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THE GREAT PAGODAS
SOUTHWARD out of Madras you still run through the new India, the old India of the nursery. Now it is vivid with long grass, now tufted with cotton, then dark-green with stooping palm-heads or black with firs; anon brown with fallow, blue with lakes and lagoons, black with cloud-shadowing pools starred with white water-lilies. Presently red hills break out of the woods, then sink again to sweeping pastures dotted only with water-hoists and naked herdsmen.
Then in the placid landscape you are almost startled by the sight of monuments of religion. A tall quadrangular pyramid, its courses lined with rude statues, a couple of half-shaped human figures, ten times human size, a ring of colossal hobby-horses sitting on their haunches like a tea-party in Wonderland — they burst grotesquely out of meadow and thicket, standing all alone with the soil and the trees. No worshippers, no sign of human life near them, no hint of their origin or purpose — till you almost wonder whether they are artificial at all, and not petrified monsters from the beginning of the world.
These are the outposts of the great pagodas of Southern India — those sublime monstrosities which scarce any European ever sees, which most have never heard of, but which afford perhaps the strongest testimony in all India at once to the vitality and the incomprehensibility of Hinduism. The religion that inspired such toilsome devotion must be one of the greatest forces in history; yet the 'Western mind can detect neither any touch of art in the monuments themselves nor any strain of beauty in the creed. Both command your respect by their size: that which is so vast, so enduring, can hardly, you tell yourself, be contemptible. And still you can see nothing in the temples but misshapen piles of uncouthness, nothing in the religion but unearthly superstitions, half meaningless and half foul.
The nearest approach to a symmetrical building is the great pagoda of Tanjore. Long before you near the gate you see its tall pyramidal tower, shooting free above crooked streets and slanting roofs. Presently you see the lower similar towers, so far from the first that you would never call them part of the same building. In reality they are the outer and inner gateways — gopura is their proper name — built in diminishing courses, garnished with carving and statuary. From a distance the massive solemnity of their outlines, the stone lace of their decorations, strike you with an overwhelming assertion of rich majesty. But you are in India, and you wait for the inevitable incongruity.
It comes at the very gate. The entrance is not under the stately gopura, but under a screen and scaffolding of lath and plaster daubed with yellow and green grotesqueness — men with lotus-eyes looking out of their temples, horses with heads like snakes, and kings as tall as elephants. There is to be a great festival in a day or two, explains the suave Brahman; therefore the gopuras are boarded up with pictures beside which the tapestries of our pavement-artists are truth and beauty. You walk through scaffold-poles into a great square round the great tower, and with reverence they show you that colossal monolith, the great bull of Tanjore. I wish I could show you a picture of him, for words are unequal to him. In size he stands, or rather sits, thirty-eight hands two. His material is black granite, but it is kept so piously anointed with grease that he looks as if he were made of toffee. In attitude he suggests a roast hare, and he wears a half-smug, half-coquettish expression, as if he hoped that nobody would kiss him.
From this wonder you pass to the shrines of the chief gods. The unbeliever may not enter, but you stand at the door while a man goes along the darkness with a flambeau. The light falls on silk and tinsel, and by faith you can divine a seated image at the end. Next you are at the foot of the great tower, and the ridiculous has become the sublime again. Every storey is lined with serene-faced gods and goddesses, dwindling rank above rank, a ladder of deities that seems to climb half-Way up to heaven. Then the Brahman shows you a stone bull seated on the ground, like a younger brother of the great one. "It is in existence," he says, throwing out his words in groups, dispassionately, as though somebody else were speaking and it were nothing at all to do with him — "it is in existence — to show the dimensions — of four other bulls — which are in existence — up there." You lay your head back between your shoulder-blades, and up there, at the very top, among gods so small that you wonder whether they are gods or only panels or pillars, are four more little brothers of the hare-shaped toffee-textured monster below.
Reduplication is the keynote of Hindu art. The same bulls everywhere, the same gods everywhere, and all round the cloistered outer wall scores on scores of granite, fat-dripping, flower-crowned emblems, so crudely shapeless that you forget their gross significance — but all absolutely alike. Next the Brahman leads you aside to piles and piles of what look like overgrown, gaudily painted children's toys. This is an exact facsimile of the Tower, reduced and imitated in wood. It is all in pieces, but at the festival the parts are fitted together and carried on a car. Every god sculptured on the pyramid is represented in a section of this model, waiting to be fitted into his place. Only what is richly mellow in tinted stone is garishly tawdry in king's yellow and red lead — and again you tumble from the sublime to the infantile.
Next, a little shrine that is a net of the most delicate carving — stone as light and fantastic as wood; pillar and panel, moulding and cornice, lattice and imagery, all tapering gracefully till they become miniatures at the summit. It is a gem of exquisite taste and patient labour. And the very next minute you are again among flaming red and yellow dragon-tigers and duck-peacocks, and the one is just as holy and just as beautiful to its worshippers as the other. From which objects of veneration the Brahman passes lightly to the domestic life of the frescoed rajahs of Tanjore. "This gentleman — marry seventeen wives — all one day — doubtless in anxiety of getting son." It is quite true. The Rajah, having but three wives and no child, resolved to marry six more young ladies, and collected seventeen to choose them from. But the fathers and brothers of the rejected eleven were affronted; and rather than have any unpleasantness on his wedding-day, his Majesty tactfully married the whole seventeen, nine in the morning and eight in the afternoon. "And here," pursued the Brahman automatically, showing a tank, "he will let in water — and here he will play — with all his females — and all that."
That is all, except to write your name in the visitor's book. As I went in to sign, I noticed a band of musicians standing at the door and thought no more of it. But as my pen touched the paper, suddenly reedy pipes and discordant fiddles and heady tom-toms began to play "God Save the Queen." A huge chaplet of muslin and tinsel, like a magnified Christmas-tree stocking, was cast about my neck; betel and attar-of-rose were brought up in silver vessels, and flowers and fruits on silver trays. The pagoda keeps its character to the end: the compliment was sublime — and I ridiculous.
Yet the temple of Tanjore is the most simple and orderly of all its kind. Visit the great pagoda of Madura and you will come out mazed with Hinduism. All its mysteries and incongruities, its lofty metaphysics and its unabashed lewdness, seem to brood over the dark chambers and crannying passages. The place is enormous. Over the four chief gateways rise huge pyramid-towers, coloured like harlequins, red tigers jostling the multiplied arms and legs of blue and yellow gods and goddesses so thick that the gopuras seem built of them. In the pure sunlight you almost blush for their crudity, just as you would blush if the theatre roof were lifted off during a matinée. But inside the place is nearly all half-lighted, dim, and cryptic. You go through a labyrinth, that seems endless, of dark chambers and aisles. Now you are in thick blackness, now in twilight, now the sun falls on fretwork over pillared galleries and damp-smelling walls. But as the light falls on the pillar you start, for it is carved into the shape of an elephant-headed Ganesh, or a conventionally high-stepping Shiva. On you go, from maze to maze, till there is no more recollection of direction or guess at size: you are lost in an underground world of gods that are half devils; you hardly distinguish the silent-footed, gleaming-eyed attendants from the stone figures. Some of the fantastic images are smeared with red-lead to simulate blood: all drip with fat. A heavy smell of grease and stagnant tank-water loads your lungs.
You feel that you are bewitched — lost and helpless among unclean things. When you come out into the sun and the cleaner dirt of the town, you draw long breaths. If you could understand the Hindu religion, you tell yourself, you would understand the Hindu mind. But that, being of the West, you never, never will.