There will be no scholar of Indian history or archaeology who has not encountered his work, or even his footprints at the sites (north of the Vindhyas) they visit. Yet Alexander Cunningham was no historian or archaeologist. He was a British army officer whose sheer genius coupled with a love for this country and a dash of destiny led him to become the ‘founder of Indian archaeology’.
Cunningham is remembered for making the most amazing and groundbreaking archaeological discoveries on the Indian subcontinent. It was he who conducted the first excavations at Harappa; it was he who excavated the stupas at Sanchi and Sarnath, and excavated and restored other major Buddhist sites; it was he who determined the correct location of Taxila; and it was he who discovered Aornos, the capital of Madras (of the Mahajanapada Period, 6th century BCE) and the site of the last great siege of Alexander’s army in India. He also discovered inscriptions, coins and sculptures of the kind no one had ever seen before.
After spending 28 years in the service of the British Indian Army, where he rose to the rank of a Major General, Cunningham also made the most explosive archaeological discoveries in India. He retired from the army at the age of 47 but refused to hang up his boots as an archaeology enthusiast, going on to found the apex body that to this day governs historic monuments in the country – the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
Cunningham’s life story is as remarkable as it is dramatic. The son of a Scottish poet, he was born in London on 23rd January 1814, received his military training in London and came to India to join the Bengal Engineers at the age of 19.
Soon after he arrived in Calcutta in 1833, he met a man who had a huge impact on this young soldier’s life and sparked a lifelong interest in Indian antiquity and archaeology. The man was James Princep, Government Assayer at the Calcutta Mint, and the man who deciphered both the Kharosthi and Asokan Brahmi scripts.
Cunningham did very well in his military career in India and was appointed Aide-De-Camp to Lord Auckland, Governor-General of India from 1836 to 1840. He rose to the rank of Colonel of the Royal Engineers in 1860, and finally retired in 1861 with the rank of Major General.
Early Years in India
Cunningham’s first trysts with archaeology were a part of his military and governmental duties, which required him to travel the length and breadth of the subcontinent. He did this with great zeal, whether by horse, cart or on foot. He saw action during the Battle of Punniar (part of the Gwalior Campaign of 1843) and was a part of the commission that delimited the borders after the First Anglo-Sikh War (1845-46). He had previously carried out similar exercises in Kashmir, demarcating the Ladakh-Tibet boundary, where he came upon numerous temple remains. His first serious academic work was on these temples, Essay on the Aryan Order of Architecture (1848).
The young army officer with a love for Indian culture and a flair for antiquity thus cleverly combined his military duties with his passion to study the past. Archaeology was then a nascent science and it was more antiquarian than scientific. It largely consisted of using local labour to clear mounds of debris and to cut through stupas to search for reliquaries.
In 1837, along with Colonel Maisley, Cunningham conducted excavations at Sarnath, where Buddha first taught Dharma and the Buddhist Sangha originated. In 1842, he excavated at Sankisa, the site where the Buddha is supposed to have descended to earth from heaven on a ladder made of jewels after preaching his Dhamma to the gods themselves.
Cunningham went on to re-excavate Sankisa in 1842 and in the years leading up to and after 1851, when he excavated Sanchi, he carried out systematic excavations of stupas in the surrounding area at Satdhara, Murelkhurd (Bhojpur), Sonari and Andher (Bawalia-Hakimkhedi).
In 1854, he published the findings of all his work at these sites (now in Madhya Pradesh) in a fabulous volume of 368 pages of text and 32 plates of maps, line drawings, eye copies of inscriptions and much more. He titled it The Bhilsa Topes, which like almost all his publications is still referred to by scholars and historians.
Cunningham’s discovery of the reliquaries of Kashyapa, Mogallana and Sariputra (disciples and followers of the Buddha whose names are mentioned in the most important Buddhist texts) turned the world of Buddhist studies on its head.
The Struggle To Form A ‘Formal’ Archaeological Survey
When Cunningham was a young Second Lieutenant with the Bengal Engineers, he assisted James Prinsep in formulating a plan for an Indian Archaeological Survey, in 1848. It was placed before the British government but met with no success. However, archaeological awareness was growing thanks to the work of the Asiatic Societies and their sister organisations, and the government was forced to sanction funds for conservation work.
When Lord Hardinge became the Governor-General in 1844, he initiated a system for approving proposals submitted by individuals based on their research and knowledge of Indian antiquities. Sadly, the uprisings of the Indian soldiers in the 1840s and 1850s, culminating in the Revolt of 1857, brought archaeological pursuits to a standstill.
The First Survey (1861-1865)
When his effort to set up a formal survey came to naught, Cunningham resigned from the army and upon retirement left for England in 1861. To his utter disbelief, the British government approved the creation of the post of Archaeological Surveyor and appointed Cunningham to this position that same year.
But there was a catch. There were very little funds available and almost no additional manpower but Cunningham was determined to make his point and he set out with the gusto of a much younger man to get the job done.
Cunningham was a keen student of Huen Tsang and Fa Hein (Chinese monks who came to India in the 7th and 5th centuries CE, respectively, in search of Buddhist scripture) and decided to retrace the journey of Huen Tsang to identify every single place mentioned by him. He also combined the journey of Fa Hien, the march of Alexander, the march of Menander and the passage of Megasthenes (the Greek ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya and the author of the Indica).
It was remarkable that for a man who had already achieved so much, some of his path-breaking work was yet to come. In the next decade, Cunningham located and identified the ancient cities of Aornos, Taxila, Sangala, Srughna, Ahichchhatra, Bairat, Sankisa, Shravasti, Kaushambi, Padmavati, Vaishali and Nalanda. Careful reading of ancient texts and travelogues helped him correct many errors in history. For instance, the site of the ancient city of Taxila had been identified as a location that was two days’ ride from the river.
Cunningham carefully read Huen Tsang’s travelogue, where he had stated that it was three days away and set about to search for the correct location. He found it, not just due to the mounds present there but the remains of numerous Kushana-era Buddhist monasteries and stupas surrounding it. He was the first to excavate at Taxila and Sir John Marshall’s work was a continuation of that done by him.
Cunningham had a knack for identifying and locating sites merely hinted at in ancient texts. He systematically surveyed huge tracts of land from east to west in the Ganga Valley and went on to identify numerous important Buddhist sites. As a part of his surveys, he conducted intensive explorations and numerous small excavations, due to which he collected an enormous number and variety of artefacts, sculptures and coins and recorded a slew of inscriptions.
This first survey lasted 5 years, from 1861 to 1865, when it was abruptly halted by Lord Lawrence, who thought even the paltry sum given to Cunningham a waste of money!
Founding of The Archaeological Survey of India (1871)
Luckily, Lord Lawrence was succeeded by Lord Mayo, who was appalled at the cavalier attitude of his predecessor. The Archaeological Survey was revived as a distinct department of the government, and Alexander Cunningham was appointed as its Director-General. He assumed charge in February 1871.
The mandate of the department was: ‘a complete search over the whole country, and a systematic record and description of all architectural and other remains that are either remarkable for their antiquity, or their beauty or their historical interest’. This was especially significant as it included the ‘whole country’ and all kinds of investigations.
Cunningham was also instructed ‘to direct his attention to the preparation of a brief summary of the labours of former enquirers and of the results which had already been obtained, and to the formulation of a general scheme of systematic inquiry for the guidance of a staff of assistance in the present and future researches’. For this work, he was assigned two assistants – J D Beglar and A C Carlleyle, who were later joined by H B W Garrik.
With greater resources at his disposal, Cunningham resumed surveys, this time in Delhi and Agra in 1871; Rajputana, Bundelkhand, Mathura, Bodh Gaya and Gaur in 1872; Punjab in 1873; and the Central Provinces, Bundelkhand and Malwa from 1873 to 1877.
He chose to record Buddhist finds and monuments by plotting them on a map to understand the ancient trade route on which they lay. His surveys led to several discoveries such as monolithic capitals; inscriptions and other remains of Asokan columns; architectural specimens of the Gupta and post-Gupta periods; the great stupa of Bharhut; and the identification of ancient cities namely Sankisa, Sravasti and Kaushambi. He also brought to prominence the Gupta temples at Tigawa, Bilsar, Bhitargaon, Kuthra, Deogarh and Gupta inscriptions at Eran, Udayagiri and other places.
The Bharhut stupa in Satna, in modern-day Madhya Pradesh, is hugely significant as it marks the beginning of a Buddhist style of narrative reliefs that continued for centuries. Cunningham visited the Bharhut stupa three times in 1873 and 1874 and transported the archaeological remains and sculptures he collected there to Calcutta.
He is credited with starting the Bharhut gallery in the Indian Museum at Kolkata, the crowning glory of the museum to this day. Based on his research into Buddhist literature and a study of the sculptures from the Bharhut site, he published The Stupa of Bharhut (1876), which is still one of the most authentic sources on Bhahrut.
Reorganisation of the ASI
By the time Cunningham retired in 1885, he recommended that the government abolish the post of Director-General and reorganise North India into three independent circles, viz, Panjab, Sind and Rajputana; Northwestern Provinces (Uttar Pradesh) and Central Provinces; and Bengal including Bihar, Orissa, Assam and Chhota Nagpur. He thus created the system of ASI Circles, which exists to this very day.
Cunningham was also an excellent leader, who overlooked the insecurities of his subordinates and managed to get the best work out of them. His assistant, James Burgess, who went on to become a noted archaeologist, repeatedly complained about Cunningham to the Governor General. Cunningham not only forwarded every one of Burgess’s written complaints to the Governor General's office, but he also recommended him as his successor.
The Final Chapter
Cunningham authored 11 volumes of the ASI's reports (and edited 23 volumes) published during his tenure, while the rest were written under his supervision. He retired on 30 September 1885, returned to London, and continued to write books on his excavations and on ancient coins.
He also published numerous papers in the Journal of the Asiatic Society and the Numismatic Chronicle. The government recognised his services with the Companion of the Order of the Star of India (CSI) on 20th May 1870, and Commander of the Indian Empire (CIE) in 1878. In 1887, he was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire (KCIE).
Cunningham breathed his last in London on 28th November 1893, after a life filled with adventure and strenuous work. He left behind a legacy that is still unmatched in the subcontinent, not only in the astonishing discoveries he made but in the course he charted for Indian archaeologists. And, for this, we are forever indebted.
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