James Prinsep

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James Prinsep
James Prinsep in medal cast c.1840 from the National Portrait Gallery
Born20 August 1799
Died22 April 1840(1840-04-22) (aged 40)
London, England
Academic work
Main interestsNumismatics, Philology, Metallurgy and Meteorology
Notable worksJournal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal
Notable ideasDeciphering Kharosthi and Brahmi scripts

James Prinsep FRS (20 August 1799 – 22 April 1840) was an English scholar, orientalist and antiquary. He was the founding editor of the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal and is best remembered for deciphering the Kharosthi and Brahmi scripts of ancient India. He studied, documented and illustrated many aspects of numismatics, metallurgy, meteorology apart from pursuing his career in India as an assay master at the mint in Benares.[1]

Early life[edit]

Young James drawn by his sister Emily

James Prinsep was the seventh son and the tenth child of John Prinsep (1746–1830) and his wife, Sophia Elizabeth Auriol (1760–1850). John Prinsep went to India in 1771 with almost no money and became a successful indigo planter. He returned to England in 1787 with a fortune of £40,000 and established himself as an East India merchant. He moved to Clifton in 1809 after incurring losses. His connections helped him find work for all his sons and several members of the Prinsep family rose to high positions in India. John Prinsep later became a member of parliament. James initially went to study in a school in Clifton run by a Mr. Bullock but learnt more at home from his older siblings. He showed a talent for detailed drawing and mechanical invention and this made him study architecture under the gifted but eccentric Augustus Pugin. His eyesight however declined due to an infection and he was unable to take up architecture as a profession. His father knew of an opening in the assay department at the mint in India and sent him to train in chemistry at Guy's Hospital and later as an apprentice to Robert Bingley, assay master at the Royal Mint in London (1818–19).[1][2]

Career in India[edit]

A Preacher Expounding The Poorans. In The Temple of Unn Poorna, Benares. Lithograph by Prinsep (1835)

Prinsep found a position as an assay master at the Calcutta mint and reached Calcutta along with his brother Henry Thoby on 15 September 1819. Within a year at Calcutta, he was sent by his superior, the eminent orientalist Horace Hayman Wilson, to work as assay master at the Benares mint. He stayed at Benares until the closure of that mint in 1830. He then moved back to Calcutta as deputy assay master, and when Wilson resigned in 1832, he was made assay master (overruling Wilson's nominee for that position, James Atkinson) at the new silver mint designed in Greek revival style by Major W. N. Forbes.

His work as assay master led him to conduct many scientific studies. He worked on means for measuring high temperatures in furnaces accurately. The publication of his technique in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London in 1828 led to his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society. He suggested the possibility of visual pyrometric measurement using a calibrated series of mica plates as well as using the thermal expansion of platinum but considered that a practical approach was to use calibrated combinations of platinum, gold and silver alloys placed in a cupel or crucible and observe their melting. He also described a pyrometer that measured the expansion of a small amount of air held within a gold bulb.[3] In 1833 he called for reforms to Indian weights and measures and advocated a uniform coinage based on the new silver rupee of the East India Company.[1] He also devised a balance so sensitive as to measure three-thousandth of a grain (≈0.19 mg).[4]


Lithograph of Kupuldhara Tulao, Benares by Prinsep (1834)

James Prinsep continued to take an interest in architecture at Benares. Regaining his eyesight, he studied and illustrated temple architecture, designed the new mint building at Benares as well as a church. In 1822 he conducted a survey of Benares and produced an accurate map at the scale of 8 inches to a mile. This map was lithographed in England. He also painted a series of watercolours of monuments and festivities in Benares which were sent to London in 1829 and published between 1830 and 1834 as Benares Illustrated, in a Series of Drawings. He helped design an arched tunnel to drain stagnant lakes and improve the sanitation of the densely populated areas of Benares and built a stone bridge over the Karamansa river. He helped restore the minarets of Aurangzeb which were in a state of collapse. When he moved to Calcutta, he offered to help complete a canal that had been planned by his brother Thomas but left incomplete by the latter's death in 1830. Thomas's canal linked the River Hooghly with branches of the Ganges further to the east.[1]

Asiatic Society of Bengal[edit]

Bairat inscription, on which Prinsep worked to decipher Brahmi. On display in the Asiatic Society. See commemorative plate in honour of James Prinsep.

In 1829, Captain James D. Herbert started a serial called Gleanings in Science. Captain Herbert, however, was posted as Astronomer to the King of Oudh in 1830, leaving the journal to the editorship of James Prinsep, who was himself the primary contributor to it. In 1832 he succeeded H. H. Wilson as secretary of the Asiatic Society of Bengal and suggested that the Society should take over Gleanings in Science and produce the Journal of the Asiatic Society. Prinsep became the founding editor of this journal and contributed articles on chemistry, mineralogy, numismatics and on the study of Indian antiquities. He was also very interested in meteorology and the tabulation of observations and the analysis of weather data from across the country. He worked on the calibration of instruments to measure humidity and atmospheric pressure.[5] He continued to edit the journal until his illness in 1838 which led to his leaving India and subsequently his death. Many of the plates in the journal were illustrated by him.[6]


Prinsep used bilingual Indo-Greek coins to decipher Kharoshthi. Obverse and reverse legends in Greek "Basileos Sotēros Menandroy" and Kharosthi "Maharaja Tratasa Menandrasa": "Of The Saviour King Menander".

Coins were Prinsep's first interest. He interpreted coins from Bactria and Kushan as well as Indian series coins, including "punch-marked" ones from the Gupta series. Prinsep suggested that there were three stages; the punch-marked, the die-struck, and the cast coins.[7][8] Prinsep also reported upon the native punch-marked coinage,[9] noting that they were better known in eastern India.[10]

Brahmi script philologist[edit]

The last two letters at the end of this inscriptions in Brahmi were guessed to form the word "dǎnam" (donation), which appears at the end of most inscriptions at Sanchi and Bharhut. This hypothesis permitted the complete decipherment of the Brahmi script by James Prinsep in 1837.[11][12][13]
Consonants of the Brahmi script, and their evolution down to modern Devanagari, according to James Prinsep, as published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, in March 1838.[14]

As a result of Prinsep's work as an editor of the Asiatic Society's journal, coins and copies of inscriptions were transmitted to him from all over India, to be deciphered, translated, and published.[15]

The decipherment of Brahmi became the focus of European scholarly attention in the early 19th-century during East India Company rule in India, in particular in the Asiatic Society of Bengal in Calcutta.[16][17][18][19] Brahmi was deciphered by Prinsep, who was then the secretary of the Society, in a series of scholarly articles published in the Society's journal between 1836 and 1838.[20][21][22][23] His breakthroughs built on the epigraphic work of Christian Lassen, Edwin Norris, H. H. Wilson and Alexander Cunningham, among others.[24][25][26]

The edicts in Brahmi script mentioned a King Devanampriya Piyadasi which Prinsep initially assumed was a Sri Lankan king.[27] He was then able to associate this title with Ashoka on the basis of Pali script from Sri Lanka communicated to him by George Turnour.[28][29] These scripts were found on the pillars at Delhi and Allahabad and on rock inscriptions from both sides of India, and also the Kharosthi script in the coins and inscriptions of the north-west. The idea of Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, a collection of Indian epigraphy, was first suggested by Prinsep and the work was formally begun by Sir Alexander Cunningham in 1877.[30] His studies on inscriptions helped in the establishment of date of Indian dynasties based on references to Antiochus and other Greeks.[1] Prinsep's research and writing were not confined to India. Prinsep also delved into the early history of Afghanistan, producing several works that touched on archaeological finds in that country. Many of the collections were sent by Alexander Burnes.[31] After James Prinsep's death, his brother Henry Thoby Prinsep published in 1844 a volume exploring the numismatist's work on collections made from Afghanistan.[32]

Other pursuits[edit]

A talented artist and draftsman, Prinsep made meticulous sketches of ancient monuments, astronomy, instruments, fossils and other subjects. He was also very interested in understanding weather. He designed a modified barometer that automatically compensated for temperature.[33] He maintained meteorological registers, apart from supplying barometers to volunteers and graphically summarising the records of others.[34][35][36] He conducted experiments on practical methods to prevent rusting of iron surfaces.[37]

Personal life[edit]

Prinsep married Harriet Sophia Aubert, elder daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel Jeremiah Aubert (grandson of Alexander Aubert) of the Bengal army and his wife Hannah, at the cathedral in Calcutta on 25 April 1835. They had a daughter Eliza in 1837 who was to be the only child to survive.[38][39]

He was elected a member to the American Philosophical Society in 1839.[40]

Death and legacy[edit]

Prinsep Ghat at Kolkata (Calcutta)
Portrait by Colesworthey Grant (c. 1838)

Prinsep literally worked himself to death. From 1838 he began to suffer from recurrent headaches and sickness. It was initially thought to be related to a liver (bilious) condition and he was forced to get away from his studies and left for England in November 1838 aboard the Herefordshire.[41] He arrived in England in poor condition and did not recover. He died on 22 April 1840 in his sister Sophia Haldimand's home at 31 Belgrave Square of a "softening of the brain".[1] A genus of plant Prinsepia was named after him by the botanist John Forbes Royle in 1839 in appreciation of his work.[42]

News of his death reached India and several memorials were commissioned. A bust at the Asiatic Society was to be made by Francis Chantrey but was finished by Henry Weekes. Prinsep Ghat, a Palladian porch on the bank of the Hooghly River designed by W. Fitzgerald in 1843, was erected in his memory by the citizens of Calcutta.[1][4][43] Part of his original collection of ancient coins and artefacts from the Indian subcontinent is now in the British Museum, London.[44]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Losty, JP (2004). "Prinsep, James (1799–1840)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.(subscription or UK public library membership required)
  2. ^ Prinsep, James (1858). Essays on Indian Antiquities, Historic, Numismatic, And Palæographic, Of The Late James Prinsep, F.R.S., Secretary to the Asiatic Society of Bengal; To Which Are Added His Useful Tables, Illustrative of Indian History, Chronology, Modern Coinages, Weights, Measures, Etc. Edited, With Notes, And Additional Matter, By Edward Thomas, Late of the Bengal Civil Service; Member of the Asiatic Societies of Calcutta, London, And Paris. In Two Volumes. – Vol. I. London: John Murray.
  3. ^ Prinsep, J (1828). "On the Measurement of High Temperatures". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. 118: 79–95. doi:10.1098/rstl.1828.0007.
  4. ^ a b Firminger, Walter Kelly (1906). Thacker's Guide to Calcutta. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink & Co. pp. 36–37.
  5. ^ Prinsep, J. (1836). "Experimental researches on the depression of the wet-bulb hygrometer". Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal: 396–432.
  6. ^ Mitra, Rajendralala (1885). Centenary Review of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. From 1784 to 1883. Part 1. History of the Society. Asiatic Society of Bengal. pp. 50–51.
  7. ^ Prinsep, J. (1837). "Specimens of Hindu Coins descended from the Parthian type, and of the Ancient Coins of Ceylon". Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. 6 (1): 288–302.
  8. ^ Prinsep, J. (1833). "Bactrian and Indo-Scythic Coins-continued". Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. 2: 405–416.
  9. ^ Prinsep, J. (1832). "On the Ancient Roman Coins in the Cabinet of the Asiatic Society". Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. 1: 392–408.
  10. ^ Bhandarkar, DR (1921). Lectures on Ancient Indian Numismatics. The Carmichael Lectures. University of Calcutta. pp. 38–42.
  11. ^ Salomon, Richard (1998). Indian Epigraphy: A Guide to the Study of Inscriptions in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and the other Indo-Aryan Languages. Oxford University Press. p. 207. ISBN 9780195356663.
  12. ^ Allen, Charles (2012). Ashoka: The Search for India's Lost Emperor. Little, Brown Book Group. ISBN 978-1-4087-0388-5.
  13. ^ Heinz, Carolyn Brown; Murray, Jeremy A. (2018). Asian Cultural Traditions: Second Edition. Waveland Press. ISBN 978-1-4786-3764-6.
  14. ^ Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Calcutta : Printed at the Baptist Mission Press [etc.] 1838.
  15. ^ Prinsep, J (1837). "Account of an Inscription found by Mr. H S Boulderson, in the neighbourhood of Bareilly". Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. 6 (2): 772–786.
  16. ^ Lahiri, Nayanjot (2015). Ashoka in Ancient India. Harvard University Press. pp. 14, 15. ISBN 978-0-674-05777-7. Archived from the original on 18 October 2021. Retrieved 20 March 2021. Facsimiles of the objects and writings unearthed—from pillars in North India to rocks in Orissa and Gujarat—found their way to the Asiatic Society of Bengal. The meetings and publications of the Society provided an unusually fertile environment for innovative speculation, with scholars constantly exchanging notes on, for instance, how they had deciphered the Brahmi letters of various epigraphs from Samudragupta's Allahabad pillar inscription, to the Karle cave inscriptions. The Eureka moment came in 1837 when James Prinsep, a brilliant secretary of the Asiatic Society, building on earlier pools of epigraphic knowledge, very quickly uncovered the key to the extinct Mauryan Brahmi script. Prinsep unlocked Ashoka; his deciphering of the script made it possible to read the inscriptions.
  17. ^ Thapar, Romila (2004). Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300. University of California Press. pp. 11, 178–179. ISBN 978-0-520-24225-8. Archived from the original on 22 July 2021. Retrieved 20 March 2021. The nineteenth century saw considerable advances in what came to be called Indology, the study of India by non-Indians using methods of investigation developed by European scholars in the nineteenth century. In India the use of modern techniques to 'rediscover' the past came into practice. Among these was the decipherment of the brahmi script, largely by James Prinsep. Many inscriptions pertaining to the early past were written in brahmi, but knowledge of how to read the script had been lost. Since inscriptions form the annals of Indian history, this decipherment was a major advance that led to the gradual unfolding of the past from sources other than religious and literary texts. [p. 11] ... Until about a hundred years ago in India, Ashoka was merely one of the many kings mentioned in the Mauryan dynastic list included in the Puranas. Elsewhere in the Buddhist tradition he was referred to as a chakravartin, ..., a universal monarch but this tradition had become extinct in India after the decline of Buddhism. However, in 1837, James Prinsep deciphered an inscription written in the earliest Indian script since the Harappan, brahmi. There were many inscriptions in which the King referred to himself as Devanampiya Piyadassi (the beloved of the gods, Piyadassi). The name did not tally with any mentioned in the dynastic lists, although it was mentioned in the Buddhist chronicles of Sri Lanka. Slowly the clues were put together but the final confirmation came in 1915, with the discovery of yet another version of the edicts in which the King calls himself Devanampiya Ashoka. [pp. 178–179]
  18. ^ Coningham, Robin; Young, Ruth (2015). The Archaeology of South Asia: From the Indus to Asoka, c. 6500 BCE – 200 CE. Cambridge University Press. pp. 71–72. ISBN 978-0-521-84697-4. Archived from the original on 10 November 2021. Retrieved 20 March 2021. Like William Jones, Prinsep was also an important figure within the Asiatic Society and is best known for deciphering early Brahmi and Kharosthi scripts. He was something of a polymath, undertaking research into chemistry, meteorology, Indian scriptures, numismatics, archaeology and mineral resources, while fulfilling the role of Assay Master of the East India Company mint in East Bengal (Kolkata). It was his interest in coins and inscriptions that made him such an important figure in the history of South Asian archaeology, utilising inscribed Indo-Greek coins to decipher Kharosthi and pursuing earlier scholarly work to decipher Brahmi. This work was key to understanding a large part of the Early Historical period in South Asia ...
  19. ^ Kopf, David (2021). British Orientalism and the Bengal Renaissance: The Dynamics of Indian Modernization 1773–1835. Univ of California Press. pp. 265–266. ISBN 978-0-520-36163-8. Archived from the original on 14 October 2021. Retrieved 26 March 2021. In 1837, four years after Wilson's departure, James Prinsep, then Secretary of the Asiatic Society, unravelled the mystery of the Brahmi script and thus was able to read the edicts of the great Emperor Asoka. The rediscovery of Buddhist India was the last great achievement of the British orientalists. The later discoveries would be made by Continental Orientalists or by Indians themselves.
  20. ^ Verma, Anjali (2018). Women and Society in Early Medieval India: Re-interpreting Epigraphs. London: Routledge. pp. 27ff. ISBN 978-0-429-82642-9. Archived from the original on 14 October 2021. Retrieved 20 March 2021. In 1836, James Prinsep published a long series of facsimiles of ancient inscriptions, and this series continued in volumes of the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. The credit for decipherment of the Brahmi script goes to James Prinsep and thereafter Georg Buhler prepared complete and scientific tables of Brahmi and Khrosthi scripts.
  21. ^ Kulke, Hermann; Rothermund, Dietmar (2016). A History of India. London: Routledge. pp. 39ff. ISBN 978-1-317-24212-3. Archived from the original on 15 May 2021. Retrieved 20 March 2021. Ashoka's reign of more than three decades is the first fairly well-documented period of Indian history. Ashoka left us a series of great inscriptions (major rock edicts, minor rock edicts, pillar edicts) which are among the most important records of India's past. Ever since they were discovered and deciphered by the British scholar James Prinsep in the 1830s, several generations of Indologists and historians have studied these inscriptions with great care.
  22. ^ Wolpert, Stanley A. (2009). A New History of India. Oxford University Press. p. 62. ISBN 978-0-19-533756-3. Archived from the original on 1 May 2016. Retrieved 26 March 2021. James Prinsep, an amateur epigraphist who worked in the British mint in Calcutta, first deciphered the Brāhmi script.
  23. ^ Chakrabarti, Pratik (2020). Inscriptions of Nature: Geology and the Naturalization of Antiquity. Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 48ff. ISBN 978-1-4214-3874-0. Archived from the original on 14 October 2021. Retrieved 20 March 2021. Prinsep, the Orientalist scholar, as the secretary of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (1832–39), oversaw one of the most productive periods of numismatic and epigraphic study in nineteenth-century India. Between 1833 and 1838, Prinsep published a series of papers based on Indo-Greek coins and his deciphering of Brahmi and Kharoshthi scripts.
  24. ^ Salomon 1998, pp. 204–205. "Prinsep came to India in 1819 as assistant to the assay master of the Calcutta Mint and remained until 1838, when he returned to England for reasons of health. During this period Prinsep made a long series of discoveries in the fields of epigraphy and numismatics as well as in the natural sciences and technical fields. But he is best known for his breakthroughs in the decipherment of the Brahmi and Kharosthi scripts. ... Although Prinsep's final decipherment was ultimately to rely on paleographic and contextual rather than statistical methods, it is still no less a tribute to his genius that he should have thought to apply such modern techniques to his problem."
  25. ^ Sircar, D. C. (2017) [1965]. Indian Epigraphy. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 11ff. ISBN 978-81-208-4103-1. Archived from the original on 14 October 2021. Retrieved 20 March 2021. The work of the reconstruction of the early period of Indian history was inaugurated by European scholars in the 18th century. Later on, Indians also became interested in the subject. The credit for the decipherment of early Indian inscriptions, written in the Brahmi and Kharosthi alphabets, which paved the way for epigraphical and historical studies in India, is due to scholars like Prinsep, Lassen, Norris and Cunningham.
  26. ^ Garg, Sanjay (2017). "Charles Masson: A footloose antiquarian in Afghanistan and the building up of numismatic collections in museums in India and England". In Himanshu Prabha Ray (ed.). Buddhism and Gandhara: An Archaeology of Museum Collections. Taylor & Francis. pp. 181ff. ISBN 978-1-351-25274-4. Archived from the original on 2 January 2020. Retrieved 5 September 2018.
  27. ^ Prinsep, J (1837). "Interpretation of the most ancient of inscriptions on the pillar called lat of Feroz Shah, near Delhi, and of the Allahabad, Radhia and Mattiah pillar, or lat inscriptions which agree therewith". Journal of the Asiatic Society. 6: 566–609.
  28. ^ Prinsep, J. (1837). "Further elucidation of the lat or Silasthambha inscriptions from various sources". Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal: 790–797.
  29. ^ Prinsep, J (1837). "Note on the Facsimiles of the various Inscriptions on the ancient column at Allahabad, retaken by Captain Edward Smith, Engineers". Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. 6: 963–980.
  30. ^ Cunningham, A (1877). Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum. Volume 1. Inscritions of Asoka. Calcutta: Government of India.
  31. ^ Prinsep, J (1833). "Note on Lieutenant Burnes' Collection of Ancient coins". Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal: 310–318.
  32. ^ Prinsep, Henry Thoby (1844). Note on the Historical Results deducible from Recent Discoveries in Afghanistan. London: W. H. Allen & Co.
  33. ^ Prinsep, J (1833). "Description of a Compensation Barometer, and Observations on Wet Barometers". Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. 2: 258–262.
  34. ^ Prinsep, J (1828). "Abstract of a Meteorological Journal Kept at Benares during the Years 1824, 1825, and 1826". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. 118: 251–255. doi:10.1098/rstl.1828.0013. S2CID 186210023.
  35. ^ Prinsep, J (1836). "A comparative view of the daily range of the Barometer in different parts of India". Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. 5: 816–827.
  36. ^ Prinsep, J (1832). "Observations of the Transit of Mercury". Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. 1: 408–411.
  37. ^ Prinsep, J. (1834). "Experiments on the Preservation of Sheet Iron from Rust in India". Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. 3: 191–192.
  38. ^ Losty, JP (2004). "Prinsep, James (1799–1840)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/22812. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  39. ^ Prinsep, James (1858). Essays on Indian Antiquities, Historic, Numismatic, And Palæographic, Of The Late James Prinsep, F.R.S., Secretary to the Asiatic Society of Bengal; To Which Are Added His Useful Tables, Illustrative of Indian History, Chronology, Modern Coinages, Weights, Measures, Etc. Edited, With Notes, And Additional Matter, By Edward Thomas, Late of the Bengal Civil Service; Member of the Asiatic Societies of Calcutta, London, And Paris. In Two Volumes. – Vol. I. London: John Murray.
  40. ^ "APS Member History". search.amphilsoc.org. Retrieved 9 April 2021.
  41. ^ Anonymous (1839). "Preface". Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. 7 (1): x-xi.
  42. ^ Royle, JF (1839). Illustrations of the Botany and other branches of the natural history of the Himalayan Mountains. Volume 1. London: W H Allen and Co.
  43. ^ Laurie, W.F.B. (1887). Sketches of some distinguished Anglo-Indians. London: W.H.Allen & Co. pp. 171–174.
  44. ^ British Museum Collection

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