In 1786, Dimitrios Galanos, a 26-year-old Greek teacher boarded a ship in Basra for Calcutta in search of a new life. A few months before, the young man who was formally educated in Ancient Greek, Latin, philosophy and music, had been galvanised by a chance encounter with a merchant in Constantinople. The merchant, one Madratzoglou, had extensive ties with the 200-strong Greek community that had settled in Bengal by the 1780s in places such as Narayanganj, Dhaka and Calcutta.

“Madratzoglou found him ideal for tutoring the children of the Greek merchants who had settled in Narayanganj (near Dhaka) and Calcutta and offered him a position as a teacher there,” wrote Dimitrios Vassiliadis, a noted Greek Indologist and Sanskrit and Hindi scholar, in 2020 for the Hellenic-Indian Society for Culture and Development. “Galanos, eager to expand his knowledge, gladly accepted Madratzoglou’s offer and prepared himself for his journey to the East; ‘…to carry the torch of the paternal education to the Greeks in India, and to send back from there to Hellas a few sparks of the ‘light of Asia’.’”

After six months, Galanos reached India, a country where he would live for the next 47 years. Of this time, he spent a relatively brief six years as the teacher of the children and relatives of a wealthy merchant named Constantine Pandazy. But it was a time spent well.

The Greek scholar lived in a Bengal that was in the throes of the Hindu Revival Movement and came across Hindu reformers who were outward-looking and keen to interact with foreign scholars. This was also a period when European scholars developed a deep interest in Sanskrit and were moving to Calcutta because of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal. While working in Bengal, Galanos learned and mastered English, Hindustani, Persian and Sanskrit.

Some researchers studying Galanos’s life have suggested that he also got involved in business ventures and made a small fortune for himself. In a 1969 article for the Journal of the American Oriental Society, Siegfried Schulz, who taught languages at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC, wrote that Galanos left behind 75,000 to 80,000 gold francs when he passed away in 1833. “Having shrewdly invested his earnings (and possibly a generous gift from Pandazy as well), Dimitrios Galanos set out for Varanasi in 1793,” Schulz wrote.

Life in Varanasi

Not much is known about the life of Galanos in the Hindu holy city. So consumed was the scholar in translating texts from Sanskrit to Greek that he mostly kept aloof from other foreigners. He does, however, find a place in a book published in 1824-’25 titled Narrative of a Journey Through the Upper Provinces by Anglican Bishop Reginald Heber.

The British were initially suspicious about Galanos’s motives in living in Varanasi, according to Heber. But, after watching him for a long time, they came to the conclusion that there was nothing in his conduct to confirm their suspicions. “So few Europeans, however, who can help it, reside in India, that it seems strange that any man should prefer it as a residence, without some stronger motive than a fondness for Sanskrit literature, more particularly since he does not appear to meditate any work on the subject,” Heber wrote.

The Anglican bishop mentioned a special friendship that Galanos shared with a Russian trader who lived in Varanasi. “There is also a Russian here, who by a natural affinity lives much with the Greek,” Heber wrote. “He is, however, a trader, and has apparently moved in a much humbler rank of society than his friend.” The Russian, named Peter Federoff (Pyotr Fedorov), passed away in 1825 and was buried in Varanasi’s Chaukaghat cemetery. So close was their friendship that there was a Greek inscription from Galanos on Federoff’s tomb.

Besides his Russian friend, Galanos mainly chose to be in the company of learned Sanskrit scholars. “He has little intercourse with the English, but he is on very friendly terms with the principal Hindoo families,” Heber wrote. One of the Greek scholar’s closest Indian friends was a writer and exceptionally learned man named Munshi Sital Singh, who helped Galanos with his Sanskrit. Sital Singh’s Persian work Silsilah-i-Jogiyan (Chain of Yogis) played an important role in the way the West understood Indian religious groups. It was under the Indian scholar’s guidance that Galanos embarked on a series of translations of Sanskrit texts to Greek.

Incredible legacy

In four decades in Varanasi, Galanos managed to translate 20 volumes of manuscripts. Unfortunately, none of his translated works were published in Greece when Galanos was alive, except The Aphorisms of Chanakya, which Greek captain Nikolaos Kephala, who carried the manuscript, published under his own name. Greek readers first came to know of Galanos after the plagiarised book was published, since Kephala mentioned him in the acknowledgements as a most “erudite scholar of the Sanskrit dialect” who “assisted” him in translating the book.

The first volume of Galanos’s translations was posthumously published in Athens in 1845. It contained 330 verses from Bhartrhari’s Niti And Vairagya Satakas, 86 verses from Laughu Chanakya, and 98 verses from Panditaraja Jagannatha’s Bhaminivilasa.

The Greek scholar’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita was published in 1848. “It is the only occasion – in what is, apparently, his first completed translation – upon which Galanos names the Indian who helped him with the work: Kandaradasa,” Schulz wrote in his 1969 paper. “The note in the manuscript also records the exact date when he finished this study: November 12, 1802, in Kashi, the city of the Brahmans.”

Among his other notable translations were chapters from Devi Mahatmyam and Markandeya Purana.

Galanos’s greatest lexicographical work was a Persian-Sanskrit-English-Greek dictionary. Sanskrit and Persian words were written in the Latin script and there was an accompanying English text with copious explanations. Although the dictionary was incomplete and missing some translated words, it was a pioneering attempt to help Greeks understand Sanskrit.

Some Greek scholars are of the opinion that Galanos converted to Hinduism and was accepted as a Brahmin in Varanasi, but Greek Indologist Vassiliadis wrote that there is enough evidence to suggest that he retained his Christian faith. “Evidence that Galanos continued to retain his Christian faith throughout his life is found in his correspondence with Greek priests in Calcutta, and Greece,” Vassiliadis wrote. “Further, his last will starts out with the standard Christian formula, ‘In the Name of God. Amen’ and contains precise directions to be buried in a Christian cemetery.”

Galanos died at the age of 73 in Varanasi in May 1833. The city was in the midst of a cholera epidemic and the Greek scholar may have contracted the illness. He was buried in a churchyard in the city.

He willed a “moiety” of his fortune to his nephew Pandoleon Galanos, while leaving most of the rest to the Academy of Athens. In his will, Galanos wrote, “I hereby also give and bequeath to the principal Academy at Athens all my Sanskrit books, writings, translations and Memskey’s (Franciscus a Mesgnien Meninski) dictionary in all three volumes.” He also left some money for his teacher and servants and even set aside money to pay for his grave and tombstone in the churchyard.

It took almost four years for the manuscripts to reach Athens. “In Athens the manuscripts were bound into volumes with little attention to subject matter of sequence and incorporated into the library of the fledgling university,” Schulz wrote.

Munshi Sital Singh, who was the executor of Galanos’s will, composed a Persian quatrain as an epitaph for his Greek friend:

“Woe, a hundred times!
Demetrios Galanos has gone away from this world
To the eternal abodes.
Woe me! weeping and wailing have I said it.
I am out of myself.
Ah, he has gone away,
The Plato of this century!”

The Greek scholar’s long life in India was the first attempt to rekindle links that stretched back to the pre-Christian era. Concerted efforts have been made by academia in Greece and India to remember and celebrate the legacy of Galanos. In 2000, a Dimitrios Galanos Chair for Hellenic Studies was established at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, while in 2016, the Athens Centre for Indian and Indo-Hellenic Studies was established to study India’s cultures, languages and traditions.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.