Essay on Pioneers in Rediscovery


With the arrival of Sir William Jones in Calcutta (1783), the pace of the search into India’s past increased. Before coming to India he had suggested that Persian and the European languages were derived from a common ancestor which was not Hebrew.

With the aid of Charles Wilkins (1749- 1836), an official of the British East India Company, and friendly Rengali pandits, Jones began to learn Sanskrit. He founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal on January 1, 1784 with himself as the president. In the journal of this society, Asiatic Researches, the first real steps towards revealing India’s past were taken.

In November 1784, the first direct translation of a Sanskrit work into English, Wilkin’s Dhagwad Gita, was completed. Wilkins followed this with a translation of the Hitopadesa in 1787.


In 1789 Jones translated Kalidasa’s Shakuntalam; he also translated Gita Govinda (1792) and the law-book of Manu (published posthumously in 1794 under the title Institutes of Hindoo Law). Jones and Wilkins could be called the fathers of Indology.

Interest in Sanskrit literature began to grow in Europe as a result of these translations. In 1795, the Ecole des Langues Orientales Vivantes was founded in France and Alexander Hamilton (1762-1824) at Paris became the first person to teach Sanskrit in Europe.

It was from Hamilton that Friedrich Schlegel, the first German Sanskrit scholar, learnt the lan­guage. The first university chair of Sanskrit was founded at the College de France in 1814, and held by Leonard de Chezy, while from 1818 onwards the larger German universities set up professorships.

Sanskrit was first taught in England in 1805 at the training college of the East India Company at Hertford. The earliest English chair was the Boden Professorship at Oxford, first filled in 1832 by H.H. Wilson.


Chairs were afterwards founded at London, Cambridge and Edinburgh, and at several other universities of Europe and America.

In 1816, Fraz Bopp (1791-1867), a Bavarian, succeeded in very tentatively reconstructing the common ancestor of Sanskrit and the classical languages of Europe, and comparative philology became an independent science.

The enormous Sanskrit-German dictionary [St. Petersburg Lexicon) was produced by the German scholars, Otto Bohtlingk and Rudolf Roth, and published in parts by the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences from 1852 to 1875.

The early work of the Asiatic Society of Bengal had been almost entirely literary and linguistic, and most of the 19th century Indologists concentrated mainly on written records.


Early in the 19th century, however, the Bengal Society began to turn towards the material remains of India’s past, e.g., temples, caves and shrines, together with early coins and copies of inscriptions and old scripts.

By working backwards from the current scripts the older ones were gradually deciphered. In 1937, James Prinsep, an official of the Calcutta Mint, and secretary of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, interpreted for the first time the earliest Brahmi script and was able to read the Asokan edicts.

Alexander Cunningham (called the father of Indian archaeol­ogy), who came to India in 1831 and retired in 1885, was appointed (1862) the first Archaeological Sur­veyor by the Government.

After William Jones, Indology owes more to Cunningham than to any other worker in the area. He was assisted by several other pioneers, and though, at the end of the 19th century, the activities of the Archaeological Survey almost ceased, owing to the meagreness of govern­ment grants, by 1900 many ancient buildings had been surveyed, and many inscriptions read and translated.


In the 20th century, archaeological excavations began on a large scale in India. (Archaeology’ is the science which enables us to dig the old mounds in a systematic manner, in successive layers, and to form an idea of the material life of the people.)

On Lord Curzon’s initiatives, the Archaeological Survey was reformed and enlarged, and John Marshall was appointed it’s director-general. Under Marshall’s directorship, the Archaeological Survey of India discovered the Indus Valley Civilisation.

The first relics of the Indus cities were noticed by Cunningham, who found strange unidentified seals in the neighbourhood of Harappa (now in Pakistan).

In 1921-22, an Indian officer of the Archaeological Survey, R.D. Baneijee, found further seals at Mohenjo- daro in Sind, and took them to be the remains of a pre-Aryan civilisation.


Under Marshall’s guidance, the sites were systematically excavated from 1924 to 1931. Further important discoveries were made at Harappa during the brief directorship of R.E.M. Wheeler just after the Second World War.

In the 19th century, Indians too began to participate in the efforts of revealing India’s past. Sanskrit scholars and epigraphists like Bhau Daji, Bhagwanlal Indraji, Rajendralal Mitra and R.G. Bhandarkar are illustrious examples.

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