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The Asiatic Society was founded by Sir William Jones on 15 January 1784 in a meeting presided over by Sir Robert Chambers, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court at the Fort William in Calcutta, then capital of the British Raj, to enhance and further the cause of Oriental research. At the time of its foundation, this Society was named as “Asiatick Society”. In 1825, the society dropped the antique k without any formal resolution and the Society was renamed as “The Asiatic Society”. In 1832 the name was changed to “The Asiatic Society of Bengal” and again in 1936 it was renamed as “The Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal.” Finally, on 1 July 1951 the name of the society was changed to its present one. The Society is housed in a building at Park Street in Kolkata (Calcutta). The Society moved into this building during 1808. In 1823, the Medical and Physical Society of Calcutta was formed and all the meetings of this society were held in the Asiatic Society.

One of the main activities of the Asiatic Society was to collect the old manuscripts of India.There was an enomous collection of Sanskrit manuscripts with the society.At present, the library of the Asiatic Society has a collection of about 117,000 books and 79,000 journals printed in almost all the major languages of the world. It has also a collection of 293 maps, microfische of 48,000 works, microfilm of 387,003 pages, 182 paintings, 2500 pamphlets and 2150 photographs. The earliest printed book preserved in this library is Juli Firmici’s Astronomicorum Libri published in 1499.It has in its possession a large number of books printed in India in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The library also possesses many rare and scarcely available books. The library has a rich collection of about 47,000 manuscripts in 26 scripts. The most notable amongst them are an illustrated manuscript of the Qur’an, a manuscript of the Gulistan text, and a manuscript of Padshah Nama bearing the signature of Emperor Shahjahan. The number of journals in the possession of the library is about 80,000 at present.

The early collection of this library was enriched by the contributions it received from its members. On 25 March 1784 the library received seven Persian manuscripts from Henri Richardson. The next contribution came from William Marsden, who donated his book, History of Island of Sumatra (1783) on 10 November 1784. Robert Home, the first Library-in-Charge (1804) donated his small but valuable collection of works on art. The first accession of importance was a gift from the Seringapatam Committee on 3 February 1808 consisting of a collection from the Palace Library of Tipu Sultan. The library received the Surveyor-General Colonel Mackenzie’s collection of manuscripts and drawings in December 1822.

The museum of the Society was founded in 1814 under the superintendence of Nathaniel Wallich. The rapid growth of its collection is evident from its first catalogue, published in 1849. By 1849 the Society had its own museum consisting of inscriptions in stone and metal, icons, old coins and Sanskrit manuscripts etc.

When the Indian Museum of Calcutta was established in 1814, the Society handed over most of its valuable collections to it. The Society however still has a museum of its own which possesses a rock edict of Asoka (c. 250 BCE) and a significant collection of copper plate inscriptions, coins, sculptures, manuscripts and archival records. Some masterpieces, like Joshua Reynolds’ Cupid asleep on Cloud , Guido Cagnacci’s Cleopatra, Thomas Daniell’s A Ghat at Benares and Peter Paul Rubens’ Infant Christ are also in the possession of this museum.