The most interesting classes among the many kinds of priests, monks and other people, who make religion a profession in India, are the thugs, fakirs and nautch girls, who are supposed to devote their lives and talents to the service of the gods. There are several kinds of fakirs and other religious mendicants in India, about five thousand in number, most of them being nomads, wandering from city to city and temple to temple, dependent entirely upon the charity of the faithful. They reward those who serve them with various forms of blessings; give them advice concerning all the affairs of life from the planting of their crops to the training of their children. They claim supernatural powers to confer good and invoke evil, and the curse of a fakir is the last misfortune that an honest Hindu cares to bring upon himself, for it means a failure of his harvests, the death of his cattle by disease, sickness in his family and bad luck in everything that he undertakes. Hence these holy men, who are familiars of the gods, and are believed to spend most of their time communicating with them in some mysterious way about the affairs of the world, are able to command anything the people have to give, and nobody would willingly cross their shadows or incur their displeasure. The name is pronounced as if it were spelled "fah-keer."

These religious mendicants go almost naked, usually with nothing but the smallest possible breech clout around their loins, which the police require them to wear; they plaster their bodies with mud, ashes and filth; they rub clay, gum and other substances into their hair to give it an uncouth appearance. Sometimes they wear their hair in long braids hanging down their backs like the queue of a Chinaman; sometimes in short braids sticking out in every direction like the wool of the pickaninnies down South. Some of them have strings of beads around their necks, others coils of rope round them. They never wear hats and usually carry nothing but a small brass bowl, in imitation of Buddha, which is the only property they possess on earth. They are usually accompanied by a youthful disciple, called a "chela," a boy of from 10 to 15 years of age, who will become a fakir himself unless something occurs to change his career.

Many of the fakirs endeavor to make themselves look as hideous as possible. They sometimes whitewash their faces like clowns in circuses; paint lines upon their cheeks and draw marks under their eyes to give them an inhuman appearance. At certain seasons of the year they may clothe themselves in filthy rags for the time being as an evidence of humility. Most of them are very thin and spare of flesh, which is due to their long pilgrimages and insufficient nourishment. They sleep wherever they happen to be. They lie down on the roadside or beneath a column of a temple, or under a cart, or in a stable. Sometimes kindly disposed people give them beds, but they have no regular habits; they sleep when they are sleepy, rest when they are tired and continue their wanderings when they are refreshed.

About the time the people of the country are breakfasting in the morning the chela starts out with the brass bowl and begs from house to house until the bowl is filled with food, when he returns to wherever his master is waiting for him and they share its contents between them. Again at noon and again at night the chela goes out on similar foraging expeditions and conducts the commissary department in that way. The fakir himself is supposed never to beg; the gods he worships are expected to take care of him, and if they do not send him food he goes without it. It is a popular delusion that fakirs will not accept alms from anyone for any purpose, for I have considerable personal experience to the contrary. I have offered money to hundreds of them and have never yet had it refused. A fakir will snatch a penny as eagerly as any beggar you ever saw, and if the coin you offer is smaller than he expects or desires he will show his disapproval in an unmistakable manner.

The larger number of fakirs are merely religious tramps, worthless, useless impostors, living upon the fears and superstitions of the people and doing more harm than good. Others are without doubt earnest and sincere ascetics, who believe that they are promoting the welfare and happiness of their fellow men by depriving themselves of everything that is necessary to happiness, purifying their souls by privation and hardship and obtaining spiritual inspiration and light by continuous meditation and prayer. Many of these are fanatics, some are epileptics, some are insane. They undergo self-torture of the most horrible kinds and frequently prove their sincerity by causing themselves to be buried alive, by starving to death, or by posing themselves in unnatural attitudes with their faces or their arms raised to heaven until the sinews and muscles are benumbed or paralyzed and they fall unconscious from exhaustion. These are tests of purity and piety. Zealots frequently enter temples and perform such feats for the admiration of pilgrims and by-standers. Many are clairvoyants and have the power of second sight. They hypnotize subjects and go into trances themselves, in which condition the soul is supposed to leave the body and visit the gods. Some of the metaphysical phenomena are remarkable and even startling. They cannot be explained. You have doubtless read of the wonderful fakir, Ram Lal, who appears in F. Marion Crawford's story of "Mr. Isaacs," and there is a good deal concerning this class of people in Rudyard Kipling's "Kim." Those two, by the way, are universally considered the best stories of Indian life ever written. You will perhaps remember also reading of the astonishing performances of Mme. Blavatsky, who visited the United States some years ago as the high priestess of Theosophy. Her supernatural manifestations attracted a great deal of attention at one time, but she was finally exposed and denounced as a charlatan.

Among the higher class of fakirs are many extraordinary men, profound scholars, accomplished linguists and others whose knowledge of both the natural and the occult sciences is amazing. I was told by one of the highest officials of the Indian Empire of an extraordinary feat performed for his benefit by one of these fakirs, who in some mysterious way transferred himself several hundred miles in a single night over a country where there were no railroads, and never took the trouble to explain how his journey was accomplished.

The best conjurers, magicians and palmists in India are fakirs. Many of them tell fortunes from the lines of the hand and from other signs with extraordinary accuracy. Old residents who have come in contact with this class relate astounding tales. While at Calcutta a young lady at our hotel was incidentally informed by a fortune-telling fakir she met accidentally in a Brahmin temple that she would soon receive news that would change all her plans and alter the course of her life, and the next morning she received a cablegram from England announcing the death of her father. If you get an old resident started on such stories he will keep telling them all night.

Of course you have read of the incredible and seemingly impossible feats performed by Hindu magicians, of whom the best and most skillful belong to the fakir class. I have seen the "box trick," or "basket trick," as they call it, in which a young man is tied up in a gunny sack and locked up in a box, then at a signal a few moments after appears smiling at the entrance to your house, but I have never found anyone who could explain how he escaped from his prison. This was performed daily on the Midway Plaisance at the World's Fair at Chicago and was witnessed by thousands of people. And it is simple compared with some of the doings of these fakirs. They will take a mango, open it before you, remove the seeds, plant them in a tub of earth, and a tree will grow and bear fruit before your eyes within half an hour. Or, what is even more wonderful, they will climb an invisible rope in the open air as high as a house, vanish into space, and then, a few minutes after, will come smiling around the nearest street corner. Or, if that is not wonderful enough, they will take an ordinary rope, whirl it around their head, toss it into the air, and it will stand upright, as if fastened to some invisible bar, so taut and firm that a heavy man can climb it.

These are a few of the wonderful things fakirs perform about the temples, and nobody has ever been able to discover how they do it. People who begin an inquiry usually abandon it and declare that the tricks are not done at all, that the spectators are simply hypnotized and imagine that they have seen what they afterward describe. This explanation is entirely plausible. It is the only safe one that can be given, and it is confirmed by other manifestations of hypnotic power that you would not believe if I should describe them. Fakirs have hypnotized people I know and have made them witness events and spectacles which they afterward learned were transpiring, at the very moment, five and six thousand miles away. For example, a young gentleman, relating his experience, declared that under the power of one of these men he attended his brother's wedding in a London church and wrote home an account of it that was so accurate in its details that his family were convinced that he had come all the way from India without letting them know and had attended it secretly.

Many of the snake charmers to whom I referred in a previous chapter are fakirs, devoted to gods whose specialties are snakes, and pious Hindus believe that the deities they worship protect them from the venom of the reptiles. Sometimes you can see one of them at a temple deliberately permit his pets to sting him on the arm, and he will show you the blood flowing. Taking a little black stone from his pocket he will rub it over the wound and then rub it upon the head of the snake. Then he will rub the wound again, and again the head of the snake, all the time muttering prayers, making passes with his hands, bowing his body to the ground, and going through other forms of worship, and when he has concluded he will assure you that the bite of the snake has been made harmless by the incantation.

I have never seen more remarkable contortionists than the fakirs who can be always found about temples in Benares, and frequently elsewhere. They are usually very lean men, almost skeletons. As they wear no clothing, one can count their bones through the skin, but their muscles and sinews are remarkably strong and supple. They twist themselves into the most extraordinary shapes. No professional contortionist upon the vaudeville stage can compare with these religious mendicants, who give exhibitions in the open air, or in the porticos of the temples in honor of some god and call it worship. They acquire the faculty of doing their feats by long and tedious training under the instruction of older fakirs, who are equally accomplished, and the performances are actually considered worship, just as much as an organ voluntary, the singing of a hymn, or a display of pulpit eloquence in one of our churches. The more wonderful their feats, the more acceptable to their gods, and they go from city to city through all India, and from temple to temple, twisting their bodies into unnatural shapes and postures under the impression that they will thereby attain a higher degree of holiness and exalt themselves in the favor of heaven. They do not give exhibitions for money. They cannot be hired for any price to appear upon a public stage. Theatrical agents in London and elsewhere have frequently tempted them with fortunes, but they cannot be persuaded to display their gifts for gain, or violate their caste and the traditions of their profession.

There is a fearful sect of fakirs devoted to Siva and to Bhairava, the god of lunacy, who associate with evil spirits, ghouls and vampires, and practice hideous rites of blood, lust and gluttony. They tear their flesh with their finger-nails, slash themselves with knives, and occasionally engage in a frantic dance from which they die of exhaustion.

The nautches of India have received considerable attention from many sources. They are the object of the most earnest admonitions from missionaries and moralists, and no doubt are a very bad lot, although they do not look it, and are a recognized and respected profession among the Hindus. They are consecrated to certain gods soon after their birth; they are the brides of the impure and obscene deities of the Hindu pantheon, and are attached to their temples, receiving their support from the collections of the priests or the permanent endowments, often living under the temple roof and almost always within the sacred premises. The amount of their incomes varies according to the wealth and the revenues of the idol to which they were attached. They dance before him daily and sing hymns in his honor. The ranks of the nautch girls are sometimes recruited by the purchase of children from poor parents, and by the dedication of the daughters of pious Hindu families to that vocation, just as in Christian countries daughters are consecrated to the vocation of religion from the cradle and sons are dedicated to the priesthood and ministry. Indeed it is considered a high honor for the daughter of a Hindu family to be received into a temple as a nautch.

They never marry and never retire. When they become too old to dance they devote themselves to the training of their successors. They are taught to read and write, to sing and dance, to embroider and play upon various musical instruments. They are better educated than any other class of Hindu women, and that largely accounts for their attractions and their influence over men. They have their own peculiar customs and rules, similar to those of the geishas of Japan, and if a nautch is so fortunate as to inherit property it goes to the temple to which she belongs. This custom has become law by the confirmation of the courts. No nautch can retain any article of value without the consent of the priest in charge of the temple to which she is attached, and those who have received valuable gifts of jewels from their admirers and lovers are often compelled to surrender them. On the other hand, they are furnished comfortable homes, clothing and food, and are taken care of all of their lives, just the same as religious devotees belonging to any other sect. Notwithstanding their notorious unchastity and immorality, no discredit attaches to the profession, and the very vices for which they are condemned are considered acts of duty, faith and worship, although it seems almost incredible that a religious sect will encourage gross immorality in its own temples. Yet Hinduism has done worse things than that, and other of its practices are even more censurable.

Bands of nautches are considered necessary appurtenances of the courts of native Hindu princes, although they are never found in the palaces of Mohammedans. They are brought forward upon all occasions of ceremony, religious, official and convivial. If the viceroy visits the capital of one of the native states he is entertained by their best performances. They have a place on the programme at all celebrations of feast days; they appear at weddings and birthday anniversaries, and are quite as important as an orchestra at one of our social occasions at home. They are invited to the homes of native gentlemen on all great occasions and are treated with the utmost deference and generosity. They are permitted liberties and are accorded honors that would not be granted to the wives and daughters of those who entertain them, and stand on the same level as the Brahmin priests, yet they are what we would call women of the town, and receive visitors indiscriminately in the temples and other sacred places, according to their pleasure and whims.

A stranger in India finds it difficult to reconcile these facts, but any resident will assure you of the truth. The priests are said to encourage the attentions of rich young Hindus because of the gifts of money and jewels they are in the habit of showering upon nautches they admire, but each girl is supposed to have a "steady" lover, upon whom she bestows her affections for the time being. He may be old or young, married or unmarried, rich or poor, for as a rule it is to these women that a Hindu gentleman turns for the companionship which his own home does not supply.

There is a difference of opinion as to the beauty of the nautches. It is purely a matter of taste. There is no rule by which personal attractions may be measured, and doubtless there may be beautiful women among them, but, so far, I have never seen one. Their costumes are usually very elaborate, the materials being of the rarest and finest qualities and profusely embroidered, and their jewels are usually costly. Their manners are gentle, refined and modest; they are perfectly self-possessed under all circumstances, and, while their dancing would not be attractive to the average American taste, it is not immodest, and consists of a succession of graceful gestures and posturing which is supposed to have a definite meaning and express sentiments and emotions. Most of the dances are interpretations of poems, legends, stories of the gods and heroes of Indian mythology. Educated Hindus profess to be able to understand them, although to a foreigner they are nothing more than meaningless motions. I have asked the same question of several missionaries, but have never been able to discover a nautch dancer who has abandoned her vocation, or has deserted her temple, or has run away with a lover, or has been reached in any way by the various missions for women in India. They seem to be perfectly satisfied with their present and their future.

The greatest good women missionaries have done in India, I think, is in bringing modern medical science into the homes of the natives. No man is ever admitted to the zenanas, no matter what may happen, and thousands upon thousands, yes, millions upon millions, of poor creatures have suffered and died for lack of ordinary medical attention because of the etiquette of caste. American women brought the first relief, graduates from medical schools in Philadelphia, New York and Chicago, and now there are women physicians attached to all of the missions, and many of them are practicing independently in the larger cities. They are highly respected and exert a great influence.

Nizam-u-Din, one of the holiest of the Hindu saints, lies in a tomb of marble lace work and embroidery near Delhi; as exquisite a bit of architecture as you can imagine, so dainty in all its details that it ought to be the sepulcher of a fairy queen instead of that of the founder of the Thugs, the secret religious society of assassins which was suppressed and practically exterminated by the British authorities in the '60's and '70's. He died in 1652. He was a fanatic who worshiped the goddess Kali; the black wife of Siva, and believed that the removal of unbelievers from the earth was what we call a Christian duty. As Kali prohibited the shedding of blood, he trained his devotees to strangle their fellow beings without violating that prohibition or leaving any traces of their work, and sent out hundreds of professional murderers over India to diminish the number of heretics for the good and glory of the faith. No saint in the Hindu calendar is more generally worshiped or more profoundly revered unto the present day. His tomb is attended by groups of Brahmins who place fresh flowers upon the cenotaph every morning and cover it reverently with Cashmere shawls of the finest texture and pieces of rare embroidery.

India is the only country where crime was ever systematically carried on as a religious and legitimate occupation in the belief that it was right, for not only the Thugs, but other professional murderers existed for centuries, and still exist, although in greatly diminished numbers, owing to the vigilance of the police; not because they have become converted from the error of their ways. There are yet tribes of professional criminals who believe that, in following the customs and the occupation of their ancestors, they are acting in the only way that is right and are serving the gods they worship. Criminal organizations exist in nearly all the native states, and the government is just now making a special effort to stamp out professional "dacoits," who are associated for the purpose of highway robbery, cattle stealing and violence and carry on marauding expeditions from their headquarters continuously. They are just as well organized and as thoroughly devoted to their business as the gangs of highwaymen that used to make travel dangerous through Europe in the middle ages. And there are other criminal organizations with which it is even more difficult to deal. A recent report from the office of the home secretary says:

"We all know that trades go by castes in India; a family of carpenters will be a family of carpenters a century or five centuries hence, if they last so long; so with grain dealers, blacksmiths, leather-makers and every known trade. If we keep this in mind when we speak of 'professional criminals' we shall realize what the term really means. It means that the members of a tribe whose ancestors were criminals from time immemorial are themselves destined by the use of the caste to commit crime, and their descendants will be offenders against the law till the whole tribe is exterminated or accounted for in the manner of the Thugs. Therefore, when a man tells you he is a badhak, or a kanjar, or a sonoria, he tells you, what few Europeans ever thoroughly realize, that he is an habitual and avowed offender against the law, and has been so from the beginning and will be so to the end; that reform is impossible, for it is his trade, his caste - I may almost say, his religion - to commit crime."

The Thugs were broken up by Captain Sleeman, a brave and able British detective who succeeded in entering that assassination society and was initiated into its terrible mysteries. A large number of the leaders were executed from time to time, but the government, whose policy is always to respect religious customs of the Hindus, administered as little punishment as possible, and "rounding up" all of the members of this cult, as ranchmen would say, "corralled" them at the Town of Jabal-pur, near the City of Allahabad, in northeastern India, where they have since been under surveillance. Originally there were 2,500, but now only about half of that number remain, who up to this date are not allowed to leave without a permit the inclosure in which they are kept.

One of the criminal tribes, called Barwars, numbers about a thousand families and inhabits forty-eight villages in the district of Gonda, in the Province of Oudh, not far from Delhi. They live quietly and honestly upon their farms during the months of planting and harvesting, but between crops they wander in small gangs over distant parts of the country, robbing and plundering with great courage and skill. They even despoil the temples of the gods. The only places that are sacred to them are the temple of Jaganath (Juggernaut), in the district of Orissa, and the shrine of a certain Mohammedan martyr. They have a regular organization under hereditary chiefs, and if a member of the clan gives up thieving he is disgraced and excommunicated. The plunder is divided pro rata, and a certain portion is set aside for their priests and as offerings to their gods.

There is a similar clan of organized robbers and murderers known as Sonoriaths, whose special business is to steal cattle, and the Mina tribe, which lives in the district of Gurgaon, on the frontier of the Punjab Province, has 2,000 members, given up entirely to robbery and murder. They make no trouble at home. They are honest in their dealings, peaceable, charitable, hospitable, and have considerable wealth, but between crops the larger portion of the men disappear from their homes and go into other provinces for the purpose of robbery, burglary and other forms of stealing. In the Agra Province are twenty-nine different tribes who from time immemorial have made crime their regular occupation and, like all those mentioned, look upon it as not only a legitimate but a religious act ordered and approved by the deities they worship.

Special laws have been enacted for restraining these castes or clans, and special police officers now exercise supervision over them. Every man is required to register at the police headquarters and receive a passport. He is required to live within a certain district, and cannot change his abode or leave its limits without permission. If he does so he is arrested and imprisoned. The authorities believe that they have considerably reduced the amount of crime committed by these clansmen, who are too cunning and courageous to be entirely suppressed. No amount of vigilance can prevent them from leaving their villages and going off into other provinces for criminal purposes, and the railways greatly facilitate their movements.

Nevertheless, if you will examine the criminal statistics of India you will be surprised at the small number of arrests, trials and convictions for penal offenses. The figures demonstrate that the people are honest and law abiding. There is less crime in India than in any other country in proportion to population, much less than in England or the United States. Out of a population of 300,000,000 people during the ten years from 1892 to 1902 there was an annual average of 1,015,550 criminal cases before the courts, and an average of 1,345,667 offenses against the criminal laws reported, while 870,665 persons were convicted of crime in 1902, with the following penalties imposed:

  Death 500 
  Penal servitude 1,707 
  Imprisonment 175,795 
  Fines 628,092 
  Over two years' imprisonment 7,576 
  Between one and two years 39,067 
  Between fifteen days and one year 86,653 
  Under fifteen days 34,517

The following were the most serious crimes in 1902:

                     Arrests. Convictions. 
  Offenses against public peace 15,190 5,088 
  Murder 3,255 1,102 
  Assault 42,496 12,597 
  Dacoity or highway robbery 3,320 706 
  Cattle stealing 29,691 9,307 
  Ordinary theft 183,463 45,566 
  House-breaking 192,353 23,143 
  Vagrancy 25,212 18,877 
  Public nuisances 216,285 201,421

The following table will show the total daily average of prisoners, men and women, serving sentences for penal offenses in the prisons of India during the years named:

            Men. Women. Total. 
  1892 93,061 3,142 96,202 
  1893 91,976 2,988 94,964 
  1894 92,236 2,941 95,177 
  1895 97,869 3,216 101,085 
  1896 100,406 3,280 103,686 
  1897 109,989 3,277 113,266 
  1898 103,517 2,927 106,446 
  1899 101,518 2,773 104,292 
  1900 114,854 3,253 118,107 
  1901 108,258 3,124 111,382

Those who are familiar with criminal statistics in the United States and other countries, will, I am confident, agree with me that this is a most remarkable record for a population of 300,000,000, illiterate, superstitious, impregnated with false ideas of honor and morality, and packed so densely as the people of India are. The courts of justice have reached a high standard; the lower courts are administered almost exclusively by natives; the higher courts by English and natives together. No trial of importance ever takes place except before a mixed court, and usually the three great religions - Brahminism, Mohammedanism and Christianity - are represented on the bench.

One of the most difficult and delicate tasks of the British authorities has been to prevent infanticide, the murder of girl infants, because from time immemorial among all the races of India it has been practiced openly and without restraint and in many sections as a religious duty. And what has made it more difficult, it prevailed most extensively among the families of the highest rank, and among the natives, communities and provinces which were most loyal to the British crown. For example, the Rajputs, of whom I have written at length in a previous chapter, are the chivalry of India. They trace their descent from the gods, and are proud of their nobility and their honor, yet it has been the custom among them as far back as traditions run, to strangle more than half their girl babies at birth, and until this was stopped the records showed numbers of villages where there was not a single girl, and where there never had been one within the memory of man. As late as the census of 1869 seven villages were reported with 104 boys and one girl, twenty-three villages with 284 boys and twenty-three girls and many others in similar proportions. The statistics of the recent census of 1901, by the disparity between the sexes, show that this crime has not yet been stamped out. In the Rajputana Province, for example, there are 2,447,401 boys to 1,397,911 girls, and throughout the entire population of India there are 72,506,661 boys to 49,516,381 girls. Among the Hindus of all ages there are 105,163,345 men to 101,945,387 women, and among the Sikhs, who also strangle their children, there are 1,241,543 men to 950,823 women. Among the Buddhists, the Jains and other religions the ratio between the sexes was more even.

Sir John Strachy, in his admirable book upon India, says: "These people have gone on killing their children generation after generation because their forefathers did so before them, not only without a thought that there is anything criminal in the practice, but with the conviction that it is right. There can be little doubt that if vigilance were relaxed the custom would before long become as prevalent as ever." The measures taken by the government have been radical and stringent. A system of registration of births and deaths was provided by an act passed in 1870, with constant inspection and frequent enumeration of children among the suspected classes, and no efforts were spared to convince them that the government had finally resolved to prevent the practice and in doing so treated it as murder.