A Prophecy which came True

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character buildingCharacter Building in Kashmir
By C.E. Tyndale Biscoe
Foreword by Sir Robert Baden Powell
Published in 1920 by Church Missionary Society, London

It was in the autumn of the year 1891 that His Excellency Lord Landsowne came to Kashmir, during a short stay fount time to visit the Mission School and speak to the boys. He spoke warmly of the work that the Rev. J.H. Knowles had accomplished in establishing the school amidst so many difficulties (one of them being that several  of the boys suffered imprisonment for attending), and to show his practical interest in this school he presented two medals, one of silver and one of bronze. These have ever since been cause of friendly rivalry among the boys, which increases in keenness year by years.

The room in which Lord Landsdowne was peaking overhangs the Jhelum; as he looked out of windows and his eyes fell upon the beautiful stretch of the river, he saw into future, and expressed the hope that the State and the Mission School might ere long be competing in friendly contest for the headship of the Jhelum, as Oxford and Cambridge Universities stive yearly for the headship of the Thames.

Such thoughts were natural to a sporting English gentleman who had been trained from his youth in an atmosphere of manliness and fair play, but to the boys before his words  meant nothing for that life of manliness and sports was as yet unknown to them. Was he not talking to holy Brahmans, the sons of holy Brahmans, who would never demean themselves and insult their godlike caste by doing boatman’s work?  Yet His Excellency was a prophet, and no false one, though his words waited for fulfilment for eighteen full years.

In order that you may in some way realize why the prophecy was so long in coming to pass, I must spin you a yarn, as it will show you the character of the Kashmiri Brahman as he was twenty-nine years ago, and why it has been so hard a job to change the leapard’s spots.

In the spring of 1891, about four months before Lord Lansdowne’s visit, I was requested by the European community to take over change of the boat club, and build them some rowing boats. As I had never built even a punt, I naturally declined the honour; but as they would not take “No’ for an answer, and were so certain that I could build boats, I plucked up courage and undertook the job. A Frenchman most kindly came to my aid, and gave me the lines for the boats and found me carpenters, so that in a few weeks we had the required boats floating right side up on the Jhelum.

At the same time I built a boat for myself, and I remember that the paint for it cost more than the cedar wood of which it was built.

This boat was destined to play an important part in training of the Kashmiri boys, and especially of the Brahmans. I lost no time in sculling it down to the school in order to commence operations at once, as I , like Lord Lansdowne. Had pictured in my mind’s eye a racing eight-oared boat, swinging up and down the Jhelum before an admiring crowd. But I little knew of the battle that was awaiting me.

What a blessed thing it is that one does not know the future! Well, as I neared the school, the windows were crowded with straining necks and turbaned heads, all grinning and chattering, trying to force their way to the front, wondering what new folly this young sahib had taken to now. the sculls were put away, and so were the turbaned heads from the windows. School commenced, and soon all the students were greedily devouring the words before them (not necessarily the meaning) as they committed sentence after sentence to memory, swaying backwards and forwards as they squatted on the ground, droning over and over again the same few words, drawing in their breath through their lips, making a sucking, slobbering sort of noise. When the English period came, they were allowed to talk on the subject of boats, and I know that I learnt a great deal more about the Kashmir Brahman in that hour than they ever learnt about boats. But my learning in this line had only begun. These were some of the important things that I learnt during that hour:-

No Brahman must ever use a paddle, or oar, or in any way propel a boat, as that would lower their caste to that of the despised boatman.

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This probably was the root of the whole business namely, that the act of pulling an oar might produce muscle on the arms and, as muscle was only worn by coolies, my worthies might be mistaken for such low-caste beings. No Brahman had so vulgar an appendage as muscle on the arm.

Of course I informed them that, if they rowed properly, they would not get muscle on their arms, but on their backs and legs, and therefore their arms might still remain high-caste arms.

However, all argument failed, so what words could not effect something else should, could, and did.

Seeing the attitude that all the boys had taken up with regards to rowing, I determined to commence with the teachers, who would have more sense. I expected that they being Brahmans, would be able to accomplish what I, as an Englishman, a man of no caste, was unable to do. So at the half-hour’s ‘break’ I asked two of the teachers to come with me in the boat, receive the first lesson in rowing, and so set an example to the boys. What was my astonishment whenthey also said that they could not possibly do so, using the same excuse as the boys had done. Well, here was a problem to be solved.

As a matter of fact, the solution worked itself out somehow, for in few seconds, in fact before anyone could object, the teacher, who a moment before had been standing at the top of the hall stairs, found themselves down at the bottom, and in a shorter time than it takes to write we were all on the river ghat tighter, looking at the bran new dinghy which was moored under the wall.

There was again a certain hesitation on the part of the teachers to move their bodies from the wall into the boat below, and so, for fear the spirit of argument might once again get possession of them, something happened which altered their position, and before they had time to think they found themselves sprawling at the bottom of the boat; I was in, too, and had cast off, and we three were quickly floating down stream towards the four-spanned bridge under which the water was rushing in swirls and eddies.

Tyndale Biscoe School - A welcome to the Maharaja Of J&K in 1915
Tyndale Biscoe School – A welcome to the Maharaja Of J&K in 1915

Now, in a boat one man must be captain and the captain must be obeyed; so I ordered my crew to grasp the oars, which they did with trepidation. I placed the oars in the rowlocks for them, made them sit on the seats, and ordered them to pull. As we were fast nearing  the bridge broadside on, in order to save a catastrophe I had to take an oar till we were on the safe side of the bridge. But there were four more bridges below us. Those Brahman teachers had material back bones, if they were minus the moral article, and I had knuckles, so what with their backbones and my knuckles (I placed myself behind them) and the fact that they were out of sight of the school windows, those teachers pulled their oars somehow. How we ever got back to the school ghat I do not remember, but we accomplished it. And we had done the up-stream journey by the prowese of two Brahman Teachers, who had rowed in a boat with oars which had leather on them, and had made a beginning in making that low-caste stuff commonly called muscle!

That is history, and what Lord Lansdowne said was prophecy. What has been the result?

You will now be able to understand to a certain degree how the boys took the Viceroy’s words concerning the grand sport of rowing and an interschool boat race, words which were spoken about four months after this first introduction of the school to oars and their use. I need not waste your time with recounting what followed after that first trip in the boat, but suffice it to say that these two teachers were not the only one who learnt to fly to the boat, and discover that they had backbones in two senses of the word.

A School RegattaIf Lord  Lansdowne could visit Kashmir again, he would see at the end of every summer the great race for the headship of the river, our ten mission school boats finishing their race near the very spot where he had stood. But he would see something more. For the non-Christian schools of Srinagar copied us and, as long ago as September, 1909, felt themselves able to accept our challenge. The competing teams on that occasion, in addition to our own, represented the State, the Hindu, and the Islamia School. That historic race, the first of many others, was rowed over a course of two miles, and our crew won by thirty lengths.

Then we were only at the beginning of things, since our eye was upon the goal, namely, that the work of the Kashmir boatmen might considered an honourable employment, and that we might see crews of Brahman boys actually paddling with Kashmir paddles, not only using their prowess in racing, but taking out their families for change of air on the lakes, and in time of flood becoming life-saving boatmen.

I knew it would be a long fight, but had no idea that it would be such a hard one.