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William Edward West

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William Edward West (1824–1905), chief engineer, of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway,


Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement

WEST, EDWARD WILLIAM (1824–1905), Oriental scholar, born at Pentonville, London, on 2 May 1824, was eldest of twelve children (six sons and six daughters) of William West by his wife Margaret Anderson. His ancestors on the paternal side for three generations had been architects and engineers, or ‘builders and mechanics,’ as they were called in the eighteenth century.

Owing to ill-health he was at first educated at home by his mother, but from his eleventh till his fifteenth year he attended a day school at Pentonville, and in Oct. 1839 entered the engineering department of King's College, London, where he won high honours in 1842. A year later, after a severe illness, he spent a twelvemonth in a locomotive shop at Bromsgrove, in Worcestershire.

His parents had lived in India for some years before their marriage, the father at Bombay, the mother in Calcutta. In 1844 West went out to Bombay, where he arrived on 6 June, to superintend a large establishment of cotton presses there. He retained the post for five years. Before leaving England he studied Hindustani for a few weeks under Professor Duncan Forbes of King's College, London, and learned to read the Perso-Arabic characters as well as the Nāgarī script, in which the Sanskrit language of India is commonly written. Otherwise his knowledge of Oriental languages was self-taught. His method was to study direct from grammars, dictionaries, texts, and manuscripts, supplemented by occasional conversations with native Indians. He soon interested himself in Indian religions, especially that of the Paris, the ancient faith of Zoroaster.

A visit to the Indian cave-temples at Elephanta, near Bombay, in March 1846, drew his attention to Hindu antiquities; and a vacation tour made in the following year, March 1847, with the Rev. John Wilson and a party, including Arthur West, his brother, to the Island of Salsette, north of Bombay, enabled him to visit the Kanheri caves, and inspired him with a wish to copy the inscriptions carved there in Pālī, the sacred Buddhist language.

In January 1850 West, after resigning his office of superintendent of the cotton presses, revisited the Kanheri caves; but he spent the next year in England, and it was not until 1852 that he had opportunities of frequent inspection. In that year he became civil engineer, and later was chief engineer, of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, which ran through Bombay presidency.

Early in 1860 West laid before the Bombay Asiatic Society his copies of the Buddhist cave-records of Kanheri, and the results were published in 1861 in the society's ‘Journal.’ Copies of the inscriptions of the Nasik caves were made in a similar manner, and were published in 1862; these were followed later by transcripts of the Kura cave inscriptions and of other Buddhist sculptured records. As early as 1851 he had begun from the Buddhist scriptural text, the ‘Mahāwānso,’ a glossary of the Pālī language in which all the cave records were written; but he afterwards gave up this lexicographical design and ultimately withdrew from Pāl study, in the development of which he did yeoman service.

West's lasting renown rests upon his Iranian labours. Almost as soon as he reached India, occasional conversations with the Parsi manager of the cotton presses drew his attention to the Zoroastrian religion. But Martin Haug's ‘Essays on the Sacred Language, Writings, and Religion of the Parsis’ (Bombay, 1862) chiefly stimulated his interest, which was confirmed by a personal acquaintance with the author which he made at Poona in 1866. West began work on a copy of the Avesta, or the scriptures of Zoroaster, with a Gujarātī translation of the Avesta and Dhanjibhai Framji's ‘Pahlavi Grammar’ (1855). The rest of his life was devoted in co-operation with Haug to the study of Pahlavi, the difficult language and literature of Sasanian Persia. Both he and Haug returned to Europe in 1866, when Haug was appointed in 1867 to the professorship of Sanskrit and comparative philology at the University of Munich. West went to Munich for six years (1867–73) spending his time on the publication with translation of the Pahlavi texts of Zoroastrianism. On 17 June 1871 the University of Munich bestowed upon him the honorary degree of doctor of philosophy.

After a year in England (1873–4) West revisited India (1874–6) in order to procure manuscripts of the important Pahlavi books ‘Dēnkart’ and ‘Dātistan-i Dēnīk’; he paid a last visit to the Kanheri caves on 6 Feb. 1875.

In 1876 he resumed residence in Munich, but soon settled finally in England, first at Maidenhead and afterwards at Watford. His main occupation was a translation of a series of Pahlavi texts for Max Müller's ‘Sacred Books of the East.’ His services to Oriental scholarship, especially in Pahlavi, were widely recognised. The Bavarian Academy of Sciences made him in 1887 a corresponding member.

From 1884 to 1901 he was a member of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland; and on 6 July 1901 he was presented with the society's gold medal, personally handed to him with an address by the Prince of Wales (afterwards King Edward VII). The American Oriental Society also conferred upon him honorary membership (16 April 1899). West was ready in personal aid to scholars who corresponded with him. With characteristic modesty he acknowledged, shortly before his death, that ‘although his studies and researches had always been undertaken for the sake of amusement and curiosity, they could hardly be considered as mere waste of time.’

He died in his eighty-first year at Watford, on 4 Feb. 1905. He was survived by his wife Sarah Margaret Barclay, and by an only son, Max, an artist.

West's principal publications relating to Pahlavi are: 1. ‘Book of the Mainyō-i Khard, Pāzand, Sanskrit, and English, with a Glossary,’ Stuttgart and London, 1871. 2. ‘Book of Ardā-Vīrāf, Pahlavi and English’ (edited and translated in collaboration with Hoshangji and Haug), Bombay and London, 1872. 3. ‘Glossary and Index to the same’ (with Haug), Bombay and London, 1872. 4. ‘Shikand-gūmānīk Vijār’ (with Hoshangji), Bombay, 1887. 5. Five volumes of translations from Pahlavi texts, in Max Müller's ‘Sacred Books of the East,’ v. xviii. xxiv. xxxvii. xlvii., Oxford, 1880–1897. 6. A valuable monograph, ‘Pahlavi Literature,’ in Geiger and Kuhn's ‘Grundriss der iranischen Philologie,’ Strassburg, 1897. Besides the papers already cited West read a technical paper on ‘Ten-ton Cranes’ before the Bombay Mechanics' Institute in March 1857, and contributed numerous articles, reviews, and communications on Oriental subjects to the ‘Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland’ (1869–1900); to the ‘Academy’ (1874–1900); to the ‘Indian Antiquary’ (1880–2); to ‘Le Muséon’ (1882–7); to ‘Sitzungsberichte d. Akad. Wiss. zu München’ (1888, p. 399 seq.); and to ‘Epigraphia Indica’ (iv. no. 21, p. 174 seq.).


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