Item 130 - Circular letter by F. W. Pethick-Lawrence

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Circular letter by F. W. Pethick-Lawrence


  • 15 Dec. 1926 (Creation)

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5 sheets

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Hotel Cecil, Agra.—Describes his and his wife’s second visit to Calcutta, and their journey thence to Peshawar, Landikotal, Lahore, Delhi, and Agra. Records Emmeline’s impressions of the Taj Mahal.

(Mechanical copy of a typed original.)



Hotel Cecil,
December 15, 1926.

The date at the top of this letter reminds me that a calendar month from to-day we are due to set sail for home. But although we have already travelled through India from West (Bombay) to East (Madras & Calcutta) and from South (Madura close to the tip) to the extreme North (in the frontier of Afghanistan) and are now due in the North centre our next journeyings will take us a long way further East (out of Bengal into Assam) before we turn finally westward and homeward.

My last letter described our sight of the Himalayan snows from Darjeeling. I have now to tell you of our journey over the Khyber Pass and of our visit to the historic monuments of India.

Before this however I must tell you that my second three days in Calcutta were packed as full of incident as the first. I spent a morning going over a jute mill, an afternoon meeting the liberal and other non-Swaraj politicians, and an evening dining with an Indian Judge and going on from there to an Indian theatre. Another night I dined with the Swarajists, all of the Directors of “Forward” newspaper being present together. I lunched with an interesting group of people and heard a vigorous case made out against the handling by the Bengal Government of the irrigation of the Province, I lunched another day with a group of the Council members of Bengal; and finally Emmeline and I spent a day in the little French town of Chandernagore and visited the home of Mr. Roy Chowdury one of the appointed Labour Members of the Bengal Legislative Assembly.

That night we started on a 60-hour journey to Peshawar. Many people detest train journeys here because of the heat and dust and monotony. We find them very pleasant and a considerable rest after the busy days in towns. Of course it is the “cold weather” period just now when the temperatures in the North of India correspond very much to the best September and October weather in England.

We passed through Allahabad at midday, and in the afternoon reached Cawnpore where Ameer’s [Footnote: ‘Our Indian servant.’] two little girls were brought by his brother down to the station to see him, Delhi at midnight, Amballa at 5 a.m., Lahore at one o’clock in the afternoon, Pindi at 9 p.m., crossed the Indus about 4 a.m., and finally arrived at Peshawar at 6 p.m. It was quite dark, rather cold, the hotel was almost asleep, and our van luggage had got left behind at Amballa.

But the sun very soon shone and at 10 o’clock we were bowling along in a motor car over the Khyber Pass. First some eight miles along a dusty plain to Jamrud. Then 17 miles up a twisty mountain road to Landikotal. It was Tuesday—one of the biweekly caravan days—and we passed and met the full complement of camels and their drivers. We counted enough to enable us to realise that there were about a thousand gping† each way. This is an astonishingly large number and some idea of it may be gathered from these two computations. If they were all tethered head to tail with about a camel’s length between them they would stretch in all (as they did in fact) about three miles. If they each carried on an average 4 cwt of burden (and many of them carried more), they would bear between them a cargo of 200 tons the equivalent of the load of one train!

It was fairly simple on the outward journey to get by them for the road bifurcates in places and while fast vehicular traffic goes one way, ox waggons and pack animals go another, and we got by most of them during these stretches. But coming back we came up with them at places where one of the roads was under repair and we were all in a lump together—two thousand camels and a motor car on one road—no easy task either for camel drivers or chauffeur.

Landikotal is the last cantonment of any size in British India and is the top of the pass. We were taken three miles further with an escort on the front seat, beside Ameer and the chauffeur, to Michnikandar. A bend in the road and the whole Afghan landscape bursts into view—the frontier itself three miles away and beyond, plains and mountains and plains and mountains, and ranges and ranges until at last 200 miles to the North are the snows which lie beyond Kabul which itself is 155 miles away!

We clambered to the top of a mound to get the panoramic view, just above us is the tower fort with 2 Indian soldiers silhouetted against the radiant blue sky. A picnic lunch and the return to Peshawar past endless camels.

Peshawar is always liable to be looted by tribal robbers and is now surrounded by barbed wire and illuminated at night. That these marauding tribes are driven on by hunger is shown by the facts that 1) during the construction of the railway up the pass when there was a livelihood to be got by anyone who chose to work, marauding ceased; the rail built it has begun again. 2) A dam brought water to one tribe, it is now law-abiding. Unfortunately the same remedy cannot be applied elsewhere in other tribal valleys for there is no water available, and the tribesmen cannot be induced to leave their inhospitable mountain valleys for better irrigated regions.

Our friends the Jardines, whom we had met on board ship and expected to find at Peshawar had unfortunately been moved 2 hours journey away and could not come in, but they sent word to friends of theirs, Captain and Mrs. Galbraith, who were perfectly charming to us, showing us the sights of the city, getting up a game of tennis, giving us dinner, and letting us understand what they felt of the situation. It made our stay in Peshawar a delightful one.

A night’s journey and half a day brought us back to Lahore, where Lajpat Rai (now reckoned an Indian moderate) had arranged a public lecture for me and later a private dinner party. I was introduced to Punjab politics where there are three sections:—Mahommeddans 54% Hindus 33% Sikhs 13% (my figures are from memory only). Lajpat Rai has triumphed here over his Swarajist opponents, but the future is uncertain.

Next day after seeing some Labour men and visiting a famous mosque we lunched with some board-ship English friends and then were entertained at a big garden party where most of the leading Indians of Lahore came to see us.

A night’s journey brought us to Delhi. Of the three days there Emmeline spent the first two in bed with a cold, and I the last in bed with a slight fever. As a result we were Cox and Box in sight seeing. First I saw the new Delhi (five miles away) and made the acquaintance of several members of the secretariat; then next day I was taken by the Grahams to a picnic in the grounds of the Hanz Khas, an ancient Hindu College and tomb. The third day Emmeline did a round of Delhi’s† ancient and modern including the newest Delhi and visited the famous fort. We agreed on this that we liked the old Delhis best.

Yesterday morning we came here to Agra and as soon as possible went to the Taj. It is nearly thirty years since I saw it first, and I have seen many other lovely things in between, but my view has not changed that of all human achievements in architecture it stands without a peer. As Emmeline sees it now for the first time I leave the description of it to her. She writes:—“No words, no pictures or models can give any idea of the beauty of the Taj Mahal. The first sight of it strikes one almost breathless, as would the appearance of some heavenly vision. As one approaches nearer, the wonderful effect deepens, for the Taj is not only perfect in its wholeness, but perfect in every detail. Under the blue dome of the Indian sky the shining vision stands, its white marble crystal-like dome gathering and shedding forth the light. The approach to it is by a long avenue of conventional cypresses, and a long stone and marble water garden; and on the further side of the Taj the river Jumna flows.

As you know the building is the commemoration of a beautiful and beloved woman, built by her royal lover and husband. It is the equivalent of a lovely statue, for all the architectural critics admit that this structure expresses in all its curves and lines the ideal beauty of womanhood. The building, the 4 minarets that guard it, and the very large terrace on which it is elevated are of shining white marble, spotless and flawless. Every square yard has been touched by the artist, beautiful carving in bas relief (of flowers) and wonderful carving, of screenwork (like Mushriabiah screenwork): passages from the Koran inlaid in black marble, and lovely floral design inlaid with gems and precious stones. Glowing colour in that crystal whiteness. Beautiful as are all the parts, it is the simplicity and purity of its wholeness that moves one most of all.

The king spent all his patrimony on its completion, and was taken prisoner by his son, who feared penury, and was held in prison for seven years. At the hour of his death, he was at his request, carried to a balcony where across the river he could gaze to the last on the shining dome. We stood on the same balcony and tried to imagine what his thoughts were then.

There are many beautiful buildings and monuments in Delhi and in Agra—but the Taj is supreme. It is to my mind the most beautiful form that the human imagination has ever achieved. There may be greater and grander structures, but nothing for sheer loveliness like it.”

We drove to-day 23 miles to Fatipur Sikri to see the great palace of Akbar, a wonderful work of carved redsandstone†, and the delicate marble tomb of the saint.

Then to-night we went again to the Taj in the moonlight and to-morrow we go there to see the rising sun.

After that we are away to Cawnpore, Sitapur, Benares and eastward through Calcutta to Gauhati in Assam for the Indian National Congress.



† Sic.

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