Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Men who wrote Hobson-Jobson

Portrait of Henry Yule from the 1903 edition of The Book of Ser Marco Polo, edited by Henri Cordier

The Hobson-Jobson was a dictionary of Indoisms compiled at the end of the 19th century. It probably anticipated the curry invasion and the social acceptance of strange, foreign accented creoles in the United Kingdom by about a century. Back then, however, scarcely any Indian who wasn’t of the well-bred princely sort or couldn’t speak impeccable English made it to the United Kingdom and the prime carriers of such Indian-infused creole were either  Eurasian  (Anglo-Indian) or Britons who had spent their careers and possibly their lifetimes in the subcontinent  and now sought out a quiet retirement  in a blighty they had not seen for decades.    

The authors of the Hobson-Jobson were two very interesting gentlemen – Sir Henry Yule and Arthur Coke Burnell. Yule is well known for his translation of Marco Polo’s travels that became a bestseller. He came to India as an officer in Bengal Engineers and travelled extensively in Central Asia and North-East India apart from playing an active part in the Sikh Wars.  In 1855, Yule was part of an Indian diplomatic mission to the Burmese Empire and wrote an account of his visit. Retiring from active service after the 1857 mutiny, Yule spent the rest of his life in Italy and United Kingdom, visiting libraries and writing travel and history books.   In 1871, he translated Marco Polo’s travelogue into English and published it in two volumes with the title The Book of Ser Marco Polo the Venetian Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East. He dedicated  this work which many consider his magnum opus to his royal patron Margherita, the princess of Piedmont and included a huge list of credits thanking among others, Sir Alexander Cunningham, Rev Robert Caldwell, Sir Bartle Frere and Hugh Cleghorn.  When Yule died in 1889 at the age of sixty-nine, he left  behind a chequered career and a mountain of travelogues, geography and history books.

"Doorway of Marco Polo's house". Frontispiece  of The Book of Ser Marco Polo the Venetian (1871)

While Yule’s life was certainly colourful,  his inquiries were rarely accompanied by the depth of research that was the prime feature of the works of the other gentleman - the ICS officer from down south . Burnell was a polyglot (he knew a dozen languages) and a polymath who authored a seminal work on South Indian epigraphy, in which he traces the evolution of South Indian scripts from its earliest forms known back then  - the grantha copper plates of the Pallavas from the 4th century AD - to those that survived into the 17th century AD.    Serving for over two decades in the Madras Presidency, he was one of a coterie of British civil servants such as Fleet, Pargiter , Sewell and Cammiade who dabbled in Indian archaeology. In 1873, he wrote On Some Pahlavi inscriptions in South India in which he published translations of the Pahlavi inscriptions found in the St. Thomas crosses of South India.  Though Burnell betrays an anti-Hindu bias in his work, his opinions on the antiquity of the Pahlavi inscriptions are quite honest and reliable. He dated the Pahlavi inscriptions to the 8th century AD and expressed doubts over the possibility of the Apostle St. Thomas (who, according to tradition, lived in the 1st century AD) having arrived in India or preached here.   Burnell also took a keen interest in manuscriptology and prepared a catalog of manuscripts found in the Saraswathi Mahal Library in Tanjore.  His career was cut short by an early death at the age of 42; in fact, Burnell had never been in tolerable health during his twenty two year long stay in India and a promising career thus came to a abrupt, premature end.

Table depicting origin of South Indian scripts, Elements of South-Indian Palaeography, "South Indian Alphabets and their Development", pp 14.

The first edition of Hobson-Jobson was published in 1886; Burnell having died in 1882 was posthumously credited as co-author of the work.  In fact, Yule, probably teary-eyed, recounts in the preface how Burnell had written to him in 1872 suggesting such an idea though the two had met only once before. Yule says that it triggered a ten-year  long association that lasted until Burnell’s death. The list of credits is much smaller compared to the Travels of Marco Polo and the personages listed here are not so well-known as Cunningham or Frere.    The 870-page work that includes a supplement which had been left out in the main body is dedicated by Henry Yule to his older brother, Sir George Udny Yule who had passed away earlier that same year.   

Cover of the first edition of Hobson-Jobson (1886)

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Pallavas and the Pahlavas

In an article titled “India’s Parthian Colony” published in The Iranian on May 14, 2003, Dr. Samar Abbas wrote that the Pallavas of South India had descended from  the Pahlavas of Iran  and attributed  their persistent conflicts with their neighbours the  Chalukyas to an obscure, far-fetched theory that the Chalukyas  were descendants of the Seleucids, whom the Pahlavas overthrew to capture power in Iran. Though Abbas’  unscientific  paper deserves little more than cursory mention, the theory itself cannot be brushed aside as a farce simply because it had also been suggested by the famous South Indian epigraphist and Pallava expert V. Venkayya  who had worked with Hultzsch in deciphering the Mamallapuram inscriptions.  

Who were the Pahlavas! According to sources that date from the time of the Achaemenids, like the Turks and Mongols who came later, the Pahlavas or Parthians were a tribe of horsemen who inhabited the wild country called Chorasmia (now  forming  a part of the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan and portion of north-eastern Iran) situated on the north-eastern frontiers of the Persian Empire. They became very powerful in the middle of the 3rd century BC under their chief Arsaces (Arshaka) who founded an independent Parthian kingdom just as the Seleucid Empire ruled by the descendants of Alexander the Great’s general Selucus Nikator started to decline.  In 150 BC, the Parthian king Mithridates I (Mithra-datha)  captured Seleucia, the capital of the Persian Empire putting an end to the Greek dynasty and  instituting almost three centuries of Parthian hegemony over Iran, a period characterized by incessant wars with the Roman Empire. In  224 AD, the last Parthian ruler Artabanus V (Ardavan) was defeated and slain in battle by his son-in-law Ardeshir who  founded the Sassanian dynasty. With it ended the Parthian Empire of Iran.  The lives of the powerful Parthian aristocratic families at the court, however, continued unhindered and many of them held onto their fiefs long after the Islamic invasions. An Indo-Parthian kingdom which ruled over the Indus river valley and surrounding areas outlived Persia’s Parthian kingdom by a few years.

Eight centuries later when Ferdowsi wrote the famous Persian epic Shah-nameh, the word Pehliva  had acquired the meaning  “captain” or “commander” (Just like the Tamil Thalapathi or Senapathi) – Ferdowsi frequently uses the word as an epithet of Rustam or Rostam, the hero of the epic, a semi-legendary character based, incidentally, on the general Surena who led the Parthian forces in the famous victory over the Roman army in the Battle of Carrhae (53 BC). A Pahlavi dynasty ruled Iran between 1925 and 1979, its founder Reza Khan adopting the surname “Pahlavi” as a measure to claim legitimacy through the Pahlava name.

 The Pallavas of South India, meanwhile, were a dynasty of kings who claimed to be Brahma-kshatriyas. Their first records date from the middle of the 3rd century AD and till the 6th century AD, all that we know about the Pallavas are from copper plate grants which barring the earliest (which is in Prakrit) , are all in Sanskrit. They used the florid Pallava or Vengi character, a derivative of Brahmi, which they introduced in the islands of Java and Borneo. In later years, however,  we find a marked increase in rock inscriptions mostly from the vast number of temples they built. There was also a perceptible shift in favour of Tamil as the medium of communication.  Thus, at the time of Nandivarman II who ruled at the end of the 8th century AD, the stage was already set for a cultural renaissance which witnessed its full bloom under the Cholas.

The origins of the South Indian Pallavas have always been a mystery. We know nothing of them prior to 275  AD  when the first copper plates were inscribed. These plates trace their ancestry back to a legendary hero called Bappa Bhatta.  Later regnal lists claimed a descent from Drona’s son Aswatthama.  But legend and mythology aside, the earliest known antecedents of the Pallavas ruled as petty kings in the territory between the Godavari and Palar rivers, probably as vassals of the last Satavahanas.  Over the centuries, the Pallavas gradually moved southwards championing Hinduism and hastening the pace of Aryanization in the Tamil country and  in exchange,  adopting the Tamil language and culture. (Their advent in Tamil Nadu could simply be the continuation of a southward migratory trend. In fact, K. A. Nilakanta Sastri, among all  historians, attributes a North Indian origin to the Pallavas) The importance of Pallavas to Tamil history, I feel, has frequently been understated. Both Saivism and Vaishnavism owe their early rise to Pallava patronage as much as that of the Pandyas and the Tamil script acquired its present form during the Later Pallavas.    

From the statues and sculptures of Mahabalipuram, we understand that the Pallavas kings had impressive physiques. Many were acclaimed wrestlers. Narasimhavarman I, for example, held the title Maha-malla  or great wrestler, Mahendravarman I Shatru-malla “opponent wrestler” and Paramesvaravarman I, Eka-malla or sole wrestler. Here the similarities with the Pahlavas of Iran are more telling. Wrestling is the national sport of Iran and  zur-khanehs or gymnasiums are found all over the country.  Many of their traditional heroes such as Rostam were fabled wrestlers. In fact, the Persian word for wrestler Pehelwan derives from Pahlava, hinting at the possibility of the Pahlavas having introduced wrestling as a traditional sporting routine in the country.

Like the Pallavas of South India, the Pahlavas of Iran were also fine builders. A noted feature of Pallava monuments is the  widespread use of lion motifs. The lion, it must be mentioned here, was an essential feature of Achaemenid architecture though it wasn’t as popular in Parthian times. Nevertheless, “the Lion and Sun” remained  Iran's national symbol until quite recently.  In India, the lion is  conspicuous in Pallava monuments to an extent found nowhere apart from the lion capitals of Ashoka the Great. However, another speciality of Parthian architecture the iwan is not found in any of the Pallava works.

The Parthians were a tribe of nomadic horsemen who adopted a settled life and the finer aspects of Persian civilization. Similarly, many theories claim that the Pallavas were of Naga descent. Who these Nagas were no one knows, for the appellation Naga was used at different periods of time to denote people of diverse ethnicities such as the well-known Nagas of Nagaland, the Nayars of Malabar, the Veddas of Sri Lanka and even certain hill tribes that live in Pakistan's Khyber-Pakthunwa. It could also be the Kurumbars of Tondaimandalam who held Tondai Naidu before the rise of the Pallavas. And then, why not the Parthians themselves! These are questions that demand answer!Another puzzle that needs a satisfactory reply is the fate of the Pallavas after the death of Aparajitha. Though there are many caste groups that claim descent from the Pallavas, none of their claims are convincing enough.


1) Rawlinson, George. The Seven Great Monarchies of the Ancient Near-East: Vol VI: The Parthian Empire (1873) and Vol VII: The Sassanian or The New Persian Empire (1876). Longmans, Green and Co.

 2) Sastri, K. A. Nilakanta (1955) [1975]. A History of South India: From Prehistoric Times to the Fall of Vijayanagar. Oxford University Press.

3) Zimmern, Helen (1883). The Epic of Kings - Stories Retold From Firdusi. T. Fisher Unwin.

3) Epigraphia Indica for copper-plate inscriptions of the Early Pallavas.

4) Pillay, K. K. (1963). South India and Ceylon. University of Madras.