Stephen Hislop: Discovering the Wonders of Central India

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    It seemed wherever he went, the earth would open up its treasures to him. But, then, Stephen Hislop (1817-1863) shared a special relationship with the natural world. A Scotsman who arrived in India as a missionary in the mid-19th century, Hislop went on to become a pioneering educator, and a pioneering geologist and naturalist in Central India, then considered the boondocks of the subcontinent.

    Hislop’s passion for geology and natural history was so intense and his research contribution so great that a dinosaur has been named after him, two freshwater snails bear his name, and his name is tagged to a bright green variety of Indian calcite, a mineral called ‘hislopite’, making sure his incredible legacy is, quite literally, set in stone.

    A man of enormous talent, Hislop made numerous and significant discoveries in the fields of botany, zoology and geology but his greatest contribution was perhaps opening up the then remote region of Central India to the rest of the country, and the rest of the world.

    Who was Stephen Hislop?

    Born in Scotland on 8th September 1817, into a family of modest means, Hislop went on to study the arts at Edinburgh and divinity at Glasgow, and showed early signs as a naturalist. While others of his age indulged in boyish pursuits, Hislop closely observed the open country around his house. He was also fascinated by mineral-rich rocks and grew a good fossil collection.

    But his family wanted him to tread a religious path, so when Hislop was just 27, he was ordained as a minister in the Free Church of Scotland and sent to India as a missionary. He arrived in Bombay in 1844 and, a few months later, proceeded with his wife to Nagpur, then the headquarters of the princely state of Nagpur, under British Empire. Here, he spent a life full of adventure and scientific inquiry, till he died in a freak accident at the age of 46.

    When Hislop first arrived in Nagpur, the region was ruled by the Maratha Bhonsle Dynasty, which presided over a vast kingdom that stretched across present-day Eastern Maharashtra, Southern Madhya Pradesh and Western Chhattisgarh. Much of this territory was covered in thick forests inhabited by tribal communities, especially the numerically dominant Gonds.

    In 1853, the British East India Company annexed Nagpur under their hugely controversial Doctrine of Lapse, whereby they usurped any kingdom that did not have a male heir that they recognised. They made the kingdom a part of what later became the Central Provinces in 1861.

    This was a massive region with a population of 4.5 million and yet it had virtually no schools. As part of his missionary work, Hislop founded the first school in Nagpur in 1846, which he ran from an old house he acquired from a local resident in the Shukrawari quarter of the Old City. Three years later, he opened the first girls' school in Nagpur, and went on to open schools in Sitabuldi, Kampti and other parts of Nagpur city.

    Interestingly, Hislop was not only fluent in Marathi, but was also a proponent of mass education in Marathi. In 1854, when Hindustani (Hindi) replaced Marathi as the official language in the local courts, he aggressively campaigned to get it replaced by Marathi. His talent for languages would later play a critical role in his explorations in Central India.

    Documenting Gond Culture

    In addition to his work among the residents of Nagpur city, each year Hislop spent a month with the Gond tribal community and even picked up their language. He travelled extensively through the cotton belt of Wardha and Yavatmal; the rice belt of Chandrapur and Bhandara; and the forest tracks of Balaghat, Jabalpur, Chhindwara and Chhattisgarh.

    In the course of a decade, Hislop intensively studied the Gonds and other hill communities, and wrote an essay on the tribes of the ‘Nagpoor country’, their languages, folklore, customs, art and architectural remains. The essay was posthumously published by Sir Richard Temple, the then Chief Commissioner of the Central Provinces, in 1866.

    During these annual wanderings, Hislop especially studied the languages and dialects of the aboriginal tribes of Central India, which had no script. He carefully documented their ballads, legends and other oral traditions, and was thus able to gather valuable information about their folklore, customs, art and architectural remains, which he published in great detail.

    Studying Natural History

    Along with his missionary work, Hislop indulged his love for natural history, and during his travels, he created detailed records of the flora and fauna in the jungles of Central India. His botanical and zoological records were detailed, varied and frequently amusing.

    One fine morning, in 1853, Hislop observed that the ‘chalk’ used by children he was teaching, to write on reddish sandstone tablets, bore the fossil remains of plants. And on tracing the stones to the quarry from which they were obtained, he stumbled upon heaps of vegetable fossils. He thus left an impressive record of his findings and amazing discoveries.

    Among his research was an extensive database of the continental molluscs of the Deccan plateau and he even had a couple of freshwater snails – Physa hislopiana and Tricula conoidea hislopi – named after him. He was also the first to discover a fossil of an extinct amphibian, Brachyops laticeps, in India.

    Hislop not only recorded several new plant species and fossils but also sent them to scientific societies in London, Edinburgh and Bombay. He published his first major work with the Bombay branch of the Royal Asiatic Society’s journal and titled it Geology of Nagpur State, in 1853. He published another work with the Calcutta branch and titled it The Age of Coal Strata in Western Bengal and Central India, in 1855.

    We get a glimpse into Hislop’s wide-eyed curiosity and his self-musings by glancing at a couple of paragraphs reproduced from his diary published in George Smith’s biographical work of the year 1888: Stephen Hislop: Pioneer Missionary and Naturalist in Central India from 1844-1863. He wrote:

    “It is a nice enough abode (his home in SItabuldi, Nagpur). It would be a new thing to have scorpions as part of your domestic establishment, to find perhaps one or two a day careening over the carpet with their tails up, ready to insert them in anything that comes in their way. And it would be a novelty to live in the neighbourhood of serpents, to find a cobra near your door; to hear the jackals howling about at night, and to know that there are hyenas in your immediate vicinity, and tigers in the jungles at a distance.”

    Hislop further wrote in his diary:

    “Sitting between the open door and the lamp burning on the table in the evening, I get enough insects without requiring me to seek them. Winged ants, beetles, grasshoppers, and moths all buzz and leap about my ears, and entangle themselves in my hair, or disport themselves round the light till they perish. It is lamentable to fall upon a book that has fallen prey to their mandibles. However valuable before, it is rendered perfectly useless. This ought to have been included among the miseries of India.”(Sitabuldi, Nagpur - 12th July 1845.)

    Treasures of Gondwana
    Hislop’s geological pursuits drove him to survey the rich plateau and forests of Gondwana, which no British geologist or naturalist had explored before. He went on to discover the iron fields of the Mahadeva Hills, Nagpur plains and Kota formation of the Pranhita basin. Later, he discovered the coalfields of the Wardha basin of the Chanda and Pench Valley in 1854.

    Many European geologists, following Hislop’s footsteps, visited these sites. Captain Lawrence Johnston of the 26th Madras Native Infantry, in May 1857, came on detachment duty to Nagpur all the way from Russelkonda in Orissa, passing through Chanda district. When he informed Hislop of his inkling of there being coal seams in the Wardha basin in Chanda, Hislop told him that he had already found coal there three years ago and sent specimens of it to the government. Later, in 1865, another geologist found coal there and got large rewards from the government. These coalfields brought the Great Indian Peninsula Railway to the region, and thus opened the undiscovered but resource-rich hinterland of Central India to the world.

    As if these discoveries were not monumental enough, Central India had even more treasures in store for the intrepid Hislop. He was among the first geologists to discover dinosaur fossils in India, and the first to report large quantities of dinosaur and marine faunal remains in the Warora region of Chandrapur district, part of the Wardha basin, in 1859.

    The dinosaur whose vertebrae and giant femur Hislop found in an agricultural field was later named ‘Titanosaurus indicus’, a giant herbivorous reptile that inhabited this region 65 million years ago. ‘Massospondylus hislopi’ is a species of dinosaur named after Hislop.

    It seemed as if interesting finds were just waiting for Hislop to discover them. During a trip from Nagpur to Chanda in December 1847, Hislop stumbled upon a circle of large stones at Takalghat, 32 km south of Nagpur. Terribly curious and very excited, he found 96 more stone circles, some single, others double, spread over 10 sq km.

    When no one could tell him what they were, Hislop asked the Bhonsla Raja of Nagpur, Raghoji III, for permission to excavate in the centre of some of the circles. Permission was granted and excavations were conducted in January 1850. Hislop was rewarded with the discovery of iron spearheads, flint arrowheads, frying pans and fragments of pottery and human remains. Due to religious beliefs and cultural mores, the local officials prevented any further excavations and Hislop had to abandon the project.

    Hislop didn’t know it then but he was the first person to report megalithic stone circles in this unexplored part of the country. Later, he found about 20 localities of megalithic stone circles and eight localities of dolmens. These include the famous megalithic sites of Junapani, Takalghat, Hingna etc.

    In Search of Megaliths

    So when the Nagpur princely state became a British province a few years later, Sir Richard Temple, the then Chief Commissioner of the Central Provinces, invited Hislop to guide him in a careful study of these stone circles. Several had been marked for excavation the next day, Hislop's last, as it turned out.

    Thus, on a rainy day, on 4th September 1863, the two men headed for their camp at Bori near Takalghat. The excavation site at Takalghat could be reached only after crossing the Bori River. As dusk fell and the sky grew overcast, Temple suggested that they retreat to the camp. However, Hislop was deeply engrossed in classifying specimens that had been exhumed from some of the stone circles. He also wanted to visit a school in the village and told Temple he would return to camp later.

    Later that night, the Chief Commissioner was awakened by the shrill voices of his attendants. It was Hislop’s horse galloping towards the camp without Hislop. As Temple reined in the horse, he noticed the wet saddle. A search party with torches was sent out immediately to look for Hislop.

    They reached a neighbouring streamlet, which had swelled with the torrential rain. After an extensive and relentless search, they finally found the cold, lifeless body of Hislop, ironically in a seated posture clutching turf in each hand, which had kept him from being swept away by the current. In one pocket was his Bible, and in the other a few specimens from the excavations of the day, symbolising the two most important facets of his career.

    Hislop was much loved and respected for his contributions both as an educator and as a scientist, and a subscription of 4,000 pounds was made for his widow and children by friends in India and abroad. Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, the great Parsi industrialist and philanthropist in Bombay, contributed 500 rupees.

    After Hislop’s unfortunate death, his library was presented to Nagpur’s Hislop College, which was founded in 1883 and had evolved from Hislop School for boys, set up by the evangelist and educator in 1843. A pioneering educational institution in the Central Provinces, the college predates Nagpur University. The University Grants Commission has conferred heritage status on the college, making it the only such institution in Central India to enjoy this honour.

    On Hislop’s death, the Antiquarian and Scientific Society of the Central Provinces, of which Hislop was a member, resolved to establish a Central Museum in Nagpur, which they thought would befit his stature and outstanding contributions. The driving force behind the museum and its initial collection of exhibits was Hislop’s friend and benefactor, Sir Richard Temple. It was a fond and fitting memorial for a man who contributed so much to the region he governed and whose love for the natural world seemed to know no bounds.


    Amit Bhagat is an independent researcher. He is currently working on the Megalithic and Stone Age culture of the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra.

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