Sir William Jones (1746 – 1794), once a puisne Judge of old Supreme Court, dreamt of a centre for Asian studies, which included almost everything concerning the Asian continent. He wanted a one stop solution for Oriental studies and Researches in India. This paved the way for the establishment of the Asiatic Society, way back in 1784, more than 200 years ago
The Asiatic Society, as it stands today, was possible due to generous contributions from the Government of India and the Government of West Bengal. It was formally re-opened in 1965 by the then president of India, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan. Ever since its inception, the Asiatic Society gave platform to innumerable discourses in Indo-European languages, published Transactions, hosted a library with a valuable collection of books and was a pivotal study centre for Oriental studies and most importantly started a Museum under its own auspices.
The hall on ground floor of the Society’s house was suitably fitted for the purpose of displaying the museum articles, which was later shifted to the second floor after the completion of the building in 1875.
The museum was built to emphasise the educational role of the Society to all the common people while proving beneficial to research scholars across the globe. Later in 1849, Rajendralal Mitra, the then librarian and curator made the first catalogue for the museum, which was later modified by several eminent personalities. The catalogue spoke of nature and extent of the museum collections of the Society.
At that time, the museum was kept open from 8 am to 4 pm. It attracted a large number of visitors, Europeans as well as Indians. It was increasingly becoming popular as people from all walks of life flocked to visit the museum. So much so, even our beloved Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa visited the museum out of sheer curiosity. In 1860, an average of 185 persons visited the museum per day. And in 1864, when P. C. Bysack was the Curator, there were 1,04,640 visitors of whom 96% were Europeans.
The museum has valuable and select collection of art and antiquarian objects. As you enter the Asiatic Society, you have to visit the library on the first floor and seek a written permission (a pink slip) from the librarian, for visiting the museum. The library is huge with a vast collection of rare books. Inside the library, you can also find a couple of old selected oil paintings and busts on the walls and corridors. At the rear end of the library, there’s a corridor, which leads to the old building of the Asiatic Society. The expansive round verandah of the old building contains most of the busts and paintings. The verandah gives way to a few research labs and the famous Vidyasagar Hall, where all the discourses and lectures of the Society are conducted.
The actual museum is located on the second floor. As you reach the second floor, there are some sculptures, busts and paintings right inside the Curator’s office.The museum is basically a large hall with paintings hanging on its walls. There are many display tables, displaying the priceless collection of the manuscripts and copper inscriptions. The collection in the museum can be classified under the following heads.
Paintings and Busts
The museum has a splendid collection of oil paintings such as Sir William Jones as a boy, Cleopatra by Guido, Return of the Prodigal by Bonifazi and so on. Many of the paintings are memorials which the members secured of their distinguished collaborators such as, Warren Hastings, William Jones, Radha Kanta Dev, P. K. Tagore and others. Most of the paintings are collection of R. Home and are of a miscellaneous character. There are many rare pictures of Rubens, Rene, Domenichio, Reynolds, Canaletti, West Moreland, N. Roe Rich and Atul Bose.
The museum has an amazing collection of busts of famous personalities such as Sir William Jones, H. Colebrooke, J. Prinsep, Ashutosh Mukherjee, U. N. Brahmachari, H. H. Wilson, H. Colebrooke, G. Grierson, A. Croma di Koros and R. N. Tagore, whose contributions to the establishment of the Society is immense.
Engravings, Pictures and Drawings
This section comprises of the finest collection of 134 items. The engravings presented by the then Hon’ble Governor Smt. Padmaja Naidu, from the Government House, depict the picturesque city of Calcutta of the late 18th and early 19th century, and the scenes related to the ‘First War of Independence’ in 1857-58.
Prints from the drawings of Prinsep, Daniell, Solvyns, Jump and others are also great treasure to the Society.
Drawings of Mackenzie, F. H. Buchanan, Map of Calcutta and its environs by Upjohn are notable.
Stones and Copper-Plate Inscriptions
The Bairat Asokan Rock edict (250 B. C.) in Pali, written in Brahmi script, which was donated by Capt. J. S. Burnt, was received by the Society in 1841. Facsimile and the translation of this rock inscription was published in 1840, with notes from James Prinsep and Capt. M. Kit toe, with the aids of Pandits Kamalakanta and Sarasa Prasad. In addition, there are about four dozen copper plates in Kharosti, Nagari and Bengali scripts. One of the most important metal inscriptions is the Bhowal copper-plate.
There’s a series of manuscripts categorically displayed in the museum. The manuscripts of Kubjikamalam, Mayttreyavyakarana – Buddhist texts in Brahmi Script from 7th and 10th century A.D. have earned accolades from the government of India. There’s Ain-i-Akbari of 12th century gives a statistical account of the Mughal empire; Shah Nama of 17th century is a copy of the great work of Firdausi and contains beautiful brightly coloured paintings; Padshah Namah which is a history of Shah Jahan’s reign and most importantly bears Shah Jahan’s autograph; Burmese Ramayana, which is an illustrated manuscript on our great epic. There are many more manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, Tibetan, Javanese, Siamese, Ceylonese, Turkish, Armenian languages.
In addition, the Society now possesses a few specimens of sculpture, among which, mention may be made of the image of Brahma (12th century). Tibetan Tankas, presented by Dalai Lama, a hollow Monolith from Assam, black-Basalt Vishnu of 11th century, the Victorian armchair and coffee table with marble inlay, etc.
It will not be an exaggeration if it is now said that the Asiatic Society had built up in Asia, the first Museum on modern lines of varied interests, pertaining to all branches of learning relating to what has been performed by Man or produced by Nature and it would not be unjustifiable to claim that but for its persistent activities of the Indian Museum would not have come into being so early, none could have reached its present position, but for the Society’s voluntary offer of its own substantial collections to the museum.
The Asiatic Society
1, Park Street, Kolkata 700016
Tel: 033-2229 7251
Open: Monday-Friday, 11am-5.45pm
Photography: Not allowed