Englishmen who resurrected and preserved India’s golden past

If Indians have to name one Englishman for invaluable contribution to rediscovering India’s lost history, it must be William Jones, who helped Indians to locate their lost heritage and understand the ancient glory of their past

M.R. Narayan Swamy Jan 17, 2022
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Forgotten Civilizations: The Rediscovery of India’s Lost History; Authors: Rupa Gupta and Gautam Gupta; Publishers: Hachette India

If Indians have to name one Englishman for invaluable contribution to rediscovering India’s lost history, it must be William Jones, who helped Indians to locate their lost heritage and understand the ancient glory of their past. Who would have thought that a boy born in Westminster in 1746 and who lost his father when he was only three would end up playing such a critical role? 

Jones’ – and his compatriots’ – contribution can be better appreciated when we realize there was a time when it was believed, in the absence of written documentation about ancient India, that the history of the sub-continent began only with the Mughals. Indians themselves knew practically nothing about their own cultural or historical inheritance. Indeed, Indians were perceived as barbaric and uncivilized – how could such a land possess a history or culture worthy of any attention? Scottish philosopher Dugald Stewart even tried to prove that Sanskrit language did not exist at all! 

Editor and writer Rupa Gupta and retired bureaucrat Gautam Gupta say in this rich and extraordinary study that the credit for the feat of uncovering India’s hidden centuries goes to a handful of Englishmen who came in the 18th century armed with a curious mind and an academic discipline. Jones made it clear that his ambition was to know India better than any other European. 

Mastering Sanskrit 

Proficient in 28 languages, Jones learnt Sanskrit too and translated Kalidasa’s classic Shakuntala to English in 1789, followed by a translation of Jayadeva’s Geet Govind from Hindi to English and Manusmriti from Sanskrit to English in 1794. The translated Shakuntala took the Western world by storm; it was reprinted thrice within seven years of its first publication. Jones also created a stir in the West by stating that Sanskrit literature, like the language itself, was in every way the equal of Greek or Latin literature. 

Another Englishman who made outstanding contribution in lifting the veil on India’s past was Sir Charles Wilkins, who, as a young employee of the East India Company, prepared the earliest known set of Bengali type font to become the first man to print in a vernacular language in India. He completed the translation of the Bhagavad Gita in 1784. He also occupied himself with interpreting the ancient inscriptions carved on rocks and temple walls. He was knighted in 1833 in recognition of his services to oriental scholarship. 

James Prinsep, who came to India in 1819 at age 20, not only immortalized Benares with his numerous pencil-and-ink drawings and engravings but undertook a large number of projects for the Hindu holy city’s residents. He was the first to draw a detailed map of Benares that showed every building. He initiated the first census of Benares and the preparation of the city’s first directory. He built a deep underground tunnel for draining a swamp in the lower part of Benares, renovated and restored several permanent structures and built a stone bridge over Karmanasa, a tributary of the Ganges. Is it any surprise that he came to be known as ‘Benares Prinsep’? 

Painting India 

Thomas and William Daniells were the earliest British landscape artists to portray Indian life as part of the lush Indian landscape and cityscapes. No other European artists had travelled so widely and covered so much of India as the Daniells; none provided such a vibrant visual image of India based on first hand observations. As they travelled across the country, they drew whatever took their fancy, creating pencil sketches on the spot to be later completed into water colour. Some became oil paintings. As the authors say, the Daniells travelled through unfamiliar, dangerous and uncharted terrain with limited resources, no knowledge of local language and practically no support.  

From a reluctant orientalist, Henry Thomas Colebrooke – who never went to a school but studied at home with a tutor – became the first great Sanskrit scholar in Europe. His first publication, in 1795, was an in-depth investigation of the pathetic condition of agriculture and commerce in India. Once he took to Sanskrit, he was fascinated by it. It took him two years to translate into English the Hindu laws in Sanskrit. He worked on a book on Sanskrit grammar. His landmark paper on the Vedas was hailed as the “most important desideratum in Indian literature”, laying the foundation for the Western world’s interest in ancient Hindu texts. He also comprehensively studied ancient Hindu algebra, geometry and arithmetic – the first European to do so. During the 32 years he spent in India, he showed that Hindi as a language existed even before Urdu. 

If there was anyone other than Colebrooke who was respected for his mastery of Sanskrit, it was Horace Hayman Wilson, one of whose first and memorable works included a Sanskrit-English dictionary. His magnum opus was A Sketch of the Religious Sects of the Hindus, in two volumes. While Wilson was all for the introduction of the English language and European sciences, he felt it was not desirable to impose English as the medium of instruction in Indian schools. It was his belief that the only way to understand India’s pre-Mughal past was to study ancient Hindu literature, poetry, coins and inscriptions. It was his interest in India history that laid the ground for the discovery of the Maurya and Gupta periods. 

English scholars 

Several others have earned their richly deserved place in this book. Sir Monier Monier-Williams, who knew Sanskrit, Hindustani, Bengali and Telugu, presented his large and priceless collection of about 3,000 oriental manuscripts and books to the library of the Indian Institute in Oxford. Frederic Salmon Growse earned the love of millions by translating Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas into English. 

Sir George Abraham Grierson published 19 volumes of a linguistic survey of India in 1928 – covering 179 languages and 544 dialects and running into 8,000 pages. 

The authors pay tribute to a handful of little-known ordinary English civil servants who resurrected the knowledge of one of the greatest civilizations the world has known. If you love India, you will surely love this book. 

Title: Forgotten Civilizations: The Rediscovery of India’s Lost History; Authors: Rupa Gupta and Gautam Gupta; Publishers: Hachette India; Pages: 259; Price: Rs 499 

(The reviewer is a veteran journalist)

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