Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s 1851 novel, was forgotten within months of its publication. The book found a second life, and its writer immortality, around the time of Melville’s birth centenary in 1919. Since then, it has been a much-read classic that is praised for being that rare kind of novel – one that shape-shifts and is intriguing in its complexities. Legions of Melville scholars and aficionados still remain addicted to deciphering Moby Dick’s enduring mysteries and exploring its many nuances.

Melville was 21 when he signed up on the whaler Acushnet in 1841, only to jump ship to spend a few months on the Marquesas Islands in south Pacific. After many adventures in the Pacific region, he returned to Boston in 1844. These experiences would shape his novels beginning with his first, Typee, Omoo and others.

Scholars have shown that Moby Dick’s story was inspired by Jeremiah Reynolds’ 1839 tale of Mocha Dick, a whale in the South Seas. Around 1820, the time of Melville’s birth, Owen Chase, the first officer of the whaling ship, Essex, recounted the wreck of their ship by an 85-ft sperm whale. This had compelled the crew to escape in a few lifeboats. To survive, they resorted often to cannibalism.

‘Matse Avatar’

The world of whaling had its own weltanschauung, or philosophy. Whalers were familiar with the myths relating to big fishes, deluges and stories of miraculous rescues. Melville might have known these, too. But his method of writing was unusual – his recollections were combined with copious referencing. In chapter 55 of Moby Dick, writing about “the monstrous details of whales” in the past, Melville mentions the story of the “Matse-avatar”, and cites the engraving of the fish incarnation in the Elephanta caves:

“Now by all odds, the most ancient extant portrait anyways purporting to be the whale’s, is to be found in the famous cavern-pagoda of Elephanta, in India…. The Hindoo whale, referred to, occurs in a separate department of the wall, depicting the incarnation of Vishnu in the form of leviathan, learnedly known as the Matse avatar. But though this sculpture is half man half whale, so as only to give the tail of the latter, yet that small section of him is all wrong. It looks more like the tapering tail of an anaconda, than the broad palms of the true whale’s majestic flukes.”

— Source: Stuart M Frank’s Herman Melville’s Picture Gallery, 1986

Later, in chapter 82, as mentioned by Bruce Sullivan and Patricia Wong Hall in the journal, Literature and Theology, Melville mentions Vishnu, who in the first of his 10 incarnations “has forever set apart and sanctified the whale”. Vishnu transformed into a whale as the Vedas were lying at the bottom of the ocean. The Vedas, Melville suggests, were indispensable to creating the world as they “contained something in the shape of practical hints to young architects”.

Melville, the reader

When it came to other cultures and unfamiliar worlds, Melville shared the usual quaint notions of his time. Howard P Vincent (The Trying Out of Moby Dick, 1951, cited by Stuart Frank) was the first to point out that Melville’s source for the matsya avatar detail was Thomas Maurice’s Indian Antiquities volume 2, that came with Inigo Barlow’s engraving of the avatar (p 273). Vincent noted that Maurice, with his rushed descriptions, made no connection between the “cavern pagoda” at Elephanta and the “matse avatar” and the error clearly was a result of “Melville misreading of his source material”.

In any case, Maurice was not a credible source on most matters. His work was self-published, and many pages in Volume 1 of Indian Antiquities were spent berating scholars who, Maurice felt, had been unduly critical of his work. An acolyte of William Jones (Melville was familiar with Jones’ work as well), Maurice substituted copiousness for competence.

Vincent deduced that Melville had referred to Maurice’s book for, in the pre-1850s West – i.e., before Moby Dick – this book contained the only mention of the “Matse avatar”. Later fans have pointed to Richard Joseph Sullivan’s mention of the word in one volume of his 1794 Letters to a Traveller. Melville’s other mistake was, scholars point out, the possible conflation of Elephanta with other cave temples at Salsette, Karle and Ellora – all of which were drawing attention around this time.

Wrong interpretations

Melville, however, wasn’t the only one to err on the matter of finding marine sculptures/engravings in the Elephanta caves. William Erskine’s long note in Transactions of the Bombay Literary Society (1819), with sketches of Elephanta by Mrs Ashburner and Agnes Dundas, begins by detailing all previous accounts of Elephanta he is familiar with. Erskine writes that, around the 1780s, both Hector Macneil and, the East India Company surgeon, William Hunter, mention a figure/gargoyle (“peisach looking form”) that appears to be “presenting a fish”. To Erskine, this looked more a conch or spiral shell – and Erskine attributes the mistake to a native interpreter fumbling up.

Erskine praised the German traveller Carsten Niebuhr for his descriptions when most of Europe did not know Hinduism. He also notes Captain Pyke’s 1712 account of a “curious pagoda near Bombay” as well as Pyke’s mention of sculptures that, even in Erksine’s time, had disappeared – a small elephant on the back of a bigger one, and “Alexander’s horse”. Pyke came away, quite certain that these engravings weren’t the work of Alexander the Conqueror’s men (as one rumour went) or of Chinese merchants (“Chinos”) as suggested by Jan Huyghen van Linschoten in the 16th century.

But Erskine had missed out other narratives. Robert Melville Grindlay’s 1830 Scenery, Costumes and Architecture chiefly on the Western Side of India had William Westall’s painting of the great triad of the Elephanta. Also, Robert Burford’s panorama of Bombay 1830 in Leicester Square showed the Elephanta, as viewed from the old city.

Once the overland route via the Suez had been established, Elephanta – as cited by writers such as Anne Elwood (1834) and the colonial official CR Baynes (1843) – became a must-stop for almost everyone who took the steamship from Suez to Bombay, via Aden, Bushehr and Karachi.

Even Thomas B Macaulay, the colonial administrator, mentioned the Elephanta in his very forgettable avatar as fiction writer. In his Eros and Anteros: A Platonistic Romance (New York’s Poughkeepsie Journal, June 8, 1844), Eumalphos and Eucharis are childhood sweethearts but the former, thirsty for knowledge, roams the world, taking in sights such as Elephanta and the pyramids, before he returns to his love.

Writer’s resistance

Melville’s mention of the Elephanta and the fish incarnation were not just a one-off revelation of his interests. It was also an act of resistance, of moving away from the conservative ethos of his world. Legions of readers have combed Moby Dick, seeking more such allusions and these reveal, among other things, Melville’s beliefs in democracy, and an essential equality among all beings, even animals.

Bruce M Sullivan and Patricia Wong Hall in their 2001 essay on Melville’s whale avatar of the Hindoos, also believe he had an inherent fascination for the East. They point to Melville’s referring of Captain Ahab in chapter 44 as an “old mogul”. In chapter 96, the smell of whale processing is distinctive, like that “wild Hindoo odour of funeral pyres”. There’s a mention of the “tiger of Bengal’ in chapter 119, and in chapters 87 and 92, whales are compared to the elephants that impressed Alexander and Porus.

Melville wasn’t fixated on just making these connections. The ship Pequod in Moby Dick with sailors from all over, was a microcosm of the world itself. It was a deliberate literary act. Two sailors were of Indian origin – a lascar who invoked Hindu gods on one occasion and Fedallah, the strangely-named Parsi.

But it is the South Sea islander and ship’s harpooner Queepeg, who has in him a conflation of several beliefs. He fasts over days (which he refers to as his Ramadan) and offers worship to an idol called Yojo. Melville’s intent – and Sullivan and Hall suggest this too – was to show the complexity inherent in other cultures and individuals.

Such an avowal and tangential criticism evidently didn’t go well for Moby Dick as it was criticised by religious and conservative journals soon after its release. This could, arguably, be a reason why it didn’t do well in its initial years. Even Typee, Melville’s first novel, was seen as satirising missionaries. Yet more than 160 years since Moby Dick was first published, things look much different for the book and its writer. In our time, with appropriation of another’s culture seeming the cardinal literary sin, Melville, who absorbed a wide range of influences, shows us what is possible when one remains open to the world.