The Smith Administration

by Rudyard Kipling


A King’s Ashes

1888: On Wednesday morning last, the ashes of the late ruler of Gwalior were consigned to the Ganges without the walls of Allahabad Fort. Scindia died in June of last year, and, shortly after the cremation, the main portion of the ashes were taken to the water. Yesterday’s function, the disposal of what remained (it is impossible not to be horrible in dealing with such a subject), was comparatively of an unimportant nature, but rather grim to witness.

Beyond the melon-beds and chappar villages that stand upon the spit of sun-baked mud and sand by the confluence of the Jumna and the Ganges, lies a flag-bedizened home of fakirs, gurus, gosains, sanyasis, and the like. A stone’s throw from this place boils and eddies the line of demarcation between the pure green waters of the Jumna and the turbid current of the Ganges; and here they brought the ashes of Scindia. With these came minor functionaries of the Gwalior State, six Brahmins of the Court, and nine of Scindia’s relatives. In his lifetime, the Maharaja had a deep and rooted distrust of his own family and clan, and no Scindia was ever allowed office about him. Indeed, so great was his aversion that he would not even permit them to die in the Luskar, or City of Gwalior. They must needs go out when their last hour came, and die in a neighbouring jaghir village which belongea to Sir Michael Filose, one of that Italian family which has served the State so long and faithfully. When such an one had died, Scindia, by his own command, was not informed of the event till the prescribed days of mourning had elapsed. Then notice was given to him by the placing of his bed on the ground,—a sign of mourning,—and he would ask, not too tenderly, ‘Which Scindia is dead?’

Considering this unamiable treatment, the wonder was that so many as nine of his own kin could be found to attend the last rites on that sun-dried mud-bank. There was, or seemed to be, no attempt at ceremony, and, naturally enough, no pretence at grief; nor was there any gathering of native notables. The common crowd and the multitude of priests had the spectacle to themselves, if we except a few artillerymen from the Fort, who had strolled down to see what was happening to ‘one of them (qualified) kings.’ By ten o’clock, a tawdry silken litter bearing the ashes and accompanied by the mourners, had reached the water’s edge, where wooden cots had been run out into the stream, and where the water-deepened boats had been employed to carry the press of sight-seers. Underfoot, the wet ground was trodden by hundreds of feet into a slimy pulp of mud and stale flowers of sacrifice; and on this compost slipped and blundered a fine white horse, whose fittings were heavy with bosses of new silver. He, and a big elephant, adorned with a necklace of silver plaques, were a gift to the priests who in cash and dinners would profit by the day’s work to the extent of eight or ten thousand rupees.

Overhead a hundred fakirs’ flags, bearing devices of gods, beasts, and the trident of Shiva, fluttered in the air while all around, like vultures drawn by carrion, crowded the priests. There were burly, bull-necked, freshly oiled ruffians, sleek of paunch and jowl, clothed in pure white linen; mad wandering mendicants carrying the peacock’s feather, the begging bowl, and the patched cloak; salmon-robed sanyasis from up-country, and evil-eyed gosains from the south. They crowded upon the wooden bedsteads, piled themselves upon the boats, and jostled into the first places in the crowd in the mud, and all their eyes were turned toward two nearly naked men who seemed to be kneading some Horror in their hands and dropping it into the water. The closely packed boats rocked gently, the crowd babbled and buzzed, and uncouth music wailed and shrieked, while from behind the sullen, squat bulk of Allahabad Fort the booming of minute-guns announced that the Imperial Government was paying honour to the memory of His Highness Maharaja Jyaji Rao Scindia, G.C.B., G.C.S.I., once owner of twenty thousand square miles of land, nearly three million people, and treasure untold, if all tales be true. Not fifty yards upstream, a swollen dead goat was bobbing up and down in the water in a ghastly parody on kid-like skittishness, and green filth was cast ashore by every little wave.

Was there anything more to see? The white horse refused to be led into the water and splashed all the bystanders with dirt, and the elephant’s weight broke up the sand it was standing on and turned it to a quag. This much was visible, but little else; for the clamouring priests forbade any English foot to come too near, perhaps for fear that their gains might be lessened. Where the press parted, it was possible to catch a glimpse of this ghoulish kneading by the naked men in the boat, and to hear the words of a chanted prayer. But that was all.