New edition of Indologist Ivan Minayev’s book to be published in India

A new translation of the great Russian scholar’s ‘Indian Fairy Tales and Legends, collected in Kumaon in 1875’ will be published in India under the title ‘Himalayan Folktales’.
The Snow Maiden
Book cover. Source: Press photo

Where the great Ganges takes its source, where, above the flat valley, tower huge steps hewn from stone, leading to the unattainable ice fortress of the abode of gods, here, in the highest mountainous crest of the world--the Great Himalayas, lies Kumaon (in I. P. Minayev's transcription Kamaon), part of multifaceted India.

Probably very few people had heard about this area until the translation of the fascinating books of Jim Corbett and his many hunting adventures in Kumaon. These are stories about the tragic confrontations between man and nature, about kind and brave people, about wonderful India, affectionate and threatening. But, even in the last century, people knew about this mountainous country’s tales and legends, collected and published by the great Russian orientalist Ivan Pavlovich Minayev.

This was a person who brought fame to the Russian school of Indology, moving it into the vanguard of worldwide Indian studies. I. P. Minayev was born in 1840, in the family of a modest clerk of the Tambovsk region. Hard work and great innate abilities ensured an outstanding education in eastern studies. Among his teachers were great scientists of the time like V. P. Vasiliyev, A. F. Weber, T. Benfey, F. Bopp. His greatest interest lay in the history of Buddhism. Minayev combined a deep knowledge of the subject with a lively interest in a large range of issues. Professor Minayev was many things: founder of the study of southern Buddhism, the author of the best Pali grammar of that time (translated into many European languages), a historian who wrote the outstanding book Ancient India (about India of the time of Afanasy Nikitin), an expert in historical geography (works on the Middle East, a translation of a book by Marco Polo), a traveller who studied and collected ancient materials on India, Ceylon and Burma, a folklorist, who left for us, among other things, this most interesting collection of the folk traditions of Kumaon.

An interest in Buddhism and a connected interest in the ancient history of India inspired I. P. Minayev to undertake travels in South Asia in order to view its ancient monuments and collect material. He was an active member of the Russian Geographical Society, which provided funding for the expedition. The trip, lasting almost two years (1874-1875), became the basis of Minayev’s book ‘Essays on Ceylon and India. From the Travel Notes of a Russian Man.’

He visited the ruins of the ancient cities of Ceylon, conversed with monks in Buddhist monastaries.  In India he first immersed himself in a study of monuments on the territory of ancient Magadh (contemporary Bihar), the political centre of the mighty dynasties of Naidus, Mauryas, Guptas, concentrating on Buddhist culture and its influence.  I. P. Minayev emphasised that he was a travelling archeologist and a student of ancient religion, but Buddhist stupas and the ruins of vihars did not isolate him from living people. A thoroughly trained scientist and a penetrating observer, I. P. Minayev gave an amazingly precise characterisation of the political situation in India, for the first time in Russian Indology turned attention on the study of the agricultural system of India, was interested in the winds of change in the social life of the country, the activity of enlightened people and the nascent national freedom movement.

In 1880 and 1885-1886, I. P. Minayev made two more trips to India, and even visited neighbouring Burma, which had just been annexed by the British colonisers. Diaries of these trips did not see light in the lifetime of their author and lay in his archives for more than 60 years. They were prepared for publication by the Institute of Eastern studies of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR and published in 1955. This book as well as Essays on Ceylon and India, and a series of articles written in connection with his expeditions still preserve their value and serve as an important source for the history of India at the end of the 19th century.

The keen interest of I. P. Minayev towards the culture and everyday life of the peoples of India found expression in the study of folklore and ethnography, as important as everything else that this scientist-achiever did. Less than a year after his return from the first journey appeared his ‘Indian Tales and Legends, Collected in Kamaon in 1875. (St. Petersburg, 1876).’ This trip and subsequent ones resulted also in interesting ethnographic collections, preserved in the N.N. Miklukho-Maklay Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography.

The foothills of the Himalayas were included in his travels by I. P. Minayev, apparently because he wanted to visit sites, connected with the early history of Buddhism, for this region in antiquity was the site of Kapilavastu. This was the birthplace of Siddharth Gautam the Buddha and the only part of the Indian sub-continent where Buddhism was preserved. But I. P. Minaev also had something else in mind. “The path I chose could be interesting for someone who wants to know the people and not only see the grandiose delights of the Himalayas,” he wrote in his foreword to Folktales and Legends. In this forgotten corner of British India he hoped to find the customs and belief structures of the mountain people, find original works of oral folk culture, untouched by other influences. Nowhere except in Kumaon did I. P. Manayev make such purposeful and systematic recordings of folklore: during his short travels he wrote down in Pahari about fifty stories, more than twenty legends, several folk songs. These records became the basis for a comprehensive book and several articles, published both during the author’s lifetime and posthumously. The wonderful qualities of I. P Minayev the philologist found their full measure in this work.  He was obliged to make the recordings in a language full of dialecticisms and colloquial phrases typical of oral language, and one that was significantly different from the Hindustani familiar to him. The scientist brilliantly dealt with this task. His translations are an example of scientific acumen and precision. All the doubts arising during the translation were dealt with in the scholarly footnotes accompanying the publication. He planned to publish the recorded texts in the language of the original as a separate book, but conditions prevented him from doing so, and they remained in his archives.

The narrative style of the book can be often laboured.  Some of these imperfections can be explained by Minaev’s desire to be true to the original words of the folk narrators. Of course, Minaev could have ironed out irregularities, cleared up incomprehensible passages, generally ‘cleaned’ up the text. From an aesthetic point of view the book would no doubt have benefitted from this process. This was, in fact, what most collectors of Indian folklore were doing at that time, which meant that European readers usually encountered literary re-workings of the Indian texts. I. P. Minaev set himself the task of a scientific publication of the collected material, but, one might add, this does not in any way interrupt the flow and liveliness of the narrative.

Himalayan Folktales by Ivan Minayev (translated by Madhu Malik and Bulbul Sharma) will published in India in March by Yatra Books.

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