Happy Diwali!

By Rakashi Chand, Senior Library Assistant

Saturday, 14 November, is Diwali, India’s biggest holiday which is celebrated by over a billion people across the globe. In honor of Diwali we would like to share a selection of letters housed at the MHS that showcase the historic relationship between the people of Boston and India. Before the United States became an independent nation, ships from Boston and Salem Harbor would depart on a regular basis for India to bring back much needed goods like spices, fabric, dyes, and other commodities. This regular and constant contact created an influential exchange of culture, philosophy, religion, and fashion. If you have ever worn a cummerbund, calico, bandana, or said ‘namaste’ or ‘brahmin,’ then you too are a part of that cultural exchange.

The cultural exchange between the two nations is found in letters, travel logs, ships logs, journals and souvenirs. Bostonians went to India for various reasons ranging from commerce to curiosity. They often wrote letters back home to loved ones.

Our first example is a letter dated 22 February 1855 from John Eliot Parkman. He wrote about his travels and excitement:

Calcutta February 22nd 1855

“My dear Mother,

“…We have been living there now about a fortnight and like it better and better everyday. The house is about 3 minutes from town, almost on the banks of the river, and in the pleasantest place near Calcutta, we have a large garden and a tank in it almost as large as the Frog Pond, and beside these advantages two dogs and a billiard table. there is one drawback however to a new comes in the shape of jackals who drift about to the house every night and gangs above 50 and howl like so many rampant Devils- , it is unnecessary to add that I slept but little the first three nights but I have since got used to them.

Mr Bullard who has just come down from up country is living with us but goes to Paris by the steamer, he has told me such stories about Delhi, Agra and half a dozen other places that I am well-nigh crazed and probably shall remain in that condition till my turns come to travel. (!)…”

letter from John Eliot Parkman
John Eliot Parkman to his mother, 22 February 22 1855

Boston’s most lucrative trade with India was ice. Ships full of ice cut from the ponds of Massachusetts would sail across the globe to ice houses in Bombay and Calcutta. Frederic Tudor of Boston, known as “the Ice King,’ became very wealthy due to the ice trade. Calvin W. Smith, an agent of the Tudor Ice House, sent many letters home to family and friends in Boston. On 2 September 1865 Calvin Smith wrote to his mother marveling at a nature preserve:

“A few days before he left Captain F (Freeman) and myself went out to see the nature “Institute for Animals” and a sight it was. There were cows, buffalo, deer, horses, mules, monkeys, sheep, goats, In fact every kind of an animal that came to be thought of except a pig.”  Smith goes on to wonder if he would ever see such a place back home in Boston.

In a 24 September 1887 letter to Mrs. Andrews, Pandita Ramabai indicates that she will stop in Boston on route to Manchester NH, as part of a national tour. A group of Bostonians formed the American Ramabai Association, to support the work of Pundita Ramabai as she sought to create a home and school for child widows in India. Ramabai writes:

Sept. 24, 1887

“My dear mrs. Andrews I write this to tell you that I shall be in Boston on 29th of this month for two hours on my way to Manchester New Hampshire I shall arrive in Boston buy a way of Taunton from Newport at 10 in the morning on 29th, and then shall have to wait nearly two hours in the city before I leave for Manchester I shall have to and to go the Boston and Lowell Railroad Station if you have nothing particularly to attend to I should very much like to meet you and have a little talk about our work will you come and meet me at the station where trains from Newport come in if I do not see you there I shall understand that you are too busy and cannot see me hoping that you are very well.

I am affectionately yours,


These are just a few examples of the cultural exchange through the centuries between India and Massachusetts found at the MHS. In our ongoing relationship our cultures continue to grow and learn from one another. We know that Bostonians may have experienced Diwali in India in centuries past, and we look forward to celebrating Diwali in Boston for centuries to come.

Happy Diwali from the MHS!