History of India at Oxford

The University of Oxford has longstanding connections with India, dating to 1579, when Father Thomas Stephens, from New College, was the first recorded Englishman to visit India.  

Ties have strengthened through time, with the creation of the Boden Chair in Sanskrit in 1832 and the arrival of Oxford’s first Indian students in 1871.  

The Indian branch of Oxford University Press, established in 1912, has a proud tradition of publishing its own distinguished scholarly list. 


Oxford Indian Institute

In 1875, the Boden Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford, Monier Monier-Williams, put to Congregation the proposal to found an Indian Institute in Oxford. This Institute would provide a centre for study for Indian Civil Service (ICS) probationers and Indian students with a comprehensive collection of books and newspapers, and house a museum of Indian objects. Though there had been plans to house the Institute as part of Balliol College, it was deemed prudent to make it a University institution. With debates over where to house the Institute, it was initially housed in rooms on Broad Street, opposite to Balliol College, until the foundation stone was laid by the Prince of Wales on 2 May 1883. The site for the Institute was on the corner of Broad Street and Holywell Street, next to Hertford College on Catte Street. An opening ceremony took place on 14 October 1884. Subscriptions for the Institute had come from Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales and a number of Indian Princes.

The building work took a further thirteen years to complete and the Institute was opened in 1896 by Lord George Hamilton, Secretary of State for India. The museum component of the Institute was perhaps the most difficult to incorporate into the vision of the building, with a number of stuffed animals that decayed and were destroyed. The Ashmolean Museum took the various fine art objects in the collection, and then the library came under the control of the Bodleian in 1927. The Institute was beset by financial difficulties and a lack of continuity in its librarians in its early years. The academic programme became stagnated, with a strong focus on the ICS and a decline in interest in Sanskrit. Indian students began to see it as an ICS enclave. In 1909, Lord Curzon, Chancellor of the University, observed how the Institute was in decline and disuse; by the 1930s, the decline was more apparent despite the efforts of Lord Lothian, Secratary of the Rhodes Trust, to revive the Institute. Lord Lothian suggested that Edward Thompson use the Indian Institute as a base to revitalize Indian studies at Oxford and initiate prizes and fellowships for Indians, but Thompson believed the Indian Institute was beyond redemption. Although the library was popular and extremely well-stocked, there were not enough students enrolled in Indian studies to give the Institute a sense of purpose.

ICS probationers ceased to go to Oxford from 1939. ICS courses ended just before India's independence of 1947. In 1965, the University Council proposed to house their administrative offices in the building and move the Indian Institute's holdings to the Bodleian. These proposals caused a great deal of controversy and vocal opposition from those within the University and from India. However, eventually, the Indian Institute Library was rehoused in the roof of the New Bodleian Library in 1968. The University set up a special fund out of the general funds of the university as a permanent endowment for the promotion of Indian studies in the University. These funds are still used today by the Bodleian Library and Ashmolean Museum. 

The University took over the building of the Indian Institute to house its administrative offices, but subsequently moved them elsewhere. The building was then used to house the Modern History Faculty and its library. It has since become home to the Oxford Martin School.


Indian Institute weather vane

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Ornamentation above the entrance to the Indian Institute