How was Indian history discovered

Portrait: Sir William Jones

Let’s begin at the beginning, the discovery of Indian history. When the British took over Bengal after 1757, there was absolutely nothing known about Indian history prior to the Mughal Empire and early Islamic invaders (when the Islamic historians began chronicling events in India). In fact, everything we know about events before 1000 AD was discovered in the last two hundred years. This is a fascinating story of how that modern understanding of our past began:

The biggest challenge was finding that first clue, the thread that could be followed into our ancient past. And the man for the job was Sir William Jones, a Supreme Court judge. Jones had become obsessed with India as soon as he arrived in 1783. At that time, much of India was ruled by Hindu Law that was written in Sanskrit and the British had to rely on local Brahmins to translate it. To bypass this clumsy arrangement, Jones decided to learn Sanskrit for himself. In the process he became the first person to recognize the similarity between Sanskrit and European languages, what would later be recognized as the Indo-European language family.

On his agenda was also to uncover the ancient Indian history. To this end, he waded through ancient scripts from Europe and India for ten years before striking gold.

As Jones and others studied Sanskrit literature, they found a long list of wars, kingdoms and events. But they were all disconnected. There were no dates and names of all the locations had long since been changed. These were undated stories from places that no one knew about. What Jones needed was a marker – an ancient event that Jones could connect to a modern place and a date.

The only event in the Indian history that Jones knew for sure was 326 BC, the year Alexander invaded Punjab. However, there was no mention of such invasion in the Sanskrit literature. A secondary clue was Alexander’s Asian successor, Selecus Nicator, who had sent his ambassador Megasthenes to India. Megathenes had written about meeting a king named Sandracottus, who ruled over Palibothra, a city on the junction of Ganga and a river named Erranaboas.

But in Sanskrit literature, there were no mentions of Palibothra, Sandracottus or Erranaboas. There were many candidates for Palibothra – Allahbad, Kannauj and Rajmahal. But the most likely suspect was Patna, which was once known as Pataliputra. Only problem was, Patna isn’t on a junction of two rivers. It is on the banks of Ganga.

Here a possible solution was presented by a geographer who suggested that Son river, which now flowed north of Patna, could have met Ganga at Patna in ancient time before shifting its course over time. But it was still a big leap from Son to Erranaboas. Then Jones stumbled upon a Sanskrit text that mentioned Son river’s another name – Hiranyabahu – which could have sounded like Erranaboas to Megasthenes’ Greek ears.

Final clue was an obscure Sanskrit tragedy that Jones encountered, which told the story of Chandragupta, the king who had established Pataliputra as his capital and used it to receive foreign ambassadors.

Now Jones knew, Chandragupta was Sandracottus, who had ascended to throne before Megasthenes visit but after Alenxander’s invasion of India, somewhere between 325 and 315 BC. After ten years of work, Jones had finally figured it out. Now there was a date to correspond the modern calendar with ancient Indian scripts and monuments. All other events could be chronicled using Chandragupta as the reference point.

Within a year of this discovery, Jones had died of a tumor. But his legacy remained. His discovery was monumental, paving the way for all the future research. Indian history could now be discovered.

Source: Keay, John, India Discovered, Rupa & Co, New Delhi, 1981


2 thoughts on “How was Indian history discovered

  1. Did you write this article or summarize from earlier writings? I am curious since Jones was not the first person to flesh out the connection between Indo-Aryan and European languages.

    • For some posts I use primary sources but for most it is secondary sources. The idea isn’t to present primary research, neither is it possible with the scope of this blog. Tell me what specific concerns do you have and I will try to check them out the best I can.

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