I left myself in the hands of friends in Calcutta as to the best mode of proceeding to my destination. There were at that time three modes of travelling to the North-Western Provinces. One was being carried in a palanquin on men's shoulders, arrangements being made to have fresh bearers every few miles. For a long journey of more than four hundred miles to Benares this was at once a very tedious and fatiguing mode of travelling. To one who knew not a word of the language of the people in whose hands one was to be for days it was additionally trying. Yet not a few persons newly arrived, some of them delicate ladies, did travel in that mode to far more distant places than Benares, and very seldom any mishap befell them. In this mode little more could be taken in the way of luggage than necessary clothing.
Another mode was by the river in a native boat, with a crew engaged to take the party to their destination. Not a few travelled in this way, even to Delhi. Weeks, often months, were spent on the voyage; great inconveniences were endured, and not infrequently great perils encountered from the sudden storms to which voyagers on the Ganges are exposed, from the strong and eddying currents in some parts of the river, and perhaps most of all from the treacherous character of the boatmen. In 1841 and 1842 a severe storm fell on a large fleet of boats taking a European regiment to the north-west. Many of the boats were wrecked, and, if I remember rightly, about three hundred men lost their lives.
There was a third mode of proceeding to the north-west. A few years previously a River Steam Company had been formed for the transmission of passengers and goods. Passengers were accommodated in flats drawn by steamers. As the Ganges enters Bengal it breaks into a number of streams, by which it makes its way to the ocean. The Hoogly, on which Calcutta stands, is one of these streams. Some of them are so shallow at certain seasons that native boats of considerable size cannot find sufficient water, and they are at that time impassable for steamers, though so constructed as to have the least possible draught. The result is that the steamers for the north-west (we believe none ply now) had to make a great detour, to go down the Hoogly to Saugor Island, and then to proceed by one of the channels there found to the main stream. This greatly increased the distance to the north-west. Except in the rainy season, steamers for Benares had to go about eight hundred miles.
[Sidenote: THE SUNDERBUNS.]
Of these three routes this one of the river steamers was in many respects the most convenient and pleasant, especially for persons new in the country, and my Calcutta friends kindly arranged that I should be sent on in this way. I accordingly embarked for Benares on a flat, tugged by a steamer, in the first week of March. After going down the Hoogly to Saugor Island, we made our way into the district called the Sunderbuns by one of the channels of the Ganges. We got into a labyrinth of streams, every here and there opening up into a wide reach of water, giving one the impression we were entering a lake; and shortly afterwards we found ourselves in a channel so narrow that we almost touched the banks on both sides, and which barely allowed a passage where there was a sharp turn in the stream. We had native pilots who knew the region thoroughly, and were in no danger of going astray. The land down to the water's edge was covered with the densest tropical vegetation, so that the banks often bounded our view, except when the trees on it were lower than those beyond. In the waters and out, wild beasts abound. Alligators were seen dropping from the banks into the stream on hearing the approach of the steamer. We saw no tigers, but we heard much about them as we were threading our way through that region. The previous year, early one morning, the watch on the deck of the flat was startled by a tiger leaping on board, and, evidently bewildered by its new circumstances, leaping off on the other side. Messrs. Lacroix and Gogerly, when on a native boat in the Sunderbuns, were witnesses of a desperate fight between a tiger and an alligator. The story has been often told.
Less than two centuries ago there was a large population in what may be called that amphibious region, the soil when cleared being very rich; but owing to the incursions of Mug pirates from the coast of Burmah, and the oppression of Muhammadan rulers of Bengal, the most of the inhabitants perished, others fled, and so complete was the ruin that the exact site of once prosperous cities is unknown. In a region like the Sunderbuns, when man's restraining and improving hand is withdrawn every trace of his presence disappears under the rank vegetation, which speedily covers the sphere of his labours. The country, under British protection, was in 1839 beginning to be reoccupied. Patches of ground were reclaimed from the jungle, and since that time cultivation has been greatly extended. We occasionally met native boats, and were thus reminded we were not the only human begins in that district. Nearly a week elapsed before we emerged from the Sunderbuns.
Our passengers were a motley band. Between twenty and thirty were Europeans, two or three were Eurasians, and there was a company of Sepoys under a native officer in charge of treasure. Most of the Sepoys were Hindus, and as they cannot cook on the water, which is forbidden by caste-law, they were obliged to subsist as they best could on dry grain. The Muhammadans had no convenience for cooking on the flat, but they were allowed partial use of the steamer. All were delighted when they got into the open country, and could get on shore at night to prepare their meals.
The steamer and flat were brought to anchor at all the important towns on the river, for lading and unlading goods and for landing passengers, of whom very few left us, as most were bound for Benares and Allahabad. When evening came on we always anchored, wherever we might be. We saw a little of Bhagulpore, Monghyr, Dinapore, Patna, Ghazeepore, and some other places. At Monghyr I spent a very pleasant evening with Mr. Leslie of the Baptist Mission, even then of considerable standing, and years afterwards a highly esteemed veteran in the missionary host.
[Sidenote: A STORM ON THE GANGES.]
Our progress was slow. In some places the stream was too strong for our steamer tugging the flat, and in other places the water was too shallow. Sometimes we got for hours, in one case for a whole day, on sandbanks, from which we got off with great difficulty. The most memorable incident of the voyage was a storm, which came on us one evening as we were nearing Dinapore. There was so little warning of its approach that we, who knew not the climate, were quite unprepared for its coming. Before breaking on us we were brought to a standstill, the flat was separated from the steamer, and both flat and steamer were brought to anchor. The sky suddenly became dark, we heard puffs of wind, and then the storm burst on us in all its fury. The dust was so raised that we could see only a few feet from the flat, and the flat so rolled that every now and then a splash of water came in at the windows. A scene of great confusion ensued. Some Indo-Portuguese servants were on their knees, imploring Mary -- "Mariam, Mariam!" -- to save them. The Hindus were loud in their appeals to "Ram, Ram!" while the Muhammadans shouted "Allah, Allah!" A newly arrived English lady almost fainted from fright, and her husband tried to calm and assure her. Every face indicated anxiety. In less than an hour all was over, and we were thankful to find ourselves once more in safety.
Before leaving England I had possessed myself of a Hindustanee Grammar, and in Calcutta of a Hindustanee Dictionary. On the voyage to India I did not make much of the grammar, but on the way to Benares I gave myself resolutely to learning the language. I found a young native officer on the flat who knew a little English, and who professed to be a good Hindustanee scholar. I got the consent of the native officer in command to his coming to my cabin when off duty, and I spent hours daily with him, trying to get my tongue about the strange sounds, with which I knew I must be familiar if I was to do the work for which I had come to India. I received great help from this young Muhammadan, and felt as if I was beginning to get my foot into the language before reaching my destination.
On the three Sabbaths I was on the river I had the pleasure of preaching to the Europeans on board.
A voyage on the Ganges does not enable one to see much of the country. The banks are often very high; in many places there is a great extent of sand; the country, with the exception of the district where the main stream is entered, is very level, and the country is therefore very imperfectly seen. The native craft, so unlike the vessels of our own country, with their lofty prows and sterns, and great ragged square sails, many laden with wood and grass, which made them like moving stacks, were constant objects of interest.
At length, after more than three weeks on board, we were delighted one Sunday forenoon to see in the distance the domes and minarets of Benares.