an oval portrait of Pandit Bhangvanlal Indraji

Pandit Bhagvanlal Indraji

Introduction

Pandit Bhagvanlal Indraji (1839–1888) was an Indian archaeologist, epigrapher and collector from Gujarat in western India. 

Indraji bequeathed the Mathura Lion Capital to the museum (now on display in Gallery 33) along with his numismatic collection of Parthian, Indo-Parthian, Kushan, Sasanian and Gupta coins.

Indraji was born in Junagadh, Gujarat and learned Sanskrit at an early age. The presence of numerous ancient inscriptions in and around Junagadh, including the Aśokan Major Rock Edict at Girnar, inspired him to study and translate those written in Brahmi – the ancestor of most modern scripts used in South Asia today. His translations improved upon and soon superseded earlier editions by those such as James Prinsep the British scholar, antiquary and scientist who lived and worked in India from 1819–1838.

Translating, travelling and excavating

Alexander Kinloch Forbes (1821–1865), British Political Agent of Kathiawar, introduced Indraji to Bhau Daji Lad (1824–1874), the physician, scholar and collector based in Bombay ('Mumbai'). Lad employed Indraji for more than a decade and this association was to prove transformative for Indraji's scholarly endeavours: he now had the funds to travel widely, visiting archaeological sites and archives to read and document inscriptions in situ, while conducting excavations, and reading and translating manuscripts. Indraji also collected extensively.

 

Mathura lion capital

It was during this time that Indraji unearthed the inscribed lion capital in Mathura, excavated the early Buddhist stupa at Sopara, and translated manuscripts of the Kama Sutra into Gujarati which formed the basis of later translations into English. Notably, Indraji's papers were written in Gujarati, and his translations were also made into this language, which meant that his many and important contributions to Indology have been overlooked.

Collecting ancient India

It was through the efforts of his Indian and European colleagues that many were later translated into English and his work received some recognition. During his travels across India, Indraji collected coins, manuscripts, sculptures, as well as copperplate and stone inscriptions. This wide range of objects and manuscripts contributed to his research into different aspects of ancient India, including the reconstruction of the lineages of some of the early rulers of Western India. In relation to coins in particular, Indraji was one of only a few Indian numismatic collectors and the only one to study them in such detail using scientific methodologies and skills.

Indraji also contributed to the collections of his fellow Indologists, including Lad and Sir Alexander Cunningham (1814–1893), the first director general of the Archaeological Survey of India. While much of his work and scholarly contributions have been overlooked because this knowledge has instead been linked with colonial officers such as Cunningham, Indraji played a vital role in indigenous participation and stakeholding in the colonial enterprise of knowledge gathering and networks.

The Legacy of Indraji’s collection

In his will, Indraji stipulated that his collection wasn't to be sold but dispersed to institutions that would benefit from his donations. His manuscript collection was presented to the Royal Asiatic Society of Bombay, his books were given to the Bombay Native General Library, and his coins and the Mathura Lion Capital were sent to the British Museum.

The Prakrit inscriptions in Kharosthi script on the Mathura Lion Capital provide key information for understanding the links between Indo-Scythian families that ruled Taxila and Mathura in the first century. Similarly, the numerous Parthian, Indo-Parthian, Kushan, Sasanian and Gupta coins, among others, from Indraji's numismatic collection help to shed further light on the history of north and northwestern South Asia.

Further reading

  • Virchand Dharamsey, Bhagwanlal Indraji the First Indian Archaeologist: Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Study of the Past (Vadodara: Darshak Itihas Nidhi, 2012)
  • Pandit Bhagvanlal Indraji, Antiquarian remains at Sopara and Padana: Being an account of the Buddhist stupa and Aśhoka edict recently discovered at Sopara, and of other antiquities in the neighbourhood (Bombay: Education Society's Press, 1882)