Cover Image of Rupa and Gautam Gupt's book 'Forgotten Civilisations: The Rediscovery of India's Lost History'. ((By arrangement))
It has become fashionable in India to condemn British who came to India during the Raj as nothing but freebooters, racists and british administrators. The portrayal is entirely negative: British rule is generally considered to be an unmitigated disaster that led to impoverishment, subjugation and dishonour. This, however, is not the complete picture.
Authors and amateur historians, Rupa and Gautam Gupta, have unveiled an entirely different aspect of British rule in India, one that is far from negative. Their focus is on British men long dead who helped revive the forgotten glory of the Indian civilisation.
The authors make it clear that they do not "hold a brief for British colonial rule nor offer justification for their ruinous economic policies". Rather, their focus is on the exceptional British "whose remarkable contributions to the historical and cultural heritage of the subcontinent" shaped an awakening amongst both Indians and foreigners about the true nature and extent of the subcontinent’s amazing past.
Centuries of Islamic rule coupled with the economic and cultural decline of Hindu communities in the subcontinent had led to the almost complete erasure of India’s past, including its ancient philosophies, culture, history and architectural achievements. Even the overwhelming majority of Indians were unaware of their marvellous heritage.
The first British who came to rule India were men of the Enlightenment with an intense curiosity about foreign civilisations, antiquities and such things. Once some of these truly remarkable men began investigating India’s past, its languages, laws, scriptures, literature and archaeology, the world realised that it had stumbled upon a vast and splendid treasure house hidden under the debris of time and ignorance.
Much of what is common knowledge about India today was completely unknown before the late 18th and 19th centuries. At that time, apart from Hindus fearfully preserving the language of their scriptures, few people in the world had even heard of the Sanskrit language. It was men like William Jones — who came to Calcutta in 1783 as a judge of the recently formed Supreme Court — who were responsible for championing Sanskrit language, its astonishing grammar and vast literature to the educated world.
It was Jones’ famous speech on Sanskrit that hoisted the language on the world pedestal. He declared: "The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident…" This finding caused a stir in the Western world and aroused a universal interest that remains kindled to this day.
Jones was instrumental in establishing the Asiatic Society at Calcutta in 1784 with the aim of promoting the study of India’s part and culture in a concerted, collective manner. The society, the authors write, "was built on the belief that it was the East that held the secrets of early history and civilisation of man, and that without the knowledge of the East, history of man could not be written."
The book goes on to profile other great orientalists such as Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, whose abiding interest in Sanskrit works began with his translation of ancient Hindu laws in a tome titled A Code of Gentoo Laws, or, Ordinations of the Pundits. He went on to write A Grammar of the Bengal Language and translations of the Upanishads.
Here it must be mentioned that most of these remarkable British nationals would not have been able to achieve what they had set out to accomplish without the support of the British colonial establishment. Even though profit and the need to keep the natives pacified was the main purpose of the East India Company and the British Raj that succeeded it, there was also a belief that the enormous subcontinent needed to be investigated, comprehended and documented. The colonial establishment thus actively aided the endeavours of the British rediscoverers of India’s past and its diverse culture.
What makes this book extremely readable is its anecdotal style and impeccable English. It is not a pedantic work that will deter the casual reader for whom it is intended. The title of the book, however, is in my view somewhat misleading. The book is really about 15 British personalities who came to India and helped reveal one or more aspects of its forgotten or lesser-known past. It is about one civilisation: the syncretic Indian civilisation that spanned centuries, a diversity of beliefs, cultural divides and vast linguistic variations.
The 15 standalone essays in the book are on well-known figures such as William Jones, Sir Charles Wilkins, Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, James Prinsep, the artists Daniells, archaeologists Sir Alexander Cunningham and Sir J.H. Marshall, historian V.A. Smith as well as lesser-known personalities like Sanskrit scholars Henry Thomas Colebrooke and Horace Hayman Wilson, the linguist Sir G.A. Grierson, Buddhist scholar Brian Houghton Hodgson and others.
These extraordinary men deserve to be remembered, especially by Indians. For, they pioneered the re-discovery of India. Before them the world considered Indians, particularly its Hindu communities to be pagan barbarians with little sign of civilisation. Most Indians living in their self-contained, isolated villages had little idea of their splendid heritage. Once these men parted the veil of history, the world would not be the same again and nor would India.