[Madame Blavatsky in Simla]
by Edward J. Buck
[Excerpted from Simla, Past and Present by Edward
John Buck. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink, 1904, pp. 116-122.]
. . . In 1867, Rothney House, then called Rothney Castle passed
into the hands of the late Mr. P. Mitchell, C.I.E., a well-known personage in Simla during
his day. He resided in Rothney Castle for some years, and afterwards sold the
place to Mr. A. O. Hume, then a Secretary to the Government of India. Mr. Hume proceeded
to convert the house into a veritable palace, which tradition says he fully expected would
be bought for a Viceregal residence in view of the fact that the Governor-General then
occupied Peterhoff, a building far too small for Viceregal entertainments.
From first to last he spent over two lakhs on the grounds and buildings. He added enormous
reception rooms suitable for large dinner parties and balls, as well as a magnificent
conservatory and spacious hall on the walls of which he displayed his superb collection of
Indian horns. He engaged the services of an European gardener, and with his aid he made
the grounds and conservatory a perpetual horticultural exhibition, to which he courteously
admitted all visitors.
But, possibly because Rothney Castle can only be reached by a troublesome
climb, any anticipations which Mr. Hume may have formed of the purchase of the building by
Government were not realized, and Mr. Hume himself made little use of the larger rooms
otherwise except that he converted one of them into a museum for his wonderful collection
of birds, and for occasional dances.
Mr. Hume, a grandson of the celebrated politician Joseph Hume, was himself a remarkable
character. Of exceptional ability and brain power, and endowed with a wonderful talent for
organisation, he was not free from the eccentricity which sometimes accompanies genius.
Lord Mayo, attracted by his reputation and personality, placed him in charge of the
Agricultural Department which, with the co-operation of Sir John Strachey, His Excellency
had, in 1870, created for the development of agricultural improvements and reforms. . . .
Mr. Hume was essentially a man of hobbies, and whatever hobby he took up was ridden
well and hard. At the time that he was brought to Simla the special subject to which he
had been devoting his energies was that of ornithology. Possessed of ample private means,
he had in his employ an army of collectors, some of them Europeans working on liberal
salaries even beyond the limits of India proper, while many private collectors, falling
under the influence of Mr. Humes genius, gave him strenuous assistance in all parts
of the Indian Empire. Many birds new to science were discovered by himself or by his
agents. The specimens were all brought to Rothney Castle and arranged there in
classified order in cabinets which lined the walls of the room utilized as a museum. The
collections were rapidly augmenting when suddenly Mr. Hume mounted another hobby. This
time it was Theosophy! And one of the tenets of that creed being to take no life,
telegrams were sent to the collectors to stop work and shoot no more birds, while at the
same time an offer was made to the authorities of the British Museum to present the entire
collection to that institution on condition that they would send out an expert to overhaul
the specimens at Rothney Castle. The offer was naturally accepted; Mr. Sharpe,
one of the staff, was sent to Simla and the collection removed to the British, and then
the Kensington Museum, where it forms one of the most valuable assets.
Mr. Hume was undoubtedly led to the worship of Theosophy by the High Priestess of that
cult, Madame Blavatzky, at whose disposal the hospitality of Rothney Castle
was always placed. A Theosophical society was formed of which the leading spirits were
Madame Blavatzky, Mr. Hume himself and Mr. Sinnett, then editor of the Pioneer and
still, it is believed, a leader of Theosophical work in London. Strenuous efforts were
made to bring into the fold influential officials and other residents of Simla, and it was
even whispered that Madame Blavatzky, who when first arriving in the country had been
placed under the surveillance of the police as a suspected Russian agent, had a political
object in gaining adherents to her creed! Certain it is that Madame Blavatzky and her
American disciple, Colonel Olcott, preached the doctrine that the knowledge and learning
of the East reached far higher planes than the science of the West, and that the oriental
should not look upon the occidental as a superior being.
Madame Blavatzky was in the early eighties a constant summer guest at the Rothney
palace, the situation of which on Jakko, whence is commanded an uninterrupted view of the
snowy peaks of Tibet, was peculiarly favourable for the intercourse of the Theosophical
priestess with her familiar Kut Humi, who in astral form (or otherwise) had
chosen for his home the isolation of the Trans-Himalayan steppes. More than once did
Madame Blavatzky invoke his aid at Rothney Castle. But on two notable
occasions she gave, unaided, manifestations of her power with the object of gaining the
faith of those doubting votaries of Theosophy who called for a sign. One of these miracles
is of historical interest. There were gathered together at the Rothney Castle
dinner table all the believers and possible believers in the Theosophical creed then at
Simla. Madame was solicited, probably by her own arrangement, to give an example of the
power which the true Theosophist acquires by asceticism, faith and self-denial. She
protested like a young lady asking for a song: "It is very trying to me; it exhausts
much; no, no, I cannot, I cannot;" but further pressed, at last exclaimed, "Well
then, I must, but it is hard, it is hard! Mrs. Hume! (turning to her hostess) what is
there that you would like? You shall say. Have you lost anything that you would
Mrs. Hume. - "Yes. A year or more ago I lost a brooch. Find that and it
will be indeed wonderful."
Madame. - "It is hard but IT SHALL BE DONE!! Khitmatgar!
Bring me one lantern!"
The lantern brought, Madame rose, led the way through the opened doors leading to the
garden; there halting, she pointed to a bush and commanded, "Dig there!!" A
spade produced, earth was removed and lo! there was the brooch. The guests wonderstruck
and, some of them at least, convinced, returned to the table where a succinct account of
the miracle was drawn up and signed by all present, including two Honourable Members of
Council. Is not this miracle with many more recorded in the chronicles published by Mr.
Sinnett shortly after the event? On another occasion a picnic party was troubled by the
circumstance that there was one tea cup short. "Never mind," said Madame, who
was present and in a complaisant humour, "I shall find one!" and sure enough a
cup (of the same pattern!) was dug up from under another bush, and again the miracle
produced a profound impression.
Sir Edward Buck, who . . . succeeded Mr. Hume in charge of the Agricultural Department,
has told the writer of the attempt made to bring him, among others, into the Theosophical
fold. The story may be given in, as far as they can be remembered, his own words: -
"I was one," he said, "of a small dinner party, men only present, at
which Mr. A., a leading theosophist, was also a guest. After dinner a discussion took
place on the miracles recorded in the then recently printed booklet issued by the Editor
of the Pioneer. Mr. A., an exceedingly clever man, held his own surprisingly well
against the scoffing antagonists who attacked the Theosophical faith. Although always
interested in the questions with which Theosophy was concerned, I refrained from joining
in the discussion, which circled round one of the leading tenets of Theosophy, viz.,
that such power could be gained over matter by adepts who by asceticism had
reached the higher planes that they could disintegrate a solid body, pass it
through another, and reconstruct it on the other side, as well as transfer it any
distance. This granted of course all kinds of developments were possible. Walking home
with Mr. A. to Jakko where I was living in a house above Rothney Castle, I
told him that I believed that I could explain the whole series of miracles in a more
simple way. What way? said Mr. A. It is too late now, I replied,
but I will call at "Rothney Castle" to-morrow evening at 9 oclock
and tell you over an after-dinner cigar. I kept my appointment, but was a quarter of
an hour late. I asked the servant who opened the door to let Mr. A. know I was there, but
instead of being taken to his private room, was ushered into the small drawing-room where
a congregation of Theosophists was assembled in full force. I apologized, explaining that
I had only come for a chat with Mr. A. Oh! we know what you arranged to chat
about, said Mr. Hume, who presided, and all want to hear what you have to
say. I protested that what I might say would offend some of those present, but
protests were useless. I referred, of course, to Madame Blavatzky, who was reclining in
one of those long deck chairs familiar to the P. and O. traveller, and enjoying a
cigarette. She however made no sign. It is a pity, began Mr. Hume, that
you were a quarter of an hour late. If you had been here at 9, you would have seen the
arrival of a communication from Kut Humi (handing me a letter), which those present
(turning to the congregation) will tell you descended from the roof a few minutes
ago. I read it. Addressed to Madame, the purport of it was that she need not trouble
herself with attempts to make proselytes of the incredulous. Enough that those who
believed and practised should gain the higher planes of knowledge and power. What mattered
it to them that the rest of human kind wallowed in ignorance. The adepts would smile at
them in contempt from their superior height! The text of the letter might indeed have been
that to preach to the ignorant would be to cast pearls before swine. Reading
through the letter it struck me that Kut Humi must have had considerable intercourse with
America, as more than one of the phrases appeared to savour of the Yankee dialect. And did
not Colonel Olcott come from America? However, this episode concluded, began my
Mr. H. - You assert that you can explain the miracles recorded by Mr. Sinnett in
a simple way. How?
Sir E. B. - Which one do you choose?
Mr. H. - The discovery of the brooch.
Sir E. B. - Is not Madame Blavatzky a powerful mesmerist?
Mr. H. - Yes.
Sir E. B. - Had she not been for some time at Rothney Castle before the
occurrence of the miracle?
Mr. H. - Yes.
Sir E. B. - Is Mrs. Hume a believer in her powers?
Mr. H. - Certainly.
Sir E. B. - Then let us assume that Madame Blavatzky had acquired such mesmeric
power over Mrs. Hume as to make her give utterance to a certain wish. Is not the rest
Mr. H. - You imply that the brooch was already buried!
Sir E. B. - You have drawn the inference.
Madame B. (rising from her chair and waving her cigarette in Sir Edward
Bucks face), - You come here, sir, to insolt me. You call me cheat, etc.,
"Madame Blavatsky, be it said, was a powerfully made woman of about 50 years of
age - almost a virago - somewhat coarse in feature. She was still attractive in the
intellectual force which was expressed in her countenance, and I had always felt a certain
admiration and respect for the strength of her character. At this moment she appeared
formidable, and I sought to assuage her assumed fury. The conversation continued: -
Sir E. B. - Madame Blavatzky pray be calm! Of course you know that my
explanation is absurd. But have you not erred in neglecting the principles so clearly
expressed in this letter of Kut Humis? Have you not cast pearls before swine? We
ignorant people who live on lower planes have not attained to the spiritual level of the
initiated, and are obliged to seek for foolish explanations of miracles which to them are
no mystery. Why, then, publish your miracles to the world?
"Madame Blavatsky, who had not done with me yet, sank again into the deck chair
and Mr. Hume continued his cross-examination. Other miracles, such as that of passing a
ring into a cushion, were cited, a similar explanation being suggested by me in each case,
to the accompaniment of angry growls from Madame Blavatzky. But she had been waiting all
the time to play her trump card, as the ensuing dialogue will show.
M. B. - Now, sir, I will show you one thing that shall convince you! You have
something to do with agriculture?
Sir E. B. - Yes, I have the honour to administer the Department of Agriculture.
M. B. - Well, sir, you shall plant a seed and it shall grow in six
months! I shall plant that seed and it shall grow in six minutes!
Sir E. B. - Madame, I pray you spare yourself that trouble. No doubt you can do
as you say, but I, in my ignorant scepticism, should only believe it to be the mango trick
of the Madras conjurors.
M. B. (rising in fury), - What, sir! you class me with those vulgar
impostors? You call yourself gentleman, etc., etc.
Sir Edward Buck. - Mr. Hume, I begged you not to open this conversation. I
foresaw the result, and it is better that I should now retire (bowing adieu and moving to
the door). But before leaving I should wish to make one suggestion to Madame Blavatzky.
Will she permit me to go to the Viceroy to-morrow and ask His Excellency to transfer the
Agricultural Department from my charge to hers? For that Department was recently created
to deal with the protection of the country against famine, and if Madame Blavatzky can
raise crops in six minutes, what more is wanted? Good night!"
"I did not venture to call at Rothney Castle again, at any rate while
Madame was there. But I always regretted that I had so far lost my temper as to decline
seeing that six-minute trick, which would have at any rate been interesting. I never saw
Madame Blavatzky again. And it was not long afterwards that her clever impostures were
exposed at Madras. But I have always said of her, as the two clerical dignitaries said of
Mrs. Proudie, She was a wonderful woman."
Thus far Sir Edward Buck. Mr. Hume, in a printed brochure on Madame Blavatzky, said
that she was the most marvellous liar he had ever met, but excused her on the ground that
she used deception with the honest object of converting to a higher faith. So far as that
faith is expressed by Theosophy its temples have since Madame Blavatzkys
departure been transferred from Rothney Castle to Paris and London.
In the later years of his residence at Rothney Castle Mr. Hume devoted his
time to the furtherance of what had been ostensibly one of Madame Blavatzkys
objects, though no doubt from better motives, viz., the elevation of the native
community to a higher and more dignified status. In all honest sincerity he to this end
became President of the Congress and aided that body with much good advice and with much
good money. But he was more than once constrained to charge his followers with failure to
themselves contribute that practical and financial support to the movement which he
considered it demanded. However this may be, there is no doubt that in being deprived of
the able leadership of Mr. Hume on his retirement to England the Congress sustained a
severe loss. And of Mr. Hume too, may it be said "He was a wonderful man!" . . .