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TRIAL FOR WITCHCRAFT.
NO one who has had the good or bad fortune to alight in the northeastern portion of the city of Bangkok can ever forget the temples and monasteries of Brahmanee Wade. They are situated by themselves, at the northeastern extremity of the city walls, where not a modern building is to be seen, for even the few houses which were erected as lately as yesterday have been fashioned after the ancient model prescribed by the Hindoo architect; and in no part of the world is there seen so perfect an historical picture of the ancient Brahminical architecture as in this part of the city of Bangkok. The varied gables, the quaint little windows, the fantastic towers and narrow doorways, with the endless effects of color, make this spot a perpetual delight to the curious traveller; and the Brahmins who occupy this part of the city, allotted to them from time immemorial by the kings of Siam, still preserve the ancient costume of their forefathers, which makes the picture complete.
On the morning of the 20th of November, 1866, three women, half stupefied by the foul air of the damp cells in which they had been immured, were conducted through the silent, sleeping streets of the palace and city to a small room or "black hole" adjoining the great court-hall of the temple of Brahmanee Wade, and locked up therein, while the file of Amazons and the troop of soldiers in charge took their places around it.
While the Invincible City was being disenchanted by one set of Brahmins to be purified by another set of Buddhist priests, I set off on horseback, attended only by my Hindostanee syce, or groom, to the scene of the trial.
November here is the pleasantest month in the year; and the morning sun shone brightly, but not too warmly; as we approached the walls of the temples and monasteries of Brahmanee Wade, — so wild, so isolated, so set in contrast by oddness of architectural effects to the general order and appearance of the rest of the town, as to seem, indeed, to belong to another age and another world. The dark walls and huge trees were covered with parasitic plants. A deep, narrow valley, through which a tiny streamlet runs, over a stony bed, betwixt sloping sides of grass and furze-clad steeps, is crossed by a stone bridge, black with time, which leads to the portals of Brahminism. The little mad stream roared and fled darkly on, as it will perhaps forever.
There was a dreadful loneliness about the place, and a sort of darkness, too,, whether in my mind or in the place I cannot say, but it spoke of all kinds of magic and witchcraft, and even of devilcraft.
Deep in the glen, sloping down to the stream, amid picturesque and romantic surroundings, stood the old temple of Kalee Durga; and running along, like a huge, jagged shadow, dark even in the brightest sunlight, rose the roofs of the monastic dwellings of the Brahmin ass, from which the place is named.
I alighted, and told my syce to wait outside for me; but lie. being a pious Hindoo, bestrode the pony and rode off, to return in a quarter of an hour with oil and fresh flowers and sweetmeats enough to propitiate a great many dark goddesses.
There was not a soul to be seen anywhere, whether of Brahmanic or Buddhistic faith So I followed my syce into the temple, and while he prostrated himself at full length before each one of his gods, I took out my notebook and occupied myself in making sketches and memoranda of the strange scene before me.
Vishnu, Siva, Krishna, and the goddess Kalee, were the chief deities of the place, and figured as the heroes and heroines among the numerous grotesque and monstrous myths sculptured on the walls.
Here was Vishnu lying comfortably on the thousand-headed snake Shesha, or sporting as a fish, or crawling as a tortoise, or showing his fangs as a wild boar, or shaking his head in his last and fifth avatar as a dwarf, all admirably executed. Here too was Krishna, like another Apollo, whipped out of heaven for playing tricks on the lovely shepherdesses of Muttra, whose tender hearts he stole away, and whose butter he found so tempting that he perpetually ran off with it in secret, and whose jars of milk it was this madcap's pleasure roguishly to upset. In another compartment, crumbling with age, he is seen again in his last mad prank, perched on a stony tree with the milkmaids' stony habiliments under his arm, and an unmistakable grin on his stony, greasy1 face, while the owners of the dresses are standing below in various attitudes of bashfulness imploring their restoration. Before them in different places stands the Lingam. Here was also a beautiful sculpture of Siva and his wife Parvati, with the sacred bull Nandi lying at their feet, and Kalee in combat with the monster Mahashasura; and close by again she is seen caressing a Nylghau,2 that is looking up to her.
The figures of the goddesses are wonderfully spirited, and of exquisite symmetry, conveying the idea of perfect and beautiful womanhood. And yet Kalee is represented elsewhere in the same temple as a black and terrible being, covered with symbols of the most ferocious cruelty.
Saving finished my notes, I passed out by another entrance, and tried to quiet my fears for May-Peâh by continuing my rambles and explorations until breakfast-time. Instead of returning home for that meal, I despatched the syce to buy from the small Hindoo village by an earthen lota of milk and a flat cake of Bâjree bread, of which I made a pleasant repast, sitting under the deep shadows of the temples and trees dedicated to Brahma, of whom there is rarely, if ever, any representation.
Very soon I was repaid for my patient waiting, for I heard the sound of drums beating and martial music playing; and, rushing to the side whence it proceeded, the queerest and most weird-looking procession met my astonished eyes, — old women dressed in scarlet and yellow, and old gray-headed men in every variety of costume, combining all the known and unknown fashions of the past, some on foot and others on horseback, with embroidered flags of the same multiplicity of colors flying before the wind; and in the centre of all, clad in black and crimson vestments, riding on white mules, a band of about twenty men and women, some quite young and others extremely old, advancing with slow and solemn steps. These were the royal astrologers, wizards, and witches who, incredible as it may seem, are supported by the supreme king of Siam, and receive from the crown large and handsome salaries. I observed that the whole procession was composed of persons of the Hindoo religion.
In the rear came some Chinese coolies hired for the occasion, carrying two boxes and two long planks, which excited my curiosity. As they drew near they were joined by large numbers of well-dressed Siamese and a host of ragged slaves, which completed the motley scene.
I stepped out of the solemn shade of the boh and peepul trees, and took my seat on a broken stone pillar, still under shelter, and commanding a view of the grand hall. The roof, which was fast crumbling away, was an inferior imitation of that of the wondrous temple of Maha Nagkhon Watt, and had scarcely been touched for centuries, for there still figured the inevitable Siva and Kalee, and all the rest of the Hindoo gods and goddesses, dismantled and broken, but still in sufficient preservation to show the wild grotesqueness of the Hindoo imagination, which seems to have grown riotous in the effort to embody all its imperfect conceptions of the Divinity.
When this strange and solemn procession entered the portal of Brahmanee Wade they suddenly halted, threw up their arms and folded their hands above their heads, and repeated one of the most magnificent utterances of Krishna: "thou who art the life in all things, the eternal seed of nature, the understanding of the wise and the weakness of the foolish, the glory of the proud and the strength of the strong, the sacrifice and the worship, the incense and the fire, the victim and the slayer, the father and the mother of the world, gird thy servants with power and wisdom to-day to slay the slayer and to vanquish the deceiver,"3 etc. After which they marched to the sound of music into the temple, and offered sacrifices of wine and oil, and wheaten cakes and fresh flowers, and with their eyes lifted to the dark vaulted roof they again prayed, calling upon Brahma the father, the comforter, the creator, the tender mother, the holy way, the witness, the asylum, the friend of man, to illumine with the light of his understanding their feeble intellects to discern the devil and to vanquish him.
At length the astrologers, wizards, and witches took their places in the hall, with eager crowds all round them, Standing in rows on all the steps of the building. Then came two officers from the king with a royal letter, — one was the chief judge of the Supreme Court, and the other his secretary to report the trial. After this lordly personage had taken his seat, the prisoners — the two handmaids of the princess and my friend May-Peâh, who, as I feared, was the deaf and dumb "changeling" — brought in. She was deadly pale, and there was a wild light as of madness or intense suffering in her eyes. They were placed at the end of the hall, strongly guarded by as many as fifty Amazons, while the soldiers scattered themselves all round about the building. Not a word was spoken, and the strange assembly looked into one another's faces, as if each knew his neighbor's thoughts. I trembled for the unhappy prisoners; and the crowd, who seemed to look upon poor May-Peâh as a veritable witch, were silent in breathless expectation.
It was a frightful spot, and a still more indescribably terrifying scene, where one might indeed say with Hassan of Balsora, "Lo! this is the abode of genii and of ghouls and of devils." I had half a mind to slip down from my rocky perch and run away. But very soon my anxiety for poor May-Peâh absorbed every other feeling.
The three prisoners sat profoundly silent, waiting in sadness to hear their doom.
But why did they not begin the trial? There were the boxes and the planks with little niches cut into them, deep enough to enable any nimble person to climb with the tips of their toes, and scale any wall against which they might be placed. I turned to a soldier who was standing close by, and asked him why they still delayed the trial.
are waiting," said he, as if he knew all about it, and had
witnessed many such scenes before, "for the 'sage,' or holy man
of the woods; it is for him that they have blown the conch-shells
these three times." There was, to me, nothing improbable in the
soldier's story. He told me that this holy man, or yogi,4
lived in a cave, in the rocks adjoining, all alone, and that he
rarely issued from his unknown retreat during the day, but that pious
Hindoos, while performing their ablutions in the stream after the
close of their labors, could see him moving in the moonlight, and
hear him calling upon God. Feeding on tamarinds and other wild
fruits, he slept during the day like a wild animal, and prayed aloud
all night, oppressed by his longing and yearning after the Invisible,
as by some secret grief that knew no balm. Even the cool evening air
brought him no peace; for,
"At night the passion came,
Like the fierce fiend of a distempered dream;
And shook him from his rest, and led him forth
Into the darkness, to pray and pray forevermore."
By and by a man appeared on the opposite banks of the stream, plunged into it, and emerged on the hither side; shook the wet from his hair like a veritable beast, and made his way towards the hall, where he sat himself shyly down near the prisoners. This strange mortal, who lived the life of an "orang-outang," had a remarkably fine, sensitive face, and a noble head, around which his long, matted, unkempt hair fell like dark clouds. He was meagrely clad, and his wiry frame gave evidence of great muscular power. There was, to my thinking, a gleam of a better and higher humanity in his fine, dark face, that shot out in irrepressible flashes, and convinced me, in spite of his filth and nudity, of a noble and impressive nature.
The soldier assured me, in a tone of the utmost reverence, "that this man's eyes were opened, that he could Bee things which the paid mercenaries of the court could not begin even to comprehend; and that therefore they always made it a point to invite him to aid them in their spiritual examinations."
I somehow drew comfort from the yogi's shy and fascinating face.
And now the trial commenced by the judge reading the king's letter, which spoke of the mysterious and important nature of the accusation made against some unknown person for the abduction of a state prisoner, a lady of high rank and unflinching integrity, and called upon the assembly to do their utmost to unravel the inexplicable affair.
After the royal letter had received its customary salutations, and at the command of the judge, the two Amazons who were on duty on the night of the abduction of the princess testified to the following facts: "That on the night of the 12th, on a sudden a strong wind arose that extinguished their lanterns, leaving them in utter darkness, and immediately afterwards they were sensible that a tall, dark figure enveloped in a black veil entered the hall, and that as she approached them they saw, somewhat indistinctly, that she held a short dagger in one hand and a ponderous bunch of keys in the other; that never before having known themselves liable to any illusion of the senses, the horror which fell upon them at the moment deprived them of all power of speech or action; that, as the strange being stood over them brandishing her glittering knife, there flashed all round about her a hideous light; that by this light they saw her proceed to the cell in which the Princess Sunartha Vismita was confined, open it with one of her mysterious keys, and lead the princess forth, pulling her forcibly along by the hand, and as the flashes died away a double darkness fell upon them; that after an interval of nearly two hours, as they were still paralyzed and unable to move from the spot, the strange figure reappeared, pallid, and more ghastly than before, but without the veil, or the dagger, or the bunch of keys; that she passed quickly by them into the cell, and drew the prison door so forcibly that it closed upon her with a dismal cry of pain."
Then the two Laotians stated "that on the night of the 12th they were awakened by the slamming of the cell door, and, on looking in the darkness towards the bed on which the princess slept, they saw a figure sitting on it; on which they lit the lamp, and found it was not their mistress, but a dumb slave-woman in her place, and that they instinctively shrank away from her in fear and horror lest she should metamorphose them also into some unnatural beings."
As for the Amazons, it could readily be seen that their imaginations had been so vividly impressed that they were prepared to swear solemnly to their having seen a supernatural being twice the size and altogether unlike the deaf and dumb creature before them. The unnatural light of pain or madness or frenzy, or whatever it was, burned still more brightly in May-Peâh's eyes. Her reddish-brown dress seemed to be stained here and there with darker spots, as if of blood, and her face grew more and more colorless every moment. But to all the numberless questions put to her by every one of the crafty wizards and witches, she returned no reply. Her lips were of an ashy whiteness, and they really seemed to have been closed by a supernatural power.
I recalled her volubility of speech when I first met her, and her impassioned song, by which she won for her mistress the acknowledgment of a deep and undying love; and I asked myself the question over and over again, "Is it possible that she can be acting?" At a signal, an alarm-gong was struck, and so suddenly and immediately behind her that the whole assembly started, and May-Peâh, taken by surprise, turned to see. whence the sound came. "Now," shouted the wily judges, "it is plain that you can speak, for you are not deaf."
No sooner was this said than the feeling against the accused ran high, on account of her obstinacy, and she was forthwith condemned to all the tortures of the rack But the humane yogi, on hearing this, raised his bare arms on high, and uttered the wild cry of "Yah" (forbear) so commandingly that it rang through the temple, and arrested the cruel process.
He then turned to the poor girl, and, placing his huge, bony hands upon her shoulders, tenderly whispered in her ear something which seemed to move the prisoner for she raised her burning eyes, now filled with tears, to his face, and, shaking her head solemnly and sadly to and fro, laid her finger on her mouth to indicate that she could not speak.
A tender light kindled the dark face of the yogi, as he informed the assembly that "the woman was not a witch, nor even obstinate, but powerless to speak, because under the influence of witchcraft."
The tide of feeling was again turned in the prisoner's favor. "Let her be exorcised," said the chief judge of the Supreme Court, whose secretary was making minutes of all that took place during the trial.
On which the queerest-looking woman of the party, an old and toothless dame, drew out a key from her girdle and opened the wooden boxes, from which she took a small boat, a sort of coracle,5 — such as are still found in some parts of Wales, made by covering a wicker frame with leather, — a long gray veil of singular texture, an earthen stove, whereon to kindle a charcoal fire, and some charcoal; out of the second box she produced some herbs, pieces of flint, cast skins of snakes, feathers, the hair of various animals, with dead men's bones, short brooms, and a host of other queer things.
At any other time I should have been highly amused at the grotesqueness of the figure, and the comically ludicrous manner in which she drew, one after another, her mysterious ingredients out of her boxes; but now I was too anxious, and too much pained by the situation of May-Peâh, and by what seemed to me diabolical jugglery, to think of the comical side of the scene.
With the charcoal the old woman proceeded to light a fire in her earthen stove; when it was red-hot she opened several jars of water, and, muttering some strange incantations, threw into them portions of her herbs, repeating over each a mystic spell, and waving a curious wand which looked like a human bone, and might have been once the arm of a stalwart man. This done, she seated the prisoner in the centre of the motley group, covered her over with the veil of gray stuff, and handing the short hand-brooms to a number of her set, she, to my intense horror, began to pour the burning charcoal over the veiled form of the prisoner, which the other women, dancing around, and repeating with the wildest gestures the name of Brahma, as rapidly swept off. This was done without even singeing the veil or burning a hair of May-Peâh's head. After this they emptied the jars of water upon her, still repeating the name of Brahma. She was then made to change her clothes for an entirely new dress, of the Brahminical fashion. Her dressing and undressing were effected with great skill, without disclosing her person in the least. And once more the yogi laid his hands upon her shoulders, and whispered again in her ears, first the right, and then the left. But May-Peâh returned the same intimation, shaking her head, and pointing to her sealed lips.
Then the old wizard, Khoon P'hikhat, — literally, the lord who drives out the devil, — prostrated himself before her, and prayed with a wild energy of manner; and, rising suddenly, he peremptorily demanded, looking full into the prisoner's face, "Where did you drop the bunch of keys?"
The glaring daylight illuminated with a pale lustre the fine face of the Laotian slave, as for the third time she moved her head, in solemn intimation that she could not or would not speak.
To see her thus, no one would believe but that, if she willed, she could speak at once.
"Open her mouth, and pour some of the magic water into it," suggested one of the "wise women."
But they who opened her mouth fell back with horror, and cried, "Brahma, Brahma! an evil fiend has torn out her tongue." And immediately the unhappy woman passed from being an object of fear and dread to one of tender commiseration, of pity, and even of adoration.
So sudden was the transition from fear and hate to love and pity, that many of the strong men and women wept outright at the thought of the dreadful mutilation that the fiend had subjected her to.
Now came the last and most important question, "Was the exorcism effectual?" To prove which a small taper was lighted and put into the witches' boat; and the whole company betook themselves to the borders of the stream to see it launched. The boat swept gallantly down the waters, and the feeble lamp burned brightly, without even a flicker, — for it was a calm day, — till it was brought to a stand by some stones that were strewn across the stream.
Then the yogi raised a shout of wild delight, and all the company re-echoed it with intense satisfaction and pleasure. And, in accordance with the king's instructions, being fully acquitted of any complicity with the devil in the abduction of the princess, the prisoners received each a sum of money, and were set at liberty.
The planks, which in any other court would have been one of the most tangible evidences that some person had thereby scaled the palace walls, were never even thought of during this singular trial. So irrational and so superstitious is the native character, that they preferred to believe in the supernatural rather than in any rational cause for the diSâppearance of the princess; and for once in my life I was led to rejoice in their ignorance.
It was sunset before this inconceivably grotesque and self-deluded and deluding set of maniacs dispersed. The yogi went back to the solitude of his unknown cave to sleep by day and pray alone by night. And I sent my syce home, and remained behind under a jamoon-tree, to which my pony was tied, in the hope of getting an opportunity of speaking alone with the women who still lingered with May-Peâh in the hall.
When May-Peâh at length saw me, she rushed into my arms, and laid her head upon my shoulder, uttering the most doleful and piteous of cries; they were not cries of sorrow, but of the wildest joy! I embraced her with something of the tenderness and sorrow with which a mother takes a brave but reckless child to her heart.
May-Peâh's friends then told me, what I had all along surmised, that it was she who scaled the walls by means of the two planks, terrified the Amazons, opened the prison doors with the keys she had provided, and led her mistress forcibly out. After assisting her to climb the walls on the inner side, she sat on the top of the outer wall until she saw her safely on the other side. She then dropped the keys to her, to be flung into the river. Here the prince and his two friends received the princess, and led her to a small craft that was ready to convey them to Maulmain. In vain they entreated May-Peâh to come down from the wall and join their flight. She resolutely refused to leave the companions of her beloved mi in peril, and, full of dread lest, by the dreadful torture which she knew awaited her, she might be forced to betray those who were dearer to her than her own life, she with one stroke of her sharp dagger deprived herself forever of the power of uttering a single intelligible sound.
"O, but why did you not all go off with the princess?" I inquired.
"Because we were too many, and we should have only delayed and perhaps imperilled the success of the enterprise," said the women; "and May-Peâh had promised not to leave us to bear the penalty of her doings."
It was difficult to tear myself away from her. I was at once proud to be loved by her, and heart-broken to think that she would never speak again.
But at length we parted, and she, raising her hands high above her head, waved them to and fro, and smiled a joyful adieu, in spite of the pain she still suffered from her cruel mutilation.
They took the way to the river to hire a boat for Pak Laut, whence they were to sail to Maulmain to join the fugitive prince and princess.
Assuredly, so long as men and women shall hold dear human courage and devotion in what they believe to be a just cause, so long will the memory of this brave and self-sacrificing slave-girl be cherished.
1 The Hindoos besmear these sculptures with oil on festive occasions.
2 A large short-homed antelope found in Northern India. The males are of a beautiful slaty blue, and the females of a rusty red.
3 A prayer from the "Hindoo Liturgy," embodying some of the remarkable formulas of the Brahrninical worship.
4 A Hindoo mystic.
5 Similar boats were used by the ancient Egyptians.