Rahul Sankrityayan: The Father of Hindi Travel Writing

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The father of Hindi travel writing, saw the world as a humanist and wrote with the understanding of an anthropologist.

The father of Hindi travel writing was like a vessel into which all waters could flow. Rahul Sankrityayan (1893-1963) was the embodiment of travel. Everywhere he went, he kept his mind open; his tongue free to explore new languages; his beliefs and ideologies fluid.

Born an orthodox Hindu by the name Kedarnath Pande, his exploration of the ideas of man took him through the Arya Samaj, a stint with atheism, Tibetan Buddhism and even Soviet communism. He was happy to change his position; rejecting Gandhi then embracing him after his death, disavowing materialism when he had a home and rediscovering it when he had nothing. By the end of his life, he had traveled much of Asia and Europe, and spoke more than 34 languages.

Of these, Hindi was his favourite and the choice vessel for his memoirs. In an age where travel writing on India was largely English and Orientalist, Rahul’s voice in the local tongue would have opened countless doors to the wonders of the subcontinent. He wrote a treatise on travel – Ghummakar Shastra – that became an ideological text for the unhindered traveller.

Rahul was possessed by wanderlust. In our current era of social media travails, where so many posts on travel are written from the confines of our cities, Rahul presents an important message. True travel is an ethos, not a yearning alone. As he put it:

It may have been a cherished belief that wandering is a means and not an end. This was because they [people] were bereft of the science of wandering…However, I would like to think, roaming/wandering is both a means and an end in itself.

From a young age, he was driven to wander. At just nine, he ran away from his home in Pandaha village to explore the city of Benares. He returned, but the bug bit him again when he was 14 – this time, taking him to Calcutta. Unfamiliar with the big city life, he experimented with work in a pan/tobacco shop, where he ate intoxicated sweets, fell ill and had to be hospitalized. Since then, he maintained a romance with tobacco, which he found to be a boon for stimulating conversation. He only quit the habit following Gandhi’s assassination (when he turned vegetarian as well).

He was married while he was very young, but is said to have never seen his wife. For Rahul, who lost his mother and sibling at a young age, there could be no rigid boundary for what he called home.

His first adventure was when he was 17 and left home for good, seeking the Himalayas. He met with a company of Sadhus, whose manner disillusioned him with orthodoxy, converting him into an atheist. As he embraced other spiritual faiths later, he developed his ideas about the traveller and seeker of knowledge binding to no single port.

The traveller is not of a particular country, caste or creed. The traveller does not believe in any caste or creed. It is important that when one traveller sees another he feels a sense of solidarity… Because he does not believe in hierarchy he can live in Rome as the Romans do. If he is living with farmers he can dress like them. If he is living with a wealthy man he can live like him. If any traveller goes to Assam he must have knowledge of their language.

Rahul lived on alms and travelled everywhere by foot. At this phase in his life, he started to explore knowledge – enlisting in a matha and taking the name Ram Udar Das. He studied math, cultural anthropology and various phonetics. But here too he felt bound – and ran away, catching a train without a ticket to Puri. From here, he made his way to Madras, beginning his journeys through South India. He learned Tamil and lived as a Sadhu, but devouring knowledge.

He returned to the North, coming under the way of the Arya Samaj reformists. He wrote against ritual sacrifice and caste; dining in Muslim and Rajput homes alike. He started writing articles in Urdu, and ended up in Lahore, studying Sanskrit. Revolution had entered his vocabulary, and he was imprisoned between February and August of 1922. Throughout this period, his father tried many times to bring him back, failing each time. It prompted Rahul to vow never to return home until the age of fifty. He never saw his father again.

He later renounced the Arya Samaj for Buddhism – discovering the latter in Tibet. When the Daily Mail wrote an article of his travels, Rahul was bewildered to find them describing fighting bandits in Tibet and being rescued by tigers. He pointed out the error, but it went to print anyway. It prompted him to write in GS:

A writer must exercise great restraint while recounting his narrative. To make their writing attractive, many travel writers give accounts full of impossible, illogical and esoteric things in the name of mysticism.

His own gaze was anthropological, and he understood the power of narratives being weaved around the Orient. His own work blended history, anthropology and his own treatise on travel. In Kinnaur Desh Mein, he wrote of the Silk Route in the Himalayas, blending narratives with history and people’s stories.

From 1923, he began exploring the world. In his life, till 1962, he saw Nepal, Sri Lanka, then Tibet, France, Germany, England, the Soviet Union, Japan, Korea, Iran and China (and many parts of Central Asia).

In 1930, he adopted a Buddhist name – Rahul Sankrityayan – the one that would stick until his death. He visited the Soviet Union in 1935, and transformed him into an avid socialist. In India, he was a member of the Kisan Sabha, Indian Communists Party and Indian National Congress. He hopped ideologies often, and was barred from the communists party in 1948.

For a while, he taught in Leningrad University – where he married a Mongolian scholar named Lola (Ellen Smertolna Sankrityayan). He had a song named Igor. Then he married again, this time to an Indian Nepali, Dr. Kamala Sankrityayan. With her, her had a daughter and son.

Travellers spend their lives crafting memories, both for them and the world. Rahul’s memories were cut short, when he was struck by amnesia after a stroke. He travelled to the USSR in 1962 to cure it – but to no avail. He died in Darjeeling, with no memories and no attachments. He left no shallow memories behind, his work serving as a vital photograph of India and the world in many-hued states of transition. His writing is that of a scholar, linguist, humanist and above all – traveller.

His motivation was a quote by the Urdu poet Ismail Meruthi:

Oh you ignorant and idle, go and travel all over the wide world. You are not going to have another life for this. Even if you live longer, this youth is not going to return.

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