James Prinsep

Prinsep Ghat is one of the most beautiful landmarks of Kolkata. Not many colonial monuments survive today with their old names. For example, Ochterlony Monument has become Shaheed Minar. Prinsep Ghat is one of the exceptions. Who was Prinsep? A few google searches and book searches lead to some clues: Prinsep “restored Aurangzeb’s Mosque”, he “built a bridge” that was (presumably) a difficult task, and decoding an “ancient Indian script”. Auragzeb Mosque? Bridge? What, where? The results merely suggest Mr Prinsep was an accomplished British Engineer.

James Prinsep was much more than that. He was responsible for many firsts in India: identifying bad health with mosquitos and still water, building first detailed city map (comparable to Google Earth imagery), the first powered ceiling fan, first human flight on Indian skies, high precision weighing machine, archeological restoration, introducing the West to a romantic relationship with India’s river ghats and more. His achievements and his dedication to India and its people is something that we would be compelled to remember for times to come. This is a story of extraordinary efforts and achievements, coming from a seemingly ordinary person, who lived in difficulty himself. This is a story that inspires.

James Prinsep was the seventh son of John Prinsep, who too had served in India. John Prinsep served East India Company during the times of Warren Hastings (1870s), but had made only a modest fortune for himself. While other Company officers had enriched themselves in India, John Prinsep may have been left out because of his opposition to the Company’s policies in India and his opposition to the Evangelicals’ drive on religious conversions. Upon return to England, James Prinsep’s father made a few commercial endeavors and lost whatever money he had. As a result, younger three of the Prinsep brothers spent childhood and early youth under severe constraints. They lived in Bristol, in an attic, partitioned with curtains and the three brothers shared only one trouser between them.

At the age of 15, he started his working life as an apprentice under an architect. Soon, his younger brother Thomas got a job with the East India Company Army, while James got a job with the Company’s Mint (currency production) at Calcutta. The two brothers sailed together to India in 1819. The ship sailed upriver into the Ganges (Hooghly) from the sea, to arrive at a Ghat that was later to be named after his own. To welcome them, their two older brothers Henry and William, were already in India as civil servant and businessman respectively.

James Prinsep was a keen observer of things around him. It took little time for him to realize that there was a huge gulf between the Indians, and the British ruling them. He found an elite class of Indians that the British interacted with, but kept the public at large at bay. Prinsep expressed sadness in his letters home, over the way the Indian employees/servants were treated: beaten mercilessly for the smallest slip-ups.

His job at the Mint involved examination of metal compositions etc of currency coins, to maintain control over the production of coins for the Bank of Bengal (then the equivalent of central bank). The Company maintained a smaller Mint in Benaras and soon, Prinsep was sent there. Though this was a remote posting for a very young man, far away from Calcutta which was then, a grand European city in the East. But Prinsep almost experienced happiness from the moment he left the city to sail up the Ganges. From the time Warren Hastings left India, it was fashionable for the Englishmen to hold in contempt anything Indian. More so because successive Governor Generals preferred around them Englishmen who they thought were ‘less polluted’ by the Indian culture and habits. It was indeed risky to stake one’s career by exhibiting Indian tastes. But James Prinsep remained elusive to such considerations. He admired the beautiful country along the river and then found Benaras to be a great town. He indulged in and enjoyed Indian Classical music. He would spend hours in the cool breeze of the Ghats. He grew increasingly passionate about the Ghats of Benaras, built little over a century earlier by the Marathas. During his 7-9 years of stay in Benras, he made numerous sketches of the Ghats, including some paintings with his artist & businessman brother William Prinsep who visited him in 1830. The masterpieces traveled outside and across the world and introduced the Western world to the enchantment of Benaras over the next few decades.

Prinsep was endowed with two great qualities. He had a mind of enquiry and had a knack for applying his knowledge. These would ensure that he did not limit his stay to merely enjoying India. He found scope for doing a lot of things in Benaras. He began waking up early and would finish off his office work by breakfast time. Then devote his time and energies to his passions. And his passion was to apply the knowledge of science. He built, what was then the world’s most sensitive weighing balance, capable of weighing a spec of dust. He was pained to see the high rate of mortality in the local population. He inferred that the cause was mosquitoes and germs, promoted by the marshy land pockets of Benaras. At his own cost and efforts, he undertook an engineering project to drain the waters. This gave a huge fillip to his already growing popularity among the people of Benras. People gifted him a ground. This time, he used his engineering skills to level the ground to a flat non-flooding landmass, and returned it as a gift to the people for making of a bazaar! Charles Allen (author) notes that this generosity was extended at a time when Prinsep was literally poor himself, with a job that could go anytime because his boss wanted someone else (a friend – the Company reeled under nepotism, one always needed a connection). Then Prinsep takes up two important assignments. One was to restore the crumbling mosque built by Aurangzeb (popularly known as the mosque of Aurangazeb) near the Ghats. The mosque had tilted towards the river and was destined to fall eventually. Prinsep observed the complex structure of building and its towers, taking note of the composition brick-by-brick. The building was dismantled in a brick by brick fashion and then reassembled into an enforced building! The next was a stone bridge over the river Karamnasa. Nobody had succeeded in making a river on this in a century long efforts before him. But my understanding is that this was more a social challenge than an architectural one. The river’s waters were supposed to be cursed and were believed to be a killer for the mere mortals. Only Brahmins could touch the waters and emerge unharmed. Aparently there was a flourishing business wherein some such ‘empowered’ people made a living by transporting people on their backs, for the touch of the river was corroding. Looks like that Mr. Prinsep’s real success was being able to carry out the work with popular support of people, overcoming the resistance of a small section that had frustrated every previous effort. A stone bridge was made over the river and exists today. (see the Google Earth image below).

In 1821, he prepared the first map of Benaras city. The map was to the scale and every single dwelling of the city found place in it.

Soon, Prinsep was transferred back to the Mint in Calcutta. This also united him with his brothers in Calcutta. The Mint was at the church lane opposite St John’s church (I guess today’s Hare Street). Posting to Calcutta would change the course of his life, given his keen interest in everything and the great city’s ability to provide advanced facilities of all kinds. Prinsep started taking keen interest in the Asiatic Society. In those times, survey and civil engineering work put together were throwing up fresh archeological sites at a great pace. Most importantly, coins were coming up from across India. All of these were being sent to the capital of British India. After the death of Sir William Jones, there had been a sort of vacuum in this field. To be fair, the French and Germans were doing equally good work, if not better, in studying India in the 18th century. But in the 19th century, they did not have access to archeological evidences from India, as whole of India, Ceylon and Burma passed into British control. The coins had a lot to tell about our heritage. But there wasn’t anyone to listen to what these coins had to say. James began to apply his scientific abilities to understand what the coins said. I had a look at some of these coins recently at the Indian Museum. Each coin had a few strokes of lines besides a picture. If this was text, there was too little of it to allow anyone to understand the patterns in it.

To James Prinsep, this was the kind of challenge that he thought would give him immeasurable thrill. He began to toil in order to finish his official work fast and pour all his remaining waking hours into the study of coins (known as numismatics). To allow him to work (study) longer and more efficiently in Calcutta’s hot and humid weather, James produced what was probably the very first mechanized ceiling fan in India. He employed steam to power the punkhas, that produced better results than the human powered ceiling fans. With these fans, now he could work better and longer. During these fruitful years, James Prinsep established himself as the “code breaker”. He began to understand the patterns in the coins and inscriptions and deciphered the ancient languages. He began to connect what was said in the Sanskrit script with current places and relics. All these put together, he was able to draw up an invaluable pile of information --- the genealogical charts of ancient Indian dynasties. This information confirmed many of Sir Jones’ works, and also corrected some of Sir Jones’ work. Now what was available was a history of India. Answers began to flow; such as which dynasty ruled which geographical part of the country and at what time, details of particular administrations etc.

Then Prinsep moved to the next level. Problem: a large amount of inscriptions and coins related to an entirely unknown script. The letters of this script were strange and bore no resemblance to other found in coins and inscriptions, in either the pattern or specifics. Nor was this similar to any living language. In 1838, after nearly 10 long years of arduous efforts, Prinsep unfolded this as the Bramhi script. This single discovery opened a window to the lost world – a vista to Ancient India.

Prinsep was a serious man with serious devotion to work. But it seems to me that he was even more a family man, a fun loving man. His younger brother Thomas died after falling from a horse, while working on Calcutta’s salt water lakes. James Prinsep wanted to complete his late brother’s work and restore honour. He set about draining the salt water bodies by building canals and reclaimed lands. Another first shows the scientific, yet fun-loving part of this man. A Frenchman appeared in Calcutta around then with a giant ballon, with the dream of flying over the magnificent city and its famed river. But there was no possibility of achieving this, for no-one in India had the faintest idea of how to make this work. Prinsep took the challenge and risked creating the gas mixture that would fly a giant gas balloon. This translated into the first ever human flight on Indian soil (since Krishna’s flight on Garuda?).

I find his life a story of extraordinary inspiration.


Metalda said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.




James Princep life & work; reading of this article -blog is quite motivating. We Indians must appreciate what the British gave us and try to forget and forgive them for what they snatched from us. Please keep on posting more on James Princep and also on other Englishmen of Raj-era. Regards

Babu said...

Nicely written

kaycee said...

It would be interesting if you could recount how the deciphering of the Brahmi script led to the findings about Emperor Ashok's rock and pillar edicts. please also take a look at my blog kayceeondelhi.blogspot.com.

Rahul said...

Thanks. This is a very imp topic for current and future generations to understand, but this interests few - enlightened minds like all of you.
Thanks for taking the trouble for writing.