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1. Francis Buchanan

The survey work of Francis Buchanan (later Francis Hamilton) between 1809 and 1813 is one of the most detailed sources for the social and cultural history of Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh in the early nineteenth century. Inasmuch as portions of the present study, particularly chapter 1, rely on those surveys, and insofar as those surveys have been underutilized as a source for religious and cultural history, it is appropriate to include a brief discussion of Buchanan’s life and work. Buchanan has been dealt with in detail by historian Marika Vicziany, both with respect to the reliability of his numerical tabulations for economic history and as an example of the importance and evolution of the statistical method in imperial ideology. A surgeon by profession and a botanist by inclination, Buchanan first came to India in 1794, having joined the East India Company as a medical officer ten years earlier. Unhappy with tedious postings in rural Bengal, where the vegetation and wildlife failed to interest him, Buchanan sought through a variety of strategies to attain a more independent scientific position with the company. One such strategy involved becoming an expert on “native” society and culture. Buchanan soon developed a reputation as an irritant to the orientalist establishment, which was (in Vicziany’s words) “inclined towards a Brahmanical interpretation of Indian society.” By publishing an essay on Burmese Buddhism, Buchanan juxtaposed “the egalitarianism of Buddhism against the oppressive, hierarchical nature of Brahmanism. Buchanan’s hatred of the entrenched Brahmin class in India, together with his critical reading of the religious scriptures, marked him out as a man ideally equipped to act as the Company’s reporter on native affairs.” Buchanan did in fact receive a number of commissions, primarily from Governor-General Wellesley, to survey conquered, annexed, and neighboring regions of the subcontinent, including Burma, the defeated Tipu Sultan’s Mysore in South India, Nepal, and, finally, Bengal.[1]

Notwithstanding his success as a collector of rare Indian botanical specimens and the posthumous recognition accorded him for his prodigious surveys, Buchanan’s desire to attain an independent scientific posting was frustrated by political and administrative circumstances beyond his control.[2] Vicziany argues that Buchanan, driven by a desire to pursue his scientific interests despite (and perhaps because of) his unfortunate position, subordinated what we would today consider stringent statistical method to his botanical collections and research.[3] Her conclusion—namely, that Buchanan’s Bengal accounts cannot be entirely relied upon for statistical data—is directed in particular at economic historian Amiya Kumar Bagchi’s work on structural change in Bihar. Bagchi, who used Buchanan’s tables as a statistical database, argued that Bihar experienced significant deindustrialization in the nineteenth century as a result of the colonial British presence; Bihar thus represented a microcosm of India itself, which was transformed during this century into a dependent economy on the periphery of Britain.[4] Vicziany disputes Bagchi’s use of the statistical data, arguing that

Buchanan’s evidence about the daily life of artisans is irritatingly incomplete. If there is good material here about wage rates, this is rarely accompanied by information about all the other, equally important aspects about artisan life. Some artisans owned or cultivated land, but Buchanan does not tell us how much land was involved or how much income was generated by doing this. It is the lack of detail in Buchanan’s descriptive accounts which must alert us to the limitations of the statistical tables.…in Buchanan’s day statistics meant something other than simple quantification of information.[5]

The information Buchanan provided about popular religion and culture, I would argue, is not subject to the same kinds of methodological pitfalls as his economic observations. Buchanan’s abiding interest in nonbrahmanical forms of social organization placed him, in fact, in a strong position to recognize and appreciate the significance of alternative religious and social identities. Vicziany notes that after Buchanan’s first interest in natural history, much of his time “during the Bengal Survey was spent following up local legends, rumours and caste histories.”[6] Based on my reading of the Buchanan manuscripts, this is clearly an understatement: the description of regional religious organization in these survey accounts, which I cite extensively, makes it abundantly clear in particular that Buchanan was fascinated by the many important institutional and ideological dimensions of Vaishnava, Shaiva, and Shakta belief.

The impulse for these accounts originated in 1807, when Buchanan was commissioned by the Court of Directors of the East India Company to survey, map, and report systematically on the territories of Bengal. Guided by a desire to seek out regions of botanical interest, his route did not follow the prescribed counter-clockwise direction recommended by his superiors at Fort William.[7] Rather, Buchanan began in Dinajpur and Rangpur (1807–1809), north of the Ganga in what is now Bengal proper; moved westward to Purnia (1809–1810) in north Bihar; then southwest through Bhagalpur (1810–1811); westward to Patna, Gaya, and Shahabad (1812–1813), all in south Bihar; and, finally, northeast to Gorakhpur (1813–1814) in what is now eastern Uttar Pradesh.[8] Buchanan produced detailed reports of Dinajpur, Rangpur, Purnia, Bhagalpur (which includes most of early twentieth-century Monghyr District), Bihar and Patna (the later Patna and Gaya Districts), Shahabad, and Gorakhpur (the later Gorakhpur and Basti Districts). The original manuscript copies of these accounts are housed in the Oriental and India Office Collection in the British Library, London.[9] Soon after Buchanan’s death, these accounts, in addition to an account of Assam, were edited and published by R. Montgomery Martin as The History, Antiquities, Topography, and Statistics of Eastern India.[10] Martin has since been roundly criticized by students of the Buchanan manuscripts for his random editorial cuts of valuable material while preparing the volumes for publication (his blue pencil strokes through the text marking portions to be omitted are still discernible on the original manuscript folios), as well as for failing to give Buchanan enough explicit credit as the sole author of the work.[11] This was remedied to some extent by the publication of the original accounts of the Bihar districts by the Bihar and Orissa Research Society between 1928 and 1939; these editions (save that of Bhagalpur) were reissued in 1986 by a New Delhi publisher. The Dinajpur, Rangpur, and Gorakhpur accounts have never been published in their entirety.

Buchanan’s interest in nonbrahmanical forms of religious and social organization extended as well to an exploration of kshatriya lineages. He included in his accounts a detailed description of local historical and dynastic knowledge (often in the form of legend or popular memory), together with his own information on kshatriya genealogy gleaned from the standard Indological texts and from his own interviews and translations. Buchanan maintained an interest in kshatriya lineages even after he returned to Scotland, where he produced an impressive compendium entitled Genealogies of the Hindus, Extracted from Their Sacred Writings.[12] This work, which consisted primarily of large, hand-drawn tables and charts, represented an early and significant expression of the British fascination with the culture of kshatriya history, a fascination that reached its peak with the work of James Tod.[13]

Buchanan’s interest in kshatriya genealogy predated by nearly a century the huge body of Hindi pamphlet literature authored by popular intellectuals seeking a kshatriya past for peasants on the margin of land control (see chapters 3 and 4). Of course, the twentieth century does not mark the first time kshatriya genealogies were manipulated to buttress claims of high status. Historian Romila Thapar has suggested that royal genealogies were being fabricated by the brahmanical elite at the behest of “low-born” rulers in the ancient and medieval periods.[14] As the twentieth-century manifestation of kshatriya-lineage campaigns shows, the process of genealogy invention has continued into the present historical epoch, albeit at a much lower sociopolitical center of gravity. It can be argued that the historiographical significance of twentieth-century kshatriya reform lies in the fact that ever larger numbers of people at the most productive level of Gangetic society began to conceive of Ram and Krishna not only as gods but as ancestors, physically present in a historical past.

Hence, the genealogical representation (itself a form of historicization) of Vaishnava myth was not unique to the early twentieth century, nor were the kshatriya lineages a figment of Buchanan’s early nineteenth-century colonial imagination writ large on Vaishnava culture a hundred years later. On the contrary, Buchanan recorded what he understood to be salient aspects of Gangetic belief, culture, and history. What he chose to record was colored by his own perceptions of what was important, but the phenomena he observed had to exist (or, at the very least, be claimed by his many and varied informants to exist) in order for him to observe them. Like the work of other servants of the company-cum-empire, Buchanan’s work entered the arena of public dialogue. Like numerous other British interpretive compendia, Buchanan’s accounts contributed to the direction and dimensions of political and cultural change; they did not, however, introduce wholly unfamiliar concepts.


1. Marika Vicziany, “Imperialism, Botany and Statistics in early Nineteenth-Century India: The Surveys of Francis Buchanan (1762–1829),” Modern Asian Studies 20, no. 4 (October 1986): 630–32. [BACK]

2. Ibid., 626, 638–42, 659–60. Buchanan’s first aim was to acquire the directorship of the Botanical Garden of Calcutta. But, according to Vicziany, Buchanan’s career suffered as a result of his close association with the declining star of Lord Wellesley, whose aggressive political policy caused him to be recalled to London in 1805 by the disgruntled Court of Directors of the English East India Company. After some intense lobbying, Buchanan was finally named as the heir to the directorship of the Botanical Garden of Calcutta in 1807. He never assumed that position, however, because the previous director, the long-ailing William Roxburgh, only left the post in 1813, by which time Buchanan had decided to leave India. [BACK]

3. Ibid., especially 626, 659–60. The problem, Vicziany argues, stems from a modern misunderstanding of what was meant by the term “statistics” in Buchanan’s day. See her comments in this regard on 648–50. [BACK]

4. See A. K. Bagchi, “Deindustrialisation in Gangetic Bihar, 1807–1901,” in Barun De, ed., Essays in Honour of Professor Susobhan Chandra Sarkar (New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1976), 499–522; as well as Marika Vicziany, “The Deindustrialisation of India in the Nineteenth Century: A Methodological Critique of Amiya Kumar Bagchi,” and Bagchi’s response in the same issue of Indian Economic and Social History Review, 16, no. 2 (1979): 105–46. [BACK]

5. Vicziany, “Imperialism, Botany and Statistics,” 660. Buchanan’s statistical tables for Bihar are held in the Oriental and India Office Collection in the British Library, London, under the catalogue number Mss.Eur.G.18–24. [BACK]

6. Vicziany, “Imperialism, Botany and Statistics,” 645. [BACK]

7. Ibid., 643. [BACK]

8. There is some discrepancy regarding the dates of the Gorakhpur account. Vicziany, “Imperialism, Botany and Statistics,” 643, states that Buchanan travelled to Gorakhpur in 1813–14, but the account itself is dated 1812. See Francis Buchanan (Hamilton), “An Account of the Northern Part of the District of Gorakhpur, 1812,” Mss.Eur.D.91–92, Oriental and India Office Collection. According to C. E. A. W. Oldham, in the introduction to his edition of Journal of Francis Buchanan kept during the Survey of the District of Shahabad in 1812–1813 (Patna: Government Printing, Bihar and Orissa, 1926), i–ii, Buchanan was definitely in Shahabad “during the cold weather months [October to April] of 1812–1813” and in Gorakhpur “in the season 1813–1814.” The date of 1812 given for the Gorakhpur account must have been, then, the error of the copyist. [BACK]

9. The Bihar portions of the “Buchanan-Hamilton Manuscripts” are catalogued under Mss.Eur.D.562. “An Account of the Northern Part of the District of Gorakhpur, 1812,” is held under Mss.Eur.D.91–92. [BACK]

10. Subtitled: Comprising the Districts of Behar, Shahabad, Bhagalpoor, Goruckpoor, Dinajpoor, Purniya, Rungpoor, and Assam, in relation to their geology, mineralogy, botany, agriculture, commerce, manufactures, fine arts, population, religion, education, statistics, etc., 3 vols., (London: Wm. H. Allen, 1838). This work contains tables not published in later editions of the Buchanan accounts (see below) and is referred to in the present work as Eastern India. [BACK]

11. See, for instance, George R. Kaye and Edward H. Johnston, A Catalogue of Manuscripts in European Languages, vol. 2, part 2, Minor Collections and Miscellaneous Manuscripts, section 1 (London: India Office, 1937), 580–590. See also V. H. Jackson’s introduction to Journal of Francis Buchanan (afterwards Hamilton) kept during the Survey of the Districts of Patna and Gaya in 1811–1812 (Patna: Government Printing, Bihar and Orissa, 1925). Jackson notes that “Montgomery Martin’s methods as editor of ‘Eastern India’, the three-volume abridgement of the Reports published in 1838, have been justly condemned by everyone who has examined the original manuscripts. In deciding what portions of the Reports should be omitted, he followed no consistent plan, but merely, as Sir W. W. Hunter observed, left out ‘the parts which he did not understand or which did not interest him.’ Matters of topographical and antiquarian interest are the principal feature of the Journals, and in these respects the Reports, and particularly the Report on the districts of Patna and Gaya, have greatly suffered at his hands” (v–vi). Oldham, Introduction to Journal of Francis Buchanan, iii–iv, expressed astonishment “that the officials of the India House [formerly in Whitehall, London] should have permitted these volumes to be printed without Buchanan Hamilton’s name appearing anywhere on the title-page.…I can only add that when I first studied portions of the original manuscripts at the India Office in 1903, I was amazed at the facts disclosed, and impressed with the importance of having the portions scored through (by Martin’s pencil presumably) published.” The outcry by students of the manuscripts, such as the influential Oldham and Jackson, led eventually to their publication in Patna. [BACK]

12. Dr. Francis Hamilton, Genealogies of the Hindus, Extracted from Their Sacred Writings (Edinburgh: W. Aitken, 1819). Buchanan added his mother’s maiden name, Hamilton, to his own after inheriting her estate. [BACK]

13. See Appendix 2. [BACK]

14. Thapar’s concern here is not with the fabrications per se but with the representation of the past implicit in them. Romila Thapar, “‘Thus It Was’: The Early Indian Historical Tradition,” Wesleyan University Public Affairs Center Thursday Lecture Series, 19 November 1992. [BACK]

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