Ferozeshah Tughlaq had a sandstone pillar carefully transported in 1356 from Ambala to his new capital in Delhi. He asked scholars to decipher the strange messages carved into the stone. In the hoary traditions of court etiquette, they assured the Sultan that, in fact, they predicted the coming of a great Emperor, Feroze Shah.
A testament to the persuasive nature of sycophancy, the pillar still takes pride of place on the ramparts of the Ferozeshah Kotla. It would be almost 500 years before the brilliant young Secretary of the Asiatic Society in Calcutta, James Prinsep, would conclusively decipher the Asokan Brahmi script inscribed on it. The code-breaker relied on a body of epigraphic knowledge built up by earlier scholars. His own skills were honed by years as a numismatician; he was at this time an employee of the Government Mint. Thus was the Ashoka of Buddhist canon transmuted, from a shadowy figure in textual tradition to one who left a wealth of material evidence.
The brainchild of William Jones, a judge of the Supreme Court at Calcutta, the Asiatic Society had been established in 1784. It was meant to be a meeting place for a small group of 30 amateur scholars (in the real world, “men of business”) to discuss ideas. This was very much in keeping with the European tradition of the 18th century – a sort of intellectual “adda” – and modelled on the Royal Society in Britain.
“Oriental Jones” already knew Persian, and he hoped to use his phenomenal gift for learning languages - he knew 28 in all - to learn Sanskrit, and to write a ‘Digest of Hindu and Muslim Law,’ so that his judgements could be based on customary law. But we remember him today, not so much for his work in jurisprudence, as for his translations of Sanskrit texts, including Kalidasa’s Shakuntala, the Hitopadesha, and the Manusmriti. Goethe and the German Romantics, in particular, were overwhelmed by Shakuntala. Very significantly, Jones also made what was, at the time, the extraordinary assertion that Sanskrit had a kinship with Greek and Latin; it was their “beautiful sister”. He declared eloquently, at a meeting of the Asiatic Society, that Sanskrit possessed “a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either”.
William Jones, as the founder of the Society and its leading light, had wanted to include Indians as members, but the Society’s membership was entirely European until 1829, when some distinguished Indians were invited to join. As historian Nayanjot Lahiri points out, not all the 19th century “discoverers and decipherers…were European”. Sometimes, because their work was written in Indian languages, and more generally because of the conditions of power at that time, their contribution often went unnoticed.
The expansion of the Society was followed, once James Prinsep took over as secretary of the Society, by the publication of an appeal in the Society’s Journal inviting ‘naturalists, chemists, antiquaries, philologers and men of science, in different parts of Asia,’ to send their observations to Calcutta. Although many of the treasures collected by the Society were transferred to the Indian Museum, it retained artefacts including copper plates, coins and the manuscript collections.
The world, however, was changing. New views on Indian tradition were articulated by Macaulay, who regarded the Orientalists as misguided. There was much public acrimony; letters to The Friend of India, published under the title “Pre-eminence of the Vernaculars, or the Anglicans Answered” warned against “Macaulayism”. “Anglicanism” referred to the introduction of education in English at the expense of Indian languages, but there was also a growing disquiet among more conscientious Christians, including the Governor-General, Lord Bentinck, at the intellectual immersion in idolatrous traditions. Those of the sectarian persuasion won the day. Gradually, the Society became less and less influential, as a number of professional institutions were established. It never reached the same influence and eminence again.
Shortly after he became Viceroy, in 1899, Lord Curzon addressed the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Not for him the moral cant of the parsonage - the duty of the imperial government, he declared, included the preservation of India’s culture. He revived the Archaeological Survey under the leadership of a trained archaeologist, John Marshall. The genuflection he made towards the Society, from which the Survey had originally emerged, was sincere. However, the day of the dedicated and gifted amateur was over. As, most conclusively, was the heyday of the Asiatic Society.
(Supriya Guha is the writer of a PhD thesis on the history of midwifery in colonial Bengal. The exhibition, titled Time Past and Time Present:Treasures of Human Knowledge at the Asiatic Society, is on till October 31, at the India International Centre, Lodi Estate.)