The only survivor of an 18th century scientific expedition from Denmark to Arabia - was a German scholar by the name of Carsten Niebuhr. He arrived in September 1763 from Mocha to Bombay, where the last of his expedition members ( its only doctor ) was claimed by malaria.
“Mr. Cramer, sinking at length under his complaints, died at Bombay, on the 10th of February 1764, in spite of the cares of a skillful English physician,” notes his memoir. Given the nature of this expedition and the volatile political spectrum of the subcontinent, Niebuhr’s feverish description of India at that time is important.
His account outlines the struggle of multiple powers wrestling for control: the English empire on its rise, the lurking presence of embittered Marathas, and the waning of Portuguese influence - whom he takes the opportunity to mock in this story:
“A small fleet of merchant ships bound from Goa to Diu, under the protection of two frigates, was seen, one evening, off Bombay. In the night we heard a brisk firing of guns, and imagined that the Portuguese were engaged with the Mahrattas. But in the morning, it appeared that their exploits had ended merely in the destructions of a quantity of bamboos, from 30 to 40 feet high, which the fishermen had set up in a sand bank for the purposes of their fishing. Those valiant Portuguese had taken the bamboos for the masts of an hostile fleet. To crown their glory, the admiral found himself compelled by the governor of Bombay to pay damages to the fishermen.”
Describing the state of Hindu idols in the caves of Elephanta Island (which he visited thrice in order to draw its antiquities) Niebuhr wrote:
“I should suppose that the modern Indians no longer adore their ancient Gods, but have adopted new objects of worship, whom they represent by stones painted red, for want of more artificial statues. In many places through India, indeed, may be seen similar piles of red stones, which are held in high veneration among a people who have almost entirely lost all knowledge of the fine arts. The rest of the temple being perfectly neglected, is now the haunt of serpents and beasts of prey. One dares not enter it without first making several discharges of fire arms…”
The symbolic importance in Hindu culture of the vermilion pigment Niebuhr mentions cannot be over-stated, especially in relation to human blood and fertility. Niebuhr must have wondered, that by applying red color to stones the devout imbue them with a key attribute of life, a soul - or do they in turn imply that the Gods too are human and mortal?
Nevertheless, by the 19th century chemical science had established enough for the Victorian art critic and philosopher John Ruskin to note that the source of red color in earth, clay and blood is an oxide of iron. Ruskin declared eloquently in his 1858 lecture on The Work Of Iron In Nature, Art & Policy:
“It is not a fault in the iron, but a virtue, to be so fond of getting rusted, for in that condition it fulfils its most important functions in the universe, and most kindly duties to mankind. Nay, in a certain sense, and almost a literal one, we may say that iron rusted is Living; but when pure or polished, Dead. You all probably know that in the mixed air we breathe, the part of it essentially needful to us is called oxygen; and that this substance is to all animals, in the most accurate sense of the word, “breath of life.” The nervous power of life is a different thing; but the supporting element of the breath, without which the blood, and therefore the life, cannot be nourished, is this oxygen. Now it is this very same air which the iron breathes when it gets rusty.”
Another naturally magnetized oxide of iron, called magnetite - was known to the ancients in the form of lodestone which was used as a magnetic compass for navigation. That such a thing should exist - which of its own volition foretells the direction of things in the universe, would have been a cause of great mystery and wonderment. One of the investigators of this phenomenon, Guillaume Le Nautonier wrote ( around 1601) of this miraculous device as “that little piece of iron that seems to live and have judgement.”
In a sense, the very life in an object seems to come from either blood or magnetism, both of which are a result of the properties of iron, the element which is now understood to have the most stable nucleus. Soon after Nautonier it began to dawn in the works of William Gilbert and others that the Earth itself was a giant magnet, through which circulated magnetic fields from pole to pole ( like blood through a body ).
There must have been a few who wondered if the Earth too was a living God. What other reason could there be to carve out faces and forms that emerge in bas-relief from the rocks of a mountain, or inside the walls of a cave, rather than to suggest Gods emerging from the strata and body of Earth?
Strangely enough, it was the same John Ruskin who recited a poem titled Elephanta And Salsette, at Oxford in June 1839, which is what Niebuhr’s malarial brain must have felt at the sight of these somnambulant caves of colonial India -
Low in the dust, its rocky sculptures rent,
Thine own memorial proves thee impotent.
thy votaries mourn thy cold unheeding sleep,
Chide where they praised, and where they worshipped,
At the Worcester Art museum’s website, a Chola dynasty granite sculpture of trimurti “with traces of gesso and red pigment” has been described thusly: “…the four faces of Brahma symbolize the four Vedas as well as the cardinal points of the compass.”
- Herr Niebuhr & the Remarkable Traverse by C. Braton Crattie
- Niebuhr’s Trimurti drawings
- The Work Of Iron by John Ruskin