Asiatic Society of Bombay

The Asiatic Society of Mumbai can trace its origin to the Literary Society of Bombay which first met in Mumbai on November 26, 1804 and was founded by Sir James Mackintosh. It was formed with the intention of “promoting useful knowledge, particularly such as is now immediately connected with India”. After the Royal Asiatic Society was established in London in 1823, the Literary Society of Bombay became affiliated with it and was known as the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society since 1830. The Bombay Geographical Society merged with it in 1873 followed by the Anthropological Society of Bombay in 1896. In 1954, it was renamed the Asiatic Society of Bombay; it acquired its present name in 2002. It is funded by an annual grant from the Central Government of India.Holdings

The Society in its early days

The Society in its early days

The library has over a hundred thousand books out of which 15,000 are classified as rare and valuable. It also has priceless articles, over 3,000 ancient manuscripts in Persian, Sanskrit and Prakrit.

Among the rare works are:

  1. One of only two known original copies of Dante’s Divine Comedy
  2. The Vasupujyacharita (12th century) Sanskrit text following the life of the Jain Tirthankara Vasupujya
  3. The Shahnama of Firdausi (1853), written in Persian
  4. The Aranyakaparvan (16th century) manuscript contains illustrated text from the Mahabharat and is written in Sanskrit.
  5. Five Buddhist caskets excavated in the ancient port town of Sopara near the suburb of Nala Sopara.

 

The Divine Comedy

The Divine Comedy held by the society, written by Dante Alighieri in the 14th century, is one of only two known surviving original manuscripts. It was given to the Society by Mountstuart Elphinstone, governor of Bombay and President of the Society from 1819-1827 and bears his signature.

In 1930, the Italian government under Mussolini offered the society one million pounds, calling the book a national treasure. Mussolini believed that the offer could not be refused, but to his shock, the Society turned down his request stating that it was donated by an ex-member of the Society and hence it was their property.

The book is leather bound and is in a good condition. A visit to the Society by the Italian Minister of Culture in 2002 confirmed that it was in a much better condition than its other survivor which is currently in Milan.

 

Functions of the society

Close-up picture of the building

Close-up picture of the building

  • Holding: Preserving, conserving, cataloguing and documenting holdings
  • Research: Generating supporting and disseminating research in its chosen fields
  • Public interface: Providing a forum for debate and discussions on topics of public interest.

The adopt-a-book scheme was recently introduced by the Society which allows patrons to fund the upkeep of rare books. The Society is financially in the red with a loss of Rs 1 crore (10 million). Due to the availability of information from the internet, membership has dropped significantly in recent years.

 

Town Hall

The Town Hall, (Colloquially Called Tondal in the 19th Century) which houses the Asiatic Society of Bombay was however not built in 1804, the year in which the Literary Society of Bombay was formed. Though Sir James Mackintosh did moot the proposal for a grand edifice, it was not completed until the year 1830 (year to be confirmed with tablet on the entrance) after many fits and starts, when the Bombay Government agreed to make up for the shortfall in funds in return for office-space. The after-effects of this compromise can still be seen in the unseemly crowds gathered at the Stamp Office and other government departments in the Town Hall.

It is now classified a heritage structure, heavily influenced by Greek and Roman architecture. It has a portico with eight Doric columns. A flight of 30 steps lead up to the town hall and a wrought iron divided Regency staircase leads to the vestibule. In 1930 Sir John Malcolm, governor of Bombay stated: “It is the most magnificent structure that taste and munificence combined have as yet erected in India.”

The edifice is in the prime Fort area of South Mumbai overlooking the Horniman Circle Gardens and the Reserve Bank of India.

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