Home Forum A Russian in U’khand: Ivan Pavlovich Minayev (1840-1890)

A Russian in U’khand: Ivan Pavlovich Minayev (1840-1890)



At the height of the British Raj in India in the late 19th century, it would be hard to imagine a Russian visiting Kumaon and Garhwal. Yet, it was in 1875 that Ivan Pavlovich Minayev, considered as the founder of Indological studies in Russia, visited various places in Kumaon and Garhwal region. Not only did he record observations in his diaries, but in a short stay of three months in Almora collected and translated into Russian many folk tales of Kumaon.

Minayev was born on 21 October, 1840, in the city of Tambov, in central Russia about 450 kilometres from Moscow. A bachelor, he passed away on 1 June, 1890, in St Petersburg. A pioneer in many fields, he is considered the founder of the Russian school of Indic studies.

His initial education was in Tambov, after which he joined St Petersburg University and learnt Chinese language. Developing an interest in Buddhism, he went on to learn Pali and Sanskrit languages. He did considerable work on Buddhism, publishing several papers and thus laid the foundation of Buddhist studies in Russia. He held positions as an Assistant Professor, and later, Professor in the St Petersburg University. Apart from Buddhism, his papers also had commentaries on life in contemporary India. He was also a member of the Russian Geographical Society.

Minayev made three trips to India and the region. His first and longest trip was in 1874-75 in which he travelled to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), India and Nepal. His second trip in 1880 lasted four months and was confined only to India. In this trip, he visited Bombay, Poona, Ajanta, Ellora and Hyderabad. And the third trip was in 1885-86 when he travelled to India and Burma (Myanmar) and collected many manuscripts on Buddhism.

It was during his first trip, when he landed in Bombay on 1/1/1875, that Minayev visited Kumaon and Garhwal for over three months. In Benares, the extreme heat and humidity in the month of May made him head for the cooler climes in the hills. He boarded the train to Lucknow, from where he travelled to Bareilly on the Oudh Rohilkhand Railway. There being no further railway line, he travelled to Ranibagh, a distance of 75 miles by ‘Horse Dak’, which cost him Rupees 30 and further went on to Nainital. In 1875, the travel conditions would have been very difficult and much of the travel in the hills was on foot as the road network was minimal.

His lament was that he was able to see only a small part of this beautiful hilly region. Describing the landscape, he mentioned the ubiquitous terrace farms, the tea gardens, homes on the edge of slopes or in the valley adjacent to each other, with crops cultivated in the terraced fields. Numerous ghost stories associated with each hill, rivulet, and cave fascinated him. And, in Garhwal, he observed that there were small temples for goddesses that are supposed to protect the traveler, even mentioning the prayer meant to be recited.

Minayev wrote that he did not see many travelers in his journeys, except a few locals and concluded that it was probably because the weather was inclement and it was raining all the time. He did witness some ‘baraat’ or marriage processions on the way. Leading it would be a clown singing and dancing.

Most of the villages were connected with kutcha pathways, and more were not needed as villagers remained confined mainly to their own villages. This, in a way, had helped preserve the old traditions and beliefs.

Kumaon reminded him of Switzerland, though he mentions that Kumaon is more beautiful, and that travel does not cause much tiredness.

Nainital is described as a very scenic and fashionable town surrounded by tall mountains, with the lake resembling a round mirror. A road goes all around the lake. Evenings are especially scenic with boats sailing on the lake. Greenery everywhere was interspersed with bungalows having individual tree lined paths. European ladies moved around in their palanquins carried by two or more servants.

The weather was just like southern Europe. Minayev, in his travel journal published in June 1876, mentions that the season here is from April to October when the Governor of the North Western Province comes here. With him come various functionaries and soldiers. The season is full of hockey, regatta, ball dances, amateur plays, and concerts – cricket and badminton being most popular with the locals.

In the library, he observed that though it had a lot of books, most of the books were not about and not even from India. Even the newspapers were mainly London newspapers. In his view, one could not really see the real Indian life in towns like Nainital. Even the ‘sahibs’ came here to forget India albeit for a short time.

After a few days in Nainital, he travelled to Almora, a distance of 29 miles. Though the route was good, the journey took two days due to the hilly terrain and change of coolies en route with a halt at the Dak Bungalow in Khairna. The journey along the Kosi River reminded him of the Rapti River Valley in Nepal.

He found Almora mostly inhabited by locals with the bazaar stretching a mile. The city did not have much to offer except the views of snow-clad peaks. The Europeans lived mainly on the outskirts and there was a Gorkha regiment too. Though Almora city does have some ancient temples, apparently Minayev did not see any, as he mentions that the city has no interesting buildings or ancient temples.

He observed that despite a Missionary school, the inhabitants were generally untouched by European culture and values. They were ‘superstitious and believed in ghosts’. He found their literary traditions phenomenal. He attributed a part of this to the times when Kumaon was independent with many Zamindars who had a ‘bhat’ or singer whose job it was to recite the stories of family ancestry and valour. With British rule, very few remained. Similarly, the oral traditions were kept alive due to the sadhus and others who sang, or rather narrated, religious events and sacred texts.

After the Gorkha-British war in 1815, Kumaon and Garhwal came under British rule. The ruler of Almora was given a pension by the East India Company. Minayev mentions that his sickly grandson, Bhimsen, lived in Almora in very poor condition, so much so, that the British had absolutely no fear of him.

From Almora, Minayev travelled to Srinagar, Tehri and Mussoorie. The condition of the road to Srinagar was very good, and despite it being the monsoons, it had suffered no damage. Every 10-15 miles there were Dak Bungalows, though most of them had no furniture except a charpoy. But the good thing was that it was a place to stay at night and not under a tree in inclement weather. Some Dak Bungalows had fireplace arrangements also.

In Srinagar, Minayev did not find a single European. He observed that the houses were constructed in a haphazard manner and in some places the lanes were so narrow that two persons could barely pass. He saw remains of the old palace and one of them was four storied, which made him conclude that Garhwal was not so poor as the then ruler had projected before Emperor Akbar, which had made Akbar take back his demand for a tribute from the king.

He spent a few days in Srinagar and mentioned that it had an English school, and the local Brahmins considered its teachers as ‘nastiks’ or non-believers. He found the students poor not only in English but also in geography. In Srinagar, many persons came to meet Minayev who were curious to know about Russia and whether Queen Victoria pays tribute to the King of Russia or was it vice versa! Other peculiar questions ranged from whether Russia will capture Kabul to whether the Russians eat with the Englishmen or avoid them like the Brahmins of the region. And they found it difficult to believe that Mr Ivan Pavlovich Minayev did not have even a single wife!

Independent Garhwal began a few miles west of Srinagar. Though the landscape was the same, the roads beyond Srinagar were very bad and there were no Dak Bungalows. His first night halt was at Takoli where he stayed in a Shaiva monastery, and after much persuasion with the sanyasins who had been offended by his presence, managed a stinking room meant for animals to sleep.

Next night he was in Tehri, which he found quite scenic and full of big banyan trees, with even benches provided for the travelers to rest in their shade. For European travelers, the King of Garhwal had constructed a bungalow away from the city on the banks of the Bhagirathi River.

From Tehri, he travelled for two days and reached Mussoorie, which completed his Kumaon and Garhwal trip/sojourn.

Folk Tales of Kumaon: His collection of folk tales was mainly from Almora, hearing them from different people- Bhats, Brahmins, Zamindars and traders. Old ladies were a reservoir of such tales, but being a European, he could not meet them directly. Many of the stories were narrated by a Brahmin lady through her son, as she did not want to come into direct contact with a foreigner. Some tales he heard from traders or storytellers. He tried to copy them to the best of his knowledge of Kumaoni. In the introduction to the Russian translation of these folk tales, he observes that the stories and folk tales are simple in language and that Pahari (Kumaoni) contains very little Arabic or Persian words.

It is truly remarkable that Minayev was able to learn Kumaoni in his short stay of three months (June-August 1875) and publish the stories in Russian the very next year in 1876. It is highly improbable that such a collection of Kumaoni Folk tales would have been published anywhere at that point of time.

Observations on the people: In the preface to his book, he mentions that Kumaoni people are simple, with a quiet and pleasant nature. Yet he did meet certain quaint people whom he specifically mentioned.

At Dwarahat, he met an old Brahmin who spoke fluent Sanskrit, but was mentally deranged and used to recite a shlok in reply to any question put to him. Another gentleman had made a register of all letters of appreciation and character testimonials received by him. It intrigued Minayev that this gentleman preferred a letter of appreciation more than money, as he could file it in his album.

From times immemorial, pilgrims came to the region, and many settled down bringing with them Aryan culture and the local languages slowly got decimated. Minayev mentions that little is known about the history of Kumaon and Garhwal and whatever was written later by the Europeans is of comparatively later history which too, is based on verbal sources.

In recent times, the Gorkhas had replaced the Chand kings, starting a cruel and tough rule. Thus, when the English defeated the Gorkhas, the natives were relieved as the English took at least some care of the natives.

Minayev’s observations about the British rule in India were also prophetic. According to him, the roots of the British Empire in India were not deep. Even though there were Englishmen in the country, very few had decided to settle down here. They come here to earn and return to their country. They were cut off from the local population and their rule might not last beyond three generations.

For someone from Russia to have visited Kumaon and Garhwal almost 150 years ago, and in a short stay to have recorded folk tales in a language unknown to him, is truly remarkable, as are his observations on the people in the region, very little of which is covered in this piece. Minayev’s diaries give us an idea of those times and an opportunity to see what changes have taken place since then in this region.

Ivan Pavlovich Minayev was planning yet another (and longer) trip to India via Afghanistan, but Tuberculosis forced him to go to Europe for treatment. He passed away in June 1890 and this trip sadly, never materialised.

(The Author, Manoj Pande, retired as Member, Staff, Railway Board, and ex-officio Secretary to GoI and is now based in Dehradun.)