Observations on the Mussulmauns of India
By Meer Hassan Ali

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Letter V

Time.–How divided in Hindoostaun.–Observances after Mahurrum.–Luxuries and enjoyments resumed.–Black dye used by the ladies.–Their nose-ring.–Number of rings worn in their ears.–Mode of dressing their hair.–Aversion to our tooth-brushes.–Toilet of the ladies.–The Pyjaamahs.–The Ungeeah (bodice).–The Courtie.–The Deputtah.–Reception of a superior or elder amongst the ladies.–Their fondness for jewels.–Their shoes.–The state of society amongst the Mussulmaun ladies.–Their conversational endowments.–Remarks upon the fashion and duty of beards.

In my last I alluded to the ’third watch’; it will now, perhaps, be necessary to explain the divisions of time, as observed by the Mussulmauns of Hindoostaun.

The day is divided into four equal parts, or watches, denominated purrhs[1]; as, first purrh, second purrh, &c. The night is also divided into four purrhs, each of which is subdivided into ghurries[2] (hours), varying in number with the changes of season; the longest days require eight ghurries to one purrh; the shortest, only six. The same division is observed for the night. The day is reckoned from the earliest dawn to the last decline of light:–there is very little twilight in the Upper Provinces of India.

By this method of calculating time, you will understand that they have no occasion for those useful, correct, mechanical time-keepers, in general use in Europe; but they have a simple method of measuring the hour, by means of a brass vessel, with a small aperture at the bottom, which, being floated on a tank or large pan of water, one drop to a second of time forces its way through the aperture into the floating vessel, on which marks are made outside and in, to direct the number of ghurries by the depth of water drawn into it; and in some places, a certain division of time is marked by the sinking of the vessel. Each hour, as it passes, is struck by the man on duty with a hammer on a broad plate of bell-metal, suspended to the branch of a tree, or to a rail;–the gong of an English showman at the country fairs is the exact resemblance of the metal plates used in India for striking the hours on, and must, I think, have been introduced into England from the East.

The durwaun (gate-keeper), or the chokeedhars (watchmen), keep the time.[3] In most establishments the watchmen are on guard two at a time, and are relieved at every watch, day and night. On these men devolves the care of observing the advance of time by the floating vessel, and striking the hour, in which duty they are required to be punctual, as many of the Mussulmauns’ services of prayer are scrupulously performed at the appointed hours, which will be more particularly explained when their creed is brought forward in a future Letter; and now, after this digression, I will pursue my subject.

When a member of the Mussulmaun family dies, the master of the house mourns forty days, during which period the razor is laid aside.[4] In the same manner the devout Mussulmaun mourns every year for his martyred Emaums; this, however, is confined to the most religious men; the general practice of the many is to throw off their mourning garb and restore the razor to its duties on the third day after the observances of Mahurrum have terminated.

It is stated, on the authority of ancient Arabian writers, on whose veracity all Mussulmauns rely, that the head of Hosein being taken to Yuzeed, one of his many wives solicited and received the head, which she gave to the family of the martyred leader, who were prisoners to the King, and that they contrived to have it conveyed to Kraabaallah, where it was deposited in the same grave with his body on the fortieth day after the battle.[5]

When a death occurs in a Mussulmaun family, the survivor provides dinners on the third, seventh, and fortieth days succeeding, in memory of the deceased person; these dinners are sent in trays to the immediate relatives and friends of the party,–on which sacred occasion all the poor and the beggars are sought to share the rich food provided. The like customs are observed for Hosein every year. The third day offering is chiefly composed of sugar, ghee, and flour, and called meetah[6]; it is of the consistence of our rice-puddings, and whether the dainty is sent to a king or a beggar there is but one style in the presentation–all is served in the common brown earthen dish,–in imitation of the humility of Hosein and his family, who seldom used any other in their domestic circle. The dishes of meetah are accompanied with the many varieties of bread common to Hindoostaun, without leaven, as sheah-maul,[7] bacherkaunie,[8] chapaatie,[9] &c.; the first two have milk and ghee mixed with the flour, and nearly resemble our pie-crust. I must here stay to remark one custom I have observed amongst Natives: they never cook food whilst a dead body remains in the house;[10] as soon as it is known amongst a circle of friends that a person is dead, ready-dressed dinners are forwarded to the house for them, no one fancying he is conferring a kindness, but fulfilling a duty.

The third day after the accomplishment of the Mahurrum ceremonies is a busy time with the inmates of zeenahnahs, when generally the mourning garb is thrown off, and preparations commence at an early hour in the morning for bathing and replacing the banished ornaments. Abstinence and privation being no longer deemed meritorious by the Mussulmauns, the pawn–the dear delightful pawn, which constitutes the greatest possible luxury to the Natives,–pours in from the bazaar, to gladden the eye and rejoice the heart of all classes, who after this temporary self-denial enjoy the luxury with increased zest.

Again the missee[11] (a preparation of antimony) is applied to the lips, the gums, and occasionally to the teeth of every married lady, who emulate each other in the rich black produced;–such is the difference of taste as regards beauty;–where we admire the coral hue, with the females of Hindoostaun, Nature is defaced by the application of black dye. The eyelid also is pencilled afresh with prepared black, called kaarjil[12]: the chief ingredient in this preparation is lampblack. The eyebrow is well examined for fear an ill-shaped hair should impair the symmetry of that arch esteemed a beauty in every clime, though all do not, perhaps, exercise an equal care with Eastern dames to preserve order in its growth. The mayndhie is again applied to the hands and feet, which restores the bright red hue deemed so becoming and healthy.

The nose once more is destined to receive the nutt[13] (ring) which designates the married lady; this ring, I have before mentioned, is of gold wire, the pearls and ruby between them are of great value, and I have seen many ladies wear the nutt as large in circumference as the bangle on her wrist, though of course much lighter; it is often worn so large, that at meals they are obliged to hold it apart from the face with the left hand, whilst conveying food to the mouth with the other. This nutt, however, from ancient custom, is indispensable with married women, and though they may find it disagreeable and inconvenient, it cannot possibly be removed, except for Mahurrum, from the day of their marriage until their death or widowhood, without infringing on the originality of their customs, in adhering to which they take so much pride.

The ears of the females are pierced in many places; the gold or silver rings return to their several stations after Mahurrum, forming a broad fringe of the precious metals on each side the head; but when they dress for great events,–as paying visits or receiving company,–these give place to strings of pearls and emeralds, which fall in rows from the upper part of the ear to the shoulder in a graceful, elegant style. My ayah, a very plain old woman, has no less than ten silver rings in one ear and nine in the other,[15] each of them having pendant ornaments; indeed, her ears are literally fringed with silver.

After the hair has undergone all the ceremonies of washing, drying, and anointing with the sweet jessamine oil of India, it is drawn with great precision from the forehead to the back, where it is twisted into a queue which generally reaches below the waist; the ends are finished with strips of red silk and silver ribands entwined with the hair, and terminating with a good-sized rosette. The hair is jet black, without a single variation of tinge, and luxuriantly long and thick, and thus dressed remains for the week,–about the usual interval between their laborious process of bathing;–nor can they conceive the comfort other people find in frequent brushing and combing the hair. Brushes for the head and the teeth have not yet been introduced into Native families, nor is it ever likely they will, unless some other material than pigs’ bristles can be rendered available by the manufacturers for the present purposes of brushes. The swine is altogether considered abominable to Mussulmauns; and such is their detestation of the unclean animal that the most angry epithet from a master to a slave would be to call him ’seur’[15] (swine).

It must not, however, be supposed that the Natives neglect their teeth; they are the most particular people living in this respect, as they never eat or drink without washing their mouths before and after meals; and as a substitute for our tooth-brush, they make a new one every day from the tender branch of a tree or shrub,–as the pomegranate, the neem,[16] babool,[17] &c. The fresh-broken twig is bruised and made pliant at the extremity, after the bark or rind is stripped from it, and with this the men preserve the enamelled-looking white teeth which excite the admiration of strangers; and which, though often envied, I fancy, are never surpassed by European ingenuity.

As I have rather prematurely introduced the Native ladies’ style of dress into this Letter, I may as well conclude the whole business of their toilet under the present head, instead of reserving the detail of the subject for a future Letter when the zeenahnah is to be described, and accordingly proceed to tell you that the ladies’ pyjaamahs are formed of rich satin, or gold cloth, goolbudden,[18] or mussheroo[19] (striped washing silks manufactured at Benares), fine chintz,–English manufacture having the preference,–silk or cotton ginghams,–in short, all such materials are used for this article of female dress as are of sufficiently firm texture, down to the white calico of the country, suited to the means of the wearer. By the most fashionable females they are worn very full below the knee, and reach to the feet, which are partially covered by the fulness, the extremity finished and the seams are bound with silver riband; a very broad silver riband binds the top of the pyjaamah; this being double has a zarbund[20] (a silk net cord) run through, by which this part of the dress is confined at the waist. The ends of the zarbund are finished with rich tassels of gold and silver, curiously and expressly made for this purpose, which extend below the knees: for full dress, these tassels are rendered magnificent with pearls and jewels.

One universal shape is adopted in the form of the ungeeah[21] (bodice), which is, however, much varied in the material and ornamental part; some are of gauze or net, muslin, &c., the more transparent in texture the more agreeable to taste, and all are more or less ornamented with spangles and silver trimmings. It is made to fit the bust with great exactness, and to fasten behind with strong cotton cords; the sleeves are very short and tight, and finished with some fanciful embroidery or silver riband. Even the women servants pride themselves on pretty ungeeahs, and all will strive to have a little finery about them, however coarse the material it is formed of may happen to be. They are never removed at night but continue to be worn a week together, unless its beauty fades earlier, or the ornamental parts tarnish through extreme heat.

With the ungeeah is worn a transparent courtie (literally translated shirt) of thread net; this covers the waistband of the pyjaamah but does not screen it; the seams and hems are trimmed with silver or gold ribands.

The deputtah is a useful envelope, and the most graceful part of the whole female costume. In shape and size, a large sheet will convey an idea of the deputtah’s dimensions; the quality depends on choice or circumstances; the preference is given to our light English manufacture of leno or muslin for every-day wear by gentlewomen; but on gala days, gold and silver gauze tissues are in great request, as is also fine India muslin manufactured at Decca–transparent and soft as the web of the gossamer spider;–this is called shubnum[22] (night dew), from its delicate texture, and is procured at a great expense, even in India; some deputtahs are formed of gold-worked muslin, English crape, coloured gauze, &c. On ordinary occasions ladies wear them simply bound with silver riband, but for dress they are richly trimmed with embroidery and bullion fringes, which add much to the splendour of the scene, when two or three hundred females are collected together in their assemblies. The deputtah is worn with much original taste on the back of the head, and falls in graceful folds over the person; when standing, it is crossed in front, one end partially screening the figure, the other thrown over the opposite shoulder.

I should say they rarely stand; but when distinguished guests, or their elders amongst relatives, are announced, this mark of respect is never omitted. It is an interesting sight, as they have much ease and grace in their manner, which no tutoring could impart; they rise and arrange their drapery, advance a few steps from their place in the hall, and embrace their visitor thrice in due form, ending by salaaming, with the head bowed very low towards the ground and the open hand raised to the forehead, three times in succession, with solemnity and dignity.

I have told you, in a former Letter, how many precious ornaments were laid aside on the eve of Mahurrum, and need hardly describe them again. Their fondness for good jewellery perhaps exceeds the same propensity in any other females on the globe: the rude workmanship of Native jewellers is never an object of weighty consideration, provided the precious metals are unalloyed in quality. The same may be remarked in their selection of jewels: pearls of the largest size, even when discoloured or misshapen, are selected in preference to the most regular in form and colour, of a smaller size; large diamonds, having flaws, are often preferred to smaller ones most perfect. The gentlemen are good judges of precious stones, and evince some taste in their style of ornaments; they are worn on their turbans, and in necklaces or harrhs[23]–rings, armlets, &c.; but these are all laid aside at seasons of devotion, when they are restricted wearing, not only ornaments, but mixed articles of silk and wool in their apparel. The most religious men and women invariably abstain from ornamental dress in every way, deeming it frivolous vanity, and inconsistent with that they profess–’to be seeking God, and forsaking worldly things’.

The ladies never wear stockings,[24] and only cover the feet with shoes when pacing across their court-yard, which bounds their view and their walks. Nevertheless, there is a fashion and taste about the ladies’ shoes, which is productive of much emulation in zeenahnah life;–they are splendidly worked in many patterns, with gold and silver spangles, variously-coloured small seed beads and embroidery–the whole one mass of glittering metal;–they are made with sharp points curling upwards, some nearly reaching half-way to the knees, and always worn down at the heel, as dressing slippers; the least costly for their every-day wear are of gold embroidery on velvet; the less opulent condescend to wear tinsel work, and the meanest servants yellow or red cloth with silver binding. The same style of shoes are worn by the males as by the females; I have seen some young men with green shagreen slippers for the rainy season; these are made with a high heel and look unseemly. The fashion of shoes varies with the times in this country, as well as in others–sometimes it is genteel to have small points to the shoes; at another, the points are long and much curled; but they still retain the preference for pointed shoes whatever be the fashion adopted.

The greatest novelty in the way of shoes, which came under my observation in India, was a pair of silver embroidery, small pointed, and very neatly made: on the points and round the instep small silver bells were fastened, which produced harmony with every step, varied by the quick or more gentle paces of the wearer; these were a present to me from a lady of distinction in Oude. Upon visiting this lady on one occasion, my black silk slippers, which I had left at the entrance (as is the custom here), had most likely attracted the curiosity of the Begum’s slaves, for when that lady attended me to the threshold, they could nowhere be found; and I was in danger of being obliged to soil my stockings by walking shoeless to my palkie, across the court-yard. In this dilemma the lady proffered me the pair here described; I was much amused with the novelty of the exchange, upon stepping into the musical shoes, which, however they may be prized by Native ladies, did not exactly suit my style of dress, nor convenience in walking, although I must always remember the Begum’s attention with gratitude.

The ladies’ society is by no means insipid or without interest; they are naturally gifted with good sense and politeness, fond of conversation, shrewd in their remarks, and their language is both correct and refined. This, at first, was an enigma to me, considering that their lives are spent in seclusion, and that their education was not conducted on European principles; the mystery, however, has passed away upon an intimate acquaintance with the domestic habits of the people. The men with whom genteel women converse, are generally well educated, and from the naturally inquisitive disposition of the females, not a word escapes the lips of a father, husband, or brother, without an inquiry as to its meaning, which having once ascertained, is never forgotten, because their attention is not diverted by a variety of pursuits, or vain amusements. The women look up to the opinions of their male relatives with the same respect as children of other climes are accustomed to regard their tutor or governess,–considering every word pronounced as worthy of imitation, and every sentiment expressed, as a guide to their own. Thus the habit of speaking correctly is so familiar to the females of Mussulmaun society, that even women servants, long accustomed to serve in zeenahnahs, may be readily distinguished by their language from the same class of people in attendance on European ladies.

P.S. All good Mussulmauns are expected to wear their beards, by command of the Prophet; so says my informant, who is of ’the faith’, and wears his beard, in accordance with the injunction of his Lawgiver. In modern times, however, the Mussulmauns have seen fit to modify the strict letter of the law, and we perceive generally, mustachios only reserved on the upper lip. This ornament is trained with the nicest care amongst the fashionable young men of the present day, and made to creep over the lip at each corner of the mouth with curling points; well-trained mustachios being with them much esteemed.

The religious Mussulmauns become more scrupulous as they advance in knowledge of their faith, when they allow their beards to grow and their heads to be shaven; if the hair turns white–while to look well is an object of interest–a dye is resorted to, composed of mayndhie and indigo, which restores its youthful appearance, and the beard retains its black glossy hue for about six weeks, when the process of dyeing is again made the business of a convenient hour.[25] The vanities of the world ceasing to charm (the heart being fixed on more important subjects), the beard is permitted to retain its natural colour; and, truly, the venerable countenance of an aged Mussulmaun, with a silvery-white beard flowing nearly to his girdle, is a picture that would interest every beholder well acquainted with Bible history.

When the Mussulmaun determines on fulfilling the command of his Lawgiver, in making the pilgrimage to Mecca, the beard is allowed to grow whatever be his age; and this may be considered a badge of their faith, none being admitted at ’the Holy House’ who have not this passport on their chin.

[1] Pahar.

[2] Ghari, about twenty-four minutes.

[3] Darwan, chaukidar.

[4] See p. 64.

[5] According to the Shi’ahs, Zainu-l-’Abidin obtained from Yazid,
    after forty days, the head of Husain, and brought it to Karbala. They
    deny that the head is at Cairo and the body at Karbala. Others say
    that the head was sent to Medina, and buried near the grave of
    Fatimah.–Burton, Pilgrimage, ii. 40; Ockley, History of the
    Saracens, 412, 415 note.

[6] Mitha, ’sweet’.

[7] Shirmal, bread made with milk.

[8] Baqirkhani, a kind of crisp bread or cake, like piecrust, made of milk, sugar, and flour.

[9] Chapati, the griddle cake, the standard food of the people.

[10] No food should be cooked in the house of a Musalman during the
    forty days of mourning. Sir J.G. Frazer thinks that this is due to
    the risk of eating the ghost clinging to the food (Journal
    Anthropological Institute, xv. (1886) 92 ff.).

[11] Missi, from mis, ’copper’, because copper-filings form its
    chief ingredient, to which are added myrobalan, gall-nuts, vitriol, &c.
    The custom is based on the Arab admiration for the rose-red colour of
    the inner lip.–Burton, A Thousand Nights and A Night, iii. 365.

[12] Kajal.

[13] Nath, a love-token presented to the bride by the bridegroom. The very mention of it is considered indelicate.

[14] They generally adopt an odd number.

[15] Suar.

[16] Nim (Melia Azidirachta).

[17] Babul (Acacia arabica).

[18] Gulbadan, ’with body like a rose’, a fine silk fabric.

[19] Mashru ’conformable to law’, a silk-cotton cloth, which–but not pure silk–a Musulman can wear during prayer.

[20] Zerband, ’fastening below’, ’a girth’.

[21] Angiya.

[22] Shabnam. The finest varieties of these cloths were made at Dacca.
    Aurungzeb is said to have remonstrated with his daughter for wearing
    what he thought to be a Coa vestis. She answered that she wore seven
    folds of this cloth.

[23] Har, a necklace, an embroidered garland thrown round the neck of
    a visitor on his departure, as a mark of respect. These garlands were
    substituted for the pearl necklaces which, in former days, were
    presented to guests.

[24] ’Stockings are never worn [in the Zenana]: but I have seen little
    coloured stockings, made of the wool from Cashmir, worn at times
    during the cold season.’–Mrs. Parks, Wanderings of a Pilgrim,
     i. 456.

[25] According to the traditions, the Prophet said, ’Change the whiteness
    of your hair, but not with anything black’. The first Caliph is said
    to have dyed his beard red with henna. Nowadays indigo is largely used.


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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