Brian Hodgson finds his vocation in Kathmandu

With time on his hands, the young Assistant Resident made an exquisite record of Nepal’s architecture and wild life, and rescued countless Buddhist manuscripts into the bargain

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

It started as a ‘shoke’ — the Anglo-Indian slang word for ‘hobby’. Bored and lonely in Kathmandu, the young Assistant Resident, Brian Hodgson, began studying the flora and fauna of the hills, about the only occupation he was allowed to pursue apart from shooting woodcock and snipe under the constraints imposed by the Raja.

The unicorn of the Himalayas had cantered through Chinese mythology for centuries. In no time, Hodgson found a living specimen in the King’s menagerie, a panting antelope from the Tibetan plateau which, alas, soon expired, unable to survive at lower altitudes, but not before Hodgson had established that it in fact possessed two horns. The unlucky beast was christened Pantholops hodgsonii, the first of 22 species that bore his name by the time he was 30, including Hodgson’s Flying Squirrel, Hodgson’s Wild Cat, Hodgson’s Sand Fox and Hodgson’s Speckled Pigeon, all beautifully captured in watercolour by the local artists whom Hodgson trained, and reproduced in this handsome life of him by the old Himalayan hand Charles Allen.

But these were only the first of Hodgson’s discoveries or, to be more accurate, publishings to the world. This jumpy, prickly young civil servant then turned his attention to the marvellous temples of the Kathmandu valley, at that time scarcely known outside, ensuring their accurate reproduction by the aid of a camera lucida, and above all to the dusty manuscripts of the Buddhist monasteries which were not known at all. Bundles and bundles of these he unearthed and sent off to scholars and libraries all over the world.

He was self-taught, with only a single friendly lama to interpret the secrets, and he made several serious mistakes in the theology, but his passion never dimmed, for as he wrote to his sister Fanny back in England:

Here are before me the traces of a creed which once divided with Brahmanism the minds of the Hindus, but of which no visible trace, nay, not even an intelligible legend, remains in all the continent of India!

Charles Allen has written before, in The Buddha and the Sahibs, of how the servants of the Raj, in their spare time from being judges, surgeons and tax collectors, explored and exposed to the world the Buddhist teachings which had been extinguished in India itself, and which were to revivify not only Buddhism in all its schools but other world religions too in our own time.

They proudly called themselves ‘Orientalists’, and they were ferociously hostile to those they dubbed ‘Anglomaniasts’, who despised the cultures of India and wanted to make English the language of instruction in Indian schools, and sweep away the old colleges of Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic. In the words of the fanatical Charles Trevelyan, ‘this uneducated and half-barbarous people’ would be remade through the agency of an educated elite who were ‘Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect’ — these last the words of Thomas Babington Macaulay in his notorious ‘Minute on Education’, inspired by Trevelyan, who had married his sister Hannah.

Allen is himself a latter-day Orientalist, and he is not slow to point out how different the first Orientalists were from the caricature presented by Edward Said in his hugely influential book Orientalism. Without giving them much in the way of a fair trial, Said convicts men like Hodgson and the pioneering Sir William Jones of setting out to appropriate the cultures of the country they ruled, to represent it as alien, exotic, primitive and ultimately inferior, worthy only to be rescued by the patronising efforts of western scholars. On any impartial reading, it would seem rather that Said himself has appropriated the idea of Orientalism, in what Allen neatly calls ‘a reverse stereo-typing’, and smeared it with all the poisons of imperialism, when in reality Orientalism was more often a benign antidote, teaching the brutish invaders a modicum of respect and even reverence for a far older culture. The first Orientalists seem much more modest, even humble in their intentions than Said is prepared to contemplate.

Tawny fish owl (Ketupa flavipes) painted for Brian Hodgson by Rajman

Tawny fish owl (Ketupa flavipes) painted for Brian Hodgson by Rajman

Yes, of course they were imperialists by day. For 20 years Hodgson was intriguing with this or that faction at the Raja’s court, in order to prevent a ruinous new war between Nepal and the British. He was influential too in increasing the Gurkha regiments serving with the British forces, declaring them to be ‘in my humble opinion by far the best soldiers in India’. In 1857, he persuaded Lord Canning to accept the Raja’s offer of a large contingent of Nepalese troops, which made a great difference in the suppression of the Mutiny. And he lived to see his greatest triumph, the East India Company’s decision to make education in the vernacular languages the rule throughout India.

This was long after he had been sacked from the Residency at Kathmandu by the new Governor-General, the impetuous and unpleasant Lord Ellenborough, who was himself soon to be sacked by the Company to universal applause. When Hodgson returned to England in low spirits, he was startled to find himself a hero. But his career was over at the age of 42, though he lived another 50 years.

While in Nepal, like other officials in the backwoods, far from the disapproving matrons of Calcutta and Bombay, he had taken an Indian wife, who bore him three children. When he left, he left behind his bibi, Mehr-un-Nissa (‘Sun among women’, a name popularised by the famous Mughal empress Nur Jahan). But he wrote to his parents: ‘As to my dear boy and girl I cannot bear to part with them or to disown them, and therefore I suppose I must have a separate tent to pitch for myself on your shores.’ Both the elder children died young. We don’t know what happened to the third child. It is a typical White Mughal story, with that uncomfortable mixture of mingling and separation, callousness and heartbreak, now familiar to us from William Dalrymple’s irresistible retelling.

Charles Allen does not gloss over his subject’s shortcomings: his umbrage, his tendency to fluster and splutter under fire, his intellectual confusions. But The Prisoner of Kathmandu conveys magnificently Brian Hodgson’s goodness of heart, his inexhaustible curiosity and his dedication to the people he lived among for the part of his life that meant everything to him. The least that can be said is that he gave Orientalism a good name.

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  • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

    What a spectacular painting.