Once upon a time…


The Largest Sundial in the World, Jantar Mantar Observatory, Jaipur.

My recent trip to Jaipur revived my interest in Indian history and got me thinking in many new directions. Sharing a few thoughts today 🙂

When you tour the magnificent palaces and forts in Jaipur and visit the ancient observatory “Jantar Mantar”, it’s very obvious that once upon a time, we were really proficient in the sciences, mathematics, astronomy, and architecture, among other subjects. Many of the Jaipur Maharajas were also “polyglots” (knew several languages) and encouraged the arts and literature. For example, Jaipur has a very remarkable tradition of miniature paintings, blue pottery, and marble sculpting.

The Maharaja “Sawai Jai Singh 2” (1688 – 1743) who founded the city of Jaipur, was supposed to be an exceptionally talented individual, with many capabilities. He was a genius in mathematics and astronomy, and also proficient in several languages. According to our guide, he knew French and Persian apart from many Indian languages!!

This kind of linguistic openness and proficiency among our rulers was not rare. In the 16th century, Sri Krishnadevaraya of the Vijayanagar empire was also supposed to be a polyglot and a great writer/poet. At the same time, in Hyderabad, Sultan Quli Qutb Shah, was also a polyglot poet, a great patron of literature, and well versed in both Persian and Telugu. There will be many more fine examples when we look up our history books.

Hearing about Jai Singh’s prowess made me feel a bit depressed as to why nowadays in India, we have lost this respect for each other’s languages, and spend so much time trying to denigrate them. Instead of learning our own language and preserving the associated literature and culture, we spend more time bashing up other tongues.

Like I wrote previously on this topic of Indian languages, it’s very natural for human beings to be multilingual and being multilingual has several benefits, and it also makes us sensitive and respectful to other cultures.

Apart from the deviousness of our politicians, I think this problem has something to do with our colonial past. The British wanted to colonize not just our land, but also our minds, and impose the idea of their cultural superiority on us. They managed to do this by adopting an education policy that favoured English over all other Indian languages. In addition, they also subtly undermined our ancient learning and literature by incorporating certain hypocritical ideas. Our linguistic squabbling might be a result of their efforts – at least partially.

Thomas Babington Macaulay – who introduced the English system of education in India, had a prejudice against Indian languages and literature. For example, here is one of his quotes where he treats Arabic and Sanskrit in a shamefully condescending manner:

“I have no knowledge of either Sanskrit or Arabic. But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanskrit works. I have conversed both here and at home with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”

Another quote that illustrates how the British thought:

“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, – a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”

Am not at all against English education, it is certainly very valuable. But, the time has come to question the “Macaulayism” that it has given rise amidst us. Probably the reason why so many English-educated intellectuals in India think its “cool” to deride everything about Indian culture, the use of Indian languages etc., without even making an attempt to study or examine them in a fair manner.

Its time to learn to respect our own languages and their literature as equal to those of European languages, and relearn and readopt the ways of our illustrious forefathers who were polyglots and respected each other’s tongues.

That’s all for today, but I will write more on this topic 🙂 Not all was rosy about our kings and our past…a lot to examine…. Do let me know whether you agree…….am open-minded and would love to hear your opinions 🙂

PS: Do check out my earlier posts on Indian languages.



  4 comments for “Once upon a time…

  1. 10 Nov 2019 at 12:51 pm

    Great post 😊

    • Aparna Rao
      10 Nov 2019 at 2:26 pm

      Thank you! 🙂

  2. Abhijit
    11 Nov 2019 at 9:10 am

    I fully agree. There is an urgent need to change our mindset. The spirit contained in ‘Unity in diversity’ gets diluted once we fail to respect the regional languages…and that is what is happening today. Why not introduce a system wherein a regional language of a different zone is incorporated as an optional subject in the school curriculum ?

    • Aparna Rao
      11 Nov 2019 at 9:34 am

      Good idea! The challenge is to make regional languages as attractive as the popular options like French, German etc. Need to craft an appealing syllabus, and make them fun and easy.

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