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Wise, James

Wise, James civil surgeon of Dhaka in the 1860s and a writer. He had eagerness not only for medical science but also history. He sent a considerable number of impressions of stone inscriptions for Blockmann's Contributions to the Geography and History of Bengal. When alexander cunningham came to sonargaon and vikramapura, he not only arranged boats and elephants for him, but also accompanied him in that visit. The erudition and companionship of Wise made the visit of Cunningham fruitful.

During the nineteenth century, three Wises were known in Dhaka town: one was the Principal of Dhaka College, one a civil surgeon and the other an indigo-planter. Wise, the indigo-planter, had a vast zamindari in East Bengal. The 'Wiseghat' on the bank of the river Buriganga was named after him. Civil surgeon James Wise lived in the same house at Sadarghat where previously indigo-planter James Wise had lived. Often people confuse civil surgeon Wise with the indigo-planter Wise. The full name of Dr Wise was James Fawns Norton Wise. In the books and articles written by him, he used only the first and last portions of his name. About a hundred years later the Bulbul Academy of Fine Arts started functioning in the house where once the two Wises lived.

The book written by him was entitled Notes on Races, Castes and Trades of Eastern Bengal. Dr Wise collected the material used in writing the book during his stay in Dhaka. Later on, in his retired life, he got the manuscript printed in 1883 from 'Her Majestry's printer Harrison and Sons' located in St Martin Lane in London. In the title page was printed 'not published'. So the book is very rare. Recently, the Bangla translation of the book has been published with the title Purbabanger Bibhinna Jati, Varna O Peshar Bibaran. Apart from this, two articles entitled 'Notes on Sonargaon' and 'Notes on bara bhuiyans' had been published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1874.

The book is divided into five parts, viz, 'Muhamedan', 'Religious Sects of the Hindus', 'Hindu Castes and Aboriginal Races', 'Armenians' and 'Portuguese in Eastern Bengal'. He used the term 'race' to denote religious community. By the term 'caste' he made one understand the 'Varna' system of the Hindu community. Wise also mentioned about the discrimination between the Ashraf and Atraf within the Muslim community. He discussed about the Hindu religious sects Shaiva and Vaisnava. He upheld the importance of the aboriginals in the formation of the Bengali nation. The profound impact of the non-Aryan impression on the religious belief of the common people did not pass over his attention. The influence of rural deity, soil and water goddess, forest god, etc, on the Hindu religion of Bengal became manifest in his writings. Wise mentioned that there were eleven sections of the Vaisnavas in Bengal. Of these sections, many are now extinct. Therefore, the importance of the survey of Wise in this respect is beyond comprehension. He narrated the popularity of Trinath worship and Trinath fair amongst the lower caste Hindus. The fact that the authority of the Brahmins on the lower caste people was diminishing also attracted his attention. How the armenians and the portuguese came to Bengal and their lifestyle here had equally been discussed briefly in his book.

Wise's book had been printed more than a century ago. The anthropological study that had started at that time has progressed a long way by now; many concepts and definitions have changed. As a result, a present-day sociologist, anthropologist or historian may find many limitations in the writings of Wise. In spite of that, it is hardly possible to underestimate the value of this book. Wise's writings had, no doubt, made an impact on the contemporary scholars. Besides, the same has also influenced many subsequent anthropologists, sociologists or historians. Wise may be considered the pioneer in the study of Anthropology in Bangladesh. The description provided by him regarding the occupations of the people of East Bengal is highly meaningful. From his account important outlines for the writing of social history of Bengal may be derived. [Muntassir Mamoon]