For Sir William Jones, a posting in Calcutta, India was a dream come true. He wanted to learn and know about everything that India could give.
15 January, 1784 CE. Grand Jury Room of the Supreme Court, Calcutta
Sir William Jones sat at the large, polished table and glanced around, justifiably proud of the assembled men. Here, indeed, was a gathering that might thrill the heart of any man! There, at the head, was Governor-General Warren Hastings himself; Jonathan Duncan (who would later become Governor of Bombay); Charles Chapman, Hastings’s emissary to Vietnam; Justice John Hyde, his own peer; Sir Charles Wilkins who was the first to master Sanskrit language amongst them — why, it read almost like a Who’s Who of the East India Company!
As he rose to deliver a welcome speech, his mind flew to another gathering — a motley crew, that one, but which had, as far as he was concerned, sown the seed for this one.
25 September, 1783 CE. Aboard the frigate Crocodile
“What a very peculiar name!” Sir William Jones pondered the name of the ship that had carried him for five months, from England to India. He and his wife Anna Maria were now travelling up the Hugli, on their way to Calcutta. India was so new to them — her skies, seas, birds and animals were so alien. “Oh, look — there’s a tiger, come down to drink water from the river!” Anna Maria had pointed out with mingled awe and delight — and for Sir William Jones, this journey satisfied a deep-seated longing: not for nothing was he called ‘The Orientalist’ by his peers; such was his obsession with this land. And now … he was about to see all her in all her glory, in his capacity as Judge of His Majesty’s Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William in Bengal, with a salary of 6000 pounds per annum! It was a fortune, indeed!
India, her literature, beauty and history had attracted him for years — indeed, the whole of Asia — and many were the hours he’d spent, reading every book he could lay hands on. Yet, to his starved mind, there seemed to be so little material! He dreamt of settling somewhere in India, and prepared a document, setting out everything he wished to study. “
The laws of the Hindoos and Mahomedans; the history of the ancient world; proofs and illustrations of scripture; traditions concerning the deluge; modern politics and geography of Hindusthan, ” he wrote. “ Arithmetic and Geometry and mixed sciences of Asiaticks; Medicine, Chemistry, Surgery and Anatomy of the Indians; natural products of India; poetry, rhetoric and morality of Asia; music of the Eastern nations; the best accounts of Tibet and Kashmir, trade, manufacturer, agriculture, and commerce of India …”
A shout roused him, and the ship erupted into activity. A bend in the river, and suddenly, through the ships’ masts, loomed white, beautiful mansions of Calcutta, the ‘modern capital of the East.’ The elaborate ramparts of Fort William were visible in the foreground. Sir William Jones clutched his precious document and rose, as the ship docked at Chandpal Ghat.
He and his wife were welcomed with a 21-gun salute — a great honour! — and taken aboard the Governor-General’s barge. They descended at the end of Esplanade Row, where a huge gathering stood ready to welcome them. Here was the land of his dreams: the sea, the people, the teeming tropical climate — and suddenly, it struck him.
Even as the new arrivals toured the Customs house wharf, with enormous warehouses of muslins, sugar, silk, saltpetre, opium, indigo, pepper, rice, civet and gum lac, Sir William Jones had decided that he would begin his work right here.
At the Grand Jury Room, he was almost at the end of his speech. “Asia is the nurse of sciences, and the inventress of delightful and useful arts,” he spoke. “Our investigations will be bound by only the geographical limits of Asia, encompassing Man and Nature; whatever is performed by the one, or produced by the other.”
“Excellent,” murmured someone. “But we don’t have the funds to run this thing — not even a permanent address!”
“When ideals are lofty,” Sir William Jones proclaimed, although he was subject to bouts of nervousness. “Such issues will resolve themselves. I have faith in our work.”
“So be it. What shall we call this — this gathering, then?”
“The Asiatick Society,” Sir William Jones announced grandly, suddenly buoyed by enthusiasm. “Long may it live!”
Sir William Jones’s wish came true. The Asiatick Society made a miniscule beginning, but grew gradually, and re-discovered India and her past. Its members published translations of famous Sanskrit works such as the Ramayana; the Bhagavad Gita, Kalidasa’s poems and Jayadeva’s Gita Govindham. James Prinsep, Secretary of the Society in 1837, was the first to decipher the Brahmi Script. Pirated copies of its Research Journals were printed in England, in 1798! In his Third Discourse to the Society, Sir William Jones declared, famously: “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.” He was the first to put forward the theory that Indian and European Languages might share a common ancestor. Later, the Asiatick Society moved to its permanent (and current) residence at 1, Park Street, Kolkatta – and formed the basis for another, premier Indian institution: the Archeological Survey of India.