The Asiatic Society
|The Asiatic Society|
|Location||1 Park Street
Kolkata – 700016
West Bengal, India
|Director||Mihir Kumar Chakrabarti|
The Asiatic Society was founded by Sir William Jones on January 15, 1784 in a meeting presided over by Sir Robert Chambers, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court at the Fort William in Calcutta, then capital of the British Raj, to enhance and further the cause of Oriental research. At the time of its foundation, this Society was named as "Asiatick Society". In 1825, the society dropped the antique k without any formal resolution and the Society was renamed as "The Asiatic Society". In 1832 the name was changed to "The Asiatic Society of Bengal" and again in 1936 it was renamed as "The Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal." Finally, on July 1, 1951 the name of the society was changed to its present one. The Society is housed in a building at Park Street in Kolkata (Calcutta). The Society moved into this building during 1808. In 1823, the Medical and Physical Society of Calcutta was formed and all the meetings of this society were held in the Asiatic Society.
In January, 1784 Sir William Jones sent out a circular-letter to a selected number of British residents of Calcutta with a view to establish a society for the Asiatic studies. In response to his letter, thirty European gentlemen of Calcutta including Mr. Justice John Hyde[disambiguation needed], 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 old Supreme Court of Calcutta. The 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 thirty European gentlemen who had assembled accepted the membership of this Society.
|“||"The bounds of investigations will be the geographical limits of Asia, and within these limits its enquiries will be extended to whatever is performed by man or produced by nature."||”|
— The Memorandum of Articles of the Asiatick Society, prepared by Jones
In the first meeting, the Governor-General, Warren Hastings was elected its first President and Sir William Jones the Vice-President. Warren Hastings greatly sympathized with the aims and objects of the Society. But he declined to continue in this post. On his request and advice Sir William Jones was elected President of the Society on February 5, 1784 and held this post till his death in 1794.
Initially, the Grand Jury Room of the Supreme Court was used for the meetings of the members, who had to pay a quarterly fee of two mohurs. The members were elected through ballot-voting. On September 29, 1796 the Society decided to have its own building. At this time John Borthwick Gilchrist was secretary. John Herbert Harrington, then Vice-President selected the corner of Park Street and Chowringhee Road (present location) for the Society's house. The site was granted to the society on May 15, 1805. The original plan for the new building was prepared by Captain Thomas Preston. The French architect, Jean Jacques Pichon (or Jean Jacques Pissaun) made certain modifications to it and constructed a two-storeyed building at the site. This 15,071 ft² building was built at a cost of Rs.30,000.00. The first quarterly meeting of the Society for 1808 was held at its new building on February 3, 1808.
In 1808, two committees were formed, the Physical Committee and the Library Committee, the former for the promotion of natural history, medicine, physics etc. and the latter for that of literature, philosophy, history, antiquities etc. William Carey, J. Leyden, A. Lockett and William Hunter were included in both the Committees. Both these committees went moribund in no time and the Physical Committee had to be revived in 1818 by a resolution. A new chapter of the Society opened when in 1829 its membership was made open to native Indians. Ram Comal Sen, one of the earliest Indian members of the Society and a close friend of Horace Hayman Wilson, the then Secretary, recalled his twenty nine years with the Society when he accepted the post of ‘native’ Secretary, and Wilson appointed Ram Comal to his new post only seven days before the Special Meeting of the Society in which he announced his departure for England. A number of Indians were elected members including Dwarakanath Tagore, Sivchandra Das, Maharaja Baidyanath Roy, Maharaja Bunwari Govind Roy, Raja Kalikrishna Bahadur, Rajchunder Das and Prasanna Kumar Tagore.
The publication of the Books became assured when Hunter's Hindoostan Press took up its printing responsibility. Ramkamal Sen, the 'native' manager of Hunter's Press, later on became the 'native' Secretary of the Asiatic Society itself. In 1846, two years after Ramkamal Sen's death, Rajendralal Mitra, then a young man, joined the Asiatic Society as its Assistant Librarian. The Indian Renaissance was made possible and in fact was accelerated by the quiet but far-reaching work going on at the corner of Park Street despite all odds and adverse circumstances.
In 1837, only four years after Wilson's departure, James Prinsep, the new Secretary of the Society, deciphered the Brahmi Script and was able to translate what are now known as the Ashokan Edicts. It was a world event that revolutionised all future Oriental studies and contributed to the growth of Comparative Philology.
The Transactions of the Asiatic Society were first published under the title of Asiatick Researches in 1788, the subsequent four volumes being published in 1790, 1793, 1795 and 1797 respectively. At first the publication was private, undertaken by Manual Cantopher on the condition that each member of the Society would purchase one volume at a price of Rs. 20. Later on, the Society itself undertook the responsibility of the publication. The publication Asiatick Researches was so much in demand in the literary and scholarly world that a pirated edition of the first volume came into circulation in England in 1798, and some of the volumes of the Asiatick Researches were translated into German as well as in French. Through its published Transactions the Society now came in touch with several distinguished scholarly Associations abroad such as the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, the Linnean Society of London, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and the Society of Antiquities of England.
The Society also proved to be a pivotal centre of Oriental studies and research and extended its helping hand to the other two major centres of activity that paved the way to the Indian Renaissance, namely, the College at Fort William and the Serampore Mission of William Carey. In 1805 a proposal came to the Asiatic Society from the Serampore Mission to publish classical Sanskrit works with their English translations, and the first book chosen for this was the Sanskrit epic, Ramayana. For this purpose the Society spent from its fund five thousand and five hundred rupees. From 1788 till its cessation in 1839 the journal Asiatic Researches ran into twenty volumes and was superseded by the Journal of the Asiatic Society, henceforth the official organ of the Society. The Society also started in 1905 a new serial entitled the Memoirs which was discontinued in 1933. The nucleus of the Society's own library was formed soon after the building was completed in 1808.
Sir Charles Wilkins translated the Bhagavadgita into English in 1785, deciphered a number of Sanskrit inscriptions published a translation of Hitopadesa (1787) and a Grammar of the Sanskrit Language. Sir William Jones translated Kalidasa's Abhijnana books (1789), Jayadeva's Gitagovinda (1789) and Manusamhita (1794), and edited Ritusamhara (1792). Jones also translated a Persian work Laila Majnu. The works initiated by Wilkins and Jones were continued by Colebrooke and Wilson. Colebrooke contributed nineteen papers to the Transactions of the Society. He published an English translation of Jagannath Tarkapanchanan's celebrated work on Hindu law, the Vivadabhangarnava under the title Digest of Hindu Law on Contracts and Successions (1798). He also published a critical edition of the Sanskrit lexicon Amarakosha (1808). Wilson was Secretary of the Asiatic Society from 1811 to 1832 and published Kalidasa's Meghaduta (1813) and translated eighteen principal Puranas into English. He also published an edition of Kalhana's Rajatarangini (1825).Wilson’s work entitled Select specimen of the Theatre of the Hindus published in 3 big volume in 1827 was translated into German and French languages. Sir John Shore, who succeeded William Jones as President of the Society in 1794, published from a Persian version an abridged English translation of the Yoga Vasistha and contributed six papers to the Asiatic Researches. Alexander Csoma de Koros’s Grammar of Tibetan Language was published in 1834.
At present, the library of the Asiatic Society has a collection of about 1,17,000 books and 79,000 journals printed in almost all the major languages of the world. It has also a collection of 293 maps, microfische of 48,000 works, microfilm of 387,003 pages, 182 paintings, 2500 pamphlets and 2150 photographs. The earliest printed book preserved in this library is Juli Firmici's Astronomicorum Libri published in 1499. It has in its possession a large number of books printed in India in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The library also possesses many rare and scarcely available books. The library has a rich collection of about 47,000 manuscripts in 26 scripts. The most notable amongst them are an illustrated manuscript of the Qur'an, a manuscript of the Gulistan text, and a manuscript of Padshah Nama bearing the signature of Emperor Shahjahan. The number of journals in the possession of the library is about 80,000 at present.
The early collection of this library was enriched by the contributions it received from its members. On March 25, 1784 the library received seven Persian manuscripts from Henri Richardson. The next contribution came from William Marsden, who donated his book, History of Island of Sumatra (1783) on November 10, 1784. Robert Home, the first Library-in-Charge (1804) donated his small but valuable collection of works on art. The first accession of importance was a gift from the Seringapatam Committee on February 3, 1808 consisting of a collection from the Palace Library of Tipu Sultan. The library received the Surveyor-General Colonel Mackenzie's collection of manuscripts and drawings in December 1822.
Manuscript Collection 
Manuscript Collection of the society is varied and rich, and covers most of the Indian languages and scripts and even several Asian ones, e.g., Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Gurumukhi, Kanarese, Urdu, Marathi, Modi, Nagari, Newari, Oriya, Rajasthani, Sarada, Armenian, Sinhalese, Arabic, Persian, Pushto, Javanese, Turki, Burmese, Chinese, Siamese, Tibetan etc. The materials used for the manuscripts are also varied: palm and palmyra leaves, barks of different trees, papers of various grades.
Sanskritic Manuscripts 
The manuscripts cover the period from the 7th century AD down to the 19th century. These are useful source materials to illustrate the development of the Indian scripts (especially Bengali, Nagari etc.). The colophons and post-colophons contain information relating to socio-economic conditions of the people. Besides, they help us to fix the chronology of the Royal dynasties of India. Where the inscriptions fail to ascertain dates and chronology, the manuscripts may throw some light, provided a thorough critical study of these and their colophons and postcolophons were made.
Some of the rare Sanskrit manuscripts may be mentioned here. Brihati (from Kavindracharya's collection), Amrita Vindu (11th century), Kiranavali, Charucharya, Nartaka Nirnaya, Parasika-prakasa, Sanskrita-ratnakara, Lalitavistara, Horoscope of a Muslim of the Mughal Court (1640) A Deed of Mortgage (1639), Ramayana (Bengali) of Ramananda Yati, Vajrayana text (11th century), a text on Buddhist Nyaya, Rigveda Padapatha, Laghu-Kalachakra-tika, Kalachakravetara, Kuttanimatam, Vajravalinama mannadalopayika, Ramacharita of Sandhyakar Nandi, Bhattikavyatika of Srinivasa, and Paragali Mahabharata. The manuscript of Kubjikamatam is of the 7th century AD. The manuscript of Rigveda Padapatha, copied in 1362, is perhaps "the oldest manuscript of the Rigveda."
Islamic Section 
Of the many Islamic Manuscripts there are some which are extremely rare and unique. Of these only a few may be mentioned: Tahdhib Sharh as-Sab'at Mu'allaqat (early 12th-century Arabic), Qala'id al-Iquian wa Mahasin al-A'yan (12th century), Kharidat al-Qasr (12th century), Al-Jam' bayna as-Sahihin abridged version with autograph, (13th century), Al-Madkhul (13th century), Tafsir-i Quran (Persian, 13th century, important also for calligraphy), Tuhfat al-Ahbar fi usul al-Hadith wa'l Akhbar (15th century), Kitab al-I'lan (18th century), Saha'if-i Shara'if or Durar al-Mansur (Persian, 19th century, an autographed copy), and Adab-i Alamgiri (18th century). There are large numbers of illuminated and illustrated manuscripts of different schools, many of which are unique for their calligraphy, delicacy of their lines, and elegance of composition and charming colour schemes. These miniatures still afford glimpses of India's past achievements, Of these unique manuscripts (earliest belonging to the 10th century AD) mention may be made of a few: Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita, Aparimitayurnama Mahayana sutra, Pancharaksha, Paramarthanama Sangati, Devimahatmya, Viveka Panchamrita, Bhagavatgita, Shahnama, Kullayat-i Saadi, Suwaru 'l-aqalim, Farang-i Aurang Shahi, Ain-i Akbari, Diwan-i Makhfi, Qissa-i Nush Afarin, Jami' at-Tawarikh, Amir nama Tutinama, Iyar-i Danesh, Bihar-i Danesh, Tarjuma Mahabharata, Tafribu l-Imarah (by Silchand, dedicated to J. H. Lushington), and Imaratu l-Akbar (by Chitarmal for James Duncan). Many scholars are using the collection for editing their texts and for translation in modern languages.
English Manuscripts 
In the Library there are preserved a large number of old letters some of which date back to1784, just after the Society was founded. These letters were received by the Society from persons belonging to different walks of life, requesting information on such subjects as old and rare manuscripts, ancient monuments, coins etc. Some among the writers of these letters were persons well known for their literary, scientific and other cultural accomplishments. These old files constitute important documents relating to the history of the Society, as also of many other scientific and humanistic organisations that were established in India either in the 19th or 20th centuries.
Urdu Manuscripts 
Sino-Tibetan and Burmese Manuscripts 
The Society has a complete set of Kanjur and Tanjur texts of the Buddhist scriptures and some extra-canonical works. These were collected by B. H. Hodgson and A. Csoma de koros. A section of the collection has been catalogued. There are over one hundred titles of Chinese books, some of which are rare and valuable for Chinese studies. These cover almost all the subjects relating to Chinese Culture, Civilization and Science and Buddhism. Subjects covered include Classical Literature, Language. History, Geography, Topography, Philosophy, Religion, manners and customs, biography of scholars, sciences (Botanical, Astronimical, Zoological).
The Society has a valuable collection of about 162 Burmese manuscript written on parabaikes and palm leaf. The manuscripts deal with Buddhistic texts, Religion, History of the world and also of Burmja and Arakan, works on Gramour (including that of kaccayana) and Rhetoric, Buddhist cosmography, Astrology, Medicine etc.
Bengali Manuscripts 
Other than Sanskrit, a few Bengali manuscripts have been found written by Bengali Brahmins residing in Varanasi. Parageli Mahabharat, Chuti Khan's Asvamedha Parva, and many other important manuscripts were purchased. Mss. donated by Justice Ramaprosad Mukherjee and Sri A Roy enriched the collection. The society has 703 Bengali and 12 Assamese manuscripts in the collection. It comprises Asiatic Society's own collection, Government collection, Indian Museum collection and donors' collection. At present, the collection of Bengali manuscripts in the possession of Asiatic Society is rich in respect of number and rarity. The Society has manuscripts on Ramayana, Mahabharata, Srimadbhagavat, Mangala Kavyas, treatises on Vaisnava faith and its allied subjects. Folk literature, erotic verses and Vaisnaba Sahajiya Cult etc.
Rajasthani Manuscripts 
The Society possesses very rare, valuable and important Rajasthani Manuscripts which date the pre-middle and middle years. The Society prepared and brought out a descriptive catalogue of Rajasthani manuscripts comprising 636 manuscripts.
Rare Book Division 
In 1978 the Council decided to open a Rare Book Division. The preliminarhy screening of the collection has since been started. Among the earliest printed books mention may be made of the following: Julii Firmici Astronomicorum libri octo integri (Venice 1499), Kitab al-Qanun (Arabic/Romae 1595), Kripar Sstrer Arthabhed (Bengali in Roman Character, Kisbon 1743); S. Purchas’s Purchas: His Pilgrimage (London, 1 61 4), N. Halhed’s Grammar of the Bengal Language, (Hooghly, 1778), Malabar and English Dictionary, (Madras, 1779), Rasamanjari (Sanskrit, Banaras, 1791), Ram Ram Bose’s Lipimala (Bengali, Serampore, 1802), The Ramayana 3 vols, (Bengali, Serampore, 1803), Hitopadesa (Sanskrit, Serampore, 1804), Colebrooke’s Grammar of the Sanskrit language vol. 1 (Serampore, 1805).
The museum of the Society was founded in 1814 under the superintendence of N. Wallich. The rapid growth of its collection is evident from its first catalogue, published in 1849. When the Indian Museum of Calcutta was established in 1814, the Society handed over most of its valuable collections to it. The Society however still has a museum of its own which possesses a rock edict of Asoka (c. 250 BCE) and a significant collection of copper plate inscriptions, coins, sculptures, manuscripts and archival records. Some masterpieces, like Joshua Reynolds’ Cupid asleep on Cloud , Guido Cagnacci's Cleopatra, Thomas Daniell's A Ghat at Benares and Peter Paul Rubens’ Infant Christ are also in the possession of this museum.
See also 
- Official website of The Asiatic Socirty, History of The Asiatic Society
- Chakrabarty, R. (2008). The Asiatic Society:1784–2008, An Overview in Time Past and Time Present: Two Hundred and Twenty-five Years of the Asiatic Society' Kolkata: The Asiatic Society, pp.2–24
- Official website of The Asiatic Society, Presidents of The Asiatic Society
- Official website of The Asiatic Socirty, Manuscript Collection of The Asiatic Society
- Official website of The Asiatic Society, Rare Book Collection of The Asiatic Society
- Mitra, S.K. (1974). The Asiatic Society, Calcutta: The Asiatic Society.
- "Asiatic Society", Banglapedia. On Line.
- "Asiatic Society of Bengal", Scholarly Societies Project.
- The Asiatic Society official website
- Scanned volumes of the Journal of the Asiatic Society