India is the home of a great classical civilization which boasts thousands of years of history, the birthplace of two of the world’s greatest religions, and with a rich history of art, architecture, poetry, and literature. But India in the modern world fell under the secular dominion of the British Empire, which colonized India for nearly two centuries. India was the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, far and away its most important colony – but also one whose important classical culture could hardly be ignore. India Discovered: The Recovery of a Lost Civilization by John Keay focuses on British views on India, of the faction of British orientalists and thinkers who were impassioned about Indian culture and aimed to research and preserve it.
Keay manages to give the panoply of British researchers and intellectuals in India a personal and engaging touch. From the very beginning, with William Jones who discovered the existence of the Indo-European language family he helps to bring the men involved in the process of exploring India’s civilization to light. He marries them to a useful and amusing list of anecdotes, such as the British auctioning off the marble floor of Shah Jehan's palace under Lord Bentinck in the early 1830s, or William Jones with his pet turtle from the Ganges. It is willing to allow its voice to reveal itself, instead of retreating into drab and boring indifference: its aesthetic appraisal of the minaret of the Qutb Minar mosque complex tower for example, comparing it to a smokestack, or the remarkably unaesthetic hat placed on top of the mosque, gives a sense of levity and depth to the book.
It also shows the sense of atmosphere which accompanied the British saga in India at different periods: as it transformed from the initial admiration and even awe in front of India’s advanced civilization and culture, to becoming increasingly negative and dismissive one, rejecting India’s culture and belittling many of its achievements. It is dry to read about it in other works, but in Discovery of a Lost Civilization what this transformation actually meant, with the change in the atmosphere of the Indianized early British in India compared to the growing rejection of Indian civilization and culture. Especially in the early days, it paints a portrait of life for the British in Bengal which gives a real feeling for their life and society.
There are a quite wide variety of subjects which the book covers as the British interacted with them: painting, architecture, literature, sculpture, and languages stand out. Architecture is a particularly intriguing field given that unlike the others, the British were never able to dismiss Indian architecture, and found it endlessly confusing and fascinating, as it was very difficult to track down the development of certain styles and innovations, which seem to emerge instantly and without antecedent. It tracks down different influences, and examines the historiographical debate concerning the influence of the Persians and other Muslims on India, such as the Taj Mahal but above all else in other buildings and trying to understand the influence of other civilizations upon India. This historiographic discussion isn’t a crucial part but it is interesting and well placed nevertheless.
This aside, there are some unfortunate flaws in the book. For one, the agency and mindset of Indians is almost entirely absent. The closest which appears is the Metis Indian Coomaraswamy, and occasionally some of the interactions with Brahmins. It leaves the reader extremely uninformed as to what the Indian was as to their own culture and heritage. Hindus received the description of not having a sense of nor interest in history – not historyless per se, like the Africans were claimed to be during the colonial era, but rather lacking a historical spirit. Regardless of the truth or lack thereof, the book doesn’t engage with how Indian classical culture and heritage was treated in India: was it in need of recovery and preservation like the British implied? How did Indians at the time perceive Sanskrit and other sacred languages, as a living tradition like British writers thought? And how aware were they in, and how interested were they about, their historical legacy?
At times it wanders onto subjects which seem little connected to the rest of the work: consider the engineers Lambton and Everest (from whom the mountain takes its Western name) who were tasked with surveying India, using trigonometry to make highly accurate new maps of India. But this is never explained as relating to the idea of preserving Indian culture and rediscovering Indian classical culture?
Furthermore, the book tends to ignore the institutional sides of the story. There is some mention of the Royal Asiatic Society, later downgraded to the Royal Bengal Society, but as a whole there is almost no discussion of the organization of studies of India: it gives the image of it being purely the work of singular individuals, who were fascinated and compelled by India. The formal academic superstructure, the journals, the establishment of academic chairs and the way research was organized: these are simply ignored. Other qualms such as Said’s famous Orientalism don’t receive a just analysis: I am inclined to agree somewhat with Keay in that Said overly exaggerated the negative sides of study of Eastern civilizations in the West, but Keay interprets Said above all else in the terms of contempt or disdain for Eastern civilizations, which to my knowledge is not what Said was proposing. Said based his idea around the idea that Western Orientalists created fixed views of the East which were increasingly divorced from actual reality, in a binary of East/West that classified Eastern civilizations as alien and different. It was not just a matter of disliking India, but rather structuring India differently and creating claims about India as static, unchanging, hierarchical, oppressed, which were useful for colonial domination of India: it was the structures of power which were important, not individual dislike or admiration for India. Said’s proposals are perfectly debatable, but Keay seems to be engaging with something completely different than them.
Discovery of a Lost Civilization is readable, well written, and has a wide ranging interest in Indian cultural investigations done by the British, from discovering the caves of Ajanta with their Buddhist wall paintings and monuments, to ethnography, to statues and Greek and Persian artistic influence on sculpture. But it also feels incomplete, more akin to a popular history, slanted to the British perspective, lacking in rigor in its analyses and often insufficiently critical in its treatment of the British. It’s an enjoyable read but just a small component of the necessary material on British-Indian cultural interactions.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.