Sikhim and Bhutan/Chapter 06

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Building a house. Lepcha servants. Supplies. A garden party. The Residency garden. Roses and lilies. A wave of colour. Orchids. Visit to Tumlong. Worship of Kangchenjunga. Lama dance. Missionaries. Difficulties of travelling. Crossing the Teesta in flood. Landslips. Leeches.

One of the first things to be done on my appointment to Sikhim was to build a house, not an easy task in a wild country where masons and carpenters were conspicuous by their absence, where stone for building had to be quarried from the hill-sides and trees cut down for timber. In my jungle wanderings round Gangtak, I came across a charming site in the midst of primeval forest which seemed suitable in every way, so I determined to build on it, felling only the trees which might possibly endanger the safety of the house, a necessary precaution, as many of them were quite 140 feet high, and in the spring the thunderstorms, accompanied by violent winds, were something terrible and wrought havoc everywhere. By levelling the uneven ground and throwing it out in front, I managed to get sufficient space for the house, with lawn and flower beds round it. Behind rose a high mountain, thickly wooded, which protected us from the storms sweeping down from the snows to the northeast, and in front the ground fell away with a magnificent view across the valley, where, from behind the opposite hills, Kangchenjunga and its surrounding snows towered up against the clear sky, making one of the most beautiful and magnificent sights to be imagined, and one certainly not to be surpassed, if equalled, anywhere in the world. The site selected, my real troubles began; trees had to be felled and sawn into scantlings; stone quarried, lime burnt, and, most difficult of all, carpenters and masons imported. I was fortunate in my carpenters, as I had already in my employment a Punjaubi, Moti Ram by name, the best carpenter and carver I have ever come across, and through him I got other excellent men from his native village, but the masons were distinctly bad. They seemed to find it impossible to build a wall plumb or a corner square—faults that impressed themselves on us later on, to our cost, when the time came for paper-hanging. More than that, too, owing to earthquakes, faulty building and heavy rain, parts of the anxiously watched edifice came down, and I began to think my house would never be finished. But, in spite of all difficulties, at Christmas 1890 we were able to move in, about eighteen months after commencing work.

Next came furnishing and finding a staff of servants. Furniture had either to be made on the spot by our Punjaubi carpenters or imported from England; and the neighbouring hill-man caught and trained to service, as, with the exception of one or two old servants, no plains-man could be induced to penetrate into such wilds, where they declared there was always war and where they would certainly be killed. One little lad, whom my wife found carrying loads in the early building days, Diboo by name, eventually became head bearer and major-domo of the establishment, and only left when we went on board at Bombay on our final departure. He and his comrades, Paling, Irung and others, were a merry lot, full of mischief and mad pranks and impossible to take seriously, for, after all, they were only lads of fourteen or fifteen and seemingly much younger when they came to us to learn. They were to be found in all sorts of strange places, climbing the most impossible trees for the sheer joy of seeing what they could do, dancing war dances on the roof of the house, if by chance a ladder was left within their reach; and generally on their first appearance on promotion to the dining-room, going off into suppressed giggles, to be summarily dragged out and cuffed by the older servants into a proper sense of decorum. When a little later we took them travelling in India, if their railway carriage doors were locked, they climbed through the windows as a matter of course, or perhaps were found on the engine hobnobbing with the driver and anxious to know what made the fire devil go.

Sikhim was a place where we had to be entirely self-supporting, so cattle had to be bought in order to have our own dairy for milk, butter and cheese, a flock of sheep for the supply of mutton, a poultry-yard, an oven built and baker engaged to bake bread, a blacksmith taught to shoe the ponies, who otherwise would have to take a four days’ walk to Darjeeling every time their shoes wanted renewing, and even our own silversmith, who, though he may in one way have been a luxury, was again almost a necessity, as he had to make various other things in metals as well as to mend all the numberless small things which were always getting broken. Stores had to be carried on coolies from Darjeeling or Siliguri, sixty or seventy miles, and this meant large supplies being arranged for beforehand, as transport often broke down, or bad slips occurred on the road, and we had to be prepared for all emergencies and to supplement other folks’ commissariat. Some funny episodes occurred in those far-away, early days. On one occasion, Captain and Mrs. P., belonging to the detachment stationed in Gangtak, came to the Residency to beg for some addition to their monotonous fare, and finding no one at home, went round to the open but barred storeroom window and proceeded with great skill to fish out a tin of provisions. They succeeded with much difficulty in getting hold of a Huntley and Palmer’s biscuit tin, but imagine their feelings when they found it was an empty box. Another time, the medical officer with his wife also arrived hungry on the scene, also to find no one at home, and too shy to order tea to be made and brought to the drawing-room where the table was standing ready, sadly went back to their little hut, borrowing from the mess, about as badly off for provisions as themselves, a tin of herrings. The herrings came up for dinner, but were followed by a sweet omelet made by their cook in the same frying pan! This couple lived in a two-roomed hut built of wattle and dab, and most of the furniture was primitive to a degree—four sticks with a packing-case top made a table, and even their bed was the same, with newar or wide tape stretched across. In the rains they said the uprights sprouted and grew green leaves over their heads. Such a primitive state of affairs seems almost impossible nowadays when the Gangtak bazaar possesses its two or three shops for the sale of European provisions, beers and wines, and is looked upon as a shopping centre by the further outposts; but in those early days Gangtak was the furthest outpost itself and end of all things, and we had very happy, merry times and many little adventures and mishaps were the cause of much laughter and many jokes.

My first garden party would have seemed very quaint to European eyes. I had invited the Maharaja and Maharani, with the members of Council, and all the Kazis and headmen with their wives and families. A goodly crowd assembled about four hours before the appointed time and lined the road just outside the Residency grounds, sitting about on the grassy edges until they were told they might come in, determined not to be late. Most of them had never seen, much less tasted European sweets or cakes, and when tea-time came they simply cleaned the tables of everything, and what they could not eat they carried away in the front of their voluminous coats. They emptied the sugar basins, and even took the spoons and liqueur glasses, and it all took place so quietly while my wife and I were with the Maharaja and Maharani and the more important guests in another tent, I hardly realised what was going on.

The spoons and glasses, which I think they wanted as mementos of the good time they had had, were returned, on the Phodong Lama and Shoe Bewan remonstrating, and they departed very happily, declaring they had highly enjoyed their entertainment, and that all their heads were going round, a polite way of saying I had not stinted the drinks. They were always a very cheerful crowd and very pleasant to deal with, though indolent and improvident.

After my house was finished, nothing pleased them more than to be allowed to wander round the rooms, especially the bedrooms. They never touched anything, but liked to see how we lived and what European furniture was like.

Almost every market day little bands of women dressed in their best clothes would arrive with a few eggs or a pat of butter to make their salaams to my wife and a request that they might be allowed to go over the house, and their progress was marked with exclamations and gurgles of laughter at the strange ways of the Sahib-log.

While the house was building, the Maharani came several times to see how it was getting on, and told me I had built the walls much too thin and it would never stand. In their own houses and monasteries the walls are very thick, from 3 feet to 4 feet 6 inches, and have always a small camber. However, later on I had the best of the argument when, in the earthquake of 1897, the palace, notwithstanding its thick walls, collapsed entirely and had to be rebuilt, while the Residency, though badly cracked, remained standing.

Sikhim and Bhutan - Residency Garden, Gangtak.jpg


The garden was a great joy and an everlasting source of amusement and employment both to my wife and to myself, although my wife did most of the work in it. The soil was virgin, and with a little expense and care almost anything could be grown. It was a lovely garden, the lawns always a beautiful green even in winter, and perfectly smooth, with masses of flowers, the magnificent forest trees left standing scattered about with clumps of feathery bamboos and groups of tree-ferns adding a charm of their own. In early spring the lawns were fringed with daffodils, primroses, polyanthus, daisies, pansies—almost every spring flower you can name, flowering in a profusion seldom seen in England, where cold winds and frosts nip them and keep them back; while on the house the wisteria was a cloud of delicate mauve, with here and there the tender green of early leaves. By the end of April the roses were in full bloom, a perfectly exquisite sight, excelling anything I have ever seen even in England. The house and all the outbuildings were covered with them—Cloth of Gold, Gloire de Dijon, Reine Marie Henriette, Devoniensis, Noisette and the paper white rose throwing themselves wildly over the roofs and hanging great festoons of lovely blooms from every corner. Over the lawns were scattered great bushes of Marie Van Houtte, Gloire de Dijon, Paul Neron, Souvenir de Malmaison, Madame Lambert, and many more; archways of Cloth of Gold and Devoniensis, and in sheltered corners, protected from the rain, Maréchal Niel and La France. These were all old favourites, but against the terraced slope from the house to the little pond below, I later planted Ramblers and many new varieties I imported from France. A great charm was the rapidity with which things grew in that climate where a rose in its second year became a large bush. They flowered in such profusion, thousands of blooms could be gathered without making the smallest impression, and during the summer, the gardeners had daily to sweep up huge baskets full of fallen petals from the lawns. Perhaps the most beautiful sight was my office, a building a few hundred yards from the house, which was completely covered, roof and chimneys included, with roses, and was a sight worth coming miles to see. Paul Nerons I have gathered 6¼ inches in diameter. Everything grew with the same luxuriance. A stock in front of my study window measured 4 feet 6 inches in height and 3 feet 6 inches in diameter, and was a fragrant mass of delicate pink bloom. A Lilium Auratum grew to 8 teet with twenty-nine blossoms on a single stalk and the wild Lilium Gigantiums in the tree-fern ravine were often 12 feet high. The other wild lilies, Wallichianum and Nepalensis, made lovely groups, the Wallichianum over 6 feet with four or five flowers on a stem and filling the air with delicious perfume.

Sikhim and Bhutan - Wallichianum Lilies in the Residency Garden.jpg


As the seasons passed the colouring of the garden changed. With the early spring came the white narcissus and pale yellow daffodils and primroses and lovely shades of browns and yellows of the wallflowers flowering under the eaves, followed by the deeper colouring of polyanthus and pansies and great tufts of arums and the delicate mauve and white of schizanthus. Next, the roses, a flood of pink, white, yellow, and crimson, with deeper shades in the petunias and stocks and blazing masses of brilliant colour from cactus and geraniums in the verandahs to be followed by a wave of blue which spread from the actual lawns away up the hillside, iris, agapanthus, heliotrope, hydrangea so covered with blossom hardly a leaf could be seen. This was the time when the lilies also were in perfection, auratums, tigers, wild ones from the jungle, all scenting the air, as well as English sweet-peas and mignonette.

The blue flowers were followed in their turn by deep yellows, orange, and scarlet, orange lilies, sunflowers, monbretia and cannas, which here again abandoned their ordinary habit of growth and were ten and twelve feet high with huge flower spikes. As the autumn advanced, the colouring became more subdued, though not less lovely, the wild ferns and the foliage taking on exquisite tints and each stump and tree trunk a mass of flowering cymbidiums with their long, handsome racemes of lovely brown and yellow flowers. From one year's end to the other there were always flowers, and in the winter I have seen roses, heliotrope and mignonette flowering under the eaves of the verandah while the lawns were covered with snow.

In the spring the forest trees were white, as though snow had fallen, with blossoms of the Cœlogeyne Cristata, the earliest orchid to flower, quickly followed by a succession throughout the year, too numerous to give a list of, but which included the Dendrobium Densiflorum, with its heads of brilliant yellow, the mauve sprays of D. Nobile, and later the long hanging wreaths of D. Hookerianum and so on till one again came round to the autumnal cymbidiums. It was a garden in which new treasures and new beauties unfolded themselves from day to day and out of which, when we were in Gangtak, we never wished to move.

My work took me much on tour and away from Gangtak, and I have spent many pleasant days in monasteries and had some unusual experiences. Once, in the early days, at the invitation of the Phodong Lama, accompanied by Mrs. White, I spent a week at Tumlong to see the Lama dance and annual ceremony of the Worship of Kangchenjunga. Neither of us had before witnessed the ceremony, which is carried out in the open air on a terrace in front of the Monastery, with the buildings as a background, and in the centre of a crowd of gaily dressed people and lamas. We had seats in a balcony overlooking the terrace and had an excellent view.

The dance is allegorical, and lasts for three days, the different dances representing the several phases of worship. The story is long and very confusing to the ordinary mind and we could only gather a very general outline of its meaning. The dresses worn, especially at this Monastery, are gorgeous, made of the finest old Chinese brocades, of every imaginable colour, and kinkob, resplendent in gold and silver. The dancing itself is monotonous, as there is one step only which varies in the rapidity of the gyrations made by each dancer, but perfect time is kept to the weird and rather monotonous music of the band of lamas sitting on one side, in their red monastic garb, playing on trumpets, flutes and drums. The dancers frequently change their costumes and reappear in new characters. The masks worn by the performers are curious and sometimes very grotesque. They are carved out of wood and painted to represent animals, birds, demons and gods as well as the spirits of the dead. The whole dance is most picturesque and interesting and a sight well worth seeing, especially when the weather is fine and there is a blue sky and brilliant sunshine to throw up the bright foliage and distant hills and snow peaks in the background, and as the ceremony takes place in October or November, after the rains are over, this is generally the case.

It was at Tumlong a missionary lady from China came to take up her abode soon after I went to Sikhim. The Phodong Lama, who, like most Buddhists, was very broad-minded on religious questions, gave her one of his lama’s houses within the monastery grounds, to live in, not thirty yards from the Gompa, or Temple. I am sorry to say she requited these good offices in a very ungrateful manner. She had a small harmonium, and whenever a service was being held in the Gompa she immediately opened it and played and sang hymns as loudly as possible, which, to say the least of it, was in very bad taste. The old lama, however, took it all most good-naturedly and only shrugged his shoulders and said he thought she could not be quite responsible for her actions. Fortunately for her, the people also followed the lama’s example in treating her with good-natured tolerance, but such actions may, and often do, lead to serious consequences and give Government officials much annoyance and many anxious moments.

My experience, which extends over many years, leads me more and more to the conclusion that an extreme amount of care should be exercised in the selection of men or women sent to foreign countries as missionaries, not only from their own point of view, for surely their work would produce infinitely better results if they were possessed of special qualifications, but also politically, as incidents such as I have quoted, only one of many others, showing such utter want of tact, could not then occur. History has shown us how dangerous a volcano religious feeling is, and how often terrible and far-spreading disaster is the result of an unconsidered action.

Also I cannot help thinking it would be a very great advantage if different denominations could agree as to their several spheres of influence, instead of, as at present, perhaps half a dozen Roman Catholic, Anglican, Scotch, Scandinavian, Baptist, and other dissenting churches, all having delegates in one small area, to the bewilderment and confusion of the native mind, which cannot grasp the points of divergence. That is a question which, I think, deserves the attention of all interested in Missionary work.

Travelling in those early days was not easy, especially in the rains when the rivers were in flood and the roads were bad, and I remember one occasion when I was travelling to Darjeeling with Mrs. White and we had to cross the Teesta below Temi by a cane bridge. It was towards the end of the rains and we came in for one of the last heavy downpours, the river was in heavy flood and the only means of crossing was by a rickety cane suspension bridge 350 feet in length, and, in consequence of the lateness of the season, very rotten and much sagged in the centre. It was so rotten I was afraid it would give way and forbid any one else crossing while my wife and I were on it; half the bamboo platform had disappeared and the suspending split bamboos were in many places broken, but we could not stay in the steamy wet valley, a hot-bed of fever, so we were obliged to make the attempt.

I went first, and leaning my weight on the bamboo platform made the bamboo on which I was standing meet the one on which my wife was, she then stepped on to that, and on the pressure being removed the bamboo swung back again, leaving a gap beneath which swirled the flooded Teesta. In this way we eventually got safely across, but it was a hazardous proceeding.

We also had to cross our ponies, about four or five of them, no easy task with the river in such heavy flood, but the villagers and syces managed it successfully. They cut down bamboos, split them and made a rope long enough to reach from one bank to the other. A very strong headstall was put on the horse and the bamboo rope securely fastened to it. The other end was held by a number of men on the opposite side of the stream, the horse was driven into the river and carried in a diagonal course down stream to the opposite bank. It is a marvel how it is done when the rivers are in flood, and the animals have a poor time. More than once I have seen nothing but the legs of my pony in mid stream, but it is wonderful how they go through it and come out none the worse on the other side. I have even crossed an Arab on several occasions, this being one. Of course, if the rope happens to break, you see no more of your horse. The landing is always difficult as it is generally on rough, sharp rocks.

In the rains there was always the danger of bridges being swept away and of land slips. Once travelling from Temi we found a huge landslip had occurred, carried away the bridge on our road and filled the gorge to a depth of several hundred feet with liquid mud. It was nasty stuff to negotiate, but by placing several layers of jungle on it, we managed to cross on a precarious path that trembled under us with each step. On another occasion, on the Lachung road, we had to cross a large slip quite a quarter of a mile broad. The whole hillside was still moving, showers of stones were coming down from above at intervals, but as there was no other road by which we could reach Gangtak, we had to go on and take advantage of a lull in the small avalanches of rocks. It was easier for us than for the mules and ponies, who became frightened by the falling stones, and I nearly lost one—a large rock flying past its ears. But in these hills, with their abnormally heavy rainfall, and owing to the great amount of displacement which has occurred in their upheaval having cracked the rocks, slips are very frequent and one becomes used to them.

Another very great drawback to travelling in the rains at any elevation below 10,000 feet, are the leeches which swarm on every path. Each leaf in the jungle is fringed with them and they look almost like the tentacula of sea anemones as they commence to wave about in the air at the approach of a passer-by in the endeavour to fix on him—indeed in some places they are so bad I believe if a traveller had the misfortune to meet with an accident and be disabled he would soon be bled to death.

Sikhim and Bhutan - Lower Teesta Valley.jpg