In the early 20th century, an Indian traveller and scholar set off on a journey to Tibet in search of ancient Buddhist palm-leaf manuscripts that were once stored in the libraries of Nalanda and Vikramshila Universities. The manuscripts had been taken to Tibet by fleeing Buddhist monks when these great centres of learning, dating to the 5th and 8th centuries CE, were attacked by invading Muslim armies, first in the 12th century CE and later as well. Now it was time to bring them back.
The man who was determined to return this part of India’s lost heritage was the famous traveller, scholar and writer, Rahul Sankrityayan, who at some point also became a Buddhist monk. But this was no ordinary mission. Sankrityayan, who was drawn to adventure and spent more than 45 years travelling in India and abroad, disguised himself as a Nepali on this expedition, for it was a time when Tibetans were wary of Indians due to the British policy of expansion.
Tibet was only one of the many places Sankrityayan visited in his lifetime. His travels, which could rival even the most adventurous in today’s times, extended from Lahore to Varanasi to Kerala on the subcontinent, and overseas to countries such as Nepal, Sri Lanka, Iran, China, parts of Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Sankrityayan is considered the ‘father of travel literature’ in India for the stories he recorded were not just tales, they also wove in the historical, social and cultural milieu of the events he described. This pioneering writer is also remembered for his contribution to Buddhist studies and Hindi literature.
Sankrityayan was born ‘Kedarnath Pandey’ on 9th April 1893, in a small village in Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh. His Brahmin father was a well-to-do farmer and Kedarnath was enrolled in a local school for his primary education. But the young Kedarnath developed itchy feet early and he left home to travel while still a teenager.
He spent the next five decades of his life travelling extensively and developed an interest in intellectual, philosophical and political matters. His wanderlust didn’t let him stay in one place for long and he acquired the nickname ‘ghumakkar-raj’ (nomad).
Kedarnath was a keen observer and recorded everything he saw. He had a knack for languages and his travels gave him an opportunity to learn new ones. It is said that he was well-versed in Sanskrit, Hindi, Bhojpuri, English, Tamil, Kannada, Pali, Urdu, Sinhalese, Tibetan and Russian, among other languages.
Birth of the ‘Travelogue’ in India
To fund his adventures, Kedarnath got his travelogues and the other articles he wrote published in newspapers and magazines. This also gave rise to the ‘travelogue’ and ‘travel literature’ in India. Kedarnath became known for his authentic description of places. For example, in his travelogue Meri Ladakh Yatra, he presents a wonderful perspective of Ladakh, with his perspective encompassing regional, historical and cultural elements.
His flair for writing extended to translating fiction, writing fiction and contributing scholarly articles to research journals. He covered a variety of subjects, including sociology, history, philosophy, Buddhism, Tibetology, lexicography, grammar, folklore, science, drama, and politics. He left behind more than 120 works.
Kedarnath also briefly involved himself with the Arya Samaj but parted ways with it as he found its socio-reform ideas too constricting for his free-thinking. He was searching for a rational philosophy that explored wholesome living and his quest steered him towards Buddhism.
To learn about the religion, Kedarnath travelled to Sri Lanka and spent many months there, learning Pali and the foundational concepts of ancient Buddhism. He mastered the Tripitaka texts (an ancient collection of Buddhist scriptures) and became so immersed in the religion that he was initiated as a monk. This is when he assumed the name ‘Rahul Sankrityayan’, Rahul being the name of Lord Buddha’s son and also attached his gotra (Sankritya) to his name.
Sankrityayan realized that to truly benefit from the wisdom Buddhism had to offer, he would have to read the original works of the Boddhisattvas and early Buddhist monks, and acquaint himself with the history of Buddhism in India. And this was possible only by travelling to Tibet, where these manuscripts lay.
This accounts for his four trips to Tibet, disguised as a Nepali and as a Tibetan, to gain easy access. On 25th May 1936, on his third journey, Sankrityayan walked into a nondescript room perched on a mountain slope at the Sa-skya monastery close to Mount Everest in Nepal. When he pushed open the door, “a cloud of dust arose”. He adds, “Our throats were choked with dust” and the floor of the room was “covered with a layer of dust about one-third of an inch”.
But the room was filled with long-forgotten manuscripts and he found a bundle of palm-leaf manuscripts in a corner. Of that moment, he writes: “It is beyond my power to describe my feelings when I saw among those 25 volumes, the complete Pramanavartikka Bhasya, a portion of Dharmakirti’s own commentary on the first chapter of the P.V… ’
On his return journeys, Sankrityayan not only brought back some valuable manuscripts but also some beautiful Thangka paintings and sculptures. Today, these manuscripts and paintings can be seen at the Patna Museum.
Role in Freedom Movement
While Sankriyayan was busy travelling, he was not aloof from the developments in India. It was a time when India’s fight for freedom was at its peak. He took an active interest in politics and was jailed many times between 1920 and 1925, for delivering anti-British speeches, participating in the Kisan Satyagraha in Bihar in 1939.
Sankrityayan was invited to teach in universities abroad, which was a matter of great pride as he had no formal education. He was appointed by the University of Leningrad (now the Saint Petersburg University) in the then Soviet Union, as Professor of Indology, twice.
It was during his time in Russia that he got acquainted with Communism. Later, he was appointed as Professor of Buddhism at Vidyalankar University in Sri Lanka.
Through it all, what Sankrityayan is most remembered for is his literature, one of his famous works being Volga se Ganga (1943), a collection of short stories in historical fiction style. The work paints a vivid picture of how human society evolved from 6000 BCE to 1942.
Another seminal work of his was Madhya Asia Ka Itihas. This two-volume work was so monumental that he was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award for it in 1958. He was also conferred the Padma Bhushan in 1963.
After he hung up his travel boots and retired from active public life, Sankrityayan wrote a book on his wanderlust and named it Ghumakkar Shastra. In it, he explains how travelling melts human barriers, encourages one to celebrate diversity and helps one understand human suffering. Sankrityayan also wrote an autobiography titled Meri Jivan Yatra.
Ironically, Sankrityayan, who couldn’t stay in one place for long, spent the last three years of his life confined to a house in Darjeeling. He had suffered a stroke and died on 14th April 1963, at the age of 70.
Sankrityayan’s legacy lives on and to honour his contribution to literature, the government announced two awards in his name to be given to authors for their phenomenal work in Hindi travel literature.
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