In 1797 there appeared in the Asiatic Researches an essay entitled “An Account of Two Fakeers”. The author was Jonathan Duncan, the Governor of Bombay, who had previously served as the East India Company’s Resident (or diplomatic representative) in Benares from 1787 to 1795. Renowned for his “love of Hindu learning“, Duncan had helped establish the Asiatic Society in 1784 and the Sanskrit College in Benares in 1791.

The essay by the “Brahminised Scotsman”, as Duncan’s critics termed him, portrayed the life of an ascetic in Benares who went by the name of Pran Puri. Duncan’s readers had previously heard of this figure from Francis Wilford, a former Company officer and overeager Orientalist, living out his retirement in Benares. In 1795, Wilford had published an essay in the Asiatic Researches citing information about Hindu settlements in Baku and Bahrain that a “yogi and famous traveller” by the name of Pran Puri, had obtained on “his way to Moscow”. His “friend”, Wilford casually added, was an urdhwabahu, that is, a an ascetic who had vowed to “always keeps his hands elevated above his head”.

The curiosity provoked by Wilford’s elliptical remark was fanned by a tantalising footnote in “Historical Remarks on the Coast of Malabar”, an essay that Duncan had presented to the Asiatic Society in September 1795. In this footnote, Duncan briefly reflected on “Hindu fakeers’ propensity to travelling”, citing the case of Pran Puri, who had visited Sri Pada in Ceylon, before travelling “as far north as to Moscow”. Pran Puri was “disabled from writing” due to his being an urdhwabahu, Duncan noted. But the “fakeer” had allowed him, the former Resident now disclosed, to have “committed to writing” in May 1792 “an interesting account of his travels”.

Jonathan Duncan.

‘A Great Traveller’

“An Account of Two Fakeers”, which Duncan subsequently presented before the Asiatic Society in December 1795 and then published in the Asiatic Researches in 1797, sated the great curiosity that these previous references to Pran Puri had stoked.

Duncan began by briefly outlining Pran Puri’s life. Born about 1742, Pran Puri had run away from his family home in Kannauj at the age of nine. He had then made his way to Bithoor where he was adopted by a swami (or spiritual guide) under whose tutelage he decided to become a sanyasi. Two years hence, in 1753, he attended the Kumbh Mela in Prayag where, “hearing of the merits” associated with different kinds of tapasya or “devotional discipline”, he chose the life of an urdhwabahu. He then devoted about three years to the “very painful” process of accustoming himself to having his arms and hands in a “fixed position above his head”. Unlike most urdhwabahus, he committed to keeping both his arms and hands in this position.

Knowing how much interest previous descriptions of Pran Puri had aroused, Duncan appended a sketch so that his readers could visualise the unusual character.

Once he had settled into the life of an urdhwabahu, Duncan reported, Pran Puri decided to “set out” on pilgrimages of “great religious merit”. These pilgrimages soon transformed into wide ranging travels driven by evident inquisitiveness. Owing to Pran Puri’s “wonderful tenacity of memory”, the Resident had been able to transcribe “a relation of his observations in the various countries into which he has penetrated”.

The astonishing travelogue that followed revealed that Pran Puri had traversed much of the Indian subcontinent as well as Western and Central Asia. From Benares to Malaya, from Cochin to Baluchistan, from Bahrain to Samarkand, from Moscow to Tibet, the traveling ascetic had seen all manner of people and places. He had conversed with Ahmed Shah Abdali in Afghanistan and Karim Khan in Persia; made pilgrimages to Hindu shrines stretching from Jagannath to Rameswaram and Sri Pada to Hinglaj; viewed the Buddhas of Bamiyan and the “eternal fires” of Baku; visited Hindu communities scattered across Arabia and Central Asia, and even served as an emissary between the Dalai Lama in Lhasa and Warren Hastings in Calcutta, an expedition that ended with the sanyasi lodged in Warren Hastings’ home in Calcutta and awarded a jagir (or grant) in Benares for his troubles. All the while with his hands fixed above his head.

Duncan’s misrepresentations

Duncan’s essay came with two important caveats. As Pran Puri’s account was “too long for insertion in the Asiatic Researches”, he noted, it had become necessary to extract “the principal parts of it, as an accompaniment to the portrait”. There were also details about Pran Puri’s travels that remained to be clarified. “Had my official occupations, whilst at Benares, admitted of my paying due attention to Pran Puri’s narrative of his travels,” the Governor added apologetically, “the geographical information they contain...might have probably admitted of a fuller illustration, and greater degree of accuracy, from a farther examination of that sanyasi”.

These omissions denied Duncan’s readers important facts about Pran Puri’s life. For instance, it would only become clearer later that Pran Puri had run away from home during a time of severe famine. In an era when it was not uncommon for parents to sell their children, in the hope that they would be fed and kept alive by their masters, Pran Puri’s decision to become a sanyasi may have been a far more rational decision than Duncan let on.

And here we come to the most important omission in Duncan’s account. As was common during this period, Wilford and Duncan used the terms yogi, sanyasi, and fakeer interchangeably. This had the effect of misleading readers about Pran Puri’s character and circumstances. Pran Puri was not a fakeer or sadhu (terms usually associated with mendicants), but a gosain (or monk), associated with a math (or monastery). Because they practiced austerities, including celibacy, and devoted themselves to Shiva, gosains were deemed sanyasis (or ascetics). But, as Jadunath Sarkar and Bernard Cohn have shown, gosains engaged, often very successfully, in worldly pursuits that included trade, banking, and military service. They were, as DHA Kolff titles them, “Sanyasi Trader-Soldiers”, rather than mystics or hermits.

Duncan knew very well that Pran Puri was a gosain, but he still described him as a “fakeer”, perhaps because he lacked the space, or the knowledge, to articulate the distinction. This sloppiness obscured the fact that, an intelligent person like Pran Puri, who could no longer rely on his family, would have had good reason to join a highly organised and powerful monastic order in which childless gurus (or established monks) adopted and promoted chelas (or disciples) for their abilities. Pran Puri’s decision to become a gosain may have been, in other words, a more worldly decision, than Duncan’s use of the term “fakeer” conveyed.

Duncan’s hurried summary also ended up misrepresenting Pran Puri’s motives in crisscrossing Asia. He depicts the sanyasi as being driven, especially in his early expeditions, by the desire to earn “religious merit”. But in practice gosains routinely combined pilgrimage with commerce and communication. It is likely that Pran Puri’s wide-ranging travels were motivated, in part at least, by the desire to gather commercial and political intelligence for his math and the Native States that patronized it.

The Company’s officers were acutely aware of the fact that sanyasis could exploit their mobility and personas to collect intelligence. Perhaps Duncan feared that, deceived by appearances, his readers in Britain would not take the possibility seriously. Or maybe, closer to the truth, was that Duncan had reason to play down Pran Puri’s worldliness.

He would not have wanted the public to know that the Company had used Pran Puri to convey diplomatic messages to Nepal, because the gosain was “held in much respect” in that durbar (court), where the Rajah had accorded him the title Paramhans (or enlightened monk). One such mission to Nepal, commissioned by Duncan himself, had occurred in May 1791. It had helped the Company conclude a commercial treaty with the reclusive Himalayan kingdom in March 1792, earning the Resident great credit with his superiors in Calcutta. That mission was what brought Duncan into close contact with Pran Puri and likely prompted the Resident to have his travels transcribed in May 1792.

There was also much of strategic value that the Asiatic Society – and the East India Company – still hoped to privately learn from Pran Puri. They were particularly interested in Himalayan geography. They wanted to know, for instance, where the subcontinent’s life-giving rivers, the Ganges especially, originated.

They also wanted to open “channels” of trade and communication with Tibet. The Company had made little progress on this front as Tibetans, or rather, their Chinese overlords, rightly viewed British overtures with great “suspicion”. But Tibet was accessible to Hindu pilgrims, and to gosains in particular, who had become “trading pilgrims”, as their “humble deportment and holy character” had obtained them “ready admittance” and “great favours” from the Lamas there.

Pran Puri had crisscrossed Tibet and Nepal, making his recollections invaluable to Company officials. This was one reason why even after leaving Benares, Duncan continued to press the sanyasi for more ever precise information about the Himalayas, even hosting him for discussions in Bombay.

Eventually, this knowledge gathering would have grave consequences. A decade later, in 1812, Company officers would hazard their first visits to the regions frequented and described by Pran Puri, while disguising themselves as gosains, a practice they had employed previously to spy on Nepal. Gosains would bear the consequence of this misuse of their identity, because it would lead Chinese officials to consider it undesirable for sanyasis to “wander” through regions under their control, thereby leading to the closure of a centuries-old channel of trade and communication between North India and Tibet.

Turner intrudes

Duncan’s essay in the Asiatic Researches caused a stir in London. Pran Puri’s “amusing rambles”, The London Review declared, evidenced his “strong resolution joined to a great spirit of curiosity”. The tapasya (or mortification) that Pran Puri had maintained during his travels made some reviewers uncomfortable. It was a striking example, The Critical Review complained, of the “absurdity of that superstition...that pain inflicted on ourselves must be pleasing to the deity”. But most reviewers were admiring. Pran Puri was “certainly one of the most extraordinary travellers of the present age”, The Monthly Review announced. The fact that he had maintained his penance throughout his travels could not “be considered without astonishment”.

Then came an unexpected development. Barely had Duncan’s essay begun circulating in London than Samuel Turner published in 1800 An Account of an Embassy to the Court of the Teshoo Lama in Tibet. A cousin of Governor-General Warren Hastings, Turner had returned to England in 1799 after leading Company missions to Tibet. His travelogue, the “first account of Bhutan and Tibet to be published in English”, was “immensely successful”.

Turner, it turned out, had met Pran Puri in 1783, long before Duncan became acquainted with the gosain in Benares. As luck would have it, Turner was far less interested in the fact that Pran Puri had “traveled over the greater part of the continent of Asia”. What fascinated him were the “extraordinary mortifications” that Pran Puri had chosen as his “plan of life”. They constituted “so extraordinary an instance of religious penance”, the diplomat declared, that he could not “resist the temptation of relating some particulars of his life”.

Turner’s vivid account of Pran Puri’s austerities, which he mistakenly described as penances, made the urdhwabahu “famous” beyond the ghats (banks) of Benares and the readership of the Asiatic Researches. But the fame came at a price: Turner’s emphasis on the sanyasi’s mortifications overshadowed his pioneering expeditions. Turner’s account also sowed doubt about Pran Puri’s truthfulness, because some of the Englishman’s claims about the sanyasi’s travels and “religious experiments” did not tally with the report that Duncan had published in the Asiatic Researches in 1797.

For instance, Duncan had made no mention of Pran Puri visiting Siberia or China or of undertaking more than one kind of mortification, such as having “remained on his feet” for twelve years prior to becoming an urdhwabahu. Nor had he indicated that the sanyasi expected to “restore” the use of his arms by being suspended over bonfire of medicinal herbs. The implausible claims reported by Turner, which may have been the product of misunderstanding or mistranslation, made the gosain seem prone to exaggeration.

Still, the reports by Duncan and Turner, and the accompanying portrait, aroused great curiosity about the variety of ascetics or the “stark-naked philosophers” to be found in the “neighbourhood of great temples” in Hindustan. But at this very moment, the sources of information about these “picturesque men“ dried up. Turner was suddenly felled by a stroke in 1802. There would be no more from him about Pran Puri’s exploits. Nor could Pran Puri field any queries, as the Dharm Murat Devta Surat Gosain Tapassi, as he was reverentially termed in Benares, had already passed away on 26 July, 1800.

Meanwhile, Wilford, whose 1795 essay in the Asiatic Researches had originally brought Pran Puri to public notice, admitted that his knowledge of the gosain owed entirely to Duncan, confessing that he “seldom saw Pran Puri”, who “hardly condescended to answer my queries”. This meant the only person who could clear doubts, and elaborate further, was Duncan, but he chose to remain silent, perhaps because it would be rude to publicly contradict the recently deceased Turner.

In the interim, others stepped up to supply colour. A striking engraving by John Chapman, produced in 1809, caused a sensation. It was reprinted very widely, making Pran Puri’s visage familiar to British audiences. This successful reception appears to have prompted Duncan to commission a “Mughal-trained” artist to produce a delicate watercolour of Pran Puri. The resulting image of the “bright-eyedurdhwabahu made its way to London as well, where it too was reproduced widely. Then in 1810 came Edward Moor’s well-regarded Hindu Pantheon, which added further gloss to the story of the “very celebrated” Pran Puri. Unfortunately, like Turner before him, Moor, who had met and conversed “several times” with this “interesting man”, was interested less in his “extraordinary travels” and more in his “self-inflicted austerities”.

The emerging narrative, which focused on Pran Puri’s tapasya meant that by the end of the decade the ascetic was primarily being cited as a preeminent example of Hindu “gymnosophists”. He appeared in the widely read Encyclopaedia Londinensis, for instance, as one of the “two or three” such “extraordinary persons” that had come “peculiarly” to the notice of the British in India.

‘His Own Narrative’

The increasingly one-sided reportage on Pran Puri was finally challenged in April and May 1810 when there appeared in The European Magazine in London a detailed two-part essay entitled “The Travels of Pran-Puri: A Hindoo, Who Travelled Over India, Persia, and Part of Russia”. The contribution was anonymous, as was the norm for The European Magazine. But the terse covering note left no doubt that the contributor was Duncan.

It was an unusual venue for him to have selected. Published by the Philological Society of London, The European Magazine was devoted to the “amusements of the age”, with a focus on continental “arts and manners”. As a result, its “Oriental Observations” were few and far between and tended to be literary in nature. Duncan likely chose The European Magazine because the anonymity it offered its contributors allowed him to discreetly correct Turner’s mistaken claims about Pran Puri’s life and travels.

Pages from 'The European'.

Back in 1797, Duncan had doubted whether Pran Puri’s account might be “deemed to merit a place in so respectable a repository” as the Asiatic Researches. But now, with the sanyasi having captivated minds as far afield as England, France, and Germany, Duncan let it be known that his lengthy account of Pran Puri’s travels ought to be considered authoritative. To underscore the point, he disclosed the instructions he had given the gosain before taking down his recollections in May 1792, explicitly warning him “not to insert what is not distinctly in your remembrance”.

Duncan’s revised travelogue was invaluable because it drew attention back to the sanyasi’s “own narrative”. It also set the record straight, detailing Pran Puri’s choices and motives with more care than Turner had. But it was not without its flaws. It was immensely detailed but entirely bereft of maps or pictures that could help readers better comprehend the scope and variety of Pran Puri’s travels. It had been written up from the original 1792 interview transcript “in a hurry”, the now-ailing Duncan noted apologetically. A few months later, Duncan had passed away, before he could dispatch to the editors “drawings of curious places” visited by Pran Puri.

Little wonder, then, that Duncan’s two-part essay in the European Magazine went unnoticed. The mass of details it contained, of people and places far removed from early nineteenth century England, must have left the readers of that “dainty” publication mystified. As a result, it was the abbreviated, and somewhat misleading, essay that Duncan had published in 1797, in the more widely read Asiatic Researches, that continued to be cited. And still more than this, it was Turner’s Account of an Embassy, which went on to be translated into multiple languages, that came to define Pran Puri’s “celebrity”.

Cast into oblivion

Though Duncan’s and Turner’s accounts of Pran Puri’s travels obtained a wide readership, they were soon outstripped in reach and influence by two very different sets of writers.

From 1813 onwards, both Parliament and the Company began to encourage proselytisation in India. This led to a rapid increase in the number of Christian missionaries. These missionaries began to circulate newspapers and periodicals that denounced Hindu institutions and practices. Sanyasis, who were “seen as hindrances to conversion”, were attacked with particular vigour. Before long, Pran Puri’s “extraordinary rambles” came to be portrayed in a very different light. In the 1819 Missionary Register, for instance, Pran Puri’s austerities became evidence of “fanaticism and superstition”, and his travels “for forty years” over “tens of thousands of miles” became an “object of pity and disgust”.

Meanwhile, as the East India Company sought to tighten its grip on India, it came to have a “tense relationship with traveling ascetics”. As these characters were mobile and relatively fearless, and were often closely involved in the political and commercial life of Native States, colonial administrators began viewing them as threats needing close policing. Before long, sanyasis came to be denounced in the British press as “wretches” and “filthy and lazy vagabonds”. How they were represented changed accordingly. Rather than being described as unworldly ascetics, they now started to be depicted as lawless individuals prone to debauchery and vice.

Given the peculiarity of their visage and conduct, urdhwabahus in particular became “scapegoats in colonial literature”. Hitherto viewed as models of self-abnegation, they began to be portrayed as examples of gross self-interest – as cunning men who disfigured themselves merely to obtain alms and reverence from the gullible.

Not only did the British ridicule sanyasis’ morals, they also questioned their intellect. Great doubt was cast upon their claims, whether earthly or metaphysical. Pran Puri was not excepted. The East India Gazetteer, for example, decided that the existence of Manasarovar was “extremely doubtful” because “itinerant Hindoo devotees” like Pran Puri had a “great faculty at finding what they wish or expect“. Others downplayed Pran Puri’s achievements in toto, with one influential London publication even declaring that there was “nothing very curious” in his “strolling life“.

Given the change in how sanyasis were perceived – they went from being respected as “ascetics, baniyas, and soldiers“ to being branded “fanatics” and “criminals” – it should come as no surprise that memory of worldly gosains like Pran Puri faded away as the nineteenth century progressed. Shaped increasingly by English schools and universities, and drawn into modern commercial society, Indians in the metropolises had little reason to dwell on this element of their recent history.

In the few instances when sanyasis were taken seriously, it was in their martial guise as naga sadhus or “warrior ascetics”, most notably in Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s celebrated 1882 novel Anandamath. In the rare instances in which Pran Puri was recalled, for instance, in The Calcutta Review in 1883 and in Sarat Chandra Das’s Indian Pandits in the Land of Snow in 1893, it was Turner’s fantastical narrative that was conveyed to increasingly skeptical urban audiences.

Consequently, by the early part of the twentieth century, Pran Puri was entirely forgotten, save for stray references, such as a passing mention in the relatively obscure Journal of the Panjab Historical Society in 1922. Curiously, even the much-discussed Greater India Society, which took shape in 1926 and devoted itself to tracing Hinduism’s legacy and influence across Asia, did not take up Pran Puri’s story. This may have been because its focus was primarily on Southeast Asia. To wit, it invested much time and energy promoting a contemporary traveler to Southeast Asia, Swami Sadananda Giri, whose Pilgrimage to Greater India found wide readership in the inter-war period.

Or, perhaps more likely, the Greater India Society was unaware of the travelogues that Duncan had published in the Asiatic Researches and the European Magazine. The language used in the introduction to Sadananda Giri’s volume to describe Pran Puri’s travels suggests that the Society’s members were only familiar with Turner’s account, which emphasised his “penances” rather than his travels. This may be why the Society did no more than praise him as an exemplar of the “wandering quest of pilgrim monks”.

As for the handful of references to Pran Puri that have appeared since 1947, such as Ulysses Young’s little-noticed summary, which was published in East West in 1956, these too have invariably followed Turner in depicting the gosain as a “mystic” given to “marvellous feats of penance”.

A story worth reflecting on

It is regrettable that Pran Puri’s travels have been forgotten, an outcome that owes much, we have seen, to Duncan’s well-meaning but hurried decisions. There are a number of reasons why his story remains relevant and worth reflecting upon.

It is, in the first instance, a testament to human endurance. Though inevitably he had to rely on able-bodied travel companions, Pran Puri’s expeditions involved immense personal hardship. Whether confronted with arduous treks through snow-covered mountains or robbers and bigots, the urdhwabahu stayed the course. Secondly, his travels are worth recalling because they illuminate now-forgotten historical bonds.

It is impossible not to be moved by Pran Puri’s frequent recourse to Armenians and his quiet but pointed observation that members of this community were “always kind and attentive to Hindoos”. And finally, Pran Puri’s travels remind, in a visceral way, the wider course of Indian history, a story to be recalled with wonder and more than a twinge of sadness. It is the story that, drawing on Sylvain Levi, Jawaharlal Nehru underlined in The Discovery of India,

“From Persia to the Chinese Sea,” writes Sylvain Levi, “from the icy regions of Siberia to the islands of Java and Borneo, from Oceania to Socotra, India has propagated her beliefs, her tales and her civilization. She has left indelible imprints on one-fourth of the human race in the course of a long succession of centuries. She has the right to reclaim in universal history the rank that ignorance has refused her for a long time and to hold her place amongst the great nations summarising and symbolising the spirit of Humanity.”

These are some of the reasons why, having stumbled upon Pran Puri’s story in the course of building Ideas of India, I set out to improve upon the dense travelogue that Duncan published in the European Magazine. Now, together with Nidhi Shukla and Khushi Singh Rathore, I have painstakingly reconstructed his travels in a manner that makes them easier for contemporary audiences to follow and appreciate. Our reconstruction utilizes ArcGIS, an interactive mapping software, that allows viewers to visually trace Pran Puri’s journey. We have also taken advantage of the laudable decision by a number of British institutions, led by the British Library, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Wellcome Institute, to make portions of their invaluable collections freely accessible. This has allowed us to portray the locations to which Pran Puri travelled using paintings and sketches drawn by his near contemporaries. The outcome can be viewed at

I hope that our tribute to this remarkable figure will inspire others to recover tales of feats that deserve to be retold in multimedia for the sake of generations to come.

Rahul Sagar is Global Network Associate Professor at NYU Abu Dhabi. His most recent book is To Raise A Fallen People: How Nineteenth Century Indians Saw Their World and Shaped Ours.