The British Empire Library

The Prisoner of Kathmandu: Brian Hodgson in Nepal 1820-43

by Charles Allen

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
It is a splendid title for a book, but is it accurate? The author justifies it by explaining in the Foreword that although Brian Houghton Hodgson was not literally a prisoner in Kathmandu, he remained there for twenty-three years 'forced by a combination of health and politics to live a restricted life'. It is a weak argument and not the only disappointment in this eagerly awaited book. Hodgson was not untypical of his time and class. The son of a country gentleman in Cheshire, he was probably born in 1801 and sought a career in the East India Company. He hoped, like other young men, this would give him the opportunity to redeem the family fortune, his father having lost money in a banking venture. He was a star pupil at Haileybury and on arrival in Calcutta, continued his language studies at Fort William College. However, a bad attack of fever led him to the hills, and through various recommendations he became Assistant Resident at Kathmandu, when only nineteen.

Initially unhappy and isolated, he was advised to be patient and to learn all he could of Nepal, and gradually this he what he did and what he is known for today. With the help of local people he began to collect Sanskrit manuscripts and was perhaps the first of the 'Orientalists' to realise that Buddhist literature, completely eliminated in India, still existed in Nepal. He hired local artists to draw Buddhist shrines and with the help of savants started to interpret the various Buddhist schools of thought. At the same time he began a study of native birds and animals and was soon contributing to learned journals, notably that of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in Calcutta. Later, on becoming Resident, he was not adverse to meddling in intemal Nepalese politics, which eventually led to his downfall and exile from Kathmandu. The place haunted him for the rest of his long life. It should be a fascinating story, but it is very dryly told, often wandering too far away from its subject. Surprisingly there is no index which makes referring back difficult. Poor editing means that errors were not questioned - on page 265 Dursley is not only mis-spelt, but placed in Gloucester, not Gloucestershire as it should be. Page 172 refers to the Calcutta Englishman newspaper - presumably The Englishman and Military Chronicle. As a long time admirer of the author, the reviewer finds this latest book both hurried and at times unsatisfying.

British Empire Book
Charles Allen
First Published
Haus Publishing Limited
Review Originally Published
Spring 2016 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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