What does is it mean to see a painting—and is seeing it the same thing as understanding it? Hieronymus Bosch's monumental Garden of Earthly Delights is instantly recognizable to most lovers of Renaissance art, and as Professor Catherine B. Scallen explains, it has been admired, looked on with shock, and puzzled over for 500 years. In its own time it was copied and even made into tapestries. It has been owned by a deeply devout Catholic king of Spain—and in the 1900s was cited by various scholars as representing the lost golden age of humanity, symbolizing the coded language of the alchemist, or even proving its creator's belief in sexual license. In the turbulent 1960s its images were common in dormitory rooms, delighting students eager to accept its joyful, frolicking nudes in their fantasy landscape as a proclamation of freedom and self-indulgence.
Shaped by its richly diverse cultural heritage and by immensely significant historical events, the Indian subcontinent holds a unique place in world civilization. Perhaps no era is more relevant to our understanding of how present-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh came to be than the nearly two centuries of British rule, beginning in 1757, during which India emerged as the most valuable colony of any empire in history. This was a period of seminal transformation and change—for the subcontinent, for Britain, and for the world.