Many members of the Russian nobility did not harbour the supremacist views and attitudes towards Asians that their European counterparts were quite often guilty of. Peter the Great welcomed the idea of Indian traders living within the boundaries of the Russian Empire, and the city of Astrakhan had a small but thriving community of Indians from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia, visited India, where he was disgusted with the sight of “redcoats.” Going against European convention, he also had a very close friendship with King Rama V of Siam.
It was actually in the mid-19th century that Russia’s elite eagerly pursued an interest in Asia, and India in particular. While some historians attribute this to the so-called Great Game between Russia and Britain, where they believe the former wanted the latter’s ‘Jewel in the Crown,’ Sanskrit scholarship and interest in Indian philosophy were major drivers of this curiosity.
Russia managed to get one of its best glimpses of India when Prince Alexey Saltykov, a former diplomat, visited the country twice in the 1840s. He wrote a book in French titled Voyages dans L’Inde (Journeys in India), which is a compilation of his letters and notes, accompanied by his drawings.
On his first visit to India, the Russian prince found himself in Kerala. The context and background to the visit to Travancore is brilliantly explained by Richard Walding, Helen Stone and Achuthsankar S Nair in a 2009 academic paper for the University of Kerala’s Journal of Kerala Studies titled The Russian Prince and the Maharajah of Travancore.
Impressions of southern Kerala
In a letter that he started writing on August 12, 1841, Saltykov expressed his apprehensions about sounding monotonous as he described his surroundings. “I am in Quailon (Kollam), on the Malabar Coast,” he wrote. “The air is tempered by the recent rains. Everything is delightfully green.”
The letter was written after his first visit to Travancore, where he met one of the kingdom’s greatest rulers - Swati Thirunal Rama Varma, who is best known for composing 400 classical compositions in Hindustani and Carnatic styles.
Saltykov wrote in the August letter, “Yesterday I came back from Travandrum (Thiruvananthapuram), the capital of this area that is known as Travancore, and also the official residence of a Raja who is an independent sovereign. The region neither belonged to the Dutch nor the Portuguese, but both countries had several trading posts there and commanded great influence.”
He described the Dutch canals that were “crisscrossing the greenest fields imaginable in all directions” and the Portuguese legacy that included the tomb of Vasco de Gama.
The Maharaja’s hospitality
The Russian prince found the ruler of Travancore to be “excessively polite” but was thoroughly impressed with him and his family. Saltykov wrote, “The Raja of Travancore, his brother and his Prime Minister are completely European in their conversation. He received me, on his throne, in white muslin clothes, embroidered with gold sequins; on his turban, adorned with precious stones, fluttered a bunch of feathers; on the whole and in his appearance and dress he looked a bit like a Russian merchant.”
Saltykov was surprised with the fact that the Maharaja was embarrassed and “trembling with shyness.” He describes the awkwardness further, “This must have been a serious problem for him to tremble in front of me, given that I scarcely knew what figure to cut in that throne room.”
Saltykov estimated the Maharaja to be in his mid-20s (He was 28 at the time). “His older brother is bolder, very keen on European ways and quite annoyed about being in the Nair caste, which hinders all his relations with us.”
The Europeans, who Saltykov kept company with while he was in India, no doubt briefed him on the complexities of the caste system. Pleased with the royal treatment from the Maharaja and his brother, the Russian traveller said he was “showered with courtesies.”
Saltykov was probably the first Russian to eat a Kerala sadhya. “The Raja’s brother also sent me many meals from his table; the menu is restricted to vegetable dishes which were excellent, however, and he even came to explain them to me himself and to get me to taste these good foods, which were served on banana leaves in place of crockery.”
He seemed to enjoy the Malayali food a great deal more than the English food that was served to him in India and Ceylon.
Gifts given to the Russian guest included portraits of the Travancore royals painted by a visiting Austrian artist. Saltykov added, “He gave me another present of two Indian drawings, one representing ‘The Blue God with his White Nurse’ and the other showing ‘The Capture of Ceylon by Rama’s Monkeys.’”
The Maharaja expressed regret at the very moment that the boat and palanquin bearers arrived to take Saltykov back to Kollam, that he couldn’t show his Russian visitor a theatrical show and dance titled ‘The Story of Adam arriving at Travancore from Ceylon at the Head of an Army of Monkeys.’ This is clearly a case of a misinterpretation of the story, where Saltykov thought Adam crossed the Adam’s Bridge from Lanka.
So touched was he by the hospitality that the Russian visitor wrote, “I’ll always remember the kindnesses they wanted to bestow on me in Travancore.”
Before leaving the kingdom, Saltykov painted one of the better known depictions of India in Europe, titled Elephants du Radja de Travancor (Elephants of the Raja of Travancore).
A long-lasting legacy
During his two India trips, the Russian prince visited many parts of the country and it became evident that he would not be diplomatic when describing the British rule over India.
In their paper, Walding, Stone and Nair said that Saltykov generally wrote “without apparent bias or prejudice, accepting all the different ways of life with an open, unfeigned interest, fascination and at times, considerable awe and wonder.”
Saltykov’s book was published in 1848, and was immensely popular in France and Russia, where a Russian translation was ready three years later. He was called “the Indian” by his friends and members of the aristocracy in Russia. His legacy is widely celebrated in his native land to this day. An English translation of his book was released by the Russian Embassy in Delhi in 2012.
Thiruvananthapuram is one of five cities in India to host a Russian cultural centre - a fitting tribute to the strong and special relationship between Kerala and Russia.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is the author of 'Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’ and 'A Week in the Life of Svitlana’)