Fragrance in Travel Literature-India by Peter Loti




India (1913)
Loti, Pierre, 1850-1923; Inman, George Arthur F; Sherard, Robert Harborough, 1861-1943


We ascend a stairway cut in the rock out of whose
rugged sides periwinkles grow ; the dreary wastes
of the jungles extending around us. The sanctuary
is hollowed out of the heart of the principal stone, and
we first enter a little cavern, a sort of atrium contain-
ing a table covered with white gardenias on which the
offerings for the gods are placed. At the back is the
entry to the sacred place, an entry guarded by bronze
doors and a huge chased lock.
When the doors are thrown open with a grating
crash, the huge painted idols confront us, and it
seems as if some great cavern of precious perfumes
had been unsealed, for freshly sprinkled essences of
roses and sandal, masses of gardenias and tuberose
make a thick white carpet on the ground, and embalm
the air with intoxicating odours. Thus are the gods,
who live in an almost perpetual gloom, ever bathed
in the most exquisite scents.

The head of the
family, a white-haired old man, receives me there ;
he is surrounded by four young men, who, it seems,
are his sons. Their long eyes are underlined by
strokes of black paint ; as to clothes, they merely
wear a scrap of cloth round their waists, but this does
not prevent them from having an air of distinction,
nobility, and grace. The room, whitewashed and
beautifully clean, has a certain air of elegance, and is
perfumed by the scent of some unfamiliar incense
that has been burnt there.

All this takes place in an atmosphere so saturated
with essences and the perfume of flowers as to be
almost unbreatheable. I am at a fete given by the
Indians who live here, the French Indians, and I am
in the house of the most wealthy of them. On my
arrival the host placed a many-rowed collar of jas-
mines of intoxicating odour round my neck, and
sprinkled me also with rose-water from a long-necked
silver flagon. The heat is suffocating. The guests
are mostly seated — a row of dusky heads whose tur-
bans are embroidered with gold thread.

Here is the
quarter of the perfumers, where the essences of all the
flowers are stored in ancient Chinese vases, brought
here long ago by caravans. There is also the sparkling
street where slippers are sold, all gilt and bespangled,
with the tips bent backwards like the prow of a
gondola. Intermingled everywhere, as if by chance,
are the stalls of the flower-sellers, where masses of
roses, broken from their stems, are piled up into tiny
mountains. There are piles of jasmine flowers, too,
that children thread as they would thread beads.

The air is filled with the scent of burning perfumes,
scented, too, by the red roses which are heaped up be-
fore the sellers of wreaths, scented by the white jasmine
flowers that overflow their baskets and fall like snow
into the dusty street.

In spite of everything the festival continued in the
streets till nightfall. People threw whole handfuls of
coloured and perfumed powder at each other, till faces
and clothes were almost covered, and sometimes there
were seen those who emerged from the fray with one
side of their faces bedabbled with violet, blue, or red.
All the white robes bore the imprint of hands that had
been dipped into dyes of brilliant colours — the impress
of five fingers stamped in rose, in yellow, or in green.

At different points on our route, heavily studded
bronze gates have been thrown open for us, but at last
we had to leave our horses and continue our ascent on
foot, through courtyards and gardens and winding
staircases. We pass through marble halls, whose
thickset pillars are decorated with tiny designs of
barbaric taste. The vaulted arches were once clothed
with glittering mosaics, and patches of shining look-
ing-glass still shimmer under the damp incrustations
that make the walls resemble the sides of a stalactite
cave. The doors, too, were of sandal wood inlaid with
ivory. As we climb higher we see piscines which still
contain a little water, and there are baths hollowed out
of the rock in which the ladies of the harem used to
bathe. In the central space there is a cloistered, hang-
ing garden, from which the rooms of the queens,
princesses, and beauties of former days opened out.
As I passed through on my way towards the topmost
terraces, the air was scented with the perfume of
ancient orange trees, but the old guardian complained
bitterly of the monkeys who now seemed to think
themselves masters of the place, and were even bold
enough to gather the oranges.

Smiles of welcome greet me, and after having
placed wreaths of jasmine flowers, which have in-
toxicating odours like that of incense, round my neck,
the people stand on one side that I may see.

The gardens, by dint of laborious watering, have
been kept almost green, so that they seem a wondrous
oasis in the midst of the parched land. A crested wall,
some fifty feet in height, incloses vast and park-like
slopes over which a gentle melancholy broods. There
are cypresses and palms and little woods of orange
trees and many roses that load the air with fragrance.
There are marble seats where one may rest in the
shade, kiosks of marble, built for the pleasaunces of
bayaderes, and marble basins where princes may
bathe. There are peacocks and monkeys, and oc-
casionally the furtive muzzles of jackals peer out from
under the orange trees.

It is not really dark in the stairways and the low
halls of the palace as I make my way down. Every-
thing seems bathed in moonbeams of bluish whiteness,
and silvery rays enter through festooned windows and
cast the charming outlines of the pointed arches on to
the pavement : the faded mosaics on the walls glow
with new life, so that the halls seem studded with gems
or sparkling drops of water. As I passed through the
gardens, now heavy with the scent of flowers, the
upper branches of the orange trees became all alive
with the agitated and noisy awakening of the monkeys.

It grows dusk as I leave the Masters' House, and all
the charm of the East awaits me with its lures. In aim-
less wanderings I happen to light upon the quarter of
the bayaderes and courtesans. Lights kindle in all the
upper floors of the houses, where by day muslin-sellers
display their rich gold-spangled wares. A whole
street is occupied by these creatures of night and shade,
now appearing at the windows or on the balconies,
adorned for the evening. Their rooms, decorated with
mirrors and many childish baubles, are brilliantly
lighted up, and on the whitewashed walls images of
Ganesa, Hanouman, and the bloody Kali may be seen.
Rings and gems shine from their ears and naked arms,
and necklaces of heavy-scented flowers fall in rows
upon their breasts. They have the same velvety eyes
as those daughters of Brahma who unveil themselves
each morning by the Ganges, and it may be the same
flesh of bronze and amber.

It is not usual to offer bouquets to the Indian gods,
but rather to strew the altars with flowers ; jasmines
in large quantities — nothing but the flowers snatched
from their stalks — gardenias and waxy blooms of
heavy odour that form a scented ground on which
Bengal roses and red hibiscus flowers are placed ; and
there are many such scattered over the stones of these
crumbling temples, whose mouldering remains daily
sink deeper into the earth.

Those which shelter the temple look like a collec-
tion of reposing monsters, and the largest ones sup-
port the upright dagaba (the Buddhist steeple), just as
an elephant carries its tower ; an old whitewashed
tower rising from a sombre base. As I approach the
solitary wastes of the jungle, sketched out silently in
the hot evening sun, there is no one near the temple.
The heaps of scented flowers lying on the ground,
jasmines and gardenias, and the faded wreaths of
former days tell one that the gods are not forgotten.

My unexpected visit has allowed a little daylight to
filter into their grotto and permitted them to see,
through the open vestibule, the confines of the jungle,
where their crowds of worshippers lived in bygone
ages. I look at them for a moment, almost em-
barrassed at finding myself so close in front of them,
and I soon allow the priest to close the holy closet,
so that the inmates of the rock may be plunged once
more in silence and scented shades.

They come barefooted and noiselessly, entering
my room with the velvety step of a cat ; then these
artists, who have fine and delicate profiles, make
ceremonious bows and seat themselves on the ground.
They wear little gilt turbans on their heads and
diamonds in their ears, and are draped in the antique
fashion with a piece of silk barred with gold, which
is thrown over one shoulder so as to leave part of the
chest and a metal-encircled arm free. Aromatic
odours and scents of rose waters escape from their
light clothing.

I found all the little Indian fairies assembled at the
college in their dazzling array. It was holiday time,
it seems, but they consented to give up a morn-
ing for me. A little one advances and presents me
with one of those highly scented and formal bouquets
in which flowers and gold thread are mingled.

At length the hour has come when all signs of life
cease, save the little lights on the walls and the more
distant illuminations of the temples ; all is plunged
in gloom and silence. No women are visible, for
they have all disappeared into the dwelling-houses ;
but the men who have knotted up their hair are seen
shrouded in white linen or muslin cloths, lying on
the terraces or under the verandas, or even before
the doors amongst the goats ; with the repulsion
that all Indians feel for roofs and ceilings, these men
prefer to sleep in the mild, warm night filled with
the scent of flowers, where all seems veiled in a bluish
dust.

Our waterway suddenly narrows and is hedged in
by banks of fern ; then we plunge into dim gloom,
filled with the scent of earthy freshness ; we are
traversing the long tunnel that the Maharajah has
constructed so that boats may reach the more distant
lagoons, those of the north, which we shall reach
this evening, and travel on to-morrow.

Through the stillness of the calm night, sweet and
ever-haunting impressions of my childhood days
come back to me ; as usual I give myself up to the
sad play of my imagination, a melancholy sport that
I never weary of indulging in. It was in an abandoned
garden surrounded by woods that I received my
first impressions of nature, and I dreamt my first
dreams of the warm countries on some burning
August or September evening when just such a glow
lit up our flat horizon.
The same scent of jasmine filled the air in those
summer days of old, and the dark wings of bats and
owls flitted noiselessly across the copper-coloured
sky.

I find it in a little sandy waste, where the rocking
sound of the sea is heard ; that sound which is the same
on every shore. I can see neither Juggernaut nor its
strange tower, for both are drowned in dark blue shades.
The smell of the sea and of the little wild plants with
which the sands are carpeted, takes my melancholy
musings away from the Gulf of Bengal to the land of
my childhood, to the shores of the Isle of Oleron.