Work Experience with the Royal Asiatic Society

At the age of seven I began my study of the ancient Indian language, Sanskrit. Ten years later I have completed my Sanskrit GCSE and AS level, and my love of the subject has grown immensely. Before I began my intrepid journey onto A2 Sanskrit, I wanted to explore the subject more independently and branch out from my predominantly school based study.

It was when searching for work experience for the summer that the opportunity arose to do a placement for a week at the Royal Asiatic Society. With a rich history and a wealth of knowledge on Oriental languages, I felt it would benefit my cultural and historic understanding of Sanskrit greatly to work for a period immersed in the Society.

Without any expectation of what RAS would be like, I was intrigued at what I found. During the tour on my first day, the Society’s Librarian and one of my mentors for the week, Ed Weech, took me to see the collection. In the cold temperature of the room, there stood before me hundreds of books, maps, photos, journals and manuscripts, all in a multiplicity of different (some rather obscure) languages; some items fragile and old, others more modern in comparison! I was taken aback by the variety and sheer volume of the collection and the care with which they are currently being kept.

Ergo I began my first project which spread across the whole week and turned out to be my favourite of them all; indexing the articles in the Royal Asiatic Society journals. I found plugging the author, title and date of each article into the computer oddly therapeutic and a straightforward task to build my confidence on the first day. However after shaking off my drowsiness from the weekend, I began to engage in what I was doing and realised what I actually had in front of me. With the first being  published in 1827, the journals record memoirs of new adventures and discoveries, the finding and interpretation of new cultures and languages from faraway lands; dissertations on White Elephants, accounts of a Secret Association in China and descriptions of ancient relics.  As you can imagine all of a sudden my work became rather slow as every other article caught my eye and I was launched into the past to Ceylon or Borneo or Dekkan through the charming style of writing.

Of all the articles which frightened, shocked, intrigued and amused me, my favourite was a Memoir of the Natives in New Guinea, where William Marsden writes that the sailors, seeing the natives and “not liking their appearance, thought it prudent to return to the ship without landing.” and a note on the natives’ cannibalism, “The flesh was cut from different parts of the body… and eaten without salt or pepper”. If ever you find yourself at RAS I do recommend flicking through the contents of a few of the journals and see what catches your eye.

My other jobs, led by the Society’s archivist and my other mentor, Nancy Charley, included humidifying and cleaning ancient documents, making sure all the new documents to be archived had only brass attachments connecting them and helping to prepare a new display on Lady Jones. Some of the documents I handled were hundreds of years old and incredibly fragile; I learnt a lot about how the Society preserves their collection, and the necessity of all these procedures in maintaining their pieces. Preparing the display of Lady Jones meant I learnt not only about her, but her husband, Sir William Jones, who was a pioneer of Oriental Languages and indeed learnt Sanskrit. It was inspiring to read about a couple who travelled to an unfamiliar land in 1783 and dedicated their lives to the study of languages and culture, which was an untouched path at the time.

Louise standing by the new Lady Jones’ display

I had the opportunity to take a look at the oldest manuscript in the collection, which happened to be in Sanskrit much to my delight (of course dreaming I’d know exactly what is written on first viewing). However once taken out of its case, to my dismay, I could not discern a single word. Nevertheless that didn’t take away from the beauty of this 12th century manuscript, with small thumbnail paintings of demons, Gods and Goddesses, and tiny uniform script stretching out along the palm leaf.

As well as beautiful manuscripts and books in the collection, there are intricate, skilful pieces of artwork from all over Asia hanging on every wall of the Society. One which particularly caught my eye was an interpretation of the classic childhood game, Snakes and Ladders, painted in 1800 by an Indian artist. The game incorporates the Sanskrit concept of samsara, the cycle of birth and rebirth, where the higher you get in the game, the closer you are to achieving moksha, liberation. I managed to spot a few Sanskrit words I could translate on the game, which I think has been the height of my Sanskrit career so far.

All in all I have hugely enjoyed my internship at the Royal Asiatic Society. My mentors were kind and patient and incredibly generous in sharing their comprehensive knowledge with me. The time I have spent here has not only tightened my grasp on the history of the Sanskrit language, but also opened me up to wider oriental studies which I hadn’t yet discovered, but find fascinating. Thank you to the team of people at the Society who have enriched my experience here, I am very privileged.

Written by Louise Raffray