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.

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