On a visit to Varanasi earlier this week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed a boat that had travelled upriver from Calcutta, bearing containers dispatched by PepsiCo India. The water-route was for millennia the most efficient way to transport people and goods between cities located on the banks of rivers, before the development of railways and then motorways offered faster and cheaper alternatives. The Inland Waterways Project, of which the Haldia-Varanasi corridor is one sector, aims to bring back water-based trade by widening and deepening India’s rivers so they can be navigated by large modern craft.

Modi also inaugurated new sewage treatment plants in Varanasi. Sadly, two workers died in sewage tanks connected to the facilities even before the inauguration. Sent with no protective equipment into a tank, Dinesh Paswan and Vikas Paswan succumbed to the toxic gases inside. The infrastructure may be new, but systems and hierarchies remain depressingly static.

The journey of the cargo-laden boat and the upgrading of drainage in Varanasi brought to mind James Prinsep, a man honoured with a memorial in Calcutta, called Prinsep Ghat. The memorial, built soon after Prinsep’s death in 1840, is a handsome Palladian structure that once served as an embarkation and disembarkation point for wealthy travellers, and now, restored and well maintained, is an atmospheric venue where locals enjoy spending lazy evenings.

A Preacher Expounding The Poorans. In The Temple of Unn Poorna, Benares. Lithograph by Prinsep (1835)

Prinsep the engineer

Prinsep travelled by boat from Calcutta to Benares in October 1820. He had been hired by the East India Company to assist the Assay Master of the Mint in testing the proportion and quality of metals used in new coins. Barely out of his teens, he considered himself a man of science, having studied architecture and chemistry in London. His most famous achievement, resulting from an exercise of logic sustained over years, would be retrieving a precious lost memory for the people of India. But that was still years away when he embarked for Benares in a budgerow (a barge with cabins known in East and North India as a bajraa), taking along a second boat for his equipment and books.

Lithograph of Kupuldhara Tulao, Benares by Prinsep (1834)

In Benares, he made careful drawings and evocative watercolours illustrating temples, ghats, and daily life. He created two copies of an enormous map, one for the administration in Roman script and one for the locals in Devanagari, which plotted every building in the city. Concerned about a marsh on the edge of town responsible for periodic disease outbreaks, he built a tunnel to drain the swamp, inaugurating the era of modern infrastructure in the ancient city. The sewage treatment plants inaugurated by the prime minister are the latest additions to that infrastructure. Prinsep repaired the minarets of the Alamgir mosque and built a bridge on the Karmanasa river, a sort of anti-Ganga whose water was said to wash away virtuous deeds. All this was pro bono work in addition to his regular duties at the Mint.

After a decade in Benares, he was called back to Calcutta, where he completed a project that one of his brothers had initiated before an accident took his life: building a canal to connect the distributaries of the Ganga near its delta and render them navigable. The Inland Waterways Project is an extension of such colonial engineering ventures, conceived in the early age of steam-driven navigation. As part of his job as Assay Master, Prinsep introduced a system of uniform coinage, and fashioned with his own hands one of the most delicate balances anywhere on earth, sensitive to weight differences as small as one three-thousandth of a grain (0.19 milligrams). However impressive these feats, they cannot compare to the fundamentally important work Prinsep did in his 30s, when he proved himself one of the greatest code breakers in history.

Prinsep Ghat at Kolkata.

The code breaker

In Calcutta, Prinsep took over as editor of the Journal of the Asiatic Society, and solicited contributions from across British territories, which now covered much of the subcontinent. It took one massive empire to unearth another. Scholars had noticed that there were similar – in some cases identical – inscriptions on pillars and rocks in widely separated areas of India, as if somebody had wanted to spread a message to all corners of an enormous kingdom. But not a single living human understood the script in which they were written. Painstakingly, Prinsep collated all the available data and in 1837 finally decoded what we now call the Brahmi script.

Bairat inscription, on which Prinsep worked to decipher Brahmi. On display in the Asiatic Society.

The Brahmi inscriptions on pillars and rocks were in Prakrit language, a vernacular tongue rooted in Sanskrit. They had been commanded by a king who referred to himself as Devanampiya Piyadasi, Beloved of the Gods. They expounded the ethical principles on which his kingdom was run and were clearly Buddhist in inspiration. Prinsep was informed by a colleague posted in Ceylon that a great Indian king called Ashoka, also known as Piyadasi, had converted to Buddhism and sent a religious mission to Ceylon. The mystery of the inscriptions was thus resolved and the emperor Ashoka Maurya, whose reign had been completely forgotten in his homeland, was returned to his rightful place in Indian history.

Some of Ashoka’s pillars in the far northwest of his empire were written in a second unknown script, now called Kharoshti. The same script appeared in coins from regions in modern Pakistan and Afghanistan, sometimes paired with legible Greek. Prinsep’s final accomplishment was the decipherment of Kharosthi. Since the script of the Indus Valley civilisation has not been deciphered, and because there is a break in the epigraphical record for over a 1,000 years after the collapse of that civilisation, the inscriptions he decoded remain the oldest comprehensible pieces of writing in India.

Exhausted by years of labour as Assay Master, editor of the Journal of the Asiatic Society and master decipherer, Prinsep had a nervous breakdown a little before he turned 40. He returned to England to recover his health, but died soon after, in 1840. The official diagnosis was “softening of the brain”, which might mean a number of things in modern medical terminology. Before it softened, though, Prinsep’s brain accomplished more productive work in two decades than most people could manage in several lifetimes.

Consonants of the Brahmi script, and their evolution down to modern Devanagari, according to James Prinsep, as published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, in March 1838.

Age of Reason

Prinsep’s achievements stand as monuments to the Age of Reason. However, since that Age went hand in hand with the Age of Imperialism, and a lot of racist and sexist tracts were composed in the name of reason and science, the entire enterprise of 19th century European knowledge-gathering has come to be disputed. The most influential piece of criticism is Edward Said’s Orientalism, a book published 40 years ago that became a founding text of post-colonial studies. While Said and the post-colonialists belong firmly on the Left, the most influential political application of the idea that 19th century European knowledge is irremediably tainted by imperialism has come from the Right. Today, Indian right-wingers respond reflexively to any uncomfortable facts or theories related to the nation’s past by linking them with some 19th century European idea and dismissing them as prejudiced based on that linkage.

Hindutva supporters would happily accept the drain built by Prinsep in Varanasi as a precursor to the sewage treatment plants inaugurated by Modi. They would have no objection to placing the Inland Waterways Project in a tradition stretching back to Prinsep’s canal near Calcutta. When it comes to interpreting history, however, they abandon the evidence-based method that led Prinsep to recover the life of Ashoka Maurya, and instead treat myths and legends as historical facts. The question is whether there is a point beyond which we cannot enjoy the fruits of reason without a broader commitment to reason itself and to its progeny – open-mindedness, free enquiry, and free expression.