The City of Elephants which is governed by the Great God of Idleness, who lives on the Top of a Hill. The History of Three Great Discoveries and the Naughty Children of Iquique
I built my soul a lordly pleasure-house
Wherein at ease for aye to dwell.
I said, ‘O Soul, make merry and carouse,
Dear soul, for all is well.’
SO much for making definite programmes of travel beforehand. In my first letter I told you that I would go from Rangoon to Penang direct. Now we are lying off Moulmein in a new steamer which does not seem to run anywhere in particular. Why she should go to Moulmein is a mystery; but as every soul on the ship is a loafer like myself, no one is discontented. Imagine a shipload of people to whom time is no object, who have no desires beyond three meals a day and no emotions save those raised by the casual cockroach.
Moulmein is situated up the mouth of a river which ought to flow through South America, and all manner of dissolute native craft appear to make the place their home. Ugly cargo-steamers that the initiated call ‘Geordie tramps’ grunt and bellow at the beautiful hills all round, and the pot-bellied British India liners wallow down the reaches. Visitors are rare in Moulmein — so rare that few but cargo-boats think it worth their while to come off from the shore.
Strictly in confidence I will tell you that Moulmein is not a city of this earth at all. Sindbad the Sailor visited it, if you recollect, on that memorable voyage when he discovered the burial-ground of the elephants.
As the steamer came up the river we were aware of first one elephant and then another hard at work in timber-yards that faced the shore. A few narrow-minded folk with binoculars said that there were mahouts upon their backs, but this was never clearly proven. I prefer to believe in what I saw — a sleepy town, just one house thick, scattered along a lovely stream and inhabited by slow, solemn elephants, building stockades for their own diversion. There was a strong scent of freshly sawn teak in the air — we could not see any elephants sawing — and occasionally the warm stillness was broken by the crash of the log. When the elephants had got an appetite for luncheon they loafed off in couples to their club, and did not take the trouble to give us greeting and the latest mail papers; at which we were much disappointed, but took heart when we saw upon a hill a large white pagoda surrounded by scores of little pagodas. ‘This,’ we said with one voice, ‘is the place to make an excursion to,’ and then shuddered at our own profanity, for above all things we did not wish to behave like mere vulgar tourists.
The ticca-gharries at Moulmein are three sizes smaller than those of Rangoon, for the ponies are no bigger than decent sheep. Their drovers trot them uphill and down, and as the gharri is extremely narrow and the roads are anything but good, the exercise is refreshing. Here again all the drivers are Madrassis.
I should better remember what that pagoda was like had I not fallen deeply and irrevocably in love with a Burmese girl at the foot of the first flight of steps. Only the fact of the steamer starting next noon prevented me from staying at Moulmein forever and owning a pair of elephants. These are so common that they wander about the streets, and, I make no doubt, could be obtained for a piece of sugar-cane.
Leaving this far too lovely maiden, I went up the steps only a few yards, and, turning me round, looked upon a view of water, island, broad river, fair grazing ground, and belted wood that made me rejoice that I was alive. The hillside below me and above me was ablaze with pagodas — from a gorgeous golden and vermilion beauty to a delicate grey stone one just completed in honour of an eminent priest lately deceased at Mandalay. Far above my head there was a faint tinkle, as of golden bells, and a talking of the breezes in the tops of the toddy-palms. Wherefore I climbed higher and higher up the steps till I reached a place of great peace, dotted with Burmese images, spotlessly clean. Here women now and again paid reverence. They bowed their heads and their lips moved, because they were praying. I had an umbrella — a black one — in my hand, deck-shoes upon my feet, and a helmet upon my head. I did not pray — I swore at myself for being a Globetrotter, and wished that I had enough Burmese to explain to these ladies that I was sorry and would have taken off my hat but for the sun. A Globetrotter is a brute. I had the grace to blush as I tramped round the pagoda. That will be remembered to me for righteousness. But I stared horribly — at a gold and red side-temple with a beautifully gilt image of Buddha in it — at the grim figures in the niches at the base of the main pagoda — at the little palms that grew out of the cracks in the tiled paving of the court — at the big palms above, and at the low-hung bronze bells that stood at each corner for the women to smite with staghorns. Upon one bell rang this amazing triplet in English — evidently the composition of the caster, who completed his work — and now, let us hope, has reached Nibban — thirty-five years ago:—
He who destroyed this Bell
They must be in the great Hel
And unable to coming out.
I respect a man who is not able to spell Hell properly. It shows that he has been brought up in an amiable creed. You who come to Moulmein treat this bell with respect, and refrain from playing with it, for that hurts the feelings of the worshippers.
In the base of the pagoda were four rooms, lined as to three sides with colossal plaster figures, before each of whom burned one solitary dip whose rays fought with the flood of evening sunshine that came through the windows, and the room was filled with a pale yellow light — unearthly to stand in. Occasionally a woman crept in to one of these rooms to pray, but nearly all the company stayed in the courtyard; but those that faced the figures prayed more zealously than the others, so I judged that their troubles were the greater. Of the actual cult I knew less than nothing; for the neatly bound English books that we read make no mention of pointing red-tipped straws at a golden image, or of the banging of bells after the custom of worshippers in a Hindu temple. It must be a genial one, however. To begin with, it is quiet and carried on among the fairest possible surroundings that ever landscape offered.
In this particular case, the massive white pagoda shot into the blue from the west of a walled hill that commanded four separate and desirable views as you looked either at the steamer in the river below, the polished silver reaches to the left, the woods to the right, or the roofs of Moulmein to the landward. Between each pause of the rustling of dresses and the low-toned talk of the women fell, from far above, the tinkle of innumerable metal leaves which were stirred by the breeze as they hung from the ’htee of the pagoda. A golden image winked in the sun; the painted ones stared straight in front of them over the heads of the worshippers, and somewhere below a mallet and a plane were lazily helping to build yet another pagoda in honour of the Lord of the Earth.
Sitting in meditation while the Professor went round with a sacrilegious camera, to the vast terror of the Burmese youth, I made two notable discoveries and nearly went to sleep over them. The first was that the Lord of the Earth is Idleness — thick slab idleness with a little religion stirred in to keep it sweet, and the second was that the shape of the pagoda came originally from a bulging toddy-palm trunk. There was one between me and the far-off sky-line, and it exactly duplicated the outlines of a small grey stone building.
Yet a third discovery, and a much more important one, came to me later on. A dirty little imp of a boy ran by clothed more or less in a beautifully worked silk putso, the like of which I had in vain attempted to secure at Rangoon. A bystander told me that such an article would cost one hundred and ten rupees — exactly ten rupees in excess of the price demanded at Rangoon, when I had been discourteous to a pretty Burmese girl with diamonds in her ears, and had treated her as though she were a Delhi boxwallah.
‘Professor,’ said I, when the camera spidered round the corner, ‘there is something wrong with this people. They won’t work, they aren’t all dacoits, and their babies run about with hundred-rupee putsoes on them, while their parents speak the truth. How in the world do they get a living?’
‘They exist beautifully,’ said the Professor; ‘and I only brought half a dozen plates with me. I shall come again in the morning with some more. Did you ever dream of a place like this?’
‘No,’ said I. ‘It’s perfect, and for the life of me I can’t quite see where the precise charm lies.’
‘In its Beastly Laziness,’ said the Professor, as he packed the camera, and we went away, regretfully, haunted by the voices of many wind-blown bells.
Not ten minutes from the pagoda we saw a real British bandstand, a shanty labelled ‘Municipal Office,’ a collection of P.W.D. bungalows that in vain strove to blast the landscape, and a Madras band. I had never seen Madrassi troops before. They seem to dress just like Tommies, and have an air of much culture and refinement. It is said that they read English books and know all about their rights and privileges. For further details apply to the Pegu Club, second table from the top on the right-hand side as you enter.
In an evil hour I attempted to revive the drooping trade of Moulmein, and to this end bound a native of the place to come on board the steamer next morn with a collection of Burmese silks. It was only a five minutes’ pull, and he could have sat in the stern all the while. Morning came, but not the man. Not a boat of watermelons, pink fleshy watermelons, neared the ship. We might have been in quarantine. As we slipped down the river on our way to Penang, I saw the elephants playing with the teak logs as solemnly and as mysteriously as ever. They were the chief inhabitants, and, for aught I know, the rulers of the place. Their lethargy had corrupted the town, and when the Professor wished to photograph them, I believe they went away in scorn.
We are now running down to Penang with the thermometer 87° in the cabins, and anything you please on deck. We have exhausted all our literature, drunk two hundred lemon squashes, played forty different games of cards (Patience mostly), organised a lottery on the run (had it been a thousand rupees instead of ten I should not have won it), and slept seventeen hours out of the twenty-four. It is perfectly impossible to write, but you may be morally the better for the story of the Bad People of Iquique which, ‘as you have not before heard, I will now proceed to relate.’ It has just been told me by a German orchid-hunter, fresh from nearly losing his head in the Lushai hills, who has been over most of the world.
Iquique is somewhere in South America — at the back of or beyond Brazil — and once upon a time there came to it a tribe of Aborigines from out of the woods, so innocent that they wore nothing at all — absolutely nothing at all. They had a grievance, but no garments, and the former they came to lay before His Excellency, the Governor of Iquique. But the news of their coming and their exceeding nakedness had gone before them, and good Spanish ladies of the town agreed that the heathen should first of all be clothed. So they organised a sewing-bee, and the result, which was mainly aprons, was served out to the Bad People with hints as to its use. Nothing could have been better. They appeared in their aprons before the Governor and all the ladies of Iquique, ranged on the steps of the cathedral, only to find that the Governor could not grant their demands. And do you know what these children of nature did? In the twinkling of an eye they had off those aprons, slung them round their necks, and were dancing naked as the dawn before the scandalised ladies of Iquique, who fled with their fans before their eyes into the sanctuary of the cathedral. And when the steps were deserted the Bad People withdrew, shouting and leaping, their aprons still round their necks, for good cloth is valuable property. They encamped near the town, knowing their own power. ’Twas impossible to send the military against them, and equally impossible that the Senoritas should be exposed to the chance of being shocked whenever they went abroad. No one knew at what hour the Bad People would sweep through the streets. Their demands were therefore granted and Iquique had rest. Nuda est veritas et prevalebit.
‘But,’ said I, ‘what is there so awful in a naked Indian — or two hundred naked Indians for that matter?’
‘My friend,’ said the German, ‘dey vas Indians of Sout’ America. I dell you dey do not demselves shtrip vell.’
I put my hand on my mouth and went away.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10