In the late 18th and early 19th century, India was the Eastern equivalent of the Wild West for the British, an exotic land where young men headed to make their fortunes. Among the many bravehearts who took off for this great subcontinent was a young James Tod, who wore many hats during his two-decade-long career in India.
Primarily an officer of the East India Company, Tod was the Company’s Agent for the Rajput states and an intelligence officer during the Anglo-Maratha wars. He was also a scholar, historian and numismatist. But Tod had one quality that cut short his career on the subcontinent – during the height of colonial rule, here was a man who was so involved with the ‘natives’ that he had to be relieved of his official duties!
After he returned to England, Tod published a book that is still considered one of the most notable works on Rajasthan written in English. Titled Annals and Antiquities of Rajast'han , his magnum opus was first published in 1829 and is still a popular reference work today. Filled with fantastical accounts of Rajput chivalry and valour, the book defined how the wider world viewed Rajasthan, as well as how present-day Rajasthanis perceive their past.
Let’s enter the world of James Tod, a man of many talents. Tod was born in London in 1782 and left for India to seek his fortune at the age of 17. He was appointed as a cadet and then lieutenant in the Bengal Army, and rose through the ranks to become a Captain by 1813, leading the convoy that escorted the British Resident to the court of Daulatrao Scindia.
During this time, Scindia’s convoy moved from one place to another within the kingdom. Tod used the opportunity of moving with the court to conduct geographic and topographical studies in the region. He created a map of Central India, which was of vital importance during the Third Anglo-Maratha War of 1817-1818. Tod was also involved in intelligence gathering during this war, which led to the end of the Maratha Empire and played a decisive role in strengthening the East India Company’s control over India.
However, it was the next phase of his career, when he was stationed in the present-day state of Rajasthan, that Tod is most known for. In 1818, after the Anglo-Maratha War, he was appointed Political Agent for many states in Western Rajputana, a region the British already had amicable relations with and indirectly controlled. The region was vital from a strategic standpoint as it was seen as a buffer zone against potential Russian incursions from the north.
This was a vast geographic area with many states and, over time, Tod’s responsibilities increased to cover almost all the regions that fall in present-day Rajasthan. Initially, was given charge of Mewar, Kota, Sirohi and Bundi, and Marwar and Jaisalmer were added soon after.
He was well regarded by the princes and kings he dealt with, and did a great deal of good work. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), considered an important reference on British history since 1885, writes about James Tod’s work. It says he was:
‘so successful in his efforts to restore peace and confidence that within less than a year some 300 deserted towns and villages were re-peopled, trade revived, and, in spite of the abolition of transit duties and the reduction of frontier customs, the state revenue had reached an unprecedented amount.’
However, there was friction between him and his superiors in the East India Company, who felt that Tod favored the local princes a little too much and suspected that he took bribes from them. This led to the charge of first Kota and then Jaisalmer being taken away from him. Tod was stationed in Udaipur for most of his time in the region, and thus Mewar features most prominently in his work.
He lived in Rajasthan from 1818 to 1922, and studied the local annals during his stay.
Tod meticulously collected royal genealogies, inscriptions, coins, artefacts, manuscripts and sketches of monuments. These were not only objects to marvel at but also tools in his study of Rajputana. Interestingly, Tod saw the Rajputs as natural allies of the British against the Marathas and Mughals, which was further emphasised by his attempts to find commonality between them through history and mythology.
Although he wasn’t without his prejudices, what is interesting about Tod is that he acknowledged and respected the locals’ ways and world view. Historian and Professor of History at Ithaca College, New York, Jason Freitag has studied and written on Tod extensively and has analysed many elements of his work. These include how Tod looked both at the Hindu texts like the Puranas and worked with the local bards as well as ancient Greek and Roman mythology, and drew parallels between them.
His work was rooted as much in the classic idiom of Europe as the vernacular and more folk idiom of Rajasthan.
Tod was unhappy at being relieved of charge of one state after another, and he resigned in 1922 and returned to England the following year. For a short time, he worked as a librarian at the Royal Asiatic Society in London. Plagued with chronic ill health, he retired from service before passing away in 1835. But his greatest legacy and his ‘magnum opus’ was the Annals and Antiquities of Rajast'han published in volumes in 1829 and 1832. It was based on the material he collected during his time in Rajasthan.
He wrote the Annals to inform the British public about Rajasthan and included many illustrations of the geographic and architectural features of the region by significant artists. The Annals were written in two volumes. In the first, he plays the role of geographer and describes the physical features of Rajasthan in great detail; in the second, he writes about the history and people of the region.
Interestingly, many people claim that it is he who coined the term ‘Rajasthan’, although he probably just popularised it.
The first reference to the term ‘Rajasthan’ is in a document dating to 1708, well before James Tod was even born.
What is distinctive about his work is that besides his extensive study and writings on the state, he included many prints and drawings of the state’s physical features, structures and people. This was the first time the British public was exposed to this part of the subcontinent and began their fascination with it.
Tod also writes about the heroes of Rajasthan and their exploits.
In fact, in modern retellings, where the Rajputs of Rajasthan are seen as the bravest, noblest and most valorous people to have lived on the subcontinent owe their origins to him. The Rajput beliefs of being the Chandravanshis and Suryavanshis, and the descendants of Lord Rama are popular as much because of Tod as the local texts and retellings of legends and folktales.
In the second volume, Tod lists 36 states in Rajasthan. Interestingly, his description of them does not have equal detailing probably due to the varying amounts of time he spent in each place. For example, he devotes the most attention to Mewar (24 chapters and an appendix) and the least to Jaisalmer and Bikaner (3 chapters each).
The Prithviraj Raso, an epic poem composed in Pingal, a variant of Braj Bhasha, is used by Tod to reconstruct the early history of the Rajput clans.
In fact, it is mentioned in the Annals more than a hundred times. The Raso was very popular among the ruling elite of the region in Tod’s time and they had many manuscripts of the legend in their collections.
The valour of Prithviraj Chauhan which has been described in Raso was popularised by Tod. He believed that the Raso was written in Chauhan’s time (12th century CE). The fact that it was composed in the 16th century CE resulted in him receiving much flak from later historians, who questioned the veracity of his work.
While Tod is criticized for exaggerating the tales of Rajput valour, he is among only a handful who actually studied the local texts and languages, and collected oral tales from bards. An important element of the Annals is the chivalry, heroism and pride of the Rajputs that Tod dwells on.
This focus on a romanticised past is not only informed by his sources of local history and readings of folklore and classical mythology but also the times he lived in. It was the Age of Romanticism in England, of rediscovery and revival of an exciting past; the times of poets and writers like Byron and Shelley. Thus the heroism of the Raso was not just to be celebrated but revelled in.
In his study, Tod had a Jain Guru, Yati Gyanachandra, who worked with him in understanding and interpreting the materials he collected. Naturally, he has been recognised as a major influence on the Annals. Despite the fact that his Guru was Jain, and he was in a region with a substantial Jain population, Tod surprisingly understood very little about Jain beliefs and practices. He had an admiration for Jain traditions but made the mistake of conflating Jainism with Buddhism and had referred to the Tirthankaras as ‘Buddhas’ and characterised Jainism as ‘the chief sect of the Buddhists’.
What is fascinating is that while Tod was working on his ambitious chronicle of the history of Rajasthan, in Maharashtra, another British official, James Grant Duff, would publish The History of the Marathas in 1826. Both James Tod and James Grant Duff were of Scottish ancestry, influenced by the ‘Romanticism’ popularized in Europe by Sir Walter Scott, which presented a romanticized version of history replete with tales of warriors and chivalry. Walter’s Scott’s influence was especially strong in Scotland, from where both James Tod and James Grant Duff originated.
Today, almost two centuries after its publication, James Tod’s Annals continues to hold an enduring appeal, especially among Rajasthanis.