The International Dr. G.W. Leitner Trail
Marcus Roberts & Silvia Dovoli (Oxford University Jewish Country House Project)


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Leitner the Linguistic Researcher, Archaeologist and Collector

Leitner was highly active in mounting expeditions to explore parts of India still not visited by Westerners and conducted linguistic research, carried out archaeological excavations and collected art and artefacts. He is credited as being the first white European to explore some areas which were dangerous to visit, due to local politics, lawlessness, local warfare, hostile locals and the terrain - in fact during his investigations he diverted to Ladakh to try and find the remains of a friend and two retainers, who had perished there previously. His 1886 expedition, sponsored by the Punjab government at the behest of the Bengal Asiatic Society to investigate the Chilasi dialect, created something of a diplomatic incident, as will be seen, as his expedition got caught up in the politics of the region and he then openly expressed views both very critical of the British and its allies in Kashmir following two attempts on his life by armed groups of men. The research for this piece reveals that Leitner got involved in some dangerous local politics and machinations simply by dint of wishing to explore the region, because the local Maharaja was keen to conceal his annexations of territories in the area, and genocidal activities against the Dards, which were against his treaty with the British (who equally did not want this information to get out, for their own reasons). According to Leitner, the Maharaja ordered a 'hit' on him, as well as trying to frustrate his expedition, and then offered Leitner a bribe when the assassination proved unsuccessful. While Leitner was in the area, he was involved in at least dramatic two shoot-outs and may have killed some of the assailants, and Leitner had evidence that these incidents were ordered by the Maharaja (an intercepted letter ordering his death) and carried out by Mir Vai of Yasin, a hit-man for the Maharaja, who was also allegedly responsible for killing Hayward. Leitner was undoubtedly lucky to have survived his exploration of Dardistan.

The editor of The Athenaeum, on receiving advance notices of Leitner's book on Dardistan, took great umbrage at what it regarded as this political meddling by Leitner in his comments on the Maharaja of Kashmir, an important British 'friend'. Leitner had stated that he saw on his travels, near Sheitan Nare, the suspended skeletons of local people who had been killed on the Maharaja's orders to concoct the impression of a victory over local insurgents, when they were just civilians. Furthermore, Leitner states that he succeeded in recovering the body of his friend Mr. H. Cowie (the brother of the Advocate-General of Bengal), who in their journey over high passes had fallen off a rickety bridge, when crossing with Leitner, and drowned in a river and waterfall at Dras, after the body has been hidden by the Maharaja at Tolti, once it had washed-up, in order to hush-up the matter (presumably on his 1865 expedition). Having found him, he relates tenderly washing the earth from his skeleton and then carrying his remains for four days out of the area and back for burial. The editor conducted an extraordinary hatchet job on Leitner in his article, which included the allegation of (mass) murder! He states, 'Dr. Leitner seems to have done a great deal of shooting with his revolver amongst his friends the Dards. He says in one instance, that he 'gave him (a man at Guraiz) and his comrades a lesson with my revolver'. Our author modestly tells us nothing about the number of men he killed; but in the page before he speaks of 'the rapid firing and numerous shots of our revolvers' at another point in his Kashmir tour, and at another batch of men.'

The editor also poured scepticism on Leitner's heroic efforts to recover his friend's body and bring them to safety for 'decent Christian burial', thinking the task too Herculean to be true, though despite the 'Boy's Own Annual' tone of the expedition, Leitner's account of the Maharaja's actions, the incipient border dispute and his difficulties, as well as how the Maharaja's agent dogged his expedition, every step of the way, seem credible. Leitner gave other very public and detailed accounts of his disquiet about British political dealings with the Maharaja and in the region and their policy of not telling the truth about the situation, and how the Maharaja had attempted to hide his annexations of territories from the British, as well as ordering the assassination attempt on Leitner to prevent his explorations. Leitner clearly believed that the British authorities sought to keep him in India to prevent him from talking about British dealings in Kashmir back in London and he hoped that by soliciting external official invitation by learned societies he would get leave to come back to England.

Some of his key areas of exploration was the so called 'Kafiristan' in the Hindukush which was remote and nearly impossible to visit. From 1866 to 70 he explored the "wild tribes" of the North-Western frontier and visited Kashmir, Little Tibet / Ladak, (the countries between Kabul, Badakhshan and Kashmir, which he called 'Dardistan'. The areas of his exploration included Chitrāl, the upper reaches of the Panjkora River, the Kohistān (highland) of Swāt, and the upper portions of the Gilgit Agency). Gilgit is situated on the right bank of the upper Indus and the Gilgit Agency was a system of administration established by British Indian Empire over the subsidiary states of Jammu and Kashmir, at its northern periphery, mainly with the objective of strengthening these territories against Russian encroachment. Such was his passion for this (as well as his desire to reform primary education and to combat ill-health caused by sedentary over-work) that in 1872 he temporarily exchanged his job with the Punjab's Inspector of Schools and spent a year touring the foothills, excavating and collecting, on the northern frontier of the Punjab, while also reforming and founding primary schools, as a temporary inspector of schools in the five frontier districts of the Rawalpindi Circle. He particularly promoted a new policy he favoured of creating independent native schools under Indian management that would attract government funding and grant-aid, rather like the current Academy system in England and 'pave the way for the abolition of Government Schools'. During this tour Leitner claimed to have raised subscriptions towards 22 Muslim and Hindu schools. During this year he also collected a vast quantity of Gandharan sculptures. This region was and still is, remote and mountainous and his explorations were 230 to 320 miles out from Lahore.

His linguistic exploration led to the publication of 'The Races and the Languages of Dardistan' (Lahore, 1867-1871). In 1885 Leitner further performed Special Duty with the Indian Foreign Department, with instructions to compile a vocabulary and grammar for the language of Hunza. From 1870-1878 he had excavations conducted on his behalf in Swat, in 1870 he carried out excavations in Takht-i-Bahi and in these excavations, and on these expeditions, collected local Graeco-Buddhist Sculpture, now known as Gandharan Art, a fledgling collection much bolstered by his subsequent 1872 activities. His collection and curation of Gandharan Art was a defining activity of his career at least in its sense of public visibility. The linguistic researches and archaeological researches went hand in hand, as the understanding of the language and the culture was necessary to understanding the artefacts and in the case of Gandharan Art, in detecting any Greek influence in the local Indian dialects.

Leitner was not the first to form a collection of Gandharan Art, or to bring it to London to be displayed. This has occurred in the first instance, when the Hon. E. Clive Bayley brought a collection of sculpture, which had been excavated in Jamalgiri Monastery by British Army Officers, and then took it to London, where it was displayed in the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, but destroyed by the Great Fire at Crystal Palace, in 1860, before it could be photographed. Leitner's collection was formed mostly from sculpture gleaned from the monastery at Takht-i-Bahi, eight miles westward of Jamalgiri, and brought to England in June 1873.

Gandharan Art was the fruit of interaction between the Hellenic / Greek culture and local Buddhist / Indian art and culture. The link between the Greeks and the Indus was already known from classical writings about Alexander's campaigns, but the Greek influence was only observed in the local art in the 19th century, once the Punjab has been annexed by the British in 1849 and Gandharan sculpture came to light. In this period Gandharan Art was viewed ideologically thorough colonial lenses and seen as a decadent Indian / Buddhist version of a superior Greek art and that its value was really only in its assumed superior Greek element. The assumption of the superiority of the Greek element was really a proxy for the general assertion of European cultural superiority and the denigration of local culture and religion. It was in fact many decades before a more genuine post-colonial empirical and taxonomic view of Gandharan Art was arrived at. Leitner was in fact ahead of his times as he described Gandharan Art as being 'Greco-Indian' and 'Graeco-Buddhist'.

While Leitner was not a pioneer in his use of the word 'Dardistan', nor was he the first to discover Gandharan art, he was none-the-less one of the strongest and most consistent early advocates of the genre and its cultural integrity and was also particularly influential through his lectures, and as editor of The Imperial and Oriental Quarterly Review, as well as sending part of the collection to be widely exhibited to the public across Europe. He may have invented the new category, 'Graeco-Buddhist', which very much assisted in properly conceptualising its importance, and he also kept 'Dardistan' in the public perception. He thus has a significant place in the study of the history of art in this field. However, in his address to the 2nd Congress he does not make a precise claim to the invention of that term 'Graeco-Buddhist', but states it was applied in early publications about the sculptures and was formally accepted and adopted in 1870, after examination of the sculptures by leading scholars in Vienna (though one wonders if he played a role in advocating its acceptance amongst these scholars?).

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