Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Two Darjeeling horsemen: one Hindi mystery

Amongst a small treasure trove of old photos my grandfather left is one blurry picture which holds a small mystery.


It took me a little time to work out exactly what was in front of me, but a few things are certain – and a few things are not.

One of the horsemen in the picture is my grandfather Frederick George Marsh and the second person is the visitor who sent the picture to him.

Fred was born in South Australia in 1891 and made his way to Darjeeling in 1912. He began working for tea planting pioneer Claud Bald in January 1913 and in 1917 married Margaret, Claud’s eldest daughter. After serving his apprenticeship as assistant manager under Claud’s guidance he became manager of Phoobsering Tea Estate – one of the oldest in the area – in April 1919.

The picture was taken in front of the old house at Phoobsering. Another clearer picture of the house and Fred confirm this.


The first picture is too unclear to recognise Fred’s face, though he is probably the one on the right. The fellow the left seems to have a more prominent jaw than Fred. In addition, the horse on the right looks more like Fred’s horse Dumarsingh which he had about this time. Here is Fred on Dumarsingh.



There is a note on the back of the blurry photo which reads as follows:

“your homestead

yourself and a visitor”



This confirms what we’ve been able to work out. But then follows two ‘squiggles’ which at first I thought were the undecipherable signature of the person who sent the picture to Fred. 

On taking a second look, I thought the writing may be Hindi. So, I asked a former colleague, Dr Peter Friedlander, who teaches Hindi what he thought of the two markings.  He responded quickly to say that they do look like Hindi, “the first is perhaps ‘ma’ and the second is I am sure a ‘ra’.” 

But what do they mean? 

Apparently, nothing. But they must have meant something to the two fellows in the picture! The tea planters were fluent in the local languages so this part is no mystery. The other fellow is probably also a tea planter but could have been another professional or a minister. So, what are the options?  I can only think of the following:

  • The words signified something about the writer. Perhaps it’s a rough approximation of the pronunciation of the writer’s name – O’Mara or at a stretch Meagher?
  • They represented something in common between the two. Perhaps a war-cry of the Northern Bengal Mounted Rifles to which they were both obliged to belong? This is more of a stretch as there is nothing to suggest that the unit had a war cry and. In any case, a war cry usually had a meaning and these two characters together seem to have no meaning.


At the moment the mystery remains. There is nothing else in the little treasure box which includes written Hindi and no other pictures which resemble the dapper visitor.

Let me know if you have any ideas.