The Asiatic Society – The Temple of Knowledge

Joydip Sur

India suffered under the yoke of British imperialism for two centuries but the country also benefitted from its brush with Orientalists like Sir William Jones who truly helped it to rediscover its past culture and heritage. Jones was instrumental in establishing The Asiatic Society- centre of Asian studies on everything concerning the man and nature within the geographical confines of this vast continent. In this edition of Calcutta Chronicle, we look at the past and present of this institution which unknowingly made Indian Renaissance possible with its far reaching work.

The Asiatic Society was founded on January 15, 1784, by one of the true geniuses of Indian scholarship, Sir William Jones (1746-94), who also served as the Chief Justice of Bengal. Jones was a British orientalist who was completely bereft of any prejudice against the natives of India. He contributed tremendously towards the promotion of Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian, apart from other branches of learning.

When The Asiatic Society was established, most of the mysteries of this vast land, like its old inscriptions in Brahmi, were still not deciphered, and Comparative Philology as a discipline or science was not yet born.

Jones was the first man to think in terms of a permanent organisation for Oriental studies and researches on a grand scale in this country. He took the initiative and in January 1784 sent out a circular letter to selected individuals among the elite of Calcutta with a view of establishing a Society for this purpose. In response to his letter, thirty European gentlemen of Calcutta including Justice John Hyde, John Carnac, Henry Vansittart, John Shore, Charles Wilkins, Francis Gladwin, Jonathan Duncan and others gathered on January 15, 1784, in the Grand Jury Room of the Supreme Court of Calcutta. The then Chief Justice Sir Robert Chambers presided at the first meeting and Jones delivered his first discourse in which he put forward his plans for the Society.

Asia, he said, was the “nurse of sciences” and the “inventress of delightful and useful arts.” He proposed to found a Society under the name of The Asiatic Society. All the assembled-thirty European gentlemen – accepted the membership of this Society. The then Governor-General, Warren Hastings, a scholar and patron of learning, was elected its first President with Sir William Jones as the Vice-President. Warren Hastings greatly sympathised with the aims and objects of the Society and on his request Sir William Jones was elected President of the Society on February 5, 1784, and held this post till his death in 1794.

The name went through a number of changes like Asiatic Society (1784-1825), The Asiatic Society (1825-1832), The Asiatic Society of Bengal (1832-1935), The Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal (1936-1951) and The Asiatic Society again since July 1951 till present.

Initially, the Society met under very humble circumstances, usually in the Grand Jury Room of the Supreme Court. But after Jones’ death, the need for a permanent venue was felt. In order to raise the funds for a building, it was decided that the members should pay a quarterly contribution of one gold coin (mohor) each and an entrance fee of two mohors. An application was made to the government for a free plot of land and granted in 1805 at the apex of Park Street, at its crossing with Chowringhee Road. A riding school once occupied the ground, and a police station and fire station were next door for some time. Records indicate that a small portion of land was further added to the plot on the western side of the property in 1849.

The construction of the Society’s own building on the plot was completed in 1808 at the cost of Rs 30,000. Membership of the Society for many years remained exclusively European, and only in January 1829, on the suggestion of Dr. Horace Hayman Wilson, the then Secretary of the Asiatic Society, Indian members were for the first time admitted to the Society. The earliest Indian members of the Society were Prasanna Kumar Tagore, Dwarkanath Tagore, Russamay Dutt and Ram Camul Sen. It was not until December 1832 that Radhakanta Deb was invited to become a member. Rajendra Lal Mitra (1822-1891) assumed responsibility as the first Indian President of the Society in 1885.

In 1837, James Prinsep, the then Secretary of the Society, deciphered the Brahmi Script and was able to read the Asokan edicts. It was a world event that revolutionised all future Oriental studies and contributed to the growth of Comparative Philology.

Years rolled on, and with the expansion of the activities of the Society the problem of accommodation was acutely felt. But no solution was forthcoming till after India’s Independence. As late as 1961, with the generous help extended by the Government of India and the Government of West Bengal, the construction of a new building was started in the premises of the Society. The new four-storeyed building was formally opened by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, the then President of India, on February 22, 1965.

There is a sky bridge connecting the library in the new building to the original 1808 building, which remains a separate entity. Many have thought it was demolished, but incorrectly so. It is a pleasant old Calcuttan palazzo, not particularly distinguished in itself, but because of the era in which it was built, it may be considered a fine relic. A woodcut of its Park Street façade graced the cover of the Society’s Journal and Proceedings for decades. Once the sky bridge leads to the old building, the visitors would find themselves at the top of the grand staircase, similar to the neighbouring though much younger Freemasons’ Hall. The columns are painted azure with ochre trim. Busts of Sir Ashutosh Mookherjee, who played a key role in the Society, and of Czoma de Koros, scholar of Tibetan culture, gaze upon. Several large square chambers with high ceilings contain tons of archives and artifacts.

Returning to the newer frontage which faces Park Street, it has to be admitted that it is hardly remarkable, but it was modern for its time. Interestingly, the square perforations in the stairwell block which rises above the main entrance are very contemporary with the 1990s and represents the post-independence style of architecture prevalent in India at that time.

The library of The Asiatic Society is the grand stay, glory and honour of the Society. Its importance lies not in numerical strength but in its rich and unique contents. The collection has been built up mainly with gifts received from the members. In 1808 the Society received books from Palace Library of  Tipu Sultan. Since the foundation of the Society, books, manuscripts, drawings, coins, antiquarian and other objects of historical importance were exhibited to the society’s meetings, and kept in the custody of the Secretary. Since then the Society had consistently received innumerable valuable donations from its members and patrons which had contributed in building up this great treasure trove.

The Asiatic Society was also responsible for the creation of the Indian Museum in 1814. By the 1870s the Society’s collection of items had grown to the extent that a very large building had to be purpose-built to house it, and so the Indian Museum as it stands came to be, under the superintendence of Dr. N. Wallich. The Society, however, still maintains a museum of its own and is in possession of Asokan Rock Edict (250 B.C.), copper plates, coins, sculptures, manuscripts and archival records.

The Asiatic Society is a temple of knowledge and a must visit for every Calcuttan and visitor alike.