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Philology, mythology and geology in colonial India

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I am currently working with Dr Pratik Chakrabarti on a project entitled ‘An Antique Land: Geology, Philology and the Making of the Indian Subcontinent, 1830-1920’. The aim is to consider the relationship between science, culture and antiquity in India, through focusing on how geology contributed to the development of new theories regarding Indian and world heritage. This paper relates to the initial part of the research, elucidating how 18th- and 19th-century philological studies of ancient mythology established critical methodological and interpretive frameworks for stratigraphy and palaeontology in colonial India. The interaction of philology and geology through the careers of Francis Wilford, H.T. Colebrooke and Hugh Falconer, the last of these associated with the famous discovery of the Siwalik fossils in the 1830s, created further important synergies between concepts of sacred and secular geography, and pre-history and history, serving as the basis for notions of India as a cradle of human civilisation. While these scholarly interventions were significant in their own time, they also enable us to reflect on some of the practices of modern historical and scientific scholarship: how useful, for example, is ‘geomythology’?

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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