The Extraordinary Travel Diary of V.N. Narasimha Iyengar

V.N. Narasimha Iyengar, a Deputy Commissioner in the Mysore Princely State went on a pilgrimage from Bangalore to Benares in 1872 by train. He meticulously recorded almost every detail of this journey. It is a firsthand portrait of the socio-economic conditions of a large part of India of that era. It is also a slice of the history of Indian Railways.
The Extraordinary Travel Diary of V.N. Narasimha Iyengar

Editor’s Note

V.N. NARASIMHA IYENGAR IS A NAME that few people in Karnataka would have heard of today. But 150 years ago, the name and the man sent waves of awe-imbued terror in the administrative machinery of the Mysore State. He was nicknamed Meese Narasimha Iyengar. Among other things, his Meese or moustache exuded his authority. Narasimha Iyengar finds a place of respect and honour in D.V. Gundappa’s Jnapakachitrashale volumes. DVG mentions the background of the Meese:  “Narasimha Iyengar was the one who started the tradition of growing a moustache, which was not prevalent among the Śrīvaiṣṇava brāhmaṇas.” 

Narasimha Iyengar entered Government service at a young age and blazed his way up the ranks through the dint of his scholarship, intellect and competence. His career peaked when he became Deputy Commissioner (second only to the Diwan) and then retired as the Comptroller of the (Mysore) Palace. He was renowned as a Sanskrit scholar and a prolific writer. In the words of the historian and scholar, S. Srikantaiya, “Mr. Narasimha Iyengar’s correspondence is copious: he had friends in all parts of India and England with whom he maintained a continuous stream of correspondence in literary and, historical studies and on social and political matters… his intimacy with the giant intellects of the day gave him vast opportunities which he has utilised to the full.” 

However, it appears that hectic professional duties and incessant literary endeavours weren’t enough to satisfy Narasimha Iyengar’s ravenous appetite and zest for life. He became the first Mysorean “who started on a prolonged tour through the classic north, with the object of enlarging his experience of the world and of looking at things with a critical eye, uninfluenced by any [external] notions.” 

The “prolonged tour through the classic north” was actually Narasimha Iyengar’s pilgrimage to Varanasi by train. His journey began from Bangalore on 14 December 1872. Much to our delight and education, he left behind a diary in which he records minute details of his pilgrimage. 

Even after 150 years, the diary is akin to a masterclass in travel writing and personal memoir. Narasimha Iyengar’s eye for detail and keenness of observation is truly stupendous as we shall see. The quality of his prose (we need to remember that he was the second or third generation of Indians who had been introduced to English, a wholly alien and inferior language with a grammar that is bizarre compared to Indian languages) is remarkably fresh, vivid and dynamic.  

It is also an invaluable primary source for reconstructing the socio-economic life of that era. A superlative bonus also awaits us: this is the lush and fecund insights into railway travel. The Railway had just crossed its adolescence in India… the Indian Railways had turned 35 when Narasimha Iyengar began his journey. 

Beginning with this piece, we will publish extracts from V.N. Narasimha Iyengar’s aforementioned travel diary. Where necessary, we have added brief annotations to provide the historical context. Annotations are prefixed with “Notes” in boldface.

The Dharma Dispatch hopes that students, researchers and general readers will find this series useful. 

Happy reading!

Excerpts from V.N. Narasimha Iyengar’s Travel Diary

14th December 1872: Started from Bangalore… on a prolonged tour through the classic north, with the object of enlarging my experience of the world... 

The country around the railway wore a most enlivening and smiling aspect with paddy and sugarcane fields uncut and with their wavy, golden and green lands. The recent and unusual floods which characterized this year also lent to the scene a welcome addition. The heights of the eastern ghats, too, tossed about as they are in wild confusion forming a labyrinth through which the great serpent-like train wriggled its way to the plains, rendered me more than ever thoughtful...

As we progressed in our journey, we felt the heavenly climate we were leaving behind...

Arkonam (reached by 5 - 15 p.m.): Arkonam seems to be entirely a creation of the railway. It is a busy town, the trade of which is fed by the travellers, whose necessity is the opportunity of the small traders. Rice was being sold at fourteen seers a rupee, and good ghee was also procurable... The charge in the Brahman chatram is two annas per ordinary meal, embracing rice, charu, curry, an inkling of ghee and tair (curd).

Ducks are reared here in abundance by the ryots and sold at four annas each. A person exporting them to Bangalore would soon acquire a competence.


  • Narasimha Iyengar’s firsthand comment that Arkonam was “entirely the creation of the railway” is highly accurate. Its name, deriving from Aru + Konam, meaning “six angles” indicates its antiquity in one sense. The town is bounded on its six sides by historically and culturally important cities: Kanchipuram, Thakkolam, Manavur, Thiruvalangadu, Thiruttani and Sholinghur. By making it one of the most important rail junctions in India, the British thoroughly transformed Arakkonam.      

  • One seer was approximately 1.25 kilograms

  • 16 annas made a rupee

  • Acquire a competence: improve and/or flourish in a business or trade

In the next leg of his journey, Narasimha Iyengar left for Tirupati. That story will be narrated in the next episode. 

To be continued 

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