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CHAPTER VIII.
AMONG THE HILLS OF ORISSA.

BEFORE proceeding further, it will not be amiss to give the reader some account of this Rajpoot and his daughter. And that he may better understand the personal anecdotes of bravery, honest zeal, and devotedness that distinguished him in life, I must turn to the still broader and deeper historical incidents which are the marked characteristics of the race to which he belonged. I do not undertake to treat of tins portion of India at large, but only to look at the small corner of it in which Rama the Rajpoot was born.

In the district of Orissa stands on a cluster of hills, in the midst of an arid and undulating plateau, the city of Megara, composed for the most part of houses of mean aspect, with only a few handsome mansions and stately edifices to relieve their monotonous insignificance, possessing few fine trees large enough to afford shade, with the exception of the sacred groves dedicated to the earth-goddess D‚vee and the sun-god Dhupy‚; and with water barely sufficient to quench the excessive thirst of its parched inhabitants, alternately swept by piercing blasts and scorched by intense heats, Megara would certainly present but few attractions to the traveller but for the mysterious reverence which has rested ever since the time of Alexander over the illimitable plains of Hindostan. Tragic and terrible are the memories that poetry has woven about this land of undefined distances and nearly fabulous magnificence, where men adopt, from father to son, the professions of murderers, highwaymen, robbers, soldiers, warriors, and priests, where each man lives as if surrounded by internal and external enemies, and expects from every circling point of the horizon a foci nan instead of a friend.

From the remotest times there has been a ceaseless march of tribes into this vast peninsula, from which there is no outlet. Pouring across the Indus or straggling down through the passes of the Himalaya, each wave of immigration pushed its predecessors farther into the country. Thus the Aryan nations followed in their turn, at the same time reacting powerfully on the creeds and usages of the primitive people. But various remains of the earlier and rude aboriginal tribes are still found here among the hilly regions and woody fastnesses of the peninsula. Many of them are quite distinct from one another, evidently belonging to different eras of an indefinitely remote and abysmal past.

The Rajpoot are the most remarkable of these aboriginal tribes, and they are described as a noble race, tall and athletic, with symmetric features, half-way between the Roman and Jewish types, large eyed, and with fine long hair falling in natural locks upon their shoulders; high-bred, though with the decline of their country under British rule the decline of their character has kept pace. Revolutions have done their work upon them, if, indeed, the word "revolution" may be applied to the insurrections and mutinies that have kept this portion of India in a state of petty warfare for the last three hundred years.

The comparatively treeless character of the hills where they dwell appears to indicate that, In former times, large spaces had been laid under cultivation, whereas at present they lead a savage life as freebooters and robbers.

Around these desolate hills and valleys cluster a variety of tribes and races, of diverse tongues and customs, creeds and religions, ó worshippers of Mohammed and of the Buddha, followers of Brahma and of Indra, of Vishnu and Siva, of the many-breasted and teeming D‚vee, and the triple-headed and triple-bodied Dhupy‚. Over all these different peoples the Rajpoot, or warrior caste, has held for centuries an undisputed sway. Among all these tribes the "Meri‚h" sacrifice prevails, as the only means of propitiating the earth-goddess.

The victims for these yearly sacrifices are furnished by a regular class of procurers, who either supply them to order or raise them on speculation. They are bought from their parents in hard famine times, or they are kidnapped on the plains. Devoted often in their childhood to the earth-goddess D‚vee, they are suffered to grow up as consecrated privileged beings, to marry, to hold lands and flocks and herds and other worldly goods, and are cherished and beloved by the community for whom they are willing to be offered up to serve as mediator and friend in the shadowy world beyond the grave for the short space of one year, when the insatiable earth-goddess is said to demand a fresh victim.

I ought not to omit to say here, as a faithful recorder of the facts that have reached me, that in spite of the tremendous doom that overshadows the victims consecrated to D‚vee's altar, they lead resigned and even joyous lives up to the last moment of their existence; and the saying is, that the soul of a god enters the martyr, and transfigures him into a divine, ineffable being, incapable of feeling any pain or regret at the moment of death.

For unnumbered centuries the vast hilly province of Orissa verging on Gondwana, and comprising all the eastern portion of the Vindhya chain, has been the scene of this revolting and inhuman custom; and from time immemorial thousands of men whom we in our enlightenment call "savage hordes" have offered themselves up for the good of their fellow-men. Surely an effluence from the Divine Soul must have passed over these strange mystic mediators, as they stood trembling upon D‚vee's altar, clutching the sharp knife in their uplifted hand, their faces turned towards the darkening earth, singing the supreme song, and uttering the supreme cry, "D‚vee! do all thy acts to me. Spend all thy fury upon me. Spare my race from the hungry grave (earth). Drink of my blood, and be appeased." And as the echoes of this cry of triumph and of despair die away in the distance, the self-sacrificing victim plunges the bright steel into his own warm heart, bends forward to sprinkle with his life's blood the insatiable earth, repeating his song in whispers that grow fainter and fainter as he slowly draws out the fatal steel and falls dead upon her bare bosom.

The Rajpoots are still the chiefs. They levy a tax on the various tribes who inhabit these hilly regions, and who are, in great measure, dependent upon them, trained warriors from their childhood, for their protection. They are not distinct from their neighbors, so far as the ceremonials of religion are concerned. The number of marriages among them is, however, contracted by the exclusion of all but their own peculiar clan or caste. Marriage itself is an expensive thing, from the costly usages with which it is attended among them, while at the same time celibacy is disgraceful. An unmarried daughter is a reproach to her parents and to herself; therefore it has been an established custom with the Rajpoot to preserve the chastity of his daughter and the honor of his house by doing away with his female children a few hours after their birth. When a messenger from the Zenn‚n‚ announces to him the birth of a daughter, the Rajpoot will coolly roll up between his fingers a tiny ball of opium, to be conveyed to the mother, who thereupon, with many a bitter tear, rubs on her nipple the sleep-giving poison, and the babe drinks in death with its mother's milk.

Here again we find a striking anomaly in the Hindoo character. The parental instinct is as strong in the people of India as in any people of the world; and even where no parental tie exists, the tenderness with which strong, bearded men devote themselves to the care of young children is as touching as it is remarkable. A childless woman, too, is a miserable creature, a hissing and a reproach among men, and barrenness is only accounted for as a punishment for some grievous sin committed against the gods in a pre-existent state. Nevertheless, among the high-caste Rajpoot tribes female infanticide is universally practised; so that, in the district in which Rama was born, owing to its decline from the prosperity of former years, a high-born girl was rarely if ever heard of.

On a high and projecting rock, whose scarped and rugged outlines bid defiance to the pedestrian, stood the stately mansion of Dhotee Bhad, the chieftain of Megara, and the father of Rama, recognizable by its grand appearance, its balconies of fretted stone, and its long windows, which commanded for miles the surrounding country. It is a wild and solitary spot, and out of the direct road to any place; but it had two advantages, ó it was almost inaccessible, and it overlooked valleys which were as luxuriant with verdure as the hills around were sterile and barren. Two miles from this spot rises the Gh‚t Meri‚h, crowned with a grove of stately trees, whose profound brown shadows and lurid gloom is said to be caused by the spirits of the victims offered up yearly there, and whose grand proportions are dimly visible at points here and there as you approach the grove. At the foot of this Gh‚t, in a thick and all but impenetrable forest, are several magnificent ponds from which the inhabitants draw their water.

Such was the home and the birthplace of our hero Rama.


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