Chapter VII. Seroda

After an unusually protracted term of isolation and friendlessness, we were agreeably surprised by meeting Lieutenants L----- and T-----, walking in their shooting-jackets, somewhat slowly and disconsolately, down the dusty wharf of New Goa.

It is, we may here observe, by no means easy for a stranger-especially if he be an Englishman-to get into Goanese society: more difficult still to amuse himself when admitted. His mother tongue and Hindostanee will not be sufficient for him. French, at least, or, what is more useful, Portuguese should be well understood, if not fluently spoken. As the generality of visitors pass merely a few days at Panjim, call at the palace, have a card on the secretary, rush to the ruins, and then depart, they expect and receive little attention. There are no messes to invite them to-no public amusements or places of resort, and private families do not easily open their doors. Besides, as might be expected, the Goanese have occasionally suffered severely from individuals terming themselves "British Officers." It were well too, had the offenders been always of the male sex: unfortunately for our national reputation, such is by no means the case. However, a stranger may be sure that with his commission, some knowledge of languages, and any letter of introduction, he will be most hospitably received in society, such as it is.

The unlearned in such matters may be disposed to inquire whether there are no resident Englishmen at Goa.

Certainly, there are a few; but they are, generally speaking, of that class who have made Bombay too hot for them. Once in the Portuguese territory, they may laugh at the bailiff, and fearlessly meet the indignant creditor. The cheapness of the locality is, to certain characters, another inducement; so that, on the whole, it is by no means safe to become acquainted with any compatriot one may chance to meet at Goa.

Now it so happened that all three of us had been reading and digesting a rich account of Seroda, which had just appeared in one of the English periodicals. We remembered glowing descriptions of a village, inhabited by beautiful Bayaderes, governed by a lady of the same class-Eastern Amazons, who permitted none of the rougher sex to dwell beneath the shadow of their roof-trees-high caste maidens, who, having been compelled to eat beef by the "tyrannical Portuguese in the olden time," had forfeited the blessings of Hindooism, without acquiring those of Christianity,--lovely patriots, whom no filthy lucre could induce to quit their peaceful homes: with many and many etceteras, equally enchanting to novelty-hunters and excitement-mongers.

We unanimously resolved to visit, without loss of time, a spot so deservedly renowned. Having been informed by our old friend John Thomas, that we should find everything in the best style at Seroda, we hired a canoe, cursorily put up a few cigars, a change of raiment, and a bottle of Cognac to keep out the cold; and, a little after sunset, we started for our Fool's Paradise.

Our course lay towards the south-east. After a bout an hour's rowing along the coast, we encountered a narrow channel, formed by the sea and innumerable little streams that descend towards the main, winding through a dense mass of bright green underwood. It was a lovely night, but the thick dew soon compelled us to retreat under the mats destined to defend our recumbent forms. The four boatmen that composed the crew must have been sadly addicted to sleeping on duty, for, although the distance was only fifteen miles, the sun appeared high in the heavens next morning before we arrived at the landing-place. A guide was soon procured, and under his direction we toiled up two miles of a steep and rocky path, through a succession of cocoa groves, and a few parched-up fields scattered here and there, till at last we saw, deep in a long narrow hollow, surrounded by high hills, the bourne of our pilgrimage.

The appearance of Seroda is intensely that of a Hindoo town. Houses, pagodas, tombs, tanks, with lofty parapets, and huge flights of steps, peepul trees, and bazaars, are massed together in chaotic confusion. No such things as streets, lanes, or alleys exist. Your walk is invariably stopped at the end of every dozen steps by some impediment, as a loose wall, or a deep drop, passable only to the well practised denizens of the place. The town is dirty in the extreme, and must be fearfully hot in summer, as it is screened on all sides from the wind. The houses are raised one story above the ground, and built solidly of stone and mortar; as there is no attempt at order or regularity, their substantial appearance adds much to the strangeness of the coup d'il.

To resume our personal adventures. Descending the slope which leads through the main gate we wandered about utterly at a loss what to do, or where to go, till a half-naked sample of Hindoo male animal politely offered to provide us with a lodging. Our hearts felt sad at witnessing this practical proof of the presence of mankind, but sleepy, tired, and hungry withal, we deferred sentimentalizing over shattered delusions and gay hopes faded, till a more opportune moment, and followed him with all possible alacrity. A few minutes afterwards we found ourselves under the roof of one of the most respectable matrons in the town. We explained our wants to her. The first and most urgent of the same being breakfast. She stared at our ideas of that meal, but looked not more aghast than we did when informed that it was too lat to find meat, poultry, eggs, bread, milk, butter, or wine in the market-in fact, that we must be contented with "kichree"--a villainous compound of boiled rice and split vetches-as a pièce de resistance, and whatever else Providence might please to send us in the way of "kitchen."

Rude reality the second!--

We had left all our servants behind at Panjim, and not an iota of our last night's supper had escaped the ravenous maws of the boatmen.--

Presently matters began to mend. The old lady recollected that in the days of yore she had possessed a pound of tea, and, after much unlocking and rummaging of drawers, she produced a remnant of that luxury. Perseverance accomplished divers other feats, and after about an hour more of half starvation we sat down to a breakfast composed of five eggs, a roll of sour bread, plantains, which tasted exactly like edible cotton dipped in eau sucrée, and a "fragrant infusion of the Chinese leaf," whose perfume vividly reminded us of the haystacks in our native land. Such comforts as forks or spoons were unprocurable, the china was a suspicious looking article, and the knives were apparently intended rather for taking away animal life than for ministering to its wants. Sharp appetites, however, removed all our squeamishness, and the board was soon cleared. The sting of hunger blunted, we lighted our "weeds," each mixed a cordial potion in a tea-cup, and called aloud for the nautch, or dance, to begin.

This was the signal four universal activity. All the fair dames who had been gazing listlessly or giggling at the proceedings of their strange guests, now starting up as if animated with new life rushed off to don their gayest apparel: even the grey-haired matron could not resist the opportunity of displaying her gala dress, and enormous pearl nose-ring. The tables were soon carried away, the rebec and kettledrum sad down in rear of the figarandes, and the day began in real earnest. The singing was tolerable for India, and the voices good. As usual, however, the highest notes were strained from the chest, and the use of the roix de gorge was utterly neglected. The verses were in Hindostanee and Portuguese, so that the performers understood about as much of them as our young ladies when they perform Italian bravura songs. There was little to admire either in the persons, the dress or the ornaments of the dancers: common looking Maharatta women, habited in the usual sheet and long-armed bodice, decked with wreaths of yellow flowers, the red mark on the brow, large nose and ear-rings, necklaces, bracelets, bangles, and chain or ring anklets, studded with strings of coarsely made little brass bells. Some of them were very fair, having manifestly had the advantage of one European progenitor: others showed the usual dark yellow hue; the features were seldom agreeable, round heads, flat foreheads, immense eyes, increased by streaks of black dye along the thickness of the eyelid, projecting noses, large lips, vanishing chins, and a huge development of "jowl," do not make up a very captivating physiognomy. A few, but very few, of quite the youngest figurantes, were tolerably pretty. They performed in sets for about four hours, concluding with the pugree, or turban dance, a peculiar performance, in which one lady takes the part of a man.

Our matron informed us that Seroda contains about twenty establishments, and a total number of fifty or sixty dancing-girls. According to her account all the stars were at the time of our visit engaged at Panjim, or the towns round about: personal experience enabled us to pronounce that the best were in her house, and, moreover, that there is scarcely a second-rate station in the Bombay Presidency that does not contain prettier women and as good singers. The girls are bought in childhood-their price varies from 3 to 20 according to the market value of the animal. The offspring of a Bayadere belongs of right to her owner. When mere children they are initiated in the mysteries of nautching,--one young lady who performed before us could scarcely have been five years old. Early habit engenders much enthusiasm for the art. The proportion of those bought in distant lands to those born at Seroda is said to be about one to five. Of late years the nefarious traffic has diminished, but unhappily many are interested in keeping it up as much as possible.

Several of these nautch women can read and write. Our matron was powerful at reciting Sanscrit shlokas (stanzas), and as regards Pracrit, the popular dialect, she had studied all the best known works, as the "Panja Tantra," together with the legends of Vikram, Rajah Bhoj, and other celebrated characters. Their spoken language is the corrupt form of Maharatta, called the Coneanee, (46) in general throughout the Goanese territory; the educated mix up many Sanscrit vocables with it, and some few can talk a little Portuguese. Their speaking voices are loud, hoarse, and grating: each sentence, moreover, ends in a sing-song drawl, which is uncommonly disagreeable to a stranger's ear. These ladies all smoke, chew betel-nut, drink wine and spirits, and eat fowls and onions, an unequivocal sign of low caste. They do not refuse to quit Seroda, as is generally supposed, but, of course, prefer their homes to other places. Living being extremely cheap most of the money made by nautching is converted into pearl and gold ornaments; and these are handed down from generation to generation. Some of the coins strung together into necklaces are really curious. An old English five-guinea-piece may be found by the side of a Portuguese St. Thomas, a French Louis d'or, and a Roman medal of the Lower Empire. We should be puzzled to account for how they came there, did we not know that India has from the earliest ages been the great sink for Western gold. Many of the matrons have collected a considerable stock of linen, pictures, and furniture for their houses, besides dresses and ornaments. Our countrymen have been liberal enough to them of late, and numerous, too, as the initials upon the doors and shutters prove. Each establishment is violently jealous of its neighbour, and all appear to be more remarkable for rapacity than honesty. In spite of the general belief, we venture to assert that a chain, ring, or a watch, would find Seroda very dangerous quarters. As a stranger soon learns, everything is done to fleece him; whether he have five or five hundred rupees in his pocket, he may be sure to leave the place without a farthing. This seems to be a time-honoured custom among the Bayaderes cherished by them from immemorial antiquity.

When the rising shades of evening allowed us to escape from the house of dancing, we sallied forth to view the abode in which Major G------ passed his last years. The matron soon found a boy who preceded us to the place, threading his way through a multitude of confused dwellings, climbing over heaps of loose stones, walking along the walls of tanks, and groping through the obscurity of the cocoa groves. At the end of this unusual kink of walk, we found ourselves at the house, asked, and obtained leave to enter it. There was nothing to attract attention in the building, except a few old books; the peculiar character of its owner will, perhaps, plead our excuse to the reader, if we dwell a little upon the circumstances which led him to make Seroda his home.

Major G----- was an officer who had served with distinction for many years in a Native Regiment. He was a regular old Indian, one of the remnants of a race which, like its brethren in the far west, is rapidly disappearing before the eastward progress of civilisation in the shape of rails, steamers, and overland communication. By perpetual intercourse with the natives around him he had learned to speak and write their language as well as, if not better than, his own. He preferred their society to that of his fellow-countrymen; adopted the Hindoo dress; studied their sciences, bowed to their prejudices, and became such a proficient in the ritual of their faith as to be considered by them almost a fellow-religionist. Having left England at an early age, with a store of anything but grateful reminiscences, he had determined to make India his country and his home, and the idea once conceived, soon grew familiar to his mind. Knowing that there is no power like knowledge amongst a semi-civilised people, and possibly inclined thereto by credulity, he dived deep into the "dangerous art," as the few books preserved as Seroda prove. Ibn Sirin, (47) and Lily, the Mantras, (48) and Casaubon, works on Geomancy, Astrology, Ibzar or the Summoning of Devils, Osteomancy, Palmistry, Oneiromancy, and Divination. The relics of his library still stand side by side there, to be eaten by the worms.

Late in life Major G----- fell in love with a Seroda Nautch girl living under his protection; not an unusual thing in those days; he also set his mind upon marrying her, decidedly a peculiar step. His determination gave rise to a series of difficulties. No respectable Hindoo will, it is true, we a female of this class, yet, as usual amongst Indians, the caste has at least as much pride and prejudice as many far superior to it. So Sita would not accept a mlenchha (infidel) husband, though she was perfectly aware that she had no right to expect a dwija, or twice born one.

But Major G-----'s perseverance surmounted every obstacle. Several times the lady ran away, he followed and brought her back by main force at the imminent risk of his commission. At last, finding all opposition in vain, possibly thinking to prescribe too hard a trial, or, perhaps, in the relenting mood, she swore the most solemn oath that she would never marry him unless he would retire from the service to live and die with her in her native town.

Major G----- at once sold out of his regiment, disappeared from the eyes of his countrymen, bought a house at Seroda, married his enchantress, and settled there for the remainder of his years. Many of the elder inhabitants recollect him; they are fond of describing to you how regularly every morning he would repair to the tank, perform his ablutions, and offer up water to the manes of his pitris, or ancestors, how religiously he attended all the festivals, and how liberal he was in fees and presents to the Brahmans of the different pagodas.

We were shown his tomb, or rather the small pile of masonry which marks the spot where his body was reduced to ashes - a favor granted to him by the Hindoos on account of his pious munificences. It is always a melancholy spectacle, the last resting-place of a fellow-countryman in some remote nook of a foreign land, far from the dust of his forefathers - in a grave prepared by strangers, around which no mourners ever stood, and over which no friendly hand raised a tribute to the memory of the lamented dead. The wanderer's heart yearns at the sight. How soon may not such fate be his own?

The moonlight was falling clear and snowy upon the tranquil landscape, and except the distant roar of a tiger, no noise disturbed the stillness that reigned over the scene around, as we slowly retraced our steps towards Seroda. Passing a little building, whose low domed roof, many rows of diminutive columns, and grotesque architectural ornaments of monkeys and elephants' heads, informed us was a pagoda, whilst a number of Hindoos lounging in and out, showed that some ceremony was going on, we determined to attempt an entrance, and passed the threshold unopposed. Retiring into a remote corner we sat down upon one of the mats, and learned from a neighbour that the people were assembled to hear a Rutnageree Brahman celebrated fro eloquence, and very learned in the Vedas. The preacher, if we may so call him, was lecturing his congregation upon the relative duties of parents and children; his discourse was delivered in a kind of chaunt, monotonous, but not rude or unpleasing, and his gesticulation reminded us of many an Italian Predicatore. He stood upon a strip of cloth at the beginning of each period, advancing gradually as it proceeded, till reaching the end of his sentence and of his carpet, he stopped, turned round, and walked back to his standing place, pausing awhile to take breath and allow the words of wisdom to sink deep into his hearers' hearts. The discourse was an excellent one, and we were astonished to perceive that an hour had slipped away almost unobserved. However, the heat of the place, crowded as it was with all ages and sexes - for the ladies of Seroda, like the frail sisterhood generally in Asia, are very attentive to their dharma, or religious duties - the cloud of incense which hung like a thick veil under the low roof, and the overpowering perfume of the huge bouquets and garlands of jassamine with which the assembly as profusely decorated, compelled us to forfeit the benefit we might have derived from the peroration of the learned Brahman's discourse.

Our night was by no means a pleasant one; the Seroda vermin, like the biped population, were too anxious to make the most of the stranger. Early the next morning we arose to make our exit; but alas! it was not destined to be a triumphant one. The matron and her damsels, knowing us to be English, expected us to be made of money, and had calculated upon easing our breeches pockets of more gold than we intended to give silver. Fearful was the din of chattering, objurgating, and imprecating, when the sum decided upon was gracefully tendered to our entertainers, the rebee and the kettle-drum seemed inclined to be mutinous, but they were more easily silenced than the ladies. At length, by adding the gift of a pair of slippers adorned with foil spangles, to which it appeared the company had taken a prodigious fancy, we were allowed to depart in comparative peace.

Bidding adieu to Seroda, we toiled up the hill, and walked dejectedly towards the landing-place, were we supposed our boat was awaiting us. But when we arrived there, the canoe, of course, was not to be found. It was breakfast time already, and we expected to be starved before getting over the fifteen miles between us and Panjim. On chance remained to us; we separated, and so diligently scoured the country round that in less than half an hour we had collected a fair quantity of provender; one returning with a broiled spatchcock and a loaf of bread; another with a pot full of milk and a cocoa-nut or two, whilst a third had succeeded in "bagging" divers crusts of stale bread, a bunch of onions, and a water-melon. The hospitable portico of some Banyan's country-house afforded us a breakfast-room; presently the boat appeared, and the crew warned us that is was time to come on board. It is strange that these people must tell lies, even when the truth would be in their favor. This we found to our cost, for wind and tide proved both against us.

Six hours' steaming and broiling under a sun which penetrated the matting of our slow conveyance, as if it had been water within a few degrees of boiling heat, brought us on towards evening. Seeing some difficulty in rowing against every disadvantage, we proposed to our rascally boatmen - native Christians, as usual - to land us at the most convenient place. Coming to a bluff cape, the wretches swore by all that was holy, that we were within a mile's walk of our destination. In an evil hour, we believed the worse than pagans, and found that by so doing we had condemned ourselves to a toilsome trudge over hill and dale, at least five times longer than they had asserted it to be. Our patience being now thoroughly exhausted, we relieved our minds a little by administering periodical chastisements to the fellow whom our bad luck had sent to deceive and conduct us, till, at length, hungry, thirsty, tired, and sleepy, we found ourselves once more in the streets of Panjim.

Reader, we have been minute, perhaps unnecessarily so, in describing our visit to Seroda. If you be one of those who take no interest in a traveler's "feeds," his sufferings from vermin, or his "rows about the bill," you will have found the preceding pages uninteresting enough. Our objective is, however, to give you a plain programme of what entertainment you may expect from the famed town of the Bayaderes, and, should your footsteps be ever likely to wander in that direction, to prepare you for the disappointment you will infallibly incur.