Did you know that...the Schlagintweit brothers measured India?


The Schlagintweit brothers, who inherited a keen curiosity to observe the natural phenomena of the world from their academically inclined father and an aesthetic appreciation for the arts from their mother, set out on geological, glaciological and botanical investigations in the Alps at a young age. They published their findings in a book entitled: Investigations on the physical geography of the Alps and their relationship to the phenomena of the glaciers, geology, metereology and botany (1849). These ind-depth experiences from their numerous field trips in the mountains were of tremendous importance for their work in India. Their primary inspiration was the elderly Alexander von Humboldt, the world-famous pioneer for first-hand research of the 'other' worlds beyond Europe, whom they had met in Berlin in 1849.

What Humboldt achieved for South America, the Schlagintweit brothers did for India, with as great a significance – but unfortunately with less recognition, even today.

On Humboldt's suggestion, the “East India Company” employed the Schlagintweit brothers. Their task was to do a detailed and comprehensive mapping and documentation of India in all its major aspects of geography, geology, flora & fauna, cultural and social life, and politics. With the financial participation of the Prussian King, the three brothers, Hermann, Adolph and Robert, travelled to India. During 1854-57 in India, they surveyed the length and breadth of the country, sometimes together, but mostly on separate trips, each one covering a certain region, and occasionally meeting up again, to compare notes and decide on further routes and research.

They arrived in Bombay on October 26, 1854, headed for Madras and from there to Calcutta. Hermann crossed Bengal, reached Assam, then Bhutan; Adolph and Robert went westwards along the Ganges to Almora, Nainital and the higher regions of the Himalayas. They travelled by bullock cart, palanquin, goods trains or any other mode of transport that was available – taking notes on the way of the results of mappings and their observations of the inhabitants, their social, religious and cultural practices, and about the ancient monuments they encountered. Thousands of pages of notes and hundreds of sketches and water colours were the outcome of their meticulous, painstaking and extended fieldwork. Robert travelled back to Germany with a majority of the collection in a large caravan first to Karachi then to Bombay, Hermann and Robert took a ship back and reached Berlin on June 17, 1857.

Adolph dreamt of matching Humboldt's achievements, and decided to take the land-route via Central Asia and Russia – however, he fell victim to revolutionary upheavals in the region, and was beheaded on August 28, 1857, by tribesmen in Kashgar on charges of spying. In a spate of premonition, however, he had sent all his belongings and research materials back to India, which eventually reached Germany and was joined with the research materials of his brothers.

Emil, the fourth and much younger brother, never came to India. Having inherited the same academic inclination, he became a renowned scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, working on analysing his brothers' collections of Tibetan manuscripts and block-prints. It was the first account on Tibetan Buddhism to be accompanied by descriptions and representations of the objects used in worship. However, his magnum opus are the two large folio volumes which appeared in 1880-81 in Lepizig entitled Indien in Wort und Bild. Eine Schilderung des Indischen Kaiserreiches ('India in Word and Image. A description of the Indian Empire').

This book represents a wonderful account of the contemporary state of affairs in India, probably one of its kind, which is solely based on scientifically collected and researched first-hand knowledge and observations gathered by his three brothers while travelling in India. Each chapter is exhaustively dealt with. A selection of chapter headings are: 'The land and its products', 'Bombay', 'Ethnic groups and castes', 'The cave temples', 'The Dekhan', 'Haiderabad', 'Madras', 'The Nilgirirs', 'Christianity in India', 'The Religion of the Hindus', 'Orissa', 'Bengal', Bihar'. The 'Bengal' chapter does not only deal with the people of Bengal, but more prominently with the governance of the British crown, the lifestyle of the British, and the Europeans for that matter, in Calcutta, with their expansive palatial residences, their shopping centres and leisure activities.

The illustrations reveal the spirit of the mid-19th century visual archiving of the ‘people of India’. Emil Schlagintweit's greatest achievement, however, is the highly accurate cartography of the entire Indian subcontinent, including the Himalaya region, which signified a change in attitude and vision towards India that was prevalent in the West – a turn from the romanticised and mythical image of India to a more scientific quest to understand and map phenomena that constitutes the fabric and structure of – the then contemporary - India.

The Schlagintweit brothers Hermann (1826-1882), Adolph (1829-1847), Robert (1833-1885), Emil (1835-1904), Eduard (not known), were born in Munich, and their ancestral home was Schloβ Jägersburg, a large estate near Forchheim in Southern Germany.

Author: Dr. Jutta Jain-Neubauer

© German Embassy New Delhi

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