The First Russian Ethnographic Expedition to Ceylon and India (1914-1918)

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The article is devoted to the history, itinerary and achievements of the First Russian Ethnographic Expedition to Ceylon and India (1914-1918). Based on archival material and rare publications the article gives insight into the history of this, little known, expedition and provides new biographical information about its participants, Gustav Hermann Christian Meerwarth (also known as Alexander Mikhailovich Meerwarth) and Lyudmila Alexandrovna Meerwarth. Their achievements are placed in the context of transnational contacts of the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. The authors of the article show the importance of transnational contacts of the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography for the success of the First Russian Ethnographic Expedition and the development of Russian Indology and ethnography in 1920-1930s.

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Over the past three centuries, Russia’s international contacts and scientific exchanges in connection with the study of human societies have had a significant impact both on the dissemination of anthropological and ethnographic knowledge and on the formation of popular images of Russia in various countries. In both respects, the Peter the Great Mu­seum of Anthropology and Ethnography (MAE) of the Russian Academy of Sciences, founded by Peter I as the Kunstkamera 305 years ago, has played a special role.

The scientific activities of many outstanding Russian researchers are associated with the Museum, including a founding figure of Russian and European anthropolo­gy, academician K.M. Baer; traveler and scientist N.N. Miklouho-Maklay; and such seminal intellectuals and founders of scientific schools as I.I. Zarubin, N.V. Kuhner, R.F. Barton, D.A. Olderogge, and Yu.V. Knorozov. The organization of ethnographic expeditions became a central part of the museum’s research focus, enabling the study of ethnogenesis, the ethnocultural description of peoples, and the study of ethnic processes both in Russia and in foreign countries. In connection with this, the anthropology of these trips merits analysis, including the programs, routes and results of these kinds of expeditions to different parts of the globe, as well as the dialogue that ensued between researchers and native inhabitants.

This article centers on the preparations for, and realization of, the First Russian Ethnographic Expedition to Ceylon and India in 1914-1918. The history of the expedi­tion, which was organized by the MAE, is placed in the context of the development of Russian and European ethnography in this period as well as the scientific links between the museum and scholars all over the world. The main sources for the study are archival materials, above all the documents of the Saint Petersburg branch of the Archives of the Russian Academy of Sciences, some of which were published in thematic collections of documents, and some of which have not previously figured in scholarly research. A par­ticularly noteworthy document is the report on the results of the expedition, published in 1927, by the Meerwarths, the husband-and-wife team in charge of the expedition.[1] 2

Historical interest in the Meerwarths’ expedition first appeared in the 1960s. Nina G. Krasnodembskaya was the first Soviet historian to study the expedition, followed by E.Y. Lyusternik and A.A. Vigasin, each of whom treated only specific aspects of the expedition.[3] In 2013-2018, members of a research team headed by Nina G. Krasnodembskaya, including Igor Yu. Kotin and Elena S. Soboleva, collected new data in Saint Petersburg, India, Sri Lanka, Munich, Paris and Leiden, on the basis of which they produced a se­ries of publications, including the monograph The MAE Expedition to Ceylon and India, 1914-1918. History. Collections. Scientific Legacy, published by the museum in 2018.[4]

The aim of the expedition was to collect artifacts for a future ethnographic exhi­bition on India at the Museum, as well as to study Ceylonese (Sri Lankan) and Indian ethnography more generally. The MAE badly needed authentic items to represent the traditional cultures of South Asia. V.V. Radlov (1837-1918), the director of the museum from 1895 to 1918, had the ambition of making the MAE the best ethnographic museum in Europe. He succeeded in attaching the name of Peter the Great to the museum during Saint Petersburg’s bicentenary celebrations in 1903. Radlov also made strenuous efforts to receive Imperial patronage for the MAE, and planned to name the future Indian Hall of the Museum after Tsar Nicholas II, who visited India in 1890-91 during his grand tour of the East. In 1896, the tsar had presented the Asian artifacts that had been collec­ted during his tour to the MAE. Still, even with this gift, the museum’s collections did not give a full representation of the culture and ethnography of South Asia. The muse­um director and his assistant, Dr. Leo Sternberg, decided to invite two talented young researchers, Gustav Herrmann Christian Meerwarth (since 1916 - Alexander Mikhai­lovich Meerwarth) (1884-1932) and Lyudmila Alexandrovna Meerwarth (1888-1965, nee Levina), to undertake an expedition to Ceylon and India for the purposes of collect­ing artifacts and scholarly literature and carrying out original ethnographic research. At the same time, other expeditions with ethnographic aims were sent by the muse­um to Brazil (G. Manizer), Iran (V. Ivanov), Manchuria (S. Shirokogorov), and Africa (N. Gumilev). At the initiative of Radlov, who maintained close scholarly ties to German professors, G.H.C. Meerwarth was first sent to Berlin and Munich to study ethnograph­ic collections on South Asia in German museums. The Meerwarths also took classes in horseback riding, photography, cinematography, and audio recording on wax rolls. By spring 1914 the Meerwarths were ready, well trained and equipped for the expedition.

The first stage of the expedition: Ceylon

The Meerwarths arrived in Colombo (Ceylon) on the 29th of May 1914. Communica­tion with Russia became difficult after the start of World War I on July 28, which also created financial difficulties. They were able to rely in part on transnational networks of the MAE, which gave them letters of introduction from European scholars to obtain access to materials and connections to governmental agents and scholars in Ceylon. The Meerwarths were also presented, as Russian scholars traveling on official auspices, to local nobles, whose hospitality they enjoyed both in Ceylon and in India, particularly in Kerala and Kashmir. In Colombo the Meerwarths began their research by analyzing the rich archaeological and ethnographic collections of the Colombo (now National) Museum. Interested in different aspects of local culture, arts and crafts, traditions, so­cial norms, religion and folklore, the Meerwarths studied the Sinhalese language (with Mr. Dharmaratna) as well as Tamil language and literature. The first results of their Sin­halese folklore studies were published in Ceylon in 1915.[5]

The Meerwarths also engaged in ethnographic fieldwork. One of their first ethno­graphic excursions was the journey from Colombo to Galle. Nanisera Thera, the head of Maligakanda Monastery College, invited the researchers to Galle to attend a consecra­tion ceremony for land donated to the monastery for the construction of a confessional for the monks. Lyudmila Meerwarth was personally invited to stay in the village Ampi- tiya (Kandy, Ceylon Highlands) with the family of a Singhalese landlord, Pussegoda. She used this opportunity to learn about the traditional life-style of a rural Singhalese family, studying family structure, gender roles and the system of kinship. A Pussego­da relative, John M. Senaveratne, who served as secretary of a new journal, Ceylon Antiquary and Literary Register, took part in her study of folk beliefs. Being an hon­ored guest of an important landlord, Lyudmila Meerwarth was able to participate in the working activities and ritual practices of local women in Ampitiya. This in turn enabled her to establish facts, hitherto unknown to Western scholars, concerning traditional re­ligious beliefs, social structure, culture, folklore, and etiquette of the Singhalese. She made such an impact on the Pussegoda family that a newborn girl was named after her, and the memory of her arrival has been preserved in the family. This success is not accidental, as women in the South Asian societies, as a rule, act as agents of cultural connection (primarily intergenerational) in the family.

The Meerwarths spent nine months traveling all over the island of Ceylon by car, by train, on horseback and even in an oxcart. They commissioned locals to purchase artifacts for them, above all an assistant, Thasis-Appoo, from the Colombo Museum. Thagis- Appoo was able to acquire the items for the MAE at reasonable prices. The Meerwarths described their experience of ethnographic fieldwork in Ceylon the Meerwarths in the popular book In the Jungles of Ceylon, published in 1929.[6] They also applied the expe­rience gained in Ceylon in India at later stages of their trip.

The second stage of the expedition: South India

In January 1915 the Meerwarths moved from Ceylon to South India, settling in British India’s Madras Province. Once again, they started their research at the Government Mu­seum in Madras, which had valuable ethnographic collections, a practice they followed at all subsequent stops on their voyage (Trivandrum, Bangalore, Pudukottai, Calcutta (now - Kolkata), Sarnath, Lahore, etc.). At these museums, they studied not just local culture but also principles of museum organization and administration, display methods, and the availability and rarity of exhibits in the museums. In general, members of the First Russian ethnographic expedition received full support of the local museum staff. In South India the Meerwarths were also able to visit famous Hindu centers, namely the Minakshi temple in Madurai and temples in Tanjore.

In Madras, Dr. G.H.C. Meerwarth continued his Tamil studies under the guidance of Mahamahopadhyaya Subramanya Ayar, while Lyudmila Meerwarth started research­ing collections of the Madras museum and studying the Malayalam language, and la­ter undertook ethnographic fieldwork among several ethnic and confessional groups in Madras Province: the Nayar (a Malayali ethno-caste group), the Parsi, and the Mopla (Muslims). In all likelihood at this stage the couple agreed to divide their efforts, with G.H.C. continuing his study of Tamil and Lyudmila focusing on Malayalam, a language spoken in the western part of the province, as well as in neighboring principalities in what is now Kerala.

The couple carefully prepared for their field research in South India. The Saint Petersburg Branch of the archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences contains extracts from the publications of the Anthropological Survey of India on the castes Kuruba, Golla, Madiga, and Holeya, as noted by the expedition participants, as well as detailed answers in English and Malayalam to the Meerwarths’ questionnaire on the ethnog­raphy of the Hill Arayans (Malay-Arayans who lived in the mountains near Munda- kayam), obviously recorded by one of their Indian aides.[7] These materials were not worked through or published by the Russian researchers, but they indicate the Meer- warths’ interest in tribal themes. Later, in Assam province, Lyudmila Meerwarth also studied traditional beliefs of the Kachars.[8] The challenges of working in India and the couple’s personal difficulties upon their return to Russia did not allow them to complete a comprehensive study of tribal ethnography, although they included many materials on this theme in various publications.

From their first days in India, the participants of the expedition faced significant financial problems. The First World War made it extremely complicated to receive mon­etary transfers from Saint Petersburg. In Columbo, these had been conveyed by the Rus­sian Consul, B.P. Kadomtsev. In India, by contrast, the nearest consulate was far away in Calcutta. The Russian scholars thus had to seek assistance from local residents. They accordingly accepted an invitation from a major landowner, Ramanathan, and spent the hot months of 1915 on his estate in the Palani hills. From there, they traveled to various regions of Kerala (then divided between the province of Madras and principalities of Kochi and Travancore). In the neighboring village of Shembaganur they observed the life of the forest tribe Paliyan.

In November 1915 the couple moved to Madurai, an important center of Hin­du religious life and Tamil culture. Soon Lyudmila Meerwarth accepted an invitation from the Philippoze family and left for Kottayam, in Kerala, where she researched Sy­rian Christians, known locally as Nazrani Mapilla. With Ananthakrishna Iyer, a leading expert on the ethnography of India’s Malabar coast, the Meerwarths visited Thrissur, Cochin, and Thiruvandrum. In this last town, G.H.C. Meerwarth returned the study of Sanskrit, which he had begun back in Saint Petersburg, and proceeded to translate thir­teen Sanskrit dramas by the ancient Indian playwright Bhasa, which had only recently been discovered in an Indian manuscript collection. Meerwarth carried out his work on the Bhasa translations under the guidance of the prominent Indian scholar Mahamaho- padhyaya T. Ganapati Shastri. Unfortunately, these translations perished in 1930s.

In February 1916, the couple moved to the village of Udagamandalam in the Nilgiri Hills, where they received notification that the Imperial Academy of Sciences had extended the Russian ethnographic expedition for two more years. In light of the war G.H.C. changed his name to Alexander Mikhailovich so as to avoid suspicions of spying for Germany. The Meerwarths were planning to travel to North India, a region of strategic importance for the British, and here, a German name might hinder their work. Before going there, however, the Meerwarths were able to spend some time in Coim­batore, where Alexander Mikhailovich found temporary work, as well as in the princely state of Mysore.

The third stage of the expedition: North India

From South India the Meerwarths went to Bengal, living primarily in Calcutta and Se- rampore. They moved to Calcutta in June 1916 to study the collections of the Indian Museum. From there they journeyed to Lucknow, and the director of the local provincial museum, the famous archaeologist Hiranand Sastri, helped them to order models and artifacts for the future exhibit at the Saint Petersburg museum.[9] Alexander Meerwarth continued his journey through north-west India and visited Kashmir, where he benefited from the assistance of a local specialist on the region, Jagaddhar-zadoo-Shastri. The Meerwarths also visited Lahore, Srinagar, Delhi, and Mathura, returning to Cal­cutta via Varanasi. In all these places, but especially in Kashmir, where they were the guests of the state, and in Lahore, the Meerwarths made purchases for the museum. A notable purchase was a precious collection of papier-mache, which they obtained in Srinigar and which is even now on display at the MAE.

The Meerwarths returned to Calcutta in early 1917, but they were soon invited to relocate to the nearby town of Serampore by Professor Givargis of Serampore Col­lege. Givargis was a Syrian Christian, or Nazrani Mapilla, which Lyudmila Meerwarth had studied in Kerala, and he offered them a dorm room at the college free of charge. The couple gratefully accepted his offer, as their financial situation was precarious, and they could not afford rent. Soon Lyudmila Meerwarth began teaching at the wo­men’s college, while A.M. Meerwarth set off for Assam to study the Khasi people. Un­fortunately, he was prevented from reaching his destination by the neighboring princi­pality of Manipur, which refused him permission to travel through its territory (quite possibly because of his German descent).

That fall, A.M. Meerwarth was offered a temporary contract as assistant curator of Calcutta’s Indian Museum. Serving in this capacity at the behest of the museum di­rector, Dr. Thomas Nelson Annandale, Meerwarth organized the collections and created exhibits of Indian musical instruments and ethnographic collections from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Assam and Central India, as well as guides to these exhibits, which were published by the Indian Museum in 1917 and 1919.[10] 11 His term of employment ex­pired at the end of January, 1918, and although he received an offer to teach Sanskrit at a local college, the salary associated with this position would not cover the Meerwarths’ living expenses. Meanwhile, the revolutionary crisis in Russia made it impossible for the Academy of Sciences to provide any funds to prolong the expedition. The Meer­warths left India in February 1918 on a Russian cargo steamer, the ‘Eugenia,’ which was sequestered by the British at the port of Rangoon for 66 days before being released. They arrived in Vladivostok on July 26th, 1918.

Achievements of the expedition

The members of the First Russian Ethnographic Expedition to Ceylon and India accom­plished a great deal in the study of South Asia and acquisition of ethnographic objects for the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. They spent almost four years in Ceylon and India. Lyudmila Meerwarth took care of all the household con­cerns, kept track of all correspondence, and monitored her husband’s poor health. At the same time, she studied South Asian languages (Sinhalese, Malayalam, etc.), conduct­ed ethnographic field research, acquired ethnographic collections and manuscripts, and recorded samples of verbal folklore.11 Alexander Meerwarth deepened his knowledge of Sanskrit and learned Tamil, Hindi and Urdu. He carried out painstaking research on both printed and manuscript collections of South Asia. He translated the plays of Bhasa, wrote a literary analysis of them, and published an article about their author. On May 2, 1917, A.M. Meerwarth was named to the Asiatic Society of Bengal, in Calcutta, in recognition of his contribution to the study of Bhasa. The lecture that he gave to the society in July, The Dramas of Bhasa: A Literary Study, was subsequently published by the society’s journal.[12]

A.M. Meerwarth also translated the Tamil poem Manimehaley into Russian, but unfortunately this translation has not survived.[13] Lyudmila Meerwarth became a pioneer in the study of Malayan language and culture in Russia, a topic which had interested her since the first stage of the trip, when she met Malayan soldiers and traders in Ceylon. Alexander Meerwarth, as noted, developed exhibits and authored catalogs for the Indian Museum in Calcutta, after which the Indian Museum gave him duplicates of musical instruments, tribal arms and weapons, etc. for the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in Saint Petersburg (Petrograd). “The List of articles, presented by the Indian Museum to the Russian Government Museum, Petrograd, through Dr. A.M. Meerwarth, Assistant Curator, Ethnographical Section, Russia” comprise 115 numbers (MAE col­lections No. 2980, 2983). All told, the Meerwarths collected roughly 5500 artifacts for the MAE. A. M. Meerwarth put the knowledge of exhibition practices involving eth­nographic materials that he had obtained in Berlin to good use in Calcutta and applied the same principles in the creation of a permanent exhibit for the MAE. Similarly, the principles of compiling museum catalogs that he acquired in Calcutta served him again when he wrote an essay on the MAE’s India Department.[14] He described his experience working in an Indian museum and the organizational principles of Indian museums in a special article, “Museum Affairs in India.”[15] As he depicted it, the complex Indian Museum emerged from the Asiatic Society of Bengal and represented on a small scale something like the Academy of Sciences, with departments akin to research institutes. In the early twentieth century the Indian Museum became a kind of laboratory and sci­entific workshop for all kinds of research about India. Meerwarth especially noted that the museum has retained this close and natural connection with scientific research as a healthy and proper basis for replenishing the collections, and this is the guarantee of its future.[16]

The Meerwarth's return and delivery of artifacts to the MAE

When the Meerwarths arrived in Vladivostok in July 1918, Russia was in the midst of a civil war, making it impossible for them to return to Saint Petersburg (then called Petrograd). They accordingly settled into Vladivostok. Along with S. Shirokogorov, they proceeded to found a Faculty of History and Philology (1918), later incorporated into the Far Eastern University (1920), where they taught modern Indian languages and arts. They moved to Harbin in 1922 and to Chita in 1924. Finally, from there they returned to Saint Petersburg, now renamed Leningrad, in a specially outfitted train car­riage. They brought with them the most precious artifacts, but a considerable number remained in Ceylon and India. In Colombo, old friends of the Meerwarths stored the artifacts in wooden cases in the warehouses of the Russian tea trading company Gub­kin, Kuznetsov & Co. Other boxes were left in storage at the Government Museum in Madras and the Indian Museum in Calcutta. In 1918 the Meerwarths managed to take with them only eleven crates from Calcutta to Vladivostok. In 1923 G.D. Krasinsky was commissioned by the Russian Academy of Sciences to ship the remaining crates on a Russian commercial ship, which arrived in Leningrad almost simultaneously with the Meerwarths themselves.

Here the Meerwarths could once again focus on the study of India, ethnography and museum work. They unpacked and began to organize the collections that they had carried with them, as well as the new shipment from India and Ceylon, more than five thousand items in all, as well as some 3000 negatives and photographs and a large num­ber of books. Unfortunately, approximately one quarter of the artifacts in the later ship­ment were damaged by termites or by the effects of climate during their long period in storage. The remaining artifacts were nonetheless catalogued and sorted into a number of thematic collections at the MAE.

The Meerwarths' scholarly activities and museum work, 1924-1930

In Russia, both in Vladivostok and in Leningrad, the Meerwarths sought to harness their knowledge of India, ethnography, and museum studies for educational purposes. They delivered public lectures, trained museum guides, conducted classes for schoolchildren in the MAE, etc. Alexander Meerwarth helped organize the First Workers’ and Peasants’ Radio University in Leningrad, for which he gave lectures on Asian culture. Residents of the most distant outskirts of Soviet Russia learned about the cultures and peoples of India from his radio lectures of 1928-1929. In addition, they taught Indian geography, languages, ethnography and arts at Leningrad State University and other specialized institutions.

Alexander Meerwarth’s continuing practical interest in museum studies in the mid-1920s resulted in analyses of the organizational structure, financial basis, and man­agement of museums in India. He published two articles, “The role of museums in the culture of modern India” and “Achievements and Problems of Indian Ethnography,” based on the ethnographer’s firsthand experiences of Indian scholarly institutions.

The Meerwarths were employed by the MAE immediately upon their return. In 1924 Alexander Meerwath was appointed curator of the Department of India and Lyud­mila Meerwarth was named curator of the Department of Indonesia. Together they created the first permanent exposition on South Asian ethnography in Russia. This opening of this exhibit was timed to coincide with the Bicentennial Jubilee of the Academy of Sciences, celebrated on September 5-9, 1925. The right side of the Indian Hall displayed artifacts il­lustrating modes of subsistence, types of utensils, and artisanal crafts; the left side was de­voted to the arts; and the middle of the hall was taken up by models depicting scenes from indigenous life among South Asian rural and mountain peoples. The entrance to the hall, symbolizing the passage to India, was a richly carved example of wooden architecture, part of a teak palace from Nashik that had been purchased in 1910 by the Russian scholar Mikhail S. Andreev and donated to the MAE. A.M. Meerwarth’s scientific findings were outlined in the MAE guidebook to the new India collections, Department of India: A Brief Essay on Indian Culture Based on Materials from India.[17] 18

This guidebook not only elucidated the artifacts on display in the Indian Hall but introduced readers to Indian performance traditions and musical instruments. Alexander Meerwarth had become deeply interested in folk music and folk theater during his trip, and studied several theatrical traditions: masked folk theatre Kolam in Ceylon, Bhand folk entertainers in Kashmir, Kathakali (Attakatha) plays in Travancore, Raslila folk dance drama in Mathura, Jatra folk theatre in Serampore (Bengal), and others. He pub­lished a seminal article, “The Kathakalis of Malabar,” in French in Journal Asiatique, illustrated with images of the MAE collections and original photographs taken during a performance in Kottayam in January 1916.[19] He analyzed the plot of Shakuntala, from Malabar folk drama, several times. His reflections on the Bhand performed near Srinagar in September 1916, were reported at a meeting of the Department of Humanitaries of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR on September 9th, 1927. Alexander Meerwarth included in his text some notes by the Russian scholar Ivan P. Minaev, who had recorded words from Bhand performance in Almore (Kashmir) in the 1870es. Unfortunately, we find only short descriptions of other Indian folk theater performances that Meerwarths observed in South Asia. Some facts are included into their official report to the Academy of Sciences of the USSR on the history of the expedition, In the Jungles of Ceylon.

In January, 1927, Alexander Meerwarth was elected a supernumerary full mem­ber of Leningrad’s State Institute of Art History in theater history. He proposed a course on the theme, “History and techniques of Indian theater, with emphasis on folk theater.” To celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of this institute, a large exhibition on “Theater of the Peoples of the Orient” was staged in the Big Conference Hall of the main building of the Academy of Sciences at the end of March, accompanied by a lecture cycle. More than 3000 visitors attended the exhibit, and many listened to lectures on the history of theater in Japan, China, Mongolia and Tibet, Siam, Indonesia, Turkestan, Persia, Tur­key, Ceylon and India - these last naturally presented by Alexander Meerwarth. The connection of theater with other facets of popular culture, the emergence of theatrical styles and genres, techniques characteristic of individual theatrical traditions, and the role of the actor were among the topics discussed. This exhibit dovetailed with Meer- warth’s scholarly agenda of this period, as he soon edited a collected volume, Oriental Theater, the first book on this topic in Russian. His own contribution to the volume, “Indian Folk Theater” was based on his own field notes and on contemporary publica­tions of British, German and Indian authors.[20] Lyudmila Meerwarth also contributed to the volume with a chapter on Malay theater. Already in Ceylon, she had drawn attention to similarities in customs and material culture between the Sinhalese and the Malays, and upon her return to Leningrad, in connection with her position the curator for In­donesia, her research interests increasingly centered on the literatures and cultures of Malaya and Netherlands India (Indonesia).

In June 1927 the Meerwarths obtained permission from the Academy of Sciences of the USSR to travel Germany, France and the Netherlands for scientific research and cultural exchange. For four months, they visited museums, gave lectures, conducted sci­entific research, and negotiated with directors of European Ethnographic Museums on future cooperation. Lyudmila Meerwarth succeeded in arranging for an exchange of col­lections between the MAE and the Leiden State Museum of Ethnology (Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde) in 1928. Alexander Meerwarth acquired a Tamil printing press in Germany for the USSR Academy of Sciences so as to print Tamil texts. The Presidium of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR had supported his request for this purchase and allocated 200 gold rubles from the Reserve for foreign orders to carry it out.[21] In Ger­many and France, as in Russia, Alexander Meerwarth energetically popularized Indian literature, science, museums, and arts. He delivered a public lecture (in German) to an audience of 120 students, theater critics, and theater directors on Indian folk theater on June 27, 1927, at the Institute of Theater Science (Institut fur Theaterwissenschaft) of the University of Berlin, an institute founded in 1923 by the famous theater critic Max Herrmann. He was invited to lecture on this topic again in Berlin and Munich in summer 1928, but this trip was never realized.

Back in Russia, Alexander Meerwarth was asked to conceptualize and plan seve­ral major museum exhibitions, including a big exhibit on the “History and Typology of Religion,” mounted at the Winter Palace in 1929. The following year, this exhibit was transferred to the newly established State Museum of the History of Religion in Leningrad, the first of the world’s three major museums on this topic. The cultures and beliefs of the peoples of South Asia are naturally represented there as well. Meanwhile, A.M. Meerwarth continued his scholarly activities, publishing the first Tamil grammar in Russian in 1929 and thereby founding Tamil studies in our country.[22]

The Meerwarths fell victim to Stalin’s terror in 1930, falsely accused and arrested in connection with the so-called “Academic affair.” Alexander Meerwarth died on May 23, 1932, in the Ust-Pechora labor camp. In 1967 his conviction was overturned “in the ab­sence of a crime event.” Lyudmila Meerwarth survived her husband for more than thirty years, and her conviction was reversed in 1957. She never returned to Indian studies, though she taught Indonesian language at the Moscow State Institute of International Re­lations (MGIMO) and published literary translations. Many of the projects proposed by the Meerwarths remained unfinished. But a memorial to the First Russian Ethnographic Expedition is still preserved in the current “Peoples of South Asia” exhibit of the MAE, roughly half of which consists of artifacts acquired by the Meerwarths in 1914-1918.


The First Russian Ethnographic Expedition to Ceylon and India was designated to run from May 1914 until 1916, but war and revolution necessitated first prolonging the ex­pedition and then curtailing it. The Meerwarths remained in India until February 1918. Upon their return, the materials that they had collected sufficed to mount the first expo­sition devoted to the peoples and tribes of South Asia at the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in Leningrad (Saint Petersburg), which had sponsored their trip. They also started teaching modern Indian languages, particularly the Tamil language for the first time in the history of Russia. They wrote extensively on Indian and Ceylonese ethnography and on the history of South Asian theater. The arrest of the Meerwarths in 1930 ruined their academic careers. Alexander Meerwarth died in the Pechora camp in 1932. Lyudmila Meerwarth survived imprisonment and expulsion from the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography and after few turbulent years established herself as a teacher, translator, and specialist on Malayan/Indonesian studies.

The Meerwarths made a tremendous contribution to the material basis of South Asian studies in Russia. They made strenuous efforts to acquire linguistic materials, ethno­graphic artifacts, books and photographs in India and Ceylon, bringing a large quantity of these materials with them to Russia on their return trip. Others were delivered to Russia a few years later. In the 1920s, in Vladivostok, Leningrad and Moscow, Alexander and Lyudmila Meerwarth based their lectures, scientific publications, exhibitions on their observation and experience in South Asia. They supplied Russian science with unique sources in geography, languages, culture, ethnography, economy of contemporary Cey­lon and India.

Generally, in India the Meerwarths were welcomed by the local people, especially by the Indian intellectuals. They stayed in governmental and private homes, sometimes as “guests of the State.” They were allowed into the vaults of governmental, prince­ly and private museums and libraries. They wrote ethnographic questionnaires for the description of some minor ethnic groups. They also collaborated with prominent local archaeologists, anthropologists and museologists, in some cases engaging in fieldwork together. Many of these famous Indian scientists contributed to the ethnographic and photo collections the Meerwarths were accumulating for the MAE.

The Meerwarths managed to establish contacts with many groups of the population in Ceylon and India. The photographs made in situ witness that they met the Paliyans, the Kadars, the Tanda Pulayans, the Mala Arayans, the Malai Vedans, the Urali, the Gur- jars, the Khasi, visited the towns of the Chettiar, Jews and Syrian Christians in Kerala, etc. Due to their deep penetration into the local environment, the Russian ethnographers were able to learn intimate details of the life of various ethnic groups, including tradi­tional worldviews, social organization, and everyday habits. This in turn enabled them to conceptualize the underlying features of the cultures they studied. Alexander and Lyudmila Meerwarth were thus forerunners of the method of participant observation, or “getting into the ethnic environment,” which became the primary mode of ethno­graphic research in the second half of the twentieth century.


1 T.N. Zagorodnikova, and P.M. Shastitko, eds. Russko-indiiskie otnoshenija v 1900-1917 gg. Sbornik arkhivnykh materialov (Moscow: Vostochnaia literaratura, 1999), 393-422; T.N. Zagorodnikova, ed. Russkie na Tseilone v XIX - nachale XX v. Sbornik arkhivnykh dokumentov i materialov (Moscow: Institut Vostokovedeniia, 2010), 235-238.

2 A.M. Meerwarth, and L.A. Meerwarth, Otchet ob etnograficheskoi expeditsii v Indiiu v 1914-1918 (Leningrad: Akademii Nauk SSSR, 1927).

3 N.G. Krasnodemskaya, “Russkie issledovateli na Tseilone,” Tezisi konferentsii po istorii, jazikam ikul’ture Jugo-VostochnojAzii (Leningrad: Nauka, 1967), 12-13; E.Ia. Liusternik, “Nauchnaia ekspeditsiia A.M. i L.A. Mervartov v Indiiu v 1914-1918,” in vol. 4 of Istoriografiia i istochnikovedenie istorii stran Azii iAfriki. (Leningrad: Leningrad State University Press, 1975), 58-63; A.A. Vigasin, “Aleksandr i Lyud­mila Merwart: U istokov otechestvennogo tseilonovedenija i dravidologii,” in issue 2 of Repressirovannie etnografi (Moscow: Vostochnaia literature, 2003), 375-398.

4 I.Y. Kotin, “Po sledam Mervartov sto let spustia: Kolombo i Galle,” Aziia i Afrika segodnia, no. 4 (2015): 69-82; I.Y. Kotin, and E.S. Soboleva, “Po sledam Mervartov: Indiiskii marshrut,” in Mate- rialy polevikh issledovanii MAE RAN (Saint Petersburg: MAE, 2016), 317-328; I.Y. Kotin, N.G. Krasno­dembskaya, and E.S. Soboleva, Ekspeditsiia MAE na Tseilon i v Indiiu v 1914-1918 gg. Istoriia. Kollektsii, Nauchnoe Nasledie (Saint Petersburg: MAE, 2018).

5 H. Meerwarth, “Outlines of Sinhalese Folklore,” Ceylon Antiquary and Literary Register 1, pt. 1 (1915): 4-7; L. Meerwarth-Levina, “The Hindu Goddess Pattini in the Buddhist Popular Beliefs of Ceylon,” Ceylon Antiquary and Literary Register 1, pt. 1 (1916-1917): 29-37.

6 A.M. Meerwarth, and L. A. Meerwarth, Vglushi Tseilona (Leningrad: P.P Soikin, 1929). Reprint in Etnograficheskie tetradi 11 (1997): 326-351; Etnograficheskie tetradi 12 (1998): 333-376.

7 Saint Petersburg branch of the Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences (henceforth SPbB ARAN), f. 142, op. 1 (pre-1918), ed. khr. 69, ll. 1-9.

8 Ibid., f. 142, op. 2, ed. khr. 63, ll. 1-5.

9 Meerwarth and Meerwarth, Otchet ob etnograficheskoi ekspeditsii, 16.

10   Meerwarth and Meerwarth, Otchet ob etnograficheskoi ekspeditsii, 20; A.M. Meerwarth, A Guide to the Collection of Musical Instruments Exhibited in the Ethnographic Gallery of the Indian Museum, Calcutta (Calcutta, 1917); Idem, The Andamanese, Nicobarese and Hill Tribes of Assam: Ethnographic Gallery Guide. Book 2 (Calcutta, 1919).

11 SPbB ARAN, f. 142, op. 1, ed. khr. 46.

12 A.M. Meerwarth, “The Dramas of Bhasa: A Literary Study,” Journal and Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (NS) 13, no. 5 (1917): 261-280.

13 Vigasin, “Aleksandr i Lyudmila Merwart: U istokov,” 384.

14 A.M. Meerwarth, Otdel Indii. Kratkii ocherk indiiskoi kul ’tury po materialam Otdela Indii MAE (Leningrad: Akademiia Nauk SSSR, 1927).

15 A.M. Meerwarth, “Muzeinoe delo v Indii,” in vol. 5 of Izvestiia GAIMK (Leningrad, 1927), 139-56.

16 Ibid., 145.

17 A.M. Meerwarth, “Rol muzeev v kul’ture sovremennoj Indii,” Nauchnii rabotnik, no. 2 (1926): 84-96; Idem, “Dostizheniia i problem indiiskoi etnografii,” Etnografiia 3, no. 1 (1927): 123-156.

18 A.M. Meerwarth, Otdel Indii: Kratkii ocherk Indijskoj kul’turi na osnove Otdela Indii MAE. (Leningrad: [S.n], 1927).

19 A.M. Meerwarth, “Les Kathakalis du Malabar,” Journal Asiatique 4 (1926) : 198-284.

20 A.M. Meerwarth, “Indiiskii narodnyi teatr,” in Vostochnyi Teatr (Leningrad: Academia, 1929), 16-111.

21 SPbB ARAN, f. 142. op. 1-1927, ed. khr. 5, l. 411.

22 A.M. Meerwarth, Grammar of colloquial Tamil language (Leningrad: Enukidze Institut zhivikh vostochnykh iazykov, 1929, 1932).


About the authors

Igor Yu. Kotina

Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera) of the Russian Academy of Sciences; Saint Petersburg University; Saint Petersburg University

Author for correspondence.

Doktor Istoricheskikh Nauk [Dr. habil. hist.], Leading Research Fellow of the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Professor of Saint Petersburg University.

Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera) of the Russian Academy of Sciences; 7-9, Universitetskaya nab., Saint Petersburg, 199034, Russia

Nina G. Krasnodembskaya

Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera) of the Russian Academy of Sciences


Doktor Istoricheskikh Nauk [Dr. habil. hist.], Leading Research Fellow of the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera) of the Russian Academy of Sciences

Elena S. Soboleva

Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera) of the Russian Academy of Sciences; Saint Petersburg University; Saint Petersburg University


Kandidat Istoricheskikh Nauk [PhD in History], Senior Research Fellow of the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Associated Professor of Saint Petersburg University.

Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera) of the Russian Academy of Sciences; 7-9, Universitetskaya nab., Saint Petersburg, 199034, Russia


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  2. Kotin, I.Yu. “Po sledam Mervartov sto let spustya: Kolombo i Galle.” Aziya i Afrika segodnya, no. 4 (2015): 69–72 (in Russian).
  3. Kotin, I.Yu., and Soboleva E.S. “Po sledam Mervartov: indiiskii marshrut.” In Materialy polevykh issledovanii MAE RAN. Issue 16, 317–328. Saint Peterburg: MAE RAN Publ., 2016 (in Russian).
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  19. Shastitko, P.M., and Zagorodnikova, T.N., eds. Russko-indiiskie otnosheniya v 1900–1917 gg. Sbornik arkhivnykh dokumentov i materialov. Moscow: Vostochnaya literatura Publ., 1999 (in Russian).
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Copyright (c) 2019 Kotina I.Y., Krasnodembskaya N.G., Soboleva E.S.

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