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The Legend of Dashabooja

The recent revival of interest in the ten-armed poker-playing statue known as “Dashabooja” has prompted a resurgence of curiosity about the fascinating history of this remarkable artifact. Unfortunately, the verifiable facts are as scant as the speculations are plentiful. It seems that for every known datum, there exist at least ten dubious rumors. This state of affairs can only improve with more applied research, but for now, this outline must be regarded as the total sum of everything that is currently known about Dashabooja.

The toast of London

Dashabooja at the Great Exhibition

In the 19th Century, the Industrial Revolution brought almost daily news of miraculous achievements, and of inventions which would have seemed magical to any previous generation. England was at the height of her power, and London was the center of the civilized world. It was against this backdrop that Dashabooja was unveiled.

May 1, 1851 saw the opening of The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. Millions gathered at the Crystal Palace to gasp awestruck at such devices as “Baker’s Copying Telegraph,” which could send images over a wire, and “Dr. Merryweather’s Tempest Prognosticator,” which harnessed leeches to predict inclement weather. Those who strolled to the Asian Gallery were even more amazed by “The Dashabooja,” or as it was listed in the exhibition catalogue, “Sgt Malarkey’s Card-Playing Statue from Hindoostan.”

Charles Dickens
Charles Darwin

One visitor, novelist Charles Dickens, described Dashabooja in a letter to his nephew Rick Dickens:

It looks like a brass statue, and yet it plays poker. I think mayhaps it is animated by magnetism, or a system of compressed air, or the Devil. I have lost four guineas to the contraption.

Within weeks, the city’s newspapers and pamphlets circulated countless theories of Dashabooja’s vitality. Biologist Charles Darwin published an essay for the Royal Society rebutting some of the wilder notions:

Dr Babbage’s theory that “she is a real woman, painted with gilt” must be discarded, as it does not account for the statue’s nine-foot height, nor its ability to work incessantly quite without any interruptions to attend to natural functions such as all living humans must occasionally suffer. Also, it has ten arms. Lord Birmingham’s idea that the idol is powered by “miasmic vapours” is hard to credit, given the lack of any such emanations near Hyde Park.
Commemorative postage stamp, 1952

On St. Valentine’s Day, 1852, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert held a private audience with Dashabooja. No contemporary artist or photographer recorded the scene, but Luxembourg commemorated the event 100 years later on a postage stamp.

Malarkey’s memoir

Ambrose Malarkey

After the Great Exhibition closed, the statue was moved to East India House on Leadenhall Street, where it still attracted thousands of visitors, and the fascination of London’s high society. It was at the height of Dashabooja’s celebrity, in the summer of 1854, that Ambrose Malarkey published The True Tale of the Dashabooja, Being an Illustrated Memoir of My Adventures in India.

Illustration from Malarkey's memoir
Rafting down the Ganges

The memoir sold well, and it was certainly a gripping tale, equal parts mystery, romance, thriller, and travelogue. Malarkey revealed how he tracked the Dashabooja across the entire subcontinent, single-handedly wiped out a clandestine cabal, found hidden chambers, deciphered coded messages, rescued naked princesses, and brought the amazing statue back to England.

But rather than enhance Dashabooja’s fame, Malarkey’s book had the opposite effect. His memoir contained many outright errors and easily disproved claims (such as his description of the Ganges river flowing into a secret cavern beneath the Taj Mahal).

Richard Francis Burton

Upon reading the volume, the explorer Richard Francis Burton quipped, “I doubt this buffoon could find India on a map.” It was reportedly Queen Victoria herself who first used the word “malarkey” as a slang term for unbelievable nonsense.

Malarkey was sued by his own publisher for fraud, and never saw a penny of royalties.

A rekindled interest

The public ridicule of Malarkey, along with the Indian Rebellion of 1857, put an end to Dashabooja’s fame. The statue was removed from display, and all but forgotten, for three decades.

Excavation in Bengal, 1890
The "Dashabooja Sootra," detail of papyrus

But in 1890, an archaeological excavation in Bengal chanced to turn up an ancient Sanskrit papyrus which restored some of Dashabooja’s tarnished luster. The manuscript recorded a series of ten conversations between a guru named Kavi and an unnamed narrator, who together discussed Dashabooja at great length, and reflected on the philosophical implications of poker.

The “Dashabooja Sootra,” as it was called, was translated into English and published as The Sapience of Dashabooja. It was well received in academic and Orientalist circles, and it somewhat rehabilitated the credibility of Malarkey’s statue, if not of Malarkey himself (who at any rate had already died in 1887 from being struck by a locomotive).

Traveling attraction

Circus sideshow, French Lick, Indiana, unkown date

While never again attaining its previous celebrity, Dashabooja could once again be put on display, mostly in circuses and carnivals. At some point the idol was transported to America, and appeared in various sideshows across the United States and Canada.

Carnival side show, Altus, Oklahoma, 1931

But once again, the fickle public’s interest waned, as Dashabooja attracted ever thinner crowds. Surely the profusion of the newly invented slot machine played a part in this decline, for the idea of a gambling automaton was no longer a novelty. Compared to the ubiquitous “one-armed bandits,” the ten-armed idol might have seemed more quaint than marvelous.

But finally, the blame must be placed on the spirit of the age, as the mood shifted from Victorian optimism to 20th Century cynicism. The world gradually lost the desire — perhaps even the ability — to marvel at anything. The last known pubic exhibition of Dashabooja was in Altus, Oklahoma, in 1931.


The billiard room of Chester Gleeson

The chain of ownership of the statue is lost in the fog of antiquity, but it finally ended up in the private collection of Chicago industrialist Chester Gleeson, who used it as a decoration for his billiard room. When his mansion burned to the ground in 1951, no trace was found of Dashabooja, not even a lump of molten brass. The date was May 1, precisely 100 years after the triumphant debut of Sgt. Malarkey’s Card-Playing Statue from Hindoostan.

Other resources

Any reader who has first- or second-hand knowledge of Dashabooja — especially personal memories, photographs, handbills, or other documents — is invited to contribute to this work by contacting Sean Gleeson, or by posting to another website, which we can link to as a resource.



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