Celebrating our Achievements

For this week’s blog post, we wanted to celebrate some of the work that has been carried out at the society over the last year, amidst such challenging circumstances. One of these achievements is the work that has been carried out by our volunteers, with some of these continuing to volunteer for the society from home. One of these volunteers Lily Colgan, has kindly offered to write about her experiences cataloguing the personal papers of the West brothers. Lily has recently completed a Masters in the History of Art and Archaeology and has been volunteering at the society over the past year.  

In October 2019 I was frantically checking the footnotes for my dissertation, wishing, once again, that I could understand my own shorthand. This would be the last piece of work I would submit for my Master’s – an archival reading of built heritage, focusing on Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi. The year had absolutely flown by, and I did not feel ready to finish. I was going to miss the feeling of getting lost in boxes and folders filled with photographs, drawings and letters and trying to tease out answers to questions and arguments. I have romanticised this in my head, but ever since reading Ann Laura Stoler’s Along the Archival Grain, I became interested in the importance of archival documents, the processes involved in managing archives and how these are made accessible to researchers.

As I was curious to learn more about the archival profession, I contacted the Royal Asiatic Society to see if there were any volunteering opportunities that would allow me to work with the collections. I was thrilled when I received a response that they held an uncatalogued collection of personal papers belonging to five railway engineers – The West Brothers who were working in the Maharashtra region of India in the mid to late 1800s. Just over a year has passed since the RAS provided me with some weekly escapism from work and my interest in the collection has reminded me why I chose to study the history of art and archaeology. Over the last year I have documented the entire collection, become familiar with archival concepts and had some very inspiring and interesting conversations.

The West Collection includes material by five West brothers; Edward William, Arthur Anderson, Henry, Clement and Walter West. Their father was the owner of several cotton presses in India. Edward West became the Superintendent in the mid 1840’s at the largest of these cotton presses, in Mumbai.  Edward, who was later known for his work in Linguistics and Zoroastrian studies, became a Chief Engineer of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway in 1852. All five of these brothers became railway engineers and worked predominately on the Bhor Ghat mountain passage.  The result is a meticulously organized and rich combination of topographical drawings, maps, floor plans, copies of wall paintings, field notes, papers, sketches, correspondence and rubbings, as well a semblance of an autobiographical account of the brother’s time in India.

West collection papers

The collection is comprised of seven bound leather folders, each containing on average three or four smaller folders. The main focus of the collection is the Kanheri Caves; a group of over 109 rock cut temples located in what is today the Sanjay Gandhi National Park on the western outskirts of Mumbai. The brothers studied these caves over the course of several decades, returning to the site many times to check and amend measurements, locations, and expand open their interpretation of the site. The sheer size of the site made it of particular interest, especially as other large sites in the region, such as the Ajanta and Ellora Caves (also covered in the collection) had been the subject of wider study.


One of the maps within the collections

The remainder of the collection covers several other sites; Ajanta, Ellora and Daulatabad are some of the more notable ones. The collection is also an excellent resource for those wishing to research smaller sites, many of which are classified as sundries or single temple sites in the Maharashtra region.  The ‘Sirwal’, ‘Lohari’, ‘Bawadhon’, ‘Rajpuri’, ‘Pateshwar’, ‘Patan’, Karad’, ‘Kundal’, ‘Malekshwar’ caves, as well as the Nasik and Kondati or Mahakal Caves, Magathan Caves, Junnar Caves, Nana Ghat, and various sites in Konkan are all included, the majority beautifully illustrated and meticulously mapped out.

Each drawing and description is given in such meticulous detail

The entire collection was sent to James Burgess in 1905, with the hope that the material would be published as a book. Nothing however came of this and the collection stayed with Burgess until his death in 1916, when it was bequeathed to the Society. What I feel makes the collection particularly significant is that the work was conducted over the course of several decades, offering insights as to why and how these five brothers had access to these caves, their reasons for documenting them and where they saw their own work in relation to that of their predecessors and peers.

Edward’s position within scholarship is widely recognized and he was a member of The Royal Asiatic Society, being a recipient of the society’s Triennial Gold Medal. The vast majority of the papers and articles published in relation to the Kanheri Caves, as well as other sites, are published under Edward’s name – or at least use his name as the lead author. However, what is clear is that the bulk of the work was executed by his brothers, and it was Arthur who was the driving force behind this collection. The collection offers on opportunity to delve further into the West family, learning more about the work and interests of Arthur, Clement, Walter and Henry, as well as archaeological surveys more broadly before the formation of the Archaeological Survey of India, and the field of archaeology and architectural history in the British Empire.

We would like to thank Lily for her contribution to the blog for this week and for all her hard work she has undertaken on the West collection.

Moving to Mars exhibition:

The society is excited to announce that a Panchanga scroll from the collections will be exhibited at the Tekniska museet (Museum of Science and Technology) in Stockholm as part of the ‘Moving to Mars’ exhibition that is being held. The scroll is a Hindu astronomical almanac form India, dating to around 1818, from the James Tod collection. More information about this exhibition (and the scroll) will be released in due course once it opens.

Last virtual event of the year:

The final event of the year was held this Tuesday (8th December) with Fuchsia Hart of the Khalili Research Centre presenting a lecture titled, ‘Fath- ‘Ali Shah Qajar and the shrine of Fatima Ma’sumeh, Qom.’ The event was very well attended and we look forward to continuing to hold more events over Zoom in the new year.