Observations on the Mussulmauns of India
By Meer Hassan Ali

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Letter XVII

Seclusion of Females.–Paadshah Begum.–The Suwaarree.–Female Bearers.–Eunuchs.–Rutts.–Partiality of the Ladies to Large retinues.–Female Companions.–Telling the Khaunie.–Games of the Zeenahnah.–Shampooing.–The Punkah.–Slaves and slavery.–Anecdote.–The Persian Poets.–Fierdowsee.–Saadie, his ’Goolistaun’.–Haafiz.–Mahumud Baarkur.–’Hyaatool Kaaloob’.–Different manner of pronouncing Scripture names...Page 248

The strict seclusion which forms so conspicuous a feature in the female society of the Mussulmauns in India, renders the temporary migration of ladies from their domicile an event of great interest to each individual of the zeenahnah, whether the mistress or her many dependants be considered.

The superior classes seldom quit their habitation but on the most important occasions; they, therefore, make it a matter of necessity to move out in such style as is most likely to proclaim their exalted station in life. I cannot, perhaps, explain this part of my subject better than by giving a brief description of the suwaarree[1] (travelling retinue) of the Paadshah Begum[2] which passed my house at Lucknow on the occasion of her visit to the Durgah of Huzerut Abas Ali Kee, after several years strictly confining herself to the palace.

By Paadshah is meant ’King’;–Begum, ’Lady.’ The first wife of the King is distinguished by this title from every other he may have married; it is equivalent to that of ’Queen’ in other countries. With this title the Paadshah Begum enjoys also many other marks of royal distinction; as, for instance, the dunkah (kettle-drums) preceding her suwaarree; a privilege, I believe, never allowed by the King to any other female of his family. The embroidered chattah (umbrella); the afthaadah (embroidered sun); and chowries of the peacock’s feathers, are also out-of-door distinctions allowed only to this lady and the members of the royal family. But to my description:–

First, in the Paadshah Begum’s suwaarree I observed a guard of cavalry soldiers in full dress, with their colours unfurled; these were followed by two battalions of infantry, with their bands of music and colours. A company of spearmen on foot, in neat white dresses and turbans, their spears of silver, rich and massive. Thirty-six men in white dresses and turbans, each having a small triangular flag of crimson silk, on which were embroidered the royal arms (two fish and a dirk of a peculiar shape). The staffs of these flags are of silver, about three feet long; in the lower part of the handle a small bayonet is secreted, which can be produced at will by pressure on a secret spring. Next followed a full band of music, drums, fifes, &c.; then the important dunkah, which announces to the public the lady’s rank: she is enclosed within the elevated towering chundole, on each side of which the afthaadah and chowries are carried by well-dressed men, generally confidential servants, appointed to this service.

The chundole is a conveyance resembling a palankeen, but much larger and more lofty; it is, in fact, a small silver room, six feet long, five broad, and four feet high, supported by the aid of four silver poles on the shoulders of twenty bearers. These bearers are relieved every quarter of a mile by a second set in attendance: the two sets change alternately to the end of the journey. The bearers are dressed in a handsome royal livery of white calico made to sit close to the person; over which are worn scarlet loose coats of fine English broad-cloth, edged and bordered with gold embroidery: on the back of the coat a fish is embroidered in gold. Their turbans correspond in colour with the coats; on the front of the turban is fixed diagonally a fish of wrought gold, to the tail of which a rich gold tassel is attached; this readies to the shoulder of the bearer, and gives a remarkable air of grandeur to the person.

The chundole is surrounded by very powerful women bearers, whose business it is to convey the vehicle within the compound (court-yard) of the private apartments, or wherever men are not admitted at the same time with females. Chobdhaars and soota-badhaars walk near the chundole carrying gold and silver staffs or wands, and vociferating the rank and honours of the lady they attend with loud voices the whole way to and from the Durgah. These men likewise keep off the crowds of beggars attracted on such occasions by the known liberality of the ladies, who, according to established custom, make distributions to a large amount, which are scattered amongst the populace by several of the Queen’s eunuchs, who walk near the chundole for that purpose.

The chief of the eunuchs followed the Queen’s chundole on an elephant, seated in a gold howdah; the trappings of which were of velvet, richly embroidered in gold; the eunuch very elegantly dressed in a suit of gold-cloth, a brilliant turban, and attired in expensive shawls. After the eunuch, follow the Paadshah Begum’s ladies of quality, in covered palankeens, each taking precedence according to the station or the favour she may enjoy; they are well guarded by soldiers, spearmen, and chobdhaars. Next in the train, follow the several officers of the Queen’s household, on elephants, richly caparisoned. And, lastly, the women of inferior rank and female slaves, in rutts (covered carriages) such as are in general use throughout India. These rutts are drawn by bullocks, having bells of a small size strung round their neck, which as they move have a novel and not unpleasing sound, from the variety of tones produced. The rutt is a broad-wheeled carriage, the body and roof forming two cones, one smaller than the other, covered with scarlet cloth, edged, fringed, and bordered with gold or amber silk trimmings. The persons riding in rutts are seated on cushions placed flat on the surface of the carriage (the Asiatic style of sitting at all times) and not on raised seats, the usual custom in Europe. The entrance to these rutts is from the front, like the tilted carts of England, where a thick curtain of corresponding colour and material conceals the inmates from the public gaze; a small space is left between this curtain and the driver, where one or two women servants are seated as guards, who are privileged by age and ugliness to indulge in the liberty of seeing the passing gaiety, and of enjoying, without a screen, the pure air; benefits which their superiors in rank are excluded from at all ages.

In the Paadshah Begum’s suwaarree, I counted fifty of these Native carriages, into each of which from four to six females are usually crowded, comprising the members of the household establishment of the great lady; such as companions, readers of the Khoraum, kaawauses[3] (the higher classes of female-slaves), muggalanie[4] (needle-women), &c. This will give you a tolerable idea of the number and variety of females attached to the suite of a lady of consequence in India. The procession, at a walking pace, occupied nearly half an hour in passing the road opposite to my house: it was well conducted, and the effect imposing, both from its novelty and splendour.

A lady here would be the most unhappy creature existing, unless surrounded by a multitude of attendants suitable to her rank in life. They have often expressed surprise and astonishment at my want of taste in keeping only two women servants in my employ, and having neither a companion nor a slave in my whole establishment; they cannot imagine anything so stupid as my preference to a quiet study, rather than the constant bustle of a well-filled zeenahnah.

Many of the Mussulmaun ladies entertain women companions, whose chief business is to tell stories and fables to their employer, while she is composing herself to sleep; many of their tales partake of the romantic cast which characterizes the well-remembered ’Arabian Nights’ Entertainments’, one story begetting another to the end of the collection. When the lady is fairly asleep the story is stayed, and the companion resumes her employment when the next nap is sought by her mistress.

Amongst the higher classes the males also indulge in the same practice of being talked to sleep by their men slaves; and it is a certain introduction with either sex to the favour of their employer, when one of these dependants has acquired the happy art of ’telling the khaunie’[5] (fable) with an agreeable voice and manner. The more they embellish a tale by flights of their versatile imaginations, so much greater the merit of the rehearser in the opinion of the listeners.

The inmates of zeenahnahs occasionally indulge in games of chance: their dice are called chowsah (four sides), or chuhsah[6] (six sides); these dice are about four inches long and half an inch thick on every side, numbered much in the same way as the European dice. They are thrown by the hand, not from boxes, and fall lengthways.

They have many different games which I never learned, disliking such modes of trifling away valuable time; I am not, therefore, prepared to describe them accurately. One of their games has a resemblance to draughts, and is played on a chequered cloth carpet, with red and white ivory cones.[7] They have also circular cards, six suits to a pack, very neatly painted, with which they play many (to me) indescribable games; but oftener, to their credit be it said, for amusement than for gain. The gentlemen, however, are not always equally disinterested; they frequently play for large sums of money. I do not, however, find the habit so general with the Natives as it is with Europeans. The religious community deem all games of chance unholy, and therefore incompatible with their mode of living. I am not aware that gaming is prohibited by their law in a direct way,[8] but all practices tending to covetousness are strictly forbidden; and, surely, those who can touch the money called ’winnings’ at any game, must be more or less exposed to the accusation of desiring other men’s goods.

Shampooing has been so often described as to leave little by way of novelty for me to remark on the subject; it is a general indulgence with all classes in India, whatever may be their age or circumstances. The comfort derived from the pressure of the hands on the limbs, by a clever shampooer, is alone to be estimated by those who have experienced the benefits derived from this luxurious habit, in a climate where such indulgences are needed to assist in creating a free circulation of the blood, which is very seldom induced by exercise as in more Northern latitudes. Persons of rank are shampooed by their slaves during the hours of sleep, whether it be by day or by night; if through any accidental circumstance the pressure is discontinued, even for a few seconds only, the sleep is immediately broken: such is the power of habit.

The punkah (fan) is in constant use by day and night, during eight months of the year. In the houses of the Natives, the slaves have ample employment in administering to the several indulgences which their ladies require at their hands; for with them fixed punkahs have not been introduced into the zeenahnah:[9] the only punkah in their apartments is moved by the hand, immediately over or in front of the person for whose use it is designed. In the gentlemen’s apartments, however, and in the houses of all Europeans, punkahs are suspended from the ceiling, to which a rope is fastened and passed through an aperture in the wall into the verandah, where a man is seated who keeps it constantly waving, by pulling the rope, so that the largest rooms, and even churches, are filled with wind, to the great comfort of all present.

The female slaves, although constantly required about the lady’s person, are nevertheless tenderly treated, and have every proper indulgence afforded them. They discharge in rotation the required duties of their stations, and appear as much the objects of the lady’s care as any other people in her establishment. Slavery with them is without severity; and in the existing state of Mussulmaun society, they declare the women slaves to be necessary appendages to their rank and respectability. The liberal proprietors of slaves give them suitable matches in marriage when they have arrived at a proper age, and even foster their children with the greatest care; often granting them a salary, and sometimes their freedom, if required to make them happy. Indeed, generally speaking the slaves in a Mussulmaun’s house must be vicious and unworthy, who are not considered members of the family.

It is an indisputable fact that the welfare of their slaves is an object of unceasing interest with their owners, if they are really good Mussulmauns; indeed, it is second only to the regard which they manifest to their own children.

Many persons have been known, in making their will, to decree the liberty of their slaves. They are not, however, always willing to accept the boon. ’To whom shall I go?’–’Where shall I meet a home like my master’s house?’ are appeals that endear the slave to the survivors of the first proprietor, and prove that their bondage has not been a very painful one. It is an amiable trait of character amongst the Mussulmauns, with whom I have been intimate, and which I can never forget, that the dependence of their slaves is made easy; that they enjoy every comfort compatible with their station; and that their health, morals, clothing, and general happiness, are as much attended to as that of their own relatives. But slavery is a harsh term between man and man, and however mitigated its state, is still degrading to him. I heartily trust there will be a time when this badge of disgrace shall be wiped away from every human being. He that made man, designed him for higher purposes than to be the slave of his fellow-mortal; but I should be unjust to the people of India, if I did not remark, that having the uncontrolled power in their hands, they abstain from the exercise of any such severity as has disgraced the owners of slaves in other places, where even the laws have failed to protect them from cruelty and oppression. Indeed, wherever an instance has occurred of unfeeling conduct towards these helpless beings, the most marked detestation has invariably been evinced towards the authors by the real Mussulmaun.

I have heard of a very beautiful female slave who had been fostered by a Native lady of high rank, from her infancy. In the course of time, this female had arrived to the honour of being made the companion of her young master, still, however, by her Begum’s consent, residing with her lady, who was much attached to her. The freedom of intercourse, occasioned by the slave’s exaltation, had the effect of lessening the young creature’s former respect for her still kind mistress, to whom she evinced some ungrateful returns for the many indulgences she had through life received at her hands. The exact nature of her offences I never heard, but it was deemed requisite, for the sake of example in a house where some hundreds of female slaves were maintained, that the lady should adopt some such method of testifying her displeasure towards this pretty favourite, as would be consistent with her present elevated station. A stout silver chain was therefore made, by the Begum’s orders, and with this the slave was linked to her bedstead a certain number of hours every day, in the view of the whole congregated family of slaves. This punishment would be felt as a degradation by the slave; not the confinement to her bedstead, where she would perhaps have seated herself from choice, had she not been in disgrace.

’Once a slave, and always a slave,’ says Fierdowsee the great poet of Persia; but this apophthegm was in allusion to the ’mean mind’ of the King who treated him scurvily after his immense labour in that noble work, ’The Shah Namah.’ I have a sketch of Fierdowsee’s life, which my husband translated for me; but I must forbear giving it here, as I have heard the whole work itself is undergoing a translation by an able Oriental scholar, who will doubtless do justice both to ’The Shah Namah’ and the character of Fierdowsee, who is in so great estimation with the learned Asiatics.[10]

The Mussulmauns quote their favourite poets with much the same freedom that the more enlightened nations are wont to use with their famed authors. The moral precepts of Saadie[11] are often introduced with good effect, both in writing and speaking, as beacons to the inexperienced.

Haafiz[12] has benefited the Mussulmaun world by bright effusions of genius, which speak to successive generations the wonders of his extraordinary mind. He was a poet of great merit; his style is esteemed superior to the writers of any other age; and, notwithstanding the world is rich with the beauties of his almost inspired mind, yet, strange as it may appear, he never compiled a single volume. Even in the age in which he lived his merit as a poet was in great estimation; but he never thought of either benefit or amusement to the world or to himself beyond the present time. He wrote the thoughts of his inspired moments on pieces of broken pitchers or pans, with charcoal; some of his admirers were sure to follow his footsteps narrowly, and to their vigilance in securing those scraps strewed about, wherever Haafiz had made his sojourn, may to this day be ascribed the benefit derived by the public from his superior writings. Saadie, however, is the standard favourite of all good Mussulmauns; his ’Goolistaun’[13] (Garden of Roses), is placed in the hands of every youth when consigned to the dominion of a master, as being the most worthy book in the Persian language for his study, whether the beauty of his diction or the morality of his subjects be considered.

The ’Hyaatool Kaaloob’[14] (Enlightener of the Heart), is another Persian work, in prose, by Mirza Mahumud Baakur, greatly esteemed by the learned Mussulmauns. This work contains the life and acts of every known prophet from the Creation, including also Mahumud and the twelve Emaums. The learned Maulvee, it appears, first wrote it in the Arabic language, but afterwards translated it into Persian, with the praiseworthy motive of rendering his invaluable work available to those Mussulmauns who were not acquainted with Arabic.

I have some extracts from this voluminous work, translated for me by my husband, which interested me on account of the great similarity to our Scripture history; and if permitted at some future time, I propose offering them to the public in our own language, conceiving they may be as interesting to others as they have been to me.

The Persian and Arabic authors, I have remarked, substitute Y for J in Scripture names; for instance, Jacob and Joseph are pronounced Yaacoob and Yeusuf.[15] They also differ from us in some names commencing with A, as in Abba, which they pronounce Ubba (Father); for Amen, they say Aameen[16] (the meaning strictly coinciding with ours); for Aaron, Aaroon; for Moses, Moosa.[17] I am told by those who are intimate with both languages, that there is a great similarity between the Hebrew and Arabic. The passage in our Scripture ’Eloi, Eloi, lama sabaethani,’ was interpreted to me by an Arabic scholar, as it is rendered in that well-remembered verse in the English translation.

[1] Sawari.

[2] The Padshah Begam was the widow of Ghazi-ud-din Haidar,
    King of Oudh. On his death, in 1837, she contrived a plot to place his
    putative son, Munna Jan, on the throne. After a fierce struggle in
    the palace, the revolt was suppressed by the Resident, Colonel Low,
    and his assistants, Captains Paton and Shakespear. The pair were
    confined in the Chunar Fort till their deaths. See the graphic
    narrative by Gen. Sleeman (Journey Through Oudh, ii. 172 ff.); also
    H.C. Irwin (The Garden of India, 127 f.); Mrs. F. Parks (Wanderings
    of a Pilgrim, ii. 114).

[3] Khawass, ’distinguished’: special attendants.

[4] Mughlani, a Moghul woman: an attendant in a zenana, a sempstress.

[5] Kahani.

[6] Chausa, chhahsa, not to be found in Platt’s Hindustani Dictionary.

[7] The game of Pachisi, played on a cloth marked in squares: see Bombay Gazetteer, ix, part ii, 173.

[8] Gambling is one of the greater sins.–Sale, Koran: Preliminary Discourse, 89; Sells, Faith of Islam, 155.

[9] Fixed punkahs were introduced early in the nineteenth century.–Yule, Hobson-Jobson, 744.

[10] Firdausi, author of the Shahnama, died A.D. 1020 or 1025,
    aged 89 years. An abridged translation, to which reference is made, by
    J. Atkinson, was published in 1832. It has since been translated by
    A.G. and E. Warner (1905), and by A. Rogers (1907).

[11] Shaikh Sa’di, born at Shiraz A.D. 1175, died 1292, aged 120 lunar years. His chief works are the Gulistan and the Bostan.

[12] Khwaja Hafiz, Shams-ud-din Muhammad, author of the
    Diwan Hafiz, died at Shiraz A.D. 1389, where his tomb at
    Musalla is the scene of pilgrimage; see E.G. Browne, A Year amongst
    the Persians, 280 f.

[13] Gulistan.

[14] See p. 77.

[15] Ya’qub, Yusuf.

[16] Amin.

[17] Harun, Musa.


Introductory Notes  •  Preface to the Second Edition  •  Introduction  •  Introductory Letter  •  Letter I  •  Letter II  •  Letter III  •  Letter IV  •  Letter V  •  Letter VI  •  Letter VII  •  Letter VIII  •  Letter IX  •  Letter X  •  Letter XI  •  Letter XII  •  Letter XIII  •  Letter XIV  •  Letter XV  •  Letter XVI  •  Letter XVII  •  Letter XVIII  •  Letter XIX  •  Letter XX  •  Letter XXI  •  Letter XXII  •  Letter XXIII  •  Letter XXIV  •  Letter XXV  •  Letter XXVI  •  Letter XXVII  •  Bibliography of Works

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