Imagine the crinkles of the Dalai Lama’s face sparkling with a school boy delight at the mention of her name. “She was mother, motherji”. Wanda Dynowska, was otherwise known as Tenzin Choden or Ama La (motherji) to the Tibetans she helped, and Uma Devi amongst the rest of India. In fact, Gandhi Ji was the one who presented India’s most influential Pole with the namesake of Uma Devi. It’s rather hard to name drop better connections than those of Uma Devi, but how come you haven’t heard of her?
The Polish woman who helped expand the hearts and minds of many Indians, among others, was on her own quest for spiritual elevation, unconcerned with being a social helper-celebrity, and therein lies much of her success. She was a linguist, a woman of literature, a loving human and an adamant fighter of oppressors, who carried with her the pain the Soviets inflicted upon Poland to her death.
Thanks to a stellar documentary on Wanda Dynowska, directed by Tonmoy Das
and produce by Sujata Sett, the world is more aware of the beautiful life she led. Read on to understand how a woman from Poland helped three nations and countless people. Check out the extended documentary preview below.
Strangely enough Russia is where our story starts, in 1888 St. Petersburg, the birthplace of Wanda Dynowska. The young girl was born into an aristocratic Polish family, and thus was educated by an array of tutors who scaffolded her learning to a point she could be considered a veritable genius by modern day standards. Wanda was fluent in Russian, Polish, German, French, Spanish, Italian, English and Latvian . Later in life she would add Tamil and Hindi to her arsenal of language mastery.
According to multiple sources, despite her fluency in Russian Wanda severely disliked communicating in the tongue that oppressed the people of her homeland. Facts like these form the chiaroscuro background for her later attempts at aiding and protecting those disenfranchised by countries whose foreign policy was merely a thinly veiled method of bullying other nations.
Wanda’s impressive linguistic skills fueled her ability to translate literary works. Her early twenties were dominated by a voracity for digesting and translating works such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran and the Bible. Apparently, she was pulled to such works through an early attraction to Theosophy, which to her was the most sincere vehicle of reaching her conception of God, even though she treasured the Liberal Catholic Church of Poland.
It would not be brash to say Theosophy ideals carved out Wanda’s pathway to India, nevertheless, it first took her across the continent of Europe. With the help of Poland’s liberator general, Michal Karasiewicz-Tokarzewski, who was greatly admired by Wanda for his efforts in freeing Poland, she was able to form Polish Federation of the Order of Universal United Mixed Freemasonry. This sect of Freemasonry was inclusive of both sexes, and thus aptly followed the true doctrine of the ideology, which espoused an ‘instinctive sympathy or fellow feeling between people with something in common’. In this case ‘something in common’ is humanity.
Theosophy is basically a dedication to following one’s conscience, so if there are people in need, and you believe you should help, you help.
It is likely Wanda was determined to spread this spiritual following as she wished to change the corrosive hatred permeating around the globe, she herself a victim of its cruelty. Wanda lost her fiance to the Soviets at a young age- a loss that somehow explains how she selflessly gave her life to following her conscience, so others may be spared pain.
INDIA, AT LAST
And sure enough Wanda arrived in India determined.
She felt that she needed to expand Theosophy for the benefit of humanity, and chose India, it seems, because she realised the value of the humility the country’s spiritual leaders fostered. Moreover she recognized India was largely in abject poverty and conflict, a place in need of support, while the white collar pillaging prerogative of the colonials ran rampant.
“This Polish section (of the theosophical society) must understand that it must not limit itself just to working within Poland. We can afford to...carry this power further. If we can, as a whole, fall in love with this cause, then I can achieve very much,” professed Wanda.
And that she did. Her approach towards bringing two nations together was complete submission to the spiritual and literary ways of India. From the get go Wanda donned saris and travelled in the third class compartments, an act which, at that time, was unheard of amongst caucasian foreigners. No one told her to do such things, they came to her naturally, as did leadership and compassion.
Wanda first satiated her curiosity surrounding India through studying yoga. She practiced with Sri Ramana Maharishi, taking pilgramages to Arunchala, furthering her study of Hinduism, and even studying Kasmiri Saivism with Swami Lakshmanjoo in Ishwar Ashram in the Himalayas, according to The Cosmopolitan Review.
Wanda occupied the rest of her time writing for newspapers, informing the nation about the many troubling social inequalities that spanned the rural interior. However, she did not pigeonhole herself as the ‘doom and gloom’ sort of writer, also producing articles extolling the virtues of patriotism directed towards India’s youth. Often she drew parallels between India’s struggle for Independence and that of Poland.
THE CULTURAL AMBASSADOR: TRANSLATION STATION
“Acting as a window for the two countries she helped to bring East and West closer. Interestingly during her visit to Poland she poured Gangajal in Vistula, the longest and largest river of that region symbolising the meeting of the two cultures,” reveals Sett.
Wanda, as history points out, was adept in the art of poetry, and her prose in Hindi remains coveted by the few who’ve had the pleasure of reading her words. Much was dedicated to her mentors in India, but Wanda still shared her skill with many, using the beauty of poetry as a binding factor between Poland and India — two nations with a heritage of great writers. A fellow Pole, a jew in exile and close friend of Gandhi Ji, know as Bharatanda, joined Wanda in her venture of a cultural exchange of Polish and Indian literature.
Together they founded the Indian-Polish and the Polish-Indian Libraries. The first library was designed for the education of Indians and the later for the education of the Poles.The Polish-Indian library contained a copious amount of translations made by Wanda. The topics covered in each library traversed a variety of topics in an attempt to provide a holistic impression of the two nations.
Wanda worked with the Hindu poet Harischandra throughout her magnus opus of publishing. A few of her more popular creations and translations are her six-volume “Indian Anthology,” Kahlil Gibran’s Jesus, her co-authored “All for Freedom - the Warsaw Epic,” various stalwarts of Polish literature as well as translations of Polish Underground poetry from World War II.
Professor Joanna Jurewicz, Indologist (a student of Indian literature, history, philosophy, etc) at the University of Warsaw commented to The Hindu that most Polish Indologists’ interest in the study of India was sparked through Wanda’s work. The professor herself admits Dynowska’s translation of Gita provided her life with a new meaning and direction.
SHELTERING THE REFUGEE (BOTH POLISH AND TIBETAN)
“Umadevi was not a sanyasini per se who had renounced the world completely. On the contrary spirituality made her receptive to suffering. While able to retreat to spiritual realm she never remain unaffected by what she saw around her and reacted in a positive manner. There is no dichotomy and in fact it is her sensitivity that makes her different,” avers Sett.
The later part of Wanda’s life was immersed in providing aid to refugees, first young Poles, and later waves of Tibetans fleeing tyranny. Soviet reign over Poland had caused significant damage, and the behind the iron curtain propaganda clouded the air, making free-thought a claustrophobic affair as the commies asphyxiated Polish integrity. Wanda organized the removal of thousands of Polish youth, offering India as a safe haven for the lucky few to get out.
Most of these children had lost their parents to the Gulag or Katyń massacres, where the Soviets cunningly and brutally murdered surrendered officers and their families. Through sheer perseverance Wanda made this dire circumstance into a veritable cultural exchange, providing an opportunity for Poles and Indians to learn more about human rights struggles.
A select group of the Polish youth allegedly went on a 3, 000 kms tour of India performing for audiences. Funnily enough this traveling troupe, according to The Cosmopolitan Review, made the pages of Bangalore newspaper Misindia, were the publication happily likened the young Poles dancing to South Indian dances, such as Kumni and Kilattem.
Others were taken in by various princely states, as they were the only entities who could exercise a semblance of autonomy against the British Raj, who were skeptical of taking in political refugees. The most notable Maharaja, Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja of Nawanagar, allowed a Polish refugee ship dock in his princely state, so they could avoid the bureaucratic hands of the British. As the Maharaja’s daughter puts it to the Better India, they “were politically adopted”. On his property Little Poland was created, a mini-township that even boasted Polish street signs. Many of these, now elderly survivors, still refer to the Maharaja as Bapu, father, and many still miss their other home, India.
Other Maharajas joined in, which was a relief to Wanda as she could not bear separating the children. Wanda worked tirelessly to make this happen as she feared separating the grieving children who had already lost so much.
Wanda even managed to introduce Gandhi Ji to many of the refugee children, which was wonderful for the children on a number of levels. He preached non-violence, expressed sympathy and much to the children’s surprise quoted the Bible to them, reportedly stating, “Never belittle another’s faith but instead encourage him to follow its teaching faithfully.”
In 1959, years after the Polish refugees returned to Poland, the Chinese committed atrocities similar to the damage the Soviets inflicted upon Poland, and Wanda responded with equal fervour. Her efforts comprised of founding schools for the refugees, as well as developing a social infrastructure for them. She even left India for the first time in the 1960s in search of support for the Tibetans in Poland, where she collected funds, sought out scholarships and met with Bishop Karol Wojtyła, later known as Pope John Paul II, to discuss their plight.
During the 1960s the majority of her time went to the Tibetans, from eminent lamas to regular folk. She encouraged all Tibetans to hold on to every vestige possible of their culture, from wearing their traditional clothes to furthering the study of their own language and culture. It is a blessing she did so as modern day China has forbidden the study of Tibetan in Tibet, forcing the Chinese language upon the youth. Thus, one most likely will find higher literacy and fluency in Tibetan camps in India as opposed to their motherland.
The place where Wanda’s documentary begins is more or less where her story ends, in the tranquil haven of India’s southernmost Tibetan refugee camp, Bylakuppe. It is uncertain whether she ultimately passed away in a Convent in Delhi or a hospital in Mysore, but if a location partly defines her later days, it is Bylakuppe.
Wanda’s last request was to be reintegrated to the Liberal Roman Catholic Church. After her passing there were arguments between the Buddhists, Hindus and Christians around her, each arguing that Wanda belonged to them. But as Ryszard Sawicki (a Valivade camp resident) says in her documentary, “she was nobody’s.” However, her resting place in the shade of a white Stuppa on a hillock reminiscent of her homeland is definitely where she belongs.