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In the photographs at an exhibition at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, a tall, broad-built, handsome-looking man appears in many guises: now a monk in robes, now an ushanka or fur-cap wearing gentleman in an overcoat. He is now in Japan, now in Russia.

But Rahul Sankrityayan was made in India. Whimsical gawkers, starting at random through the exhibits, will find him a mystery until they come to the start of the viewing gallery, and see the picture of him dressed in kurta and Nehru jacket, accepting something from a smiling Jawaharlal himself. It was the Sahitya Akademi award – the Indian union’s most prestigious literary prize for writing in any of its regional languages -- which he received in 1959. Not bad for a man who formally studied only till class 8, then went on to write over 130 books in at least five of the thirty languages he knew.

The exhibition note -- the size of a door -- tries to sum up this and other details about the genius who looks like a tourist taking souvenir pictures in the photos. But in fact, the most unbelievable thing about Rahul Sankrityayan, cult figure to a certain kind of modern Hindi reader, is that he remains so unknown to the English-speaking world.


The man born Kedar Pandey in a small village in Azamgarh in 1893 -- the IGNCA show marked his 125th birth anniversary -- was a chameleon. By his own admission, Sankrityayan changed naam,vesh-bhoosha, khaan-paan and sampradaya (name, clothing, food and drinking habits, religion) many times in his life. He was “a Sanskrit scholar, Tibetologist, Buddhologist, historian, ethnographist, translator, traveller, freedom fighter and communist revolutionary,” to go by the words of his friend and contemporary, Dr Mahadev Saha.

The Hindi writer Dr Narendra Kohli sums up his identity into three broad categories of historian, wanderer, and writer and novelist. “Any Indian historian writing the country’s history would write from the Indian perspective, but he told India’s story from the perspective of the Middle East,” Kohli explained, referring to Sankrityayan’s Madhya Asia Ka Itihaas (for which he received the Sahitya Akademi award from Nehru).

He was a wanderer, a ghumakkad: “Yayavar, a person who is an itinerant,”says journalist and writer Akshaya Mukul, to convey “the range of this man”. It is not unsurprising that Sankrityayan is most renowned in Hindi as a travel writer, and one quite unlike any other, even among the adventurous colonial Englishmen who invented modern travel writing. But there’s a blind-man-touching-elephant quality to this idea of who he actually was.

The IGNCA exhibition features a subset of his mammoth body of work from his travels to Tibet and his engagement with Buddhism. Here, we see ritual objects like prayer wheels, wood and sandalwood statues of Buddhist saints and philosophers, brass chiragdans or lamp-holders, and 47 rare, never-before exhibited thangkas. 80 years ago, Sankrityayan embarked on an astonishing quest to discover Buddhist manuscripts and texts, long destroyed or forgotten over the centuries in India -- but preserved in Tibet, where thousands of works of Buddhist philosophy were preserved in the cold, dry air and the sealed vaults of monasteries.

Sankrityayan made four journeys to Tibet through the late 1920s and 30s and discovered work going back to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, including unbearably precious commentaries in the original hand-writing of philosophers like Vibhutichandra. His colleague, the Nepalese photographer Tejratna, helped make glass photo-plates of many of these. At other times, Sankrityayan copied manuscripts by hand, once taking 20 days in sub-zero Tibetan temperatures to copy the 8000 shlokas of Asanga’s Yogacharbhumi.

The marvellous, if inconspicuous aspect of these discoveries is his ability to win the trust of many monks and scholars, who allowed him access to centuries-old sacred treasures, especially given that Sankrityayan was a subject of British India. He hadn’t gone unprepared: before his first trip to Tibet in 1929, he already knew Pali, Prakrit, Apabhramsas, Sanskrit and Sharda. He had and obtained the degree of Tripitakacharya – one who has studied the Buddhist tripitakas -- over a 19-month part-time study period, alongside his teaching job in Sri Lanka.

All of these, along with the objects he purchased, came back to India with him on the backs of 22 mules. Many are in the IGNCA show, having travelled from the exhibits and stores of the Patna museum, to which Sankrityayan donated them. The sheer humility and hard work of this endeavour seems a million miles away from present-day Indian cultural arrogance. “His idea was that we should shed our insularity of thinking that everything happened in India,” Sankrityayan’s daughter Jaya -- who contributed all the photos from the family’s personal collection -- explains. “He was not just a traveller, but, looked at what holds us and our cultures together, their mingling and mixing,” says Jaya. “A very simple but very complex idea.”

It’s true: to enter this show is to enter the life of a mind that really could see objects at the intersection of history, culture, religion and literature. This radical openness to thought and learning is emblematic of the life Sankrityayan lived. As a child, he received his formal education in Arabic and Urdu at a madrassa and Nizamabad Middle School. Adolescent rebellion and a non-consensual child marriage led him to flee to Calcutta, where he sold wares on the roadside for a while. From here, he travelled, on foot and often ticketlessly on trains, around India.

He studied Sanskrit, English, Persian, Vedanta philosophy and the theological debates of the Arya Samaj. He joined the Congress party’s non co-operation movement in Bihar, and went to jail for his political activities. (It was there he wrote his first book at the age of 28, a dystopian novel titled Baisvin Sadi -- The Twenty-Second Century.) In between his political activism and long, intellectually productive stints in jail, he was good at finding ways and means to stay afloat: he once used a $100 payment for an article on Tibetan thangkas to fund a journey through Korea, Manchuria and Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, as well as Iran and Afghanistan.


Eventually, his intellectual adventure led him to Communism, and he founded the Communist party in Bihar in 1939. From the party, he was expelled because of an explosive speech in Bombay in December 1947, in which he made perhaps the one demand of his career that would have endeared him to a certain kind of right-wing activist. At the height of Partition trauma, and the sundering of Hindustani into Hindi and Urdu, Sankrityayan stubbornly insisted that Hindi be viewed as the Indian nation’s singular language. Eight years later, he tendered an apology and was readmitted to the party in 1955 -- an inconvenient ending for those who hoped to co-opt his story, perhaps, but a wonderful indication of his lifelong commitment to wandering and unlearning.

It’s been a thrill to see, at this most statist of Delhi museums, the celebration of a writer whose spirit ran counter to every orthodoxy. In a month when a massive study establishing new facts about Indo-European migration into the subcontinent is setting the debate over India’s “Hindu” origins on fire, it’s impossible not to think of Sankrityayan in Hazaribagh jail, imprisoned for organising agrarian resistance to British rule, writing his most famous work: Volga Se Ganga, the story of wandering migrants who take 6000 years to make the journey from the Caucasian steppes to the Indo-Gangetic plain. Maybe he really did know everything.

Getting there: The IGNCA’s exhibit of Sankrityayan’s antiquities runs until April 15. An English translation of ‘Volga Se Ganga’ is free to read here.

Akshita Nagpal is a multimedia journalist based in New Delhi. Her work has appeared in Scroll, The Wire, The Caravan and The Hindu.

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