When Helen Frances (Bagg) Lewis and her husband Edward travelled from Shanghai to Canada in 1900, they took a circuitous route through India, sightseeing along the way. In a travel journal written 25 years later, Helen described the highlights of that trip, including three frightening encounters with snakes.
Helen was my great-grandfather Robert Stanley Bagg’s youngest sister. She and Edward lived in Shanghai for several months in 1899. They even considered staying there, but decided instead to relocate to Canada’s west coast, rather than return to their hometown of Montreal.
They left Shanghai aboard a P&O steamer and explored Hong Kong for a month before taking a second-class cargo ship to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), arriving in Columbo on New Year’s Day, 1900.
Their first stop in India was in the southern city of Madura, and Helen wrote that the timing of their visit was perfect.
“It happened to be a gala day at the Temple of Madura, so all the sacred elephants were out in procession, bedazzled with garlands of flowers and state paraphernalia. The procession over, we were allowed to mount a couple of them, and never shall I forget my first experience of riding on the back of one of those stately animals….”
Luck was with them again in Puri, a city famed for what Helen called the “Juggernaut” Temple, an elaborate Hindu temple dedicated to the deity Jagannath. But seeing the dirty exterior of the bungalow where they had arranged to stay, Helen felt disappointment.
Her spirits “sank to zero” when she realized that the rustling they heard came from a nest of cobras on the roof. While inspecting the property further, she encountered a government officer, Major H.. The only white man in the district, he was so pleased to meet some English-speaking people that he invited them to stay with him for three days.
Early in the morning of their last day in Puri, a messenger arrived with the news that a tiger had entered a nearby village and carried off a woman. “Major sahib” was asked to immediately go and kill the animal. Both the major and Edward agreed, leaving Helen in the house with a number of servants, none of whom spoke English.
She decided to explore the rambling bungalow and found herself in the “snake room,” where the major kept an enormous collection of “vicious reptiles in tanks and cages, for scientific purposes. At my entrance, these monsters almost simultaneously rose up and hissed at me, so that my retreat was by no means leisurely.” She was much relieved when the two men returned after a successful hunt, and she noted in her journal that she still treasured the tiger’s claws, a souvenir of their visit.
From Puri, the couple continued by train to Calcutta and Darjeeling, where they were thrilled to view the Himalayas in perfectly clear weather. They then moved on to the sacred city of Benares, on the banks of the Ganges River.
In their next destination, Lucknow, Helen experienced “a narrow escape from a venomous cobra who was coiled up on the stone parapet, enjoying his noonday siesta.”
“On bending over the parapet to peer down, I accidentally touched his head, when he reared and stretched out his neck to strike. Terror lent me wings and I made for shelter. The driver was as keen as I to move on, as the Hindus consider it desecration to kill any animal, and I urged him forward fearing lest Edward — who was on the beach below, photographing sun worshippers, — might return at that moment and insist upon starting off on a cobra hunt. As it happened, I did not say a word about the episode to him until some days later in Agra, where I met with my second cobra adventure.”
Helen found Agra and its famed Taj Mahal interesting, but her encounter with the snake was even more memorable.
“Whilst driving close to the river one afternoon, one of our wheels must have grazed his slumbering body, for suddenly sprung to his full length, he struck with such force at the hood of our open gharry [a horse-drawn cab] as to hit the brim of my broad sun hat, and send it forward over my face. Luckily at the moment I did not realize what a narrow escape I had had.”
Over the next few weeks, the couple continued their explorations. Finally, in March, they sailed from Bombay, through the Suez Canal to Venice and Trieste. From there, they made their way via Paris to Cherbourg and crossed the Atlantic to New York. Edward continued to Vancouver to arrange for their new home, while Helen stopped in Montreal for several weeks to visit family and friends.
Note: This account is part of a series of journals Helen wrote later in life, handwritten in black ink in a lined, leather-bound book. These excerpts are from Book III, The Orient: A New Life in a New Land. She did not complete this volume and I do not know whether the others have survived. This one now belongs to a descendant of Helen’s niece, Ada Lindsay.