Travel and its motives

I recently dug up a paper I had written when I was a perpetually homesick student in Delhi. As I was reading an article on tourism in Meghalaya recently published on Raiot I felt compelled to revisit a few questions that I sought answers to a decade ago.

The article I was reading discussed the various dimensions of tourism industry in remote places like Meghalaya. In spite of having grown up in Shillong with deep affective and political relationship to the place I have often felt like a tourist during my visits to several places such as the Air Force-controlled Shillong Peak. Surrounded by vendors, taxis, tourists, looking at the magnificent view and the city below there was always something new and refreshing. Trying to point to where our homes were located, chewing on foods we bypassed on regular days, my friends and I assumed the role of tourists rather uncritically. I did not travel much growing up; perhaps that’s why playing tourists in familiar places came naturally.

With the growing understanding of the political landscape that encompasses these hills many questions emerged. One of those questions that I wondered about was this: Is the quest to see new places, get acquainted with new people, and other aspects of travel simply to broaden one’s breadth of knowledge about the world? My training in History allowed me to answer this question with a resounding no. Thus followed other deceptively simple questions: What is the purpose of travel? What are the ethics of travel? The debate that has been documented in this forum is perhaps just the beginning of a longer and larger one. It brings up important questions about travel and tourism that I feel are crucial.

Monolith Stones photographed by Oscar Jean Baptiste Mallitte, 1860s
Monolith Stones photographed by Oscar Jean Baptiste Mallitte, 1860s

Tourism is not only a commercial enterprise but key to nation building through representation of a diverse margin of India (see for example Incredible India ads), representation of indigeneity (of those whose culture, whose homes, and food are up for display), and construction of relational identity (between traveller and inhabitants). This article does not address these aspects directly. I succumb to historicizing, something of a habit lately.

The Masters paper I dug up was my attempt to write about a place I recognized as home, to be drawn closer to it as I attempted to learn and write about its history. I got my cue from Mary Louis Pratt’s book Imperial Eyes: Travel and Transculturation and chose to focus on the aspect of travel in colonial writing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[1] I chose to focus on travel literature because it transcends disciplinary bounds and often mediates across such boundaries and knowledge systems. To challenge common tropes about the North East- the all engulfing violence being one such trope- I had chosen a topic which would uncover different forms of interactions, dialogic processes, and improvisational encounters during the period of British colonial rule. I soon learnt that travel for the purposes of geographical explorations, revenue surveys, annexation and conquest produced written accounts that contributed to an emerging genre of travel literature. Therefore the seemingly benign travellers’ encounters and experiences described in journals, diaries, letters, published accounts were embedded in processes of violent transformation.

Those writing travel accounts were either directly or indirectly part of a colonial machinery working its way to subjugate the landscape and inhabitants of the swiftly transforming imperial frontier in the North East. The colonized, or soon to be colonized, people were simultaneously exoticized and domesticated in these accounts.

Representation in these accounts served the purpose of domestication rather efficiently. The image of the author emerged as relational to the places and people encountered, thus reinforcing the distinctions between the European ‘self ‘and primitive ‘other’. There were also several accounts by those within colonized societies travelling to the hills to retreat away from the urban metropolis. These writers did not stray far from colonial forms of representation albeit with the complexity of a colonized subjectivity. These accounts provide a window into different motives of travel and the co-constitution of identities of those brought together in frontier ‘contact zones’. The representations of tribal life, cultural practices, and landscapes belied the subjectivity of the observer/traveller as much as it was informed by what the observed chose to transmit. Travel accounts that reveal varied forms of interactions, observations, and exchanges are sites where power relations between the different actors participating in the contact zone are reinforced.

"The Bishop's Fall, Shillong. Kassia Hills" | photographed by Oscar Jean Baptiste Mallitte in the 1860s
“The Bishop’s Fall, Shillong. Kassia Hills” | photographed by Oscar Jean Baptiste Mallitte in the 1860s

As I started ploughing through travel accounts my search for a framework outside of violence became increasingly bleak. The radical inequality of colonial contexts undercut all dialogic processes. A rather well referenced travel account of a British officer’s wife was the first one I perused. This book titled My Three Years in Manipur and Escape from the Recent Mutiny published in 1891 contains passages where the author Ethel St. Claire Grimwood describes part of her journey to Manipur between Shillong and Sylhet.[2] A Khasi porter whose name is not mentioned in the text carried her down the mountain on his back in a thaba. She describes her perilous journey through a rugged landscape matched by unpleasant company of her bearer/porter and dangerous mode of travel in a thaba. The “great physical strength” of the thaba bearer is a point of admiration, soon to be dismissed by his habit of chewing betel nut and his rude disposition.

Imperial rhetoric formulates the uncivilized, domesticated, subject whose indispensability to her travels remains unrecognized. Her account is conditioned by colonial constructions of the specificities of the “domestic subject”. In her recognition of the anonymous thaba bearer’s role as a subject is also recognition of her self as a distinguished ‘white’ woman. Race and gender weave into her narrative where her femininity and cultural superiority are repeatedly juxtaposed with his laboring body and uncouth ways. This account intervenes in the genre of colonial travel writing on the North East frontier dominated by masculinist rhetoric and perspectives of male explorers and officials. I choose to start with this account because of the clarity with which class, race, and gender frame her writing, a condition often obscure in accounts of the intrepid male traveller.

Pencil and water-colour drawing by Sir Henry Yule (1820-1889) of his bungalow in the Khasi Hills in Assam, dated between 1841 and 1842. The image is inscribed on the front in pencil: 'My house in the Kasea Hills, 1841-42.' Sir Henry served with the Bengal Engineers in India from 1840 to 1862 and was first posted to the Khasi Hills in Assam. He is perhaps best known for his work on the 'Hobson-Jobson' (London, 1886), a glossary of Anglo-Indian colloquial words and phrases.
Pencil and water-colour drawing by Sir Henry Yule (1820-1889) of his bungalow in the Khasi Hills in Assam, dated between 1841 and 1842. The image is inscribed on the front in pencil: ‘My house in the Kasea Hills, 1841-42.’ Sir Henry served with the Bengal Engineers in India from 1840 to 1862 and was first posted to the Khasi Hills in Assam. He is perhaps best known for his work on the ‘Hobson-Jobson’ (London, 1886), a glossary of Anglo-Indian colloquial words and phrases.

An early nineteenth century account of travel through the Khasi hills by a British sessions court judge stationed in Sylhet brings together the perspective of an intrepid male traveller, an imperial agent, and an officer stationed thousands of miles away from his home. Henry Walters’s “Journey across the Pandua Hills near Sylhet”, which appeared in Asiatic Researches in 1832 employed the style of a personal travel narrative reflecting the increasing popularity of the genre. [3] At the same time, it is hard to miss that Walter’s personal account was interspersed with geographical methods of inquiry. Travel narratives often overlapped with geographical accounts, as historian Mathew Edney points out, the distinguishing feature being the number of self-references by the author. Walters journeyed through the hills between 1828-29, soon after the famous rebellion led by Tirot Sing, Syiem of Nongkhlaw in 1827. The motive of travel was not simply a personal holiday, an escape from seething temperatures of Sylhet. This personal account like many official explorations served to document varied forms of information about a place and a people who were yet to be colonised.

H Walters, “A Journey Across Pandua Hills, Near Silhet, in Bengal”, Asiatic Researches XVII (Calcutta Benga… by Raiot Webzine

Pandua, at the foothills of the Khasi hills, is identified as a frontier village and a physical marker of an imposed political separation between British Sylhet and sovereign polities of the Khasi hills. The assumed geographical separation between hills and plains is reinforced and polities of Nongstoin, and Rambrai among others that extended into the plains are erased in such accounts. This erasure of the seamlessness of the hills and plains is politically motivated and not borne out of sheer ignorance since Walters was well acquainted with the Syiem of Nongstoin, Syiem Ram Sing and even made a stop at his house during the journey. He also made stops at Mawsmai, Cherra and Nongkhlaw polities describing a few villages as unfriendly while maintaining that the “Cassias” generally possessed ‘high moral character’.

Romantic descriptions of the scenic beauty abound his narrative, with several comparisons with English landscapes. For instance, he compares the monoliths strewn across the hills with Stonehenge, and other pre-historical megalithic structures in Cornwall and Wales. Such comparisons are expressed with both awe and pleasure. Domestication of the hills and subjugation of its inhabitants required their co-option into a metanarrative of civilizational history. The primitive subject was merely at an early stage of civilizational progress, one that Britain long surpassed. He wrote, “…doubtless these ancient monuments were appropriated to the same purpose….If this was the case, how singular it is that customs of nations, in the same stage of society indeed, but situated at such immeasurable distance from each other, should be found so exactly to coincide! If any doubt exists as to the purpose for which the monuments in Britain were erected, is it not dissipated by observation, as to the actual use of similar monuments in this country at the present day?” These descriptions readily transformed ‘dangerous’ landscapes into consumable, relatable and domestic spaces.

"Native village at the entrance to Shillong. Chapel for Kasia Christians" | View of a village scattered across a hillside with a chapel at the top photographed by Oscar Jean Baptiste Mallitte in the 1860s.
“Native village at the entrance to Shillong. Chapel for Kasia Christians” | View of a village scattered across a hillside with a chapel at the top photographed by Oscar Jean Baptiste Mallitte in the 1860s.

Such comparisons with England scattered throughout his account also encouraged colonial initiatives of carving out colonial pockets in the hills. Supporting the proposed sanatorium to be built at Cherrapoonjee by comparing its hills with the English hills in Bathford, Walter wrote, ‘‘…the elevation is about five thousand feet above the level of the sea. The air is cool, light, and refreshing; and although the sun is hot, it is not innoxious. The hill is free from jungle, covered with fine pasture and flowers, but rocky- and the ravines filled with trees and shrubs- I can almost fancy myself on the top of Bannerdown!’’ He was further elated when on the way to Nongkhlaw he found, ‘‘… with one steep descent and little streams here and there, the valleys stiff and white with hour frost! The first I have seen since leaving England fifteen years ago.’’ Colonial pockets in the hills were crucial imperial nodes of power in the frontier, valued for the recuperation of soldiers and officers, important missionary and educational centres, and thriving commercial hubs. By early 20th century as Baptist missionary Mrs. P. H. Moore’s book Twenty Years in Assam documents, Shillong had been made into a ‘hill station’, a sanatorium, and a capital in the North East frontier. Apart from urbanization and incorporation into a colonial capitalist economy some travel writing suggests that the political trajectory of the Khasi hills was not the same as the rest of the colony.

H G Alexander in his book The Indian Ferment published in 1929 reveals that his primary motive to travel across the Indian colony in order to document anti-colonial agitations was broken during his visit to the Khasi hills. [4] Shillong is represented as a retreat in contrast to other places like Bombay, Mount Abu, and Guwahati. The “little people” he encounters in his journey to this hills are first identified as commercial subjects conducting trade in markets, carrying huge loads and moving nimbly up and down the hills. The analytical and enlightened self is placed starkly in contrast to the labouring, rural, and supposedly apolitical colonized subjects of the hills. Certainly his description of morning walks in the woods, the refraction that led to an unexpected view of the Himalayan peaks, the familiar birds which are found in large numbers in England, and the ‘glorious’ place that Shillong reflects that he is taking time off from the ‘ferment’ that seemed to overwhelm him in his visits to other places.

Shillong emerged not only as a hub of colonial power in the North East but also increased in popularity for writers, poets from neighbouring Bengal who found the verdant hills, and salubrious climate conducive for their creative faculties. Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore found in these hills a refuge and made frequent visits in 1919, 1923, 1927. These were the years when nationalism was being expressed in diverse forms like the non-cooperation movement, followed by its withdrawal, arrest of the leadership, the significant development of revolutionary terrorism, Swadeshi and Boycott. These were forces that had a deep effect on the minds of many including Tagore. The writings on Shillong reflect the influence of the political context and also form a basis of his expression of the same.

The reason Shillong is most attractive, he says, is because of its cool weather. The sultry heat of the plains drives him to the cold quietness of Shillong. The metaphor in his words is clear. The heat of politics of the time forced him to escape into a place that offered natural solace and isolation. He describes his walks through stony paths enveloped by the smell of pine trees. This enchantment is temporary as his lists things that he dislikes and cannot seem to escape even in Shillong such as the sound of bullets from the firing ground of the Gurkha regiment, the sound of cars and horns, the menacing insects, the incessant cold and cough. He points out that what he finds in Shillong is quietness unlike other hill stations such as Darjeeling flocked by tourists. While for the English travellers, Shillong and its surrounding landscape offered a glimpse of home or a place to recover from illness; for Tagore it was a refuge for the intellectual non-pretentious traveller. Just like Amit, the protagonist of his famous novel based in Shillong, Shesher Kobita, who struggles to distance himself from the pretentions of the English educated Bengali elite society. [5]

That both Tagore and his protagonist are merely passing through and the refuge is temporary, comes through in Amit’s inability to connect with overwhelming natural beauty which to him remains a monotonous background. Tagore, weary of politics, wants to move away from familiar faces and the hills and its people are thus represented as the colonially constructed, the other, apolitical, background. His poem Shillonger Chithi further reinforces the role and failure of the place to revitalize his aging spirit and thus remains a backdrop to his quest. [6] He is the quintessential intrepid traveller bound by the complexity of his privileged position in colonized society and aspirations of freedom from being colonized and from his own privilege.

What has shifted in travel writing in the post colonial period? What do tourists visiting these hills look at, how do they represent the people and the places, and what traces do they leave behind? Contemporary travel writing to a large extent continues to use the same tropes found in colonial writing- such as violence, isolation, the primitive and the “noble savage”, quest and refuge to name a few. Travel literature contributed to the colonizing project in the nineteenth century. This genre traversing across disciplinary boundaries informs the travellers’ gaze in the present. The expansion of the tourism industry relies on tropes that are now globally relevant- indigeneity and indigenous way of life, and the remoteness of the region serving as a perfect backdrop to experience life of indigenous people. The ways in which tourism and constructions of indigeneity relate with one another needs to be further interrogated. The motives of travel are still political. The ethics of travel still questionable.


[1] Mary Louis Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, (London: Routledge, 1992)

[2] Ethel St. Claire Grimwood, My Three Years in Manipur and Escape from the Recent Mutiny (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1891)

[3] H Walters, “A Journey Across Pandua Hills, Near Silhet, in Bengal”, Asiatic Researches XVII (Calcutta Bengal Military Press 1832)

[4] Alexander H G, The Indian Ferment: A Traveler’s Tale (London: Williams and Norgate Ltd, 1929)

[5] Rabindranath Tagore, Shesher Kobita, Traslated by Anindita Mukhopadhyay, (New Delhi: Rupa, 2006 first published Vishwa Bharati 1925)

[6] Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Shillonger Chithi’ in Rabindra Rachanaboli, (Shanti Niketan: Vishwa Bharati 1924)


Subscribe to RAIOT via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 15.7K other subscribers
Reeju Ray Written by:

Reeju Ray teaches history at OP Jindal Global University. Ray’s forthcoming book with Oxford University Press titled Placing the Frontier Hills examines the movement of law and its interface with custom in the north east frontier of the British Empire in India. She is currently working from her hometown Shillong.

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply