Memorial to Sir William Jones, University College Chapel

A complicated legacy

In this frieze from University College's Chapel, the philologist and Calcutta judge Sir William Jones is portrayed sitting under a banana tree taking notes from Hindu pundits explicating their ancient texts.


Known today for discovering the language family that was later called Indo-European, Jones here is identified as a jurist who codified Hindu and Muslim law. He was of the 'Orientalist' party, opposed by the 'Anglicists' who thought Indian knowledge and traditions worthless.

Sympathetic as they were to them, the Orientalists often believed Indians were essentially different from Europeans. Both parties, however, agreed on the need to codify the laws of India's communities, in order to rule their subjects without any reference to their own untrustworthy specialists. Europeans could now pronounce upon the truth of these laws, whose insertion into the Anglo-Saxon model of case-law continues to define them in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.   



Faisal Devji, Professor of Indian History, History Faculty, University of Oxford