Benares, Prayaga (now Allahabad), Nassik, Hurdwar, Bhadrinath, Matura - these were the sacred places of prehistoric India which we were to visit one after the other; but to visit them, not after the usual manner of tourists, a vol d'oiseau, with a cheap guide- book in our hands and a cicerone to weary our brains, and wear out our legs. We were well aware that all these ancient places are thronged with traditions and overgrown with the weeds of popular fancy, like ruins of ancient castles covered with ivy; that the original shape of the building is destroyed by the cold embrace of these parasitic plants, and that it is as difficult for the archaeologist to form an idea of the architecture of the once perfect edifice, judging only by the heaps of disfigured rubbish that cover the country, as for us to select from out the thick mass of legends good wheat from weeds. No guides and no cicerone could be of any use whatever to us. The only thing they could do would be to point out to us places where once there stood a fortress, a castle, a temple, a sacred grove, or a celebrated town, and then to repeat legends which came into existence only lately, under the Mussulman rule. As to the undisguised truth, the original history of every interesting spot, we should have had to search for these by ourselves, assisted only by our own conjectures.
Modern India does not present a pale shadow of what it was in the pre-Christian era, nor even of the Hindostan of the days of Akbar, Shah-Jehan and Aurungzeb. The neighborhood of every town that has been shattered by many a war, and of every ruined hamlet, is covered with round reddish pebbles, as if with so many petrified tears of blood. But, in order to approach the iron gate of some ancient fortress, it is not over natural pebbles that it is necessary to walk, but over the broken fragments of some older granite remains, under which, very often, rest the ruins of a third town, still more ancient than the last. Modern names have been given to them by Mussulmans, who generally built their towns upon the remains of those they had just taken by assault. The names of the latter are sometimes mentioned in the legends, but the names of their predecessors had completely disappeared from the popular memory even before the Mussulman invasion. Will a time ever come for these secrets of the centuries to be revealed? Knowing all this beforehand, we resolved not to lose patience, even though we had to devote whole years to explorations of the same places, in order to obtain better historical information, and facts less disfigured than those obtained by our predecessors, who had to be contented with a choice collection of naive lies, poured forth from the mouth of some frightened semi-savage, or some Brahman, unwilling to speak and desirous of disguising the truth. As for ourselves, we were differently situated. We were helped by a whole society of educated Hindus, who were as deeply interested in the same questions as ourselves. Besides, we had a promise of the revelation of some secrets, and the accurate translation of some ancient chronicles, that had been preserved as if by a miracle.
The history of India has long since faded from the memories of her sons, and is still a mystery to her conquerors. Doubtless it still exists, though, perchance, only partly, in manuscripts that are jealously concealed from every European eye. This has been shown by some pregnant words, spoken by Brahmans on their rare occasions of friendly expansiveness. Thus, Colonel Tod, whom I have already quoted several times, is said to have been told by a Mahant, the chief of an ancient pagoda-monastery: "Sahib, you lose your time in vain researches. The Bellati India [India of foreigners] is before you, but you will never see the Gupta India [secret India]. We are the guardians of her mysteries, and would rather cut out each other's tongues than speak."
Yet, nevertheless, Tod succeeded in learning a good deal. It must be borne in mind that no Englishman has ever been loved so well by the natives as this old and courageous friend of the Maharana of Oodeypur, who, in his turn, was so friendly towards the natives that the humblest of them never saw a trace of contempt in his demeanour. He wrote before ethnology had reached its present stage of development, but his book is still an authority on everything concerning Rajistan. Though the author's opinion of his work was not very high, though he stated that "it is nothing but a conscientious collection of materials for a future historian," still in this book is to be found many a thing undreamed of by any British civil servant.
Let our friends smile incredulously. Let our enemies laugh at our pretensions to penetrate the world-mysteries of Aryavarta," as a certain critic recently expressed himself. However pessimistic may be our critics' views, yet, even in the event of our conclusions not proving more trustworthy than those of Fergusson, Wilson, Wheeler, and the rest of the archeologists and Sanskritists who have written about India, still, I hope, they will not be less susceptible of proof. We are daily reminded that, like unreasonable children, we have undertaken a task before which archaeologists and historians, aided by all the influence and wealth of the Government, have shrunk dismayed; that we have taken upon ourselves a work which has proved to be beyond the capacities of the Royal Asiatic Society.
Let it be so.