The Geographical Presence in A Passage to India
E.M. Forster was apparently not one to write without first doing his research. Throughout A Passage to India, scenes are more easily pictured because of his investigated details. The real facts on India's geography clearly make Forster's passage through India much easier to visualize. Understanding that "Kawa-Dol" means "rocking stone," for example, paints a picture of the huge boulder with, "...the niches up the curve of the stone..." (Forster 253-254). Although Forster uses poetic license in naming locations, his references to places in very closely match India's true geography. The novel's main city, Chandrapore, is actually based on the Indian suburb Bankipore, part of the city of Patna in the northern region of Bihar. The invented name, however, is not so far fetched. The suffix pore actually means "place" in Hindi, and Chandrapore sounds a bit like Chandragputa, which was named for a ruler who once lived in Patna, the capital of India's Bihar state. Forster probably chose this city for its diverse representation of India: its culture, history, and nature are all noteworthy (Patna 1).
Forster does not keep the scene exclusively confined to Patna, though. He expresses the beauty and mystique of India through many other places in the book. Dilkusha, the setting of Aziz's victory dinner after winning his trial, is based on Kothi Dilkusha, famous for its botanical gardens. Ironically, although it is the setting for Aziz's victory, this site boasts a replica of a famous English country house (Kothi 1). Meanwhile, the town of Mau, not too far west of Chandrapore, is also visited. In A Passage to India Mau shares a similar terrain and lack of perfection with the actual town. Forster writes that in Mau, "...the floods were even worse [than in the rest of India], and the pale grey faces of lakes had appeared in the direction of the Asirgarh railway station" (Forster 331). But despite the climactic imperfections of the place, Forster still conveys the beauty and comfort that India can have, even in its less physically mystifying places by making them places for relaxation. For example, Aziz uses Mau, the setting of such dismal lakes, as a refreshing retreat from society once the trial finishes. He scolds Fielding, "Do not trouble me here at Mau is all I ask" (Forster 339). Yet Fielding finds him there and talks to him about their friendship. Aziz is uncomfortable with this confrontation because in Mau he is at ease and unprepared to defend himself. The town is an example of an Indian hill station, a retreat from Indian plains that offers a serene place of beauty to both tourists and natives (Hill 1). But Patna is not just defined by its surrounding hill stations.
Patna is known for its many Sikh Shrines and one particularly old stone mosque, Pathar Ki Masjid, constructed by the Emperor Jehangir in 1621 (Warham 632). This historical mosque in Patna might have been the inspiration for Mrs. Moore and Aziz's meeting place in Forster's novel where Aziz scolds her, "Madam, this is a mosque, you have no right here at all; you should have taken off your shoes; this is a holy place..." (Forster 17). One must enter any Indian shrine or temple barefoot so as not to bring any filth from outside into the place of worship. Muslims, along with some Sikhs, require head coverings be worn in their places of worship, too (Petrova Interview).
In addition to its numerous places of worship, Patna claims a bank of the holiest river in India, the Ganges. The river is meaningful to Hindus, and named for the goddess Ganga Devi . The Ganges runs between its origin (believed to be flowing directly from Shiva's hair, where the Goddess Ganga resides) in the Himalayas and outlet in the Bay of Bengal on the eastern coast (River 1). Although the Ganges has become an internationally identifiable landmark, especially for frequency of bathing and cremations, Aziz, as a Muslim, never seems too preoccupied with its presence in his daily life. However, Masha Petrova, a graduate student whose studies emphasized religion in India, relates that the river "...is the lifeblood of the region for food, trade, travel, and spirituality" (Petrova interview). She points out that even though Muslims might dismiss the river, "The Muslims drink that same water and eat the crops from her [the Ganges'] fertile lands just as the Hindus do" (Petrova interview). The Ganges River has a tremendous impact on Indian culture, especially in Hindu-influenced cities such as Patna. Forster alludes to the Ganges during the Festival of Krishna, in Mau, later in the novel.
Hinduism is well contrasted by Aziz's Islamic faith. Aziz is unable to inform his foreign friends about area traditions on more than one occasion because of his lack of knowledge about Hinduism. At the end of the novel, when the Muslim takes the son of the late Mrs. Moore out on the river, he is unsure of the Hindu proceedings at the Festival of Krishna. Although Aziz is aware this Hindu ritual is annually practiced, he knows little about it. As part of the festival, a float depicting the King passes by. Aziz misunderstands the parade yet "...persuading himself that he understood the wild procession..." he explains to Ralph, "His Highness is dead. I think we should go back at once" (Forster 350). Aziz is unable to inform Ralph about the traditional festivities because of his lack of knowledge of Hinduism. Sukhjender, a Sikh living in Lucknow, India explains that most Muslims in actuality would have understood more than
|Indians are aware of religious beliefs of other
religion[s] and also about
their important religious places. It is important for our survival that we keep
ourselves informed about other religion[s] and also about their likes and dislikes.
It helps us to maintain a good relation with them (Sukhjender interview).
Aziz's lack of awareness is not limited to Festivals and celebrations; it expands to daily practices. Aziz volunteers to guide Mrs. Moore and Adela to the Marabar Caves despite his scarce knowledge of the Hindu caves. Indians of many religions (including Buddhism, Islam, Jainism, and Sikhism) have their respective caves to which they journey, especially during holy days. These visits are considered a great offering of dedication because the caves are not easily accessible. Pilgrimages are so common that an immense number of people already occupy the caves when Mrs. Moore and Adela enter them.
The active population within the caves causes both Mrs. Moore and Adela to become overwhelmed and claustrophobic. "Crammed with villagers and servants, the circular chamber began to smell. She [Mrs. Moore] lost Aziz and Adela in the dark, didn't know who touched her, couldn't breathe, and some vile naked thing struck her face and settled on her mouth like a pad. She tried to regain the entrance tunnel, but an influx of villagers swept her back" (Forster 162). The image Forster creates here is one of confusion and mass chaos. The putrid stench, stifling temperature, and disorienting blackness that surrounds the women is overwhelming. This phenomenon that Mrs. Moore encounters is explainable by the numbers who participate in religious pilgrimages. The Marabar Caves about which Aziz knows so little are based on the Jain Temples on the Barabar Hills, once considered a retreat for Jain monks. Forster seems to have combined the Barabar and Nagarjuni Hills to create the Marabar caves. The journey from Patna to Barabar, however, is much greater than the 20-mile endeavor Aziz, Adela, and Mrs. Moore must endure. In actuality, a traveler must first arrive in Gaya, a city 100 kilometers south of Patna, that is the central location for Hindus making temple pilgrimages. Consequently trains and rickshaws are easily accessible from Gaya to the nearest stop to the Marabar Caves (Mills 323). The last five kilometers of the trip is an isolated path, which parallels Forster's description of the train and elephant journey, "Having wandered off into the plain for a mile, the train slowed up against an elephant" (Forster 152).
Via the elephant, Aziz and company eventually arrive at a group of Buddhist Chaitya caves, but these are not the only type of caves. Also, Jain caves are known for their many details and sense of balance. The caves themselves are underground, and all were apparently carved from the top to the bottom in order to make the actual construction easier (Caves 1). The insides of the four caves on Barabar hill are inscribed with
The exterior of a Buddhist Chaitya cave resembles a beehive
Ashokan writing, and are thus accredited to the Ajivikas , whose founder, Makkhali Gosala, was a contemporary of Buddha. Some of the caves borrow their arched entrance design from the Buddhist Chaitya, a famous cave near Kathmandu, Nepal, which is known for its exquisite interior complete with columns, prayer wheels, a roof vault, and sun windows. The detailed carvings cover the columns, alter, ceilings, and floors. Exquisite craftsmanship lies behind each embossed surface.
The most impressive of the four caves on the Barabar Hills is Loma Rishi, which sports carvings of elephants and a conical, beehive shape, typical of caves in northern India. According to Let's Go; India & Nepal, Loma Rishi is the cave that Aziz, Mrs. Moore, and Adela enter (Warham 635). The three other caves on the Barabar Hill are Sudama (which used to be called Nigoha-kubha and the Banyan tree cave), Karnachopar (which used to be Supriya and Bohimula, the root of intelligence), and Visvajhopri.
Three other caves are situated on the neighboring Nagarjuni hills: Gopi-ka-Kubha, Vapiya-ka-Kubha, and Vadathi-ka-Kubha (Nagarjuna 1). Adela and Aziz are believed to have been in one of these last three caves where Adela claims Aziz sexually assaulted her. Echoes are connected to both the caves and Adela's accusations. The Nagarjuniya caves are the only caves in the area to have a reported echo like the one she hears until Aziz is acquitted of the charge (Mills 323). The caves, although varying from one to the next, frequently have more than one compartment. The complex layout lends credibility to Adela's confusion that creates so much havoc in the novel.
Many travelers enter the carved out mountains to
explore the spiritual presence within caves
In addition to the Jain caves, Forster includes Muslim shrines in his novel. In Mau for example, "...there are two shrines to him [a young Mohammedan saint] to-day-that of the Head above, and that of the Body below-and they are worshipped by the few Mohammedans who live near, and by Hindus also" (Forster 332). Yet despite these religious references, a broader range of religious factions is present in India than Forster reveals. The country contains followers of Parsi, Christianity, and Zoroastrian, none of which are mentioned in the novel (Petrova interview). Jains and Sikhs, who are barely referred to, are both prominent in Bihar. Neither of these groups was given enough attention in the novel given their ubiquitous presence in India's actual geography.
Although Forster's preparatory research for this novel is clearly evident, so too are his shortcomings. Despite the numerous places Forster's characters visit, they explore a relatively small area and consequently never receive exposure to the differing customs that exist in other regions. The characters remain in northeastern India and thus never experience the sometimes vastly different culture of other regions. For example, Hindus in southern India do not practice Purdah as devoutly as Hindus in the north because southern women never had to fear Muslim invaders as those from the north did (Bapat interview). But the reader does not discover such regional difference because Forster never explores anywhere outside of Bihar. Nor does he express the religious connection that seems inherent in every aspect of Indian life. With a more comprehensive explanation of religious ties to his character's dwellings Forster could have enhanced the reading experience of A Passage to India.
Although Forster's tour of India does not provide a complete view of the Indian culture, his personal experiences in the country clearly impact the novel and the reader. Through the faiths of the various characters many places of religious importance are explored. The significance of the Ganges River, the sacredness of caves, and the benefits of hill stations are all expressed. But maybe our inability to grasp fully the Indian culture, despite the above mention places that the novel explores, illustrates the novel's point about culture: a culture cannot truly be comprehended simply by a journey or study of it, the understanding requires something deeper.
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