Having arrived in rather alien surroundings of Bonn, I was searching for similarities it had with Bangalore, Delhi or my hometown, Varanasi. These are the three cities where I had spent a majority of the last decade. Chaos had made way for order, polluted air and smog had suddenly disappeared, Maruti Altos had transformed into Volkswagens, and froth-filled Ganges and Yamuna had been swapped with crystal-clear Rhine. The former capital of West Germany, with its calmness and discipline, appeared to me as a perfect foil for the Indian cities.
Meanwhile, my incessant search for similarities continued, with limited success, though. I found the ubiquitous common crow, Starbucks, Macdonald’s and some of the other popular American fast-food chains, MDH spices and Maggi noodles at an Asian shop and a lone red Hyundai i10, though with a left-hand drive.
But then the big moment arrived, my Eureka moment. Standing on the left bank of Rhine, I was reminded of Varanasi. The river made a curve in a manner that was exactly similar to that made by the Ganges back home. Only the picturesque ghats had been replaced by a green promenade. I had discovered the ‘Benares on the Rhine’.
Apparently, as I were to later found out, the sobriquet ‘Benares on the Rhine’ (In German-Benares am Rhein) has been used to describe Bonn, more precisely Bonn University since the early 19th century, but in a totally different context.
The title alludes to the rich tradition of Indology, the study of the history and cultures, languages, and literature of the Indian subcontinent, at the University of Bonn. The tradition of learning about the Indian civilization in Bonn coincides with the founding of the Bonn University in 1818. The year also marks the beginning of Sanskrit studies in Germany. Noted Sanskrit scholar and indophile August Wilhelm von Schlegel, regarded as the founder of German Indology, became the first professor of Sanskrit at the Bonn University. In an effort to popularize Sanskrit and Indian studies in Europe, Wilhelm von Schlegel, who had learnt the language in Paris, brought types of Devanagari alphabets from Paris to Bonn. Few years later, these types were used to print the Bhagawadgita, with a Latin translation by Wilhelm von Schlegel himself.
Soon Bonn emerged as a center for knowledge, just like Varanasi. A generation later, some of the students of Wilhelm von Schlegel spread to different parts of Germany to carry forward the tradition of Sanskrit and Indian culture studies. Such was the popularity of Sanskrit in those times that almost all the Prussian universities were fully staffed with Sanskrit professors in the two decades following the founding of Bonn University. The spread of Sanskrit in to different parts of Germany was in contrast to the strong centralization of centers of culture and learning in Paris in neighboring France. Sanskrit scholars outside of Germany regarded German Universities as an essential step in their pursuit of knowledge. Around the same time, Wilhelm von Schlegel’s brother, Friedrich von Schlegel, wrote that Sanskrit was “the source of all languages, all thought, and the dreams of the human spirit; everything, everything comes from India, without exception.”(Source: Indology, Indomania, and Orientalism: Ancient India’s Rebirth in Modern Germany by Douglas T. McGetchin)
Christian Lassen, a student of Wilhelm von Schlegel, succeeded his mentor as the professor of ancient Indian language and literature at the Bonn University. He translated Samkhyakarika, Bhavabhuti’s Malati Madhavam and Jayadeva’s lyrical drama Gita Govindam. His four-volume “Indian Antiquities”, a kind of encyclopedia of Indological knowledge of his time, further cemented the reputation of Bonn as the foremost center of German Indology. One of the prominent students of Lassen was Hermann Brockhaus, who briefly taught Max Müller, arguably the most famous western Indologist and the publisher of the first printed edition of the Rigveda. (Source: https://securewww.uni-bonn.de/ioa/abteilungen/indologie/abteilung/fachgeschichte)
Much before the beginning of German Indology in Bonn, Heinrich Roth, a missionary, landed in Goa in the middle of the seventeenth century. He moved to Agra to find a job in the Mughal court. He learnt Sanskrit and Urdu and wrote a grammar in Latin based on Panini, the famous Sanskrit grammarian. He also learnt Kannada, the language spoken in Karnataka and its capital Bangalore.
It is a result of the efforts of these indophiles that Sanskrit still flourishes in Germany with 14 of the top universities in the country teaching Sanskrit, classical and modern Indology. Students come from as far as the United States to study and appreciate the heritage of India.
As far as I am concerned, I am happy to be in a country where India’s rich tradition and culture is so highly revered. From one cradle of knowledge and learning to another.