Friday, May 22, 2009

Indian -cradle to death

The break of the nineteenth century was the time when the British traveler to India started to seriously record and publish observations on life in India. At least that’s what I presume, as Google Books has material dated only from 1780 onwards. I think it has something to do with improved typography that was available around this period.

While reading the passages, we must bear in mind that these were first-time observations made by people from a completely different cultural background and they saw everything through their lens and filters. Unfortunately, I have not been able to access anything that provides the viewpoint of the native Indian.

No matter. La Belle Assemblee, a compilation of miscellany and trivia, published in 1806, has a chapter that discusses the manners of the middle-class Indians in that period. “It is my intention to give only a sketch of the manners of the Indians’ writes the author, “I shall take an Indian from his cradle and follow him through every circumstance of life to his death.”

Here is an extract from pages 265 to 267 that provides an interesting description of how girls were brought up.

"The education of girls is confined to forming them to become good mothers and amiable wives; they likewise give them some knowledge of religion and morality. The principal beauty of young girls consisting, in the opinion of the Indians, in having a delicate complexion, they are carefully kept from the rays of the sun. The custom of anointing themselves with oil, as related by the generality of travellers, is practised only among the inferior castes, among those who support themselves by labour, and who actually expose their children to the sun after besmearing them as above mentioned, which gives them a colour nearly approaching to black. Whereas, on the ether hand, the complexion of the women has in general a transparency and a lustre which allows the eye to trace the course of the blood underneath a delicate skin, and on a neck molded by the Graces. The same precautions are taken with regard to boys, not only with a view to preserve their beauty, but likewise to give them an effeminate and indolent appearance, which in their opinion is the surest mark of opulence and noble birth.

The girls are early instructed in the art of pleasing: they are taught to comb their hair smooth, to perfume it with oil and costly essences, to make it fall gracefully down their backs in long tresses, adorned with gold chains. They study to blacken the inside of their eyelids, which gives them a languishing air, and makes their large black eyes beam with greater luster. They learn to stain the nails of their fingers and toes red, to show through a transparent muslin the finest neck imaginable, and under this elegant drapery to expose to view a small bare foot, the toes and ankles of which are still more loaded with rings and bracelets than even the hands and arms. In short, they are in no respect inferior to our European women in this enchanting art, for nature has been more bountiful to the fair sex in these climates than in ours, and there is no such thing as an absolutely ugly woman to be met with. All the requisite for the toilette of our women are to them utterly useless. Beauty seeks its graces in the same quarter whence religion derives satisfaction and water, which purifies the soul, is the only resource applied to by the women to preserve and to improve the attractions of youth.

Upon the whole you meet no where with more perfect cleanliness than among the Indians. It is true, at the first glance, it appears disgusting and filthy to see a beautiful Indian woman mixing up her victuals and feeding herself with her fingers; but when you know that this right hand, which serves both for spoon, knife, and fork, touches nothing impure, that they never omit washing themselves with the most scrupulous attention both before and after meals, your disgust ceases, and you discover even a certain grace in this method of eating. Cleanliness is enjoined them by their religion, or rather constitutes part of their faith, upon the principle that a person physically impure, must likewise be so morally.

The religion of the Indians consists in a great measure of rites, which seem to have been prescribed to mankind in these climates for the preservation of health and life. They never receive any formal instruction even in the ceremonies and precepts of religion. They imitate what they see their parents do, and the example of the father of a family is the principal instruction the latter bestows on his children. Being accustomed to live upon simple food, and for the most part on vegetables, they acquire an equality of temper. They are mild, benevolent, exempt from strong passions, and nature has inspired their hearts with the knowledge of and distinction between good and evil. They seem to inhale morality with the air they breathe under the paternal roof. They are virtuous as much through habit as by choice; they are not commanded to love their parents, yet you no where meet with more dutiful and affectionate children. There are things which, although not forbidden by the laws, are however the object of general contempt. Their morals are preserved much more by the influence of domestic prejudices than by that of legislation.

An Indian is seldom a man of erudition, but he is perfect master of what he has once learned; the limited opportunity he has of consulting books causes him to exercise his intellectual faculties the more; you do not see in India a multitude of collection of dictionaries, made but to cherish indolence, and containing only the shred of science. The memory of our European literati is in their library; on the other hand, the library of the learned Indians is in their memory."

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