Fragrance in Travel Literature- From Edinburgh to India & Burmah, by William G. Burn Murdoch

From Edinburgh to India and Burmah by William Murdoch

Outside the little town were charming country scenes, and the village streets, busy on either side with all sorts of trades, were positively fascinating. In Bombay you have all the trades of one kind together, the brass-workers in one street, and another trade occupies the whole of the next street, and the houses are tall. Here are all sorts of trades side by side, and two-storied and one-storied houses, with the palms leaning over them. We bought for a penny or two an armful of curious grey-black pottery with a silver sheen on its coarse surface. The designs were classic and familiar; the cruisie, for instance, I saw in use the other day in Kintyre, shining on a string of fresh herring, and you see it in museums amongst Greek and Assyrian remains. At one booth were people engaged making garlands of flowers, petals of roses, and marigolds sewn together, and heavy with added perfume; at the next were a hundred and one kinds of grain in tiny bowls, and at a third vegetables, beans, and fruit.

Through the Arabesque wood carvings of the arcade roof, away up the flight of steps, shafts of light came through brown fretted teak-wood and fell on gold or lacquered vermilion pillars and touched the stall-holders and their bright wares in the shadows on either side of the steps, and lit up groups of figures that went slowly up and down the irregular steep stairs, their sandals in one hand and cheroot in the other. Some carried flowers and dainty tokens in coloured papers, others little bundles of gold leaf, or small bundles of red and yellow twisted candles to burn. Their clothes were of silks and white linen, the colours of sweet peas in sun and in shadow, and the air was scented with incense and roses and the very mild tobacco in the white cheroots.

We go to the pagoda and climb slowly up the steps, for they are high and steep, and at every flight there are exquisite views out over the jungle of trees, palms, and bamboo, and knolly "Argyll hills," and looking up or down the stairs are more pictures; on both sides are double rows of red and gold pillars, supporting an elaborately panelled teak roof, with carvings in teak picked out with gold and colour. Groups of people with sweet expressions,[Pg 261] priests, men, women, and children pass up and down. On the platform there is heat and a feeling of great peace, the subdued chant of one or two people praying, the cluck of a hen, the fragrance of incense, and now and then the deep soft throb of one of the great bells, touched by a passing worshipper with the crown of a stag's horn. There are spaces of intense light, and cool shadows and shrines of glass mosaic, inside them Buddhas in marble or bronze—the bronzes are beautiful pieces of cire perdu castings—flowers droop before them, and candles are melting, their flame almost invisible in the sunlight, and two little children play with the guttering wax.

The hot air is slightly scented with incense and sandalwood, and there is a musical droning from a few worshippers who repeat verses from the Koran in the cool white interior mingled with the cooing of innumerable pigeons, and the faint "kiree, kiree" of a kite a mile above, in the blue zenith.

We go along at a good rate, with two good horses, and two further on waiting to change; our landau runs smoothly, though it must date to before the Mutiny. Its springs are good, and the road we follow, which Akbar made, is smooth of surface. There is pale moonlight, and the air is fragrant. The hours before dawn dreamily pass, and we nod, and look up now and then to see clay walls and trees dusky against the night sky, and our thoughts go back to the grand old buildings we leave behind us to the north in Agra. The red stone Fort, and Palace, and Taj, and the marble courts seem to become again alive, and full of people and colour and movement, a gallant array, and the fountains bubble, and Akbar plays living chess with his lovely wives, in colour and jewels, on his marble courts.

We have to drop anchor at sunset in mid-stream, somewhere below Kyonkmyoung, to wait for the mail, and because we have no searchlight we cannot go on at night. The mountains are closer now, and towards evening they are reflected in voilet and rose in the wide river.
… The lights go on, and I assure you our open air saloon, with its table set for dinner with silver, white waxy champak flowers, and white roses in silver bowls are delightful against the blue night outside. The scent of the champak would be too heavy, but for a pleasant air from up-stream, which we hope will help to clear out the piratical longshore crew of Mandalay mosquitoes which we brought with us. We are only a few miles short of our proper destination for the night, but no matter, we are not in a hurry; the Burmans up-stream, waiting for their market, are not either, they will just have to camp out for the night.

Kyankyet—We take on more wood faggots here to fill our bunkers. The wood smoke gives rather a pleasant scent in the air—pretty much like last halting place, same sunny dusty banks, plus a few rocks, and similar village of dainty cottages and of weather-bleached cane and teak showing out of green jungle. Above the place we stop at, a spit of sand runs into the river with a hillock and on it, there is a little golden pagoda amongst a few trees and palms: a flight of narrow white steps leads up to it, and below in the swirl of the stream are wavering reflections of gold, and white, and green foliage. And as usual there are figures coming to the ship along the shore, each a harmony of colours, each with a sharp shadow on the sand.

Whilst the wood goes on board we wander through the village and look at people weaving fringes of grass for thatch, much as grooms weave straw for the edges of stalls; then[Pg 305] to the pagoda on the hillock, and up the narrow flight of steps. It is not in very first-class repair, the river is eating away its base. To obtain merit the Burman prefers to build anew rather than to restore, and this one has done its turn. We saw several bronze and marble Buddhas under a carved teak shed; some fading orchids lay before them. Two men were making wood carvings very freely and easily in teak. Miss B. and G. coveted a little piece of furniture in brown teak, covered with lozenges of greeny-blue stone. It looked like a half-grown bedstead, the colour very pretty. If we had had an interpreter, we might have saved it from the ruin. What I carried away was a memory of the blue above, the gliding river below, hot sun and stillness, and the hum of a large, irridescent black beetle that went blundering through scarlet poinsettia leaves into the white, scented blossoms of a leafless, grey-stemmed champak tree.

I wish I remembered more of the Pwé—how I wish I could see it over and over again, till I could remember part of one of these quiet reedy tunes, so that I could recall this scene and the charm of Burmah whenever I pleased—for me, not even a scent, or colour, or form, can recall past scenes so vividly as a few notes of an air, the rhythm of some folk-song—a few minor notes, an Alla—Allah, and you breathe the hot air of desert, and feel the monotony of black men, and sand, and sun—Thrum—thrum—thrum, and you are in the soft, busy night, in Spain, and again a few minor notes, strung together, perhaps, by Greig, in the Saeter, and you feel the scent of the pines in the valley rising to the snow—a concertina takes me back to warm golden sunsets in the dog watches in the Doldrums!—guess, I am fortunate receiving sweet suggestions from a concertina!

We are in a cup-shaped wooden glen, our rest-house eighty feet up the hillside above the track, and a brawling burn that meets the Taiping a few hundred yards beyond our halting place. The burn suggests good fishing, and the Taiping looks like a magnificent salmon river. It is 7 P.M. and Krishna busy setting dinner, and your servant writing these notes to the sound of many waters and by a candle dimly burning, for the sun has gone below the wooded hills and left us in a soft gloom. Several camp fires begin to twinkle along the road where the caravans we overtook, and others from the east, are preparing for the night. Our Chinese coolies too have their fires going near us, the smoke helping to soften the already blurred evening effect. We have had, for us, a long afternoon's ride—a little tiring and hot in the bottom of the valley when the path came down to the Taiping river,—a winding and twisting path, round little glens to cross foaming burns, level enough for a hundred yards canter, then down, and up, hill sides in zigzags, here and there wet and muddy with uncertain footing, through groves of[Pg 355] bamboos and under splendid forest trees, some creepers hanging a hundred feet straight as plumb lines, others twisted like wrecked ships' cables, and flowering trees, with delicious scent every hundred yards or so. We felt inclined to stop and look, and sketch vistas of sunlit foliage through shadowy aisles of feathery bamboos, or splendid open forest views with mighty trees, and the[Pg 356] river and its great salmon pools.

It is pleasant in the meantime; there are sweet scents in the air, and pleasant colours. Our little camp kitchen, one hundred yards down the river, wreaths the trees with wisps of blue smoke. The Burmese girl and her brother[Pg 364] wear bright red and white, and near us there are wild capsicums and lemon trees dangling all over with yellow fruit and sweet-scented blossoms. The fruit has rather a coarse skin, but the juice is pleasant enough under the circumstances.

If the ride in the morning was pleasant, that in the afternoon and evening was even more so. As we came down the glens to Kalychet,—the gold of the evening faded in front of us, and left us in soft sweetly-scented darkness. The fire-flies lit up, and their little golden lamps flickering alongside through the intricacies of the dark bamboo stems helped to show us the track.

17th February.—I vow that there is this morning, at the same time, a suggestion in the air of both spring and autumn. There is a touch of autumn grey, and the plants in the garden droop a little as they do at home before or after frost. A level line of cloud rests half-way up the steel blue hills, it has hung there motionless for hours since the sun rose, and the air is very pure, with a sweet scent of stephanotis and wood-smoke and roses. Possibly it is the stephanotis and the wood-smoke combined[Pg 370] that makes me think of spring—spring in Paris; but more probably Paris is brought to my mind this morning by the interview we had yesterday with M. Ava about our berths on the cargo boat down to Mandalay; he is the Bhamo Agent for the Flotilla Company. M. Ava left Paris at the time of the birth of the Prince Imperial, and came to Burmah with his own yacht, and has stayed here ever since. I wish he would write a book on the changes of life he has seen; about the court life of the Empire, and his semi-official yachting tour, and of his long residence with Thebaw and his queens, of the intrigue and ceremonies in their golden palaces, the thrilling episodes of which he was witness, and of the many changes of fortune he has himself experienced.

Some of the tall trees have shed their leaves, and are now a mass of blossom. One high tree had dropped a mat of purple flowers, as large as tulips, across the dried grass and brown leaves at its foot. Another tree with silvery bark had every leafless branch ablaze with orange vermilion flowers. "Fire of the Forest," or "Flame of Forest," I heard it called in India,—its colour so dazzling, you see everything grey for seconds after looking at it. Then there were brakes of flowering shrubs like tobacco plants with star like white flowers, and the scent of orange blossom; and others with velvety petals of heliotrope tint, and masses of creepers with flowers like myrtle, and a fresh scent of violets and daisies—the air so pure and pleasant that each scent came to one separately; and, as the most of the foliage is dry and thin just now, these flowers and green bushes were the more effective.

To night the air is damp and warm from the S.E., and we smell Spain—true bill—several of us noticed the aromatic smell. Scents at sea carry great distances.[Pg 18] "I know a man" who smelt burning wood or heather, 250 nautical miles from land, and said so and was laughed at; but he laughed last, for two or three days after his vessel beat up to some islands, from which towered a vast column of brown and white smoke from burning peat, and this floated south on a frosty northerly breeze, and the chart showed the smoke was dead to windward at the time he spoke.

The first of these functions was the laying of the foundation of a museum of science and art; it sounds prosaic, but it was a pageant of pageantry and pucca tomasha too; the greater part, I daresay, just the ordinary gorgeousness of this country, fevered with stirring loyalty. The ceremony was in the centre of an open space of grass, surrounded by town buildings of half Oriental and half Western design, and blocks of private flats, each flat with a deep verandah and all bedecked with flags, and gay figures on the roofs and in the verandahs. In the centre of the grass were shears with a stone hanging from them on block and tackle. To our left was a raised dais with red and yellow striped tent roof supported on pillars topped with spears and flags and the three golden feathers of the Prince of Wales. In front of the circle of chairs opposite this and to our right sat the Indian princes; they had rather handsome brown faces and fat figures, and wore coats of delicate silks and satins, patent leather shoes and loose socks, big silver bangles and anklets; their turbans and swords sparkled with jewels, and the air in their neighbourhood was laden with the scents of Araby.

The Princess, in robes and creations that chilled words, walked ankle-deep in white flower petals and golden clippings, pearls rained, and on all sides were grouped the most beautiful Eastern ladies in most exquisite silks of every tint of the rainbow, with diamonds, pearls, and emeralds and trailing draperies, skirts, and soft veils, and silken trousers; sweet scents and sounds there were too, in this Oriental dream of heaven, and everything showed to the utmost advantage in the mellow trembling light that fell from two thousand five hundred candles, and one hundred and ninety-nine glittering and bejewelled candelabra. And in the middle, there was a golden throne of bejewelled[Pg 73] peacocks, and punkahs and umbrellas of gold and rose—a dream of beauty—and not one man in the whole show!

The Canal.—If I had not seen Mr Talbot Kelly's book on Egypt I could hardly have believed it possible that the delicate schemes of colour we see in the desert as we pass through the canal could be painted and reproduced in colour in a book. He has got the very bloom of the desert, and the beauty of Egypt without its ugliness; the heat and sparkle and brightness in his pictures are so vivid one can almost breathe the exhilarating desert air—and smell the Bazaars!