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A Pioneer in Orientalism

Himanshu Prabha Ray

By Virchand Dharamsey
Darshak Itihas Nidhi,Vadodara, 2012, pp.504 + xxiv, Rs.700.00


At a time when the Archaeological Survey of India has just concluded its 150th anniversary celebrations, we are thankful to Virchand Dharamsey for his path breaking study of a pioneer archaeologist who lived and worked outside the State supported institution. The contribution of scholars such as Bhagwanlal Indraji (1839-88) to the development of knowledge of the past in the nineteenth century is crucial to an understanding of our own historical consciousness as it has matured over the last two hundred years. This is also a subject that is far more difficult to engage with, since it is harder to get access to archival and other sources, which are often scattered and in languages other than English. The most important material that Dharamsey has used are Bhagwanlal’s notebooks and diaries in Gujarati. In addition he has consulted Bhagwanlal’s field notes, which require knowledge of archaeology; letters written to and by him; his contribution to the Bombay Gazetteers; and the close reading of papers by people with whom Bhagwanlal worked, such as Bhau Daji and James Burgess, the then Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). By comparing different readings of inscriptions, Dharamsey has been able to fine tune Bhagwanlal’s enormous span of knowledge and contribution to the study of the past. The book, divided into seven chapters and with an Afterword by Douglas E. Haynes, is important for another reason. There is no doubt that Bhagwanlal Indraji was recognized in his lifetime as an epigraphist and numismatist and honoured as a pioneer in ‘oriental’ studies. But over the years, especially in the last six decades, his contribution has been overshadowed by that of his European contemporaries, notably Alexander Cunningham, the first Director General of ASI. The efforts of Dharamsey have however succeeded in introducing the reader to the full range, depth and quality of Bhagwanlal‘s work. We can now see that Bhagwanlal had multifacetted qualities. He was not only an epigraphist, but also a historian, art historian, field archaeologist and excavator, ethnographer, photographer, and a source  critical interpreter of historical texts. It is important to recognize that traditional scholars such as Bhagwanlal Indraji struggled and contributed actively to understanding the country’s past. Often supported by the Princely States, in this case the Nawab of Junagadh, they travelled extensively and with their deep cultural insights were able to provide different perspectives from that of colonial ...

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