In October 1998, Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov stopped by a government school in Delhi while he was on a state visit to India. The occasion was special. Tucked in a lane in Defence Colony, Kanya Vidhyalaya was being renamed in honour of a 19th-century revolutionary and writer who is revered in Bulgaria – Georgi Stoykov Rakovski.

Rakovski was a key figure in the Bulgarian National Revival. In the mid-19th century, he developed a special interest in India, going as far as learning Sanskrit and establishing links between the ancient language and Bulgarian. A big impetus for his decision to understand Indian culture was his determination to help Bulgaria achieve independence from the Ottoman Empire.

Born Sabi Stoykov Poppovich in 1821 in a Bulgaria ruled by the Ottoman Empire, Rakovski began to challenge the authorities from an early age. Sentenced to death at 20 for being involved in a revolutionary plot, he managed to escape from prison but was caught a few times by the Turks and spent years behind bars in his youth. Among his most audacious acts was the forming of a secret society of Bulgarians to assist the Russian Empire in the Crimean War.

“His best-known work, Gorski Patnik (Traveller in the Woods or Forest Traveller), he penned during the Crimean War (1853-56) while hiding from Turkish authorities near Kotel,” Bulgarian Indologist Veselin Traikov wrote in Georgi Stoykov Rakovski: A Short Biography. “Considered one of the first Bulgarian literary poems, it was not actually published until 1857. The published version differed from the first version, in that it had a clearer plot and improved style.”

Similar struggles

In the 1850s Rakovski grew an active interest in India, learning and mastering Sanskrit – it was a passion that would influence him for the rest of his life.

“It could be argued that India, its ancient culture, and its spiritual heritage attracted the attention of Bulgarian intellectuals for the first time during the national revival – a period of national awakening and the integration of the Bulgarian people under Ottoman rule,” Milena Bratoeva, professor of Sanskrit and Hindi literature at Sofia University St Kliment Ohridski, wrote in a chapter titled Hinduism in Bulgaria in the Handbook of Hinduism in Europe. “Several Bulgarian intellectuals and revolutionaries of that period were inspired by the romantic hypothesis introduced by the European humanities that Asia was the ancient homeland of mankind, and India the ancient home of European civilisation.”

Aware that India was under British colonial domination in the same way his country was ruled by Britain’s ally the Ottoman Empire, Rakovski began to publicly denounce the colonisation of India.

“Hundreds of despatches could be found in the pages of his papers about the various nations fighting for their independence,” Traikov wrote in his biography of the revolutionary. “It was as early as 1857 that he published in Bulgarska Dnevnitsa, a series of reports about the struggles of the Indian people, about their resistance to the oppressor.”

In an article in a short-lived Bulgarian newspaper he founded, Rakovski wrote, “India must belong to the peoples of India, not to England. Sooner of later, this must be so!”

Rewriting history

Several decades before Sanskrit terms were appropriated by Nazi Germany, Rakovski wrote that India was the origin of Bulgarians and other Europeans. “India is the cradle of the Aryan race and the human philosophy expressed in the ancient texts of the Vedas and Avestas,” he wrote in his book The Basic Sources for the Oldest History of Bulgaria.

Much of Rakovski’s writings on India were translated into English by Traikov and G Mukherjee in the book Georgi Stoikov Rakovski, a Great Son of Bulgaria and a Great Friend of India. In the book, Mukherjee says that the Bulgarian revolutionary believed that his countrymen were descendants of those who migrated from India over a few centuries, some travelling through Asia Minor, while others though the Northern Steppe above the Black Sea.

“Rakovski took for himself as a sacrosanct and unquestionable theory that the tribes had, in their peripatetic journeys, brought with them their own toponymy and their own religion, faith, customs, morals, their original place names to their new lands where they had settled,” Mukherjee wrote. “While taking such a stand, Rakovski undertook a self-imposed task of rewriting the history of Bulgarians.”

He paid particular attention to folk tales and folk festivals, customs and ceremonial rites in Bulgaria that survived the country’s adoption of Christianity in the 9th century. He also studied the country’s pagan past and explored the gods worshipped before Christianity. The idea was to compare these traditions and beliefs with those of Hindus in India. He even attempted to translate Indian epics such as the Ramayana into Bulgarian.

“We clamour a lot about the western masterminds discovering India, but we ignore that, in the mid-nineteenth century, when we had lost contact with Bulgaria completely, it was Rakovski who held India in high esteem and revealed to the world at large the contribution of India to international culture,” Mukherjee wrote. “We have hardly paid any heed to this discovery till now. The importance of the discovery of India by western masterminds is enormous but Rakovski’s discovery is no less important.”

Through his scholarship of Sanskrit, Rakovski was able to establish several links between the ancient language and Bulgarian. He also argued that there were elements of Shaivism present in the pre-Christian religious practices in Bulgaria.

“In order to preserve the nationality of the Bulgarians, he sought to study the people and language of Hindustan whom he considered to be their forefathers,” Mukherjee added. “Here his thought somewhat coincides with that of Sir William Jones who perceived that the roots of western civilization were not just to be traced to Greek civilisation; they were also to be traced to Indian civilisation and the Indo-European group of languages.”

Armed resistance

Confident of his vision of an independent Bulgaria, Rakovski founded the Bulgarian Revolutionary Central Committee in Belgrade, Serbia. The goal was to organise revolutionaries in the Balkans and openly take on the Ottoman authorities.

In the mid-1860s, he even moved to Bucharest, where groups of fighters were formed to challenge the Turks. One of these bands managed to enter Bulgaria but was defeated by the Ottomans. Rakovski contracted tuberculosis in Bucharest and died in 1867 at the age of 46.

Bulgaria had to wait for another 41 years before it gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1908. It would take India almost four more decades to shake off colonial rule.

In modern-day Bulgaria, Rakovski is seen as one of the country’s greatest freedom fighters. “Georgi Stoykov Rakovski will forever remain in the memory of the generations as a passionate enlightener, a valiant warrior standing at his post against all enemies of his people, an ardent patriot who headed a whole generation of national-liberation fighters,” Traikov wrote in his biography of the revolutionary.

His passion for India is remembered at the highest echelons of power. Whenever a high-level delegation from Bulgaria visits India, the school in Delhi’s Defence Colony is inevitably on the itinerary.

When then-President Ram Nath Kovind went to Bulgaria on a state visit in 2018, he recognised the support given by Rakovski to Indian independence. “In India we are ever grateful for the support your revolutionary Georgi Rakovski gave for our independence,” Kovind said at a Friends of India reception in Sofia.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.