Tanjore in South India during the reign of Raja Serfoji II (1798–1832), is a hitherto unexamined episode of both colonial science and of ‘Enlightenment’ in the non-western context. If Joseph Banks, a product of the English Enlightenment, was a metropolitan ‘centre of calculation’ directing and controlling a collecting network in India between the 1770s and 1820, it is argued that Raja Serfoji was his native counterpart, exhibiting similar formal properties, and drawing on those very same ideas and networks of metropolitan practice to systematically produce useful knowledge. This case study demonstrates strongly (among other things) the weaknesses of the centre-periphery model of scientific practice. It shows how the ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’ are not determined by virtue of the geographical location, but by the nature of practice, which is a combined effect of social, scientific and power relations. Thus, this article examines the ways in which it became possible for a small quasi-Indian state in early nineteenth-century South India to leap onto the threshold of modernity, by generating an intellectual ferment of the kind that it did, as a unique native response to the western encounter.