The Golden Chersonese and the way thither, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter xx (Continued)

Mystification — A Grotesque Dinner–Party — Mahmoud and Eblis — Fun and Frolic — Mahmoud’s Antics — A Perak Jungle — The Poetry of Tropical Life — Village Life — The Officials of the Mosques — A Moslem Funeral — The “Royal Elephant” — Swimming the Perak — The Village of Koto-lamah — A “Pirate’s Nest” — Rajah Dris

I fear that the involvement and confusion of dates in this letter will be most puzzling. I was received by a magnificent Oriental butler, and after I had had a delicious bath, dinner, or what Assam was pleased to call breakfast, was “served.” The word “served” was strictly applicable, for linen, china, crystal, flowers, cooking, were all alike exquisite. Assam, the Madrassee, is handsomer and statelier than Babu at Malacca; a smart Malay lad helps him, and a Chinaman sits on the steps and pulls the punkah. All things were harmonious, the glorious cocoa-palms, the bright green slopes, the sunset gold on the lake-like river, the ranges of forest-covered mountains etherealizing in the purple light, the swarthy faces and scarlet uniforms of the Sikh guard, and rich and luscious odors, floated in on balmy airs, glories of the burning tropics, untellable and incommunicable!

My valise had not arrived, and I had been obliged to redress myself in my mud-splashed tweed dress, therefore I was much annoyed to find the table set for three, and I hung about unwillingly in the veranda, fully expecting two Government clerks in faultless evening dress to appear, and I was vexed to think that my dream of solitude was not to be realized, when Assam more emphatically assured me that the meal was “served,” and I sat down, much mystified, at the well-appointed table, when he led in a large ape, and the Malay servant brought in a small one, and a Sikh brought in a large retriever and tied him to my chair! This was all done with the most profound solemnity. The circle being then complete, dinner proceeded with great stateliness. The apes had their curry, chutney, pine-apple, eggs, and bananas on porcelain plates, and so had I. The chief difference was that, whereas I waited to be helped, the big ape was impolite enough occasionally to snatch something from a dish as the butler passed round the table, and that the small one before very long migrated from his chair to the table, and, sitting by my plate, helped himself daintily from it. What a grotesque dinner party! What a delightful one! My “next of kin” were so reasonably silent; they required no conversational efforts; they were most interesting companions. “Silence is golden,” I felt; shall I ever enjoy a dinner party so much again?

My acquaintance with these fellow-creatures was made just after I arrived. I saw the two tied by long ropes to the veranda rail above the porch, and not liking their looks, went as far from them as I could to write to you. The big one is perhaps four feet high and very strong, and the little one is about twenty inches high.* After a time I heard a cry of distress, and saw that the big one, whose name is Mahmoud, was frightening Eblis, the small one. Eblis ran away, but Mahmoud having got the rope in his hands, pulled it with a jerk each time Eblis got to the length of his tether, and beat him with the slack of it. I went as near to them as I dared, hoping to rescue the little creature, and he tried to come to me, but was always jerked back, the face of Mahmoud showing evil triumph each time. At last Mahmoud snatched up a stout Malacca cane, and dragging Eblis near him, beat him unmercifully, the cries of the little semi-human creature being most pathetic. I vainly tried to get the Sikh sentry to interfere; perhaps it would have been a breach of discipline if he had left his post, but at the moment I should have been glad if he had run Mahmoud through with a bayonet. Failing this, and the case being clearly one of murderous assault, I rushed at the rope which tied Eblis to the veranda and cut it through, which so startled the big fellow that he let him go, and Eblis, beaten I fear to a jelly, jumped upon my shoulder and flung his arms round my throat with a grip of terror; mine, I admit, being scarcely less.

[*The sheet of my letter in which I afterward described the physique of these apes has unfortunately been lost, and I dare not trust to my memory in a matter in which accuracy is essential. The description of an ape (in Letter XIV) approaches near to my recollection of them.]

I carried him to the easy-chair at the other end of the veranda, and he lay down confidingly on my arm, looking up with a bewitching, pathetic face, and murmuring sweetly “Ouf! Ouf!” He has scarcely left me since, except to go out to sleep on the attap roof. He is the most lovable, infatuating, little semi-human creature, so altogether fascinating that I could waste the whole day in watching him. As I write, he sometimes sits on the table by me watching me attentively, or takes a pen, dips it in the ink, and scribbles on a sheet of paper. Occasionally he turns over the leaves of a book; once he took Mr. Low’s official correspondence, envelope by envelope, out of the rack, opened each, took out the letters and held them as if reading, but always replaced them. Then he becomes companionable, and gently taking my pen from my hand, puts it aside and lays his dainty hand in mine, and sometimes he lies on my lap as I write, with one long arm round my throat, and the small, antique, pathetic face is occasionally laid softly against mine, uttering the monosyllable “Ouf! ouf!” which is capable of a variation of tone and meaning truly extraordinary. Mahmoud is sufficiently polite, but shows no sign of friendliness, I am glad to say. As I bore Eblis out of reach of his clutches he threw the cane either at him or me, and then began to dance.

That first night tigers came very near the house, roaring discontentedly. At 4 A.M. I was awoke by a loud noise, and looking out, saw a wonderful scene. The superb plumes of the cocoa-nut trees were motionless against a sky blazing with stars. Four large elephants, part of the regalia of a deposed Sultan, one of them, the Royal Elephant, a beast of prodigious size, were standing at the door, looking majestic; mahouts were flitting about with torches; Sikhs, whose great stature was exaggerated by the fitful light — some in their undress white robes, and others in scarlet uniforms and blue turbans — were grouped as onlookers, the torchlight glinted on peripatetic bayonets, and the greenish, undulating lamps of countless fireflies moved gently in the shadow.

I have now been for three nights the sole inhabitant of this bungalow! I have taken five meals in the society of apes only, who make me laugh with genuine laughter. The sentries are absolutely silent, and I hardly hear a human voice. It is so good to be away for a time from the “wearing world,” from all clatter, chatter, and “strife of tongues,” in the unsophisticated society of apes and elephants. Dullness is out of the question. The apes are always doing something new, and are far more initiative than imitative. Eblis has just now taken a letter of yours from an elastic band, and is holding it wide open as if he were reading it; an untamed siamang, which lives on the roof, but has mustered up courage to-day to come down into the veranda, has jumped like a demon on the retriever’s back, and riding astride, is beating him with a ruler; and jolly, wicked Mahmoud, having taken the cushions out of the chairs, has laid them in a row, has pulled a table cover off the table, and having rolled it up for a pillow, is now lying down in an easy, careless attitude, occasionally helping himself to a piece of pine-apple. When they are angry they make a fearful noise, and if you hinder them from putting their hands into your plate they shriek with rage like children, and utter much the same sound as the Ainos do when displeased. They seem frightfully jealous of the sweet little wah-wah Eblis. Mahmoud beats it and teases it whenever it is not with me; he takes its food, and when it screams with rage he laughs and shows his white teeth. He upset all the chairs in the veranda this morning, and when I attempted to scold him he took a banana which he was peeling and threw it at me. I am sure that he would have a great deal of rough wit if he could speak our tongue.

The night I came, Mr. Low’s clerk, a Singhalese, came to arrange an expedition, and early the next morning, after I had breakfasted with the apes, he arrived, bringing the Royal Elephant, as well-broken and stately an animal as I should wish to ride. He is such a height (they say ten feet!) that, though he lay down to be mounted, a good-sized ladder was needed for the climb upon his back. Assam put pillows and a good lunch into the baskets, and as the day was glorious from sunrise to sunset I had an altogether delightful expedition.

We turned at once into the jungle, and rode through it for seven hours on the left bank of the Perak river. The loveliness was intoxicating. The trees were lofty and magnificent; there were very many such as I have not seen before. Many run up a hundred feet or more before they branch. The twilight was green and dim, and ofttimes amidst the wealth of vegetation not a flower was to be seen. But as often, through rifts in the leafage far aloft, there were glimpses of the sunny, heavenly blue sky, and now and then there were openings where trees had fallen, and the glorious tropical sunshine streamed in on gaudy blossoms of huge trees, and on pure white orchids, and canary-colored clusters borne by lianas; on sun-birds, iridescent and gorgeous in the sunlight; and on butterflies, some all golden, others amber and black, and amber and blue, some with velvety bands of violet and green, others altogether velvety black with spots of vermilion or emerald-green, the under side of the wings corresponding to the spot, while sometimes a shoal of turquoise-blue or wholly canary-colored sprites fluttered in the sunbeams; the flash of sun-birds and the flutter of butterflies giving one an idea of the joy which possibly was intended to be the heritage of all animated existence. In these openings I was glad for the moment to be neither an ornithologist nor an entomologist, so that I might leave everyone of these daintily colored creatures to the enjoyment of its life and beauty.

It was not the trees and lianas only that were beautiful in these sunny openings, but the ferns, mosses, orchids, and selaginellas, with the crimson-tipped dracaena, and the crimson-veined caladium, and the great red nepenthe with purple blotches on its nearly diaphanous pitchers, and another pitcher-plant of an epiphytal habit, with pea-green pitchers scrambling to a great height over the branches of the smaller trees. The beautiful tree-ferns themselves were loaded with other ferns, orchids, and mosses; every fallen tree was draped with fresh green forms, every swampy bit was the home of mottled aroids, film ferns, and foliage plants, mostly green and gold, while in some places there were ginger-worts with noble shining leaves fully six feet long.

In the green twilight of the depths of the forest the dew gemmed the leaves till nearly 10 A.M., but in the openings the sun blazed with the heat of a furnace. The silence and colorlessness of the heart of the forest; and the color, vivacity, light, and movement in the openings, and among the tree-tops, contrast most curiously. Legions of monkeys inhabit the tree-tops, and seem to lead a completely aerial life. It is said that they never come down to earth, but that they cross the forests swinging themselves from tree to tree.

The Malays, if they can, build their kampongs near rivers, and during the day we passed several of these. Several had mosques more or less rude. Every village consists of such houses as I have described before, grouped, but not by any means closely, under the shade of cocoa-palms, jak, durion, bread-fruit, mango, nutmeg, and other fruit-trees. Plantations of bananas are never far off. Many of these people have “dug-outs” or other boats on the adjacent river, some have bathing-sheds, and others padi plantations. These kampongs have much of the poetry as well as inanity of tropical life about them. They are beautiful and appropriate, and food is above them and around them. “The primal curse” can hardly be known. A very little labor provides all that the Malay desires, and if the tenure of the land be secure (and the lack of security is one of the great evils), and he be not over-taxed, his life must be calm and easy, if not happy. The people were always courteous, and my Singhalese escort held long conversations in every kampong. These jungle dwellers raise their houses on very high posts, partly because tigers abound. The jak trees (artocarpus incisa), near of kin to the bread-fruit, and the durion, flourish round all the dwellings. The jak fruit, which may be called food rather than fruit, grows without a visible stem from the trunk and branches of the very handsome tree which bears it, and weighs from sixty to seventy pounds. The durion grows to the size of a man’s head, and is covered closely with hard, sharp spines. The fall of either on one’s head or shoulder is much to be deprecated, and the Malays stretch strong nets above their houses to secure themselves from accidents.

I saw for the first time the nutmeg growing in perfection. It was a great delight, as is the first sight of any tree or flower well known from description. It is a beautiful tree, from forty to fifty feet high when full grown, with shining foliage, somewhat resembling that of the bay, and its fruit looks like a very large nectarine. One fully ripe was gathered for me. It had opened, and revealed the nutmeg with its dark brown shell showing through its crimson reticulated envelope of mace, the whole lying in a bed of pure white, a beautiful object.

Each house in the kampong seemed to have all its inmates at home doing nothing but chewing betel-nut. In their home deshabilles the men wear only the sarong, and a handkerchief knotted round their heads, and I think that the women also dispense with an upper garment, for I noticed at the approach of two strange men they invariably huddled another sarong over their shoulders, heads, and faces, holding it so as to conceal all but their eyes. The young children, as usual, were only clothed in silver ornaments. This neglige dress in the privacy of their homes is merely a matter of custom and climate, for these people are no more savages than we are. These glimpses of a native tropic life, entirely uninfluenced by European civilization, are most interesting.

In these kampongs the people have music, singing, story-telling, games, and religious ceremonies, perhaps the most important of all. I have not heard that the Perak Malays differ in their religious observances from the other Malays of the Peninsula. It seems that before “a parish” can be formed there must be forty-four houses. The kampong may then have a properly constituted mosque in which every Friday the religious officer recites an oration in praise of God, the Prophet, and his vicegerents, from the steps of a rostrum. The same person performs the marriage ceremony. Another official performs sacrificial duties, and recites the service for the dead after the corpse has been lowered into the grave. There is an inferior official of the mosque who keeps it clean, and reports to the Imaum absentees from public worship, goes round the villages to give notice of public prayer, assists at burials, and beats the great drum of the mosque. The Imaum appears to be the highest functionary, and performs what are regarded as the most sacred rites of Islamism. There are regular fees paid to these persons for their services, and at sacrifices they receive part of the victim. I was afraid of going into any of the mosques. They are all conical buildings of wood and attap raised on wooden pillars, and are usually on small knolls a little way from the kampongs. They have no minarets, but the larger ones have a separate shed in which the drum or gong used for the call to prayer is kept.

Buffaloes are sacrificed on religious occasions, and at the births, circumcisions, marriages, and shaving of the heads of the children of wealthy people. The buffalo sacrificed for religious purposes must be always without blemish. Its bones must not be broken after death, neither must its horns be used for common purposes. It is slain near the mosque with solemn sacrificial ceremonies, and one-half is usually cooked and eaten on the spot by the “parishioners.”

While I am on the subject of religious observances, I must tell you that I saw a Moslem funeral to-day from a respectful distance. The graves are decently placed together usually, though some of the pious rich have large isolated burial places. The grave is dug by rule — i.e., the digger continues his work till his ear and the surface are on a level. It is shaped like ours, with one important exception, that a chamber two feet high for the reception of the body is dug in the side.

The corpse, that of a man I believe, covered with a cloth and dressed in cotton clothing, was carried on a bier formed of two planks, with the male relations following. On reaching the grave the Imaum read a service in a monotonous tone, and then the body was lowered till it reached the level of the side chamber, in which it was placed, and inclosed with the planks on which it had been carried. Some leaves and flowers were then thrown in, and the grave was filled up, after which some water was sprinkled upon it, and a man, not the Imaum, sitting upon it, recited what the Singhalese said was a sort of confession of faith, turning toward Mecca. The relatives bowed in the same direction and then left the place, but on stated days afterward offerings of spices and flowers are made. It was reverential and decorous, perhaps even more so than the Buddhist funerals which I saw in Japan, but the tombs are not so carefully tended, and look more melancholy. The same dumpy, pawn-shaped pillars are placed at the head and feet of the raised mounds of earth which cover the graves, as in Malacca. It is believed that when the mourners have retired seven paces from the grave two angels enter upon inquisitorial functions. When death is seen to be approaching, the dying person is directed to repeat a short form of confession of his faith in the unity of God; and if he is unable, it is recited for him. The offices of washing and shrouding the dead are religious ceremonies, and are performed by one of the officials of the mosque. The influence of the great Prophet of Arabia is wonderfully enduring.

This letter, which began among sun-birds and butterflies, has got into a dismal groove, out of which I must rescue it, but it is difficult to give any consecutive account of anything when the fascinating Eblis murmurs ouf! ouf! sits on my writing book, takes my pen out of my hand, makes these scrawls which I fear will make my writing illegible, and claims constant attention.

The Royal Elephant is a noble animal. His docility is perfect. He climbed up and down places so steep that a good horse would have bungled at them, pulled down trees when he was told to do it, held others which were slanting dangerously across the track high above our heads till we had safely passed under them, lifted fallen trees out of his way, or took huge steps over them, and slid down a steep bank into the Perak with great dexterity. He was told to take a banana tree for his dinner, and he broke off the tough thick stem just above the ground as if it had been a stick, then neatly stripped the eight-foot leaves, and holding the thick end of each stalk under his foot, stripped off the whole leaf on each side of the midrib, and then, with the dexterity of a monkey peeling a banana, he peeled off the thick rind from the stem, and revelled in the juices of the soft inside. I was sitting on the ground in a place where there was scarcely room for him to pass, and yet he was so noble and gentle that I never thought of getting up, even though his ponderous feet just touched me, and I ate my lunch within the swing of his huge proboscis, but he stood quite still, except that he flapped his “ears” and squirted water over himself. Each elephant has his own driver, and there is quite a large vocabulary of elephant language. The mahout carried an invaluable knife-weapon, called a parang, broadest and heaviest at the point, and as we passed through the jungle he slashed to right and left to clear the track, and quite thick twigs fell with hardly an effort on his part.

After traveling for several hours we came upon a kampong under palms and nutmeg trees, and then dismounted and took our lunch, looking out from deep shadow down upon the beautiful river lying in the glory of the noonday sun, its banks bright with birds and butterflies. The mahout was here among friends, and the salutations were numerous. If nose-rubbing as a form of greeting is practiced I have never seen it. What I have seen is that when one man approaches another, or is about to pay a visit, he joins his hands as if in supplication, and the other touches them on both sides, and afterward raises his hands to his lips and forehead. It is a courteous looking mode of salutation.

At this point the Singhalese said that the natives told him that it was possible to ford the Perak, but that the mahout said that the elephant was a “diver,” and would probably dive, but that there was no danger to us except of getting very wet. I liked the prospect of a journey on the other side, so we went down a steep bank into the broad, bright, river, and putting out from the shore, went into the middle, and shortly the elephant gently dropped down and was entirely submerged, moving majestically along, with not a bit of his huge bulk visible, the end of his proboscis far ahead, writhing and coiling like a water snake every now and then, the nostrils always in sight, but having no apparent connection with the creature to which they belonged. Of course we were sitting in the water, but it was nearly as warm as the air, and so we went for some distance up the clear, shining river, with the tropic sun blazing down upon it, with everything that could rejoice the eye upon its shores, with little beaches of golden sands, and above the forest the mountains with varying shades of indigo coloring.

There would have been nothing left to wish for if you had been there to see, though you would have tried to look as if you saw an elephant moving submerged along a tropical river every day with people of three races on his back!!

The Singhalese said, “I’m going to take you to Koto-lamah; no European has been there since the war. I’ve never been there, nor the Resident either.” I have pored over blue books long enough to know that this is a place which earned a most unenviable notoriety during the recent troubles, and is described as “a stronghold of piracy, lawlessness, and disaffection.” As we were making a diagonal crossing of the Perak, the Singhalese said, “A few months ago they would have been firing at us from both sides of the river.” It was a beautiful view at that point, with the lovely river in its windings, and on the top of the steep bank a kampong of largish houses under palms and durions. A good many people assembled on the cliff, some with muskets and some with spears, and the Singhalese said, “I wish we had not come;” but as the elephant scrambled up the bank the people seemed quite friendly, and I dismounted and climbed up to a large house with a very open floor, on which fine mats were laid in several places. There were many women and children in the room when I went in, and one of the former put a fine mat over a rice sack for me. Presently the room filled up with people, till there were fifty-nine seated in circles on the floor, but some of the men remained standing, one a thorough villain in looks, a Hadji, with a dirty green turban and a red sarong. The rest of the men wore handkerchiefs and sarongs only.

These people really did look much like savages. They all carried parangs, or the short kris called a golo, and haying been told that the Malays were disarmed, I was surprised to see several muskets, a rifle, and about thirty spears on the wall. So I found myself in the heart of what has been officially described as “a nest of robbers and murderers,” “the centre of disturbance and disaffection,” etc. To make it yet more interesting, on inquiring whose house it was, the name of a notorious “rebel” leader was mentioned, and one of the women, I was told, is the principal wife or rather widow of the Maharajah Lela, who was executed for complicity in the assassination of Mr. Birch. However, though as a Briton I could not have been a welcome visitor, they sent a monkey for two cocoa-nuts, and gave me their delicious milk; and when I came away they took the entrance ladder from one of the houses to help me to mount the elephant.

Mr. Low was at first displeased that I had been to Koto-lamah, and said that my escort was “ignorant and foolish” for taking me; but now he says that though he would not have taken the responsibility of sending me, he is glad that the thing was done, as it affords a proof such as he has not yet had of the complete pacification of the district; but, he added, it would appear somewhat odd that the first European to test the disposition of the Koto-lamah people should be a lady.

Leaving this large kampong we traveled by a much-grown-up elephant track, needing the constant use of the parang and the strength and wisdom of the elephant to make it passable, saw several lairs and some recent tiger tracks, crossed a very steep hill, and, after some hours of hard riding, came down upon the lovely Perak, which we crossed in a “dugout” so nearly level with the water that at every stroke of the paddle of the native who crouched in the bow the water ran in over the edge. We landed at the village of Kwala Kangsa

“In the glory of the sunset,

In the purple mists of evening,”

in which the magnified purple mountains were piled like Alps against the flaming clouds. By the river bank lay the Dragon boat and the square bamboo floating bath, through the side of which Mr. Birch was mortally wounded.

On landing we met a very bright intelligent-looking young Malay with a train of followers, a dandy almost, in white trousers, short red sarong, black baju with gold buttons, gold watchguard, and red head dress. The expression of his face was keen and slightly scornful. This is Rajah Dris, a judge, and the probable successor to the Perak throne. The present Resident thinks highly both of his character and his abilities, and he is very popular among his countrymen. He walked with us as far as the mosque, and I heard him ask questions about me. The Mussulmen of the village, several of them being Hadjis, were assembling for worship, lounging outside the mosque till the call to prayer came. Ablutions before worshiping are performed in floating baths in the river. The trade of Kwala Kangsa seems in the hands of the Chinese, with a few Klings among them, and they have a row of shops.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31