Colonial Geography, Bengali Literati and the Racial Mapping of Indian Identity

[Note: In order to understand the contemporary tensions in India particularly and it’s neighboring country generally, this article provided very important insight. The idea of identity is one of the important topic of discussion. This article analysed the Brahamanical discourse of geography of colonial period that contributed the creation of modern Indian identity based on racial understanding of humankind. This is short version of the original article. The full version can be found at the end where all the references can be found.-Editor] 

Written by Subho Basu*

Introduction. 1

Mapping India: From Hindu Cosmography to a Colonial Science of Geography. 3

Mapping Ethnicity: The Science of Geography and the Racial Ranking of Humankind. 5

Re-invigorating the Puranic Ideal of Bharat: Bharat as a Homeland of the Hindu Population. 7

Conclusion. 8


Based on the study of geography textbooks written in Bengali in the late-nineteenth century, this paper argues that the introduction of the new discipline of geography in school curricula introduced race as a systematic theme in understanding human civilization as hierarchical. In the 1840s, such ideas appeared as scattershot commentaries on race but by the 1880s they had cohered into a theory of race. Though school-educated elites constituted a minuscule minority of the province, it was still a significant group in terms of their impact upon local politics and culture.

More importantly, even though since the early nineteenth century the Bengali literati was familiar with theories of race, through phrenology etc., this was the first time ‘scientific’ racial discourses were employed by Indians to claim that colonial territory was primarily a homeland of Hindu Aryans who were perceived to be far higher on the civilizational ladder in comparison to ‘pre-Aryan aboriginals’ as internal others.

Drawing upon existing theories of racial hierarchy of humankind, writers of Bengali geography textbooks placed Britain, India, and sometimes China, at the apex of a hierarchy of global civilization, with Africa at the bottom. Following a similar discursive terrain in the Indian context, Bengali writers highlighted the supposed superiority of Aryans, interchangeably described as ‘Hindu Caucasians’, over ‘aboriginal autochthons’ within the Indian empire.

Through invocations of the supposedly glorious ancient Hindu heritage of Bharatvarsha and its comparison to Yavana (Muslim) intolerance and the backwardness of the ‘aboriginal savage’ [variously described as asabhya (uncivilized), rakhsahs (demons), asura (demon)], the implicit tenor of such writings was to nationalize the territorial spaces conquered by the British.

Through invocations of myths, legends, and the territorialisation of history, these writers sought to secure the claims of an emerging western-educated Hindu middle-class as a group of innovative civilizing citizens in relation to the ‘uncivilized pre-Aryan’ population inhabiting the boundary of the new territory.

Interestingly, while the Bengali Hindu literati reconstructed the ethno-cultural identity of the land, they ignored racial backwardness attributed to Indians in various colonial anthropometric literatures, and thus engaged in a selective adoption and adaptation of colonial `scientific’ writing. On the one hand, this adoption established the claim of Hindu Indian citizens over a putative national terrain to contest the colonial notion of conquest and, on the other, it marginalized various internal others who claimed parts of the colonial territory as their national homeland.

The study of geography textbooks is critical, as textbooks within the colonial education system naturalized such knowledge as axiomatic truth. Yet even Bayly, who has pioneered the research on geography textbooks and undoubtedly provided the most insightful analysis of the role of geography in the making of the colonial information order in India, has refrained from engaging with this hierarchization of human civilizations. Though Bayly refers to ‘racial stereotypes’ introduced by British authors of geography textbooks, he refrains from analyzing the vivid portrayal of racial hierarchy of human civilizations by many Indian authors.

‘Racial stereotypes’ introduced by British authors of geography textbooks


This paper, while drawing upon Bayly’s formulation of contestations between the European and the (various) strands of indigenous knowledge systems, further expands the field to analyze how Bengali elites reconstructed the notion of hierarchy of civilizations. Susan Bayly has pointed out how Indian nationalist writers adopted racial theories from colonial sources and internalized their implications.

This paper agrees with her assertion about the nationalist appropriation of racial ideologies articulated by colonial elites. Following her argument, this paper asserts that this adoption was not a straightforward process and, instead, it was characterized by a dialectical process whereby the Bengali literati rejected certain particular implications of racial backwardness attributed to Indians but accepted others.

High caste Hindu Bengali elites established their hegemony over the colonial education system, using education to mark their superior social status. To echo Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron, this ‘hierarchy’ signified their class privileges and was transferred across generations.

My work attempts to understand how claims regarding civilization and national territories were negotiated in geography textbooks written by Bengali authors in the late nineteenth century. But I also examine how the dialectical process of contestation between strands of pre-colonial knowledge and the colonial information order produced a new synthesis that provides clues regarding anxieties about human rankings among the colonized intellectuals in India and their attempts to allay these anxieties.

Michael Adas identifies technology as the ideological source of a European sense of superiority and delineates the racist notions that were its by-product. In contrast to Adas’s findings, my research into geography textbooks written in Bengal demonstrates that their authors believed that racial characteristics of a particular branch of humanity were the reasons for technological backwardness. This paper thus deals with the rankings of human kind from a Bengali-Indian perspective.

To further this argument about the selective articulation of a racialized Hindu discourse of progress of human civilization by the Bengali literati, I draw upon Balibar. I argue here that as colonized subjects, a sense of powerlessness played a critical role in such imaginings of a global hierarchy.

According to Etienne Balibar, the political modernity of Europe was characterized by the notion of  citizen-subject. The amalgamation of rationality and capital has brought into existence a citizen-subject whose citizenship is articulated through the nation-state, which rendered him/her a true subject of history.

By investigating the Bengali literati’s perceptions of their own colonized world, I argue that under British rule the colonized literati became increasingly aware of their precarious position whereby they were denied citizen-subject status because of colonial domination. To claim such a citizen-subject status, one needs to be a member of a nation-state, and these colonized elite perceived the attainment of such a citizen-subject status as a way of facilitating the individual’s participation in a process of self-emancipation from all forms of collective domination.

Such a nation-state according to the colonial discourse, is the privilege of advanced civilizations claiming heritage to classical antiquity, cultivated Christian masculinity, and the ethno-environmental traits of a ruling race from a colder climate zone. Globally the colonial ideology of governance drew upon particular aspects of European enlightenment traditions that sought to link race, caste, and environment with the progress of civilization and human liberty along a hierarchical ladder.

To the Bengali Hindu literati of the middle of the nineteenth century, it increasingly became apparent that they did not belong to a nation-state and could not, therefore, successfully claim the status of a citizen-subject. The idea of a nation state here also corresponded to the idea of territoriality of a nation.

 It is within this context, and based on the ‘new science’ of geography, mapping and ethnography, that the  Bengali Hindu colonial literati were making claims for themselves as a civilized social entity and thus became willing ideological participants in reconstructing a racial notion of a hierarchy of civilizations at the discursive level while challenging colonial notions of territorial space at the politico-cultural level.

Mapping India: From Hindu Cosmography to a Colonial Science of Geography

Maps and geographic knowledge systems are central to the idea of a state and more precisely a nation-state. Early maps provided a visual image of the outline o a territory controlled by a state. This visual image of the state as a fixed, given territorial unit enabled people to imagine their habitat in a new way. India was no exception to this process.  

Bengali writers developed their understanding of geography primarily through the available Western textbooks of geography. Based on such works, they wrote textbooks in Bengali (and other languages) both to meet the needs of the newly introduced school curriculum and to fulfil their own intellectual curiosity.

…This was evident in the pioneering geography textbook written in Bengali in 1841 entitled ‘Bhugol’ (geography). The book’s author, Akshay Kumar Dutta, sought to familiarize readers with contemporary global society. He produced a list of Asian countries and cited the number of inhabitants for each. Among Asian countries, he listed the Russian empire, an Independent Tartar State, Syria and Greater Palestine, Arabia, Persia, Afghanistan, Baluchistan, Hindustan, Burma, Siam, Great China, and Japan. Hindustan was described as homeland (desh).

 Interestingly, as British control was not yet firmly established over Baluchistan, a territory located in modern day Pakistan, it was presented as a neighbouring small state and thus colonial territory became synonymous with ‘desh’ (homeland).

In Sanskrit, `bhu’ means earth and ‘gol’, or round shape, indicates the earth’s physical feature. Dutta described ‘Bhugol’ as a science that enables people to learn about every possible space on the earth’s surface.

From the beginning, authors of Bengali textbooks asserted the superiority of scientific knowledge of the world over indigenous Hindu knowledge systems. This was clearly reflected in the first geography textbooks written in Bengali by Reverend W.H. Pearce, entitled Bhugol Britanta, published in 1846. The book was published in several editions and over the geographic ideas in India.

Map of Colonial India

This work, while introducing basic physical features of the earth and its movements, refers to the story of conflicts between the Church and scientists, like Galileo and Copernicus, in early modern Europe. The author referred to the contestation between the Church and scientists over the shape of the earth in order to overcome local Brahamanical opposition to new notions of geography. This obviously indicates the tension between the Brahamanical discourse of geography and the ‘scientific’ geography that Europeans sought to introduce.

Indeed, in response to the introduction of western cartography, a Bengali Brahmin sought to prove the falsity of the new ideas of the round shape of the earth by referring to puranic notions of cosmography in Brahamanical traditions. Thus Dwarkanath Vidyaratna wrote that the earth originated from the navel of the creator in the shape of a lotus. This shape of the earth was evident in the Bedbyas’s description of seven hells (sapta patal) and in the prayer of the (monkey) King Bali to the god in the form of lamentations for the loss of his kingdom due to his own fatal errors.

In response to such opposition, the defenders of the new science of geography sought to refute earlier traditions selectively, and thereby synthesized new and old discourses of geography.

In most nineteenth-century  textbooks, the authors, after a brief description of Hindu cosmography  at the introduction of their work, painstakingly followed newly circulating physical geography textbooks written in mid-nineteenth  century Europe. This was thus a synthesis between puranic ideals (pre-colonial knowledge) and European science.

Following positivist progressive notions of colonial science, geography became a tool to understand economic, political, and social progress of civilizations. Geography textbooks looked at the discipline of geography as a means to understand and analyze politics and developmental economics in order to explain human progress.

To Bengali authors, physical geography became the critical key to open the door for economic development, while social geography provided a holistic interpretation of human progress through classification of human civilizations, and thus assisted in fixing such developmental goals. Yet the new knowledge did not entirely refute pre-colonial ideas—rather, through a selective dialectical process of contestation and negotiation, Bengali authors synthesized the two.

Mapping Ethnicity: The Science of Geography and the Racial Ranking of Humankind

Authors of geography textbooks in the nineteenth century constantly looked at human civilizations through a hierarchical lens often tinged with rather open racial prejudices. Interestingly, while describing Europe these writers relied more on the moral criterion of civilizational progress and national stereotypes, but in describing Asia and Africa they resorted to racial stereotypes.

Akshay Kumar Dutta’s description of Europe ( Bhugol Kolikata, 1841), for instance, did not reflect an autonomous indigenous knowledge system. …His view of European society reproduced contemporary perceptions among British elites about the hierarchy of civilizations in Europe.

Dutta was not alone among Bengali intellectuals in articulating such views about European civilization. Nearly 12 years after Dutta, in 1857, Sourindra Mohan Tagore (a scion of Calcutta’s landed aristocracy and an erudite scholar of European music), echoed similar opinions in Bhugol o Itihas Ghotito Brityanta (Accounts of Geography and History).

He presented England as the most advanced civilization. To him the French appeared to be equally advanced but complicated, unsettled, and egoistic. He described Italians as artistically oriented and lovers of music, but also revenge-seeking. Russia was perceived to be a civilization advancing from a rather uncivilized and illiterate state, whilst the Irish were labelled as lacking in moral fiber.

 Why did Dutta and Tagore reproduce these notions? Dutta, in particular, did not even subscribe to many colonial notions about India and Bengalis. For Dutta, Britons became masters of the world not because of their inherent racial superiority but because of their cultural, societal, and moral attributes.

In the Asian and African contexts, Indian writers of geography textbooks deployed a far more racial understanding of civilization’s progress. They often placed China a notch higher than other Asian countries. Thus, in a book called Description of Asia (Asiar Biboron) published in 1868, author Haranchandra Mukhopadahay described Burmese people as ‘copper colored, mean minded complex people who were addicted to Opium and gambling.’ Malays were described as `clever but cruel untrustworthy short-height, thick lipped black people who were savage pirates.’

Another nineteenth century Bengali writer Rajendralal Mitra classified humankind based on German natural historian and physical anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumernback’s work his popular geography textbook published in 1871. The five-fold classification of humankind was Caucasian, Mongolian, African/Ethiopian and the Malayan.

Mitra claimed that Arabs, Jews, Indians, as well as Europeans and Euro-Americans, fell under the category of Caucasian (Kokkesio) races.  He conveniently ignored Blumenbach’s comment in a footnote of his thesis ‘Hindus may be considered as a subdivision or secondary race, distinct from the Caucasians.

The human faces of Asia. First published in the first edition (1876–1899) of Nordisk familjebok. Wikimedia Commons

More importantly, Mitra argued quite assertively that Caucasians had progressed far beyond other races in civilizational terms and had established military supremacy over all other races in the world. For him the supremacy of Caucasians was evident in science, fine arts, and culture. Following Mitra, such ‘scientific’ notions of racial hierarchy of human civilization became the principle mode of classification of humankind in Bengali textbooks.

Following Mitra, such ‘scientific’ notions of racial hierarchy of human civilization became the principle mode of classification of humankind in Bengali textbooks. For example, Rajani Kanta Ghosh, manager in his textbook Bhugol Vidyasar identified three pure races: Caucasians, Mongoloids, and Kahl. He maintained the strict racial hierarchy, which invariably placed Caucasians at the top. Within the Caucasian category, he also included Indians

For Bengali Hindus, as for anyone else in the world, the ideology of race was filtered through concerns about self-identity and claims of genealogical proximity to a ‘ruling race.’

This new science of geography also sought to classify inhabitants of the Indian empire. This was critical for colonial governance as well as for putative understandings of Indian society. The relationship between imperial governance and the colonial science of geography was evident in the writings of Walter Hamilton whose pioneering two volume work (1820), A Geographical, Statistical, and Historical Description of Hindostan and Adjacent Countries, was frequently quoted by Bengali geography textbook writers. Hamilton wrote candidly at the beginning of his book:

Hindostan … must not now be viewed as a mere assemblage of nabobs, Sultans and Rajas, but as a component portion of the British Empire, changed and modified in its territorial distribution by the effects of British domination, and in its internal economy by the promulgation of British laws and regulations.

 Acquisition of geographical knowledge about India thus became crucially linked with imperial interests. The process of construction of geographic knowledge also involved critical analysis of the ethnographic composition of different inhabitants of different environmental spaces. He also constructed a hierarchy of civilizational progress among different types of inhabitants of India and thus wrote:

‘’The great mass of the Hindoo and Mohameddan population throughout Hindostan has nearly attained the same stage of civilization, but intermixed with them are certain races of mountaineers, probably the true aborigines, whose languages have little affinity with Sanskrit [sic], and whose customs retain all their primitive barbarity [sic]. The most remarkable of these tribes are the Gonds, Bheels and Coolies; but there are many others of less note, such as the hill people of Boglipur [sic], and Kookies [sic] of Chittagong.”

Colonial writers restructured entitlements of various ethnicities to the land and ranked them in accordance with a globally constructed framework of racial hierarchy. Thus, James Cowley Prichard also wrote quite evocatively about ‘aborigines in India’ in terms of Aryan theory:

Of the aboriginal races of India, I propose to include under this term a variety of distinct races, or numerous tribes of people having different languages, and betraying no evident indications of mutual affinity, who are spread through various parts of India. All these races are distinct from the Hindoos, who belong to the Indo-European or Arian [sic] stock, and they were probably spread through the countries, which they now inhabit though perhaps thinly scattered, long before the ancestors [sic] of the Hindoos first passed the river Indus.  (The Natural History of Man) (আরো দেখুনঃ আর্য-থিওরীর অসারতা)

The works of both Hamilton and Prichard are important in unlocking the mind of the Bengali literati (Prichard’s, a reconstruction of the knowledge of India through a combination of colonial perspectives and their own understandings about different ethnicities in India).

In the spread of geography textbooks written in the Bengali language, we can find clear references to their classifications of the Indian population and attempts to territorialize ethnicity.  This enabled Hamilton and Prichard to claim Hindus to be the primary citizens of the colonial territory because of their contribution to progress, and such progress was perceived to be related to the racialized identity of the Hindu population.

Thus Rajanikanta Ghosh described the inhabitants of hill areas surrounding Bengal—such as the Santhals on the West, the Khasis who lived north of Sylhet, Garos on the east, and the Kukis, north of the Chattagram region in the South East—as savages who could be separated from Hindus by their language, religion, and, more importantly, their physical features. (R. Gosh, Bhugol, 1871, P.192)

According to him, these ethnicities were arrested in the early stages of primitive barbarity. Such classifications became routine in geography textbooks. Yet, it would be inaccurate to say that Bengali scholars reproduced everything that colonial scientific ethnography proposed about India. Instead, they did so selectively.

For instance, they did not echo at any time census commissioner Risley’s conviction that, while Euro-Aryans progressed from tribe to nation, Indians moved from tribe to caste and remained in an arrested state of development.

The construction of a pan-Indian Hindu identity could not gloss over various ethno-linguistic and regional diversities. In framing regional identities, Bengali authors accorded importance to class, language, and religion, which together demarcated the primary identity of different Indian linguistic groups, including the Bengali population.

For example, Rajani Ghosh wrote without ambiguity that among inhabitants of Bengal, Hindus spoke Bengali and Muslim gentlemen spoke Urdu. He further maintained that low caste Hindus and Muslims of Cachar, Sylhet, and Chattagram spoke very corrupted and low quality (Kadaria) Bengali.

Re-invigorating the Puranic Ideal of Bharat: Bharat as a Homeland of the Hindu Population

New notions of distinctions between Hindus and internal ‘Others’ were epitomized through the synthetic category of Aryan or Hindu Caucasians. In early medieval India, the word `Arya’, for example, had been used to indicate the aristocratic status of a person; in a later period it came to signify an identity concerning language and even race. More importantly, this notion of the Aryan race was increasingly grounded in historical narratives of the past as each geography textbook included a section on history.

This past was also territorialized as the term Ayravarta (Land of Aryans) increasingly signified core regions in the Indo-Gangetic plains of north India. Gradually, Indian history textbooks showed borders of colonial territory in South Asia as a given geographic boundary of India.. This indicated the beginning of a process of what Poulantzas called ‘territorialization of history and historicization of territory.’

As territorialization of history progressed, the Indo-Gangetic plain of north India was imagined as the centre of Indian civilization, the original habitat of Hindu Aryans. Again, this was a synthesis of old puranic notions, and the new science of geography. The notion of Aryavarta (land of Aryans was premised upon a particular Brahamanical understanding of Indian geo-history. A dominant strand in colonial discourse concerning the ethno-cultural identity of British Indian territorial space drew upon a hegemonic Brahamanical Hindu perspective.

Again, there is an interesting interplay between the colonial adaptation of a Brahamanical discourse regarding Indian space in search of an authentic ethno-spatial identity of the British conquered territories, and the Bengali literati’s selective invocation of that particular aspect of the colonial discourse of space in order to establish the claim that Hindus were the primary citizens of India.

In geography textbooks written by Bengalis, not only did Bharat become the prominent identity/name for the landmass but various puranic names were also used to introduce different regions within India.

Indeed, in 1865 a question in the examination for scholarship candidates for middle schools across Bengal categorically instructed the candidates to, ‘Draw a map of Madhyadesh in Ayravarta and also show in the map the thirteen important countries and main rivers located in that region.  Obviously, this indicates that school students had to memorize Hindu myths and legends, and their geo-spatial locations within the modern territorial map of India, in order to successfully pass tests.

The history of space became the given history of a land that could not be researched but only narrated as a body of information derived from the Puranas (whose authenticity could not be challenged). By simply ascribing Puranic names and accounts for these places, these scholars transformed India into a land of primarily Hindu citizens. As the nineteenth century progressed, this became a far more established trend.


The mapping of the Indian subcontinent and the birth of a territorially bounded space pushed forth a new discourse of geography as a science.  Bengali literati sought to appropriate, redefine, and incorporate a geographic information system in order to find a place within a global hierarchy of civilizations and races.

This new hierarchy was accepted from a sense of powerlessness as the literati increasingly became aware that colonial political modernity would not allow any agent/subject, other than the citizen-subject, to claim the colonial territorial space as their homeland. Politically, the citizen-subject had to be represented within the framework of a territorially defined nation-state, which Bengalis realized they did not have. This unhappy awareness accompanied the process of the cartographic construction of a new India. Thus, when Bengalis became engaged in writing geography textbooks, they happily appropriated the idea of civilizational hierarchy.

They portrayed Europe as a continent of nations, Asia and Africa as continents inhabited by tribes and inferior races, except for Aryan Hindus. This position attributed to Indians actually reflected their concerns about their own position in the hierarchy of civilizations and races.

As they became involved in constructing such a hierarchy, these writers selectively adopted and redeployed scientific notions of ethnography and colonial geography in order to establish the claim of modern Hindus as primary citizens of the land and inheritors of an ancient Aryan civilization. Yet, this process led them to create a hierarchy of internal `Others’ whereby puranic ideals were combined with notions of science predicated on the enlightenment in Europe.

Contestations between Hindus and Muslims around the idea of a ‘homeland’ were inevitable as the Bengali literati continued to delineate India as a Hindu space. Muslim elites could not accept such a hegemonic discourse of India.

Indeed, such discourses would have ramifications in the future, particularly around the turn of the twentieth century when virulently majoritarian understandings of homeland animated violent religious riots in the country. At the same time, racial terminology used in accepting and reinforcing a colonial category of pre-Aryan aborigines in the Indian context created the ideological conditions of internal colonization of imagined subordinate `Others’ by supposedly civilizing Hindu citizens. The logic of the notion of civilizational hierarchy actually contributed towards the building-up of a sub-imperial hierarchy.

Thus, within the strategy of self-emancipation through the construction of this hierarchy, there was always an implicit danger of recreating the same mode of colonial domination, albeit in a different form. (See; Being the Other: how Indian Muslim glided from British Raj to Hindu Raj)

The entire process was thus not a derivative discourse but a result of the dialectical interaction and the synthesis between puranic cosmography and the new science of geography.

*Associate Professor,  Department of History and Classical Studies, McGill University, Canada

[Source: Subho Basu, The Dialectics of Resistance: Colonial Geography, Bengali Literati and the Racial Mapping of Indian Identity, Modern Asian Studies, Vol.44, No.1, Cambridge University Press,  2009, pp. 53-79] 

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