Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 4/Indian juggling

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2674877Once a Week, Series 1, Volume IV — Indian juggling
1860-1861F. Swanwick


The fort of Calcutta, commonly known as Fort William, is one of the most splendid and convenient military establishments to be found in any quarter of the globe. It is very spacious, and somewhat resembles the Tower of London, in that it consists of various streets and squares, adapted for different military purposes. On all sides it is guarded by a high and strongly-built rampart, which is surrounded in its turn by a broad and deep fosse, over which are placed drawbridges, leading to the principal gateways. Arrived in Calcutta, a raw griffin, of course I went to inspect the lions, and, among others, the fort.

The fort is often the scene of animated festivity, from the presence of native jugglers, renowned for their surprising skill and dexterity. The performances of these strange people have been so often described, that I shall only make mention of a few, for otherwise I might tire the reader. One of them struck me as being curious from its having a strong resemblance to the feats recorded in sacred history, as having been performed by the magicians of Egypt, in the time of Moses, and in the presence of Pharaoh. Indeed, as it is well known that the Hindù tricks have been handed down from the most distant ages, from father to son, there is little wonder that such a similarity can exist. The particular trick alluded to, is the apparent conversion of a brass coin into a snake. The juggler gave me the coin to hold, and then seated himself, about five yards from me, on a small rug, from which he never attempted to move during the whole performance. I showed the coin to several persons who were close beside me, on a form in front of the juggler. At a sign from him, I not only grasped the coin I held firmly in my right hand, but, crossing that hand with equal tightness with my left, I enclosed them both as firmly as I could between my knees. Of course I was positively certain that the small coin was within my double fists. The juggler then began a sort of incantation, accompanied by a monotonous and discordant kind of recitative, and, repeating the words, Ram, Sammu, during some minutes. He then suddenly stopped, and, still keeping his seat, made a quick motion with his right hand, as if throwing something at me, giving at the same time a puff with his mouth. At that instant I felt my hands suddenly distend, and become partly open, while I experienced a sensation as if a cold ball of dough, or something equally soft, nasty, and disagreeable was now between my palms. I started to my feet in astonishment, also to the astonishment of others, and opening my hands, found there no coin, but to my horror and alarm (for of all created things I detest and loathe the genus) I saw a young snake, all alive-oh! and of all snakes in the world, a cobra-di-capello, folded, or rather coiled, roundly up. I threw it instantly to the ground, trembling with rage and fear, as if already bit by the deadly reptile, which began immediately to crawl along the ground, to the alarm and amazement of every one present. The juggler now got up for the first time since he had sat down, and catching hold of the snake displayed its length, which was nearly two feet;—two feet all but an inch and a half. He then took it cautiously by the tail, and opening his own mouth to its widest extent, let the head of the snake drop into it, and deliberately commenced to swallow the animal, till the end of the tail only was visible; then making a sudden gulp, the whole of the snake was apparently swallowed. After this, he came up to the spectators, and opening his mouth wide, permitted us to look into his throat, but no snake or snake’s tail was visible: it was seemingly down his throat altogether. During the remainder of the performances, we never saw this snake again, nor did the man profess his ability to make it re-appear; but he performed another snake-trick, which surprised us very much. He took from a bag another cobra-di-capello, and, walking into the centre of the room, enclosed it in his hands in a folded state. He waved, or shook them for some time in this condition, and then opened his fists, when, hey! presto!—the snake was gone, and in its place appeared several small ones, which he suffered to fall from his hands, when they glided, with their peculiar undulating movement, almost like the waves of the sea, about the floor.

I will notice one or two more of the surprising performances of these wonderful jugglers of India, and the reader will perhaps have had enough, and will be glad to turn to some lighter or more genial piece; for “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

While staying in Madras, before coming home, a party of jugglers came forward on one occasion to act publicly in the yard of the barracks there. Many hundreds of people, of all kinds, different ages, both sexes, and various denominations, including the soldiery in garrison, assembled to witness the exhibition, and some little temporary arrangements were made, to enable each and every one to see and hear conveniently. The leader of the jugglers, who were all, of course, natives of Hindùstan, requested the commanding officer to place a guard of men around the scene of display—a precaution which was adopted, and which proved a very wise one. The floor of the court, be it observed, was composed of sand,—fine, well-trodden. On this ground, then, after some preliminary tricks of an inferior kind, one man was left alone with a little girl, the latter seeming about eight or nine years of age. Beside them stood a tall, narrow basket, three or four feet high, by little more than a foot in width, and open all the way up. No other object, animate or inanimate, appeared on the ground. After a short period, spent by the man in conversing with the little girl, he seemed to get angry, and began to rail loudly at her, for the neglect of some wish of his. The child attempted to soothe him, but he continued to show an increased degree of irritation as he went, at length lashing himself into such apparent fury, that the foam actually stood upon his lips, and being naturally rather a monstrum ingens—that is, possessed of an exceedingly unprepossessing face, he looked, to the white spectators at least, as like a demon escaped from Dante’s Inferno, as might be. Finally, his rage seemed to reach that boiling point, just capable of anything, and seizing hold of her, he put her beneath the basket; or, rather, he inverted the basket completely over her person. She was thus hemmed in, and entirely at his mercy. Having thus disposed of her, in spite of the child’s screams and entreaties, the man drew his sword (Tulwáh), which was as bright and polished as the surface of a Venetian mirror of a few centuries back, and he appeared as if about to wreak some (further) evil on the object of his ire; and after some moments, during which he talked to the child and to himself, as if justifying his anger, he did actually at last plunge his sword down into the basket, and draw it out dripping with blood, or at least blood-red drops. The child’s screams were piteous, and heart rending in the extreme, but all, all in vain; for the man plunged his dripping weapon again and yet again into the basket in which she was confined. As he did so, the screams of the wretched victim became fainter and fainter by degrees, quivering and quavering like the last few whispers of a dying breeze; till at length they almost entirely ceased, and then, as every one sat horror-stricken and breathless, and scarcely knowing where to look, or which way to turn, then, a faint, low sigh, drawn out like the expiring note of an Æolian harp, was distinctly heard by every one in that hushed assemblage, till it too, ceased, and all was still—still as an Indian noon-tide; stiller and yet more still,—still as death. The child’s voice was hushed for ever; was hushed in the lullaby of death.

For a moment, “silence reigned supreme;” but for a moment though, for as the rage of the hurricane, the blast of the tornado, succeeds the sweltering heat of the noon-day, so rushed the excitable Irishmen of the 8th Regiment upon the wretched murderer; for believe it a mere trick they could not—they would not; they thought it nothing but a piece of cold-blooded, deliberate, diabolical butchery. Well was it for the juggler that the request for a guard had been granted by the officer commanding; else, nothing could have saved him. All the exertions of the guard could hardly prevent the excited soldiery from rushing into the arena, and tearing the man limb from limb; they ground their teeth with rage, and cursed every bone in the juggler’s body; even the officers (and I among others), whose better education and experience made them necessarily less open to such feelings, grew pale with uneasiness. Mark the result of all this.

When the man seemed to have carried his rage to its utmost extremity, warned by the looks of the soldiery, that it would be as well to close the exhibition without delay, he raised his bloody sword for a moment before the eyes of the assembly, and then struck the basket smartly with it, which, falling over on its side, left exposed the place which it had before covered. Conceive the dismay and astonishment—the unbounded astonishment of the spectators, when in place of the expected corpse of the little girl, which every one present fully expected to see there, for the echo of her expiring sigh seemed still to float tremulously in the air, we saw—guess reader! but you will not guess right, if you guessed for a week of Sundays. Well, then, we saw nothing—a blank, an empty space, void of substance, animate or inanimate; bare, bald as a true believer’s head. Nothing but the flat sand of the court-yard. No vestige of dress, or any other thing to indicate that the girl had even been there. The amazement of the beholders was, if possible, rendered more intense, when, after the lapse of a few seconds, the identical little girl came bounding from the side of the court-yard—it seemed from among the spectators’ feet—and clasped the juggler round the knees, with every sign of affection, without the slightest marks of having undergone any injury whatever. Credat Judæus Apella, non ego, you say, or ought to say, incredulous reader, but though stranger than fiction, it is none the less true.

Mind, this was not performed in a room, or on a stage, like that of Professor Anderson, the Wizard of the North, replete with contrivances, and pitfalled with trap-doors, no! no!! then it would have been an easy feat; but this was an open court-yard, as well known (or better) to the spectators, as to the performers: the feat performed in the centre of a court, every point of the circumference of which was crowded with spectators, who never for an instant took their eyes off the performers. As to the notion of a subterranean passage, the very nature of the ground put that out of the question; and besides, that nothing of the kind existed was made plain to all who chose to satisfy themselves on that point, by looking at the scene of the performances when they had closed. Every one was sure that the child had been put below the basket, and that she did not get out of it in the natural way; but she did get out, and how? I cannot say, though there can be no doubt that it was accomplished by some skilful manœuvre.

Such are a few, a very few of the surprising feats which these jugglers perform, and many still more wonderful there are, which I may have a chance of communicating at some future period to the reader; they are the result of surprising art, address, or contrivance; and for such the natives of India excel the whole world.

L'Envoi.—Reader, if you have been amused with this little anecdote, thank my deceased friend, not me. I am but the mouth-piece of one speaking from the tomb. We may meet again—si fata veliat. If so, au revoir. If, however, the fates are unpropitious, why then, adieu!

F. Swanwick.