The Asiatic Society
( Founded in 1784 )




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In the first meeting, the Governor-General, Warren Hastings, a scholar and patron of learning, was elected its fist President and Sir William Jones the Vice-President. Warren Hastings greatly sympathized with the aims and objects of the Society. But he declined to continue in this post. On his request and advice Sir William Jones was elected President of the Society on 5 February 1784 and held this post till his death in 1794. The Memorandum of Articles of Society read as follows: "The bounds of its investigations will be the geographical limits of Asia,and within these limits its enquiries will be extended to whatever is performed by MAN or produced by NATURE." Later, in his famous Third Annual Discourse, Jones emphasised the superiority of Sanskrit as a language: "The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure, more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin and more exquisitely refined than either."

The pioneering activity of the Society was praised abroad and even compared with that of the Italian Humanists of the quattrocento. But the first two decades of the Society's existence remained precarious. The original plan of holding meetings every week had to be discarded, and even monthly meetings were not possible. When William Jones died in 1794, till then the Society did not own any premise nor it had any assured funds to defray normal running expenses, not to speak of having in its proud possession, as it has today, an invaluable Asokan rock edict or precious old coins.

In 1805 the Government gifted to the Society a plot of land at the corner of Park Street and Chowringhee, the present site of the Asiatic Society, to which was added later, in 1849, a small portion on the western side. The construction of the Society's own building on the plot was completed in 1808, and the books, papers and records that had accumulated over the years could get a permanent shelter. Years rolled on, and with the expansion of the activities of the Society the problem of accommodation was acutely felt. But no solution was forthcoming till after India's Independence. As late as 1961, with the generous help extended by the Government of India and the Government of West Bengal, the construction of a new building was started in the premises of the Society to solve the problem of space, and the new four-storeyed building was formally opened by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, the then President of India, on 22 February 1965.

Membership of the Society for many years remained exclusively European, and only in January 1829, on the suggestion of Dr. Horace Hayman Wilson, Secretary of the Asiatic Society, Indian members were for the first time admitted to the Society. The earliest Indian members of the Society were Prasanna Kumar Tagore, Dwarkanath Tagore, Russamay Dutt and Ram Camul Sen. It was not until December 1832 that Radhakanta Deb was invited to become a member. Rajendra Lal Mitra (1822-1891) assumed responsibility as the first Indian President of the Society in 1885.

In the beginning, the Society was very loosely organised and had no real Executive Body. It had only two important functionaries: a President who conducted meetings, and a Secretary who kept the minutes. After Jones's death the interest of the members declined considerably and in 1800 a resolution had to be passed urging members to attend meetings more regularly. Financial conditions were so bad, and there were so many defaulters among the members, that the first Treasurer of the Society, Henry Trail resigned in desperation in 1799. But after the turn of the century things began to look up.

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