Saturday, December 24, 2005

Baron Charles Hügel's travels through Kashmir and the Punjab

Nothing seems so unaccountable to the traveller from far distant lands, after a brief sojourn in a place where he looked for nothing but the wild adventures which crowded his waking dreams, as his own want of surpise at surrounding things: he discovers here, as everywhere, that in the manners of all nations there is a certain harmonious congruity which,inspite of national principles, is founded on the same universal laws of nature.

So wrote Baron Hügel in Travels through Kashmir and the Panjab (John Petherham, London, 1845) as he journeyed through North India in the 1830s. The book, needless to add has been out of print for more than a century, its printers Harrison and Co. of London, long reduced to subjects of historical curiosity for their role in promoting the novel in its printed form in England!!!

The Baron's travel diaries, originally in German, were translated by a Major T.B. Jervis, F.R.S. "under the patronage of the Honourable, the Court of Directors' of the East India Company" and published in 1844-5. The narrative begins on 6th October 1835 in Simla as the Baron receives from Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the perwana or royal mandate addressed to the governors of the provinces through which the Baron's travel route would take him.

The perwana was no ordinary travel document. In the baron's own words "this perwana is of as much, or more importance in India than our passports in Europe; for whereas our passports only give permission to travel through the state which grants it, a perwana commands the governors of every place to furnish the traveller with bearers, beasts, provisions, and, in fact everything he may stand in need of."

This list would be endless if Baron Hügel's entourage of thirty seven servants, sixty bearers, and seven beasts was any indication. There was a Hindu Sirdar-bearer or a personal attendant, a Musselman Khidmatgar or manservant, and a Masalchi or torch bearer, a Munshi or clerk, an interpreter, a bawarchi or cook with two assistants, a Hookahburder or pipe attendant, an Abdar or water carrier, a Durzee or tailor, a Chobdar or herald, two chaprasis or messengers with his name engraved on their breastplates (in Hindustani and Persian), two shikaris or hunstmen, two Paharis or mountaineers, two gardeners, two tent bearers and numerous other servants and attendants. They carried with them tents, preserved meats in tin boxes, wines and drinks, preserved fruits and sweetmeats and hookah.

The entire company traveled through Punjab crossing the Sutlej and across the plains of the Beas, and then into Kashmir by way of the old capital Ventipoor and thence on to Lahore. A map with the Baron's route traced out accompanies the narrative. They encountered rajas (kings), thanadars (local governors) and fakirs (medicants), female dancers and village folk. Charles Hügel's inexhaustible spirit and wanderlust together makes the narrative come alive. He chronicles in detail, the weather, the temperature, indeed every geographical aspect, in addition to the events around and about him. His delight, amusement, curiosity never cease; his eye for detail for the local traditions, customs and events remains vigilant.

The women of Panjab are celebrated, and not undeservedly, for the beauty of their shape, their feet and their teeth. To-day, when I came to the place where my tent should have been already pitched, I found nothing done, and on looking narrowly for the Kalasi, I spied him, in some bushes near, engaged in an very animated discourse with one of these fair ones.

And elsewhere:

As they pitched my tent close to a tank, I had again an opportunity of seeing a large assemblage of females taking their baths. Their costume here differs from that of the women in the Sikh districts of the left shores of the Sutlej; younger ones all wear blue trousers, which fit very close to the leg below the knee, while from the calf to the ankle they fall in numerous folds; over this they wear an ample petticoat, and above, a white cloth hangs down behind, fluttering in the wind.

Says Hügel of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, "In person he is short and mean looking, and had he not distinguished himself by his talents, he would be passed by without being thought worthy of observation. Without exaggeration, I must call him the most ugly and unprepossessing man I saw throughout Panjab. His left eye, which is quite closed, disfigures him less than the other which is always rolling about, wide open, and is much distorted by disease."

These and other descriptions of the Maharaja's zenana, the dancing girls, and of the Hindu and Sikh temples and depictions of life in Lahore and Amritsar, give a glimpse of life in the Northern provinces of India in 18th century. Although he does touch upon the political climate, the rule of the East India Company or Company bahadur and the princely states under British suzerainty, his experiences during his travels and his frank, sincere observations of royal and rural life in India is what form the bulk of this fascinating read.

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