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Prinsep, James


Prinsep, James (1799-1840) arrived in Calcutta in 1819 at the age of 20. James Prinsep joined the service of the east india company as assay-master in the Banaras mint. He returned to Calcutta in 1830 as the deputy assay-master of the mint where hh wilson was the chief. In 1832 he succeeded Wilson and remained in the post until 1833 when he had to return to England, being desperately ill. James Prinsep died on 23 April 1840, in his forty-first year.

During James Prinsep's years in the mint he reformed weights and measures, introduced a uniform coinage and devised a balance so delicate as to indicate the three-thousandth part of a grain. Prinsep was indeed a many-sided genius. He was an excellent architect as well. While at Banaras he completed the mint building according to his own plan and also built a church. He was on the committee for municipal improvements and improved the drainage system of the city by constructing a tunnel. He also built a bridge over the Karmanasa and restored the mosque of aurangzeb.

Prinsep, master of cunningham himself, is justifiably famous as the antiquarian who gave Indian archaeology a new life. For years to come Indian archaeology followed the pattern of research set by him in all its branches, but particularly in numismatics and epigraphy. In a few years of thrilling excitement and incredible industry, Prinsep- aided by others in India and Europe- made perhaps more discoveries in Indian archaeology than were made in the whole half-century before.

Prinsep, who had earlier helped his chief in the Mint, Dr HH Wilson- also then Secretary of the asiatic society with the classification and engraving of coins, kept up his interest in ancient coins. He succeeded to the Secretaryship of the Asiatic Society on wilson's return to England and started his own journal in 1832' The Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Prinsep at once appealed to all those officers who had 'opportunities of forming collections in the upper provinces' for more coins and inscriptions. He was endowed with the rare capacity of instilling some of his own enthusiasm and ardour into others. Prinsep's appeal was enormously successful. He was in no time flooded with coins and inscriptions - materials which changed the very trend of the Indian antiquarian researches.

Appropriately for the assay-master of the Calcutta mint, coins always remained Prinsep's first interest. He interpreted Bactrian and Kusana coins. Also all the indigenous Indian series including the punch-marked ones' indeed the term was coined by Prinsep himself ' the series of the autonomous republics, the Gupta series and so on. It was Prinsep who propounded the theory of the descent of the Gupta coins from the Kusana prototypes and this discussion also brought him to the question of the different stages in the technique of coin manufacture in India. He recognised the three stages represented by the punch-marked, the die-struck and the cast coins.

But the crowning achievement of all his labours over the decade was the decipherment of the 'Brahmi script' and the consequent clearing up of many of the mysteries of ancient Indian history. Thus more than forty years after 1788, Sir william jones's hope was realised when Prinsep was able to produce the key to unlock all the remaining secrets of the Brahmi script. However, it is only fair to remember that much of the Brahmi script had already been deciphered before the final achievement of Prinsep. Prinsep followed clues provided by others regarding the decipherment of Kharosthi and after some mistaken readings he was finally able, before his departure, to find the values of nineteen single letters and one compound of Kharosthi as well. It may also be mentioned that the idea of the Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum also goes back to the time of Prinsep and to his idea.

Prinsep literally worked himself to death. Desperately ill as he became, he had to leave unexpectedly in the midst of his labours and hence much of his work remained unfinished. As the new editor of the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal commented: '... collectors in all parts of India were in the habit of submitting to his inspection whatever they lighted upon as unusual, and sought his reading and interpretation - but the study and exertions required were too severe for the climate of India, and the Editor's robust constitution sank at last under the incessant labour... Yet before taking leave he had managed to set forth the main lines of Indian archaeological research for at least the next fifty years. [Abu Imam]