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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Of James Princep and Ashoka

Princep's Ghat, Kolkata
Overshadowed by the Vidyasagar Sethu, often referred to as "the second Howrah Bridge", stands a curious Palladian-style structure made up of a number of classical columns supporting a flat roof. During my visit to Kolkata in October, I'd spent many days travelling to and fro from Behala to Ballygunge. Every time I would go past this structure, now known as the Princep's Ghat, I would wonder who James Princep was. I never looked him up on Google and had quite forgotten about him till I ended up with Charles Allen's book, Ashoka. Through this book I learnt that Princep was the Secretary of the Asiatic Society of Bengal and was one of the key people responsible for unearthing and documenting India's ancient Buddhist past. He was also the man who deciphered the Brahmi script in which was written the Magadhan Prakrit, which was the lingua franca of Ashoka's kingdom, Magadha, 2000 years ago. Though largely academic, Allen's book throws light on how archaeological findings across a large area (India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Burma, Pakistan and Afghanistan) are pieced together to form histories of man and mankind. Once the jigsaws are in place, the puzzle seems like a narrative. Celebrating the works of orientalists such as Brian Hodgson, James Princep and Alexander Cunningham among others, Ashoka is a book for those who relish India's antiquity.

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