Unconventional Travelers: Asia in Motion, 1860-1912

Title: 1304 | Unconventional Travelers: Asia in Motion, 1860-1912
Area: Border Crossing and Inter-Area
Stream: History
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Vineeta Sinha, National University of Singapore, Singapore (presenter, chair)
Tapsi Mathur, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (organizer, presenter)
Nienke Boer, Yale-NUS College, Singapore (co-organizer, presenter)
Anand Yang, University of Washington, Seattle, United States (presenter)
Sayantani Mukherjee, Columbia University, United States (presenter)


While the traditional image of the nineteenth-century explorer might have been that of an elite European man, recent scholarship has increasingly focused on less typical travelers and explorers, often implicated within the same networks of empire, but seeing things quite differently. Our panel engages with this growing body of scholarship aimed at destabilizing ideas of who can produce geographic knowledge, and what form it takes, by engaging in an interdisciplinary conversation about unconventional travelers. Drawing on the methodologies of history, anthropology, and literature, this panel firmly decenters Europe by focusing on travelers who bypass Europe entirely, centering travels within and between so-called peripheries. We start with the travels of Hindu deities across transnational boundaries, which Vineeta Sinha finds deeply entangled with the flows of human labour from India to Malaya. Tapsi Mathur’s paper examines the kind of geography made available by Indian explorers of Tibet and Central Asia. Nienke Boer takes as her subject South African war prisoners in Ceylon, who wrote of their experiences much in the manner of those European explorers of the past. Anand Yang will present on two eyewitness accounts of China written in Hindi by members of the British Indian Army. Sayantani Mukherjee will expand upon connections between India and China, through a study of the travels of a Japanese Buddhist monk in Lhasa. These soldiers, laborers, explorers, war prisoners, monks, and Hindu deities are generating new forms of knowledge and forming imaginative links between regions in a late nineteenth-century Asia that was very much in motion.

Panel Abstracts:
Sojourneying in Singapore and Malaysia with Muneeswaran, the ‘Railway God’
The history of railway construction in British Malaya, starting in the late 19th century, offers a powerful lens for narrating the interlocking accounts of Indian, Hindu labour migrations into British Malaya and the sacralization of these landscapes (in building of shrines within railway premises) by these labouring communities who also materialised the modern infrastructure in the British colony. Much of the scholarship on migration and religion is anthropocentric, focusing predominantly on the movement of humans across boundaries. The paper references a rather exceptional category of sojourners - Hindu deities - whose mobility is deeply entangled with the historical flows of human labour from parts of India to Malayan territories to feed colonial infrastructural projects. I argue that Hindu deities voyaging across transnational boundaries and borders, in tandem with and alongside a colonial, modernising project - carries a rather different import – both historically and in the present. Specifically, this paper focuses on the male, guardian deity from rural Tamil Nadu, Muneeswaran - and his global, transnational forays, that have taken him beyond localized dominions. Relying on my ethnography, I argue that in being entwined with railways in Singapore and Malaysia - the inherited identity of Muneeswaran as an ellai kaaval deivam (guardian deity of boundaries/borders) and a nadumadum (walking, moving god) takes on new registers and resonances in diasporic locales. This is evident in the very renaming of Muneeswaran as the ‘Railway God’ leading to a re-moulding of his identity, functionality and relevance - in the hands of railway labour.

Known Geography: Indian Explorers and the Production of Geographical Knowledge in the Nineteenth Century
In this paper, I will examine the geographical knowledge made available by Indian explorers of South and Central Asia in the second half of the nineteenth century. As the British sought information on territories beyond their colonial possessions in India, they employed a large number of Indians to perform some of this work of surveying and exploration. The geography produced as a result of these expeditions was archived and disseminated through learned societies like the Royal Geographical Society of London (RGS). I attempt to draw out the dimensions of what constituted both the “geographical” and the “political” in this geography, through a study of how the RGS and the Government of India edited the narrative accounts of native explorers. I argue that what emerges through a study of these editing practices is a new kind of geography from exploration, one that is divorced from the political conditions of its production, or what I call "known geography."

A Sentimental Education in Boer War Imprisonment Camps in South Asia, 1899-1902
This talk focuses on a relatively unknown group of involuntary migrants, South African war prisoners sent to war internment camps in British India during the second South African War, 1899-1902. The British attempted a sentimental education in the prisoner-of-war camps, using the censorship of news from South Africa, amongst other strategies, to turn unruly Boer rebels into pacified British subjects. This sets the scene for understanding newssheets circulating in the camps during the war and memoirs written by former war prisoners immediately afterwards. Both memoirs and newssheets read not, as one would expect, as prison or war writing, but as travel literature. The descriptions of landscapes and sightseeing excursions in these texts suggest a cultural imaginary built on traveling and cultural exchange, as opposed to the insular Afrikaner nationalism that would follow empire. Sentiment—specifically mourning for family members and the Boer Republics—is displaced, erased, or rendered illegible in these texts, replaced by a belated rhetoric of adventure reminiscent of earlier imperial explorers. By inscribing their work in the narrative tradition of European explorers and travelers, these writers both occupy and satirize the position of the British subject, since, of course, they travel not as free imperial subjects but as war prisoners captured during an anti-imperial war.

'Seeing, Listening, and Reading': Hindi Travel Accounts of China in 1900
My paper examines two eyewitness accounts of China—one by Gadhadar Singh and the other by Mahendu Lal Garg—written in Hindi at the turn of the twentieth century. Both were based on what the latter termed he learnt from "seeing with his own eyes, listening with his ears, and reading from books." Both men, interestingly, were members of the British Indian military force sent to China in 1900 as part of the multinational expedition aimed at lifting the siege of Beijing, suppressing the Boxer Uprising, and defeating the Qing Empire. Singh, a sepoy in the 7th Rajputs, offers a detailed narrative of his Thirteen Months in China, including of his unit's involvement in military exploits; Garg, a medical assistant assigned to the 7th Rajputs, first serialized his Mirror on China in a Calcutta-based newspaper. Both accounts, not surprisingly, depict China with great sympathy and familiarity, in part because of the ties they saw binding China to their own country, India.

A Pilgrim’s Progress: Ekai Kawaguchi and Undivine Buddhists in Holy Tibet, 1900-1912
This paper traces the production and publication of a single travelogue, Three Years in Tibet, by the Japanese Buddhist monk Ekai Kawaguchi in 1909. Tibet’s purported inaccessibility and ‘alien nature’ made it the ideal seedbed for stories of personal triumph and transformation not just for British, Russian, and other European explorers, but for Indian, Nepali, Japanese and Chinese authors. However, these romance and fantasy narratives often cloud the larger historical imperial projects that brought Tibet onto the modern map. This paper juxtaposes the mystical and divine elements illustrating Kawaguchi’s route as a pilgrim following a cosmological map through holy ground, against the geographical and ethnographical knowledge recorded in this travelogue, and further, the dissemination and use of that knowledge by the British colonial state in India. Kawaguchi’s career was closely intertwined with that of Indian and Tibetan explorers in the employ of the Survey of India, and his observations played a key role in the justifications deployed by the Government of India during the Younghusband Mission of 1904-05, a de-facto military invasion of Tibet. Exploration and surveying became the socio-technological practices through which the British Empire was expanded past the Himalayan frontier in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Through this paper, I examine the tensions between the emergence of geography as a global ‘science’, which oriented the practices of travel-writing and exploration, cartography, and ethnography, against the constraints of imperial systems predicated on the same coercive technologies to identify territory

This panel is on Monday - Session 02 - Room 1

Go to Room 1