Centre for South Asian Studies

History of South Asian Studies at Edinburgh


The recent history of the teaching and study of South Asian topics is linked to the Centre for South Asian Studies, which was established in 1988 as a sub-unit of what was then the Department of Sanskrit. A major task of the Centre has been to co-ordinate South Asian teaching and research around the University. The Centre's core staff come from the disciplines of History, Sanskrit, Social Anthropology and Sociology within the Schools of History, Classics & Archaeology, Asian Studies, and Social & Political Studies. The majority of staff are thus members of the College of Humanities & Social Science but the remit and membership of the Centre extends right across the University. The first activity of the Centre was to create a second-level course (South Asian Studies 2) which now has an annual intake of 20-30 students. In 1992 two new degrees were established in Social Anthropology and in Sociology with South Asian Studies. Since then the Centre has considerably expanded its activities through teaching and research and has re-affirmed its place as the Centre for South Asian Studies in Scotland and one of the leading centres in the U.K.



Edinburgh has had a long tradition of teaching and scholarship on South Asian topics and has long been the principal centre of expertise in Scotland. An early example was William Robertson, the University's famous Professor of History, and Principal from 1762 to 1793. Robertson's An Historical Disquisition Concerning the Knowledge which the Ancients had of India, published in 1791, was amongst the earliest European texts to take a serious interest in Indian commerce and culture.

In the colonial period, many Edinburgh graduates worked in the Indian sub-continent in the Government services, as missionaries, in commerce, or in industry. They became especially prominent in the East India Company's service when Henry Dundas (who was both born and graduated in Edinburgh) chaired the Board of Control in the late eighteenth century, with as many as one-fifth of the Company writer's in Calcutta and Madras being Scottish in origin by the 1790's. A still more prominent role was later played by Scots in the India military, whilst no less than 8 out of the 38 Indian Viceroys and Governor-Generals between 1774 and 1947 were of Scottish origin - the last being the Earl of Linlithgow (another graduate of the University). Many have left behind private papers that are accessible in Edinburgh.

The beginning of the modern academic study in Edinburgh of South Asia is closely linked to the influence of two early East India Company officials, John and William Muir. John (1810-1882) was the eldest, and William (1819-1905) the youngest, of four sons of a Glasgow merchant, all of whom were provided with positions in the East India Company by a friend of their widowed mother. The two middle brothers died in India. John rose to be a District Judge and retired in 1853, returning to Edinburgh. William Muir was in Agra during the events of 1857-58 and later became Lieutenant-Governor of the North-Western Provinces, retiring to Edinburgh in 1875 when he became Principal of the University, remaining in post until he died. In 1862, the two brothers established the Chair of Sanskrit, with the right to nominate the first holder, Theodor Aufrecht. After this the right reverted to the Crown as a Regius Chair.

Soon after the establishment of the chair in Sanskrit, Hugh Cleghorn (founder, with Brandis, of the Indian Forestry Service) was appointed to the first lectureship in Forestry in 1869. The very first Indian Students Association was then founded in Edinburgh, in 1875, in response to the large influx of students of both medicine and forestry from India. This has since been transformed into the Edinburgh Indian Association, with which the Centre retains close links, as with the Edinburgh South Asian Students Association.

The second holder of the Sanskrit Chair, Julius Eggeling, Professor from 1875 to 1914, was the author of the main article on Sanskrit in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and was Curator of the University Library from 1900 to 1913. In August 1914 he left for vacation in his native Germany, and because of the War was unable to return before his death in 1918. Eggeling taught Arthur Berriedale Keith, who them went to Balliol College, Oxford and began a career as a civil servant. Keith held the Regius Chair from 1914 to 1944. He also acquired in 1927 the title of Lecturer in the Constitution of the British Empire, preferring these combined posts in his native Edinburgh to accepting chairs of Sanskrit in Harvard or Oxford. He is best known for his work on colonial-history and legal development, and he became an authority on constitutional reform in India, but he also published widely on Sanskrit.

The Regius Chair of Sanskrit was left unfilled after Keith's death, but in the 1950's-1980's Edinburgh University was graced by the presence of the Marxist historian Victor Kiernan, famous for his translations of the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Mohammed Iqbal and as author of The Lords of Human Kind (1969). Ron Asher became Professor of Linguistics (specializing in Dravidian languages) from 1977 to 1993 and the chair in Sanskrit was eventually filled when John Brockington was appointed to a Personal Chair in 1998 until his retirement in 2006. Both Asher and Brockington remain honorary fellows of the Centre.

In 2013 the Regius Chair was revived as the Regius Chair in South Asian Language, Culture and Society and was awarded to the distinguished social anthropologist Professor Jonathan Spencer.

Close connections exist between India and Edinburgh's medical school and colleges. Edinburgh university trained in addition many scientists who later played substantial parts in the collection and classification of the flora of India, a unique collection of drawings and plant materials is consequently now held in the Royal Botanical Gardens of Edinburgh. A large number of manuscripts concerning India are also available in the National Library of Scotland on George IV Bridge and in the National Archive for Scotland on Princes Street, where the papers of Governor-General Dalhousie (for example) are held. They form an extensive research resource, the National Library preserving the private papers of many senior Indian Civil Servants and the complete collection of the records of the Scottish Churches Missionary Society. Amongst them are the papers of Alexander Duff - one of Edinburgh's more famous graduates. The library of New College (now the School of Divinity)  - where many Scottish misionaries were educated - holds meanwhile one of the most extensive collections of Missionary periodicals. The location of many of Edinburgh's manuscript resources are listed in A Guide to MSS in the British Isles relating to South and Southeast Asia, by J. D. Pearson, Volume 2, (London: Mansell, 1990). For further information see South Asian Manuscipts in Edinburgh University Library and Edinburgh.

Apart from those already mentioned, other famous individuals graduating from or associated with the University of Edinburgh and India include; David and James Anderson (soldiers and servants to the East India Company in the time of Warren Hastings), William Erskine (historian of medieval India), James Mill  (political philosopher, India Office offiicial, and historian), Andrew Fraser (Indian Civil Service officer), Stephen Hislop (missionary, geologist, and early anthropologist), Alexander Grant (Foreign Secretary, then Chief Commissioner NWFP), William Wedderburn (administrator and politician), Patrick Geddes (botanist and city planner to Calcutta), Charles Aitchison (ICS), George Birdwood (ICS), William Blackwood (publisher - born in Lucknow), John Malcom (diplomat and administrator), William Jardine and James Matheson (merchants).

In 1875 Indian students at Edinburgh formed the Indian Association, which had the distinction of being the first South Asian student association in the UK. The association was first housed at 11 George Square, and later at 3 Potterrow in 1877. It campaigned on liberal issues such as the abolition of capital punishment and was one of the first Edinburgh University Societies to allow women into its membership.

Aghorenath Chattopadhyay (father of Sarojini Naidu) was the first Indian to obtain a D.Sc from a foreign University, graduating at Edinburgh University in 1875. Prafulla Chandra Ray, who became Vice President of the Chemical Society at Edinburgh and later founded India’s first chemical company, completed his doctorate at Edinburgh in 1887. Kadambini Ganguly, the first Indian woman doctor, completed part of her medical training at the University of Edinburgh in the early 1890s. Other famous Indian graduates include Dr. T. M. Nair (founder of the Justice Party in 1920s South India) and George Joseph, a freedom fighter who worked closely with Gandhi and Nehru. More recent graduates of the 20th century include R.L. (Ravi) Kapur, the famous Indian psychiatrist, and Armeane Choksi, a former Vice-President of the World Bank. With our Indian and South Asian graduates growing in numbers, we look forward there being many more distinguished graduates of the University from the subcontinent in the future.