Book Review: Knowledge, Mediation and Empire: James Tod’s Journeys Among the Rajputs by Florence D’ Souza

By Chetan

knowledgeJames Tod, the British army official and administrator, came to Bengal in 1799. Within the span of twenty years, the East India Company entrusted Tod with the responsibilities of Political Agent in the states of Western Rajputana. During his residency, he surveyed the regions of Bundi, Mewar, Kota, Marwar and Sirohi to collect material on Rajput rulers. In 1829, Tod published his research on Rajputs in Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan or the Central and Western Rajput States of India.

Florence D’Souza re-analyzes the literary production of Tod in her book titled Knowledge, Mediation and Empire: James Tod’s Journeys Among the Rajputs to set the parallel and contrast between Rajasthan and Europe. D’Souza embarks on this project to uncover the multifaceted talent of Tod.

Chapter 1, “Tod as an Observer of Landscape in Rajasthan and Gujarat” captures the aesthetics of landscape for which Tod seems to have abandoned the primitive frameworks, including “Sublime” and “Beauty” and rather expresses his confidence in the novelistic “Picturesque” technique to draw an analogy between India and Scotland. D’Souza explains that Tod invariably uses the Scottish terms to describe the Bondi Mountain Range in Rajasthan but he engages in collecting and sampling of data for creating an accurate topography of the region.

In the second chapter – “Tod as an Anthropologist: Trying to Understand,” D’Souza sheds light on Tod’s endeavor to carry out surveys and gather information of historical artifacts and bards. Tod creates records of Rajput manners and customs with the aid of his Indian assistants and Indian gurus. He observes and records the history of nearly all the Rajput communities for the purpose of setting a parallel and contrast with the cultures of Europe. The author establishes that Tod, though a colonel and administrator later, tries to bridge the ambiguous gap between myth or legend on the one hand and factual history with genealogies of flesh and blood on the other.

Although Tod is untrained in cataloguing, enlisting, segregation and other scientific processes common to the classification of wildlife, yet his succinct description proves him a person of valuable knowledge. With a brief sketch of scientific trends in the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth century, the author ventures into the territories relating to the institutionalization of Botany and Geology in British universities. This is also the time when many geologists, botanists, anthropologists, surveyors and cartographers of Scottish origin came to India. In chapter 3, the author gives details of how Tod is helped by his subordinate Patrick Waugh (1799-1821), his Indian guru – Yati Gyanchandra, Brahmin assistant – Balgovind, and some Indian artists in cataloguing and classification of data collected from different princely states. While Tod prefers to use the western scientific instrument for land surveys in India, he willingly acknowledges certain scientific acumen of Indians.

At the time that James Tod took up the responsibilities of Rajput Regency, the British Indian administrators, political thinkers, literary philosophers, economists and writers were affiliated with multiple currents of thoughts against which Tod’s work could be placed and understood. Chapter 4 of the book deals with the identification of such currents and it is also an attempt by D’Souza to gauge the influence of British Romanticism, particularly the poetry of Byron and Shelly, on Tod and his works. This chapter is relevant in the context of how literary trends of the period leave a mark on Tod’s writings. Romantic heroic legends of Raputs, drawn from the local bardic chronicles, engross the imagination of Tod who persuasively sets the connection between chronicles and inhuman Indian social customs and practices. For instance, Tod does mention the evocation of horror when he learns about the practice of Widow Burning (Sati Pratha) and even visits to places which are considered holy shrines by Indian women for they symbolize the inseparable bond between husband and wife after the death. Simultaneously, Tod is very much fascinated by male-female heroism. He comprehensively uses quotes from the works of contemporary authors to reiterate the themes of empire, ruin, the great chain of being, natural law, the value of travelers and natural wonders. While concluding the chapter, D’ Souza claims that Tod’s use of quotations from the Romantic literary texts serve a number of aesthetic and ideological purposes.

The book also enables the reader to search for the strength in Tod’s Romantic approach of representing Rajput culture against dominant political philosophies of England like Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism.  In the fifth chapter “Tod’s Romantic Approach as Opposed to James Mill’s Utilitarian approach to British Government in India,” D’Souza draws contrast between Mill and Tod on the issue of administrative structure in India. James Tod, in his Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, determines to disapprove James Mill’s assertion that India had no historical records, and therefore could be relegated to the level of primitive rude civilization. However, Tod aims to exhibit the glories of Indian past, and to draw lessons for the coexistence of Indian and British cultures.

After reflecting upon the conflicting views of Tod and Mill, D’Souza takes the strain to address the concern of how Tod stands out among his contemporaries in India. To do this, D’Souza begin Chapter 6 with biographical details of Tod’s departure to India wherein the author exemplifies that Tod had personal contacts in India. His maternal uncles Mr. Patrick Heatly and S. Heatly were both the members of Bengal Civil Service. The chapter also describes a few events and incidents in which Tod played a critical role in the settlement of peace. To the surprise of the reader, Tod has a conflict with his immediate senior – General Sir David Ochterlony – the resident of the British Government in Delhi.

The book is undoubtedly an informative work for students and academicians keenly interested in knowing Rajasthan during the British colonial period. It opens multiple windows of opportunities to revisit magnificent works of James Tod and scan them through different lenses that are often ignored or neglected under the pressure of limitations. Although the book is comprehensive in its coverage, it lacks on establishing connection between the Rajputs and Hindu mythology as Tod comprehensively discusses in his book. D’Souza would have made a deep impact on the readers if the book had been illustrated with maps and paintings.


The reviewer is a PhD student (Department of English) at the Delhi University.