Taming of Wild Beasts by Fakirs

At the great festivals of Hindu pagodas, at the marriage feasts of rich high-castes, everywhere where large crowds are gathered, Europeans find guni — or serpent-charmers, fakirs-mesmerizers, thaum-working sannyasi, and so-called "jugglers." To deride is easy — to explain, rather more troublesome — to science impossible. The British residents of India and the travellers prefer the first expedient. But let any one ask one of these Thomases how the following results — which they cannot and do not deny — are produced? When crowds of guni and fakirs appear with their bodies encircled with cobras-de-capello, their arms ornamented with bracelets of corallilos — diminutive snakes inflicting certain death in a few seconds — and their shoulders with necklaces of trigonocephali, the most terrible enemy of naked Hindu feet, whose bite kills like a flash of lightning, the sceptic witness smiles and gravely proceeds to explain how these reptiles, having been thrown in cataleptic torpor, were all deprived by the guni of their fangs. "They are harmless and it is ridiculous to fear them." "Will the Saeb caress one of my nag?" asked once a guni approaching our interlocutor, who had been thus humbling his listeners with his herpetological achievements for a full half hour. Rapidly jumping back — the brave were slowly dying of fever under the treatment of enlightened physicians, the bark of the Margosa, and the Chiretta herb have cured them completely, and these now occupy an honorable place among European drugs.

warrior's feet proving no less nimble than his tongue —

Captain B--'s angry answer could hardly be immortalized by us in print. Only the guni's terrible body-guard saved him from an unceremonious thrashing. Besides, say a word, and for a half-roupee any professional serpent-charmer will begin creeping about and summon around in a few moments numbers of untamed serpents of the most poisonous species, and will handle them and encircle his body with them. On two occasions in the neighborhood of Trinkemal a serpent was ready to strike at the writer, who had once nearly sat on its tail, but both times, at a rapid whistle of the guni whom we had hired to accompany us, it stopped — hardly a few inches from our body, as if arrested by lightning and slowly sinking its menacing head to the ground, remained stiff and motionless as a dead branch, under the charm of the kma. *

Will any European juggler, tamer, or even mesmerizer, risk repeating just once an experiment that may be daily witnessed in India, if you know where to go to see it? There is nothing in the world more ferocious than a royal Bengal tiger. Once the whole population of a small village, not far from Dakka, situated on the confines of a jungle, was thrown into a panic at the appearance of an enormous tigress, at the dawn of the day. These wild beasts never leave their dens but at night, when they go searching for prey and for water. But this unusual circumstance was due to the fact that the beast was a mother, and she had been deprived of her two cubs, which

* The Hindu appellation for the peculiar mantram or charm which prevents the serpent from biting.

had been carried away by a daring hunter, and she was in search of them. Two men and a child had already become her victims, when an aged fakir, bent on his daily round, emerging from the gate of the pagoda, saw the situation and understood it at a glance. Chanting a mantram he went straight to the beast, which with flaming eye and foaming mouth crouched near a tree ready for a new victim. When at about ten feet from the tigress, without interrupting his modulated prayer, the words of which no layman comprehends, he began a regular process of mesmerization, as we understood it; he made passes. A terrific howl which struck a chill into the heart of every human being in the place, was then heard. This long, ferocious, drawling howl gradually subsided into a series of plaintive broken sobs, as if the bereaved mother was uttering her complaints, and then, to the terror of the crowd which had taken refuge on trees and in the houses, the beast made a tremendous leap — on the holy man as they thought. They were mistaken, she was at his feet, rolling in the dust, and writhing. A few moments more and she remained motionless, with her enormous head laid on her fore-paws, and her bloodshot but now mild eye riveted on the face of the fakir. Then the holy man of prayers sat beside the tigress and tenderly smoothed her striped skin, and patted her back, until her groans became fainter and fainter, and half an hour later all the village was standing around this group; the fakir's head lying on the tigress's back as on a pillow, his right hand on her head, and his left thrown on the sod under the terrible mouth, from which the long red protruding tongue was gently licking it.

This is the way the fakirs tame the wildest beasts in India. Can European tamers, with their white-hot iron rods, do as much? Of course every fakir is not endowed with such a power; comparatively very few are. And yet the actual number is large. How they are trained to these requirements in the pagodas will remain an eternal secret, to all except the Brahmans and the adepts in occult mysteries. The stories, hitherto considered fables, of Christna and Orpheus charming the wild beasts, thus receives its corroboration in our day. There is one fact which remains undeniable. There is not a single European in India who could have, or has ever boasted of having, penetrated into the enclosed sanctuary within the pagodas. Neither authority nor money has ever induced a Brahman to allow an uninitiated foreigner to pass the threshold of the reserved precinct. To use authority in such a case would be equivalent to throwing a lighted taper into a powder magazine. The Hindus, mild, patient, long-suffering, whose very apathy saved the British from being driven out of the country in 1857, would raise their hundred millions of devotees as one man, at such a profanation; regardless of sects or castes, they would exterminate every Christian. The East India Company knew this well and built her stronghold on the friendship of the Brahmans, and by paying subsidy to the pagodas; and the British Government is as prudent as its predecessor. It is the castes, and noninterference with the prevailing religions, that secure its comparative authority in India. But we must once more recur to Shamanism, that strange and most despised of all surviving religions — "Spirit-worship."

Its followers have neither altars nor idols, and it is upon the authority of a Shaman priest that we state that their true rites, which they are bound to perform only once a year, on the shortest day of winter, cannot take place before any stranger to their faith. Therefore, we are confident that all descriptions hitherto given in the Asiatic Journal and other European works, are but guess-work. The Russians, who, from constant intercourse with the Shamans in Siberia and Tartary, would be the most competent of all persons to judge of their religion, have learned nothing except of the personal proficiency of these men in what they are half inclined to believe clever jugglery. Many Russian residents, though, in Siberia, are firmly convinced of the "supernatural" powers of the Shamans. Whenever they assemble to worship, it is always in an open space, or a high hill, or in the hidden depths of a forest — in this reminding us of the old Druidical rites. Their ceremonies upon the occasions of births, deaths, and marriages are but trifling parts of their worship. They comprise offerings, the sprinkling of the fire with spirits and milk, and weird hymns, or rather, magical incantations, intoned by the officiating Shaman, and concluding with a chorus of the persons present.

The numerous small bells of brass and iron worn by them on the priestly robe of deerskin,* or the pelt of some other animal reputed magnetic, are used to drive away the malevolent spirits of the air, a superstition shared by all the nations of old, including Romans, and even the Jews, whose golden bells tell the story. They have iron staves also covered with bells, for the same reason. When, after certain ceremonies, the desired crisis is reached, and "the spirit has spoken," and the priest (who may be either male or female) feels its overpowering influence, the hand of the Shaman is drawn by some occult power toward the top of the staff, which is commonly covered with hieroglyphics. With his palm pressing upon it, he is then raised to a considerable height in the air, where he remains for some time. Sometimes he leaps to an extraordinary height, and, according to the control — for he is often but an irresponsible medium — pours out prophecies and describes future events. Thus, it was that, in 1847, a Shaman in a distant part of Siberia

* Between the bells of the "heathen" worshippers, and the bells and pomegranates of the Jewish worship, the difference is this: the former, besides purifying the soul of man with their harmonious tones, kept evil demons at a distance, "for the sound of pure bronze breaks the enchantment," says Tibullius (i., 8-22), and the latter explained it by saying that the sound of the bells "should be heard [by the Lord] when he [the priest] goeth in unto the holy place before the Lord, and when he goeth out, that he die not" (Exodus xxviii. 33; Eccles. xiv. 9). Thus, one sound served to keep away evil spirits, and the other, the Spirit of Jehovah. The Scandinavian traditions affirm that the Trolls were always driven from their abodes by the bells of the churches. A similar tradition is in existence in relation to the fairies of Great Britain.

prophesied and accurately detailed the issue of the Crimean war. The particulars of the prognostication being carefully noted by those present at the time, were all verified six years after this occurrence. Although usually ignorant of even the name of astronomy, let alone having studied this science, they often prophesy eclipses and other astronomical phenomena. When consulted about thefts and murders, they invariably point out the guilty parties.

The Shamans of Siberia are all ignorant and illiterate. Those of Tartary and Thibet — few in number — are mostly learned men in their own way, and will not allow themselves to fall under the control of spirits of any kind. The former are mediums in the full sense of the word; the latter, "magicians." It is not surprising that pious and superstitious persons, after seeing one of such crises, should declare the Shaman to be under demoniacal possession. As in the instances of Corybantic and Bacchantic fury among the ancient Greeks, the "spiritual" crisis of the Shaman exhibits itself in violent dancing and wild gestures. Little by little the lookers-on feel the spirit of imitation aroused in them; seized with an irresistible impulse, they dance, and become, in their turn, ecstatics; and he who begins by joining the chorus, gradually and unconsciously takes part in the gesticulations, until he sinks to the ground exhausted, and often dying.

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