Prince Aleksandr Saltuikov's Travancore

In 1841, Aleksandr Mikhailovich Saltuikov (1806-1859), a Russian of means and an aristocratic lineage, came to India as a tourist with access to the highest echelons of British colonial society, and by extension, to many Indian Rajas of the time. I first came across Saltuikov name as I was perusing travelogues of Europeans in India in the nineteenth century. Saltuikov stood out as he was a talented artist in addition to being a charismatic writer. His sketches were made into lithographs by L. H. de Rudder in 1848, originals of which are now in the British Library collection in UK. (You can also find them all over the internet, and most easily, on Wikipedia.) One of the images from his travelogue, Lettres Sur L’inde, accompanied Saltuikov’s description of Travancore, the most prominent kingdom on the Malabar Coast of India. In this short account, Saltuikov describes his meeting with Maharaja Swathi Thirunal, his brother Uthram Thirunal, and a couple of British officers stationed there. The description is remarkably free of the usual misgivings that accompany European accounts of Indian peoples at this time.[1]

The image titled Éléphants du Radja de Travancor (Elephants of Travancore Raja) was made after Saltuikov’s initial visit to the king and his brother at which time Swathi Thirunal generously offered Saltuikov caparisoned elephants to paint. In this essay, I dig a little deeper into the monochromatic surface of this engaging lithograph, created some six years after Saltuikov's initial in-situ sketches.

Éléphants du Radja de Travancor, Trivandrum. Mai 1841.  Original sketch: Aleksandr Saltuikov; Lithograph: L.H. Rudder, 1848. (Image Courtesy: British Library)

Éléphants du Radja de Travancor, Trivandrum. Mai 1841. Original sketch: Aleksandr Saltuikov; Lithograph: L.H. Rudder, 1848. (Image Courtesy: British Library)

The elephants and their mahouts are set against the background of densely-packed coconut palms, scenery as typical of Kerala today as it was during Saltuikov’s visit. In front of the coconut grove are arranged a total of six elephants, with two of the biggest decked in cloth covering, over which are set massive howdahs. These elephants face the painter frontally while two elephants of medium-size are lined up to the side, and a smaller elephant completes the arrangement on the opposite side. Behind them, towards the edge of the viewing plane on the left, you can see the head of the sixth elephant almost as large as the largest elephants in the center of the group. Each elephant has at least one mahout atop it, equipped with elephant goads. 

Detail of lithograph showing the group of people gathered to watch the scene along with soldiers of the British East India Company.

Detail of lithograph showing the group of people gathered to watch the scene along with soldiers of the British East India Company.

As can be expected of Malayalis until very recently, most men in the image, mahouts as well as by-standers, wear mundu (dhoti) with no upper garment. Women (see image above), characteristically for the time, are either wearing a version of the sari with no blouse or one, holding a child, is bare-chested, like most of the men in the picture. These women wear simple but beautiful jewelry that, even in this lithograph print, can be identified as shiny gold. Upon close observation, the earrings they wear are easily recognized as thoda, a traditional Malayali ear ornament. A choker necklace and a number of bangles complete their simple attire.[2]

Detail of two young men in North-India servant attire.

Detail of two young men in North-India servant attire.

Other scholars have raised the question of the two curiously costumed men (see image above) who appear to be the focus of the image. I concur with these scholars that the turbaned jama-and-sash-wearing men are quite out of place in Kerala, and more characteristic of Awadh court servants than Travancore. However, it is quite possible that these men are house servants of the British officers who were showing Saltuikov around, like the men in Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock MatchAn 1842 sketch of a typical British household in India shows domestic servants dressed in the same manner with one of them even sporting a colorful sash across his shoulders with a pin on it, just like our young men here. The turbaned jama-wearers have called into question the accuracy of Saltuikov’s depictions of the scene, and by extension, all his sketches from the travelogue.

Detail showing liveried soldier in side profile and behind him, another soldier placed frontally.

Detail showing liveried soldier in side profile and behind him, another soldier placed frontally.

Yet, details such as the costume of locals, and particularly, the two foot soldiers (above) on the far right, is correctly portrayed. When closely observed, the soldiers can be identified as Madras Native Foot Artillery (see image below) whose uniform consisted of blue jackets, doubles sashes and trousers in white, and a matching blue busby cap, with their weaponry that included musket, sword, and gunpowder flask. Because of such accurate detailing, I am inclined to speculate that the two jama-wearing men were part of Saltuikov’s retinue, perhaps domestic servants of the British officer Cullen with whom Saltuikov lived, and not merely a figment of his colorful imagination. It should be noted that other lithographs from Saltuikov's collection made by Rudder exhibits some amount of dramatization, but this could be taken as characteristic of mid-nineteenth century style of painting in Europe, like Eugène Delacroix's works. (Saltuikov is known to have  met Delacroix in Paris during his stay there as well.)

Painting; gouache and watercolour, Six figures depicting military uniforms, Tanjore, ca. 1830. Figure on the far right is in the uniform of foot artillery of the Madras British East India Company army. (Image courtesy: Victoria and Albert Museum)

Painting; gouache and watercolour, Six figures depicting military uniforms, Tanjore, ca. 1830. Figure on the far right is in the uniform of foot artillery of the Madras British East India Company army. (Image courtesy: Victoria and Albert Museum)

Here’s a list of all the people in the lithograph: seven men on top of the elephants, five mahout-assistants on the ground with sticks, some sitting, two holding the tusks of pachyderms, two short Brahman boys next to our dashing turbaned friends mentioned earlier, one shrouded turbaned man with stick on the far left, three more men accompanying the four women and child on the right edge of the image, next to the liveried soldiers. There are also a few more shadowy human figures finding their way about the elephants. The whole arrangement, at least of the two turbaned men at the center, the sub-mahouts in various postures, and the elephants arranged to give at once their frontal and side views, suggest some amount of staging of people and animals, like one would for a formal family portrait.

It is quite possible that the tableau was set in place for the benefit of Saltuikov, an esteemed guest of Travancore. Or, Saltuikov made the arrangement himself in order to get the best possible details for his drawings. Indeed, Maharaja Swathi Thirunal had gone all out in welcoming his guest. Saltuikov in his letters write: “I was showered with courtesies in this court. They brought me elephants with howdahs on top for me to do rough sketches of them. […] I’ll always remember the kindnesses they wanted to bestow on me in Travancore.”[3] 

If you look carefully at the compositional elements of the lithograph, it is obvious that Saltuikov was not merely producing rough sketches but capturing careful ethnographic observations of both animals and people in the picture. The liveried soldiers described above stand at ninety degrees to one another, giving Saltuikov a complete overview of their detailed uniforms and weaponry. Similarly, the elephants are placed in such a way that the Russian prince can observe and sketch these animals from all sides without having to resort to turning them around to have full and complete view.

What did this setting look like on the day Saltuikov sketched it?

The shiny thoda earrings worn by the women in the image and the metal rings and caps on blunted elephant tusks were easy enough to construct, as were the clothes of most of the people present—they must have been off-white cotton, the most common material available. One of the sub-mahouts squatting to center-right of the image wears a dotted cloth, perhaps one made of simple kasavu. May be he had dressed up to be painted by a Russian prince!

What struck my imagination were the three howdahs atop the two elephants in the center, howdahs that Saltuikov mentions were sent by the Rajah for his painting pleasure. I happened to see howdahs similar to these from Swathi Thirunal’s time on my visit to Thiruvananthapuram last year. I am convinced that the howdahs I saw are the same ones sitting atop the elephants in this lithograph, unfortunately I have no photographs to provide as evidence. (Photos of howdahs coming in Fall 2016!) The two on top of the elephant on the left—one octagonal in shape and the other square—had silver bases with red cloth for umbrellas. Ferrules, tassles, and other adornments on the umbrella were gold in color while the struts holding them up were silver. These are at Kuthiramaalika Palace near Padmanabhaswamy Temple.[4] The lotus-shaped howdah on the right is perhaps the famous one now on display at Napier Museum (Government Museum) in Thiruvananthapuram. We cannot be sure of the colors of the clothes covering the elephants but it could be white cotton as well. The elephants with their spotted-grey color naturally offers a contrast to these bright colors up on top. But, perhaps, it is the iridescent green of the coconut palm grove that not only provides the backdrop to the arrangements but stimulate the reds, golds, and silver of the howdahs further to provide a spectacular tableau.

Saltuikov, a trained artist who was tutored by Aleksandr Orlowski, a painter of some renown in Russia, would of course have anticipated this mix of colors. He may have been even aware of poet-politician Johann Goethe’s Zur Farbenlehre (Theory of Colours)a semi-scientific text that theorized colors on the basis of human emotions they evoked. While Goethe’s work drew ire from critics, many prominent philosophers like Ludwig Wittgenstein engaged with it. (See Maria Popova’s short summary of Goethe’s color theory here.) Goethe identifies dark red and dark green as opposite colors in his color wheel, the most striking colors of our tableau here, as colors that provide stimulus to one another. He identifies red with emotions like gravity, dignity, grace and attractiveness. From green the eye, he says, “experiences a distinctly grateful impression.” Green may have been Goethe’s favorite color; he goes on to write: “The beholder has neither the wish nor the power to imagine a state beyond it. Hence for rooms to live in constantly, the green color is most generally selected.”

Saltuikov, if not aware of Goethe’s color wheel or theory of color-emotions, was certainly inclined to put these colors together to create an alluring image, one that, even on monochromatic scale of the lithograph seen above, captures the viewer’s attention instantly. As you spend some time with the lithograph, the vividness of the setting seeps into you, as would the whispers of the wind through the coconut palm grove and the quiet tingling of the bells around the backs of the elephants. 


Note: All images used are either available online or are available on British Library and V&A Museum Collections online.

[1] For a detailed account of Saltuikov and his writings on India, see Richard Walding et al. “The Russian Prince and the Maharajah of Travancore,” Journal of Kerala Studies Vol. XXXVI (Thiruvananthapuram: University of Kerala Press, 2009): 10-87.

[2] For a detailed view of this lithograph, go to British Library webpage:

[3] Walding, 53.

[4] Kuthiramaalika Palace was Swathi Thirunal’s official home during his reign. It now houses all of Swathi Thirunal’s material possessions including courtly objet d’art like thrones and mirrors.