In 1912, a young E. M. Forster traveled to India to serve as a secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas, a small Indian state. He was elevated to the rank of a minor noble, and eventually given the state’s highest honor, the Tukoji Rao III gold medal.
This brief episode in Forster’s life became the basis for his masterwork, A Passage to India. In the letters included in The Hill of Devi, he shares his personal journey of discovering his beloved India for the first time. Forster paints a vivid, intimate picture of Dewas State—a strange, bewildering, and enchanting slice of pre-independence India.
In this collection, Forster shares insight into the lives of Indian royalty and accounts of the stark contrast between their excesses and the poverty he encounters. From letters that set the scene for Forster’s lifelong friendship with the Maharaja, to an essay on the Maharaja himself and Forster’s experiences as the Maharaja’s personal secretary, The Hill of Devi is a fascinating chronicle of the author’s experience in the land he called “the oddest corner of the world outside Alice in Wonderland.”
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About the Author
Edward Morgan Forster (1879–1970) was born in London and attended the Tonbridge School and King’s College, Cambridge. A substantial inheritance from his aunt gave Forster the freedom to pursue a literary career and travel extensively, and he wrote some of the finest novels of the twentieth century, including A Room with a View, A Passage to India, and Howards End. Queen Elizabeth II awarded him the Order of Merit in 1969.
Date of Birth:January 1, 1879
Date of Death:June 7, 1970
Place of Birth:London
Place of Death:Coventry, England
Education:B. A. in classics, King's College, Cambridge, 1900; B. A. in history, 1901; M.A., 1910
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LETTERS OF 1912–13
Guest House, Dewas Senior
Christmas Day, 1912
I am at Dewas at last. On the 23rd I was in the club at Indore with Major Luard who mentioned my name aloud, when up sprang a bright and tiny young Indian, and wrung me by both hands. This was the Rajah of Dewas.
He had already sent me a charming telegram, saying he was expecting me. I also understood he was sending a carriage for me on the morrow. This, however, didn't arrive, and the Luards, very kind and not surprised, got the Maharajah of Indore's motor. Baldeo and luggage packed in behind, and we whizzed over to Dewas in style — it is twenty-three miles. There I found the Goodalls, Mrs. Darling and son, and another man; Malcolm Darling arrived this morning. The Rajah is away until tomorrow, but the Dewan (Prime Minister) came to greet us and was very pleasant. In the evening we went to the Tennis Club — all Indians — and drove back through the tidy little town.
The Guest House is at the edge of a lake in which my clothes are being washed and Baldeo has been bathing. I am in a tent — imagine it possible on Xmas Day! — a very superior tent with passage all round the central room, and many doors. The garden, naturally so pretty, is agog with terrible streamers and a crimson triumphal arch with "Welcome to our Xmas Guests" on it, and many flags of George and Mary. We are only here till the first of January, I fear. Dewas is not beautiful, but there is a sacred hill above it, covered with chapels, which makes the scenery interesting.
I had tea and toast at seven, brought to the tent by Baldeo, and I gave him two rupees as advised, saying "Bara din ke waste" ("For the sake of the great day") and meaning a Xmas box. He replied, "Bahut achha" ("Very good"), and salaamed. There seems to be no Indian word for thank you. Then a procession arrived from the Palace — a man with streamers on a stick led it, and fourteen servants followed, each carrying a large metal plate under an embroidered coverlid. Two plates for each of us: one was divided into four quarters which were filled with candied sugar, monkey nuts, pistachio nuts, and pudding-sultanas respectively; the second plate held fruit and vegetables. All fourteen were laid down with salaams on the verandah, while the Dewan smiled benignly. Then we break-fasted, he sitting at a little distance from the table.
The Rajah, when he comes, will take his meals with us, and eat anything but beef. Their habits vary very much. There is great fun ahead. Goodall and his wife are to be married again in Indian fashion and ride on the top of an elephant: a native banquet afterwards. Another day there will be players.
Malcolm came direct from Delhi, and was full of the bomb disaster there. I needn't go into details as you will have had only too many in the papers. He thinks it a pity that Lord Hardinge, finding his wound was slight, did not go on from the hospital to the Durbar, for then it would have made a great impression and prevented the seditious party from saying that the Viceroy had never reached Delhi. I expect his nerves were too much shattered, even though he was not hurt. It is a dreadful business — not only in itself, but because it will strengthen the reactionary party. Malcolm says that after the news came, several Englishmen — officials of high position, too — were anxious for the Tommies to be turned to fire at the crowd, and seemed really sorry that the Viceroy had not been killed, because then there would have been a better excuse for doing such a thing. Malcolm was in the Punjab procession, which preceded the Viceregal one, and heard the news en route. I know the Chandni Chauk: Dr. Ansari's rooms were at the top of it. Mohammedans are in the most frightful state, because Delhi is their city, and the bomb was probably thrown by some Hindu who was angry at the transfer of the capital from Calcutta. No police were at hand, but they are not to be blamed as Hardinge dislikes them and had counterordered them.
It is appropriate that I should have first seen the Ruler of Dewas at a moment of crisis. When he leapt up to greet me in that Indore club, he was in the midst of composing an enormous telegram of sympathy, congratulation and indignation to the Viceroy on the subject of the Delhi outrage. Almost the last time I saw him — nine years later — he was again composing an enormous telegram. And almost the last time I had news of him — twenty-five years later — he had been composing an enormous telegram, and again to a Viceroy.
In my next letter, I record my first glimpse of his kingdom.
Unversed though I am in politics, I must really give you some account of this amazing little state, which can have no parallel, except in a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. In the eighteenth century, the then Rajah, being fond of his brother, gave him a share in the government, and his descendants extended the courtesy to his (the brother's) descendants. When the English came (early nineteenth century) they seem to have mistaken the situation, and supposed that there were two independent rulers in the same city. They guaranteed both, with the result that now there are twin dynasties, with their possessions all peppered in and out of each other. Each has his own court, his own army, his own water works and tennis club, his own palace, before each of which different bands play different tunes at the same hour every evening.
It is true that Devi — the sacred mountain that stands above the distracted city like an acropolis — has at last been divided between them, so that each can get to his own shrine without walking on the other's footpath; and it is true that they have come to an arrangement over the flagstaff on the top, by which it belongs to both of them — upper half to one, lower half to the other, and the flag flying half-mast to be neutral.
Our host — Rajah of Dewas, Senior Branch, is his title — was Darling's pupil five years ago, and they are devoted to each other. I have only seen him for a moment, but he struck me as a most charming and able young man. The "Junior Branch," who is older and less competent, we never see.
I am getting the habit of early rising — long may it last! — and was up to see the sun come out of the palm trees this morning, and the cranes go hunting for their breakfast in the lake. The air was delicious, and silent except for little drums that were being beaten in the temples. Devi turned brown-pink above us, and presently the light reached the plain, gilding indiscriminately the motor garage of the Junior Branch and the elephants of the Senior.
One of these elephants we are to ride shortly, amid the applause of the (appropriate) populace, and it is to land us into an Indian banquet, with garlands and speeches and I don't know what. Another day we are to see native acting, but — anxious to catch the mail — I write before these festivities have come off. The Rajah is away for the moment, at a Maratha conference. I hope he will be back this evening, after which, as soon as the priests have purified him from the railway train, he will spend all his time with us.
January 1st 
So many delights that I snatch with difficulty a moment to describe them to you. Garlanded with jasmine and roses, I await the carriage that takes us to the Indian theatre, erected for the Xmas season outside the Old Palace. But to proceed.
December 29th the Rajah gave an Indian banquet to the newly married pair. I have both forgotten the time it was meant to be and the time it was. As usual they differed widely, but at all events, as darkness fell, the garden and road by the Guest House filled up with soldiers, policemen, horses, children, torch-bearers, and a most gorgeous elephant. (There are two state elephants but the other did not feel quite well.) Goodall was to wear Indian dress, and I retired to my tent to put on my English evening things.
Baldeo, much excited by the splendour that surrounded us, was making the best of my simple wardrobe and helping to snip my shirt cuffs where they were frayed, when there was a cry of "May I come in?" and enter the Rajah, bearing Indian raiment for me also. A Sirdar (courtier) came with him, a very charming boy, and they two aided Baldeo to undress me and redress me. It was a very funny scene. At first nothing fitted, but the Rajah sent for other garments off people's backs until I was suited. Let me describe myself. Shoes — I had to take them off when the Palace was reached, so they don't count. My legs were clad in jodhpurs made of white muslin. Hanging outside these was the youthful Sirdar's white shirt, but it was concealed by a waistcoat the colours of a Neapolitan ice — red, white and green, and this was almost concealed by my chief garment — a magnificent coat of claret-coloured silk, trimmed with gold. I never found out to whom this belonged. It came to below my knees and fitted round my wrists closely and very well, and closely to my body. Cocked rakishly over one ear was a Maratha turban of scarlet and gold — not to be confused with the ordinary turban; it is a made-up affair, more like a cocked hat. Nor was this all. I carried in my left hand a scarf of orange-coloured silk with gold ends, and before the evening ended a mark like a loaf of bread was stamped on my forehead in crimson, meaning that I was of the sect of Shiva.
Meanwhile, the others too had been surprised with Indian costumes, Malcolm looking very fine in pink with a sword, and the other man in purple. The ladies went as themselves. At last we were ready, and really it was a glorious sight when the Goodalls were perched on the elephant, sitting on real cloth of gold, with torches around them, and above, splendid starlight. The band played, the children cheered, and the Darlings' nice old Ayah stood in the verandah invoking blessings from Heaven. We went each in a carriage with Sirdars: I had two old men and one fat one, all gorgeous, but conversation not as good as our clothes. An elephant being pensive in its walk, we didn't reach the New Palace for a long time, though it is close to the Guest House. Hideous building! But it was too dark to see it. After the Rajah had welcomed us we went to the banquet room. This again I must try to describe to you.
We all sat on the floor, cross-legged, round the edge of a great hall, the servants running about in the middle. Each was on a legless chair and had in front a tray like a bed tray on which was a metal tray, on which the foods were ranged. The Brahmins ate no meat, and were waited on by special attendants, naked to the waist. The rest of us had meat as well as the other dishes. Round each man's little domain an ornamental pattern was stencilled in chalk on the floor. My tray was arranged somewhat as follows, but "Jane, Jane, however shall we recollect the dishes?" as Miss Bates remarked.
1. A mound of delicious rice — a great stand-by.
2. Brown tennis balls of sugar — not bad.
3. Golden curlicues — sweet to sickliness.
4. Little spicy rissoles.
5. Second mound of rice, mixed with spices and lentils.
6. Third mound of rice, full of sugar and sultanas — very nice.
7. Curry in metal dish — to be mixed with rice No. 1.
8. Sauce, as if made from apples that felt poorly. Also to be mixed with rice, but only once by me.
9. Another sauce, chooey-booey and brown.
10, 11, 12. Three dreadful little dishes that tasted of nothing till they were well in your mouth, when your whole tongue suddenly burst into flame. I got to hate this side of the tray.
13. Long thin cake, like a brandy snap but salt.
14. It may have been vermicelli.
15. As for canaries.
16. Fourth mound of rice to which I never came.
18. Native bread — thin oat-cake type.
Some of these dishes had been cooked on the supposition that an elephant arrives punctually, and lay cooling on our trays when we joined them. Others were brought round hot by the servants who took a fistful and laid it down wherever there was room. Sometimes this was difficult, and the elder dishes had to be rearranged, and accommodate themselves. When my sweet rice arrived, a great pushing and squeezing and patting took place, which I rather resented, not knowing how attached I should become to the newcomer. Everything had to be eaten with the hand, and with one hand — it is bad manners to use the left — and I was in terror of spoiling my borrowed plumes. Much fell, but mostly into the napkin, and the handkerchief that I had brought with me. I also feared to kneel in the sauces or to trail my orange scarf in the ornamental chalk border, which came off at the slightest touch and actually did get onto the jodhpurs. The cramp, too, was now and then awful. The courtiers saw that I was in pain, and told the servants to move the tray that I might stretch, but I refused, nor would I touch the entire English dinner that was handed round during the meal — roast chicken, vegetables, blancmange, etc.
As each guest finished, he sang a little song from the Vedas in praise of some god, and the Rajah was, as usual, charming. He made the Goodalls feed each other five times and pronounce each other's name aloud. These are among their marriage customs. Afterwards he, his brother, the Dewan, and all of us went onto the palace roof, where was champagne and betel nut, and we danced in our grand clothes and our socks to the music of the band which was playing down in the square. This suited me very well.
We were interrupted by a message from the Rani — she desired to see us. This was a great surprise to me. The two ladies went first, and then we, and had a lovely vision. She was extraordinarily beautiful, with dark "gazelle" eyes. Having shaken hands all round, she leant against the doorpost and said nothing. There was an awkward, if respectful, pause, and after Malcolm had talked a little Urdu and received no answer, we went. Her dress was on the negligee side, but she had not been intending to receive. The Rajah was pleased she had sent for us. He longs to modernise her, but she remains a lovely wild creature.
We returned to the hall below, sitting on the floor again and hearing a little singing from nautch girls. We drove back to the Guest House to find Mrs. Darling and Mrs. Goodall in the most magnificent Indian dresses: the Rani had dressed them and sent them back in a purdah carriage. — So ended a very charming evening, full of splendour yet free of formality.
The 30th brought festivities of a very different kind. The Agent to the Governor General, who lives at Indore, and his subordinate the Political Agent from Neemuch, each brought a party, and we all had lunch here, very stiff and straight, the Rajah being quite another person. It is odd that I should have seen so much of the side of life that is hidden from most English people. As at Chhatarpur, I became privy to all the anxieties through which an Indian passes when his political superiors call. Would all go well, what would they think of him, etc.? Oh dear, why would the servants not bring lunch: would I run and hurry them up, etc.?
All went well. The A.G.G. was a very fine fellow; his wife not nice. The P.A., who planted himself on the state for the night and used and broke all the motors, was not nice either, but on the other hand he brought three Italian guests with him who were. As their English was of the feeblest, I figured. We had an acrobatic performance after tea in the Guest House garden, and Indian theatre in the evening — tawdry and dull. We applauded one act out of politeness and they did it all again. As soon as the guests had gone, the Rajah sported like a kitten.
The chief event of January 1st was the Durbar in the Old Palace — rather a beautiful building in the heart of the town. Dressed in white, he sat on the "Gaddi" — half bed, half throne — leaning against a white bolster with peacock fans waving over his head. The court sat cross-legged all down the room on each side, we in an alcove on chairs: he would not have us squatting. All offered "nazzir" (homage) which he remitted to the servants. His expression changed as each came up: to the Sirdars he was dignified, to the Maratha guests courteous and warm: he laughed behind his hand when the Subedhar, his buffoon, came. (This is a puzzling unattractive man; a spy from Kolhapur I am told. H.H. is always translating his droll speeches and I can't see their drollery: sometimes his turban is set on fire, which makes me wretched. He takes care of Lady, the flea-bitten little dog.)(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Hill of Devi"
Copyright © 1981 Donald Parry (E).
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
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Table of Contents
LETTERS OF 1912–13,
THE STATE AND ITS RULER,
LETTERS OF 1921,
Birth of a Baby,
Note on A Passage to India,
Other Books by E.M. Forster,