The Prisoner of Kathmandu: Brian Hodgson in Nepal 1820–43 by Charles Allen - review by John Keay

John Keay

Hermit of the Himalayas

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


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Of all those ‘orientalist’ British officials who spent as much time studying India as ruling it, none was more elusive than Brian Hodgson. Like some of the hundred or more bird species Hodgson was the first to identify, sightings of him were rare, though his call was often heard from afar. Indeed, so numerous were his contributions to the learned journals of the day, so wide-ranging were the subjects they addressed and so broad was the period of time they spanned that it was easily supposed there must be more than one B H Hodgson in the field. How could ‘the father of Indian zoology’ also be ‘the highest living authority on the native races of India’? Or ‘the founder of the true study of Buddhism’ be the same man who induced the British Indian army to recruit Gurkhas? Or the leading exponent of Lamaism’s esoteric doctrines be the individual who took on Thomas Babington Macaulay in the matter of Indian education? It was all a bit too much – too much for Hodgson’s career-obsessed contemporaries, too much for most would-be biographers, and too much, in the end, for Hodgson himself, who died in London, embittered and largely forgotten, aged ninety-four.

Sightings of him were so rare because nearly all of his thirty-six years in India were spent in or around the ‘forbidden’ kingdom of Nepal. Nepal was not then, and never would be, part of British India. In fact it was as xenophobic as Tibet. When Hodgson was posted to

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