The Asiatic Society

Location: Park Street, Kolkata

Founded in: January 1784

Founded by: Sir William Jones and Sir Robert Chambers

The Asiatic Society was actually formed with the aim of enhancing the Oriental research in Kolkata. The foundation stone of this society was laid by Sir William Jones and Sir Robert Chambers, on January 15, 1784. At the time of the foundation of this society, it was named 'Asiatick Society'. However, in 1825, the antique 'K' was dropped, without any formal declaration and the society became 'The Asiatic Society'. The names kept on changing from 'The Asiatic Society' to 'The Asiatic Society of Bengal' to 'The Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal' and finally, stabilized to the present name, on July 1, 1951.

Two architects, namely Captain Thomas Preston and Jean Jacques Pichon, were involved in the designing of this tow storey building, spread over an area of 15,071 sq ft. In 1823, when the Medical and Physical Society of Calcutta were formed, their meetings were also scheduled at the Asiatic Society building. Till 1828, only Europeans were allowed to acquire the membership of this society. However, after 1829, at the initiative of H.H. Wilson, Indians like Dwarakanath Tagore, Ram Comul Sen and Prasanna Coomar Tagore also became the members of this society.

The Asiatic Society also housed the Indian Museum, before the latter was moved to its present building, at Jawaharlal Nehru Road, in 1878. Asiatic Society shifted to its current location i.e. the Park Street - Chowranghee Lane junction in 1808, after vacating the Grand Jury Room of the Supreme Court, which was earlier used as its office. However, the current museum and library of the Asiatic Society are also equally rich and interesting. Its library boasts of a collection of over 1, 49,000 books, in all the major languages of the world.

Ancient printed texts of 15th century and a collection of about 47,000 manuscripts in 26 scripts also form a part of the collection of the Asiatic Library. Notable collections, like a manuscript of the Quran, a manuscript of the Gulistan text, and a manuscript of Padshanamah - with the signature of Badshah Shahjahan, adorn the library. More than 80,000 journals are available in this library, in all the major languages. The museum within the society premises was formed in 1814, under the superintendence of N. Wallich.

The museum in Asiatic Society was shifted, as Indian Museum, to a new building in 1878 and the society turned over most of its valuable collections. However, a small museum is still there, in the society premises. It comprises of many rare items, like a 250 BC rock edict of Asoka and a considerable collection of copper plate engravings, coins, sculptures, documents and archival records. Even, masterpieces of art, like Joshua Reynolds’ 'Cupid Asleep on Cloud', Guido Cagnacci’s 'Cleopatra', and Thomas Daniell’s 'A Ghat at Benares' and Peter Paul Rubens’ ‘Infant Christ’, are also available in the Asiatic Society Museum.

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