migration – nine centuries before Christian era. Thus the Brahmins, according to Dubois, were descendants of Magog’s father Japheth.[The Biblical Migration Theory]

Grant wrote all these ex cathedra pronouncements in Observations on the State of Society among Asiatic Subjects of Great Britain, but initially showed it only to a few evangelical friends. Grant later became a member of the Board of Directors of the EIC, but still then the pamphlet was not released publicly. Even other missionaries had not seen it. So why should these comments by a delusional missionary matter?

His work, along with the work of others, influenced the British perception of India. This was the beginning of the establishment of a dominant paradigm — defining Hinduism for Indians and rest of the world. Since the colonial power was in the control, their representation of the traditions became the accepted norm, which we continue to use even today.

Also in 1813,the Charter of the company came up for renewal and by then the Evangelicals had gained strength. People like Zachary Macaulay, father of Thomas Macaulay, had become influential and wanted the ban on missionaries to be removed.  On the eve of that debate, Grant’s work was printed as a parliamentary paper.

The evangelicals won in 1813.

References:

  1. Dr G A Oddie, Imagined Hinduism: British Protestant Missionary Constructions of Hinduism, 1793-1900 (Sage Publications, 2006). 
  2. Henry Morris, The life of Charles Grant (J. Murray, 1904).
  3. Image from Wikipedia
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The Indian Spy in Kashgar – Part 3/3

Kashgar by Robert Shaw

(Another sketch by Robert Shaw in 1868)

(Read Part 1, Part 2)

The Kashgar Drama

The first man to reach Kashgar was Robert Shaw. Stocked with gifts and firearms, he went to meet Yakub Beg. Beg smiled and received him and exchanged pleasantries in Persian. Shaw explained that he was not part of British Government and just wanted to sell Indian tea in the empire. Beg was impressed with the gifts and dismissed Shaw saying they would talk details three days later.

That night Shaw probably dreamt of his tea business taking off. What could go wrong? The king had no relations with the Chinese or the Russians. The only hope  for Beg was to ally with the British and what better way to grow that relation than to allow a British trader to operate in Kashgar. But soon Shaw’s movements were restricted and he was confined to his quarters.He could have visitors and from them he knew what was going on. But Shaw realized that the third day meeting with Beg was not going to happen.

When Mirza arrived a month after Shaw, he was taken to see the lieutenant or jemadar of Yakub Beg, mainly to see what gifts he had bought. Mirza was pleasantly surprised that jemadar was none other than Nubbi Buksh,  the Sikh gunner. Originally from Sialkot, Buksh left Punjab — and according to some sources based on Mirza’s suggestion — towards Central Asia. Through Ladakh, he reached Kokand and served the Khan for a decade where he came into contact with the young Yakub Beg. When Yakub Beg took over Kashgar, Nubbi Buksh joined him.

Though Mirza was quite happy to see Nubbi Buksh, Buksh behaved with indifference and hostility. First he refused to recognize Mirza. Later when he did recognize him, he was suspicious of Mirza’s cover story as a trader. Buksh then opened Mirza’s luggage and took whatever he fancied. He also put Mirza in a house and entrusted some Afghans to keep an eye on him.

The next day he was taken to meet Yakub Beg. Beg, who was seated on a carpet with three chiefs received him graciously. After asking him a few questions, Beg asked him to have breakfast with other chiefs.In later meetings  Beg asked him about Hindustan, Badakshan and Afghanistan. Mirza made observations on Beg’s army, noted that the route towards Russia was well fortified, and even gathered information on the nearest Russian fort.

Also by then George Hayward arrived and traded house arrest in Yarkand for a house arrest in Kashgar.For three months, Shaw or Hayward never heard from Beg and court officials never gave an explanation for the silence. Beg’s chiefs asked Mirza if he knew the Englishmen and Mirza replied he did not. But soon MIrza realized that he too was under house arrest.

Desperate, Mirza decided to  establish a contact with the Englishmen. He sent a note to Shaw mentioning he had come from India and wanted a watch. He said his watch was broken and needed one to perform astronomical observations. Shaw, who also was under house arrest knew that Hayward had arrived, but was surprised by the letter he received from Mirza. He did not know who in India sent him. Maybe there was no Mirza and it was Yakub Beg’s idea to trap him. To be safe, Shaw replied that he had no watch to spare. Though he refused to entertain this unknown Mirza, Shaw exchanged notes with Hayward.

Beg on his part was worried about the Russians who were right near his border. The Russians, for whom the Crimea war had not gone well, were worried that if provoked Beg would take British help and escalate the situation.  At the same time Russia did not want to formally recognize Yakub Beg; they did not want to offend the Chinese. Just before Mirza, Shaw and Hayward arrived in Kashgar, Beg had sent his nephew as an emissary to Russia to understand their position.

While Beg was waiting for news from Russia, the three captives spent their time not knowing what would happen to them. They probably would have thought about the German explorer Adolf Schlagintweit who visited Kashgar in 1857 with his brother Hermann and Rudolph. While the brothers returned, Adolph stayed back to explore which turned out to be a bad idea; Wali Khan who had taken over Kashgar caught him and had him executed. Wali Khan himself was later arrested and poisoned by Yakub Beg.

Months passed. When Beg realized that Russians would not recognize him he then decided to throw his dice in the Great Game by siding with the British. On April 5th, he summoned Robert Shaw, called him his brother, praised the Queen, and asked for his help with the British. Shaw for his part again mentioned that he was a private citizen and not with the Government, but such minor details did not matter. Beg wanted to send an envoy to India and Shaw agreed to help him with that. By then it was clear that he would be set free, but he did not know what would happen to Mirza  or Hayward. He heard a rumor that Hayward was to be held hostage; he also got a note from Hayward about this.

Shaw told Beg’s officials that it would not look good, if he sent an envoy to India while he held another Englishman a hostage. Shaw just wanted Hayward to be freed and Beg agreed. Shaw left on April 9th and Hayward on the 13th.  When he came to know that both Englishmen had left Mirza thought that he would perish in this Beg eats Khan world. Mirza appealed to Beg directly skipping Nubbi Buksh and Yakub Beg let him go with appropriate gifts.

On June 7, 1869, Mirza left Kashgar and reached Yarkand where he met three hundred people on their way to Mecca. From Yarkand he went over the Karakorum and reached  Leh in August and from there to the GTS HQ in Dehra Dun.

Mirza’s return was a triumph; another bead in the rosary of his life. Using his wits, he had overcome great difficulties, cheated death a few times, and was able to conceal his identity and accomplish the task he had been sent to do. He surveyed 2179 miles among which 1042 miles – from Kabul to Kashgar — which was not surveyed before. He confirmed the path from Kabul to Yarkand which was verified to be accurate. His work put Kashgar and Yarkand in the right locations in the map for the first time and corrected those made by Jesuits and other travelers.

While Shaw, Hayward, and Nubbi Buksh reached Kashgar from Ladakh, Mirza started his trip from Afghanistan.  This was intentional so that Mirza could collect intelligence on the Afghan army and its battles outside Kabul. Mirza was praised for his professional skill and endurance by the RGS and though the work was done clandestinely, the results were published in the journals of the Royal Geographical Society.

Both Shaw and Hayward,  thought to be dead, were received as heroes. They supplied the British with political and commercial intelligence about Kashgar and Yarkand. Since Shaw and Hayward had traveled back and forth from Kashgar, they thought that the Russians could invade Kashgar and then India through Ladakh dragging machinery through 18,000 feet. But the War Office disagreed with this observation, but agreed that the path was vulnerable.

The End

George Hayward, the inveritable travel bunny made new plans; he wanted to explore the Pamirs. The Government tried to dissuade him, but Hayward was quite stubborn. The experiences of the past — because they were experiences of the past — did not guide him. He left in the summer of 1870 with few servants from Srinagar and reached Yasin in the Hindu Kush where he met the chief Mir Wali whom he knew from an earlier visit. But this time he had an argument with the chief and the furniture in his life got rearranged; he was killed by a single stroke of the sword. His body was found three months later by an Indian Sepoy.

In 1872 Montgomerie sent Mirza on another expedition to Bokhara. After passing Herat, he reached Maimana, but on the road from Maimana to Bokhara he was murdered by his guide.

Yakub Beg died in 1877 and various reasons — poisoning, suicide, stroke — have been mentioned as probable causes. After his death Kashgaria was conquered by the Chinese.

The Viceroy — Lord Mayo — thought the better way to deal with Kashgar was to make it an ally or a buffer state and he sent a diplomatic mission to Kashgar. Robert Shaw was only happy to join but never was able to make a market for tea in Central Asia. He died at the age of 39 in 1879 in Burma where he had been appointed a British resident.

Postscript: Kamla Bhatt has an interview with Jules Stewart, the author of Spying For The Raj: The Pundits And The Mapping of the Himalayas

References

  1. Royal Geographical Society (Great Britain), Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and monthly record of geography (Edward Stanford, 1871).
  2. Robert Johnson, Spying for empire (Greenhill Books, 2006).
  3. Derek J. Waller, The Pundits (University Press of Kentucky, 2004).
  4. Richard Bernstein, Ultimate Journey: Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment (Vintage, 2002).
  5. Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (Kodansha International, 1992).
  6. Sir Thomas Edward Gordon, The roof of the world (Edmonston and Douglas, 1876).
  7. Mishi Saran, Chasing the Monk’s Shadow (Penguin Global, 2005).
  8. All images from Wikipedia
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The Indian Spy in Kashgar – Part 2/3

Path to Yarkand

(Approach to Yarkand. A sketch by Robert Shaw)

(Read Part 1)

In December 1868, Mirza left Badakshan towards Kashgar. The winter travel was not easy on him or his porters or the animals. Some days both the men and animals suffered from shortness of breath which made them slow and insensible. Once they walked for 9 miles and found that fresh snow had erased previous tracks leaving them stranded. That night they had to sleep in the snow.

Many centuries earlier the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang had a similar experience with his retinue and dozen people died in the cold. In his travelogue, the monk wrote about the steep and dangerous roads, the cold and biting wind, as well as the fierce dragons that molest travelers. The precaution, he suggested, was not to wear red garments or carry loud-sounding calabashes.

If the snow storm did not get Mirza, robbers could have. Near Kulm-Tashkurgan, they were attacked by bandits who wounded two members of Mirza’s group and stole some of their goods. He also could have been discovered as a spy. In Fayzabad one of his men ho did not want to travel in the intense cold denounced him as an infidel and spy. Mirza had to shut him up with a bribe.

In Kulm-Tashkurgan a man who looked European joined Mirza. Thinking that he was a European Mirza almost told him the truth, but then the man spoke  perfect Persian and Mirza kept quiet. Once when a Kirgiz man saw him use the compass and was suspicious Mirza escaped by suggesting that he was just trying to point it to Mecca.

Mirza soon reached the point where the Amu Darya split into two branches. One John Wood from the British Navy had come this far in 1838. Since Wood had explored the northern route, Mirza took the uncharted southern route.  Crossing the Pamirs he reached the Tashkurgan fort.

From this point everyone would treat the stranger as a suspect. It started with the Governor of  Tashkurgan fort who wanted to inspect Mirza’s goods to verify his credentials.  Mirza was able to get past that by offering some gifts, but still the Governor would not let him travel alone; he was to travel under the Governor’s escort to the nearby Kashgar.

In January, he resumed his march to Kashgar. He reached there in February and probably was relieved to see shops selling bread, hot tea and sour milk. It was much better than eating frozen meat in inhospitable locales. Even the landscape was refreshing with orchards of fruit trees and mulberry groves.

The city which was built between the two branches of the Kazul river was fortified with watch towers at regular intervals and had  houses made of sun burned bricks and flat roofs. It had quite a few mosques too. The residents resembled a Benneton Ad: among the 16,000 families were Turks, Tajiks, Afghans, Kashmiris and Hindustanis. Though it was banned, the people ate opium, sang and danced. The women were required to wear a black or white burqa and show only their eyes.

Yakub Beg
Yakub BegKashgar then was ruled by Yakub Beg. Beg had started as a servant of the Khan of Khokhan — some accounts call him a dancing boy — and rose to be the Governor of Ak-Musjid. As Governor, he allowed the Russians to settle there without the knowledge of the Khan and probably by taking a bribe. He then fled to Bokara in Uzbekistan and lay low for three years till he gained favor with the new Khan.  The new Khan sent him to help in driving the Chinese out of Kashgar and other oases which he did. By then the Khan had developed his own problems with the Russians. Since there was no one to chaperon Beg, he went rogue and declared independence.

Though he was a man of simple manners, Beg was suspicious of everyone; he had spies around in his country.  Always armed, he was afraid of being murdered. He was generous and divided his spoils among his followers and also  fed a large number of people after daily prayers. He was a strict Muslim; He prayed five time a day also mandated that everyone do so. He also kept away from wine, women and opium.

The region was divided among his friends and relatives and no accounts were kept. So long as Beg got his share, he did not bother them. Quite a few people went for the Hajj hoping that they would be less bothered by the officials due to their title. Some went for the Hajj and absconded.

The Englishmen

Around the time Mirza reached Kashgar, unknown to him two other Englishmen had reached there with different motives.

Robert Shaw was a tea planter who lived in the Himalayan foot hills. He had moved to India at the age of 20 after ill health prevented him from joining the Army. From traders who had been to Kashgar, he knew that Indian tea could have a market there since the Chinese were kicked out. British officials were prohibited from traveling beyond the borders, but since Shaw was a private citizen, he decided to look for new markets in Kashgar.

Shaw left Leh on September 20, 1868 with a caravan. But following him was another Englishman, an ex-army officer named George Hayward whose goal was to explore the passes between Ladakh and Kashgar as well as the source of Amu Darya for the Royal Geographical Society. Hayward knew about the travel ban, but did not care and disguised himself as a Pathan and left.

As Shaw was traveling, he got news of Hayward. Shaw had invested much into his business trip and did not want another Englishman jeopardizing it. So he sent a note to Hayward asking him to turn back. But Hayward was not a man to turn back. Finally they met over a camp fire and Hayward decided to give Shaw a two-week start to Kashgar. They did not part as friends and they did not part as enemies.

Shaw reached Yarkand and soon was joined by Hayward; the smart Hayward told the border guards at Yarkand that he was part of Shaw’s caravan. But in Yarkand, they ignored each other, but kept an eye on each other as well. Keeping an eye on both of them were the authorities at Yarkand, who were waiting for instructions from Kashgar. When Shaw finally left Yarkand and reached Kashgar on Jan 4th 1869, he was the first Englishman to do so; he reached before Mirza.

Now that all the actors had arrived, it was time for the Kashgar drama to start

(To be continued)

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