Ted Riccardi: A Scholar Among Us

Features Issue 73 Jul, 2010

“How was it decided that my vocation was to be that of an Indianist? Partly by chance, as it so often happens, and perhaps also for deeper reasons...”

So wrote the Indologist, Sylvain Lévi, almost a century ago. Lévi was a French scholar of the late 9th and early 20th centuries, known for Lé Nepal (1905-08), a classic three-volume study of Nepal’s history and religion. Ted Riccardi, too, is an Indologist, and a philologist who’s chief interest is the history and culture of Nepal. Besides his scholarly pursuits, Ted is a gifted pianist, an avid opera enthusiast, and a yoga practitioner who also knows how to tell good stories in several languages. When Ted translated Lévi’s comment (above) about his life as an Indianist, he wasn’t thinking of himself—but it’s a good way to start the story of his life. Riccardi, like Lévi, became a noted South Asian scholar. But, unlike Lévi who visited Nepal for only a short while, Riccardi has studied and lived here over many years.

He was born in Philadelphia,Pennsylvania in 1937 (his story begins). When I asked him how he’d gotten from there to here, he began by relating his early schooling and a number of chance encounters.

“From eighth through 12th grade,” he says, “I attended Friends’ Central, a Quaker school in Philadelphia. It was small, only 58 students in our senior class, but my parents were impressed with its excellent and dedicated teachers and its high academic standing.” Young Ted graduated from Friends’ in 1955. “My English instructor at Friends’ school was John Burrows, a very, very great teacher who influenced the rest of my life”. The two of them forged an early friendship both in and out of the classroom. Their love of music was a highlight of their association. “We often played duets,” Ted says. “He played the flute. I played the piano.” Ted still plays chamber music with whomever is around to join him. Recently, the cellist Franck Bernede, who teaches in Taipei, visited Ted and his wife, Ellen, in their home in Kathmandu. Together they spent a delightful evening entertaining friends, playing Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich.

After high school Ted attended Harvard University where he studied philosophy. He graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in 1959, with honors. The following year he went traveling, “to see what Europe was like”, he says, “especially Italy”, his ancestral homeland. After returning to America in 1960, he enrolled in Law School at the University of Pennsylvania. His family wanted him to be a lawyer, but it wasn’t long until he was thoroughly disenchanted. In fact, he disliked Law. “I was miserable,” he says. “I couldn’t stand it.”

By chance one afternoon he met Isolde Klarmann, another of his high school teachers. While walking across the university campus she saw Ted sitting alone on a bench, looking gloomy. She stopped to chat, and after hearing of his disappointment at studying Law, she advised him to discuss other options with her husband, Adolph, a professor at the university. Dr Klarmann suggested that Ted consider the university’s Linguistics Department or Oriental Studies. He did, and chose Oriental Studies. It was a move that changed his academic direction and set the stage for a productive professional life in Asia.

Though linguistics was interesting, he found the formal study of the subject narrowly theoretical. Oriental Studies, on the other hand, was more attractive and more likely to gratify his desire to travel. When he joined the Oriental Studies program, he met the head of the department, Professor Norman Brown. “He was already an elderly gentleman and scholar,” says Ted. “He impressed me, and apparently I impressed him, for he gave me a stipend to pursue South Asian studies,” Ted says. “After that, I never looked back.”

One requirement for a graduate degree in his new field was proficiency in a modern Asian language in addition to Sanskrit. Ted chose Bengali, but after a few weeks he was urged to switch over to Nepali. In those days, both Nepal the country and Nepali the language were little known in America. But by chance, again, that year the university hosted a visiting scholar from England. He was T.W. Clark, a member of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. Clark was both teaching Nepali and writing a new Nepali grammar. He came to Pennsylvania temporarily from SOAS, and brought with him a Nepalese researcher named Dor Bahadur Bista to serve as his main language assistant. Bista later became well known as Nepal’s first anthropologist. He had gone to London to study anthropology at SOAS under Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf. Earlier he had worked as Haimendorf’s assistant on ethnographic fieldwork in Nepal. In London, however, Dor’s talents as a native Nepali speaker were needed by Clark, so by mutual agreement between the two professors Bista joined Clark to work on the book and help teach the language. (Clark’s Introduction to Nepali was published in 1963.)

Riccardi met Bista at the university in the summer of 1961, and during three months together pursuing Nepali studies—Bista as language expert, Riccardi as student—they forged a life-long friendship. At the end of the summer Professor Clark and Dor Bista returned to London, and in January 1962 Riccardi joined them to continue his studies. He remained on scholarship, though he was far away from the Pennsylvania campus.

Riccardi remembers the boat trip to London vividly, four days across the North Atlantic through one of the worst storms on record. It was a dramatic and uncomfortable trip, with a ship’s captain who was intent on breaking the speed record between New York City and South Hampton, UK. The captain didn’t mind the weather, but others on board certainly did. The ship’s crew had to fix ropes throughout the pitching vessel for the passengers to hang on to.

For his grammar, Riccardi recalls, Professor Clark pursued a unique approach. He insisted that every sentence in the book realistically reflect the spoken word. “There was nothing hypothetical in his approach. Every sentence was pure colloquial Nepali,” says Ted. “Clark also insisted that I learn it fluently, like a native speaker.”

When Dor Bista left London to return to Nepal, his brother Khem Bahadur replaced him as Clark’s informant. It was Khem Bahadur’s first trip outside of the Kathmandu Valley, but he took it all in stride. When they met they “each knew that we’d have a good time together”, Ted recalls. With Professor Clark’s help, Ted and Khem Bahadur found a flat to share in Lloyd’s Square, within walking distance of the SOAS campus. What better way to learn Nepali language and culture while living abroad, Ted thought, than by full immersion with a Nepalese roommate.

Several other Nepalese students lived in London in those days, including Harka Gurung, who lived in the same house. Harka went on to become known as Nepal’s first geographer, was a government minister, wrote several books on Nepal, and worked steadily throughout his life on environmental and development issues. There was also Lilanteshwar Baral, who was writing a dissertation on the life of Prithvinarayan Shah. He later became a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Riccardi met David Snellgrove (and his research assistant, Pasang Khamboche Sherpa). a Tibetan and Buddhist scholar at SOAS. Snellgrove’s research travels and studies in the Himalayas are summed up in Asian Commitment: Travels and Studies in the Indian Sub-Continent and South-East Asia (2000). Professor Haimendorf was also there, known for his descriptive ethnographies on Nepal and the tribes of central and north-eastern India. Haimendorf wrote The Sherpas of Nepal (1964), Himalayan
Traders (1975), and several books on the people of India. Ted also met A.L. Basham, whose large tome, The Wonder That Was India (1954), is a classic on South Asian cultural history. Many of these early acquaintances became Ted’s lifelong friends and colleagues.

During their year together Ted Riccardi and Khem Bahadur Bista traveled to Paris where they met more Nepal and Himalayan scholars. One was the Tibetologist A.W. (‘Sandy’) MacDonald, a transplanted Scot who seemed more French than Scottish. He later taught at Nepal’s Tribhuvan University. Sandy MacDonald pointed out an interesting distinction among anthropologists—“There are those who study people sans écriture (without writing) and others, like myself,” he said, “who study people avec écriture (with writing).” Riccardi’s career as a philologist was shaping up nicely to fit the latter definition.

Ted returned to Pennsylvania later in 1962 to continue his studies. During the next few years, to earn extra money, he played jazz piano at pubs and clubs along New Jersey’s Atlantic coast. By 1964 he had completed his Masters degree, and in 1968 was awarded the PhD based on a critical study of a celebrated work of Sanskrit literature known in English as The King and the Corpse.

Ted arrived in Nepal in 1965, and from January to June 1968 he was the resident director of the Fulbright office in Kathmandu. One day he received an urgent telegram from Columbia University requesting him to appear for a job interview. In order to get word back to Columbia in time, Ted sought out the Jesuit Father, Marshall Moran, Nepal’s only amateur (‘ham’) radio operator to relay his “Yes, I’m coming” reply to New York. After the interview he was offered a job, and joined the Columbia University faculty as an Assistant Professor in what is now called the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures. Later he took on an additional assignment supervising students in the Bengali, Tibetan and Nepali language programs at the University of Pennsylvania. For several years he also served as his department’s chairman and as Director of Columbia’s Southern Asia Institute in the School of International and Public Affairs.

Ted Riccardi’s key interests, by now, were the history, cultures and languages, ancient and modern, of India and (mostly) Nepal. Over the years, he visited South Asia many times on grants from the American Council of Learned Societies and on Ford Foundation and Fulbright fellowships. For two years, 1980-82, he also served as Counselor for Cultural Affairs at the American Embassy in New Delhi.

While at Columbia University, Ted taught a number of aspiring young scholars specializing in Nepal studies. One was Ramesh Dhungel, who wrote a dissertation on upper Mustang District. Dhungel is currently in London cataloguing the Brian H. Hodgson Archives. Hodgson was the British colonial resident in Nepal during the early to mid-1800s. He was a noted scholar who corresponded with Charles Darwin, Joseph Hooker and other scientists of his time, and amassed a large collection of information (hand-written) on Nepalese language, culture, and natural history. Ted also advised the Americans Todd Lewis and Bruce Owens, who focused on Newar studies, Bill Fisher in Anthropology, and Lynn and Gabriel Campbell, both students of Nepali culture in the university’s Department of Religion. There were many others.

Riccardi soon established himself as an important South Asian scholar. Bookwise he co-authored Introductory Hindi Readings (1972) and Advanced Bengali (1974), along with a number of articles with such erudite titles as: ‘An account of Nepal from the Vir Vinod of Shyamaldas’ (1975), ‘The Nepala-rajaparampara: A short chronicle of the kings of Nepal’ (1986), and ‘The inscription of King Manadeva at Changu Narayan’ (1989). The latter is Riccardi’s interpretation of what was considered at the time to be the oldest inscription in Nepal on a stone pillar that was first brought to light by Bhagvanlal Indraji in 1880 and later by Sylvain Lévi. Changu Narayan is one of the most important temples to Vishnu in the country. Earlier in his career, Ted also translated part of Sylvain Lévi’s Lé Nepal from French to English (1974). He also co-edited, with Todd Lewis, The Himalayas: A Syllabus of the Region’s History, Anthropology, and Religion (1995).

Meanwhile, he was in and out of Nepal on research trips. During 1974-75, Ted brought his first family to live in Nepal, including his daughter Claire (who attended Kathmandu’s Lincoln School) and son Matthew (who was an infant at the time, and is now a lawyer in New York). As time went on Riccardi became well known by the Nepalese for his studies. In 1995, in recognition of his exemplary research and publications on Himalayan history and cultures, he was personally awarded the prestigious Prabal Gorkha Dakshin Bahu by King Birendra. In 2004 he also received the International Golden Award from the Civil Forum, Nepal, for his scholarship.

In 1999, Riccardi took early retirement from Columbia University to pursue independent scholarly studies, raise a second family, and take up a new career as a writer. One of his life-long passions is the adventures of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s wily sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. In 2003 Ted published his first work of fiction, The Oriental Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, consisting of nine short stories about Holmes’ wanderings in Nepal, India, Indonesia, Tibet, and Sri Lanka. One of the tales is ‘The case of Hodgson’s ghost’ that takes place on the grounds of the old British Embassy in Lainchaur. Another is ‘The case of Anton Furer’, in the Terai. The third is ‘The case of the French savant’ at Changu Narayan, featuring Sylvain Lévi. Ted is currently working on a sequel, Between the Thames and the Tiber, a series of Holmes’ adventures in England and Italy.

Ted has also written a personal memoir of experiences and observations during the People’s Movement in Nepal in 1990. The tentative title is Nepalese Days–Daze.

Though formally retired from academia, Ted has by no means abandoned his scholarly pursuits. He is the co-author with Mohan Prasad Khanal of Archaeological Excavations in the Kathmandu Valley: A Report on the 1984-85 and 1989 Seasons at Dumakhal. The dig site in at the small rural hamlet of Dumakhal on the Manohara river below Changu Narayan, a few miles northeast of Kathmandu. The findings include a number of rare, unique and priceless artifacts, including many stamped and inscribed pottery shards and a beautiful terracotta head (of unknown date). The book is due to be published soon under the Harvard Oriental Series imprint. Ted has also prepared an annotated version of a hitherto unknown Newari-Italian Dictionary that dates to 1792. The original author was an Italian Capuchin friar, Padre Gualberto, who lived in Patan and later in Chuhari, in northern Bihar. With these writings, Ted’s accomplishments continue unabated.

Ted Riccardi lives in a spacious house at the Chauni (near Syambhunath) with his wife Ellen Coon, who is conducting research in comparative religion, and their two children, Miranda (age 10) and Nicholas (8). A few years ago, Ted was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but this has not seriously dampened his productive and entertaining pursuits. Both he and Ellen are colleagues of a great many Nepal scholars, some of whom on any given day are visiting their friends and mentors. The Coon-Riccardi home and compound encompass a huge vegetable garden and varieties of flowering plants and trees, many chickens, and four Tibetan dogs, all of which keep Ted and Ellen, their children and staff perpetually engaged. The house often resounds with the voices of children playing and the sounds of music—Ted at the piano or listening to his many opera and other classical CDs. He’s known among friends as the resident expert on where to buy classical CDs in Kathmandu, and on the location and condition of many of the grand pianos in the valley.

Ted’s normal routine includes rising at six a.m., practicing the piano before breakfast, and doing yoga exercises with his instructor, Navin Adhikari. He finds performing pranamaya (yogic breathing exercises) especially beneficial for his health. Some days he can be found somewhere deep in the Kathmandu bazaar, rummaging through old book collections.

If you come near the house most mornings, you’ll hear Ted at the piano, playing from memory a wide range of jazz and classical pieces. And, some evenings you’ll hear the house full of dinner guests, seriously discussing Nepalese scholarship, culture, language and history, and laughing at Ted’s stories. This is the house of Ted, a gifted musician and raconteur, who became a noted scholar (as Sylvain Lévi put it) “partly by chance and ...for deeper reasons”.