The Indica Wyss Collection

In 1989, the SNL received the Indian collection of Johann Rudolf Wyss (1909-1988), philologist and librarian from Zurich. From 1960 to 1988, Wyss wintered in India and during this time, he crisscrossed the sub-continent from east to west and from north to south, from Srinagar to Kanyakumari. His travels frequently led him to Bombay, Madras, Madura, Trivandrum, Bangadore, Goa, Puna, Benares, Khajuraho, Delhi and Calcutta. He was particularly attracted to the desert region of Rajasthan and the ancient and religious cities of Puri and Bhuvaneshvar in Orissa.  He also travelled once to Srinagar, Kulu, Dharamsala, Dalhousie, Chandigarh and Darjeeling, in the foothills of the Himalaya.

Wyss wrote about his travels in a journal and the fifty notebooks containing this journal constitute the heart of this collection.  In these notebooks, he describes with care and in great detail what he saw and experienced in India. He recorded his daily activities and talked about the people he met. He chose to preserve in written form what the modern traveller would normally entrust to photographs. He knew how to observe without judging, how to tell a story without analysing or needing to explain the world in which it takes place because for him, this world was familiar and natural. However, Wyss was not the detached narrator he first appeared to be. Between the pages of his notebooks, we find press clippings, hotel bills, wrapping paper from packages of matches, a dry leaf; items that bare witness to his intimate almost sentimental relationship to India.

In his poetry, Wyss openly declares his love for India. His anthology of poems entitled Indische Reisegespräche, published by Speer publishing in Zurich has the following epigraph: “Indien gleicht einer schönen Frau zwischen Abendrot und Morgentau” (India resembles a very beautiful woman between sunset and morning dew). He describes a temple bell in the following manner:

“Day after day, thousands of bare feet climb the steps of the temple.
In the same chime, thousands of hands invite the goddess to step down from her altar.

How is it that this belfry suspended so high, doesn’t steal its voice from the hopes of the small, the feeble, the old and the children.
The old man supports himself with his crutch, the youth with his incipient vigour.”

Wyss was attracted to the religious and spiritual life of India, by the wisdom contained in its ancient Scriptures. He was profoundly touched by this wisdom and it remained for him, a constant source of inspiration. His dialogues, Vier Lebebsalter, Airavata and Yama and Yami deal, in a literary form, with various themes of Indian philosophy and religion. Airvata – A Dialogue on India and Indian Philosophy, published in a German-English edition, is illustrated by his friend, the Indian artist K. V. Haridasan. Some of the letters Wyss received from this friend are wonderfully crafted: words are intertwined with drawings. From this correspondence we can discern a talented Tantric artist deeply involved in the exploration and revival of the ancient Indian spiritual tradition.

The Wyss collection contains some 500 documents: travel diaries, philosophical and religious literature, classical poetry in Sanskrit (kavya), works dealing with art and sacred architecture. The catalogue of this collection will be available within the next few years.

Further information

Opening hours

Access to the collections on appointment; an advanced reservation is required.

Guided tours

Introductions to the print and drawing collections for schools or groups on appointment.

Last modification 18.02.2011

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