The Russian Prince and the Maharajah of Travancore
By Richard R Walding, Helen Stone and Achuthsankar S. Nair
Published by The University of Kerala - 2009
In 1841, the Russian Prince Alexis Soltykoff made the first of two visits to India and published his observations upon his return to his adopted home country of France. The books - in French - covering both the 1841-1843 visit and the second 1844 -1846 visit - were hugely successful, and a subsequent Russian translation in 1851 earned him the title The Indian amongst his friends, colleagues and fellow aristocrats. Of particular interest is his sojourn in southern India where he met the king of the erstwhile state of Travancore - Raja Swathi Thirunal. This Raja is renowned for his love of learning and enlightened ways, but contemporary accounts of him are few and appear somewhat obsequious. We have dragged Soltykoff‟s previously untranslated musings off the shelf of the rare book room at the library and exposed them to the translator‟s eye. What we have found is an absolute treat, a feast, curried with Indian imagery and voices from 170 years ago. Along the way, we present our critical and contextualised commentary of his observations, but with the unfeigned delight of travelling with our Russian prince. Ultimately, we reveal that, although Soltykoff arrived in India with many preconceptions shaped primarily by his earlier experiences in Russia and Persia and partly by his interactions, both positive and negative, with his travelling companions, we cannot overstate the importance of the freshness and uniqueness of his observations, especially his reactions to the different peoples, their cultures and the effect of their different religions on their daily lives. It should become apparent that we enjoyed this virtual journey with our keen-eyed companion - Prince Soltykoff - and want to share this experience with others as he so brilliantly did.