Saturday, December 28, 2019


History Today, June 2018
Explorers and Orientialists
Zareer Masani

Cultural curiosity inspired generations of British imperialists to unearth India’s past.

    For a generation brought up on Edward Said’s writings on Orientalism, it may come as a surprise that it was British Orientalists who rediscovered India’s history and artistic heritage and made it accessible to all. The Palestinian American Said knew little about India or else he might have recognized the cultural curiosity that inspired thousands of Britons to explore India’s past.

    The ‘colonial gaze,’ which Said’s followers dismiss as colonial appropriation, took the form of paintings and engravings by artists such as Thomas Daniel and William Hodges, long before Britain acquired any imperial ambitions in India.

    Then there was Sir William Jones, the polymath who contributed more than any other individual to India’s national renaissance. Alongside his day job as a judge in Calcutta (now Kolkata), the East India Company’s capital, Jones studied and mastered Sanskrit, translated its classical texts and used the language to unlock the glories of India’s long-forgotten Hindu and Buddhist past.

    Jones found Sanskrit “more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either. I am in love with the gopis, charmed with Krishna and an enthusiastic admirer of Rama. Arjun, Bhima and the warriors of the Mahabharata appear greater in my eyes than Ajax or Achilles appeared when I first read the Iliad.”

    Unlike ancient Greece and Rome, India’s classical past had left behind no written histories, so it had to be reconstructed from lost pavilions and buried treasure. In 1784, with the active patronage of the first British Governor-General, Warren Hastings, Jones founded the Asiatic Society to take on this giant task. It became the beacon for a huge volunteer army of amateur antiquarians across the subcontinent, enthusiastic British civil and military officers, who scoured the mofussil (those regions beyond the East India Company’s control) for ruins and artifacts, wrote learned articles about them and sent their findings to be collated and studied in the Presidency cities: Calcutta (now Kolkata), Bombay (Mumbai) and Madras (Chennai).

    When Jones returned to England a decade later, his health broken by overwork, the Asiatic was taken over by his protég
é, James Prinsep, another polymath, who worked at the East India Company’s mint in Benares (Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh). Prinsep’s labors produced the biggest breakthrough in Indian historiography, the deciphering of the long-forgotten Brahmi script, and, through it, the discovery of the Mauryan empire, which had united the subcontinent in the third century BC.


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