The Age of Enquiry
India’s Hindoo past was smothered & hidden by the successive wave of Muslim conquests. It was pushed back two thousand years. It was uncovered & rescued from decay by the paternalistic nature of British imperialism that attracted the scholar and the scientist. The men who uncovered India were armatures, by profession they were soldiers and administrators. They returned to England as scholars.
What Lord Curzon called ‘the great galaxy of monuments in the world’ was rescued from decay, classified and conserved. Ancient scripts were deciphered, dated and used to disentangle the history of kings and emperors. Coins and paintings by the hundreds were uncovered, and their significance charted. Erotic sculptures were uncovered in places of worship. In the natural sciences one of the most exciting flora and fauna was studied and catalogued. The modern image of India was pieced together. Unfortunately, there are almost no ancient historical works to provide a framework, no chronologies to provide the dates and above all, no contemporary chronicles to provide the detail. It is devoid of almost everything that traditionally makes history palatable for the general reader. There are no anecdotes, no scandals, no-well documented campaigns and no personalities. A chronological approach soon becomes and incredibly confusing list of dynasties and kings, reigning in obscurity, to whom neither reliable dates nor defined kingdoms can be attributed. To some extent the same goes for Indian art and architecture. The artists, builders and sculptors are mostly anonymous and so, in many cases, are their patrons.
Sir William Jones, an outstanding scholar from Oxford, arrived in Calcutta on 25 September 1783 as a Puisne Judge of the Old Supreme Court. While still on board of the frigate Crocodile carrying him from England to India, he prepared a memorandum detailing his plan of study. This included “the laws of the Hindus and Mahomedans; the history of the ancient world; proofs and illustrations of scripture; traditions concerning the deluge; modern politics and geography of Hindustan; Arithmetic and Geometry and mixed sciences of Asiaticks; Medicine, Chemistry, Surgery and Anatomy of the Indians; natural products of India; poetry, rhetoric and morality of Asia; music of the Eastern nations; the best accounts of Tibet and Kashmir; trade, manufactures, agriculture and commerce of India: Mughal constitution, Marhatta constitution etc.” This memorandum could easily be regarded as an early draft of the memorandum of the Asiatic Society itself. The Society which was still in the imagination of Jones was actually founded within four months of his arrival in India.
James Prinsep arrived in Calcutta in 1819. He is credited for unlocking the Delhi No. 1 script, now known as Ashoka Brahmi, which to date is unquestionably the greatest single advancement in the recovery of India’s lost past. The unlocking gave early Indian history a solid foundation it had never had before; they transformed a name into a figure of flesh and blood; and they allowed the world to see into the mind of a monarch of the 3rd century BCE – no ordinary monarch, but one whose influence had extended far beyond the boundaries of the empire he had carved out for himself, and continued to be felt for centuries. His pillar and rock edicts have been found as far afield as Kandahar in modern Afghanistan and Jatinga-Rameshswar in modern Kerala – a total of forty two to date. Only one of these, a rock edict found in Hyderabad in 1915, carries Askoka’s full name, which appears as Devanam piyasa asokasa. After serving 20 years in India with the Asiatic Society of Bengal he went back to England in 1839. He died the very next year from ‘an affection of the brain’ on 22 April 1940. He was just forty one.
The news reached Calcutta in late July, prompting a meeting in the Town Hall to consider how best the city should honour James Prinsep’s memory. It was however representatives of the city’s Indian population, at a separate meeting of their own, who provided the most fitting tribute, in the form of a landing-stage and shelter to be known as Prinsep’s Ghat.